A South African’s guide to Tokyo

2015-08-31 11:26 - Tina Hsu
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Japan is a surprising neon whirl of the ultra-modern with the traditional and visiting for the first time with very little knowledge of Japanese, means you are mostly dependent on Google Translate, with a spot of laughter-filled charades in between. 

So there I was 9:30 at night, lost in the middle of Minato, Tokyo.

In my left hand I was dragging along my luggage; in my right hand, I had a crumpled, intricately detailed map of the Japan Railway lines. The air felt cool with a bite of warmth. But nothing compared to the real summer heat that envelopes the city towards the end of June.

Vibrant, alluring store signs and flashing billboards blinked out of the darkness, while several people stood outside restaurants, calling out to passer-by's - many of them "salarymen" - advertising dinner specials and other delectable dishes.

After wandering around for an hour I sought the help of two young Japanese 7/11 cashiers – who couldn't speak much English – but with the aid of Google Translate and Google Maps, I eventually found myself crammed into a tiny hotel room, with a toilet that sings and a peek at Tokyo's skyline. 

As a South African who ventured to Tokyo, Japan for the first time, here's some of what you can expect when you visit…

Public transport can get confusing

Japan has one of the more complex and advanced railway systems that I've seen and it takes some time to get the hang of it. Budget generously for transport. For example, getting a five-day Japan Railway (JR) pass as a foreign visitor means you have access to all the JR lines (around R2 000 for a 5-day pass) but you will need to buy individual tickets if you want to use a train run by a different company. It's probably a good idea to figure out who owns which lines beforehand. 

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

Google Maps is virtually your best friend and the station assistants usually understand enough basic English to help (sometimes with the aid of Google Translate).

Despite the array of drink and snack vending machines on train platforms, it's not common to see people eat or drink aboard the trains. It's not banned, but out of courtesy for fellow passengers, the Japanese generally tend to keep this at a minimum.

If you're starving but you need to wait for your train, there are usually convenience stores (7/11, Lawsons etc), bento snack shops, or stand-up ramen booths on the platform to get your fix.

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

Toilets that sing among other things

One of the things in Japan that possibly intimidated me the most were the toilets, believe it or not. This led to countless times I'd spent far too long in a cubicle trying to figure out how to flush it.  

Apart from the standard flushing option, there are also buttons for a bidet function, a built-in oshiri spray (or "arse" in Japanese), for adjusting the water pressure and temperature, a heated seat option and deodoriser.

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

The fear mostly lay in the thought that a stream of toilet water would spontaneously erupt from the bowl if I'd pressed the wrong button. Some toilets have the usual flushing handle, or more often, a flush button tucked away in a nondescript corner of the panel next to the toilet. Since these panels don't always contain English descriptions, a handy tip is to look for these Kanji characters to flush:

The people are polite and orderly

In South Africa, I'm guilty of jay-walking across streets and roads whenever and wherever. This habit significantly decreased during my visit to Japan.

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

Crowds of people wait patiently behind the start of the zebra crossing (even with no cars in sight) until the little red man turns green. There are also roads which are blockaded off to cars during the weekends in certain districts like Akihabara and Shinjuku, otherwise known as hokousha tengoku or 'pedestrian zones'.  It felt a bit strange to wander around a usually bustling city without any vehicles on the streets but it's safer and also gives pedestrians more freedom.

With no previous knowledge of Japanese, I quickly picked up some key words that made communication (or sometimes lack thereof) with the locals a bit smoother.

The Japanese word 'sumimasen' is probably one of the best words to keep handy and can be used to say excuse me, sorry or thank you.

Other helpful words include: 'doko' which means where, 'hai' for yes, 'nani' which means what, 'wakarimasen' meaning I do not understand, 'gomennasai' for sorry (especially if you've offended someone) and of course 'arigatou gozaimasu' to express thanks.

