Stefan here, I’m one half of Berkeley Square Barbarian. 5 years before I met my wife, who’s now blogging with me, I went to Tokyo to visit an old school friend, who had ended up there on a three-year intercultural exchange program, working for a local authority and learning Japanese and teaching basketball at local high schools.
It was April 2003, and I had just spent three months on a training course in Newport Beach, California, and because that trip had been paid for by my employer while the visit to Japan was for leisure, I ended up with the craziest flight schedule. I returned to Munich, where I was living back then, via Chicago after 18 hours, then went to my flat, took a shower, unpacked, packed, and was back at the airport 8 hours later to enjoy another 11h flight to the other side of the same ocean I had just arrived from.
To this day I think that Tokyo is by far the most exciting big city I’ve ever been to and I love the place. My wife and I are planning on travelling there together some time soon.
The madness started with the trip from the airport, Narita. There is no country in the world that is more developed, more high-tech, but for some reason, they didn’t manage to add signs in English language to the Japanese signs at the train stations, so I had to count the stations to know where I am.
The city itself was (and, I’m sure, is even more so now) overwhelmingly high-tech and modern, straight-out futuristic.
I remember Shinjuku train station, trying to find the right platform to get to my friend’s place. 3.5 million passengers tried the same on that day (like on every day), which didn’t help. The station made it to the Guinness Book of Records for being the biggest transport hub in the world, no surprise there.
When I arrived at my friend’s apartment, which was located in one of the outer suburbs in a two-storey 1950ies detached house made of what I can only guess was pressed paper and a bit of corrugated iron, I was hoping to have a good night’s sleep (the jet lag was killing me), so after a quick welcome drink and a bit of banter, I was lying down on the mattress my friend had put on the floor in the bedroom next to his (which was also on the floor), he then started putting layers of blankets on top of me, including one electric heating blanket, and switched on the oven, which was about the size of a piece of hand luggage and combined electricity with fossil fuel. I later found out that lots of houses burn down each year (presumably not so much anymore these days) because of these useless little ovens.
Despite all these measures, I was freezing (it was a very cold April that year) like hell. I got up several times during that night in order to avoid any risk of (not) waking up stiff.
The next morning, my friend went to work and I slept until noon, then took a train to do some serious sight-seeing in the city.
You can access many of the skyscrapers’ top floors, and I went to a few of them. When you’re on top of one of these buildings, you see other skyscrapers and tall buildings all the way to the horizon in three directions, and beautiful Tokyo Bay on one side. You can also see Mount Fuji, the country’s tallest peak (at 3,776m), which rises about 100km to the Southwest.
One day I visited my friend in the office and stayed there quietly for an hour or two, while everyone was working. Several of the office workers in the perimeter had a nap at their desks during lunch time. Another office worker went around and collected debit cards and PINs from his colleagues. Ten minutes later he handed out wads of bills to his colleagues and returned the cards.
One night, my friend had left a bit earlier, because he had to work the next morning, I stayed out partying in Roppongi, which back then was less up-market, I hear. When I checked my watch the next time, the last trains had already left the station, so I made my way to love hotel hill and booked myself into a room there for a few hours.
I was told that these hotels are not mainly used for prostitution, but young couples who are still living with their family use them to have a bit of a cuddle. In my case, I just wanted some sleep. I had checked out a couple of capsule hotels, but they were charging £100 per night for, yes, you guessed it: a bloody capsule, hardly big enough to squeeze into.
The love hotel was actually quite pleasant and good value for money. Most importantly, very clean too. All rooms are themed. You can get Star Wars, Cleopatra, Wild West, New York or Walt Disney, I went for the only room that was available: Ancient Rome, the bed looked a bit like Vittore Emanuele II palace in Rome (which, admittedly, is not ancient, but let’s not be difficult here), I had a little fountain with flowing water next to the bed, I’d recommend this to anyone, thoroughly good experience. You pay by the hour, so after three or four hours I paid my dues and was on my way back to my friend’s place.
On the weekend, my buddy and I visited Nikko with two of his work colleagues. This was the first time I realised how generous and hospitable the local people are. They insisted on paying for absolutely everything (we did invite them for a meal a few days later, but it was obvious that they literally just enjoyed inviting us on this trip and showing us their beautiful country).
I found the temple and the surrounding nature very impressive. It’s easy to forget about the history and the ancient origins of Japanese culture when you’re in high-tech crazy Tokyo. Here you could get a feel for the history.
On our way back we also stopped at an Onsen, a traditional hot spring thermal bath, also a very pleasant experience. It was nice to see how the locals enjoyed the experience more from a spiritual angle than anything else, no one spoke and everyone moved very slowly and was very respectful towards the other guests, quite a difference to Splashdown Waterpark in Poole. I also finally felt like I got rid of my jet lag.
The remainder of the two weeks was very pleasant, too. My friend took a few days off and we travelled to Osaka and a few other places.