Sunday, November 2, 2014

Coasting on a Sunny Halloween: Margate

From Zimbabwe to the Kent coast. Last week I visited Margate for the second time this year, the first instance in June to review the locally famous Ambrette for an Esquire piece on Britain's best Indian restaurants, and the second to spend a bit more time in the town after that previous eye-opening visit.

For me, The Ambrette epitomises Margate's transformation from faded seaside town to arty heavyweight, which was a joy to walk around following an absence of around 25 years since last visiting as a boy. From the new Turner Contemporary Gallery to the Banksy-style wall murals around the Old Town, Margate has much more of an edge to it these days, which is pleasing to see after the evidence of its decline in the last couple of decades.

Was just as pleasing to see the plans of the imminent return of Dreamland, the iconic amusement park I'd visited twice as a boy, which has lain dormant for the last ten years. Was quite poignant during my previous visit to see it for the first time in its sorry state through the railings of the car park it currently dwells within.Will definitely be back for its resurrection next year as the world's first heritage amusement park.

While on the subject of that scene, as I mentioned to the Dreamland representative over afternoon tea at the Sands Hotel, I wish the council would do something with that tower block, and I don't mean knock it down - just paint it or give it some kind of arty cladding, in keeping with the rest of the town's new aesthetic. Many local residents and workers don't seem to mind it, but you can see why it's regarded by many others as a bit of an eyesore.

The view over the sea from the Sands Hotel balcony was my parting shot - not quite a Turner sunset but pleasant enough to see what this coastal spot's still got going for it.

And so concluded my Turner's Margate tour. The hotels I stayed in on each visit are also indicative of what the town has to offer on the accommodation front, from the Edwardian charm of Walpole Bay Hotel to the more contemporary stylings of the newer Crescent Victoria, and both at highly reasonable tariffs.

And as the post title mentions, this visit was blessed by the warmest weather seen on record for Halloween, which made the beach strolls around Botany Bay even better, sans the summer crowds.
So yeah, see you next year Margate.

My latest feature on Margate will appear in Waitrose Weekend magazine in January.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Zimbabwe - the Forgotten Land

It's been another lively year so far for getting about - return visits to Liguria, Czech Republic & Lake District - but all of it blanches in comparison to a 10-day tour in spring of the forgotten land of Zimbabwe in southern Africa, which is starting to bang the tourism drum again after years in the doldrums.

The intro to my recent Rough Guides feature sums up the situation:
"It’s been a tragedy for the people of Zimbabwe that the country has garnered so much unfavourable publicity over the last 10 years, with headlines ranging from its controversial land redistribution programme to the ensuing collapsed economy. In the last few years, however, it's made a steady recovery following a new currency, a fairer power-sharing government, international airlines returning to its capital and the EU having long lifted its travel warnings, helping sow seeds of a tourist renaissance..."

Hwange National Park © Kris Griffiths 2014

As the article goes on to explain there are a host of reasons to visit the now-safe nation, from the remotest of wild safaris to the world's largest waterfall in Victoria Falls, where I foolhardily bungee-jumped 110m into its gorge (YouTube link).

Other highlights include ancient ruined cities like Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo, after which the country was named, and cave paintings in Matobo more than 10,000 years old. Photo opportunities were never-ending.

There was a bleaker side to it all though. So many of the people here are still destitute, as journeys through townships in Harare and Bulawayo made clear. 

They're crying out for the tourist dollar, especially after years of absurd hyperinflation, and your money goes into their hands, not to Mugabe's enduring regime. Unfortunately there were only so many mini bongos I could buy from the market stalls, so did my best to sample as many local brews at bars and hotels as I could outside meal times – all helps.

Hopefully Mugabe will be history sooner rather than later as it's certainly off-putting seeing his framed mug everywhere you look, not to mention his people on the streets while he commissions giant statues of himself with their money.

Bulawayo street dwellers © Kris Griffiths 2014

The good outweighs the bad though, and hope springs eternal.
Give Zim a chance.

(More city & safari photos at my Flickr gallery.
Full Rough Guides feature on reasons to visit Zimbabwe.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Krakow and Auschwitz

So I finally made it to Poland last month, to the medieval city of Krakow and nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Not only was it a particularly memorable weekend thanks to visiting the latter, Krakow itself was memorable for being a great ancient city with a lot more going for it than most non-capitals in this part of the continent.

