So what is Japan like? I had a pretty good idea of what to expect coming here, but there were a number of little surprises. The first thing that struck me is that it really is not all that crowded in most places, most of the time! When I thought of Tokyo, I always thought of people crushed into trains, streets flooded with people everywhere, but while at certain times of day in certain very busy places this is the case, for the most part it's really not that bad. More often than not seats were available on trains and the road traffic was amazing! I don't know how traffic can be so infinitely better in Tokyo than in a sparse country town like Melbourne.
Well, I have some idea, first of all the public transport, while confusing at first, is extremely effective. Everywhere I wanted to go seemed to be within 15 minutes walk of a station. Secondly, bicycle use and laws aren't retarded here. Bikes stay off the road and on the footpath where they don't hold up traffic, and no one wears helmets so it's actually somewhat convenient. In Melbourne I consider riding a bike a deep form of spiritual degradation, here it actually makes sense!
On the other hand, while it isn't that crowded on the streets, inside shops is a different story. Particularly in Akihabara (the electronics/comics/geek district), many shops have so little space between aisles you can barely squeeze past another person and they are often packed. I actually find it hard to believe there is enough demand for the sheer number of goods on display, but many shops have been around for decades, so something must be working
Now, onto specifics!
We stayed at the "Hotel Dormy Inn" in Akihabara, and it was great. Breakfast was included, with a Western option (which I didn't bother trying) and a Japanese option, which was awesome and included sushi, miso soup with vegetables, rice, various bits of stuff like small fish and vegetables and a bunch of optional extras and drinks. They also offer free ramen between 9:30pm and 11pm as a late night snack, a huge bonus for me when I finally get back late at night!
Even better, the hotel has its own onsen on the top floor!
"Onsen" is basically a hot bath. But it's way better than that. First of all, men's and women's are separate and you're required to be fully naked in the baths. They don't use chemicals or salt, it is fresh water, so you also need to shower and clean off before going in to keep the water clean. Admittedly at first stripping naked and hanging around a bunch of naked guys was weird, but it really didn't take long to get over it.
The centre has the outdoor pool you see in the picture, which is very hot and a similarly hot one indoors, out of the wind. Then there's a small tub outdoors that is scalding hot! I gather you're meant to dip in it briefly before going into the main one from what I've seen others do. There's also seating areas, a sauna that is between 87 and 97 degrees C when I've been in there and a cold bath to cool off at the end. It's one hell of a way to end a day and often I went twice a day just to cool off and be able to keep going.
The food was every bit as impressive as I'd hoped and heard!
My favourite meal was the one I most wanted to try on coming here, the Wagyu Steak Sandwich! At a bit over AU$100, it certainly wasn't the cheapest meal, but it was definitely an experience worth having. The prices went up to around AU$300 for fancy Kobe beef, but the person serving at the cafe recommended this particular one as his favourite.
It looks simple, but the meat quality and taste are amazing. Went really well with a glass of white wine (yes I know, unusual for steak!)
This coffee at a place called "Chatei Hatou" was also unusual and impressive. It's basically coffee on sweetened condensed milk, but it tastes amazing. In Japanese they pronounce it "Oregase" but I believe it's actually a Spanish drink called "Cafe Bombon".
The donuts here were very impressive - must be their special ingredient...
Tokyo is certainly known for its unique and interesting forms of entertainment, and it didn't disappoint. The Robot Restaurant was even better than I expected! It is insane, loud, corny, but totally awesome! The show is an hour and a half long and in four parts, each with different robots, costumes and story lines straight out of Japanese comics. It was actually one of the highlights of the trip! Interestingly, it was the only place I went that wasn't mostly locals, almost everyone seemed to be from Europe/America (and some other Australians too).
The maid cafes. I had to try it, and well, it is also as weird after as it sounded before. The cafes are exactly what they look like, basically over the top cute, with cute girls dressed as maids serving cute food and doing cute dances. It seems like what you'd expect for a themed kids restaurant (and kids are allowed), but when I was there, there was one couple, my sister and I, and a bunch of middle aged and old men... So, well that's Japan!
