The problem with visiting a city for the second time - even when the trips are six years apart - is that you get a feeling you've pretty much seen everything already - certainly the main sights and attractions on your A-list. So you are now left with two choices.
You can either back-track and visit places you've been to before, which I'm not enthusiastic about simply because you can never recapture the magic and wow factor of that first time. Or you can look further afield and venture outside of the city on a day trip.
Seeing more of Japan
Over the past couple of centuries, Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, has developed from a small fishing village into Japan's largest port and shipbuilding centre. It's also Japan's second largest city in terms of population (don't say I never teach you anything)
Yokohama seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore a little more of Japan itself and get out of the big city and take a look at....er....a slightly smaller one.
A wonderful train system
Getting to Yokohama from Tokyo is a breeze. There are numerous train lines connecting the two cities (I won't bore you with the details) and the journey takes 30-40 minutes. Because there is no visible ‘divide' between the two cities - such as fields of cows and a nice bit of countryside - you almost get the sense Yokohama is just one big extension of the capital. But on arrival, there is definitely a different ‘feel' to the place.
Yokohama makes the perfect day out even if the idea of a port and shipbuilding doesn't exactly set your pulse racing. But I urge you to stick with it.
We got off the train at Yokohama's main station. It really is glorious. By jingo, do the Japanese know how to construct a major train station. Everywhere is light and airy with attractive shops, restaurants and coffee bars and the occasional plaque or bronze statue to pique your interest. Even the spotlessly clean platforms sparkled in the morning sunlight.
What a contrast to many of their European counterparts - dark, dank subterranean caverns with weathered gypsies begging for your small change and notices on every wall reminding you to beware of pickpockets.
Unfortunately there was precious little time to linger. We had a full day in Yokohama ahead of us so we made our way to the tourist information center. We had done some research on Yokohama while back home in Thailand and knew that Japan's second city had far too much to see in a single day. We would have to be selective.
The kindly lady in the tourist information center spread out a largish map on her desk and marked out a recommended walking route based on what attractions we wanted to see. Our walk would start at the station and finish in Yokohama's Chinatown on the other side of the city. "You can always catch the subway train back if you are feeling tired or it's getting late" she said.
As we left the station, I noticed a smallish construction consisting of four clear perspex walls. It was about the size of one of those smoking rooms that you get at large international airports. And that's exactly what it was - a smoking area. Another way that Japanese culture has changed is the way it frowns on people walking along the street and puffing away on a cigarette. Instead, smokers are now confined to satisfying their addiction from behind perspex.
There were about half a dozen smokers in there and not one of them looked like they were enjoying the moment. They all wore guilty expressions as if indulging in something illicit and underhand. Further proof I suppose - if you ever needed it - of just how much smokers are being pushed further and further to the edges of modern society.
The area immediately around Yokohama train station is of little interest - it's mainly flyovers and pedestrian bridges and it's all a bit grey and concrete. But walk half a kilometer towards the city center, pause at the first major intersection to take in your surroundings - and your mouth falls open. This isn't a modern city. It's positively futuristic!
Why had no one told me about Yokohama before because it looked incredible? Everything, and I mean everything, looked as though it had been planned down to the last detail in order to make the city a place its inhabitants could be proud of. The buildings, the roads, the flower-beds, the footpaths - even the fire escapes were aesthetically pleasing and looked as if someone had polished them to a shine that very morning.
I felt like I was playing the lead role in a science fiction movie. All that was missing was a few locals out walking their dog, all wearing silver suits (including the dog) and sipping liquid protein meals from a plastic pouch.
A boy once again!
We soon found ourselves in the Minato Mirai area of the city (Minato Marai literally means ‘future port') It's an office, entertainment, shopping and cultural area located on Tokyo Bay and home to many of Yokohama's best attractions.
Our first port of call was the magnificent Hara Model Railway Museum - admission price a very reasonable 1,000 Yen. The museum was opened in 2012, mainly to show off Mr Nobaturo Hara's incredible collection of model trains. And what a collection it is! According to the museum website, it's the largest collection of faithfully recreated model trains in the world.
You can have no interest in model trains whatsoever but I defy anyone not to be impressed by the rooms full of miniature carriages and engines fastidiously displayed in glass showcases and the highlight of the show - a fully working model of the city complete with its own intricate railway network. There's just something about watching model trains that makes you feel like a young boy again. I felt very happy.
But what makes the Hara Museum extra special is the staff. There are people who are passionate about what they do. There are those who are extremely passionate about what they do. And then there are people who spend all day tinkering about with model trains. Put a station-master's cap on their head and a flag in their hand and I'm convinced they could go without food and water for days.
The museum staff were almost all retired pensioners but their English was excellent. I engaged one or two of them in conversation - one old boy even gave me a hat to wear - and you could tell that just talking about trains was enough to bring them to a state of rapture. These are people who dream about diesel locomotives in their sleep. They go about their work with immeasurable pride and we came away from the museum with nothing but good thoughts towards the world.
Kids and more kids!