For a start it has Europe's biggest medieval market square at its heart, with the landmark St Mary's Basilica in one corner and rows of decent-quality restaurants and bars on all sides.

The best waterholes though were in the streets snaking off from the square, a lot of them subterranean spaces hewn out from the under-
lying bedrock so it was almost like drinking in decorated caves – have not seen many such bars anywhere else.

And I've not witnessed a drinking culture so 'spirited' since visiting Dublin, with the big exception that Polish booze is about 3x cheaper so it could get perilous if you're that way inclined (no surprise it's popular with stag parties here).

Away from the square is Wawel Castle and Cathedral on a fortress-like hill overlooking the city. And shortly away from the city is a UNESCO World Heritage attraction, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was once one of the world's largest and most profitable industrial sites when salt was the medieval equivalent of today's oil.

There are 200km of passages to walk through (some of), created by 900 years of mining, and at least 2,000 caverns hewn out, as well as some impressive artistic wall carvings.

The most unforgettable part of the weekend though was always
going to be the journey through one of history's darker chapters at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex (have written a separate, more substantial blog piece on my experience there at my other website). 

It was an aptly grey day weather-wise when I visited but here's a gallery of some of the better photos that came out of the camp buildings and piles of bi-products from its victims.

A sombre note to end the year on, but I'd robustly recommend anyone reading to visit both these places in 2014.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Frenetic in Grenoble

Ok, it's not 'proper mileage' by Tokyo/Calcutta standards but I thought I'd post about a French media trip I went on last month as my personal travels won't be extending beyond Europe until next year at least – time and funds allocated to a pair of stag weekends and weddings as two more mates call time.

When I was invited on a trip to Grenoble and the French Alps by Rhône-Alpes Tourism I accepted only because the programme was full of mountain-based activities of the more enlivening variety than the usual strolling around vineyards and villages itinerary I've seen too many times before.

On the first day was zipwiring from great heights between a mountain and the Bastille hill fortress:

The next day was mountain-biking – proper mountain-biking – at breakneck speeds down some of the steeper slopes of a nearby Alpine mountain, sensibly padded out in full body protection:

On the third and final day, it was up another mountain in the Les Deux Alpes range where we at first watched some paragliders descend through the clouds (sadly paragliding wasn't on the itinerary):

But then we ascended even higher to the glacier at the summit – Europe's largest skiable glacier – where you can snowboard even in the height of summer. Here's me carving out a turn:

Not really. I didn't take my SLR on the piste because it's too clunky, and anyway on only the second run I caught an edge, smacked my head on an icy part of the slope and had to limp back down with a nosebleed, double vision and an instant killer headache. 

It wasn't bad concussion or anything but that was the end of my weekend! Luckily we were flying home that evening anyway, although the flight certainly didn't help the throbbing. Lesson learned: wear a helmet, even if experienced.

The other overarching lesson though was that Grenoble is a great city, classically French and with a wealth of frenetic active options to get involved with in the surrounding mountains – perfect for a stag do, which I'd seriously consider now if I ever get hitched.

My full article will be appearing in two London publications at the end of the month. For a fuller gallery of SLR shots taken check out my Flickr page

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Painful Passage to India - Part 2

So there we both were at the packed departure lounge for Calcutta at Dubai Airport, spaced out and drained from the first leg and six-hour linger, having then searched for a wheelchair for less-mobile mum and now waiting for the first boarding announcement.

Usually the airline lets those in wheelchairs and carrying babies board first but a major hindrance had materialised: a large number of passengers had decided to not so much as queue before the gate as form an impenetrable crowd of bodies and baggage blocking the way for whoever was called first.

Now I could understand the thinking behind this approach if we were about to board a Ryanair short-hop with unallocated seating, when many flyers customarily want first dibs on seats to the extent that they'll start queuing long before boarding, and if you want to guarantee a seat next to your partner then you have join the line.

However, on a long-haul flight with pre-allocated seats, when they call you on incrementally in specific row sections, there is actually zero point in queuing early unless you somehow knew they were calling your seats first. Just standing blank-faced like cows waiting for milking, and then of course refusing to budge when the announcement arrives for rows A to C to please begin boarding.

easy boarding - not realistic

Naturally, those holding the correct tickets can’t get past the unmoving mass, some of whom at the front have the cheek to try walking through anyway, then look affronted when told it’s not their turn by the gate attendant.

