Friday, 1 January 2010

Tokyo, or what little I saw of it on January 1st, is quiet. The airport is a ghost airport; no queues for Immigration and Arrivals empty. Yet it's still pristine and the terminal staff are all there: even the lady (not sure of her job title!) telling me exactly how I place my baggage trolley on the down-escalator. (An employee who would surely be stood down on New Year's Day in a country less dedicated to customer service and a job which, in the UK, would surely have been rationalised in the name of 'efficiencies' long ago, if it ever existed.) I'm happy to be here, again, even if I'm ill-at-ease in the language, have lost hearing in my left ear since descent into Narita, and don't understand what the escalator woman is telling me. (What, I can really place 55 kilograms facing downwards on a steep escalator ... and it won't fall? Yes, it seems, is the answer, as she pushes it to the brink.)

The first time I was here, summer 2008, I travelled straight into Shinjuku, billed as the busiest transport hub in the world. Unsurprised yet impressed at the time it took to cross from the eastern to the western half of the city transport map, I promptly got lost, even with a map. Summer 2009, I chose Shiodome, manageable, central and within walking distance of Tsukiji Fish Market, where an early morning visit fitted well with my body clock post-flight. And now, not having expected to return for at least year, I'm in Shinagawa, exit station for the city's westbound shinkansen.

From my 'Tokyo Tower view' room at the hotel, which kindly let me check in early, I can indeed see - by craning my neck well to the left - the red-and-white replica. It has occurred to me in the past that this monument would have been a (minor) curiosity item, a talking point, if I had placed a poster of it on my (otherwise German and French - dressed) classroom wall. ("Sir, I didn't know the Eiffel Tower was red and white.... Is it the Eiffel Tower? Or is this some Arsenal-related joke?") 13 metres taller than its French inspiration, it's just one example of Japanese "anything you can do, I can do better" thinking. But, unlike the Eiffel Tower, it is not considered especially iconic of this city, and visitors to Tokyo rarely rush to see it (recognising perhaps its relative youth and that, deep down, the original and best is back in Europe?)

My room is also a "Wellness room". This means it has special foam pillows, a foot massage machine and interesting items in the bathroom with names like "Ashi-Yubi sponge" (also foam). Obviously I hate the whole pampering business and never consciously use expressions like "R&R" but it's pleasantly comfortable after a 12-hour intercontinental flight during which I saw in not one but two New Years (which adds to the dehydration, if you know what I mean, especially with a friend-of-a-friend among the cabin crew). These uniquely Japanese things, from multi-programmable toilets to redesigned 'X-wing' coffee sachets, today seem less remarkable but nonetheless impressive. Like most rooms in Tokyo, this one is not doing its bit for the environment. I mean, it even has two disposable nail brushes.

The Tokyo arrival recipe tends to be: debit card rejected by on-line banking fraud protection (thank you, First Direct), Narita Express, zombie-walk to hotel.. and sleep. Which I do, quite successfully, and dream more jetlag dreams. I've dumped half my luggage in a Shinagawa coin locker, and plan to move on to visit a friend in Shizuoka on Monday, before heading on to Okazaki on the following day. What will I do today? Mug up on hiragana and katakana, which I've not studied for a few weeks, and ride the Tokyo Monorail. But for now, coming up to 7am, it's time for a natural grapefruit aroma soda bath.....

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