05.08.23 — Travel


Strap yourself in because it’s going to be a long one. I promise it will all be worth it though, as there’s all sorts of unexpected twists and turns along the way…

My trip to the airport began as they usually do when I’ve spent a lot of money on a trip and I’m trying to save myself the 30€ I would have spent on a taxi: with me hauling my suitcase through the streets of my neighbourhood and onto a train bound for Terminal 4. There, I dropped off said case and headed through security to begin the list of things I needed to do before catching the first flight: have something to eat, put on my compression stockings, and work out exactly what documentation I needed to present at immigration upon arrival in Japan.

As you can see, I wasn’t exactly prepared.

I just about managed to get changed and complete the online entry form before hauling myself to the departure gate and giving my aunty a quick ring on the phone. This catch up was then cut short by the tannoy, which called for us all to start boarding as I said my hurried goodbyes.

This was the first of two flights which would take me across the globe and to Japan for my first time ever in the country and in the whole continent of Asia itself. Faced with the daunting prospect of a 17-hour journey, I’d planned my activities on the flight down to a tee and planned to sleep as much as I could on this first leg.

The excitement of the upcoming trip and the stress of the flight transfer didn’t let me sleep all that much in the end. Despite Qatar Airways’ lovely complimentary sleep mask (I kept both from the two flights, thank you very much), I only managed to get a couple of hours worth of kip in, but watching the dawn break in dramatic red and purple colours over the deserts of Saudi Arabia definitely made up for the insomnia.

I then landed in Qatar in order to make the transfer to the next plane. After getting chatting to a Spanish couple next to me, I discovered that they were also bound for Tokyo, and so I was pleased to wind up running back into them in Doha Airport as we all scrambled for the gate. In the end we arrived just in time: we didn’t have to run at any point but nor did we have time to sit around. Next stop: Tokyo!

The next flight was pretty uneventful and before I knew it I was in Tokyo Airport, heading down endless moving walkways as I headed towards immigration. I messaged Inés, my ex colleague who I was going to be spending the second half of my Japan trip with, noting that even the police patrol vehicles in the airport had fun little jingles instead of the intermittent beeping that I’m so used to hearing in Europe.

It was when I hit the immigration line that the fun began. After fishing my passport out of my pocket to present it to the immigration officer, I opened it to the photo page only to discover that – to my abject horror – it had ripped right down the middle.

Oh no.

In what I suppose was a fight-or-flight response, I started giggling to myself. I’d never been so far away from home and so of course the one vital document I was carrying with me was going to break. A combination of resignation to the fact I could do nothing and the delirium brought on by the lack of sleep meant I simply trundled on forwards. Holding my passport in just a way to disguise the tear as best I could, I decided I’d just have to explain the situation and hope that they would take pity on me.

To my relief, nobody batted an eyelid and the passport was scanned through – twice I might add – with no problem at all. Now fully within Japan, I picked up my suitcase and headed out to grab a taxi.

The hot and humid air that hit me as I left the terminal didn’t help matters as I tried to work out the busy mess that was the taxi rank. I eventually gave up, ordered a taxi online, and found myself throwing my case and then myself over some concrete barriers in order to reach the spot where the driver had parked. Looking back, I bet the sight of me jumping over the barrier looked rather suspicious, but I was way too tired and sweaty to care.

I then spent the taxi journey to my hotel pondering the issue at hand. My ripped passport had gotten me in, but I feared that it might not get me out, and I still hadn’t experienced Japan enough to know whether it would be a place I’d be happy being trapped in. I was still agonising over the issue when the taxi driver announced that we’d arrived at the hotel. Neither of us could see the entrance to it though, and so he jumped out and spent a good five minutes wandering around looking for me. I did say I’d get out and look too, but he was having none of it.

Once we’d found the hotel entrance, I eventually got checked in and threw myself down on the bed. By that point I’d made my decision: tomorrow I would have to go to the British Embassy.

I wish I could share some fun anecdotes from my first morning in Tokyo, but it was all rather mechanical as I ticked off a series of things I had to do on my list. I went to get some money from an ATM, picked up a public transport card, loaded some money onto it, and headed off to the embassy to see if I could talk to someone.

