Saturday, January 12, 2008

Days 6 and 7, Tokyo: Onsen never again

Oh dear, it's raining and I don't have an umbrella or a Rihanna to cadge one off.

Luckily Tokyo has museums with roofs to prevent the rain getting on gaijin heads, so we journey to the Tokyo Modern Art Museum and dry off in their luxurious restaurant. This gives me and Dan the chance to use our by-now-nearly-fluent Japanese: "Bread onegai shimas?" we say to the waiter, not knowing the Japanese word for "bread". Luckily our accents are impressive and he understands perfectly. I experiment with the mutual goodwill generated through this exchange by spilling my glass of water all over the table. Dan laughs at me.

Although we then go on to see a number of interesting things in the museum – they have a Henri Rousseau, wooooo! – the visit is particularly notable for giving me and my rear our first experience of an electronically pre-warmed toilet seat. I can now verify claims that this invention is the pinnacle of human scientific endeavour. Well done again, Japan.

Also memorable is a collection of photographs from the 1970s by Kiyoji Obuji, which have names like, "An Envelope Containing Important Data, Picked Up After Being Torn Up and Thrown Away", "A Photograph of the Plastic Model That I Can't Put Together after Eight Years Because I Want Make a Neat Job of It" and, my favourite, "A Set Including Mexican and Italian Souvenirs From Friends, The Clock Mechanism That I Can't Throw Away For Some Reason, and One of My Molar Teeth That Fell Out Last Fall".

Then it's over to Ebisu for the Tokyo Metropolitan Photography Museum, a failed attempt to get into the Yebisu Beer Museum and some amazing views over the city from the 39th floor of the Yebisu Tower.

But these views are RUBBISH compared to the ones we get to see later. We nervously head up to the 50-somethingth floor bar of the Park Hyatt, aka "the one from Lost in Translation". It is incredible: the view, the ambience, the smartness. Of course, as we're not staying at the hotel and have to buy the cheapest thing on the menu, Dan and I feel like total frauds, even though we're wearing, like, shirts. This is exacerbated when our beers – a Guinness and an Asahi – arrive, with large pretzels shaped like treble clefs hanging off the edge of each glass, the hooks at the top actually slightly immersed in the beer. We begin to wonder if this is some kind of coded Japanese diss. Then we drink the beers, have another, and stop worrying so much.

In fact, we stop worrying so much that we almost miss the only appointment we've had all week, which is to meet our old university friend Birdy (who's in Japan visiting his Tokyo-dwelling brother for Christmas) at 10pm at the Hachiko statue outside Shibuya station. Fools! It's 9.45pm! You're not going to be there on time!

Unbelievably, we are (taxis, innit), and get to Hachiko and Birdy just five minutes late. Hachiko, by the way, is a sort of Japanese Greyfriars Bobby. Birdy is harder to describe, so I won't bother. Anyway, he spots us and comes bounding up, like he's Hachiko the dog. It's all very exciting. Birdy introduces us to his four friends and says: "You've put your bags in the station lockers, right?" And indeed we have - we are homeless for tonight. The mayhem begins.

These things happen, but not in this order: Dan gets handcuffed to a barlady. We go for a 6am curry. We drink an unidentifiable liquid out of laboratory beakers. Other Dan has an argument with some waiters over a beer in amazingly fluent Japanese. We order drinks from a menu made of expensive washi paper in a bar dedicated to US rock. We hear The Pipettes in a bar dedicated to US rock. We drink unhealthy amounts of Red Bull. I eat a whole Jalapeno pepper during a game of Food Russian Roulette. Birdy gets a door fee discount after a machine recognises his fingerprints from three years ago. Me, Dan and Birdy, still drunk, check into an onsen and find ourselves sharing a hot tub, au naturel.

Twelve hours after our first Park Hyatt drink, I fall asleep on a futon in the smokiest room of all time, surrounded by men in yukatta, a number of whom, I later learn, are yakuza (Japanese mafia) because Birdy took us to the wrong onsen. Thanks Birdy!

Day 7 is, of course, a bit of a mess. We go for a wander in Harajuku, the Camden of Tokyo, and then go to have a look at the nearby Meiji Shrine. We're ambling towards it amidst thick crowds, when three Japanese lads – 18ish? – approach us. "We are studying at Tokyo University and we would like to give you a tour round the shrine so we can practice our English," says their leader. "Would that be okay?"

All three of us are furiously thinking, "NO! THAT WOULD BE AWFUL! YOU COULD NOT HAVE PICKED A WORSE TIME TO DO THIS OR WORSE PEOPLE TO DO THIS TO!" We look at each other and say to the guy: "Yes, that'd be great, thank you."

The trio quickly split us up so it's one on ones, but my guy is spectacularly untalkative. After a while I have to start asking him questions to break the silence. It gets to a stage when I just can't think of anything except how nice it would be to lie down in a non-smoking room that doesn't include naked yakuza. "Do you like baseball?" I wonder. "No," he says.

Later, we check into a hotel in Shiodome and collapse. Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole. Birdy doesn't seem to think so though, and wakes us up a few hours later, around 7. I hate him for this and sulk for a while. We trek over to Roppongi Hills - the weather has become incredibly cold now, the wind just cutting you in half - and meet Birdy's brother Mark and Birdy's brother's wife Asako. They are both very friendly and take us for a meal of Chinese dumplings, which go down very well, thank you very much. Then we go to the cinema and watch I Am Legend.

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