A Travellerspoint blog

First Weekend in Tokyo

Asakusa – SkyTree – Akihabara

sunny 16 °C

After an exciting week at the lab, I finally had the opportunity to explore Tokyo. My colleague gave me some tips on what parts to visit and where it is nice to eat. As I was still jet lagged I didn’t manage to get out of bed before noon so I made my way into the city rather late. Nevertheless it took me less time to arrive at my destination then google maps predicted.

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My first stop, on suggestion of my colleague was Asakusa, one of the older parts of town, with still intact architecture not destroyed during war. The most prominent sight here is the Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo. Even the entrance gate Kaminarimon (Gate of thunder) is a sight to behold. Guarded by the statues of Fujin (God of Wind) and Raijin (God of Thunder, hence the name of the gate) the gate itself is “blocked” by a giant red lantern (chochin). However you can easily pass beneath the lantern and end up in the in the Nakamise-dori, a 250m street approaching the temple with loads of different vendors, ranging from tourist crap such as plastic Godzilla’s etc. to genuine Japanese jewelry, sweets and food. Before entering the actually temple grounds (Hondo) you have yet to pass another, even mightier gate, the Hozomon (Treasure House Gate), which as the name suggests, holds the treasures of the temple. Inside the Hondo there are many O-mikuji stalls at which, for a small donation of 100Yen, you can draw a random fortune and ask your questions and get answers form the divines. You basically shake a metallic box and draw a stick from it which states one of the 100 drawers from which you can take your fortune. Sadly I wasn’t quite so lucky and got a bad fortune, Oh well. Heading up to the actual temple I noticed a sort of little well like structure which people surrounded and lit incense sticks and put them in the sand. Furthermore a lot of people gathered and inhaled the smoke and tried to “wash” themselves with it. As I learned later the incense is supposed to clean the body of bad spirits before entering the temple and is believed to have healing powers if applied to a hurt part of the body. A little further I recognized the dragon fountain where people washed their hands and mouth before entering the temple. Needless to say that, ungracefully as I am, I managed to spill the water all over my shirt and almost my camera -.-

The actual temple building is impressive, especially the roof. Although the building itself is huge the actual area it covers is relatively small. The shrine is beautifully painted what you especially can see at the paintings at the ceiling. The Praying chamber is what really knocks your socks off however. Carefully crafted into the last detail and decorated with loads of ornaments. According to the legend, the temple was found by two fishermen who found a statue of the Kannon (a deity of mercy)in the Sumida river in 628.

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Around the Temple itself there are many smaller shrines and a nice small garden with the obligatory Koi-carp pond. Also on the temple ground stands a five-story high pagoda. (To all the Pokémon fans out there: seems familiar? ;) Hint: Ho-oh on the Sprout tower).
On my way back from the temple I tried my luck with some traditional Japanese food stand delicacies. Today’s choice was Takoyaki, which are sort round “pancakes” filled with octopus, topped with the takoyaki sauce, which reminds a little of Worchester sauce and mayonnaise. Yam!

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Strolling through the rest of Asakusa and its lovely small shops I spot the Tokyo Sky Tree, the new landmark of Tokyo, and my new destination has been set. The walk to the sky tree was less exciting but I got a couple of nice shots of the architecture and the Sumida River. The closer you get to the sky tree the more you realize how big it actually is. With its 634.0 meter it is the tallest tower and second highest building (after Burj Khalifa) in the world and was finished in 2012. At the foot of this steel colossus of brilliant architecture there is (of course) a big mall and at this time of the year a …. well .. it’s supposed to be a Christmas market but with curry, Japanese sweets and mulled wine (red and WHITE!!!) it sort of gets lost in translation (nice try though). .At this height the view must be amazing but I wouldn’t know since I decided against going up there by standing 2 hours in a queue and paying almost 20€. Going to do that another time. Inside the mall I had my first encounter with the famous "Super" Toilets! Although as a gadget freak I am always open to new gimmics that make the world mor comfortable, I must admit that the heated seat is something to get used to (althogugh really nice in the winter) and the bidet (water cleaning) function is somewhat.... ehm well to be honest i sort of felt violated and will not touch that button ever again :D

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On my way back home I spontaneously stopped at the famous electric town Akihabara. Next to all the electronic stores it is the Makkah for all Anime fans. Huge vans with prints on the side for new amine series starting soon, and big speakers drive up and down the street with the sole purpose of getting your attention and, after a while, driving you insane. Coming back to the electronic stores, it is true that they have a lot. However, it seems to be always the same chain store selling the same goods. Interesting to notice is that due to the fact that there are so many different providers of the same product, electronic companies in the Japan go for the proactive sales approach. While in Germany/Netherlands and many other European countries you get the feeling employees are actively avoiding you in an electronic store, in Japan you get the feeling that there are more salesperson than actual customers at the store, trying to convince you to buy their product, regardless of whether you already have an air-condition because theirs is definitely better. At least I think that’s what they were saying; it was in Japanese so I didn’t understand a word….. :D
After a long and exhausting day in Tokyo I went on my way home but not without treating myself to a nice dinner at Ikebukuro in a small restaurant with fried pork with noodles and some Chinese dumplings.

