It starts, as these things regrettably tend to nowadays, with bankruptcy. Specifically, that of JAL, Japan's national airline. They announced it a few months ago - currently, the airline still seems to be struggling through, but they're in the process of scrapping several of their routes.
London to Tokyo isn't one of the routes under threat, but that wasn't immediately obvious back when we were planning our 2010 visit to Japan - for which, in case you haven't realised by now, nearliveblogging commenced about one and a half paragraphs ago. Aside from 2002, when we flew Austrian Airlines by mistake, The Belated Birthday Girl and I have used JAL as our airline of choice whenever travelling to Japan. But with the whole company being, as it were, up in the air back when we booked all this, we realised that travelling with JAL would be a risky bet. Someone else would have to fly us to Tokyo.
Still, just a couple of weeks ago we didn't know if there'd be any planes in the sky at all, so we can't really complain too much. And it has to be said that for a holiday weekend in both London and Tokyo, the flight is pretty darn quiet. We pull into Narita Airport about half an hour before time, and make the train and subway journey across town pretty painlessly to get to our first hotel almost exactly at noon - the Andon Ryokan near Minowa station.
There are certain Japanese hotels that make a feature of making things as easy as possible for foreign tourists. The Kimi Ryokan in Tokyo is the classic example listed in the guidebooks, and the Andon appears to be working along the same lines. Both have huge amounts of English signage and tourist information: both have incredibly helpful English-fluent staff: both use their lobby areas as informal gathering areas where guests can get together and act as an informal support network.
The Andon has all this and more. It has a couple of neat extra touches to help foreigners settle in, including a neat photo sheet showing the landmarks to look out for when walking there for the station. (It's only slightly wrecked by Macdonalds changing their global livery since the photo of the local branch was taken.) But the main thing they add is classy minimalist style to a cheap and cheerful ryokan. The rooms may be tiny - a mere 4 tatami mats in size, compared with the minimum of six I'm used to - but as long as you can squeeze your luggage into the small amount of space left once you unfurl your futon, that's all you need. And the designerest touch of them all is the hotel jacuzzi, designed by local pop artist Mie Ishii in high graffiti art style. Each room can book it out for half an hour a day free of charge, and our 5pm slot does a lot to alleviate the worst effects of jetlag.
But before then, we've got a few things to do to keep us awake till bathtime. We have business to attend to in Ueno station, so we start off there to buy our tickets for our onward journey on Tuesday. We're delighted to discover that unlike four years ago, Japan Rail seems now to be able to cope with Western credit cards. We grab coffee and a bun at Andersen's bakery in the station, pause briefly to marvel at a £28 t-shirt on sale at the Hard Rock Cafe featuring Hello Kitty in heavy metal pose, and then head off to Ueno Park for a bit of a wander.
This is where it becomes apparent that we've picked a strange time to come to Tokyo. It's the weekend in the middle of Golden Week, a four-day collection of public holidays that most Japanese take as their main week of holiday. So the residential areas, such as the one where our hotel is, are full of deserted streets and closed premises. Meanwhile, public areas such as Ueno Park are crammed full of families, and the odd surprise like a small group of costumed rockers having an impromptu hop by the fountain. Despite the crowds, it's a nice relaxed atmosphere, making for a fun afternoon out requiring very few brain functions.
After our bath, it's obviously time for dinner, but with closures for Golden Week it's hard to know what'll be open. Obligingly, one of the staff from the Andon makes some phone calls, and a couple of minutes later we're off to the Manisu okonomiyaki restaurant down the road. Here's what The Belated Birthday Girl thought: "a nice local okonomiyaki place, obviously popular with the locals, friendly, and suited our jetlagged needs. My seafood one was had a good mixture and lots of it, and it was fun mixing it all up and cooking it for myself." The same applies to my Mannis house special, basically a ham and cheese pancake with a full English breakfast on top. They have an English menu to help you out, a palimpsest of corrections and corrections to corrections but at least you can work out what they've got.
We're too tired to do much else when we get back apart from partake of the Andon's free green tea and look through their 400 strong DVD rental library. Interesting to note that someone with either no sense of irony or a massively overdeveloped sense of irony has hired Lost In Translation for the night. Instead of making rude enquiries about film Break Fart Of Champions is meant to be, we rent a couple of yukata at ¥300 and turn in for a 10.30pm crash.
I awake after that totally refreshed and ready to go for the day, and check my watch. It's half past midnight. This could be a long night.