I arrived sweating after a mere five minutes of walking from the metro station to the embassy building: the summer humidity in Japan is not to be reckoned with. There, I was told that I couldn’t just show up without an appointment (life lesson learned) and that I should call such-and-such a number. I thus spent a while pacing back and forth in front of the embassy gates as I chatted to a very helpful lady on the phone. She told me to search on the government website for an ‘Emergency Travel Document’, after which I hung up as soon as was politely possible in an attempt to keep the international calling charges at bay.

Back to the hotel it was then. I’d been in Tokyo for half a day and hadn’t seen a thing other than my hotel, the metro, and the bloody British Embassy. I didn’t expect my first photo of the trip to be as such, but I thought I might as well take a photo of the embassy building while I was there, so here it is.

Now very sticky and rather angry that I’d gotten so sticky for no reason, I hopped back on the metro and returned to my hotel room. There, I’d to fill out an online form before engaging a spot of gymnastics in order to get some decent lighting over a plain background for an impromptu passport photo shoot. I then showered and threw myself back into bed for a nap. Despite the excitement of my first taste of Tokyo on the metro, I could think of nothing but sleep.

This nap proved to work out quite well, as I awoke to find a message from 20 minutes prior which informed me that my application had been approved and that I should wait for further instructions on how to go and pick it up. With the situation seemingly resolved, I decided it was time to call my mum and finally tell her about the pickle I had wound up in. We both had a laugh at my misfortune!

Energised from my nap and the knowledge that the main paperwork was done and dusted, I finally headed out into the streets of Shibuya, the area of Tokyo that I was staying in. Now finally taking in all of the sights, sounds, and smells of the city, I wandered down a main road full of shops and restaurants, most of which were closing up for the night. Inés had warned me that things close early in Japan, but for obvious reasons I’d completely forgotten.

This intersection became home for the few days I spent in Tokyo.

Along the way I discovered a shop that would soon become very dear to my heart: Family Mart. This chain of convenience stores is to be found all over, but I was charmed by their extensive selection of food, more specifically their many different kinds of fresh fried chicken. I don’t think any food in the world qualifies as comfort food more than a good piece of fried chicken, so I grabbed one to go and finished it off as I headed further down the road.

Chatting to Inés on WhatsApp, she helped me to find a restaurant for some Japanese curry, but as I arrived it turned out to be closed. This little wander had taken me to a rather cool little district called Ura-Harajuku, where I had a good snoop at the eclectic shops before coming across yet another Family Mart. I grabbed another bite to eat and carried on my explorations, resigned to the fact that I was going to have to snack as I went as it was now way too late to catch any open restaurants.

I then found myself in Omotesandō, an area famous for being rather fancy and having some impressive architecture. I took all of this in whilst munching on my egg and pork sandwich from the Family Mart before heading back to Shibuya station and to one of the most iconic places within Tokyo.

The next spot on my sightseeing tour was the infamous scramble crossing, which I would soon learn is one of just many examples across Japan. This one seems to be the most famous, with its huge diagonal crossing allowing pedestrians to basically traverse the four-way junction in any direction they see fit. Lit by the huge screens and neon lights of the buildings that frame the square, it is quite the sight to behold once the crossing lights turned green.

After sticking around to watch people cross every which way, I then followed the crowds into the street that everyone seemed to be heading down, which is the one in the dead centre of the above photo, just below the IKEA sign. This took me into a maze of bustling streets filled with more bright lights and buzzing with people eating, drinking, and just generally milling around as I was. I grabbed myself a drink from yet another Family Mart and explored the streets for a good while.

I felt I was finally experiencing the more iconic parts of Tokyo.

My legs then grew tired, the restaurants began closing up, and a fun song and animation on one of the advertising screens announced that it was 10pm. I thought this as good a sign as any to head back to bed, and so I wandered back to the hotel, content that despite a wasted morning I’d managed to see a few places on my admittedly very small to-do list. It was probably for the best that I’d showed up without doing too much research and without having too many expectations of what Tokyo would be like!

The jet lag had me up bright and early the next day, but this was probably a good thing as it meant I could avoid the midday heat. I thus got a move on and grabbed a train just one stop up the line to visit a nearby temple, the first of many that I’d experience during my two weeks in Japan.

