We pick up the story after a few days of sushi, gambling and temples. Now to continue where we left off…
Business is Booming
A new day, and time to focus on another area on the vast map of Tokyo. I returned to where I had been the first day to explore the temple which I left behind. This was Senso-ji, the biggest of them all. The adjoining Nakamise Market led in an arrow straight line to the enormous gates of the temple. Further into the courtyard thick clouds of incense smoke were cast into the air from devotees prayers.
The smoke which rises from the mountains of burning incense seems to have added significance in Japan. Faithful worshippers walked up to the burning pile and whaft the thick clouds towards them before inhaling deeply. Along side were omikuji, a very common site throughout Japanese temples and shrines. These were fortune telling papers, which are randomly selected by shaking a box of sticks and having one poke out at the bottom. This stick has a number designated to which piece of papers you need to take with your fortune on it.
Next I had a market to hit a few miles away. Ameya Yoko Market wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary from what you might expect; clothes vendors, heaps of beautification stores and a separate alley dedicated to a plethora of food items, some of which were prepared right then and there. To spice things up a bit, I decided to have wander through some of the businesses which have set a foundation in both Tokyo and the greater Japanese cultures. These were the gaming halls.
From the outside they don’t seem like anything too extravagant, you’d barely notice them if it wasn’t for a few flashing lights and game-like beeps from within. Once through the doors however, you enter an epileptics heavy acid trip. It’s fucking discombobulating. Rows upon rows of identical neon-flashing machines seizures beeping and buzzing at the same rate as a Star Wars battle. Frantic punters dishing out coins after coins into bright seizure-inducers in the vain hope of winning big, or just an hour of relief from their stress-ridden lives.
Many of the games are known as pachinko machines, which are very clever loopholes around the laws as most forms of gambling are in-fact illegal in Japan. These coin-operated machines allow the players to win a number of small metal balls. Legally they cannot be exchanged for cash, however they can be traded for “tokens” which can be exchanged for cash in another establishment. Clever.
What I found most fascinating were the punters. I expected these places to be like the betting shops back in the UK. Old dishevelled men reeking of cut-price larger sinking their weekly government benefits, screaming in defiance at the “rigged” roulette machines. Not so. Any and every walk of life found themselves in these halls. Men decked out in their finest business suits, kids only recently out of puberty, business-women in their classiest dresses, nobody was immune.
And oh how the management knew how to squeeze every last penny out of these people. Each machine came equipped with a cup-holder, and incredibly unusual for Japan, each punter were given their own ashtrays to add to the thick smog that drifted above the machines. Japan these days are very strict when it comes to smoking, banning it in most public places, but not in these halls. You wouldn’t want the punters to leave their machines and stop spending would you, not even for a minute. Isn’t that illegal? Well then you’ll have to remember who runs the show in these establishment across Japan; the Yakuza. Go ahead and debate your non-smoking policies with them.
Although it was spectacular to observe, like creatures in a LED-lit zoo, gambling machines isn’t my thing. Soon however I did find a similar avenue which did appeal to me. Somewhere which had the exact same vibe of bright lights, deafening beeps and caustic smoke clouds. These were the arcades.
Suffice it to say, video games are a big deal in Oriental Asia, and for many its life. Its easy to see how much of a tar-pit these places really are. Again I observed the breadth of life spread over its three floors, each with their own type of games.
First were the crane games; no real appeal to me. Second were various driving games. I’m in Japan, how could I not race some Mario Karts?! The third had your classic arcade games of the 4 buttons and a joystick configuration. I just had to indulge in another of my childhood favourites and a Japanese staple; Tekken. It was all fun and games until a child fucking annihilated me, wasting my 100 yen before I even got a punch off. Then comes the screaming voice within, which every single soul in the establishment and the gaming halls must hear endlessly; Just one more time.
I pulled myself away before I spent my entire travel budget, and headed for another type of market. This one however was much more modern, typical of the city. This was the most famous market of them all; Akihabara. Essentially this was a single department store; 7 floors of absolutely fucking everything you could imagine, and I mean everything. From tech gear to home appliances to video games to clothes to model cars to TV’s, telescopes, VR and everything in-between.
