I flew into Japan after spending pretty much a whole day travelling. My flight arrived at 7PM local time and I figured it would take a while to get my bags, get through customs, and get out into the city proper. It looked like a good hour on the train from Narita Airport to Shinjuku, where I’d organised to stay at a capsule hotel for the very first night of my trip. I wasn’t meeting my mate Brendan until the Saturday of the long weekend—we’d booked an AirBnB fifteen minutes from Shinjuku by train, and given my interest in tiny living, I’d always wanted to check out the capsule hotel phenomenon in Japan, and I’d ended up booking into the Shinjuku Kuyakushomae capsule hotel as it was listed as ‘newly renovated’ and was close to where I needed to be the next day anyway. Strangely, my friend, fellow author and Queermance committee member, Nicholas G. Frank found me a the shuttle bus service at Brisbane Airport.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“Tokyo,” I said. “You?”
Turns out, he was headed to a music festival (Fuji Rock). It had been a last minute decision.
“Who are you flying with?” I asked.
“Me too.” We compared tickets, and were on the same plane. “What are your plans when you reach the city?”
“We’ve got an AirBnB in Shinjuku in a few days. I just booked into a Capsule hotel for the first night and I figured I’d work it out from there.”
“Me too. Which hotel did you book into.”
Nicholas shrugged. “The first one that came up when I googled it,” he said.
I opened my travel document wallet and pulled out my reservation printout. “That’s what I did, although I looked up some reviews on TripAdvisor and stuff.I’m in this one.”
He looked at the flimsy piece of paper with its thin, black, printed script. “That’s where I’m staying.”
Finding the hotel was as easy as buying a local sim card, entering the address, and letting Google Maps direct us to it, complete with instructions to cross at upcoming zebra crossings. I don’t know how much work has been put into maps by the team in Japan, but it’s years ahead of what’s available elsewhere, and I’m really looking forward to it. The was…emptier than I expected, although we had arrived at the start of a long weekend. Walking through the streets in the shorts I’d changed into on the plane, the hot muggy humidity of the Asian summer hit my winter weary bones with a very welcome heat. There was neon everywhere, and even at nine o’clock on Friday night there were open stores full of shoppers, although, it was only select stores as I was to find out later. The streets were wide and clean, and I couldn’t see any litter as we pulled our cases along the concrete and asphalt. The streets were mostly quiet, and I saw very few cars as we pushed into the heart of Shinjuku, my phone eventually leading us to a tall building of grey-brown render, passing a donut shop, a British Pub, and a giant yellow sign with a cat on it. It could have been a cat cafe—I never went to check. Then we were piling in to a wood paneled elevator, and out into the bright, clean lobby of the capsule hotel.
For those of you not familiar with them, Capsule Hotels are essentially giant dormitories where possibly hundreds of people sleep in semi-private ‘capsules’ each about the size of a single bed. There’s enough room to hold a mattress and a TV screen, and you can just about sit up if you’re not very tall. Each capsule is offered some privacy by a curtain or screen that blocks off the entrance, but they’re sized for Japanese people, and I saw some feet sticking out the ends of other capsules and longer (okay, taller) westerners may want to research the bed length before booking in. While they minimise on private space, capsule hotels provide a fair amount of common space. The one I went to had a lounge for relaxing, working, socialising and was connected to the in house canteen offering a quick feed at a reasonable fee (800 Yen for a meal or thereabouts). There was also a coin laundry, phone charging stations, free wifi, the ever present vending machines, and a complete Japanese onsen, or bath house. A quick side note – this particular onsen won’t let you in if you have tattoos, unless you cover them up with a big bandaid or something. Traditionally tattoos in Japan are the domain of the Yakuza and as such carry connotations of organised crime. That said, there are other capsule hotels and onsen around that don’t have this restriction, so check the rules before booking your own stay.
Onsen provide a shared bathing experience. You take off your provided pajamas (you left your clothes down in the locker when you first checked in), and put them in a little cubby along with your large towel, and take your smaller wash towel into the shower area with you. The shower area is a low counter with multiple wash stations positioned along it, each comprising of a plastic basin, shower wand, wash soaps and a stool for sitting on while you clean yourself. There are typically more abrasive washcloths (think a plastic loofah in cloth form), toothbrushes, toothpaste and razors nearby if you need them, but there’s no privacy. If it’s not busy you may find a station away from everyone else, but chances are you’ll be flanked by other, nude male bodies (I have no idea if the female onsen are similar but my research suggests they are), and you’re expected to clean yourself before you head into the the soaking pool of your choice. The Kuyakushomae capsule hotel has three pools-hot, warm and cold, although I spent most time in the hot pool unwinding after the flight and the trek through Tokyo itself. And yes, this is where I confirmed that Japanese guys don’t shave. Manscaping below the neck appears to be a western obsession.
