An Afternoon in Tokyo

I have spent most of today wandering around Tokyo in a state of utter confusion and hopelessness.  And I haven’t even got to the Russian embassy yet.  But even taking this into consideration, I am enjoying myself.

The biggest problem is similar to the one I had in Korea a few years ago, which is a complete inability to distinguish a bank from a brewery and a bar from a bus stop.  Everything is labelled but, oddly enough, in Japanese.  I can’t decipher a single character.  At least in Korea I had half a chance with being able to recognise the logos.  I’ve written before about the importance of logos and when you find yourself in a world without many you recognise (a 60-storey skyscraper with Hitachi on the top isn’t helpful), identification of goods and services is pretty damned difficult.  I suspect had Naomi Klein lived in Japan for a year, she’d have ditched her most famous work halfway through the introduction as she bit into an imported Mars Bar.  So most of this afternoon I spent looking for an ATM which spoke English.  There didn’t seem to be any banks which I recognised except for Citibank, whose ATM was as much use as a slot machine.  The few Japanese banks I came across had ATMs with no English instructions, and most didn’t even display the Visa sign.  Even the ATMs of the Bank of Dolinsk (Dolinsk is a set of trees with a house between them north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) carry the Visa sign.  I needed a load of cash (only cash, of course) to pay for my visa tomorrow, and I was beginning to panic.  Eventually I found what was described as an “international ATM” in a post office beside my hotel, which coughed up some dough after a bit of poking around with the buttons.  I can’t say I didn’t enjoy wandering around the Ginza district of Tokyo all day, and I particularly liked seeing the population of a small country cross those diagonal zebra crossings when the little green man comes on, but I fear that never before has Tokyo seen anyone looking more gormless on its streets than I did this afternoon.  I should take this opportunity to thank the Aussie fella for giving me directions when he found me hopelessly cross-referencing two pocket maps with a huge tourist one on the street, to absolutely no avail whatsoever.

My hotel, the Imperial Hotel, is superb.  Which is of no surprise whatsoever, as this is Japan we are talking about.  Being a good metre taller than the average Japanese, the receptionist obviously thought I was more comfortable at lofty elevations and put me on the top level some 31 floors above the pavement.  The view from my room is spectacular, and I’ll post some photos when I get back.  The room – one of over 1,000 – is excellent, with everything in perfect working order and the bathroom containing white fluffy bathrobes, the one and only sign of a decent hotel.  Had I bothered to bring my laptop, I could enjoy complimentary super high-speed broadband in my room, but as it happens I have to use super high-speed broadband in the business centre which contains a dozen top-notch computers, none of which have a worn out mouse and a keybaord missing a couple of keys, which I can use free of charge.  When it comes to running hotels, the Japanese – along with the Koreans – have got the rest of the world licked.

I didn’t fancy paying $85 for a buffet dinner though.  Tokyo isn’t cheap. So I went for a wander along a narrow street alongside the elevated railway near the hotel and found a place which sold some dishes I recognised, photos of which were on display outside.  They were Korean dishes, which I know from living amongst 30,000 ethnic Koreans on Sakhalin and alongside a wife who spent 3 years in Taegu, on offer in what I took to be a rough-and-ready Japanese restaurant.  So I went in with white face, round eyes, hairy arms, and full of ignorance, where in this regard I was in the company of myself only.  Nobody spoke English, which made it all the more fun, and by the time I had ordered my food and had drunk the neck off a bottle of Asahi Dry I realised I was in a rough-and-ready Korean restaurant and there wasn’t a Japanese person in the whole damned place.  Keeping “they-all-look-the-bloody-same-to-me’ mumblings to a minimum I kicked back, ate my food, took in the surroundings, and enjoyed my beer and myself.  Problem is, I don’t know a single Japanese dish and, now you mention it, I don’t know a single thing about Japan other than crude stereotypes involving sumo wrestlers, karaoke, and samurai swords.  But I do know I like Japan, and the service is impeccable and the people unfailingly polite, even if they do turn out to be a load of Koreans.

I’ll see what I can find tomorrow.


