**Many of you will be aware by now that I've actually had a major change of plans and am now in Frankfurt, Germany. I'll write more about the atypical series of events that unfolded in the 48 hours or so I was in China by tomorrow but I thought in the meantime I'd post what I had already written and planned to post about my trip to Japan. It's amazing in hindsight how you can fly for just 3 hours from Japan to another Asian neighbour and yet feel as it you've completely left the planet – I'll address it all tomorrow. If anyone wants to get in touch, and I love hearing from people, the e-mail address is andrew @ tpc-media.com (without the spaces), cheers**
When I was a kid and wanted to design huge buildings to stick all over Dublin (of course if I'd known then that to do that I'd actually need a lot of money, brown envelopes and some friendly politicians alongside a qualification in architecture or engineering, I might have thought twice!), my mother bought me a book on ‘Super Structures'. Among them was Osaka's Kansai Airport, built on a completely man-made artificial island out off the coast of Osaka. Looking at it in the book, it seemed to be the most amazing thing ever – it had a bridge all the way out there and just enough room for one of, if not the worlds longest terminal, running to well over a kilometre and a runway right out by the edge of the island. To me it was the most ingenious idea ever – It sounds pretty amazing really doesn't it? There's only one rather large thorn in the side; it turns out, the whole thing is actually sinking. No joke, it's now been reduced to just a couple of centimetres a year but there's definitely no doubt about it – it's on its way down. To me, this kind of represents a lot of what I felt in Japan – they seem to come up with literally hundreds of new ideas and ways to do things and the ones that work end up getting taken and refined by someone else and then some of them just end up being ‘Japan only'. Take Kansai Airport – it's sinking and cost an arm and a leg; chances are high that nobody'll ever attempt to repeat the same thing all over again, but the lessons learned from it have been used in other airport projects like Hong Kong, which is partially built on reclaimed land. Similarly, Japan's famous for its bullet trains, the Shinkansen, but really, they're not actually any faster than the TGV or the ICE back in Europe. Sure, they had the idea far earlier than we copped onto the potential usefulness but it's taken other countries to actually refine it a bit further.
However, there's one thing they don't need to refine and that's the hospitality and friendliness I seemed to encounter absolutely everywhere. As soon as I got off the plane in Tokyo, there was a man standing there, his job seemingly to just bow his head and personally welcome everyone as they stepped off the plane. Then about halfway up the bridge, another man was standing there doing exactly the same. Finally we reached the terminal building and surprise, surprise – there was another man tasked with the same job as the other two. Similarly, I tend to find immigration sections of airports particularly unfriendly places – in Tokyo however, there was a definite trend towards ‘the customer, even if they're here illegally, is right' – desks were opened up according to how many passengers were arriving and the whole thing kind of reminded me of Superquinn back in the day; once more than 3 people were in any one queue, another desk seemed to be opened up without further delay. I literally went from plane to train station within 20 minutes. Only once I got to the train station did things take a turn for the worse – I didn't initially notice that a small button on the bottom of the machines provide an English option so ended up being left with no option but to look at the overhead map, the list of destinations being offered by the machine and try and reconcile the symbols between the two. Finally, after around 15 minutes, an American student living here offered his knowledge on the operation of Japanese vending machines. When he realised he was still getting nowhere with his little lesson, he ended up just taking the money and buying the ticket for me. Finally, I was to get my first taste of Japanese trains – true to the stereotype, 14:03 came around and whether people were getting on or not, the doors slammed shut and off we went. When I finally alighted at Aoto Station, I'm not going to lie, I was quite secretly pleased with having made it that far – what of course I failed to appreciate, was that I wouldn't have, had the American kid not more or less held my hand through just buying a ticket and finding the platform earlier on.
