When I first came to Tokyo I was planning to do this. It was on my list of things to do, along with; ride the Shinkansen, read Japanese manga, etc. However, I’ve only just got round to doing it now, after being here for over 3 years.
People have suggested exporting the concept of the Japanese capsule hotel to other parts of the world, but I can’t see it being popular in places like US and Europe. For me it remains something which can only exist in Japan. I personally think it’s a shame as I very much enjoyed my stay at one in Shibuya, central Tokyo on Monday night, but for precisely that reason – it’s unlike any other accommodation I’ve stayed in before. It’s bizarre for me but at the same time exhilarating. Not having a clue what to do, puzzling over truly baffling flow charts and diagrams in the lobby and in the elevator, not knowing what the elevator door was going to reveal when they slid open on curiously labelled floors. It turns out the Rest Room was not in fact a toilet but was filled with massage chairs and snoring salarymen with the shopping channel playing on a huge flatscreen TV. It was then I had my first massage chair experience.
After you get your ticket to stay the night from the vending machine in the lobby, you receive your first key. This key opens a small locker in a carpeted area off the lobby in which you must remove your shoes (as is usual in any home or place of lodgings in Japan), and place them in the locker. You then trade this key for another, larger key which opens another locker on the second floor, accessible by the nearby elevator. The larger locker upstairs contains your relax wear. Kind of short pyjamas with a distinctly Japanese feel as the two large sides of the loose jacket cross each other and tie off to the side, the sleeves are short but gape open around the wrists like a yukata. You also get a small and a large towel for bathing. This is where I would be heading next I had decided as I was feeling pretty terrible having been out all day in the Tokyo summer heat and pollution. The bathroom is a typical Japanese sento style affair with two large public baths, one hot, one cold. You shower first on a stool then cover yourself as best you can with your smaller towel and slip into one of the main baths. I didn’t stay long as I was curious about my capsule on the 7th floor.
It was as expected: a capsule. I was chuckling to myself at the incredulity of it, and also at the guy beneath me who was snoring loudly with one foot sticking out of his pod. I guessed there was more than a few drunk guys who had to be at work the following day. I used a small ladder to climb into the capsule, which was suprisingly comfortable to lie in, just not built for doing anything else.
I turned on the TV and watched that for a while. There was an adult channel which I heard was rumoured to exist in each capsule hotel, and that proved to be accurate. I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it however, surrounded by strangers. The thought crossed my mind of previous guests that had stayed in pod 712 and that made it all the more difficult to sleep.
I awoke early and the view from my floor allowed me to get a decent shot of people walking to work. There was a Matsuya restaurant across the street so I had breakfast there. Sausage, egg, salad, miso soup, nattou, dried seaweed and pickles. Another must-do crossed off my list, I thought.
Like any traveler, I love stumbling across relics from a bygone age, so I couldn’t help but take a picture of this Sony battery vending machine when I came across it on the street in Tokyo. It’s the only one I’ve seen of these, but there are lots of other examples of slightly antiquated technology dotted around the city and lots of bizarre vending machines besides. From looking at it, I would say it rarely gets used, if ever, but only stands now as a monument to a time when people’s need for batteries was at its highest in the 80’s or 90’s. I really like the multicoloured stripes on it.
For the first time in the 3 years I’ve been living in Tokyo I finally attended a Sumo tournament at Kokugikan, the official venue of the sport in Ryogoku, east Tokyo. I have a basic grasp of the rules but don’t know much about the ceremonial nature of this ancient traditional sport or its relationship to Japan’s national religion, Shintoism. All the same, I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle and soaked up the atmosphere. The building is worth visiting in itself, being a huge octagonal arena; modern, but in the Japanese architectural style. It embodies much of an Edo period Tokyo and is popular with elderly men turning out in their droves wearing sports jackets and trilbies, gold-rimmed glasses and smoking cigarettes, perusing the seemingly undecipherable match programmes. The area around the Sumo arena and the train station bears all the hallmarks of ‘shitamachi’ Tokyo – the old part of the city, with seedy hotels and shabby drinking establishments with their tumble-down facades and dated signage.
