Konnichiwa from Japan!…
Dazzling neon lights, the sweetest, most polite of people, UNBELIEVABLE food, a city where tradition meets the future. First stop, Tokyo!
*Warning! I’ve got sooo much to say about Japan*
Friday 2nd February 2018
I got to Japan via a stop off at Manilla Airport, Philippines. In my original itinerary, I was supposed to be making a stop here to visit some schools as part of a voluntary teaching project . However, given the challenges with training in Bali and with really wanting to put my all in to my efforts for the marathon, I decided to miss it out this time round and spend some extra time in Japan. In hindsight, I’m so glad I did as I would have been a bit rushed otherwise. Something had to give. And on this occasion, whilst I would still love to visit sometime, I wanted training to take priority.
I am so, so excited to be here. Race aside, I’ve heard and read such amazing things about this county. My flight got in to Tokyo, Haneda just after midnight so rather than trying to navigate around a new country and whole new continent in the dark (where the subway system shuts down through the night) I decided to stay somewhere close to the airport for the night.
Haenda Mystays was the perfect location, checked in and straight to sleep.
Saturday 3rd February 2018
I couldn’t check in to the hostel I wanted to stay in until tomorrow, so I decided to re book at Mystays for another night rather than transfer again and again. Today became a bit of a planning day; booking up accommodation, tickets, train pass and other bits and pieces I will need over the next month.
Not ideal being so far out still, but it did mean I had another day to adjust to the culture/ climate shock before any galavanting.
Sunday 4th February 2018
Japan is cold! My goodness, it’s chilly. I know being from Scotland I really should be used to it, but coming to this from truly tropical conditions where the average temperature has been 25-30 degrees most days for the past few months is definitely a bit of a shock to the system. I’m a wee bit out of practice at being Scottish!
I transferred to Asakusa, staying at the Wired Hostel for the next few nights. A friend had told me to expect to feel a little overwhelmed by all of the transport options in Tokyo and perhaps a little lost. Initially, yes I can see what she meant. EVERYTHING is in Japanese, including many of the maps, though lots of things are translated in to English throughout the city. Once you work out the colour coding of the subway lines and so long as you have half an idea in advance of your final destination, you soon become familiar with it and it was super easy to get around, not to to mention efficient.
Successfully navigating the JR (Japan Rail) and subway lines, I made it out to Asakusa. This part of the city has an ‘old Tokyo’ feel to it with beautiful shrines, gardens and traditional little shops and side street market places. The hostel was just a couple of blocks away from the Sumida River which would become my playground for the next few days. With a fab view of the Sky Tree in the background it made for the perfect spot. Wired is a brilliant hostel. Beyond clean, (which I soon realised is like everywhere else in Japan) great location, super friendly and helpful staff and brilliant facilities.
I lost no time in getting out to get my Sunday long(ish) run done. Checked in, runners on. Today’s session was lighter in terms of volume but quite a tricky one to pace and get right; 10 minutes warm up, 20 minutes @ marathon pace, 4 easy recovery, 16 minutes @ half marathon pace, 3 minutes easy recovery, 12 minutes @ threshold pace, 3 minutes easy recovery, 8 minutes @ threshold pace, 3 minutes easy recovery, 4 minutes hard, then cool down, 10 miles in total at 9:02 pace. Wawh, 10 miles just flew by and at an average pace a few seconds quicker than what I hope my marathon pace to be. That’s the great things about these kinds of sessions, because you’re so focused on keeping track of the time and the pace you’re working at, they tend to go in really quickly.
There was a great supermarket just across from the hostel so after my shower I went there to stock up on some supplies for the week ahead – Google translate camera at the ready!
Monday 5th February 2018
Woohoo! The marathon flags are up! First sighting on my way to the subway today. The fab thing about having the luxury of being in these locations ahead of race day or race week is that you get to see the set up side of things which you might otherwise miss out on and that undoubtedly adds to the excitement.
But…oh no! My left foot is feeling rather stiff today. Not exactly painful, but it was making me limp a little. So of course, I’d immediately self-diagnosed a stress fracture. How ridiculous! I do know loads better than to ask Dr Google these types of questions but I couldn’t help myself. Yet, strangely I wasn’t too worried about it. Today was a rest day anyway so hopefully some walking around will help whatever it is to loosen off.
