Monday, 17 November 2008

Culture Shock: A visit to Tokyo, Japan

Prior to my travels I had not flown further than a summer holiday to Greece and so visiting Japan as my first stop as a backpacker really was being thrown in at the deep end. After enduring (and I mean enduring) an 11 and a half hour Virgin flight to Tokyo from the UK the first shock was the jet lag. Having not got a wink of sleep partially due to the lack of leg room in economy and the anticipation, I arrived at 9am unbelievably drained and totally unprepared for another full day.

It did not take long to realise that I was completely out of my comfort zone in every respect. The first thing I noticed was the intense humidity; something I had not experienced to that extent before, nor did I on any other point on the trip. The second thing was the maze of underground lines into and around Tokyo which I knew I was going to have to ride with a huge back pack on the tail end of rush hour. I took the underground from Narita Airport to central Tokyo where I had booked a week in a traditional style Japanese bedroom. I found navigating the tube was difficult at first but the colour coded train lines helped and there were some English signs, but these would vanish quickly if you strayed too far from the busy parts of the stations.

I got off at the correct station and spent an hour of wandering around trying to decipher the hotel’s address, and eventually asked for help from an old Japanese lady who did not speak any English whatsoever. She then led like a lost puppy to the hotel. The traditional room consisted of a mat and a pillow in a room I barely wide enough to lie down in. I did at this point wonder where my £20 a night actually went.

The next activity was lunch. I did know what to expect so I trudged along the road back towards the underground station passing a couple of local restaurant/bars which looked far too hot and dark. Many places interestingly had the food on dishes in the windows as you would do clothes in the UK but nothing really looked too appetising and I decided to throw in the towel and settle for a KFC. I am quite ashamed that I did not sample any Japanese cuisine in Tokyo. However in my defence it was not always obvious what the food on offer was because there were never any English translations and even if there were I would have still needed to choose carefully. I even struggled to find a vending machine that sold coca-cola or any recognisable brand.

On the positive side I did manage to navigate out to some temples, get lost in a forest trying to find a giant Buddha, see the lights at night in Shinjuku and I also saw a traditional Japanese wedding at a temple which was a bonus.

I did enjoy my time in Tokyo despite feeling much like an alien. I only saw 6 other westerners in the whole week I was there and they were in Disneyland. Children on the underground did stare at me but that did not bother me too much. I would recommend Tokyo to anyone as it is so different to anything you will see but perhaps not as your first stop as the culture shock can be overwhelming. The language barrier was the toughest as very few Japanese speak any English at all which did surprise me. I had a phrase book but found it quite useless as I could not understand what they were asking and therefore there was a lot of pointing on my behalf. Oh and I am living proof that fast food for a week does not keep you regular!

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