Now is the time to go to the Sumo tournaments as the official governing body was recently indicted with widespread match fixing. As a result, and bizarrely, the sport has been required to offer tickets at massive discount as punishment. Fans willing to get themselves to Kokugikan around 8.00 AM will even be able to get free tickets, albeit for the worst seats. My ticket was ¥1500 (about $18 / £11) which may sound expensive, but is usually sold for about three times that price. The most expensive seats (sunakamuri-seki / masu-seki) can cost as much as ¥45,000 (about $550 / £350). An exhibition of status for the ranks of Tokyo’s heads-of-industry and underworld. On the one hand they do get a free Bento, Sumo merchandise and complimentary green tea, but on the other, they have to assume the Seiza position for the whole time (cross-legged on a large square cushion known as a Zabuton). Incidentally, these cushions have a secondary use as a projectile, thrown in the direction of the Dohyou (ring) when things get exciting – usually when an underdog beats the Yokozuna (current Grand Champion).
Things I enjoyed most: The extravagant signature Yukata and Kimono of the match officials and the Rikishi (wrestlers). The Yokozuna’s exhibition (a choreographed set of moves which included a lot of stomping of the feet). The thing which struck me most was the fact that you could virtually mingle with the stars outside the entrance as they came in – they all have a particular odour, possibly of wax used to set their Chonmage (topknot hairstyle). I mean, you can tell when a Sumo wrestler is around even before you see them.
“Dosukoi!”, as E.Honda would say when he wins a round in Street Fighter II.
People gather in Shinjuku’s central park in the aftermath of Friday’s earthquake
Well it’s the end of Sunday now following the huge earthquake that rocked Tokyo and the horrific events that then unfolded north, closer to the epicenter on Friday. Throughout the weekend I’ve been watching the news reports constantly monitoring the situation in coastal areas of the country and at Japan’s stricken nuclear facilities.
Before I write on I want to offer my condolences to the families of people who lost their lives in the disaster, the number of which are forcasted to be in the 10’s of 1000’s. Friday was a dark day in Japan.
A diagram showing where the earthquake happened, it’s relationship to Tokyo
I was literally just stepping out of Tokyo train station when it started. I was just arriving at the pedestrian crossing that faces the tall buildings of the Marunouchi area. Because of the renovation work taking place at Tokyo station there are temporary floors and scaffolding everywhere – I was standing on one such piece of temporary floor that felt hollow underneath so when the ‘quake began I wasn’t sure what was going on. I thought maybe it was vibration from a passing truck but the rocking quickly became more intense and people started to scream and run into the street. All the traffic had stopped so I quickly did the same, partially because I was worried about falling debris from the station building but mainly because I wanted to be on firm ground.
I ended up in the central reservation of the wide street that passes in front of Tokyo station. Those around me were mostly office workers. It was Friday afternoon at 2:46pm so very busy in that area. As we all looked up the buildings were swaying violently and I, like everybody else, thought this was the big one – the giant earthquake that has been overdue in Tokyo for the best part of 30 years. I’m from the UK so I’ve never experienced anything like it before and didn’t know what was best to do – this was the first 30 seconds of the earthquake. After that, what seemed to be an already huge earthquake got stronger and there were gasps and shouts from the crowd as the buildings made long deep groaning noises, the traffic light post at the crossing jerked back and forth violently and on one building a hanging servicing platform slammed into the wall repeatedly. I think the event lasted about three minutes but I couldn’t have estimated the length of time because I was kind of in shock.
After that, all the transportation was down so people were just milling about trying to contact friends and relatives but with little success as the communication networks were also badly effected. I was unable to email, SMS or call at that time, so I used the Facebook app on my iPhone to contact people. Guys with hardhats came spilling out of the buildings with sophisticated-looking equipment to assess the damage. I was freezing after 2 hours of standing around in the street so I walked following the train line until I reached Yurakucho where I had some Thai food in a small restaurant beneath the train tracks. Strong aftershocks continued throughout my meal although the staff in the restaurant seemed indifferent. From there I wandered over to Ginza and then as night fell I went to a pub that I knew had a TV and that’s when I realized just how bad it was in the north of Japan. I was unable to get home that night and so I spent it on the floor of a friend’s house.