Whenever you’re soaked enough—or tired enough—get out, dry yourself off and put your PJs back on—or if you’re feeling particularly modest, some of your own clothes—and head into the lounge to chill, work, or eat and otherwise just hang out and socialise before heading to your capsule to sleep. Things to be aware of if you do decide to go with the capsule experience:
- It pays to be organised. You’re going to have to stash your luggage downstairs in your locker or on a luggage rack if your travel case is too big for the provided lockers. You also don’t really want to be leaving valuable electronics lying around in the open shelf cubbies. I recommend ensuring you have whatever you want to use in the lounge in a ‘lounge pack’ ready to go—so spare undies and a t-shirt if you feel more comfortable wearing them, phone, laptop, chargers, adaptors, a book etc. Go bathe, grab your gear and head up to the lounge. You’ll need to return to stow things away before bed, and frankly, the fewer trips you have to make, the less stressed you’re going to be.
- Remember that the capsule hotels pretty much do provide all requisite toiletries. Originally created for Japanese businessmen who missed the last train and needed somewhere to crash before the next day of work, capsule hotels provide just about everything you need to get through one night to the next day in the office. You can also get a cheap shirt and a new tie at nearby convenience stores so you don’t have the same clothes as yesterday. You can afford to leave the toiletries out of your lounge kit if you want.
- While capsule hotels are cheap options for tourists and popular for their uniqueness as well as their low cost, you will be kicked out during cleaning times, usually somewhere around 10 to somewhere around 4. You can’t go back in. You can’t go and chillax. You can’t even access your luggage unless you’re paying the fee to access the space as a day guest (assuming the hotel opens as a day bath house). So plan accordingly.
- Onsen are not hook up joints. Sorry boys. There are specific gay onsen that are also saunas, and some may even allow you to stay overnight, especially if you have a private room, but don’t come in looking for sex. I’m not sure what would happen if you did, but if you have and can let me know, please feel free to share.
The next morning I discovered that Tokyo is a bit like Hong Kong in the morning – nothing is open. With two hours to kill between leaving the breakfastless capsule hotel and my scheduled meet up with Brendan, Gregory and I set out on foot, him leaving his bags at the Capsule hotel where he planned to stay another night, and me dragging some twenty five kilos of luggage behind me as we walked through the emptiness of a morning after in a nightlife hotspot. With neither Gregory nor I wanting to go for a vending machine breakfast, we wandered around looking for food—eventually going for a 24 hour Ramen place where we discovered that the Japanese vending machine ordering system worked differently to what we were used to back home—and then went coffee. Gregory’s a bit addicted in his own words, and if he goes too long with a caffeine fix he starts getting headachey. Now coffee hasn’t really taken off in Japan, as you might expect from the culture that brought us the tea ceremony. There are few western cafes, if any, and the most western places we stumbled across were bars that either weren’t open, or were advertising an early morning beer or whisky, along with old American music sung by crooners from an era before I was born. Eventually we found a Starbucks. Now I’m a good Melbourne boy, but I’m not a coffeeholic. I don’t really drink it, but I know what good coffee is supposed to taste like and the smell of burnt coffee grounds not being cleaned out of a machine. People like me are the reason Starbucks, with it’s high sugar, high cream and overpriced ‘coffee’ never really made it in Melbourne. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the counter and ordered an iced coffee.
What I got, was an iced coffee. As in black coffee. Cold. With ice. No added sugar. I found out later that some Americans complain that ‘it’s not the same as it is back home’. They’re right. It’s better. I’d actually go back for a coffee, and not just for the sit down. At the front of the store was a polite chalkboard sign asking you to please find your seat before ordering and to be considerate of others and not spend too long on your computer or phone. Basically, you can still stay as long as you like and they won’t turf you out, but even Starbucks isn’t immune to the ever present throng of people in Tokyo. Gregory and I stayed for nearly an hour, before I left o meet Brendan at the TOHO cinema
“There’s a big statue of Godzilla there,” he said. “You can’t miss it.”
There was, and no I didn’t.
