Tokyo – cuteness and technology

Our good weather charm broke in Tokyo, and we had two days of drizzle. We had originally intended to spend longer in the capital, but we had enjoyed our stay in other places so much, Tokyo kept getting shunted back. We had arranged to meet a friend in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, which left us with only one and a half days to see the sights. We discussed what we wanted to see, and settled on some crazily dressed youths, bright lights and shopping malls and exciting new technology. We arrived fairly late in the evening. It was clear we were in a big city, as people were noticeably busier, walking with more purpose and absorbed in their own little missions, rather like London. The rain may have had something to do with it, but the general air was not so laidback as elsewhere in Japan.

We found a small restaurant for dinner where we had to cook our own meal at the table. The owner brought us a small camping stove and a deep pan that was filled with raw chicken, mushrooms, leafy greens, leeks and a thin broth. We boiled it up and ate it, fishing out the pieces and dipping them into a dish of lemony sauce. When we only had soup left, she brought out a dish of rice and tipped it in and added a couple of raw eggs. We boiled it up again until we had a delicious risotto-like soup. I rather like this DIY style of dining!

The next day we started off by exploring the area nearby our hostel. Luke was keen to investigate the electric city and so we went into a huge electronics department store, which was like my idea of hell and Luke’s idea of heaven. There was floor upon floor of mobile phones, cables, laptops, digital drawing tablets, camera equipment… it was like a maze inside; the shelves were so high you couldn’t see over them. I felt like I was beginning to lose my mind, and killed time by drawing bored people on the touch screens. We did however, find a new lens cap for my camera (which had fallen off whilst horse riding in Mongolia) and managed to get out of there before I was reduced to a blubbering wreck. I now know how Luke feels when he comes shopping with me.

We took the subway across the city and made sure to take the Hachiko exit. Hachiko was an Akita dog owned by a professor of agriculture. He acquired Hachiko in 1924, when he was a young dog. It is a bit of a Greyfriar’s Bobby kind of tale. The professor would go to work from Shibuya station every day and Hachiko would trot to the station wait for him to return in the evening. One night, in 1925, the man didn’t come out from the station as he usually did. He had died that day of a cerebral haemorrhage whilst giving a lecture. Hachiko went to live with the professor’s gardener, but each evening without fail, he would walk to the station and wait for his master’s train. He did this for nine years until he died at the age of 11. Now they have a statue of him and he is revered for his loyalty.

We then wandered through a large but almost empty park, full of beautiful autumn colours which were intensified by the rain and stormy light. We reached the teenage shopping district late in the afternoon, hoping to spot some ‘kawaii’, or ‘cute’ culture. You may have seen photos of this Japanese phenomenon – advocates may sport tutus, fluffy jumpers with animals on and knee high socks. Basically if it is bright or pastel coloured, has some sort of fluff or cute animal on it and your outfit generally doesn’t match, then it goes. We saw plenty of shops selling the clothes, but perhaps because of the rain, disappointingly few people were actually dressed like that! Seen from above, the streets were a sea of umbrellas, and it reminded me of the Pixar short film, ‘The blue umbrella’ – watch it on YouTube if you haven’t seen it already, it is wonderful, and only about 5 minutes long. I got my revenge for the electronics department by spending an inordinate amount of time in a sock shop. I do like a nice pair of socks, and there were some excellent specimens there! I couldn’t really afford the space for a new outfit, but I was getting a bit bored of my backpacker clothes, so decided I could brighten myself up a bit with some lovely new socks! How could I have known it would take so long to make a decision?! We finished up our evening in a karaoke booth, singing Disney songs (which was rather kawaii of us).

Miraikan, the museum of science and emerging technology, was where we spent our final few hours in Tokyo. We could have spent a whole day there, but it had been closed the day before and we needed to leave in the afternoon to catch our train to Kyushu. It definitely ranks among the top museums I have ever visited! Even the train line to and from the museum was futuristic, like something from a Batman film, with the tracks carving their way high above the ground on a metal lattice, sweeping over the river. We sat right at the front so we could have the full roller coaster style experience.

We started the morning with a 3D show in the planetarium, called Birthday, which explained about the origin of the solar system, the sun, stars, galaxies and the universe itself. It was great sitting beneath the dome watching stars merging to form galaxies before our eyes. As always after being reminded of the enormity of the universe, we left feeling rather smaller than before. After the show, we moved through as many of the exhibition pieces as possible, including a section on how in the future we may be able to grow plants that can make biodegradable plastic (how cool is that?), a section with a replica submarine on exploration of the deep sea bed and the creatures that are found there, a machine that demonstrated how the internet worked using ping pong balls, sections on medicine and surgery and some scarily human-like androids. At certain times of day you could have conversations with them, but we had to leave before then, so we just saw them sitting in their chairs blinking and gently nodding their heads. They also have Asimo, the Honda robot here, but again we missed the demonstration! Gutted! It’s definitely a place I would want to go back to, and it seems like they keep it well up to date with advances in technology, so there’s probably always something new and exciting to see. As you might expect for Japan, there was an area explaining about earthquakes and a real time map showing the pattern of tiny earthquakes that are happening all the time over the Japanese islands. The whole country is trembling, but you usually can’t feel it! On the top floor there was a balcony, in front of which was suspended a huge globe, made up of lots of television screens. The screens flickered and changed, displaying maps of the earth of the present and past, changing weather systems and facts about different countries. I was mesmerised and didn’t want to leave! However, we had to go.

I left feeling a bit more optimistic about the world; so often we are told that our future is bleak, what with global warming, waste disposal issues and depletion of resources, amongst other things. However, this museum showed that there are some very clever people out there who are trying to tackle the pressing issues of our age and whilst achievement of some of their goals may not come to pass in our lifetime (or at all), it is heartening to have a glimmer of hope. Of course, in the meantime, we mustn’t be complacent and must do our best to be responsible citizens!

Now is probably a good time to talk a bit more about the quirky things we have encountered in Japan that are a part of everyday life. The Japanese seem to take an invention and do it again, but better. The showers here have been invariably wonderful, even in the cheapest hostels. The toilets… now you have probably heard about Japanese toilets. They are often made by Toto and have names like ‘warmlet’ or ‘washlet’. The seats are heated (I still instinctively think that somebody else’s bottom has warmed the seat) and in many places they have a mind boggling array of buttons which you can press that squirt water at your nether regions at a variety of angles! In one toilet, there was even a sign with instructions of how to stop the flow should you feel ‘overpowered’! Now that’s a scary toilet. Then there are the discretionary soundtracks you can play to hide any embarrassing noises you may produce whilst on the loo. This ranges from an unconvincing flushing noise, to the babbling of a brook, or brook plus birdsong, which is my personal favourite. I find it very funny. I mean, what do people think you’re going to be doing in there anyway? EVERYONE knows why you’ve gone to the toilet. If you press the music button, I’m sure it just highlights the fact that you’re going to let rip, and draws attention to it!

When crossing the road, everyone waits for the green man, even when there is no traffic. When the green man arrives, he is often accompanied by a merry little electronic tune, so crossing the road is fun! There are no rude, intrusive beeping noises. All machines that normally beep in Europe play a tune here. When your train is leaving, it plays a relaxing melody. Vehicles whose jobs entail driving in pedestrian areas play cheery tunes to let you know they are coming. Japan is a land of cute, happy machinery, all content with getting on with their jobs and eager to make your day a little bit brighter. It reminds me somewhat of the lift in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – ‘Thank you for using this lift! Have a nice day!’, except it is pleasant rather than grating.

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