Narita airport is surprisingly empty. I was expecting thickets of people, but there is barely a handful; at the arrivals gate, there are only about three people waiting and in the airport in general, there are probably more staff than travellers. In the context of the rushed exodus of foreigners following the earthquake six weeks ago, the empty airport makes more sense. For power shortage reasons, some of the lights in the airport corridors are turned off and so the whole atmosphere is quiet and eerie. We do some money transactions first – I get a wad of Yen – and then we set about exiting the ghost airport and getting into Tokyo proper.
Although it is the main international airport serving Tokyo, Narita airport is some 60km from the city itself. To make the journey via rail into Tokyo, there are a myriad of options: three different train lines and six different train services. To the freshly arrived foreigner, this is a torment of options, but thankfully my lovely guide had done all the research and she puts forth a recommendation: the Skyliner service for the reasons that it’s the most comfortable, quickest but isn’t the most expensive – it’s a no-brainer.
We purchase our tickets, take the escalator down to the platform, and board the waiting train. Immaculately clean inside, we find our reserved seats and sit back, relieved of our heavy bags. The Skyliner is an electric train and while we wait for departure, the engine is turned off, meaning there isn’t a murmur of noise coming out of the train. As an Irish man used to the loud throttle of diesel train engines in Ireland, I am initially quite unsettled by the absolute silence prevailing in the carriage. But after a short time, the train starts up and we shoot off into Tokyo with a low hum and speedy transit.
It’s an overcast day of showery rain and for most of the 40 minute journey, the view outside is unremarkable: rice paddies and generic suburbia. It doesn’t stir me out of my jeg-lagged state and Sachiko repeatedly asks if I’m okay. I am, I reassure her, a good breakfast will sort me out. After we pass over Tokyo bay, the high-rise begins and our train passes through a number of stations – only stopping once – before the last stop of Ueno station, where we disembark. Near the exit of the station, we deposit our bags in some lockers and go outside in search of breakfast.
We’re in Ueno, an old part of Northern Tokyo and we go walking around Ameyoko, a warren of little alleys and streets full of market stalls and little foodie places. Commercially the area obviously peaks late in the day for when we arrive, a lot of shops are just opening and many stalls are still setting up. But there are plenty of eateries open and after vacillating a bit, we eventually decide on a Ramen bar called Himuro.
We walk inside and are immediately given a loud sing-song welcome from the two chefs:
It’s a warm welcome indeed.
The place itself is a small, narrow, one-room foodie bar: the sitting area is an L-shape around a counter and the kitchen, inside the L-shape, takes up the rest of the room. We sit down and are immediately given menus and warm towels to clean our hands. I follow Sachiko and choose shoyu-ramen (soy-sauce ramen) and she follows me and goes for a beer. By this stage I’m not sure if it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner I’m getting, since I’ve been awake for so long, but I’m certain that I will feel restored after the food and beer.
Ordering is simple: shout what you want over the counter at one of the chefs (it’s necessary to shout because of the loud cooking noises); you know you’ve been heard when he shouts back the order in a feisty baritone, this is then echoed by the other chef and they immediately get to work on your food. The cooking is done right in front of you and is full of pyrotechnics and volcanoes of steam shooting up as the noodles are stir-fried on hot-plates. The accoutrements of Japanese dining are all before us at the counter: soy sauce, sweetened ginger, spices and of course, chopsticks. I’ve only a few moments to warm-up with these before the food arrives: two large steaming hot bowls of noodles and soup. It looks and smells delicious. Before I tuck in, Sachiko says,
‘You’re in Japan now, so you can slurp your noodles loudly!’
And the food is absolutely delicious. When I ask Sachiko what’s in it, she tells me that the menu just says “House spices”. I slurp it all down noisily in a state of bliss.
As we eat, others come in. Each are greeted by the raspy and buoyant chefs and in turn, their orders are taken and rapidly cooked-up. As we finish up, I’m in a buoyant mood, the food and beer have worked a wonder. We pay and as we leave, the hearty thanks of both chefs, follow us out the door,
Outside and by now the Ameyoko market area is in full swing, we pass numerous stalls selling fish, green tea, rice crackers, fruit, shoes, shops selling casual & formal clothes, sport’s shops and golf shops. In and around the laneways, shoppers move from stall to stall: old women checking the firmness of oranges and lemons, cohorts of giddy friends running back & forth laughing, and the ever present salary men strolling by. The men and women behind the stalls aren’t shy about advertising their wares and their cries fill the air. One stall, selling kebabs loudly but inexplicably shouts,
‘KEBAB, KEBAB; BORI, BORI, BORI, BORI, BORI!’
Leaving behind the sights and smells of the market, we cross the road and stroll into Ueno park. Climbing a long gentle series of steps, we come across something every traveller encounters when abroad, an oversized statue of someone you’ve never heard of before. This time, it’s a man with a loyal dog, his name, Saigo Takamori. I later learn that he led a reactionary rebellion of samurai during the Restoration period and amongst other things, was famed for the largeness of his testicles. Not knowing this particular fact at the time, I am unable to verify the girth of the “last samurai’s” cajones.
We meander on, passing a tomb of Shogitai warriors who fought and died in the Battle of Ueno in 1868…
We walk down a corridor of torii gates…
…and step out of the rain at an Inari shrine.
I am engrossed in the aesthetic detail that for me, makes the place so Japanese…
The rain becomes heavy and the last of the cherry blossoms are now on the ground…
We stroll on, around all the shrines and pathways, gradually getting wetter and wetter. The downpour intensifies and soon we are the only fools in the entire park walking around without umbrellas. We pass down a path at random and happen across an enormous crowd of high school students all singing unaccompanied in the centre of a large square; they all hold umbrellas as the rain pours down and the effect is magical, but sadly they finish just after we come upon them.
By now we are starting to become completely drenched, so we decide to head back towards Ueno station and on to our guesthouse. On the way, the rain become torrential and we take shelter at the entrance to another station. In the company of a great crowd of onlookers also taking shelter, we marvel at the intensity of the rain; many take out their camera phones to try and capture the moment and a group of girls squeal loudly as squalls of rain are blown in on top of them.
We take a break to have some coffee and after much encouragement from Sachiko, I go up to the counter to ask for it. ‘Kohee, futatsu, onagai-shamas’ is all I have to remember; literal translation, ‘Coffee, two, please’. However at the last I minute I panic and lose my bottle, when another phrase, burned into my brain at a different time, completely invades my consciousness: ‘Kohei, beeru categoi’; literal translation: ‘Young fellow, get me a beer, now!’. Knowing I’ll get a bad reaction if I say this latter phrase instead of the former one, I cop out and instead ask for the coffee in English. Thankfully, a few moments later, I get a chance at redemption when I ask for the milk in Japanese, ‘Milku, onagai-shamas’. All goes well, and the girl taking the orders tells Sachiko that I speak excellent Japanese!
On the final leg back to the station, I snap a quick picture of downtown Ueno.