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Fighting Tokyo’s pesky pollen


The timing of our visit to Japan was perfect.  Our arrival had coincided with the exact start of spring, and the festival of hanami, when the earth was thaws and everyone’s mind turns to girls in short skirts and sakura (the cherry blossom).  Actually, short skirts are a year round phenomenon, but sakura only comes once a year. 

The Japanese love this stuff, especially those who live in a cramped and crowded city like Tokyo, where every second crack in the pavement seems to have a carefully nurtured prunis of some variety sprouting from it.  For two weeks of the year, the silver and grey streets burst into white, pink and mauve, the sake flows, and the populace bursts into song.

We had developed a splendid plan where we would visit every single park in Tokyo until our little hearts burst and our legs dropped off.  Then I stepped off the plane, took a huge lungful of fabulous fresh Tokyo air, and remembered that I have severe hay fever. 

Well that was just dandy. 

The surgical mask is a popular fashion accessory in Asia these days. Everything from avian bird flu to ultra violet rays poses a threat.  But only in Tokyo did I feel compelled to follow this trend.  For about five seconds.  Hello Kitty face-masks just weren’t my style.  Puffy eyes and running nose it had to be.  

My first impressions of Tokyo were largely determined by its underground train system.  The ticket machines were all lit up with heaps of buttons, just like a poker machine. I felt this was kind of apt, since getting the right ticket is pretty well much a lottery for the novice user.   But once you have a ticket, the system ticks like clockwork.  And there is no pollen in the subway. 

I was surprised by how many people ride pushbikes in this technology crazy country.  More surprising is how few people bother to lock their machines.  Perhaps law enforcement is efficient here.  Perhaps theft is considered impolite, or possibly even uncool.  Perhaps all bikes look alike, so if yours goes missing, you just grab the next one and peddle home. 

Umbrella security seems to be a far greater issue of national concern.  Outside the Hyatt individual umbrella lockers are available for hire.  Similar lockers sit astride urinals in public lavatories. 

Well there must have been some crime in Tokyo, because another odd thing that struck me about life in Tokyo was the “Wanted” posters.  Mug shots of escapees and criminals were plastered around the place, just like other countries, but unlike other countries, the Japanese sense of aesthetics must dictate that Japanese criminals be shown at their best.  So they cut out the faces, and mount them on funky black silhouettes.  This gave me the  distinct impression that all Tokyo’s criminals were simply misunderstood beatnicks who ran around in black skivvies and reciting poetry.  In fact, when I first saw one of these posters, I though it was an ad for another Beatles ripoff group. 

Aesthetics really comes to the fore with Tokyo’s architecture.  Every building is so idiosyncratic.  Even cheap apartment blocks, flung up in the 1980s, had a certain element of individual styling about them.  It was as if the limited space has forced architects to excel themselves.  Every street corner carries a different surprise.  So even though Tokyo is essentially one solid lump medium density housing, it doesn’t feel cramped at all.

We took a subway to Shibuya to look at the famed capsule rooms and love hotels.  I bluffed my way into a capsule, by pretending that I wanted to stay there the night. I pretended to have claustrophobia.  Once inside, I had an irresistible urge to call out “open the pod bay doors HAL”.  But the manager probably hadn’t seen ‘2001 a Space Odyssey’, and may not have understood the joke.

Love Hotels don’t advertise themselves as such, and were a bit harder to find.  But I reckon that the “Hotel Casanover” with advertised rates of ‘2800 yen for ninety minutes’ was probably right on the money.  It was harder to bluff my way into a room.  A guy on his own who wants to spend 90 minutes of ‘private’ time with his camera, in a love shack was not really acceptable, even for broad minded folk who run love hotels.

Tokyo also abounds with shops, including the infamous 100 yen shops.  Everything in a 100 yen shop is actually the one flat price, namely 105 yen, (once you add sales tax).  If you think the goods are too trashy there, you can visit their up-market cousins, the 300 yen shops (well, 315 yen shops, if you want to be picky).

Then there are places like “three minutes happiness” which, as the name suggests, really has a handle on this whole mindless consumption thing.  We were stuck there for half an hour.  My favourite product was the pink panther toy that came in blues, reds and greens. No pinks.

When we weren’t shopping we were eating.  This must have been a direct influence of Japanese television, where the magic combination of food and celebrities is a no-brainer for programming executives.  Hundreds of hours of airtime seem to be devoted to footage of celebs running around trying noodles, or sushi or whatever, while other celebs look on from the studio and make witty comments.  Frankly, it makes our home video of the Sony dog seem immensely entertaining.

We tried all the local luncheon favourites –beef and rice vending machines, shabu shabu bars, udon noodle houses , tempura soup bars and so forth.  But without a doubt, my most memorable meal was a Japanese pizza, that consisted of ham and green salad.  Only in Tokyo could lettuce make its way onto a pizza.  Mind you, I was mildly disappointed.  I was using the usual “point and shoot” method of ordering (from pictures out the front), and I had assumed the green stuff was going to be seaweed.

But we didn’t fly all the way to Tokyo just look at umbrellas, ride bicycles and buy cheap kitchenware.  We came for the Hanami and we were told that the best place to see Spring arrive was Sowa Kinen Park on the ‘outskirts’ of Tokyo.  Japan Rail advertised this destination with glorious technicolour posters, featuring Swiss style mountains, carpeted in flowers. 

Unfortunately Spring had slept in the day we were there, and we had to be content with spasmodic bursts of colour instead.  In spite of this set back, we still managed to spend five or six happy hours there, filling up two memory cards with photos in the process.  It’s amazing how you can still achieve the ‘carpet effect’ by shooting the same clump of daffodils from twenty different angles. 

More interesting than the flowers were the contortions of the other visitors twisting this way and that to create the perfect “Sound of Music” shot for the camera.  As if the right pose would somehow magically obliterate the five or six hundred other people milling around.  They should have saved themselves the trouble and posed in front of the rail poster like I did.

Of course there was more to Sowa Kinen than just flowers.  Our brochure told us they had horseshoe hookey, croquet and unicycle golf.  Unicycle golf…surely a world first.  Obviously regular golf is just not hard enough.  Better watch out for that follow through though, it could be lethal.  I guess when you only have 11 ha to play with, you have to find some way to kerb those big hitters.  I asked around, hoping to try this latest extreme sport.  Then learned that it was just a typo.  They forgot to print the slash between ‘unicycle’ and ‘golf’. Oh well, anyone for a game of pogo-stick billiards?

It was late night by the time we returned to our hotel, and the ‘disco’ police came out.   These are traffic cops sporting special reflective vests that have rows of flashing lights.  Village people, eat your heart out.  You can’t stop the music, but you can at least stop the traffic in these sexy outfits… Pity about their lack of rhythm.  And humour. 

But then thing that really stopped me in my tracks, the thing that I identified as quintessentially Japanese, was the flashing neons lights of “Hello Kitty Karaoke”.  I was in the midst of taking a photo when my wife pointed out that ‘Hello Kitty’ doesn’t actually have a mouth. So maybe patrons have to hum. 

Then I realized, that this place is like an onion – and we’d only just started to peel back some layers.  Maybe that’s why my eyes were watering.  No, it was just the goddamn pollen!

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