As I write this from my apartment in Tokyo, I’m still kind of on-edge as my building continues to wobble almost constantly due to aftershocks. There is a 70% chance of further huge aftershocks possibly reaching up to magnitude 7. If this does happen in the Kanto region where Tokyo is located I have no idea what will happen but I at least have some idea after what happened on Friday, so I hope to God it doesn’t.
This is the movie I made to celebrate the millions of neon lights in Tokyo. In Tokyo you can’t see the stars at night due to light pollution, but that’s OK, the Japanese made their own constellations. Next time you’re in Tokyo at night, remember to look up!
This great music video for the song Nothing to Worry About by Peter, Bjorn & John features the Tokyo Rockabilly Club. People will probably know them as the guys who rock out in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Check it out – the guy’s got a motorcycle in his apartment!
This game is genius if not a little old, and at the detriment of the rest of the modern world, is only available here in Japan. If you can’t tell from the picture above (taken at one of my my local video arcades), this is a game in which you assume the role of a Japanese train driver on the Enoden Line and several other tourist lines located along the Enoshima beach area near Kamakura (outside Tokyo to the South West). These lines are famous for having old-style engines and carriages and tend to travel along the coast or through densely built-up areas of traditional Japanese housing, as well as stopping at some of the famous sightseeing spots in the area.
Your mission is to uphold the perfectionist ethos of the entire Japanese train network in general by driving the train observing signals and speed regulations and of course arriving at the stations at the exact designated times, plus/minus 4 or 5 seconds to avoid picking up penalties and thus maximizing your score. Penalties are also incurred for braking too sharply (causing the passengers annoyance) or for forgetting to trigger the announcements, and so on. You also have to open the doors having perfectly lined them up with the markers on the platform. Again, inaccuracy will get you in trouble and cost you points (possibly even resulting in a Game Over if you really mess up). The controls are supposed to closely mimic those of the actual trains in real life, so if the driver were to have a heart attack on the Enoden line, rather than hurtling through stations and ending up in a high speed collision, you could probably find a train geek somewhere on board capable of rescuing everyone in a smooth, controlled and orderly manner; as this is only one of a whole series of games totalling almost 30 different versions found in arcades, on Windows PC and on PS2, and is extremely popular here in Japan.
As a special bonus, here is a YouTube video of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) version:
Mitsukoshi Department Store, Ginza
In addition to the multitudes of building projects taking place in Tokyo right now, not to mention the rebuilding of the Kabuki-Za and the construction of the New Tokyo Tower, there are areas that see concentrated redevelopment, one of which is Ginza’s Chuo Dori, a.k.a. Ginza Street.
In just one year lots of new buildings have shot up along this famous shopping thoroughfare. Most of the new development has come at the Shinbashi end of the street where the fast fashion and middle level brands have asserted their presence. This seems to be in line with the current decline of the luxury brands in favour of cheaper alternatives that has followed in the wake of the economic crisis.
Still, the rate of change has been staggering. The first major project you see as you walk from the Kyobashi end towards Shinbashi is the Mitsukoshi department store renovation with its new building at the rear. The new building is even larger than its predecessor which has had a facelift and the interior completely replaced.
Mitsukoshi Department Store Annex, Ginza
Then, if you walk fifty yards further on, you come to Uniqlo which has expanded this year to occupy two buildings instead of just the previous one which is next door. This means menswear gets its own building now, also featuring the +J range.
Down from Uniqlo is a controversial new store, Abercrombie & Fitch. They caused complaint after their store opened this year due to the loud music and the overpowering odour of Abercrombie & Fitch aftershave that wafted from the entrance. Walls, floors, racks and displays are all sprayed at regular intervals and rumour has it that it is also expelled from vents and air conditioners. In the warmer months the guys on the door (there are always two guys standing at the entrance) are bare-chested and look uncomfortable as they try to jig along to the awful dance music blaring inside (staff’s orders). Apparently you can find the same inside but I’ve never been able to bring myself to enter. Still, the building is impressive enough and the brand seems to have survived its first year to the chagrin of many fashion and marketing aficionados.
Abercrombie & Fitch, Ginza
The final major new building is a little further down the street next to Zara and H&M. Yamaha has built a huge store there with instrument showrooms on several floors and a 333 seat concert hall. My favourite section has to be the electronic instruments and accessories, but all musicians should visit here for range of products often not available outside of Japan and the interior is as impressive as the exterior.