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So that was my exciting first weekend at Tokyo and I hope there are many more to come. Since my internship finally starts to get going, I will keep it to shorter posts in the future but try to update more frequently. So long!

Posted by Max Fischer 17:15 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo akihabara asakusa senso-ji skytree Comments (0)

Hi my name is マクシミリアン (Ma-ki-shi-mi-ri-a-n)

Bam !

Almost one week is over and what a week it was!

A good night sleep after my long flight set me up to go to the lab the next day to be initiated in what I will be doing for the next 8 month. I got introduced to my supervisor Kotaro and he showed me around their facilities. Unfortunately most of my work observing the mice doing their memory tasks will be performed in a pitch black room without any daylight, with no light at all actually (T.T). However, the setup is impressive and well thought trough and although I can see spending hours of studying in order to understand all of the programs we will be using, I am excited. Next Kotaro led me to a room where they prepared the animals for the tasks and I watched how he performed the surgery on the mouse, while I was vigorously writing everything down. To my shock, he explained to me afterwards that he would be leaving for a conference to the US tomorrow but in the mean time I should practice doing this surgery myself (Say WHAT ?!). Next thing I know another colleague in charge of the animals was standing next to us asking how many animals I would like (she asked it casually like asking how many kilos of potatoes I would like to buy at a farmers market). Kotaro told her to give me five mice I should "practice" my surgery skills.

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Before I could wrap my head around it was lunch time. Japanese are very particular about lunch time which is taken at 12.00 sharp. The cafeteria offers a wide variety of different meals most of them traditional Japanese but there is always a more "western" version of a dish in the menu. Sometimes however they get a little overboard creating weird combination such as rice with curry topped with - wait for it - Frankfurter/Wiener sausages!!!
Anyway, the food tastes really good and is quite affordable (not like the University crap we paid an arm and a leg for back in the Netherlands!)

After lunch, Kotaro explained me what they have been doing so far in their field of research and what I will follow up on during my stay here. I must admit here that I got a little overwhelmed here with all those statistical analysis of the results acquired by the animals. It doesn't help as well that my supervisors English skill are limited making it rather difficult to understand technical aspects of the research I have never heard of before. But enough with the research stuff, as I don't want to bore any of you with details about what I will do. Actually, I couldn't, really, as the complete goal of this research has been elusive so far, which is very inconvenient, especially if you are to report back to your university in detail about what you will be doing. Neither does it help that the deadline is due to next month, nor that my supervisor is not available.

Moving to Thursday, I had a mandatory introduction about laboratory safety, animal handling etc. I thought it would be an opportunity to enquire more about what I am supposed to do with the animals, as I did not really felt comfortable to perform the surgery all by myself. Imagine my surprise as I arrived at the given destination and was placed (I was the only one) in a big room, ridiculously hot room, with a huge TV. Not only that I was the only one but shortly after my arrival a woman gave me some reading material about lab safety then pressed play on a DVD!!! You have got to be kidding me, I thought but they apparently were quite serious. I sat in that room for almost 4 hours watching an incredibly boring guy giving case examples of poor laboratory safety behavior and what could be done to prevent it a la "Jane forgot to wear gloves while handling an acidic solution, resulting in her getting burned ... what could Jane have done better ?" After, what seemed to be an eternity another women came back stopped the DVD and I thought she must be from the animal welfare office to talk to me about the animal handling. Well, not quite! She was from the animal welfare office but little did she talk but popped in another DVD about how to handle the animals! To be more precise, the movie lasted for 40 minutes and showed an antiqued way (could have sworn it was made in early 80s) of how to restrain and handle various kinds of animals. That was it!
I spent 6 weeks of intense training in the Netherlands to be able to draft out animal experiments without actually ever being allowed to do those experiments myself and here I get a 40 min DVD instruction and are able to do surgery on them. Weird world.
Disappointed I returned to the lab and Tomoe helped me set up a couple of things as registration at the municipality, getting a travel card for public transport and show me some convenience stores.
Shopping in Japan is not that much different than everywhere else. However, not knowing the language can make it somewhat challenging. With all different types of vegetables, meat and other interesting looking stuff it is hard to keep track of what is what. Most of the things I don’t recognize leave alone know how to prepare it. So I set myself the goal to just chuck something unknown into my shopping cart and try to figure it out at home. Otherwise it’s no big deal here, bread still looks like bread and the milk carton still has a cow on it and if you have established some of the basics you can start exploring the wild world of the culinary Japanese cuisine!

