Tokyo (Japan), 17.09.2013
On this break from the journey through Asia by car, the spectacular beach and sunshine chapter had come to an end now. The next experience was Japan, a country I’ve always wanted to visit for its mix of tradition and culture with futuristic modernity. A couple of weeks back, when I wrote about Bangkok being Metropolis I thought that my judgement would be too shortsighted, since the true Metropolis would be Tokyo. It was not. Tokyo to me was Sim City.
A giant video game like creation of a perfect urban environment, Tokyo appeared under the clouds through the window of the Aircalin Airbus on a Saturday night. Expecting a vast sea of city lights, I waited for the plane to finally reach the city. But we landed in what in the dark seemed the middle of nowhere, Tokyo Narita airport. Off the plane, I was very curious to see what would come now. And then… nothing happened! Immigration control was fast, with no queues. My bag was delivered quickly. Customs just took my filled form and let me pass right away. And in the terminal building few people strolled around in a very organised environment. I couldn’t find an ATM, but bought a ticket for the airport train by credit card, and shortly after was on my way into town. In the perfectly and silent clean Skyliner train I had an assigned seat. During the 39 minute ride (not 38, not 40, but precisely 39!) I kept waiting for the city lights to appear, but nothing happened. I passed endless high rise buildings, with perfectly lit corridors and stairways on every floor, but there was no light in the apartments or offices themselves. At Nippori station I had to change trains. The ticket didn’t cover onward travel, so I needed to buy another one at a counter – cash only. OK, let’s find an ATM. In a small shop in the station there was one, but just for Japanese cards. I was told that outside the station there would be another one. I stood 10 minutes on the square in front of the station, trying to spot a bank or ATM sign among the many coloured insignia. No luck, not even walking around. A friendly guy on the road showed me a mini market that had a “cash machine”, but again only for Japanese cards. I had no clue where I was, no Internet, no cash. I spotted an army of cabs in the middle of the square, and found one with a Visa sign on the door. I waved my card at the driver just to be sure, he nodded, and I got into the car. I showed him the address of my hotel, in English, read it slowly, but he didn’t understand where to go and wanted me to change cab. Somehow another driver explained him where to go, I repeated the address a couple of times, and off we went. 65USD and half an hour later, after a drive through a absolutely orderly flow of roads, bridges, tunnels and red lights all perfectly lit and signposted (in Japanese), we reached the Nikko hotel.
The next morning I asked the hotel staff where I could get some cash, since I was unable to take public transport, eat or do anything without it. In future land old school cash seemed the only way to go. Following the hotel staff’s instructions I toured two malls and another hotel, finding more ATMs for Japanese cards only. Back at the hotel, I got the receptionists to pay me put 10.000 yen for a 5% fee. With this cash I finally could start my first venture into Tokyo. Public transport was perfectly organised, although it took me a serious effort to understand the very elaborate (and complicated) sign system. You apparently need an engineering degree to take trains in Tokyo, but how the system works becomes clear once you understand the complex signposting for every detail. People were very friendly, calm, barely speaking and if, then only in low voice. Surprisingly, I found fewer smartphones around then in Bangkok. It also took me a while to understand that here people queue orderly to take a train, and the queue starts at properly marked spots on the platform, that indicate the exact location where the train’s doors will open. Walking through Ginza’s streets on a Sunday, the few people around took me by surprise. Few clean cars slid over immaculate streets silently. Everything around me felt soft and smooth and silent and clean. I had expected a melting pot of energy, speed, urban chic, modernity, flashing lights. But Tokyo reminded me rather of the clean and orderly cities I used to build in the Sim City game on my first handheld, with orderly combinations of road and rail, residential, commercial and industrial areas. Back at the hotel in the early afternoon I fell asleep, exhausted by the overload of impressions, the energy wasted in adapting to this completely different environment, and wet from sweating in brutal humidity and heat.