Yamaha Store, Ginza
So, all-in-all it’s been a busy year on Ginza Street with lots of changes and interesting new shops that have reinforced its reputation of being one of the most upscale, upmarket and vibrant shopping districts in the world. The scale of construction in this area alone has been massive but there are yet other pop-up shops and smaller construction projects I haven’t mentioned such as the Asahi Extra Cold Bar that was around temporarily during the summer and the construction work still going on in secret behind screen walls and advertising hoardings probably due to be unveiled in the new year, so the pace of progress shows no sign of easing.
The Japanese love affair with beer is evident again in this latest move by Japanese airline ANA to install draft beer dispensers in the galleys of their domestic flights. They’ve wisely decided not to offer the service on their international routes, and have also wisely decided to limit the number of glasses available to 20 (40 on one of the Okinawa routes that uses a larger jet), to stop things really getting out of control. Instead, you can enjoy a cold draft beer responsibly at the outrageous cost of ¥1000 (£7, $11, €9) per glass. Initial reports actually show that the drinking vessels will be made of plastic, another good safety move. The big question right now is, which beer company has the contract? There doesn’t seem to be any information anywhere on this, but my money is on Asahi Super Dry. They’re always up for breaking new ground. After all, this is the first time draft beer has been served from a keg on a plane due to the high pressures involved and it has taken a combined effort from ANA, electronics company Hoshizaki Denki, and said unnamed drinks company to make it possible. Anyone who has taken one of the flights and tried it for themselves, please let us know what brand they’re serving in the comments thread.
It’s the height of summer in Tokyo and all over the city firework displays are being held, as is the tradition all over Japan at this time of year. The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi 花火, literally: ‘fire flowers’, and this theme influences the way they are designed and appreciated in Japan.
For example, this year, I went to Koto-ku firework display where a commentator introduces each section of the one-and-a-half hour display, explaining which flower the fireworks are supposed to resemble (Japan’s national flower, the chrysanthemum, is pretty common), and sometimes which animal or symbol. I even heard there is a Doraemon head firework at some festivals. As usual, Japan outdoes every other country I know of in these events with huge displays using domestically produced fireworks. Also, there isn’t just one display in Tokyo, but over twenty each attracting thousands of people. As well as Koto-ku, I also made it to a prime spot for downtown Asakusa’s display held on the banks of the Sumida river.
Film fans will recognise the picture that introduces this post as Takeshi Kitano’s painting which was featured in his movie of the same name, Hanabi. If you’re in Tokyo right now, I seriously recommend catching the big one at Tokyo Bay (Aug 14th) and the one in my own neck of the woods, Edogawa-ku (Aug 7th).
UPDATE: Taken with my iPhone, so a bit blurry, but it gives you an idea of size:
On Chuo Dori, a.k.a. ‘Ginza Street’ (in Ginza, Tokyo) there’s a new bar open ready for the summer. It’s operated by Asahi, one of Japan’s biggest beverage companies, and sells only their mainstay, flagship brew, Asahi Super Dry. What’s unique is that the beer is freezing cold, as is the interior temperature of the bar – perfect for escaping the balmy Japanese summer.
Each glass costs ¥550, is served at a strict temperature of between 0°c and -2°c, and you can even pour the beer yourself from the bar taps! The temperature of the interior is shown on the outside of the bar and you can just see it in the picture I took at the top of this post. The Asahi Super Dry Extra Cold Bar in Ginza is open now until the end of August 2010.
Moving out to my new neighbourhood means I’m just a little bit further from popular west-side areas like Shibuya and Naka-Meguro, but even in anonymous areas like Nishi-Kasai you can still uncover some interesting places. Take for example my local video game arcade which appears to be a huge rusting armour-clad fortress. The cliche is completed using the font that Hollywood murdered: Bank Gothic. Regardless, this is a BIG video arcade!