And then, to make matters nicely worse, instead of sensibly rectifying the situation with a polite yet firm announcement for everyone to just back away from the gate until your section's been called, the airline then announces for rows D to G to begin boarding, after the previous rows have very visibly been unable to get through.

Hell breaks loose as a mini stampede piles through, Bengali curses and exclamations ringing out as people get shunted. All mum and I can do is hang back shaking our heads at the sheer needless idiocy of it all - I regret not recording the scene with my camera to create a realistic anti-advert for the airline and air travel in general.

flight welcome - not realistic

Once we’d finally scrambled onto the jumbo the bad luck continued. The only thing that had kept me alert and sane on the previous flight was the entertainment screen with games and movies on demand. On this one the screen was too small and hazy and you could only watch what they had chosen at the times they choose. Stuck with an obscure film I could barely see or hear on a much noisier flight, I wasn’t a happy camper.

The only thing that could alleviate the situation was a semi-decent in-flight meal as the extended wakefulness and previous missions had triggered some major rumbles. A dragged-out feed could also kill the best part of an hour too, but it would have to be something soft-ish as my swollen jaw couldn’t handle anything harder than a banana. At long last it arrived.

Lamb medallions - the airline version, ie. having sat around for so long their consistency was closer to pencil erasers than meat. Unable to chew them without wincing and clasping my face, that was the moment I hit rock bottom, 30,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. All my options had dried up. Nothing left could lighten my spirits while trapped in that seat – I couldn’t even drink alcohol as I was on so many antibiotics and feeling rough as fuck. I did try though, and funnily enough it didn’t help.

After managing to scrape together a mini-meal from the limp side vegetables, condiment sachets and mum's donations I had to ride out the rest of the flight playing a primitive version of Battleships on a tiny fuzzy screen that kept freezing, broken up only by an old Bollywood flick with no subtitles.


I spent the last two hours sat motionless with my eyes closed, praying for the release of sleep that wouldn’t arrive until we’d landed and made it out of the airport and back to the hotel. Needless to say that part didn’t go particularly smoothly either but that’s a different story to recount another time, along with the more positive sides to India that weren’t mired in chaos.

In that first jerky hour-long cab ride through central Calcutta however, what should've been an entertaining eye-opening welcome to the city’s bustle seemed like the shrieking road to hell, a ceaseless barrage of noise, fumes and gridlock traffic, emaciated figures looming up at the window at every standstill, mutely begging us captive passengers for currency we didn’t yet possess.

It put things into perspective though – my immediate problems of oral pain, hunger and sleep deprivation would have receded by the next day, the jaw a little longer, although that would be superseded by the affliction cursing most Western visitors here, of which I won’t need to go into much detail.

My hardy mum also needed to dialyse every other day at local hospitals while experiencing the same, struggling with the nature of the beast of a modern-day urban India completely at odds with the more serene memories of her childhood here.

Kris Griffiths BBC link  Kris Griffiths website  Kris Griffiths recent disaster story
Grammarly: 50 Shades of Bullshit

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Painful Passage to India: Part 1

I’ve had some great luck on flights over the years. For my very first long-haul, to LA in the mid-90s, my fam and I were jammily upgraded to business class after my dad’s winning banter with the check-in clerk.

Then in early 2011 I hit it off with a ginger girl sat beside me on a budget flight to Marrakech, telling her she reminded me of Catherine Tate with her Easyjet-orange hair, a bold negging gambit that paid off as we're still together (and she looks nothing like Catherine Tate).

It's not all been good though. A domestic flight to Inverness in 2004 was interrupted halfway by the pilot announcing that due to an “engine fault” we had to turn back to London immediately. Not only was that return descent as trepidatious as can be, we had to wait hours to get back into the air and no one was compensated.

Finally, a night-flight to Tokyo in 2009 turned into a bizarre battle of endurance with the paranoid Japanese man next to me, which ended worse for him than it did for me.

All of them were blown out of the sky though by my Emirates flight to Calcutta last month, during which I reached a nadir of despair that was to become a harbinger of my stay in India.