Brendan is an English teacher at a school out in Nagano, which is (apparently) 2-3 hours north of Tokyo by train. Hopefully I’ll get to see it on a subsequent visit. I know him through National Novel Writing Month, and we met during his most recent stint in Melbourne between overseas jobs. He’s been in Japan on and off for five years and although he speaks the language, his pronunciation is apparently bad (according to the primary school children he teaches) and he has trouble reading much of the written Japanese as it mostly uses the complex pictoral characters known as Kanji, which are pretty much identical to the traditional Chinese characters used in Hong Kong and south eastern China. Japanese does have an alphabet of sorts (the kana script) which shows a reader how to pronounce a word, but this is rarely used outside of teaching children, and it doesn’t always include paces or other punctuation, so telling where one word stops and a new word starts can be an issue. In Brendan’s words, Japan is still a wonderfully confusing place he doesn’t ever think he’ll get a handle on. I think that’s why he loves it there, and I can understand that.
Our first stop was Harajuku, because that’s where the Japanese street fashion is found. Or at least, that’s where we both knew we could find Japanese urban street fashion. Japan is full of shopping malls, as is the rest of Asia, and those malls are full of the same big international brands—GAP, Diesel, Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Shisheido, Svarovski, Agnes B… the list goes on and on. They’re almost all overpriced for the actual item of clothing you’re buying, because at the end of the day, you’re paying for the brand. You’re paying for the social cachet of being seen in an Armani Exchange T-shirt with the big AX on the front. And if that’s what you want, fair enough, go nuts, you’ll love it. Personally, I’ll stick to finding the tiny hidden stores with quirky designs and one off pieces that don’t cost a fortune, but add a flare to your wardrobe that will be seen in the mainstream brands in a few years’ time. I found the first piece in a tiny basement shop that had clothing racks outside and staff looking like hippies with baggy pant, beanies and dreadlocks. Inside was an eclectic mix of vintage pieces, flouro pop culture shirts and shoes, and a giant inflatable penis stuck up in a corner for no apparent reason. There was also a pair of platform boots with a clear plastic hollow heel, stuffed with barbie heads, oversized t-shirt jumpers with bits of other tops sewn on to weight it down and give each one a unique look and texture, and hidden in the corner, a simple, raw linen shirt straight out of a steampunk portrait. I’d found my people.
In the other stores, I found a lot of different textures put together into one garment, and there were lightweight jackets in jersey (T-shirt fabric) which went some way to explaining how people could wear them in the humid heat of summer. I also found that there was a definite American iconography trend happening in Japanese fashion, with flag inspired prints that personally made me a little uneasy. That might explain why I bought so little. After walking through Harajuku, Brendan and I went to check out the Meiji shrine next to Harajuku station. The walk to the shrine was magical, a gravel path leading through old trees tall and dense enough to make you feel like you’d stepped out of the city and into a forest far away. I could smell the richness of decaying leaves and the green smell of vegetation and moss. It was only the crowds, my awareness of my location and a brief flash of neon through the trees that reminded me I was at the heart of Tokyo. More cities need spaces like this.
I didn’t buy a lot in Japan, just that shirt, some Jackrose boots and…okay, I went to Akibahara because it’s a geek paradise, even if I’m not the right geek to be too excited by it all. Brendan and I had walked through one of the megastores, up past the claw games and figurines and up to the arcade heavy with cigarette smoke and found the gamer guys wearing white gloves as they tapped the various buttons or in some cases, panels around the screen of their favourite game. We also wandered through a giant electronics mall just for fun, where I nearly bought a handheld scanner, and a kobo—I really should get one of those ebook readers—but eventually decided against it on account of the voltage difference between Japan and home, and Brendan went to ask bout the next Final Fantasy game release, which I have to say, looks amazing graphically. And then, after not buying anything and having a lunch of amazingly good curry, we wandered back to find the flea market we’d spied on the way to lunch. The first table had wallets, and looked about normal, if perhaps slightly nicer than what I’d see in other places, and it also had card holders in leather, pleather and metal, with velvet interiors and a magnetic clasp mechanism. I now have replaced my old vistaprint card case with an embossed vinyl piece with an asymmetric corner cut showing the shiny metal beneath. And it cost 500 yen.
