Tokyo has got the population of Australia in an area the size of Melbourne. The first time you experience it will leave you gasping.
It is unlike anywhere else in the world. Tokyo is so big and crazy that you have no hope of experiencing more than just a tiny part of it. It’s stated in many guide books that, behind the façade of the big buildings and neon, Tokyo is really like a collection of small villages.
It’s true. Even in the busiest areas, you just have to turn up an alley to find little stores (where they still make their own tofu /soba / whatever) and local residents doing their daily shopping.
THE CHUO LINE
The Chuo Line is a train line that runs from Shinjuku to the west, and we will explore this as part of the Lobrow experience .
This has long been the sub-culture (since the 60s) line. Many of the venues are along this line.
There are plenty of interesting things to see at each of the stops. Loads of record shops, great places to eat cheap, retro clothes shops, etc.
Each stop has its own character. Great fun to explore, and explore it we will as part of the Lobrow experience.
This area is so great that we at Lobrow want to share the secret!
On the north side of the station, head up the covered walking street (Nakano Broadway).
Halfway along, there are stairs leading up to a labyrinth of floors where you’ll find a huge number of toy/model stores
(Mandarake has about 4 different stores here), plus loads of shops (Trio, etc) selling old movie posters, mags, etc.
You can buy amazing 60/70s Japanese Sci-Fi/yakuza/teen film posters for Y1,000 if you dig around.
Just a few stops along from Nakano. This is close to colleges and has always been a student hangout area.
It feels like a small village. Lots of great rowdy izakaya bars and fun eateries. Lots of record stores and some great venues.
Busiest of the Chuo areas, loads of everything – dept. stores, record stores, great bars/restaurants.
Just south of the station is a large park with a lake in it, and some amazing scupltures.
We at Lobrow like this park to stroll around. Or rent a swan shaped boat and paddle around, if you want.
Himeji has the biggest, oldest castle in Japan. James Bond learns his ninja skills here in You Only Live Twice.
The town is notorious as a yakuza stronghold.
Though this may sound obvious, it should be stated: Japan is a very crowded place.
That's part of the fun of it, and it will (occasionally) also drive you crazy. Get used to it.
Yes, the hotel rooms are smaller. Yes, the bars /trains /streets are more crowded. Yes, the seats in a restaurant are often crammed in.
And yes, the Japanese know that and don't need to have it pointed out. Don’t tell anyone in Japan that they work too hard.
They know that, they hate how tough their jobs are, and they resent having it pointed out.
Meaningless (to us) expressions like “take it easy” and “relax” can cause great offense.
There are many, many layers of etiquette and politeness in Japan.
Apart from obvious things (like taking your shoes off inside), you are better off just being your normal self, and not overly worrying about what you should or shouldn’t do. You’ll be excused because you’re a foreigner. You may make mistakes because you think you have an understanding of something (i.e. how to bow to different people) then blow it by doing something considered rude.
Don’t sweat it, and we here at Lobrow will help you through it.
Most Japanese speak English to some extent, but don't have much chance to practice it. They often read it much better. It's easier to write something down clearly, rather than trying to repeat it over and over. Carry a small notepad. Learn some simple phrases. Japanese is actually a very easy language to speak. Writing it is a different matter altogether.
You will find that people in Japan may ask you your age. There is an important reason for this.
Japanese are taught to respect people older than themselves, even if it is just a few months difference.
Knowing your age tells them how respectful they should be towards you (and vice versa!).
Very few streets in Japan have names, and the buildings are numbered according to age.
It makes finding hotels, shops, etc. a challenge, even for Japanese, including the taxi drivers.
Maps are everywhere. But they aren’t necessarily drawn with north at the top.
They’re based on the location of the nearest station and the best way to graphically show how to get around. This can be very confusing. You can look at a map in a railway station, head off in the direction, and then see another map that is completely reversed.
This is why at Lobrow we do our best to do the thinking for you !
We will provide you lways get a map of the area from city accomodation plus a business card.
Then, if get lost, you can just stop anyone on the street and ask for directions. Or jump in a cab and show the hotel business card.
When someone says something like “Take the second road/street on the left” they may mean take the second narrow gap
between two walls that you wouldn’t even consider an alleyway !
Japan is so safe, it is truly unbelievable.
You can find internet cafes everywhere but it may take you a while to work out a Japanese keyboard that has a few hidden surprises. Like the magic button that turns everything you’ve just written into kanji/Japanese.
