After the previous day's exertions in Yokohama, we decided to stay local. I had promised my wife ‘a shopping day' so today's itinerary consisted of Harajuku and Shibuya, two of Tokyo's trendiest (and busiest) shopping areas.
Anyone who has been with a Thai partner for any length of time will be familiar with the cultural concept of ‘nam jai'. Nam jai is the buying of small gifts or souvenirs for work colleagues and family, just to show you were thinking of them while you were on your travels. The value or quality of the gift doesn't matter; it's the thought that counts.
My wife is something of a nam jai master. She has so many people to buy for and frankly I feel sorry for her having to traipse around stores looking for ideal small gifts when she's supposed to be on holiday. Me? I buy a bag of sweets at the airport for my gym trainer and that's it.
Both the Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods are served by busy train stations on the JR Yamanote line so getting to them from Ueno is a breeze. Harajuku was first.
Fancy walking around dressed as a wizard or a witch or decked out in your full Hello Kitty regalia with oversize pink bows? Then Harajuku is the place to be seen. It's where the younger generation goes to pose and pout in outfits that I'm sure have their parents shaking heads in disbelief.
At the centre of it all is Takeshita Street, a narrow, pedestrianized street crammed with clothes shops selling all manner of stuff that you'd probably never admit to wearing or owning.
There are also some splendid coffee shops and boutique cafes and while my wife and I enjoyed a spot of breakfast, a male customer came in wearing knee-length sheepskin boots and a pvc mini-skirt. He must have been at least 60 years old but no one batted an eyelid (well, except me and the wife) It was just another day in Harajuku.
One of the main reasons tourists and the plain old curious flock to the Harajuku neighborhood is to see the cosplay dressers - young Japanese dressed up as popular cartoon characters and comic book heroes. They are only too happy to pose for photographs. No money changes hands. It's done purely for the love of dressing up and being on show.
Disappointingly, the cosplay dressers only come out on Sundays and we were flying back to Bangkok on that day but at least we got to see them during our first visit.
The sights of Shibuya
We moved on to Shibuya. When you emerge from the chaos of the train station, you're confronted with one of the classic images of Tokyo - the famous five-lane intersection. When the traffic lights turn to red, a mass of humanity makes its way across the streets in all directions. One can only gawp and reflect on how overcrowded some of the world's biggest cities are.
My wife dragged me from shopping mall to shopping mall. Well, perhaps ‘dragged' is an unfair word to use, but since I've recently made a determined effort to de-clutter my life and surround myself with fewer material possessions, window-shopping doesn't have the same appeal as it once did. But I played the role of the dutiful husband and held her six layers of clothing whenever she went into a changing room to try something on.
No trip to Shibuya is complete without a photo taken alongside the bronze statue of Hachiko, the Akita dog who famously waited at the station for his master to come home, even years after the guy had tragically dropped dead at the office. I had seen the statue before but I love the story and I'm a huge dog lover - so I consider paying my respects at the statue akin to some sort of pilgrimage.
On our first visit six years ago, we took some lovely snaps with the statue and all we had to do was push two elderly Japanese women out of the way. But today half of Tokyo had descended on this shady corner outside Shibuya Station and getting up, close and personal with Hachiko was a physical impossibility. I just held my smartphone camera above the crowd, clicked in the general direction of the statue and hoped for the best.
In the evening, we decided on another leisurely stroll around Ueno. When darkness falls and temperatures dip to below zero, you never feel like venturing far.
But let's finish the day by talking about fast food and bicycle lanes.
If you were compiling a list of things that Tokyo probably does better than any other city in the world, I'm sure the list would be impressive. But you won't see cycle lane systems on it. It's strangely reassuring to know that even a city as progressive and technologically advanced as Tokyo can still make a right balls-up of something relatively simple.
Tokyo's city planners need to book a long weekend in Amsterdam and see how it's done. Now that's a city where the cyclist is king. Pedestrians walk on one side of the footpath; cyclists on the other. And both sides are clearly marked as to where you should walk or cycle. Woe betide the pedestrian who strays into two-wheeler territory. I know from painful experience that it's the fastest way to learn some choice words of Dutch and have cyclists wave their angry fists at you.
But we are focusing on Tokyo and their efforts to become ‘The Amsterdam of The Far East' now that the number of cyclists has increased significantly over the past few years (far more of them about compared to when I last came)
Cyclists on one side of the footpath; pedestrians on the other side. Oh, if only it were that simple.
Even though footpath lanes are indicated by faded markings of bicycles and legs, neither the cyclists nor the pedestrians either know where they should be or even care where they should be. The result is chaos. Cyclists weave in and out of both lanes (often at ridiculously high speeds) and the pedestrians do their level best to avoid getting flattened.
But I did well this evening while walking to Central Ueno and back. I was only ‘almost hit by a bicycle' twice - compared to four times the night before.
Tokyo fast food
There is no limit to the amount of money you can burn through in Tokyo and how quickly your wallet empties depends much on your choice of eateries. So here's a bit of bog standard, ‘guide-book style' advice - look out for the Japanese fast-food diners.
I'm sure the Japanese have a name for them but these fast-food joints are similar in layout to an American style diner - at least the ones I've seen in movies - where customers sit at a semi-circular counter and the waiter serves you from the inner space.
When you enter the restaurant, there will be a ticket machine on the wall. You simply select the dish you want from a set of numbered photos, insert your money, and collect a coupon. You then find an empty seat at the counter and hand your coupon to the friendly waiter. No cash changes hands. And within minutes, there's a steaming plate of wholesome Japanese grub put before you. And the prices are extremely reasonable.
We ate at one of these restaurants almost every night and I noticed they seem to be popular with office workers looking for a quick nosebag on their way home. There is no time for pleasantries or chit-chat. The salaryman enters, gets his coupon, and once his meal is served, he shovels down spoonfuls of curry and rice without making the slightest eye contact with anyone around him. Then upon completion, there might be the teeniest and economical nod of gratitude towards the waiter before he heads back out into the cold Tokyo night.
No one lingers over the meal. They are purely re-fueling stops.