There were funky printed tees with anime references neither of us got, there were toys, merchandise and a small totoro toy that would have been incredibly impressive had we not been staying in totoro house with giant stuffed totoros that could have been bigger than us. Possibly. There was also a lot of second hand clothing. Now the thing about the Japanese is that they take care of their belongings and their shared spaces. I remember being on the express train from the airport and looking at the seat in front of me and seeing a cupholder. It was a pull down, flimsy cupholder that tucked away into the back of the seat. And if it had been in Australia, they’d all have been broken. Similarly, at the AirBnB totoro house, there was a set of nonstick cookware and a non stick frying pan, and it was all in pristine condition. No scratches, no divots, no banged up twisted handles and bits stuck to the side. We used them to make blueberry pancakes, spending about fifteen minutes in a 24 hour supermarket trying to find salt, but the point is—the Japanese take care of their things. Second hand furniture, second hand clothes, they might as well be brand new. There’s bookstores out there that preserve and sell second hand manga. The clothing in the street was, at worse, ‘designer distressed’. And I found a pair of worn denim shorts with a kickass Japanese print around the top. For 1000 yen. With a waistband size that fitted me. That pair is now at the tailor’s as while the waistband fits, the legs don’t quite fit. Still, hopefully they’ll be one of the best pairs I’ve ever owned. I also saw some amazing leather bracelets and armbands that were styled to look like dragon scales, crests and claws, but at 18,000 yen apiece I couldn’t justify the cost. It would have been totally worth it if I was going to wear them more than once or twice at fancy dress parties though. It’s a bit sad knowing I’ll never see that artist or his work ever again, but I’m happy to know it’s out there, and it’s available somewhere in the world.
If you like cityscapes, I recommend heading over to the Tokyo Skytree, which is a giant shopping mall with a tall viewing deck that rises into the sky, curved windows jutting out to give you a 360 panoramic view if that’s your thing. You can also be a cheapskate like me and just head up to the 30th and 31st floors of the shopping mall, and get a decent, if not quite as lofty view without having to buy a ticket. Once you’re done there, you can wander to the far end of the giant shopping mall, past the pokemon centre (no, I didn’t go in) to the Sumida Aquarium. I found it crowded, but well, find me a place in Tokyo that isn’t, and while it was beautiful, some of the exhibits seemed painfully small, specifically the ones housing the seals, lionfish, octopus and goldfish. Indeed, a fair few of the goldfish in the larger displays were up at the surface, mouths opening to the air above. That’s a clear sign that there’s not enough oxygen in the water for all of them, and while it could be a deliberate thing on the part of the staff to make the display look full at all water depths, it struck me as cruel. Still, the tropical fish tanks were beautiful, all neatly planted and carefully trimmed to present amazing underwater landscapes in the famous amano style that originated in Japan, and there was a display of garden eels I’ve never seen anywhere else. You can see some of it in the video I shot of the aquarium below.
In terms of eating, well, I’ve already said find out where the locals eat. The two best places I ate at were a Gyoza place and a sushi train restaurant. Usukawa Gyoza Senmon Shibuya is a few minutes walk past the Shibuya scramble, apparently one of the busiest intersections in the world that tourists come to stickybeak at. I was there on a weekend, and it was still a scramble, but I think it might get busier on a work day. The thing about Japanese food is that it’s plentiful in Melbourne, so when Brendan asked if there was anything I really wanted to try, the biggest issue was the part where I’d already tried most of the cuisine. What I really wanted to do was eat them as the Japanese did. We literally were walking past the Gyoza place, with its big sign out the front of the building.
“We could have Gyoza,” Brendan suggested.
“Gyoza!” my head snapped around instantly.
“Okay, so I guess that means we’re going there.”
This is a local gem that had a queue in the evening—thankfully after we’d got in and taken a larger table near the back—but no tourists were visible other than ourselves, just a lot of locals. They have English menus, polite staff and great food – I recommend the grilled gyoza for the crispy bottoms and chewy tops. You can order them by the half-dozen, or do what we did and order them in mountains-big plates of 20, 30 or 40 gyoza. You can order them boiled, deep fried, or, as already mentioned, grilled, which is the equivalent to the pan fry you may be familiar with from a good Chinese dumpling restaurant, and honestly, the only real way to go in my opinion. I also recommend the Mokano dessert (the more expensive own down the bottom of the menu). It’s a sugar cone shell filled with matcha ice cream, red bean paste, glutinous rice dumplings and drizzled in maple syrup along with a powder of some sort. I don’t know what it was, but I had it on a few other dishes and it was amazingly tasty. Sort of…all the Japanese dessert flavours on one plate and it was a great finish to the meal. I will say it’s not a great place for vegetarians, although there are definitely places where vegetarians are probably catered for, unless the soup stock you ramen comes in has meat in it. Also, smoking is permitted inside, as smoking is still one of the trendier vices in Japan. It might have something to do with the insane work hours the Japanese regularly pull. One thing you’ll easily miss is that you can store bags in the wooden ‘feature wall’ behind the seating. It’s actually bag cupboards. If you’re sitting away from the feature wall, look under your bench seat for a plastic basket, which is there to help you stow your bags away under the seat.
