As it’s the beginning of the year and I’m longing for a holiday, I decided to write about one of my best trips to date. My first trip to Japan took place in April 2012 and it was one of my most memorable and special trips.
We (my husband and I) arrived in Tokyo on a rainy evening feeling jetlagged and exhausted after carrying our luggage through the local train network as the JR Narita Express had been suspended due to strong winds. Luckily, we had used up all of my husband’s Hyatt points to book a one night stay in Park Hyatt Tokyo. This hotel was made popular by the arty movie, Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two lonely people who met in the hotel. Even without the movie, Park Hyatt Tokyo is special – greeting us by our names when we entered, a super luxurious and massive hotel room with breathtaking views of Tokyo, flowers, fruits and a bottle of wine to welcome us and a swimming pool with panoramic views of the city.
Tokyo was the part of our trip which was all about the quirky and new age, so we made sure to visit a couple of places which were for the otaku in us (otaku = geek). The most popular otaku district is Akihabara, where there are buildings filled with electronic stores and shops specializing in anime, manga, video games and other collectibles.
This was where we found a maid café. We went to @Home Maid Café, which took up at least a couple of floors in a building. Each floor had a different theme and we went for the most typical French maids. There was a minimum charge per hour, which was easily covered by each of us ordering a drink. Unfortunately, we could barely communicate with the maids/waitresses because they didn’t speak English. The only thing we understood was when the waitresses greeted us as ‘Master’. Even so, we still managed to spend a couple of hours here because it was such an interesting experience.
Bearing in mind that this was mid-afternoon on a weekday, the café was pretty full. There were a few tables of tourists or couples/groups but also quite a few men or teenage boys on their own, presumably looking for company. The waitresses circulated the café, chatting and playing games with the customers. Given that we could not participate, we decided to look for other options instead. We discovered that for a small fee, we can take a photo with one of the waitresses. My husband decided to go for it and was given a catalog with photos (with some heavy photoshop!) and names of all the maids. He chose one of the maids and was invited to go on stage for the photo. There was a lot of fanfare around it, with a bell ringing, music and announcements made. While the concept is weird and could be seen as degrading, I felt that the maid café was run in a respectable manner, with no body contact between the waitresses and the customers.
Another memorable experience was in Harajuku on a Sunday. Harajuku is popular with teenagers and young adults for fashion, and on Sundays, you may be able to see cos-players. Sadly, this has become less popular over the years. When we visited, there were only a handful of cos-players but they were still nice enough to take photos with us when we asked. The more memorable part was when we took the subway back to our hotel. It was SO crowded! We were not prepared for it at all. We were being pushed along and even though I thought that we wouldn’t be able to get on the train, we ended up in the centre of the carriage and could not move at all. We avoided travelling during peak hours after hearing that the Tokyo subway employs people to help shove passengers on the trains, but this was a taste of how crowded it could get.
During our trip, we went to Roppongi and Shinjuku to check out the nightlife. In Roppongi, there are many bars, restaurants and clubs. We were surprised by the number of foreigners who looked like bouncers and were going around trying to drum up business for the bars and clubs. We ended up in a basement bar which had people dancing around a large table. We saw quite a few people who were in the bar on their own. The funniest incident was when a guy tried to get my husband to dance with him while I was just stood there next to them.
As for Shinjuku, there were a couple of interesting areas – Kabukicho and Golden Gai. Kabukicho, the red light district, felt quite dingy, with neon lights and posters of the hosts and hostesses. For those who are not familiar with the Japan red light district, it is mainly made up of host and hostess clubs, where good looking men and women entertain and accompany the opposite sex. We walked around the district and saw a few hosts and hostesses in action, but did not enter any of the clubs.
Golden Gai is an area with over 200 small bars and eateries. I mean it when I say small – most of the bars are only as big as a single bedroom and can only sit about half a dozen customers. As the bars were on narrow streets which almost seem like backstreets, fairly quiet except for a few locals and each had its own theme, it felt like this area had stood still for decades while the rest of Shinjuku had developed around it.
These are the highlights of our time in Tokyo. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll cover Kyoto.