The early morning stillness and the natural surroundings of the Meiji Jingu Shrine were in stark contrast to the assault on the senses that the streets of Shibuya had been the night before. I entered under the first torii (the traditional Japanese gates) and followed the wide path through the trees past containers of sake (a clear wine made from rice) and then barrels of French red wine, all of which had been donated by their respective producers as offerings to the shrine.

As you can imagine, I especially loved the lanterns along the path.

Passing through a couple more torii, I eventually arrived at the shrine itself, which was still very quiet. I learned how to properly pay my respects within the shrine, took some photos, and then left as the heat had already began to hit and I was ready for another shower before continuing my explorations.

With the heat still rising I decided that my afternoon’s activities should take place indoors. For this, I had a look over the recommendations that Inés had prepared for me a few weeks prior to my arrival. I saw that the National Arts Centre had an exhibition using works from the Tate Collection to explore the use of light in art, and I knew I simply had to go and see it.

The centre and its metro station were works of art in themselves, much like the Guggenheim in Bilbao that I visited a couple of years ago. The exhibition was then absolutely fantastic, with great care and consideration paid to every single aspect of the exhibition route, the works within, and the information explaining their inclusion. I ran into a couple of pieces from figures I admire, such as Dan Flavin and James Turrell, but also fell unexpectedly in love with a some new paintings and artists along the way.

After buying a few postcards in the gift shop, I then sat down for a bite to eat before I braved the outside heat once more. I made a beeline back for the metro station, grabbed a couple of trains, and then resurfaced next to another landmark that I was keen on seeing in the form of the Tokyo Tower.

I didn’t expect to find an old shrine right next to the tower.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the tower framed by a series of buildings forming yet another shrine, and so spent a while wandering around trying to get a good photo of everything. The bright sun and spotty cloud cover meant that it was difficult to find an angle from which the tower would be suitably lit, but I did my best. Don’t let the clouds fool you however – it was still unbearably hot.

I took refuge in the gardens of the shrine for a while, finishing off yet another drink I’d bought from one of the countless vending machines that line every single street. After my initial distrust of these machines, I came to see then more of an essential public service, providing cool refreshment whenever one may need it. Also, I found I could pay for the drinks with my metro pass. Odd, but handy.

Good job I did discover the temple, it offered a bit of shade.

Despite my cool drink and moment of rest, I still felt a little dizzy, noting the first subtle signs of heatstroke. Not wanting to lose any more time in Tokyo than I already had with the passport fiasco, I headed back to the very intense air conditioning of the metro and then up to my hotel room for a much-needed nap.

I then made the age-old mistake of not putting an alarm on before napping. I thus woke up much later than I wanted to and so had to change my plans, heading off to the Kabukicho neighbourhood instead of down to the water’s edge. This crazy neighbourhood is famous for its bright lights and nightlife, something which I ran into as soon as I alighted the train.

Like Shibuya, Kabukicho was bustling with people, lights, and noise.

This place felt like Shibuya squared, with an absolutely crazy amount of people, noises, smells, bright lights, and a general buzz that I can’t express with neither words nor images. A little overwhelmed by it all, I buried myself within the multicoloured streets and pottered around for a good while. I grabbed some street food to keep me ticking over as I followed the ebb and flow of the crowds, doing little more than simply taking it all in.

After a time wandering around in a bit of a daze, I was approached by a dodgy character who I couldn’t seem to shake off. I sternly asked him to leave me alone, which he thankfully did, but I took this odd encounter as a sign to head off to the next spot I wanted to visit before the evening was over: Akihabara.

I arrived at Akihabara quite late and then immediately proceeded to get completely lost, which is what happens when I think I know better than our Google Maps overlords. The district is famous for its offer of various anime and video game related products, but it took me so long to work out where I was that everything was pretty much closed when I eventually found its epicentre.

This shop was everywhere and seemed to sell a bit of everything.

I spent a short time wandering around the area, which for some reason reminded me a bit of Blackpool. It must be all the bright colours and visual pollution created by the open shop fronts with their bright and harsh lighting. Now you know where to go if you want an authentic Japanese experience on a budget – Blackpool, Lancashire.