First stop in today’s adventures was Takeshita Street which is a very random but very fun street full of fashion shops geared to teenagers. Full of stalls with lots of random sweets and treats, it is worth a wander.
The Meiji Jingu Temple and Shrine, thought to be Tokyo’s grandest shrine and the surrounding gardens were beautiful and although it was cold I spent quite a wee bit of time wandering around there, strangely peaceful for all it was so busy. There is also an impressive display of sake barrels, donated from brewers around Japan each year for ceremonies and festivals at the shrine.
I probably looked a bit like the Michelin man with all of my layers on to keep warm. Much to my sister’s concern and disgust, I don’t have a big, warm jacket with me. I then walked to Shibuya to the famous Shibuya crossing. Now that really is something to see! They reckon it is the busiest intersection in the world and in rush hour it is estimated than 1000 people cross at any one time as the lights change. I managed to get some great videos too and the best spot to catch all the action (not by coincidence) is from above at the second level of Starbucks, of course whilst sipping on a wee green tea at the same time.
Tuesday 6th February 2018
This morning I wandered around the intriguing little side streets in Asakusa before going to Sensō-ji Temple and shrine. It is Tokyo’s oldest and most significant temple and one of the big landmarks on the marathon route. The impressive colours make it a great sight by day and at night time when it is illuminated.
I took the subway out to Tokyo Station to hit up Ramen Street for lunch – the only place in the world you’ll order lunch from a vending machine and it be some of the best food you’ll ever have. This spot has the most scrumptious noodles ever and is all nestled in a small underground alley in the station. It’s quite a unique experience; eight great Ramen stops all under one roof. I now realise that some of the best food you’ll eat in Japan is at train stations. They are by no means like the food courts we have back home.
The tricky part was choosing a restaurant. Each had lines of people waiting outside, which is always a good sign so I didn’t think I could really go wrong. I opted for the one with the longest line, Rokurinsha, apparently the store that originally served the first bowl of tsukemen ramen (where the noodles and broth are served separately).
Ramen Street operates on a vending machine system to make ordering a wee bit quicker. The server directs you to the machine when it’s your turn and thankfully there are almost always pictures on the selections so you can make a reasonable guess at what you are ordering, the way most of my meal choices went in Japan… “well it looks like it could be…”
Not that it bothers me at all in the slightest, but some places I’ve visited seem to find the idea of someone eating on their own a bit awkward. But here in Japan, eating solo is super common, in fact, it almost seems the norm. Most restaurants have counter seating as standard which is perfect and not only that, but the counter is usually overlooking the kitchen where you can sit and watch the chefs hard at work. There is also plenty of tasty street food options and conveyor belt or stand up sushi joints so no need to feel hesitant about going in to places without company.
Within minutes of sitting down, a hot, steaming bowl of ramen was put down in front of me and it was just delicious. I know it’s part of Japanese culture but I still can’t bring myself to slurp up my noodles and broth the way the locals do. I’m quickly realising Japanese eats could very easily be a blog post all of its own! Food is such a huge part of travelling. I’ve loved trying new things, especially the local delicacies, it’s all part of the experience, part of the culture and of course an important necessity when it comes to training.
Akihabara, Electric Town, aptly named, was next on my list after lunch. To describe it as bustling would be an understatement for sure. The main streets are full of bright lights, games arcades and electronics stores, full of gadgets and gizmos. The scenes were like something you’d associate with a stereotypical Japanese music video; Japanese girls singing, dancing and occasionally screaming (with excitement) outside stores and Maid Cafes to entice you to come inside. I wandered around games arcades, not really my thing, but just to see it. And you really have to see it to believe it! Complete sensory overload between lights, noises and smells. Tokyo takes gaming (and gambling) to a whole new level. People of all ages, completely engrossed in busy screens from grown men in business suits to little old ladies and teenagers, you just have to wander through to see it all and how passionate some people are about this ‘hobby’.