Next on the agenda was something for the wife - The Anpanman Children's Museum and Mall. Anpanman is apparently a children's comic book super hero and very little escapes my wife in the world of Japanese comic books.
Alas, we were in the middle of the Japanese school holidays and whilst we expected there to be a few children around, we didn't expect quite this many. The museum was bedlam! And that was just the entrance area. It was as if every naughty child in Yokohama had been let out of their cages and strait-jackets for the day. The wife and I took one look at each other and it was a case of two minds with a single thought. We decided to give the museum a wide berth.
One thing every visitor has to do in Yokohama is go round on the Cosmo Clock 21, the large ferris wheel that you can see from just about anywhere in the neighborhood. The Cosmo was the largest ferris wheel in the world until Osaka trumped it in 1997 with an even bigger one (the swines!)
Yokohama's wheel is part of an amusement park that has several big rides and a selection of traditional fairground stalls where you attempt to stick three darts in a card or get balls to stay in a bucket (that sort of thing) and while it won't give Disneyland any sleepless nights, it was a fun place to spend an hour even if fairgrounds and all that go with them are not really my bag.
However, I'm always up for the challenge of knocking down six tin cans with three bean bags. I was determined to win my wife one of those huge Japanese cuddly toys because we'd seen a young couple strolling around the fairground with one earlier and I was determined not to be outdone.
Sad to say I was unsuccessful with three attempts so we wandered into an amusement arcade and tried our luck on the endless rows of grab machines and ‘penny falls' - and waved goodbye to even more of our holiday spending money in the process.
Oh, the ferris wheel was superb by the way and when you got to the very top of the revolution, you gained a whole new perspective on just what a magnificent city Yokohama is.
But before we leave the fairground, let me give a special mention to the cute, giggly Japanese girls who ran the tin can stalls. What a pleasure it was to do business with them despite walking away without a prize. How refreshing to see fairground workers create a sense of fun and enjoyment. Such a marked contrast to your average British fairground where some weather-beaten, bearded female with meaty arms will shout "come on luv, try your luck' without even removing the fag from her cakehole.
Mr Ando's cup noodles
Now then, if you thought there couldn't possibly be anything interesting about a simple pot of cup noodles, you couldn't be more wrong. You've obviously never been to Yokohama's Cup Noodle Museum, which was our next stop.
The museum celebrates the life story and work of Momofuku Ando, ‘the father of instant noodles'. In 1958, Mr Ando beavered away in a shed at the bottom of his Osaka garden to perfect a method of adding hot water to dry noodles to produce an instant, tasty snack. Story has it that he slept for four hours a day and never took a day off. The rest is history. Packet chicken ramen became an overnight sensation and the cup noodle followed in 1971 when the entrepreneurial Mr Ando, during a business trip to America, got the inspiration for putting noodles in a cup along with a plastic fork.
The Cup Noodle Museum was worth every yen of the admission price. There's a whole room of display cases devoted to showing how the cup noodle packaging has evolved over the decades. There are interactive displays, even a faithful reconstruction of Mr Ando's garden shed. For an extra charge, visitors can sit in an art studio and design their own noodle cup - something which looked to be enormously popular with the youngsters.
Visitors are then encouraged to take a seat in the museum's very own movie theatre to watch a 20-minute animated film of Mr Ando's life and the birth of his invention. The short film was wonderful. It would have been even more enjoyable if there had been English subtitles.
"You would think that with all the non-Japanese-speaking visitors who come here, they'd have put subtitles on the screen" I remarked to my wife as we left the theatre.
"You have to wear the English language headsets" she replied.
"What English language headsets?"
"Didn't you see them at the entrance?" she said, in a manner that suggested I'd completely lost the plot.
"So let me just have a recap" I said, "You've sat in that movie theatre with me and watched a film that you can't understand - despite knowing that there were English language headsets available. In other words, you kept that crucial information from me.
She confessed that I had pretty much got the story straight. It's times like this when I realize why I love her so much.
A disappointing end
We then enjoyed a walk along Yokohama's charming harbor front and had a quick look at something called the red brick warehouse (a huge dockside warehouse that had been converted into retail outlets) We weren't in the mood for a shopping center of any description so we pushed on to our final destination - Yokohama's Chinatown. It turned out to be the day's biggest disappointment.
I guess I have an image in my mind of what I expect from Chinatowns around the world. There should be firecrackers, mad prancing dragons, gaudy elaborate face masks, steamed buns sold from a handcart and old Chinese fellas wearing grubby singlets and pushing barrows down narrow lanes.
Yokohama's Chinatown had none of that. It announces itself to the world with an enormous archway that says ‘Welcome to Chinatown' and immediately loses heart. We wandered along its busy streets and after barely half an hour, became jaded by reading too many expensive restaurant menus (and my god were they expensive) and browsing too many gift shops stocked floor to ceiling with the most hideous tourist tat. I'm not sure exactly who the neighborhood was trying to appeal to and attract.
But Chinatown notwithstanding, we had thoroughly enjoyed our day in amazing Yokohama. If you ever find yourself in Tokyo for an extended period - don't miss it!