Small shopping street near my appartment

Small shopping street near my appartment

[/float]One of my all-time favorite stores here in Japan is the 円ショップ (Hyaku En Shoppu). These stores sell everything in them for 100yen, similar to the 99c or 1€ stores in Europe. However, they are much bigger and while the European versions offer nick-knack which rarely offer really useful stuff, their Japanese counterparts have everything a heart desires. Starting from Kitchen supplies, such as plates, cutlery, and various kitchen utensils to pillows, bathmats, shower-curtains and even food. And all that for a really cheap price as a 100€ roughly translates to around 0,70€ !!!
I have noticed that that the soooo expensive Tokyo is not quite as expensive as everyone imagines. Sure rentals for apartments are quite high comparing to the amount of space you get, but living costs do not diverge significantly from other European countries such as Germany or the Netherlands. I would even go that far that the Netherlands are more expensive than Japan. A reason for this the Yen at the moment compared to other European currencies is quite weak with 1€ being 148Yen (current rate) and a meal at the cafeteria is about 350yen. Of course if you go into the touristic centers of Tokyo and every other major city prices for going out for dinner etc. differ greatly from local prices making the Tokyo experience as a visitor (hotel, fight, dinner) a quite expensive one.

Well, then this was my first week in Japan excluding my first weekend and visiting Tokyo, to which I will dedicate a separate entry if time permits.

Posted by Max Fischer 18:29 Comments (0)

Can you say "Konnichiwa" ?

Arrival at Narita Airport

After 16 hours of travel in a seat that was a little too small for me (probably built for southern European people... thank Turkish Airlines), the wheels of the plane made contact with Japanese ground. Apparently I was not the only one eager to leave the plane, because as soon as the plane came to a halt everybody jumped up to grab their coats, hand luggage ect. After what seems an eternity of wandering through a maze that was the airport, we finally arrived at the border control. Desperately looking at the enormous cue of people in the "Other countries" line (with a sign saying "From this point ca. 45 min" *urgs*) I asked a lady of the airport staff where I needed to go, as I had a visa. After short discussion with her superior I was able to skip the line and walk straight through the "Permit holder" gate, where I gave my fingerprints and received my residence card. Now the wait for our luggage was commencing, but too my surprise the band was already rolling and I grabbed my bags within minutes.

Welcome to Japan !

Welcome to Japan !

Now, I just had to find an ATM to get my first Japanese money, the Yen. It is quite a strange feeling suddenly having bills in your wallet with 1000 or 10,000 on them. Huge numbers for a (comparatively) small value, as the one euro at the moment equivalents to around 146 yen. After buying my ticket I went to the train station brining me to my destination, Wako-shi station.
Contrary to common beliefs traveling with public transportation in Tokyo is quite easy and not much different than in other cities. As long as you know where you have to go its simple to find your way around. Station names are written mostly in Kanji (simplified Japanese characters) and beneath in Romanji (Latin characters). On the train stations there are many maps depicting the Tokyo public transportation network and the directions to designated platforms are easy to follow. Furthermore, most trains and tubes have digital screens depicting their route and every station and upcoming station is called in Japanese as well as English. Interestingly, they run on a tight schedule with high precision. The train left at 12:58 on the spot! Being late even just 30sec is not acceptable in Japan and is not considered on time anymore. Many companies could take that as a role model.... I'm looking at you DeutscheBahn!!! One of the reasons it might be so efficient, is that the travelers help too. Instead of pushing to get a seat as soon as the door opens, designated lines on the floor show where the doors will be located and people will form a neat cue and get in line and wait till everybody as exited the train and then one by one enter the train in an ordered well-mannered fashion, highly efficient! One funny thing I noticed is that every train has its own little title melody when it arrives and leaves a station. Have we in Europe only the boring "ding-dong", the Japanese announces their trains with their individual jingle, sometimes lasting for 5 seconds: D (I'll try to upload a sound file with a composition of them soon).

After arriving at my final destination at the RIKEN Research Institute I met Tomoe, the secretary of the laboratory, with who I had been in contact beforehand. She shortly introduced me to most of the staff members of the laboratory and to my supervisor Kotaro. After signing a couple of forms I received my access badge for the campus and the laboratory and we headed to get to my apartment.
Not quite as big as expected but still nice and cozy. I have my own bathroom (yes.. finally !), a big-ish room with a small kitchen unit and ONE cooking plate on it. Otherwise, every other typical furniture is available and to my relief a western style bed.

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At the 8th floor I have quite a nice view over the city and if the weather is good I can even see Mt. Fuji in the distant.

After a nice hot shower I crawled exhausted in my, to my surprise, quite comfortable bed!

So much for my arrival in Japan, I will try to update regularly or if anything interesting is happening, so stay tuned !!! 

Posted by Max Fischer 20:25 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan airport berlin narita tegel Comments (0)

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