The Japanese are very courteous in general. From shopping mall assistants, to pedestrians, drivers, teenagers, salarymen (white collar workers) and the elderly all of whom are strangely polite in their interactions with each other and strangers. It's quite standard to hear 'sumimasen', followed by a bow from the locals in stores or sometimes on the streets.

READ: Get your tongue rolling with these 4 language apps anybody can use

It's interesting to see the contrast of daytime Tokyo and nighttime Tokyo. From the straight-laced, quiet, reserved faces during the day to the excited chattering, laughter, red-flushed faces and undone ties as the clock crawls towards midnight. Izakayas (casual drinking places or small bars) spring alive at night and many salarymen, locals, dotted with foreigners cram themselves in the tiny space to eat and drink after knocking off work.

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

It's harder to be vegetarian than you think

I'm vegetarian and boy it was hard trying to stick to a vegetarian diet in Japan. Occasionally I came across a noodle bar that served soba or udon noodles in a miso broth with egg, seaweed and tofu. But more often than not, I was faced with steaming dishes of deep fried fish, pork ramen, grilled beef and octopus balls (Takoyaki). Vegetarian based dishes are also often masked with a meaty topping, broth, or meat on the side.

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

In Japan, sushi is generally served in its simplified form, at room temperature, without mayonnaise, avocado or any of the extra goodies you're used to when you pop into your favourite sushi restaurant in South Africa. A dot of wasabi is usually placed between the sashimi and the rice by the sushi chef.

The Japanese have a love for raw meat, which for them indicates ultra-freshness. Be prepared for raw prawns, octopus, squid and a healthy dose of semi-raw to raw egg over your piping hot noodle broth or rice.

It's all about the fashion

You can find some of the most quirky, avant-garde fashion and subculture attire on the streets of Tokyo especially in districts like Harajuku, Shibuya and Ginza.

There are the vibrant cos-players who dress up as anime/manga characters and those with Decora style, donning bright colours and bucket-loads of cute accessories. Then there are the bolder Gothic Lolitas who look like they've stepped out of the Victorian-era, the Rockabillies that are dressed like 50's Greasers and the Visual Kei who are inspired by Japanese punk rock band glam, to mention a few. On the other spectrum, there is also the more minimalist fashion and a universal love for platform shoes and New Balance trainers.

(Photo: Tina Hsu)

Key tips for when you are there:

Get yourself connected: There are mobile service providers at the airport where you can buy yourself temporary sim cards with preloaded data. Otherwise, electronic and mobile operator stores like Bic Camera, Docomo and Softbank can also connect you. Keep in mind that most of these temporary sim cards don't allow you to make calls (since you can’t buy a sim card that can make calls if you’re not a Japanese citizen) so carry a few 10 and 100 Yen coins with you to access a public payphone. Alternatively, you can also rent a cell phone that can make calls.

Trash: It's rare to come across a public bin in Japan. The locals generally keep their trash with them until they can discard it in a household bin. Keep an empty packet with you to stash away any rubbish on your explorations. 

Shopping: Stores in Japan generally open later than the stores in South Africa - around 10:00 or later. The up-side is they also stay open later too, which means you can browse and shop to your heart's content into the night.

A must-do guide for the time-strapped traveller who wants to make the most of their trip: 

1. Visit a maid café, buy some gadgets and read manga in Akihabara district which is known for its electronics and anime subculture.

2. Take a stroll through the hip Takeshita Street and Yoyogi Park in Harajuku to immerse yourself in Japanese subcultures, or if you’re worn down by the city you can roam through a beautiful evergreen forest towards Meiji Jingu (a Shinto shrine).

3. Enjoy city views from the free observation deck at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku and while you’re there, check out Kabukicho red light district and Korea Town where you’ll find restaurants, bars, nightclubs and love hotels.

4. Head to Tokyo’s artificial island, Odaiba, where you can find the Rainbow Bridge, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, a life-sized Gundam robot model (think Transformers) and all kinds of stores for endless (window) shopping.

Tina Hsu is a journalist currently completing her internship with News24 and Traveller24

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