It was fascinating being able to walk around each floor marvelling at the vast supply of merchandise they had, and impossible not to play around with a few. This brought my first opportunity to use VR, which blew my fucking mind and of those people who passed me as I screamed for dear life at the approaching zombie hordes in my vision.
The Last on the List
Over the past few days I had knocked out the majority of my targets in Tokyo. In an attempt to save money in this ridiculously expensive city, I aimed for a cheap day. Easily done, as every single temple throughout the city is absolutely free. Revolutionary!
My target was a temple that had one hell of a story; Sengakuji Temple. A surprisingly unassuming temple for the history it has. Void of any people and slotted away deep in the winding alleys, this is told to be the temple from which soto Buddhism originated, the religion which is most practised in Japan to this day. The temple is also known as the temple of the 47 Ronin, samurai which had no master.
The story goes that their leader (Lord Asano) attacked his royal adviser (Lord Kira) for insulting him and the way of the samurai. As punishment, Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, the Japanese method of ritual suicide, which he did. His 47 faithful samurai (now known as Ronin as they were without a master) could not accept this decision, and seeked revenge. They stormed Kira’s mansion and brought his decapitated head back to the temple where they lay it next to their master’s grave as retribution. Each of the 47 were then themselves ordered to commit seppuku, which each did so with honour for their master. Japanese honour is a strong force which survives to this very day, this is one of the many examples.
A F*ck-Up and Getting F*cked Up
That night I slept early, as I had a very important target to hit very early the next morning. Another famous Japanese staple, a unique spectacle; the tuna auction. It’s a spectacle that must be earned, as they begin as early as 5am and only last an hour or two.
As my hostel was about an hour away, I decided I might as well stay up for fear of not waking up in time. The plan went well, even grabbing the first subway of the day along with the committed workers. I arrived with just enough time to catch the auction before it finished…only to find it was closed. I had picked the one day of the week they weren’t open. Fucking devastated.
Needless to say, with the failure of the market and my utter exhaustion, I had no choice but to head straight back to the hostel and catch up on the sleep I had missed. However I was determined not to let the day go to waste. Luckily there was another attraction which only really started at night. Those were the Nonbei Yokocho’s, otherwise known as the drunkards alley.
In pure Tokyo style of taking full advantage of every last inch of property provided, these were tiny bars squeezed into the minimal amount of space available. They literally would only consist of the bar itself and however many people could fit around it, sometimes as little as 4 people. It really is an unusual scene of an entire bar effectively squeezed into the size of a cupboard.
I had already had a look at the bars of Shibuya, so for that night I decided to head for the Golden Gai. This consisted of 4 alleyways packed from one end to the other with these tiny bars. The next question was which bar to choose? A particularly difficult question with many things to consider.
First off, not every bar will allow foreigners, or as they put it; “members only”. Understandable really. If it is your local I’m sure it would get quite annoying having herds of tourists sticking cameras in with choruses of “wow, look! It’s so small”. Another consideration is some places have a cover charge; a flat rate you must pay before you’ve even sat down.
After a couple of rounds through the alleyways I picked my first (an attractive Japanese girl behind the bar always helps). I sat slowly sipping my drink as she told me a bit of the alley’s history as well as her life. Turns out couple of decades ago these alleyways were brothels, where the hard working man would come to blow off some steam. That explains the number of signs posted around to the effect of “No suspicious”.
The other fact was that the bars these days really was more of a tourist attraction than for the locals. That’s not to say that many locals didn’t spend their nights in the alleyways, just these days there were more foreign cameras flying about and survive due to the novelty.
I bid farewell to the pretty barmaid and decided to go round taking a few photos (which signs indicated that you shouldn’t). On one of my rounds I passed the open doors of a bar filled to the brim with foreign faces and an empty seat. I thought it would be a good place to have one drink…one drink…
10+ drinks and a shit-load of yen later, me and the veteran patrons had commandeered the bar and made it our own. The barmaid was a super cute and unbelievably accommodating girl called Ako whom had no idea what she had started. She was incredibly tolerating of the incessant yelling, insistence to play our own drunken ballards and general debauchery. The United Nations of Wales, Australia, America, Canada and wherever the fuck else had turned that bar into THE bar in the Golden Gai that night. A perfect farewell to the absolute chaos which is Tokyo.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.