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The Yamanote Loop

Tokyo, Japan

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The JR Yamanote line is a subway route in central Tokyo. More specifically, it’s the route that defines the central portion of the city, which it circles in a great loop. If you’re in Tokyo you’re either within the Yamanote loop or outside of it. (Some people think that’s where the expression “to be in the loop” comes from, having been brought to the US by traveling business people – if you’re a top dog in business you’re in the loop, if you’re out of it, you’re nobody.)

But if you’re in Tokyo, you can’t help but be in the loop. Forget New York – Tokyo is the city that really never sleeps, where 2am on a Sunday morning can be as busy as noon Tuesday. The subway epitomizes this crowdedness perhaps to a greater extent than any other aspect of the city. If you using that particular route into Tokyo forget trying to take your luggage: it’s just too busy. If the subway is your way in – and you have to experience it at some point in your trip, as it’s a defining part of Tokyo – then you need to get on of the ubiquitous and highly reliable courier services to take your luggage from the airport to your hotel.

Even hotels come as something of a culture shock in this particular capital. The Japanese, and native Tokyoers in particular, have made the humble hotel room into something of an art form, with an endless variety of different types on offer. If you want the authentic I-barely-have-time-to-rest Japanese businessman experience, you should try spending a night (just one!) in one of the city’s justly famous capsule hotels. Prices are cheap, and you soon find out why: you don’t get a room, but a small sleeping capsule, just a few feet long and rather like a bunk bed with a door. Particularly tall westerners are likely to find these sleeping arrangements a little uncomfortable. They are, after all, designed for diminutive Japanese males. Unless you’re with a local you may even experience some difficulty getting a room. The owners of capsule hotels, mindful of westerners’ typical ignorance of Japanese habits, and different conceptions of privacy, are often reluctant to let space to non-Japanese. Women may also be disappointed: many of the capsule hotels, designed as a cheap way of housing lots of businessmen, remain all-male.

There are plenty of other alternatives, from the dazzlingly expensive to the unbelievably cheap. You could, for example, book yourself into one of the city’s notorious ‘Love Hotels’. Originally designed as places of resort for young lovers who wanted to get away from overbearing parents for a few hours, these establishments have latterly catered for two markets: tired travelers and local men doing business with streetwalkers. If you can cope with the decidedly fruity atmosphere (it’s perfectly safe) then go ahead and ask for a room – though remember to specify that you’re staying rather than simply ‘resting’ – or you’ll be charged by the hour.

Shopping in Tokyo is a great experience. You can buy anything in this city, and the huge department stores seem to contain the entire world’s merchandise under one roof. It’s an especially good shopping city to visit if you’re keen on buying electronic goods. However, if you’re shopping for cameras, computers of stereo gear, it’s as well to make sure that the particular models you buy are adapted for use in western countries, either by internal modification or the supply of a separate transformer. Japan’s electricity grid runs at 100 volts, which is 10 volts less than the US and 140 volts less than the UK – so any unadapted gear you buy, especially if it’s a delicate item like a DVD or CD player may get fried when you plug it in back home. Don’t worry – the electronics stores are used to dealing with westerners, and have a full range of fully western-compatible products available. One general tip for shopping in Tokyo – and Japan in general – is that contrary to what you might expect, credit cards are not widely accepted. The big superstores will take them, but elsewhere expect to pay cash. This may seem like a weird anomaly in one of the most hi-tech places on earth, but it seems to be staying that way.

Back out on to the crowded streets, and you’ll be feeling a little disoriented. Tokyo is huge, and its borders confusing. Because some of Japan’s Pacific island territories are considered part of the capital, it also has huge borders. Trying to get your head around the place is enough to, well, give you a headache. You need a sit down.

And if you’re having a sit down, you might as well have a snack. Like all the other great cities of the world, Tokyo has an almost limitless supply of places to eat. There are noodle bars on almost every corner, and there is no shortage of sushi restaurants, selling the classic Japanese dish of pressed rice and fish.

This is an exhausting city – sit down, relax, and don’t try to take the whole place in until you have a couple of lifetimes to spare.

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