With a mental note made of this invaluable travel tip, I sought out the nearest train station and made my way back to the hotel to spend an hour watching TV and writing my little travel diary. Said diary notes that I felt “fulfilled and relaxed, although so much fried chicken can’t be doing me much good.” I guess I had wound up visiting Family Mart yet again…

Despite my relaxing evening of TV and fried chicken, I woke up restless the next day as I still hadn’t heard from the embassy. I gave them a ring and wound up on the phone for about twenty minutes – that’ll be costing me a pretty penny. They were really helpful, though, and I discovered that my emergency document had been printed and was on its way from Singapore over to Japan. Content with this update, I got ready and headed out to visit yet another of Tokyo’s seemingly endless offer of different neighbourhoods.

This time I found myself in Ginza, a rather posh area full of fancy shops that I’ll never shop at, both for lack of interest as well as money. There was one that I needed to pay a visit to, however, and I would do that just as soon as I found my way out of the huge shopping centre that the metro exit had spat me out into.

Once I’d located the street I made my way over to Itoya, a huge stationary and crafts shop with nine floors of papers, pens, and all the other goodies that we designers go crazy for. Now I say it, I don’t think it’s just us designers: who doesn’t love a bit of stationary?

The only thing better than stationary is neatly ordered stationary.

As you can imagine, I left this huge shop with my wallet significantly lighter than when I went in. In my bag was a selection of lime green paper and envelopes, a series of pens that I’d selected based on how likely Barbie would be to use them, and stamps that I’ll probably never use but which will look cool on my desk.

From there I moved over to visit Sensō-ji, another buddhist temple which was relatively close to Ginza. This temple has a lovely main building and pagoda, but it was the street leading down to the heart of the complex which I found the most interesting. It was lined with an uninterrupted series of cabins with all kinds of stuff on offer: food, souvenirs, and a lot of local sweets and desserts. It’s no doubt an absolute tourist trap, but I saw it as ideal for a light peruse and a spot of people watching.

I then reached the main temple building and I kid you not that the moment I stepped over the threshold, my phone rang. It was the embassy, and my document had finally arrived for me to pick up. Relieved and endlessly grateful, I said that I’d be there in an hour – a number I had picked out of thin air. I hung up, wondered for a moment if I should convert to Buddhism, and then headed back to the metro.

The details and curves seen on the pagodas are absolutely stunning.

I wound up arriving at the embassy a little late, but that was mainly because I’d got distracted and taken the photos above of the temple complex’s pagoda and gorgeous little gardens. They didn’t seem to mind, and I was soon chatting to one of the consulate staff through some plexiglass as she presented me with my pretty emergency travel document. I was expecting just a ratty piece of paper, but I was handed a pretty cyan blue passport containing the horrific hotel room selfie I’d taken just 48 hours prior.

I have to say that the embassy staff were absolutely great throughout the entire process, a sentiment I made clear to the woman attending me as I thanked her profusely and we wound up chatting for a while. I forgot her name, but there’s some people doing great work at the British Embassy in Tokyo!

Now clutching my emergency passport as if it were my first-born child, I headed straight back to the hotel to wrap it in swaddling clothes and place it carefully in the safe. This unexpected errand had once again scarpered my evening plans, but I still had a must-do trip to make that I resolved to make that same evening. To get there, I took a series of trains which wound up taking me over the streets and past the famous Rainbow Bridge – which wasn’t lit up in multiple colours to my great disappointment.

The stacked roads, walkways, and railways of Tokyo are wild.

This train dropped me off at Team-Lab, an interactive experience that Inés had told me would be right up my street as the principal medium that they use is light. Excited, I bought a ticket, watched the instruction video, took off my shoes as instructed, and headed inside.

The route through the exhibition was then pretty insane. There were water features, tactile rooms, a fully immersive LED hall, huge multicolour balls of light, and even a room where I’d to wade through knee-height water illuminated by an interactive projection of fish and flowers. It was wild!

This mysterious hallway of light guided me to the first room of the exhibition.

This room full of suspended pixels creating 3D effects was my favourite.