To make matters worse, the button to turn things back is hard to find if you can’t read Japanese
It makes sending/checking emails an interesting experience.
Everywhere we stay on the Lobrow experience, with one or two exceptions, will have Wifi, or as the Japanese say .. Whiffy !
Keep your passport on you. It is a law in Japan that foreigners keep their passports with them.
It’s a stupid law and it’s annoying, especially in summer humidity.
However, police will occasionally do random sweeps of an area and if you don’t have your passport you may be arrested or detained.
Japanese bureaucracy can drive you crazy. Things are done in a very strict (i.e. slow) way.
You will experience this if you try to change money, try to change your flight, lose your passport, etc.
Avoid doing these sorts of things at all costs as it will waste a lot of time.
If you follow our tips and guide, then we at Lobrow are confident you will be convenienced, not inconvenienced !
Avoid any situation where people are smoking dope. If someone lights up, get away.
There is almost no place in Japan (especially in hotels where the air conditioning will give you away) where you can’t be detected. Japanese laws are very strict. If you are arrested you are presumed guilty until you prove otherwise.
And that may take many months before you even get a bail hearing. You’ve been warned.
If you are a vegetarian, a vegan, or have any other eating disorders, we will help you to be well prepared.
Telling a waiter you don’t eat fish may mean you won’t have a whole fish sitting on your plate,
but it won’t mean your plate won’t have lots of fish/shell-fish throughout.
Japanese food uses fish in many ways – as a stock (dashi) in many dishes, as salt (i.e. bonito flakes), etc.
The rear left passenger door of a Japanese cab is opened/shut (automatically) by the driver.
Try to remember not to shut it yourself as it buggers the mechanism and pisses the driver off.
Not that he (we have never seen a female driver) will show his anger.
Do enjoy being able to eat/drink in the cab whilst watching TV (or better still, singing karaoke)
whilst the driver uses his global positioning computer to find where you want to go !
Most restaurants have smoking sections and non smoking sections.
As much as you may think it a fashion no-no, a bum bag, a man-bag or a shoulder bag is a good idea.
It means you can run around town all day because you have :
A Sweater, tiny fold-up umbrella or cheap raincoat Camera Phone Notepad/pen Map/guidebook Sunglasses Etc
Don’t assume you can find ATMs everywhere, but you def will in the city at convenience stores.
However, if the instructions are in Japanese, you will be in a special kind of hell. You can waste hours trying to get money out.
And then be shocked weeks later to discover how much is charged for the privilege.
Lobrow will cover pretty much everything, except for drinks and souvenirs, and credit cards are accepted at some but not all shops.
The further off the beaten track we go, the more it's 'cash only', and occasionally you will need to fork over a couple of dollars.
Coins are your best friend, if you are traveelking without us, YOU FOOL ?!, the amounts are tiny for
bus fares , subway and snacks, generally only a few dollars, but a combination of vending machines,
and the tax which makes it an odd amount means a pocketful of coins is very handy.
Easy to get the hang of, we promise.
It also takes a ridiculous amount of time to exchange money at a Japanese bank.
It’s sort of fun to watch your notes get handed from desk to desk whilst paperwork/ledger books are filled out,
but it can waste precious hours.
Exchange rate: The Aust $ currently hovers around 85Y. The US dollar is worth about 130Y
If it’s confusing for you, then write out a list on a business card piece of paper (e.g. Y 85= $A1, or Y500 = $A 4.40, $US $6.50 etc.).
The number of zeros on Japanese money can be confusing, but not if you round it up by adding 15% for the $A
(or down by 25% for $US) and consider them in the same way we put decimal cents after ours (e.g. Y8,000 = $100.00).
It’s rude to check your change after paying a bill.
You will be charged exactly what you should be, and your change will be exactly right. Don’t tip. It’s rude.
Warning: bars operate a lot differently in Japan.
Some are drinking joints with food, some are eating joints with drinks, and some are just drinks. Most are pretty small, and private-ish. Some bars have a cover charge that you may not discover until you leave, and prices can vary enormously.
However, it’s definitely worth bar-hopping in Japan,
and we at Lobrow will take you to some tried and tested favourites.
Japanese department stores all seem to have the same sort of layout.
Two food basements, a bunch of floors devoted to women’s cosmetics/clothes, men’s clothes, toy/book departments
and restaurants on the top floor. Sometimes there is also a gallery.
The basement food departments are wonderful. The lowest (B2) is usually fresh produce, and the other (B1) is prepared food.
There are many free samples. You could easily have lunch just by spending time sampling things on offer.