The prologue to it all is that I’d actually been looking forward to the trip for months, to be finally visiting my Anglo-Indian mum's hometown (she'd not returned since childhood) and to meet at the triennial global reunion in Calcutta hundreds of fellow Anglo-Indians whose dying community I’d just featured for the BBC.

The first major spanner in the works was that a long-dormant wisdom tooth had suddenly chosen to unleash a siren-wailing level of pain in the months leading up to the trip. My dentist told me it had to come out and booked me in for the extraction – five days before the flight.

The op wasn't that bad, the only truly grim moment a preliminary injection penetrating my gum almost to the jawbone, but it was nothing compared to the ensuing days of swelling, inability to eat and ultimately a rank infection necessitating further injections back into the wound.

dentist website photo - a bit unrealistic

By the time I’d arrived at Gatwick with my mum I’d taken over 50 painkillers in five days as well as a triple-course of antibiotics and now a long stretch of anti-malaria pills which, as many will affirm, can make you feel nauseous for hours.

My final problem was that as I can’t sleep on planes the first seven-hour night-leg was spent awake and aware of a new development – altitude pressure causing extraction-wound throbbing. Then after landing in Dubai there were six hours to kill before the connecting flight, so into the bright morning we traipsed, looking for a taxi we could haggle with a handful of old dollars and a five-pound note to drive us round the sights and keep us alert 'til check-in.

classic brave face

Funnily enough we found an Indian driver seduced by the fiver of all things who agreed to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the Burj al-Arab and Khalifa. It was trippy enough beholding these behemoths jet-lagged in blazing sunshine having left freezing dark England ten hours previously, but by the time the next busy departure lounge swam into view five hours later, that’s when things really, really started to get shit.

Continued in part 2: Dubai to Calcutta

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Japan: Tokyo - the city

Unsurprisingly after such a bizarre, sleepless flight I was feeling pretty spaced while waiting at the baggage carousel, then undergoing the rigorous immigration control, keeping my eye out for Ken in case he was on the verge of some kind of breakdown. My own problems began when I arrived at the airport's subway station and had to work out how to get to my hostel in the centre of the city during morning rush hour.

Toky Subway Map (translated)

Unless you’ve assiduously studied the language before arriving, Japanese is indecipherable because of the script it’s written in, symbols not letters, so you can’t look anything up in a phrasebook. And the untranslated Tokyo subway map didn't have the most simple design, just a jumble of coloured spaghetti. Thankfully though, once you’ve made it through the gates armed with the correct ticket, you find that one of the few things in Tokyo written in Roman script is the station name at each stop, in smaller letters beneath the Japanese ones, for the benefit of Westerners. Without them we’d be in trouble.

It took nearly two hours to reach central Tokyo on a rapid bullet train, which is testament to the city’s size, and which is why I specifically booked a hostel right in the centre, as it’s better to be in the middle moving outwards than vice versa. More on Tokyo’s hugeness later. For now, I had a fresh problem to face, namely that I couldn’t check in to the hostel until 2.30pm, so had to walk the streets for the next four hours 
after dumping my rucksack there. Having just experienced the long trippy flight, this next stretch of time was to become even trippier for the very reason that I hadn’t slept on the plane and not much the night before that, had drunk copiously, and was now thrust into an alien world of futuristic skyscrapers overhead and dense swarms of Japanese pedestrians at ground level. 

bullet train

the trains travel so quickly that passengers lose consciousness

Shinjuku, the central district I found myself in, is Tokyo’s main commercial centre, housing the busiest train station in the world (more than 3.5m people passing through it daily last year. Clapham Junction incidentally is the world’s busiest based on the number of trains passing through it). It would be overwhelming to first experience Shinjuku in well-slept sobriety let alone the opposite. I started to see Ken appearing in random places, in restaurant windows, on buses and billboards, once on a street corner waving a joypad at me. I hastened back to the hostel with an hour left on the clock, convinced that Ken was in fact an evil spectre, that the seat beside me on the plane had been empty, and I would now be haunted for the rest of my travels by this game-playing phantom. 

too many people

Mercifully the receptionist clocked the wild look in my eyes and let me in early. I stumbled upstairs to my dorm, crawled straight into my capsule without thinking about it and passed out. Two hours later I was awoken by voices murmuring in Japanese and opened my eyes to find myself inside a large coffin. After a few frozen seconds I remembered that I’d checked into a capsule hostel and that this was my ‘room’ for the next five days. With living-space at a premium in central Tokyo capsules are popular, cheaper accommodation, but are pretty disorientating the first time you wake up in one, and definitely not for the claustrophobic. 