You just don’t get the planning permission to build stuff like this in other cities. It reminds me of what one travel writer said about Tokyo. They said “Tokyo is a city devoid of beauty”. They were exaggerating of course, but in the classic sense it’s true to some extent. You can visit any city in the world and see far more historic buildings and monuments, and you certainly wouldn’t see anything as outlandish as this. But, for some people this surreal image of the future in a city akin to a giant, sprawling theme park is far more appealing. I got more satisfaction from visiting Nakagin Capsule Tower than I did visiting any temple or shrine in the city. For me the real cultural landmarks are ones such as these. Giant robot statues, opulent shopping centres, and bright neon hoardings.
Often it’s the mundane, easily taken for granted things I find in Japan that fascinate me most. Sometimes it’s the small differences but, in the case of the Japanese ATM, it’s a world apart from the UK equivalent I’m used to. You can probably tell by looking at it that it’s pretty unique in the world of ATM’s, but this is the ATM at the bank I bank with, and I’ve got some interesting facts about it.
The first thing you’ll notice is the screen. There’s an animated male and female teller that welcome you to the machine with a bow and a robotic ‘irasshaimase’ (‘welcome!’ – lit. ‘come in’). Then, you’ll get a bow every time a request is received or when you finally end your ATM session. Finishing said session can take time depending on your Japanese reading skill and general ability to decipher unfamiliar screens filled with flashing messages, numeric matrices and any number of other offers for services and information superfluous to your requirements.
Having navigated the touch screen successfully, you might then have to get comfortable with the other hatches, slots and gadgets outside your current schema. The interface to the right of the screen (near to which is a complimentary calculator – not chained to the counter) looks like a smaller secondary keypad or possibly cup holder but is, in fact, a biometric scanner for your palm. In a super-security-conscious modern day Japan, a 4 digit ID number is too risky for some people. If this is the case, they can go into a branch during business hours and get their palm scanned in order to make use of this secure, labour-saving feature (it might be preferable for visually impaired customers too).
Moving in an anti-clockwise direction around the machine, directly above the palm scanner is the bill hatch. This is the hatch that not only dispenses, but also accepts deposits of Japanese bank notes. Of course, it’s capable of counting banknotes and verifying their authenticity, and even unfolding, uncreasing and flattening them out if need be, but what I find most useful about this hatch is that it’s almost impossible to leave the money behind. It makes a pretty loud noise when opening to dispense notes, but also continues to do so until it finally closes automatically and returns the money to the customer’s account, in the event of the notes not being taken. It made a novel change from the usual slot from which notes, in a variety of ages and conditions, are ejected from in the UK or Europe. Suffice it to say, the notes that come out of a Japanese ATM always look like they’ve been freshly minted. Any other condition would simply be unacceptable here.
So onto the card slot, which is unremarkable – but then you have its wider counterpart on the left labeled ‘passbook’. This slot does indeed accept a passbook, or bankbook. You insert this in order to get your statement recorded. Transactions in and out, charges, transfers and so on. First, you find the correct page to insert it on. It doesn’t matter if the previous printout of your statement finishes halfway down the page, the machine will detect the point to continue printing from and will even turn the page in order to continue printing records that span pages. Upon running out of pages, you will be prompted to order a new passbook through the ATM touchscreen, or you will just be given the book back once printing is completed, whichever comes first.
Beneath the passbook slot is the coin hatch. As you may have guessed, this dispenses coins and accepts the deposit of coins too. It’s pretty unusual to draw coins from an ATM, but it’s even more suprising to find you can pay them into your bank. However, don’t go pouring thousands of ¥1 and ¥5 coins into the hatch as they won’t be accepted. However, if you do test this rule and your coin hatch ends up spasmodically chewing on 6 months worth of shrapnel, you can use the handy telephone embedded directly in the bottom-left of the ATM to place a maintenance request, but make sure you leave before they get there.
Whilst walking home the other night, I spotted this original piece of ‘bombing’. Someone had used marker pen to customize a small bear toy and left it on top of a crossing junction box. Underneath that was their tag, I’m guessing. I was lucky to notice it, I usually wouldn’t after working all day.
NOTE: The poor quality is due to the mobile phone camera I used to take the shot.
Ever wondered what it’s like to drive a Tokyo JR train? Actually, I hadn’t until I got a rare chance to see the driver doing his thing. Usually the glass is smoked or there’s a screen obstructing your view, and I’ve never seen this again since. Check out the illegible display on his computer screen!