Monday finally was planned to be a day to get a couple of things done and see town. I woke up at 05:00, planning to take the first train at 06:15 to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Looking out on the sea from the hotel window I noticed the water was rough, the sky cloudy, the trees on the streets shaking in heavy wind and it rained a bit. Arriving at the Shiodome station, the streets were empty, no cars, no people around. The wind blew stronger and stronger, and all around was a grey-light brown-light green mix of colours from the clouds and skyscrapers all around. When I reached the market area, I asked for information at a wards house at the entrance, and finally got an answer to this mystery town. “No market today, it is public holiday.” OK, that explained the empty streets and little activity. Too bad I missed the market. Strolling through the neighbourhood, the wind got stronger and it started to rain constantly. I found a small fish bar in a narrow alley, with two friendly guys behind the bamboo counter, a wide range of fish and seafood delicacies in front of them, and a friendly young guy explaining me the menu in a few words of English. Since they said to take cash only, I tried to find an ATM again. A mini market and a bank later, all not accepting any of my seven credit or debit cards, suddenly the guy that had come with me made two phone calls and said he now would take credit card. We ran back through the rain and storm, and I indulged in my first Japanese sashimi breakfast. What a delight, a feast of tastes! And as I was eating, some other people joined and explained me there was a typhoon raging outside! Great, indeed I read about it later in the hotel.
I didn’t know what to do, the weather was too bad to walk through town. The wind almost blew me away at road intersections, I bought a waterproof plastic outfit (pants & jacket) at a mini market, but still got completely wet. A short stop at a buddhist temple gave me a break, but once outside again I took a cab to the hotel. I called the Consulate of Kazakhstan, where I needed to get a visa, and they were open. So I tried again to venture into the city. The Daiba train station at the hotel was closed due to the typhoon, so I had to walk to another station through the storm. I took three trains, got out at a wrong station, had to spend time at every train entrance trying to figure out what ticket to buy, and almost went nuts. I finally arrived at the last station, 15 minutes after the Consulate had closed, and would have had to walk another km or so. Day lost! And every day counted for me right now, since next monday I had to be in Russia and drive on. Frustrated, I wanted to eat something. There were plenty of good looking restaurants, but none accepted credit card. I had few Yen left, and started to get really pissed off. In a moment of desperation I started reading the “money” section of the LP guide on my iPad, and here the mystery revealed itself. In Japan, ATMs don’t dispense cash to foreign cards, with 1 exception: 7eleven ATMs. I found a 7eleven store, and yes (!!), the immaculate Yen notes came out of it! I was safe, could eat, ride trains, get a coffee!
The weather had gotten a little bit better, but I almost fell asleep in a coffee bar in the afternoon. I had no place to stay for the following days, had to wash laundry, so I went back to the hotel and started organising until I fell asleep. I woke up later in the evening, and continued reading and booking the next stops of my Japan trip. Last minute bookings don’t seem common around here, I found most hotels and ryokans fully booked. And as if all this wasn’t enough, I had to call the Indian customs officials that had confiscated the satellite phone many weeks ago. They didn’t hand it back to me as agreed at the Mumbai airport when I left India, and the didn’t send it as agreed to my hotel in Tokyo. Now I got suspicious, since they had sent me a letter in cryptic English with an attached form to fill and send back. Once I called, they played the “oh let me give you another phone number to call” game. After an hour of shouting at different people over the phone I understood: Indian Customs had de facto STOLEN (!) my satellite phone. The one device that would save me in case of trouble on the road ahead, especially in Siberia and Mongolia, where I would cross vast stretches of wilderness and uninhabited areas. I probably will never see that phone again. Learning? In the future, cheat on customs officials and smuggle these items, don’t declare them.
The next morning I woke up with the sun shining over the sea in front of the hotel and managed to reach the Kazakh consulate. Riding the train and metro through Tokyo I was surrounded by a constant audio background of soft signal and alert tones, fake bird noise, harmonic melodies following me on every step, like the soundtrack to a giant video console game. At the consulate I got the paperwork done in no time, and went to pay the visa fee at a bank. Walking to Roppongi hills, I stopped at a cafe for a sandwich and latte. I took the coffee cup with me to finish it on the road, but couldn’t find a trashcan. In the bank, I had to speak to four people before I found the right person for the operation I wanted to do. Paying USD 30 into the account of the Kazakh Consulate’s account with that bank cost me 2.650 Yen (USD 26,50!) and took 2 hours. I barely made it back to the consulate before they closed for the day, but I got my visa application done! At this point it was time to rush back to the hotel, since the next stop for the day would be Kyoto.