A space-hogger taking the piss by dangling his leg out
He was reported immediately to management

For me, the enclosed cocoons would prove a far better option than standard hostel bunks as you at least had a degree of privacy with the blind pulled. They didn’t prove to be much of a dampener though against the constant racket of backpackers coming and going, and as I would painfully find out: dormitories are no place for a light sleeper, and that's at night let alone daytime.

I peered out of my pod to survey the 28-capsule dorm, just as a fresh bunch of European travellers boisterously spilled in. There was no way I was going to sleep any further in there so, despite my brain crying out for REM, I was forced to bail and hit the streets again until nightfall and conventional bedtime arrived.

A sci-fi monster

If Shinjuku was surreal by day, once darkness falls it hits a new level of visual and aural pandemonium to which photos can't really do justice, a postmodern world of brilliant neon, animated billboards and pounding loudspeakers, requiring only Star Wars-style mini spaceships whistling around the buildings to complete the effect. ‘Hyperreal’ is a term used to describe central Tokyo; also ‘The Big Japple’. Piccadilly Circus is like an average street corner here – how London's Japanese tourists must laugh when they first arrive at Eros. 

And like Piccadilly Circus on a wider scale, there is both motor and human traffic everywhere you look but in far greater quantities; masses of humanity sweeping along the main thoroughfares and arterial side streets branching off in all directions. At major pedestrian intersections like Hachiko Square, the crowds coagulate at the crossroads waiting patiently for the green light then flood out into the square in a 4-way cross-walk (YouTube link). There are 13m people, almost twice London’s entire population, in Tokyo’s core metropolitan area alone, which is the nucleus of the most densely populated urban area in the world, Greater Tokyo (total population 35m). 

The sheer size of the monster only became fully apparent in the stark daylight of the following morning when I went to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the city’s tallest building at 250m. Stepping into the top floor’s observation deck it hits home that Tokyo is more a vast metropolis – several cities merged into one – sprawling outwards in an ocean of concrete as far as the eye can see. Whereas most capitals have only one city centre, here you can see several sprouting upwards in scattered clusters of new skyscrapers. It’s an awesome sight to behold, and a daunting prospect to attempt exploring the whole of it within the timeframe of a week. 

Tokyo Metropolitan Govt Building

front door

inside foyer

at the top

But that’s what I had set out to do that very morning. The night before I'd crawled back into my capsule at 8pm and as expected woke up at the ridiculous hour of 4am, fully charged and raring to go while the rest of the hostel and neighbourhood remained asleep and in darkness. The joys of jet lag. One benefit was having the run of the green at the breakfast area and internet stations, congested at all other times, so I could blitz my emails and photo downloads at leisure over some green tea and rice crackers. Then when 7am rolled around I hit the streets with the first throngs of early commuters to recommence my surreal adventures. Thankfully Ken made no further appearances, though I did later have a dream that he’d committed hara-kiri in the airport amusement arcade. 

Having been warned to avoid the subway during rush hour I spent the whole day just wandering wherever the roads took me following my ascent to the top of the Metropolitan building as soon as it opened at 8.30am, conveniently bypassing the queues and crowds that the day progressively attracts. After resolving not to read any guidebooks and just go with the flow, my marathon walk took me away from the built-up high-tech hubs and through glimpses of old Japan in the form of ancient shrines and the imperial gardens of Chiyoda. 
Fortuitously one shrine was holding a colourful pageant the day I turned up, which made for some cool photos: 

However the roads always eventually led back to more skyscraper constellations, some even more futuristic than Shinjuku’s, like the lustrous steel edifices of Shiodome and the pioneering Asahi and Fuji HQs. I later learnt that the buildings are all so new and innovatively architectured because most of the older ones were destroyed by the great earthquake of 1923, and any remaining ones finished off by Allied bombs in WWII. It’s doubly impressive to behold how such a gleaming metropolis rose from the ashes of complete destruction within half a century. 