The restaurants on the top floor are a great place to relax and try a new dish.
Japan has some of the strangest tastes/dishes on offer.
“This dish is really good for you” seems to be our Japanese code for “We’re ordering something weird”.
We at Lobrow won’t surprise you but occasionally stuff turns up.. Here’s some things that might pop up :
NATTO – Fermented soya beans. The smell is strong, the taste stronger, natto has the most unusual texture of any food encountered.
It turns up at breakfast mostly. It’s slimy and sticky – exactly how you imagine beans would be if you left them to rot for a while.
But we won’t let anyone tell me there is something we wouldn’t be able to eat, and neither should you.
And, surprisingly, after a few attempts, you may find it as addictive as vegemite.
WHALE (kujira) – Imagine how you can offend people back home when you tell them you’ve tucked into a juicy chunk of whale! Unfortunately, whale tastes like pork fat.
POISONOUS FISH (fugu) – it’s only one small gland in fugu that’s poisonous, and the chefs that serve it have to have a special training certificate. But people still do die from it (maybe one person a year).
It’s commonly served as sashimi in wafer thin slices. It’s delicious. Live dangerously, we will probably try it!
BOILED TUNA HEAD (kashira) – served upright in a bowl of broth. A dish that is shared as you all try to find the meat around the facial bones (trust us, it’s delicious). Hosts will insist that the best bits, the eyeballs, are for you (trust us, they ain’t delicious).
RAW HORSE (basashi) – you’ve gotten used to raw fish, so why not take things up a notch?
Raw horse (usually served minced with a bit of garlic/ginger and maybe a raw egg) is really very delicious.
In Japan, a horse is a horse, of course of course !
RAW CHICKEN (torisashi) – well, once you’ve eaten raw horse, why stop there? Chicken sashimi is not uncommon (though less common since the bird flu scare). It’s exactly what you think it is – pink, slimy, raw chicken pieces.
RAW COW LIVER – Now you’re getting game. A cow’s liver, sliced and served on a plate in its own blood. “Great with sake,” people say. However, we find that a pint of beer after every mouthful is the best/only way to wash it down.
We have been told that this has recently been banned due to deaths. Oh well !
KOREAN BBQ (yakiniku) – extremely tastymarinated meats that you cook yourself on a tabletop BBQ, that use every bit of the animal. However it can be a little off-putting when you ask what the delicious morsel you are chewing on is
and someone replies “ovaries” or “rectum”. There won’t be any weird bits like this on the Lobrow tour if we can avoid it !
CHICKEN HEARTS (kokoro) – You’re at a street food stall enjoying your skewers of grilled chicken when you come across one that is like chewing on a rubber knuckle. That’s the chicken heart skewer. Various chicken giblets are common.
STINKY FISH (kusaya) – This dish is quite hard to find as it’s a regional delicacy that many Japanese haven’t eaten
(and many of those that have swear they won’t again). It’s a long fish that is kept in a vat of fish livers until it softens.
Then it’s lightly heated and served. It tastes delicious – soft and buttery, but you have to learn to eat it without breathing because if the smell hits your nostrils you will start to gag. Only warm dog shit smells more like warm dog shit than kusaya. Yummy huh ?
FRESH SEAFOOD – Really fresh. Still moving fresh. Squid tentacles that are wriggling out of the bowl, shelled prawns that are still writhing and fish sliced into sashimi with half the fish still flapping underneath. If anyone asks you if you want to eat really fresh seafood, you may want to get a clear definition of what they mean before nodding enthusiastically!
Pop into a convenience store and stock up. Great gifts for friends at home.
CHEWING GUM - There’s No Time toothpaste gum, Black Black with it’s “high technical taste”, bourbon flavored Strong Punch
and (we’re not joking) B2UP “Bust Up” gum which is supposed to increase your breast size!
CHOCOLATE – Collon is our fave. Small, round wafer tubes packed full of brown stuff.
Or Crunky Kids (we just like it for its name) which is sorta like a Picnic bar. Or sweet corn Chocoball.
Or Wasabi (white chocolate and, you guessed it, wasabi). Or Kit Kat – pumpkin flavored, apple vinegar flavoured, green tea flavoured! We’ve been told (but have never seen) that there’s a squid and chocolate candy, too.
BOILED CANDY – Japanese will turn anything into boiled candy. Ramen (Chinese style noodle soup), any vegetable that is local, etc. There’s bound to be sashimi flavored boiled candy somewhere though we haven’t spotted it yet.