The sushi train restaurant was picked because, well, it’s such a gimmick in Australia and I thought it would be nice to experience the gimmick without the gimmicky price tag and some amazing Sushi, and we ended up at a Ganso Zushi restaurant—part of a chain, but not one of the ones known to tourists. In fact, we could only find it on Google maps searching with its Japanese name, rather than using English. Marked as a local hotspot, it definitely fit the bill. Sushi trains are still gimmicks in Japan, but they’re not gimmicks that you pay through the nose for. Here, plates of the freshest sushi range from 95 to 600 yen, and the price is based off the price of the fish in the markets, not the type of fish or the treatment of it. The basic 125 yen plates are as amazing as the 600 yen plates, and you can spend as much or as little as you like. For somewhere between six and ten plates apiece our respective bills came out to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 odd yen, but you could probably spend more or a bit less if you chose.
Expect to be shoulder to shoulder with locals and don’t expect English menus. Tea is made yourself from matcha powder-scoop one (tiny) teaspoon into your ceramic teacup and hold it under the spigot nearby, there’s a black button at the back you want to push the cup against to get the hot water to flow into your cup. Be careful not to overfill, and the matcha will sediment down the bottom – you can either top up with more water to dissolve that or add more matcha to taste. There’s also a container of soy and a large container of pickled ginger, so help yourself. The Wasabi will come around on the conveyor belt, so grab that before it passes.
Highlights for me included salmon sushi that had been lightly grilled (look for the slightly more opaque flesh and browned skin), an octopus sushi with a black pepper sauce, and a pickled horse mackerel sushi, strangely all plates costing between 125 and 200 yen. If you have a good command of Japanese, you can order specific plates from the chefs if you don’t see them on the train, but if you do see something on the train that you like, you may want to grab it. Once it’s gone it may be a while before the chefs make more.
It was awesome to be able to enjoy a dining experience as it appears in Japan, rather than the overpriced gimmicky versions that have attempted to pop up in other countries, and, in my opinion, largely failed to capture the excellence of the original. As I said, you can find this chain elsewhere, but for a taste of local living, head to Nakano, take the north exit and walk into the giant plaza, past the McDonalds and look to your right. You can also check out the rest of the bazaar like structure, or head out east to the next street over which is full of more restaurants to explore. I didn’t have time to poke around, but maybe on another trip I’ll have more time to explore.
After dinner there’s lots of options in terms of places to go drinking—if I drank I’m sure I could recommend places, but I don’t, so Saturday night found Brendan, Gregory and myself at Big Echo Karaoke in Shibuya, spending about AUD $50 a head for 2 hours of unlimited (non-alcoholic) drinks and all the songs we could cram in. We picked Big Echo because they have a pretty big selection of English songs, some with great Engrish lyrics written on screen. Brendan recommended 2 hours, “because it takes at least an hour to get into it” and he’s right, it totally does. Karaoke in Japan is all done in private rooms, so don’t expect to be up on stage in a bar in front of strangers, and try to go with friends. And if you pass by an open door and hear the B52’s Love Shack being belted out at top volume, you’ve found the Aussies.
I limited by time in Japan to the long weekend because I wasn’t sure how well I’d get around by myself—Brendan was on Japanese work schedules and getting any time off was tricky at the best of times—and my command of Japanese was non-existent. A lot of people indicated English was becoming more common, and in the wake of the Asian Financial crisis, slowing economy and more recently the Fukushima disaster, Tokyo’s economy had become more welcoming of foreigners by necessity. There’s also apparently a push to make it even more foreigner friendly in the lead up to the Olympics in 2020, but in any case, there was enough English spoken for me to easily navigate the city, both on signage and spoken by the locals. I did notice on my last night there were a group of tourists at the vending machine ordering menu of the rice bowl place I’d stumbled into, speaking to each other in Mandarin, and using English to communicate with the waitstaff. I can’t speak for other languages, but English appears to have become the tourist Lingua Franca, so if you’re able to read this, you should be okay, but there’s a number of free translator apps, Japanese-English Dictionaries and if you’re keen, I recommend the Memrise app to help you learn a few basic Japanese words to help you out. You can find all of these, along with at least one of the many train system maps, in your smartphone app store. Just make sure you bring a phone charging battery—you’ll chew through data like no tomorrow, especially if you use Google Maps or TripAdvisor to navigate to places of interest—and I highly recommend you do. It makes getting around much easier when you don’t have to stop and try to ask for directions, or work out where you are in the jungle of steel, concrete, glass and neon. I’ll definitely be back to Japan in the future. I know there’s a lot more to do that I didn’t get to, and other cities to explore. But for now, it was off to Haneda Airport by monorail, and on a plane bound for Hong Kong.