Shiodome skyscraper, looks like a sword

Fuji's futuristic HQ, straight out of a sci-fi flick 

Asahi Beer HQ, in the shape of a pint, complete with strange giant sculpture

Quirks and oddities of the Japanese way

One of the greatest benefits of strolling around a city independently at your own pace is that you observe and absorb more of its social vibe. Pausing to sit and read on a bench or have a coffee at an al-fresco café takes much longer here as the people-watching is such good value. I picked up on many things that are done completely differently.

I’ll get the niggling stuff out of the way first. Firstly, during the warm spring afternoons of my visit, I and evidently thousands of office workers wanted to escape the concrete and traffic and retreat into one of the city’s numerous parks for an hour, however here you have to pay to enter them, which often means long queues and waits, killing the spontaneity of ducking into a park for a stroll or lunch break. Ok, it’s only a couple of quid, but the principle is a bit rotten – imagine a high brick wall erected around Regent's Park or Clapham Common so you can’t actually see it from the outside, being forced to queue and pay for that privilege? Fortunately the Imperial Gardens around the Imperial Palace are free for all, but that of course means they’re packed like an unending music festival. 

ridiculous park queue

That was my main beef really. There were other little niggles that can annoy you if you let them, for instance as a smoker you’re not allowed to smoke anywhere on the high street – you must stand at designated ‘smoking stations’ into which scores of people can often be seen cramming, emitting a collective pall of smoke above their heads. Conflictingly though, you can smoke in McDonalds, effectively degrading the place to an ‘enter at your peril’ den of health crimes.

There are other inconsistencies with regards to manners and protocol. This is a country where most people's etiquette is impeccable, where maintaining ‘face’ is paramount, the streets are clean, and anything that sullies the outlook like littering, smoking or begging is cracked down upon (I saw a few homeless drunks shambling around but never daring to beg). People here customarily wear surgical-style masks, not because of pollution but because they have a cold or hay fever and don’t want to afflict others with their germs. 

However some things considered socially unacceptable in the West are completely permissible in Japan, eg. noisily coughing up whatever’s on your chest. A couple of times, while sitting at a bar or waiting for a bus, a man beside me would clear his throat with the violence of someone trying to eject a hairbrush trapped in his windpipe. No one else in the vicinity batted an eyelid. Meanwhile, during lunch hour in noodle bars, diners slurp down their ramen with the noise and urgency of speed-eating contestants, like their lives depended on not going one second over their lunch breaks. If you close your eyes at the right moment it can sound like a roomful of sinks emptying simultaneously. 

patient queuers - spot the hay fever sufferer

On a bit of a darker subject, there is something quite weird about the sheer abundance of pornography on shop shelves devoted to barely legal Japanese schoolgirls, much of which is perused so casually by men old enough to be their dads. It also ties in with the craze of vending machines, which due to sheer consumer demand are everywhere and sell everything, from 
batteries and umbrellas to eggs and live fish; and yes, knickers – I didn’t encounter any myself but saw a snap of one on a hosteller’s camera (they're actually illegal now). One good thing about the machines is that they don’t charge the excessive mark-up prices you’d expect and are very handy for when the local shops close and you fancy a beer or noodle soup. 

24-hour beer machine - convenient

many restaurants display plastic replicas of their entire menu in the window - strange but handy if you want to know exactly what you're getting

Other behavioural quirks on wide display in Tokyo are the kind of things you see on TV and online so much that they become a cliché, which makes witnessing it first hand all the more significant. Firstly, rush hour trains are truly insane. Stuck as I was in a jet lag cycle of rising at unnaturally early hours meant that for a couple of days I couldn’t avoid it as I needed to get to another part of the city. Londoners may complain about crowded trains but here they stuff you into the carriages so tightly that you can sometimes only move your head and fingers, before prising yourself back onto the platform at your stop gasping for breath.

It’s the way it has to be in a city of 13m – the trains can’t arrive any faster than they do anywhere else, so the swelling crowds have to be squeezed into every inch of space, with uniformed crammers assigned to the task. I loved the collective passivity of the commuters inured to it all, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, which for me was the most memorable aspect of the culture shock.