I rounded off the day with a wee visit to the Matcha ice cream store, Suzuki-en. I liked it before but I have a new love of green tea since being in Japan. The store has seven grades of matcha ice cream in terms of strength, the idea being you are supposed to have one scoop of a higher strength and one scoop of a lower strength to taste the difference. Probably the most unique ice cream I’ve tasted and there was matcha flavoured everything in the store to buy and try.
Wednesday 7th February 2018
Unfortunately I couldn’t stay in Wired for the whole time so at check out I moved to Bunka Hostel just down the street. Steady 5 miles at marathon pace for breakfast this morning featuring a side of melon pan when I was done, known locally as the bread that made Asakusa famous. It actually has nothing to do with melon. It’s a kind of sweet bread that bakery, Kagetsudo, has the reputation locally as being the best place to try it. Literally just a little window in the tiniest of side streets that you’d walk past if you didn’t know what you were looking for.
It is frowned upon in Japan to eat whilst walking around or travelling by public transport, goodness knows why this hasn’t caught on in other places. So Kagetsudo will put it in a little bag for ‘mochi-kaeri’ (take away) or you can eat it just inside the store, to enjoy it when it’s still nice and warm.
Today I had set aside most of the day to visit the Chinese embassy to sort out my visa for the next leg of my adventures in Asia. It was too early to organise this before I left home which of course would have been much easier. The word pantomime comes to mind as a result of the hilarity involved in trying to help the Japanese staff understand my itinerary, of course most of which was helpfully in Chinese. However, I think we got there in the end and it should be ready to collect by the end of the week. Phew!
Afterwards I took the subway out towards the Metropolitan Government Building (which is also the start area for the marathon) to visit the free observation deck for views of the city. I spent a little time walking around the nearby Shinjuku Park and then went to a little place for tempura as a late lunch/early tea.
It was exceptional! By no means what we think tempura is at home. I sat watching the locals as I waited on mine being cooked and it gave me a little idea of what to do with all the little dishes to make sure I was eating it ‘properly’ (so many dipping dishes etc and this being the first time I’ve had real tempura before!) It was all going great, and even though I knew one of the pieces was eel, I was quite keen to try it. It was very tasty, in to the teriyaki sauce it went, rice, pickles…delicious. That was until I saw one of the poor little eels (still alive!) being whipped out of a sink full of water by one of the chefs at the counter and swiftly decapitated on the chopping board right in front of me. Well, I guess it doesn’t get any fresher than that!
On the way back to the hostel I took a wander around a Bic Camera Store. It sounds random but this really is a must do for anyone visiting here for the first time. The Japanese take electronics to a whole new level and it really has to be seen to be believed. Close to ten floors full of every kind of gadget you could imagine, and every matching family of accessories to go with said gadgets. I saw a whole three aisles dedicated to blood pressure monitors alone!
Thursday 8th February 2018
The world-renowned, weird and equally wonderful Tsukiji Fish Market!
The world’s largest and busiest fish market is a very popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Whether you like fish or not, you really can’t miss it and being a lover of seafood, I was more than happy to eat my way around the market and overdose Omega-3s for the morning. It is a pretty famous spot in regards to Japan’s food culture, with hundreds of local restaurateurs making their way there daily to hand select their produce. I read that it was best to arrive early and to make sure I had breakfast there too. The morning literally whizzed by, with so many fascinating things to see. Wandering through the tiny lanes, sampling the goods as I went. There’s also lots of stalls selling top class kitchen knives and tools as well as lots of little nik naks for your kitchen…I’m just sorry I can’t cart more things around in my backpack, maybe just as well and I guess it’s ever helpful to the budget.
In the evening, an easy 90 minute run, and a little tour of the bridges along the river. Nice to see the Sky Tree at night time, and the foot is feeling all back to normal. Phew!
Friday 9th February 2018
Fasted threshold run this run this morning, 5×6 minutes with warm up and cool down and then time to get ready for check out to experience my first trip on the Shinkansen, aka bullet train.
I am lucky to be here a little in advance of the marathon, so I’m using the time to explore a little more of the country before coming back to rest up for the big day, though I’m already realising it just isn’t enough time.
Super excited, next stop, Kyoto!