There's no point in saying I was sitting in the hostel sipping a beer and relaxing anytime soon after – I definitely wasn't. According to the directions on my booking confirmation, the journey should've taken 75 – 80 minutes. I'm afraid it took me a grand total of 120 minutes. Tokyo was certainly an interesting place – for me, I tended to shun the metro system in favour of shorter distances (although I did walk for 2 hours one day to get to Shinjuku) to see how the city sort of comes together. The only thing about it is, it really is absolutely huge; when I think back to being on top of the observation tower in Frankfurt, you could definitely see where city ended and greenery began. In Tokyo though, no matter how hard I tried, I could just never see where the city ended – the buildings just carried on all the way to the horizon! It's an incredible place, that much is for sure, but it's expensive too and in the name of saving money, ‘savings' had to be found. Unfortunately, the most obvious saving I could identify was cutting down, or cutting out most meals – this seemed like a pretty good idea. So, I went about my daily sightseeing activities, walking to as many of them as was practical, until by about the day before I was due to leave Tokyo, having only had bread and a very thin layer of jam on each slice for the last 2 days, I began to feel a bit unwell. As in sick, but with more emphasis on headaches and dizziness than nausea. That evening, little did I realise, I would begin my descent from hearty eater to ‘anything eater' – a trip to the 711 confirmed that I really didn't have the money for any proper meals bar some box of noodles costing around â‚¬1.40 called ‘Giant UFO Noodles' with some unbelievably tacky graphics of spaceships on the front and instructions (all in Japanese) on how one might go about heating this ‘meal'.
Once home, I literally lashed the wrapping off, including the instructions (figuring they weren't really gong to be of much benefit to me anyway) and did what I thought it was saying to do – pour hot water in, wait 3 minutes, then pour some sauce in – don't ask where this mystery sauce was going to come from – and enjoy! My fellow hostellers found the whole thing hilarious, given that it had become a well-known fact that I was otherwise sustaining myself solely on bread. Finally, the moment of reckoning arrived and I pulled back the lid. AHH! The stupid packets of sauce were sitting there, floating on top of all the water. Needless to say I fished them out, poured the water out and mixed it all together anyway! Don't get me wrong, if someone served me this stuff in Ireland I'd be nothing short of disgusted – but as far as I was concerned, this box might as well have contained gold bars; it was delicious, I literally couldn't use the chopsticks to toss the food in fast enough. Moreover, in spite of the laughter from my fellow hostellers in Tokyo, I've come to realise that Australians and Germans seem to be similarly like-minded when it comes to their intimate love of ‘Giant UFO Noodles' and more importantly, its price. What was bordering on embarrassment in Tokyo has now become almost a mark of pride in Osaka – being seen filling your box of Giant UFO with hot water gets great laughter and remarks on which flavour everyone likes best and how they're able to make it so cheaply!
So what about Osaka? Well, I got here on Friday after a speedy 2 hour Hikari Shinkansen bullet train journey from Tokyo. Osaka seems very much the Cork of Japan – they've an extremely different dialect, bordering on different language called ‘Osaka-ben' and snicker a little everytime I tell someone I was in Tokyo first! But in terms of what it has to offer, it's far more commercial and business-like than Tokyo and there seems to be much more of a social scene going on here. It's maybe not as full of sights and things you have to see, but if you don't mind just wandering around and getting a feel for how everything works and see what actually being here is like, then you're fine. For me, I was quite exhausted after Tokyo so I really only went sightseeing one day in Osaka and had a rest the second day – I wandered around the streets and in and out of little shops but didn't actually see ‘anything' as such. Osaka to me is just a pleasant place to relax and do your own thing for a few days without feeling forced to go and see anything. I guess a lot of people feel that far from being not forced, there's actually nothing really to do and maybe that's true but for me it was a much-wanted spot to relax and just take it easy for 48 hours. And of course, it afforded another golden opportunity to fill myself with more Giant UFO Noodles, which is always a pleasure!
I'll be boarding the flight for Beijing soon and hopefully will post within the next couple of days again but in the meantime, thanks for reading (all 2 people I imagine!) and I'll catch you all again soon!