The next day, we start off by putting on the telly for some live Japanese news - sadly, it looks like The BBG's favourite sports reporter has either left the show or is taking Golden Week off. Still, no time to dwell on that: after a shower and a breakfast set, we head out to the Park Tower for a movie or twelve. This is part of the ongoing Image Forum Festival of experimental shorts, and we've got The BBG's Tokyo-based friend Miki to thank for us being there. We found the Festival website and made the decision to go, but it was Miki who spotted that it wasn't being held in the Image Forum cinema itself as we thought, but in an exhibition room in the Park Tower complex.
Ticket information on the site is pretty much invisible, but when we get there there are people happy to sell us tickets on the door. There are also free programme notes on the door, which inform us for the first time that the particular screening we've chosen - a collection of Japanese animated shorts - has no Japanese dialogue in it at all. This being an experimental festival, the shorts tend to be either surreal fantasies, or abstract non-narrative pieces, and for my money the latter come off best today. The purely abstract TAKUBODA, in particular, has a lovely story behind it - a 1975 painting-onto-celluloid short by Taku Furukawa has been reworked 34 years later into jumping CG cubes by Noriyuki Boda. By comparison, the surreal imagery of something like Keiji Aiuchi's Passing/All Is Nothing is too disjointed to register as anything other than single images. Kotaro Tanaka is the one animator who stands out, primarily for having two very different shorts in this programme: the whimsical getting-up vignette Mornin', and the eyebuggering noisefest Varfix.
There are Q&As with several of the animators afterwards, but they're all in Japanese, and we haven't time to stay for them anyway, as Miki is meeting us in Excelsior Coffee downstairs. A quick drink, and then we're off to one of the lovely bits of serendipity to come out of this holiday - a free gig by the Soil&'Pimp'Sessions piano trio spinoff J.A.M., held at the Roppongi Hills Arena as part of the free Tokyo M.A.P.S. Festival. The place is packed, with a respectful crowd who applaud wildly between numbers and after solos. I get told off for taking the above photo of the band with my mobile, which surprises me as I'm sure the first time I saw mobile photography at gigs was in Tokyo eight years ago. As for the band, it's a comparatively sedate set for a general audience, though bits of their usual Death Jazz fury pop through here and there.
Roppongi Hills is a massive place, so we spend a bit more time there after the gig. We grab a late lunch at Mamekin, a yummy combination of gyoza and noodles - The BBG says "Although there may not be much for the non meat eater, this made an enjoyable lunch stop. The spicy noodles with black sesame were very tasty - and meant the small bits of meat in it were not noticeable - and the vegetable spring rolls were excellent". We pick up a couple of Tokyo guides at the Aoyama Book Center, and again ask Miki to help us out with buying tickets from Lawson for the silliness we have planned on the last night of our holiday. We also peek in at the multiplex to see if there's anything worth watching (short answer: no) and note in passing that the info board assumes that all films are in English, only giving you language details when the film's in a non-standard tongue such as, erm, Japanese.
Having wrung Roppongi Hills dry, we look in my newly-purchased Time Out guide for suggestions on where to go next, and end up at Roppongi Hills imitator Tokyo Midtown. Its main attraction is the 21_21 Design Sight, a design museum with a series of one-off exhibitions. Currently it's showing Post-Fossil, where designers from all over the world play with the concept of using the materials we have left once all the fossil fuels have been exhausted. "Like a Fred and Wilma Flintstone of the future," suggests curator Li Edelkoort, a reference that needs an explanatory footnote in the Japanese version of the programme. It's an exhibition that's a little too reliant on its own explanatory notes for comfort - many of the pieces on display don't really make sense without their accompanying text. Also, considering the large amount of tactile material on display, it's massively irritating that you're not allowed to touch anything. The first piece you see as you enter is a self-assembly chair by Marjin van der Poll, consisting of a cube of stainless steel and a mallet to bash a bum-shaped groove into it. Its title is Do Hit: nobody seems to have noticed the irony of slapping a Please Do Not Touch label on it.
We wander round Midtown for a bit longer, taking in an open-air German sausage festival, and a lovely cafe called Koots that magnificently applies the Starbucks sales model to a series of variations on Japanese green tea. (I can recommend the matcha smoothie, which gives you a much higher class of brain freeze when chugged.) A quick walk round Shinjuku to take in the night atmosphere, and then we take our leave of Miki, dashing back to the Andon for a last soak in the Mie Ishii bath and a late-night convenience store dinner.
The BBG's Tokyo Photos