Upon arriving back at the shoe lockers, I assumed that the experience was over, but I was then shown into the second part. After meandering through a garden full of illuminated bean-shaped things, it was my time to enter another garden, this one much more abstract than the last. This last installation included vertical columns built from real and living plants. These columns moved slowly and rhythmically up and down, creating a gorgeous visual effect of an ocean of flowers.

I then found myself putting my shoes back on and returning to the real world, where I paid yet another visit to the Family Mart for a bite to eat: I still hadn’t aligned my eating schedule with that of the Japanese. Food in hand, I grabbed the train another couple of stops to a spot that I’d found after wanting to recreate my experience in New York City, namely spending the last night by the waterside with views over the city I’d been inhabiting for the last few days.

Tokyo did not disappoint. I headed onto the sand of an unexpected beach and perched myself atop a low wall to take in the sight which lay before me. I looked over a sea of tall buildings topped with flickering red lights for airplanes, but most prominently I took in the views of the Rainbow Bridge as the reflection of its lights danced on the water.

This was quite the sight to behold as I munched on my sandwich.

I then went for a wander down the beach, stopping only to read the tsunami warning sign, a stark reminder of where I was. I arrived at the next train station along and hurried onto the platform to grab one of the evening’s last trains back into the urban centre and off to the hotel for my last night in this huge and crazy city.

The next morning my alarm sounded early, signalling for me to get up, packed, and out. I left my suitcase in reception and then left for my one last experience before leaving Tokyo. This would take me to a place that I’d tried twice over the previous days to visit, but my plans had been repeatedly scarpered for one reason or another – usually that pesky passport.

I hopped on one of the musical metro lines and took it until its end, where I was spat out once again into a huge and rather confusing shopping centre. I eventually found the ticket office I was searching for and walked out onto a terrace which dramatically presented me with the landmark I was about to experience: the Tokyo Skytree.

There’s no forced perspective here, it really is this intimidating.

I then grabbed a ticket, headed over to the lifts, and was raised 350m into the air in a mere 50 seconds. My ears popped, the doors opened, and I stepped out to take in the views from the first of two decks that I’d climb to. The panorama over the city was, as you can imagine, absolutely breathtaking: the tall buildings I’d risen from looked like little plastic toys on a perfect grid below.

I then boarded a second lift which took me a further 100m up to a grand total height of 450m. After a few days of shuttling myself around Tokyo on public transport, I was finally able to appreciate the vast expanse of a concrete jungle that the city really is. I didn’t know it at the time – I really did zero research before this trip besides chatting to Inés – but I was atop the world’s tallest tower and looking over the world’s biggest city. As you can appreciate in the photo below, the urban sprawl just doesn’t seem to end as far as the eye can see. Wild.

Once I’d returned to ground level, I headed back the way I’d come and picked up my suitcase in order to leave Tokyo for my next city on my trip around Japan. I’d bought myself a rail pass for unlimited travel across the country for a week, a concept which is still crazy to me. To put it to good use, I worked my way through Shibuya Station and to the Shinkansen platforms: it was time for my first time on a bullet train.

After having to hurriedly change platforms as I realised I was standing on the wrong one, I joined the back of a short queue to board the next bullet train headed south. I must say that I am a fan of the Japanese system of having lines painted on the floor so that people can form and orderly queue to board trains of all types. I would advocate for its introduction here in Spain, but I know that nobody here would pay it any attention.

I then spent a while fighting with the luggage compartment, eventually giving up and resigning to hauling my case onto the overhead rack. This little delay meant that the seats on the right hand side of the train had filled up, which I wanted to sit in to try and catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji as we sped past it. This was nothing that a few quick seat changes as other people left couldn’t fix though, so I eventually settled into my window seat, pulled out my sudoku book, and settled down for the journey.

As I’m sure you can appreciate, my first few days in Japan had been wild. I saw and experienced so much, including my first contact with the British Embassy despite me having lived outside of the UK for a good five years or so now. Tokyo is an insane city and one which I found pleasantly overwhelming. I say this because as I look at the photos and think back on what I got up to, I’m still noticing more details and making new observations about pretty much every aspect of the place.

It’s been a long post, but I’ll be back soon with my next installation from my fortnight spent traversing Japan!