22.10.2013 - 27.10.2013
From the moment I stepped out of the airport terminal, my preconceived notions of Japan were turned on their head. I had assumed I would board a state of the art bullet train which would gracefully deliver me to Central Tokyo within a matter of moments. Instead what was waiting was the equivalent of the Piccadilly line tube from Heathrow to Central London; a never ending, tortuous, stopping and starting at every hole in the hell crawl. A crawl in a carriage full of grey people slumped in their seats; their colour, their energy, their affect all grey and exhausted. City life can do this to people and I never cease to give thanks for having made the decision to leave London when I did.
I had been aware that Tokyo's public transport system was pretty nightmarish (reference the map above), so I'd booked accommodation in a part of the city I could get to directly, rather than having to change trains. However there was some difficulty with the system that night and I was told I had to change stations. It was with great difficulty that I managed to get off at the right stop, however I was completely and utterly unable to find my way to the next connection, totally clueless. Thankfully the station wasn't crowded and I asked a girl for help. Asking for help in Japan is wonderful. People go completely out of their way to help you and are tenacious as terriers until the problem is solved. Whilst you may feel invisible to the Japanese population for 99.99999% of the time, once you ask for help you become like their favourite auntie who has come to visit with a big box of sweets. And I am soooo thankful for that. The girl was delightful, disappearing and returning a few minutes later with a conductor who escorted me to the right platform and made sure I got on the train safely.
I arrived in the Asakusa area at about eleven in the evening. The hostel suggested the best way to get to them was to walk from the station, a confident indication of safety in the area and I guess in Tokyo too. Asakusa was empty, quiet and subdued. The only noise came from groups of tipsy business men making their way back to the station. Off the main streets it was a warren of little lanes and alleyways lined with noodle shops, bars and small restaurants, most with their shutters up for the evening. A few places remained opened; I could see small cosy interiors whilst outside, people perched on high stools under plastic awnings. It reminded me of a sanitised version of the hutongs in Beijing crossed with, bizarrely enough, Spain, a street full of tapas bars to be more precise. An air of quiet calm prevailed. I liked it. I got to the hostel just before midnight and celebrated my 45th birthday with a pot noodle and a can of beer from the vending machine outside, feeling reasonably sorry for myself I might add.
To be fair to Tokyo, it didn't stand a chance. I was in seriously foul form for most of my time there. Jet lag had kicked when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur a few days previously and I was averaging about two hours sleep a night. When you are staying in dormitories, sleep deprivation takes on many new avenues of torment. My misbehaving hormones added depth to the gloom and the weather, constant rain, just topped it all off. I constantly felt underwhelmed by everything, my thoughts racing with 'what's the big deal' about this place.
On my first afternoon, I paid the first of my many visits to a Sento. Although they take many shapes and forms, essentially a sento is a public bath house. After the war, houses were built rapidly and without running water and bathing facilities. This lead to the sento becoming a central part of the community and community life. From what I have read, the highly class conscious society of modern day Japan is rather ill at ease with the sento, their continued presence, an embarrassing reminder of an impoverished past. Apparently an undeserved stigma has fallen on those who continue to patronise the remaining establishments. As an outsider, thankfully those issues were not of concern to me. As an outsider, I was completely bricking it about ' the right way' to proceed through the experience without making a huge faux pas. I read and re read about the routine in my guide book. Then I asked the girls on reception at the hostel. Then there was nothing else for it, get naked Nora!
First hurdle, buy a ticket from the vending machine in the entrance. The vending machine is in Japanese, of course. Shit. Then an angry man with a mop comes running at me. I haven't taken off my shoes (a major no no, which I shall rant about at a later point). Shit. I saw the lockers for shoes but i got distracted by the vending machine. Shit. He indicates what button I need to press whilst madly mopping at the floor I have destroyed. I fumble to find the correct change and eventually manage to get a ticket, but only after my shoes are deposited in a locker. I walk through the main door, hand in my ticket and am directed to enter another room when women are dressing and undressing. Shit. It's not that I am nervous about undressing, actually I can't wait, it's about knowing the right way to do it. The right way to do things is very important in Japan. For the first week or so I get very worked up about these things, then I relax.