The cafe I went to was Maidreamin, which is one of the top maid cafes in Tokyo. But with the number of girls on the streets dressed in maids outfits, I strongly suspect there are other... less reputable places that probably aren't so family friendly.
I'm not a big shopper, so don't have much to say on that side of things, but if you are, Tokyo is clearly the place to be. They are so large and densely packed that you could probably fit Melbourne entire range of computer shops, electronics shops or gaming/comic shops in just one of the large ones in Tokyo.
While Japan has a reputation for having one of the lowest crime rates in the world, it also has a reputation for being a bit creepy, and it is definitely well earned. In Akihabara in particular, there are heaps of comic/collectable shops that are several stories large and are for all ages, and even in the all ages section there's some pretty perverted stuff. But then you turn a corner and sometimes with a small sign, other times not even that, you're surrounded by all kinds of perverted "only in Japan" kind of materials!
I certainly far from "sheltered", but it was way more over the top than even I expected, and I thought I had a pretty good idea! So yeah, if you visit Akihabara stores with kids, make sure to check them out first... And frankly even if you're not with kids, if you don't want to have some images you can't get out of your head for a while, stay out of any 18+ areas!
On a related note, I'd heard that girls often get groped by men on crowded trains in Tokyo. What I hadn't heard is that the opposite is quite true as well! It may not be politically correct to say this, but frankly when a guy gropes a girl on a train, that's creepy; but when a girl gropes a guy, that's just funny (and rather enjoyable!) The simple fact is, girls generally don't like being groped by strangers, whereas if the girl is attractive, most guys would be quite okay with it. And she was attractive!
Due to the heat, I really couldn't bring myself to check out as many sights as I would have liked. It was just too sweltering to really enjoy a long walk. But for a city that's supposed to be super densely crowded, Tokyo has some really beautiful, spacious locations that are worth seeing.
I definitely would like to come back in a colder period some time and really get a better look around, as there is so much to see in every place. Every little street and even back alleys seem to have different and interesting places and little entrances like this one, lead to nice and quite large cafes either underground or several levels up.
Next stop is Kyoto, leaving tomorrow morning on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Time to see the more traditional side of Japan!
Some political commentary:
Couldn't resist throwing some politics in here. One thing I was really interested in about Japan is that it is one of very few advanced countries that is largely ethnically homogeneous. With 98.5% of the population being Japanese and the remaining being almost entirely Chinese and Korean, it is really the only first world country I've been to that has it's own and rather unique culture.
As a tourist, you don't feel unwelcome, I find it feels very much like being a welcomed guest in someone's home. Everyone is courteous, tries to help and is quick to forgive any mistakes or problems you cause just because it's expected of a foreigner. Yet from foreigners I've heard who try to actually move to Japan to live, it's like being a guest that is well overstaying their welcome.
And while Japan certainly does have American stores like McDonalds and others, it still very much has its own kind of culture. It isn't politically correct at all, the TV shows alone make that very clear (and the funny Japanese TV show clips you see online really are what play on live TV throughout the day!) Nonsense like "diversity" and "cultural appropriation" really isn't a thing.
Case in point:
It's interesting and quite unusual being in a country where people are proud of their own nation, culture and tradition. In the West, basically any sign that a person things they or their culture is good, is considered racism, whereas in Japan it would be weird to not like your own country and culture. I quite like the idea of actually being proud of my own country. The only time I've ever felt pride for Australia is when our coffee was so good we put Starbucks out of business. That is something I will forever cherish!
I actually quite like that Australia is a successful multicultural nation. As while it can bring in the worst from all cultures, it also brings in the best and ends up becoming its own unique thing. Having some countries like that I think is great, as it makes for a more interesting world, but having every country like that is just boring! That's what I think really makes Japan special, that it is still Japan. I expect Russia will be similar and it should be interesting to see.
I used to like travelling to different countries to experience their unique cultures, but these days all Western countries are basically identical except for the language (and English is pretty ubiquitous anyway), so it's nice being able to visit a place that still has its own culture and a sense of pride in it. And specifically, pride for their culture, without hatred of other cultures, something the modern "Social Justice Warrior" considers synonymous.