The High Life

The highlight of the day, quite literally, was our ascent to the top floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which gave us a panoramic view of Tokyo city: the largest metropolitan conglomeration in the world. We had spent the last two days at street-level Tokyo, craning our necks looking up at the vertiginous skyscrapers, but this time we marvelled at the dense intricacies of the city, squinted our eyes at the specks of humanity below and strained our eyes at the haze on the horizon, trying to make out, was that Mount Fuji we could see?

We’re among the 35 million people who woke up that Monday morning in Tokyo. But unlike so many others, we’re happily free of the obligation to go to work, and so leisurely, leisurely we get up and pack our bags. We’re leaving Tokyo today and so we check out of our ryokan; however, we’ll be back in a week when Diarmaid will be arriving so we re-book ourselves for May 2nd & 3rd. This leads to some mild comedy when Sachiko gives her full name to the man taking the booking:

“Sachiko Kobayashi”

to which he replies,

“Sachiko Kobayashi, the most famous enka singer in Japan!?”

“No, no” Sachiko reassures him, same name but different person.

Around the corner from our ryokan we have a stellar sushi breakfast: salmon, tuna, squid, mackerel, cod, prawns, two types of seaweed and loads of sticky rice. Unlike yesterday’s visit to the carousel restaurant in Tsukiji, this is a counter sushi restaurant and Sachiko tells me that according to the sushi-purists, it’s considered superior for sushi because the fish isn’t revolving around in the air for some time before you eat it – in this restaurant, the fish is freshly cut and prepared after you order it. According to the website, preferring this style of restaurant is also a sign of realising you’re an adult after other such rites of passage as “My friends get married”, “I get married” & “My friends get divourced”. Needless to say, the food is fantastic, it’s a top start to the day.

We say goodbye to Yuko who’s flying back to Sapporo and we take a train to Shinjuku station. Once again we get lost in the world’s busiest train station and only with the help of a courteous white-gloved attendant do we find the exit we’re looking for. Our first task is to buy bus tickets for the trip to Nagano, in Sachiko’s native prefecture, where we’ll be based for the next week.

When this business is done, we go for a meander around the Shinjuku. It’s working-week and we’re in suit-central so all around are salarymen and careerwomen (to use the local terms). We walk away from the super shopping malls and tower blocks and in amongst the pedestrian streets where we find lots of stalls, small shops and idling salarymen.

After a time, Sachiko identifies the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in the near distance; from the top, it gives a fantastic view of the city and it’s also free to access so we set off there with some purpose.

After a healthy walk we arrive at the building and at the entrance our bags are inspected by two polite fully-uniformed guards (each wearing a helmet, a face-mask and white gloves). We then wait for the elevator “in two lines”, doing as we’re told by two stern uniformed women. When the elevator descends, its doors open and a third woman (in uniform, of course) emerges and directs the outgoing passengers to exit off to side; then she bids us, with fully outstretched arms and loud voice “ONEGAI-SHIMASU”, to enter the lift. Inside the elevator are two more women who welcome us in and with great responsibility, press the button for the 45th floor… nobody speaks as the lift rises… 60 seconds later, we walk out into a spacious observatory plaza. At all compass point and rushing out to the horizon is urbanization, urbanization.

We marvel at the awesome view, though unfortunately it’s too hazy to see Mount Fuji – the timeless icon of Japan. According to a sign the building was constructed in 1991 and there’s a lot of information about the technology that enables this 243m skyscraper to withstand an earthquake: there’s even a helpful little guide indicating the wobble that will happen:

We don’t buy any souvenirs (t-shirts, keyrings, postcards) or stay for the overpriced coffee, we merely descend and exit the building. We ramble back into Shinjuku central from where we’ll be taking the bus to Nagano. By now we’re tired and in need of coffee, but despite Tokyo being a place where you can get almost anything, the only cafe we can find is Starbucks. I have an Americano and a muffin, my first sop to western food after three days in Japan. As we sit back and recharge, it starts to rain heavily – within half-a-minute of the downpour starting, every person in every crowd is carrying an umbrella. The transformation is total.

It’s a short cloud burst but after the rain, the clouds remain dark and brooding. The weather is muggy now and despite the rain, the air is very dry.

We have a quick lunch of udon noodles and board the bus to Nagano just after 2.30. We’re leaving Tokyo: the swarms of suits, enormous train stations, white-gloved assistants and immaculately dressed workers in crease-free uniforms, keeping to the left on escalators, announcements from vending machines, fast pavement walkers, everyone using phones but no-one talking on them, neon-lit streets, blue crazy hair on the guys, stockings and big eyes on the girls, woman only train carriages, umbrellas for rain and sun and millions and millions of Japanese all going about their business.

“Welcome aboard this express bus to Nagano. We hope you will enjoy your ride our bus.”

As my friend Francis said, travelling begins properly when you leave the city where your plane landed, that’s when you really feel like you’re going into unexplored territory. We whizz out of Tokyo in comfort. After a few hours the bus stops somewhere in Gunma prefecture and we get some lovely Daruma snacks:

After this stop, the bus carries on but leaves the straight roads and begins to wind its way up into the Nagano hills.

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2 Responses to The High Life

  1. Joe Barrett says:

    I enjoy reading your travels so much. I know that many of my friends in Tokyo would enjoy reading them, too. I have been in touch in friends in Yokkaichi who have pretty much escaped the ravages of Typhoon Talas which crossed over the island of Shinkoku where I visited in July. The typhoon continued directly north doing some damage in the ancient cities of Nara and Kyoto. About 50 people are dead, mostly from the heavy rains which caused flooding and mud slides. My family in nearby Kusu, Mie are doing well. I am writing this so late that I suspect you have left Japan already. On a totally different subject, I received the CD you sent today (9/6/2011).

  2. finorgan says:

    Hi Joe. Thanks very much! Feel free to distribute my blog to as many people as you think might be interested. Terrible about the typhoon, Japan’s woes seem to be never-ending at the moment.

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