Clothes packed away in another locker, I enter another room full of naked women sitting on low plastic chairs, soaped and scrubbing away at themselves as if they were cleaning a dirty saucepan with a Brillo pad. Sitting on the little plastic stools, the water facets are at tummy level, so rather than stand under a shower, you fill your little plastic bucket and pour it over you, rinsing yourself that way. It feels good to have a good leisurely scrub, good to be cleansed with abundant hot water, good to be naked with other people, good to have a good gawk at the female Japanese body. And what beautiful bodies. Ninety percent of the clientele are over fifty at the least, many would be seventy plus. Their skin is pale and surprisingly firm and unwrinkled with very little sagging. Boobs are smallish, firm and not droopy at all. No one is over weight. There is not a shred of cellulite in sight. Obviously, avoiding the sun is an important factor in these un-aged bodies. But what else? Diet? Exercise? Regular exfoliation? In every sento it was the same thing. Women aged sixty with the body of someone in their early thirties, someone who took care of themselves. I was told it was the same in relation to men, that it was almost impossible to tell their age by looking at their body. By the way, no cameras are allowed in the sento, so the photo below is from the Internet.
But it would be rude to stare to much. So it was back to more and more scrubbing and more and more rinsing before finally descending into the hot baths for a soak and relax. The bath is unbearably hot and I can't really chill out. My mood has not lifted. A nice woman tries to make conversation with me, she is a darling and I really appreciate it, but my heart is not in it. I move to a cooler bath. She follows and other ladies join in, but there is an element of laughing at the strangeness of the stranger. I feel vulnerable and want to cry. She sings Danny Boy to me. Oh my God. I have to get out. There is no relaxation area in sentos, once you're out its get dressed and go. I am the colour of beetroot and still very uptight. Normally warm water and a good steep is a fail proof way to lift my mood, but as I've already said, my mood was particularly foul and stubborn. But I had passed my sento initiation and day one of a five and a half month trip was over. Phew.
Number one of any list of things to do Tokyo is always the Tsukiji fish market, with the smartest cookies getting there on time for the 5.30am tuna auction. This was day 5 of my sleep deprivation hell and the last thing I wanted to do was be up and active in the middle of the night, but I knew I'd regret if I didn't go. I went to bed before midnight and was kept awake by jet lag, two mini earthquakes (the bunk beds trembled and then swayed for about thirty seconds) and continuous loud yaking from two of my dorm mates. I get up at 2.30 am, having not closed an eye. Nowhere to be seen is the girl who has promised to share the sizeable cost of the taxi with me. I am saved by an Australian boy who had not yet gone to bed. He not only is drunk, but is game to come with me. It's lashing outside, the beginning of a small typhoon. The taxi drops us off at a gate and we spend the next fifteen minutes dashing round a series of warehouses and yards, trying to find the check in area for the tuna fish auction. There are only 60 people allowed in each morning, so it's a race to get there on time. The boy is confident he knows where he is going so I just follow like an obedient dog; god it's great to be around a man's confidence sometimes. We make it to the gate. It's 3.30am and we are about twentieth in the queue and completely and utterly drenched. We are let into the equivalent of a holding pen and after the utter exhilaration of knowing we are 'in', the reality of a two hour wait kicks in. I am distracted by the man in front whom I think might be Will Self. But he is wearing dodgy trainers and does not exude an air of haughty self confidence. It can't be him.
Finally it's five thirty. We are at the auction. Big dead tuna fish being inspected by men in welly boats with hooks in hand. Then the auction begins, the auctioneers are singing as they take the bids, tuna are being sold for thousands of pounds. Then it's over. The market doesn't open till seven. What do we do now?
The heavens have really opened. Everywhere is flooded, outside the water it as least ankle deep. Men in motorised trolleys speed around the roads and warehouses in the not quite dark, not quite light. It's like something from a sci fi movie. I love it. Normally I would just hang out, mooch around, soak everything up, but it's so horrifically wet. We end up taking refuge in a queue for a sushi bar. It's nice to have company, the occasion would have be so different if I had been on my own. After only a fifteen minute wait we are seated. The Sushi is served up and I immediately know I won't be able to stomach most of it. Having been a vegetarian for 29 of the last 30 years, raw flesh is a tad tricky for me. Embarrassed, but probably also dis inhibited through tiredness I let the sushi master know that I will share with the Australian boy. I think I may also have eaten with my fingers, a major faux pas no doubt. I make conversation with a Russian man sitting beside me. He has come all the way to Tokyo to eat Sushi at the market and tells me that were we are eating is very good, but very expensive. Yikes. The bill for our shared plate is 35000 yen a head, about thirty five euro each, more than the cost of my accommodation for two nights. I try not to obsess about looming bankruptcy.
It's now seven am. The market doesn't open till nine. I have a delicious coffee in a little shack. It costs me an outrageous five euros. I need to stop obsessing about money. Then I decide I'm not going to hang around, it's far too miserable. The rain is crazy, I later learn that it officially a typhoon. I get back to the hostel at 9 and sleep blissfully till about one. Four hours sleep is like a dream. I'm a new-ish woman and I've decided that it's time to get out of Tokyo.