7 thoughts on “An Afternoon in Tokyo

  1. The ATM thing is amazing. Here in Spain virtually all ATMs offer a choice of language: Castellano (‘Spanish’, Gallego, Catalan and English. The only one I’ve found that doesn’t is, oddly, Barclays. Spanish-only.

  2. The ATM in touristy Lagos (the one in Portugal, not Africa) – the ATM, I say, not an ATM, since the multiple banks wouldn’t disperse money to foreigners if one doesn’t have an account in that particular bank – beats me, why. After all, their entire business revolves around foreigners.
    So, again – THE ATM on the public plaza had declared choice of two languages, English one of them. However, when you select the appropriate touch screen, the text still appears in Portuguese and only the dollar sign, time (P.M. and A.N.) and of course the numbers seems to be recognisable!

    You don’t know any Japanese dishes, Tim? How’bout sushi? Teriyaki? Try to ask for California roll (kidding, kidding, don’t be alarmed).

    When you come here, I’ll take you to an excellent ‘Japanese fusion’ place; it’s fantastic.

    Excellent topic, recognition of the building facades; maybe I’ll write about it @my place -come over some time.

  3. Hi. I only know very basic Japanese and therefore can also be at a loss in Japan.

    Most Japanese ATMs are not international. If you ever need to find another one, you can try asking your hotel reception. The staff usually speak decent English and will be able to point you in the right direction.

    Thought I might just drop you some characters which hopefully you will find useful during your stay there.

    ??? = udon (noodle)
    (small family run restaurants sometimes have a ‘banner’ hanging outside with these characters)
    ?? = soba (noodle)
    ? = rice
    ?? = sushi
    ?? = sashimi (i vaguely think this is correct)
    ? = beef
    ?? = miso
    anything with ?? = drink-related
    anything with ?? = food-related
    ? = tea
    ??? = beer
    ? = pronounced as yaki, anything with this is usually hmm, fried/bbq-ed/grilled etc. eg: teriyaki,
    yakisoba (???)

    hope this helps you a little with the food

  4. Tanya,

    I know a few Japanese dishes from eating at the Japanese restaurants in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk; but I fear if I ask for sushi or tempura I might reveal an astonishing level of ignorance when asked “What kind?”. Plus I’m not too fond of sushi. Plus eating top-grade sushi in Japan is something I really ought to do with my wife and not alone. I’ll get a right bollocking if I enjoy myself too much without her.


    Many thanks for your help. I will tattoo the symbol for beer onto my arm this very afternoon, and try to remember the rest in conventional fashion.

  5. Tokyo’s a bit daunting at first, for sure, but it’s not as bad as first impressions can make it seem. After all, the underground network is all labelled in English, and the all-pervading Japanese sense of politeness means you can normally get away with paying for the cheapest ticket and then settling the difference when you get off, which is handy. Plus there are Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere (both doing rather unpleasant green tea, if I recall).

    Food-wise, best advice is to go out for lunch rather than dinner, as prices are normally at least halved then. I still found it cheaper to eat out in Tokyo than London or Paris, though. Just find a ramen or sushi bar in a station somewhere – will set you back less than a fiver and be at least as good as you’d get in most posh Japanese restaurants outside Japan. If you’re at the Imperial you could also do worse than head to the Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station (probably about 5 minutes’ walk) – loads of good restaurants in there, many with English menus:

    On the ATM front, that’s one thing I still don’t get about Japan. They just don’t have them anywhere – everyone still goes into the bank to get out cash. Only there don’t seem to be that many banks around either, and they shut (as in most countries) ridiculously early, meaning no office worker can get to them. As it’s largely still a cash economy (though credit cards are becoming increasingly popular, debit cards appear not to exist, from what I can tell) I have no idea how they cope.

    Other than that, biilu o kudasai (beer please) and kohee o kudasai (coffee please) tended to get me by.

  6. Having traveled a lot in Russia and Asia, I feel your pain. The only thing I can suggest is to go to a place frequented by other Brits or even [gasp in horror] Americans – like a hotel bar, or someplace near the embassy. All the best tips and advice come from others in the same boat..

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