Another cliché that’s evidently true is that the Japanese photograph everything, in their own country too. Their hard drives at home must creak with the millions of photo files stuffed into them. The bustle triggered by the sight of a large dog being walked was pretty comical, with pedestrians actually stopping to rummage for their phones. I guess the tiny shoebox apartments in which most Tokyoites live precludes them from keeping dogs bigger than a pug, so seeing a Great Dane is akin to spotting an rhino in London.

Safe city, cool people

Tokyo has one of the 
world's lowest crime rates, so you feel safe wherever you are, even in the sleazier parts. There’s a pervading sense of discipline, no lager louts or druggies hanging around anywhere. The youth are mostly modest and respectful types whose chief preoccupation seems to be their appearance – everyone dresses stylishly, almost too stylishly, with strong Western influences. I was saddened to discover, as in every capital I later visited, so many youngsters rocking the same drainpipes-with-arse-exposed look. 

Another interesting demographical point is that the entire population of Tokyo seems to be 99% Japanese or SE Asian, with only a smattering of caucasians, blacks or hispanics. Yet you don’t see that many national flags flying compared with other Western capitals, debatably as if the guilt of its warmongering past has repressed any sense of patriotism. But modern Japan has so much to be proud of 
 Tokyo the living embodiment of it, the vanguard of technological innovation illuminating a clean and safe urban environment. 

only one shopper spotted the mystery photographer

they love their 'Pachinko' slot machines

Ginza skyline

Some visitors complain about expensiveness, but as I say to anyone complaining about London for the same reason, it really isn’t much different from any other Western capital, where if you explore beyond the tourist traps you’ll find places that don’t decimate your budget. One thing I did note was that concerts were prohibitively dear, charging to see an Idlewild club gig the price of seeing Muse at Wembley. Booze was also one of the pricier commodities, so I didn’t do much drinking, 
conscious also that I was headed for the livelier Bangkok the following week. The only waterholes I visited were hotel and jazz bars where I sat with a whisky affecting sophistication like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, watching the same pianists crooning “Fry me to the Moon”. 

And on the subject of ‘Engrish’, it was always entertaining chatting to locals who were keen to practice theirs – to be able to speak English at conversational level is seen to be ‘cool’. One hostel dweller from Osaka told me to look out for the "brootiful cherry brossom" around the city, which I did see a lot of, and it was indeed brootiful. 

chelly brossom

spot the yawn

I later had much fiendish fun teaching her how to pronounce the troublesome Ls and Rs with the improvised example “Lionel the locust loves lice”, which came back to me as “rhino verucas rubs rice”. And before I'm accused of cultural insensitivity she found greater humour in my Japanese attempts so we were square on that front. I later encountered some excellent examples of Engrish that I defy anyone to find funny: 

A conclusion

My final couple of days were spent on random pursuits like visiting the hectic squirmfest that is the world’s biggest fish market at Tsukiji, where forklift drivers speed around a hangar-sized warehouse filled with crates of every variety of seafood – some still flapping around in blood, and tentacles dangling menacingly over the sides. I also attended an auction of giant tunas which looked a bit like small missiles. That evening I sated my inner nerd at 
Akihabara aka Electric Town, home to the famous 8-Bit Café celebrating the glory days of Sega Master System and Megadrive

And so randomly concluded my week in the hyperreal other world of Tokyo. As much as I was awed by what I saw, it was also kind of relieving to leave a city that makes you feel almost insignificant, especially if you’re on your own, a tiny moving part in a giant 
finely-tuned machine of a billion smaller components functioning as efficiently as each day before – maybe not so efficiently in recent times of recession but it’ll soon hit optimum performance again. And the nature of the beast is that because everything is so densely packed within, it must be meticulously disciplined to prevent malfunction and shutdown. 

It’s an overwhelming experience for the lone traveller with only a week to play with but still a fascinating snapshot of an eccentric culture, and a compelling glimpse into the future, of how megalopolises will all look and function one day. To maximise the experience I’d advise visiting with a partner (as long as they’re ok with crowds and enclosed spaces), allow for a bigger budget, and prepare for a culture shock you won’t forget in a hurry. And whatever you do, don’t take the tube during rush hour… 

Kris Griffiths travel blog  Kris Griffiths BBC link  Kris Griffiths website