POPSICLES – Weirdest we’ve found is corn soup flavored ice cream (with real corn kernels) on a stick
but there’s bound to be a natto flavored one somewhere.
SAVOURY BREATH FRESHENERS - these are meant to cover alcohol on your breath but masquerading it as pumpkin soup or the like.
Amusement arcades in Japan are great fun. Lots of fun photo booths & loads of weird games.
Many amusement parlors have pachinko machines, or you can go to a pachinko parlor, and play pachinko there.
Be warned, pachinko parlors are crazy loud.
We hear ofa UFO catcher machine where, instead of trying to grab a soft furry toy with the crane, you go for live lobsters!
YOU MAY SEE YAKUZA
Until the mid 90s, it was easy to see yakuza around nightlife areas.
Firstly, they used to proudly display their emblems outside their HQs.
Secondly, they wore bad clothes (velour tracksuits, man-bags, loafers) and had bad haircuts (short curly “punch-perms”).
Sadly, they have become a little more discrete now. It’s a pretty safe bet that any dark Mercedes driving slowly through night-life areas is a yakuza car, but the windows will be darkened so that you can’t see in. Ask around; very quietly, as they don’t like to be noticed.
And, yep, some of them really are missing little fingers!
You can see the young junior yakuza members (chinpira) squatting in groups on corners everywhere.
We tend to drink sake warm. For the Japanese, good sake is best drunk cold in order to appreciate the taste.
Sakes vary in taste as much as good wines. They are usually listed according to their dryness.
We avoid gimmicky sakes (ones with gold leaf flakes, ones with live baby fish swimming in them).
Though a smoked fish fin in sake does taste good.
Love Hotels are everywhere. A chance to get away for an hour or two and share some special time with that special person in your life. They’re wonderfully discrete – usually automated (you pick your room from a vending-like machine).
There are lots of themed love hotels (or themed rooms) so it’s worth shopping around.
We’ve seen/heard of everything from Disneyland to Japanese sci-fi comic themed rooms.
As they’re designed for one purpose, you can expect lots of toys/gimmicks to enhance that special purpose. You get the picture.
If you go to a love hotel late enough you can often stay overnight for a fee that is cheaper than a normal hotel.
We would like to stay at one on the Lobrow tour but unfortunately Love Hotels don’t have twin rooms !
IF WE GO TO A GIG
Gigs in Japan will often start early (6pm).
WHEN WE GO TO AN ONSEN
This is communal bathing, its segregated, and you will need to get naked, but for a small modesty towel.
You put your kit is a locker, then wash yourself silly with a small shower while sitting on a small plastic chair, and then soak.
Be aware – some onsens and sentos (communal bath houses) may not allow anyone with heavy tattoos to enter
(because it traditionally indicated a yakuza member) to enter.
JAPANESE DON’T SAY “NO”
There is a word in Japanese for “no” (“ie”) but you will almost never hear it being used.
It is impolite to say something as emphatic as “no”, and it’s impolite to ask questions that demand a “yes/no” answer.
The answer has to be "Yes" so you have the phrase the question accordingly
This is really confusing for foreigners, which is why you have a Japanese speaking Lobrow expert on hand !
You are in a restaurant and you order the udon tempura. But you ask “Can I have it without the prawn?”.
It seems like a normal, straight-forward question but you’ve put the waiter/waitress in a troublesome position.
If you can’t have it without prawn they won’t know what to do. They’ll probably say something like “Maybe that’s difficult.”
This is Japanese for “Absolutely not!” They may wave their hand gently in front of their chest. This is also Japanese for “No way!”
Or they may just become embarrassed, because they don’t know how to respond, and just walk away.
What you needed to do was ask something like “I would like the udon tempura but I don’t eat prawns. Is it possible that I could have that, or could you suggest something else I might eat instead?” This allows the waitress to reply “Yes” and list dishes that don’t have prawns !
We don’t want to write a lot about Japanese culture and customs. There is already a lot of good information out there.
If you want more info there are a number of cheap and easy to read books issued under the “Getting Closer To Japan” series by Ask Publ. “Getting Along With The Japanese” by Kate Elwood has simple explanations of the often confusing situations you may encounter,
All you need to remember is that the Lobrow team will be with you at crucial times to assist !
THE IMPORTANT TIPS :
Get a business card from your hotel so that if you are lost, you can always just jump in a cab and show the driver the card. Remember to keep your passport on you at all times.
Thanks to Bruce Milne & Adele Daniele for all this info !