Here’s the second instalment of our recent adventures in Japan.
May 4-17, 2015: With twelve days to spend in Tokyo awaiting Chris’ visa, we had plenty of time to take a good look around several different areas of the city. Some of them more than once! Here are some of the neighbourhoods presented alphabetically, not in the actual order we visited them. Any one of these places really deserves an entire blog post on its own, but that would turn this blog into a Japan Guidebook. So here are a few of the highlights instead…a few others will get their own special treatment later.
Akihabara Electric City
Akihabara is Tokyo’s electric and anime district. You can find pretty much any electronic device and the latest technology here. It’s also home to dozens of maid cafes. (More on that in a later post.) A bright and colourful place to wander around and people watch. Or poke through shops filled with an incredible array of anime collectibles and the latest gaming software. Or browse through duty free shops selling everything from kitschy Japanese souvenirs to the latest gadgets. So much fun we visited it twice. This is the heart of modern Tokyo. It’s also where Danbo decided to join our crew on MOKEN. Who’s Danbo? You’ll have to wait for more on that one too.
Asakusa & Senso-Ji Temple
When I read about Asakusa and Senso-Ji Temple, I was expecting to find a beautiful peaceful oasis in the city. Wrong. Granted it is beautiful but it was anything but peaceful. I would bet that this is one of the most heavily touristed places in Tokyo. But it does add to the festive atmosphere in the crowded covered shopping arcades you find around the temple and the market shops of Nakamise-dori leading up to it.
Senso-ji is an ancient Buddhist Temple first founded in the year 645. It was heavily bombed and destroyed during World War II and subsequently rebuilt. The Hozomon (Treasure House Gate) is the entry to the inner courtyard, where there is a five-story pagoda and the main hall.
Harajuku & Meiji Jingu
On our train ride from Narita, Chris spotted the crowds of Takeshita-dori in Harajuku. It looked like an “in” thing, so we made our way there to check out what the fuss was all about. On weekends and holidays, this place is buzzing. It’s a pedestrian-only street lined with trendy shops, cafes and boutiques. Young Tokyo teenage girls come here to see and be seen, sometimes dressed in the most outrageously cute latest fashions.
When we showed up, it was one of the holidays during Golden Week. That explained the crowds. The street was a sea of people, so we decided to wade right in. Why not? About halfway along there were so many people crammed together that nobody could move in any direction. We finally deeked down a small alley and made our way back at a spot further along. By then several police officers had also waded into the fray and started moving the crowd along. Madness. We made a separate trip mid-week to actually see the area without all the hordes.
Literally on the other side of the tracks but world’s away was Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingu, a shrine dedicated to Empress Meiji and Empress Shoken. Although a busy pilgrimage in itself, the walk through the park to the shrine, which is located at the heart of the park, was like stepping into another world.
First up, we came across a long wall of sake. Sake brewers around Japan annually donate barrels of sake wrapped in straw to show their deep respect for the souls of Emperor Meiji (he led the industrial growth and modernization of Japan) and Empress Shoken, which are said to be enshrined at Meiji Jingu.
Next we came to the Otorii, the grand shrine gate, one of the biggest wooden torii in Japan. It was built from a 1500-year old hinoki (Japanese Cypress) from Taiwan and stands twelve metres tall.
It’s a long walk to the shrine through a beautiful forest. In memory of the emperor and his consort, who died in 1912 and 1914 respectively, the people of Japan donated 100,000 trees from all over the country and around the world to create this forest.
We finally arrived at the entrance gate to Meiji Jingu itself. In contrast to Senso-ji, Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine built in 1920. Shinto is Japan’s ancient original religion. Here, you can purchase an ema, a little wooden tablet, on which to write your personal prayers and gratitude towards the deities enshrined at Meiji Jingu. These wishes are hung around a divine tree and conveyed by the priests at a ceremony called Mikesai which is held each morning.
We also stumbled upon what we surmise was a traditional Shinto wedding, although cannot say for sure that’s what it was.
Kappabashi Kitchen Town
Not far from Asakusa is Kappabashi Kitchen Town. This stretch of several blocks contains dozens of small shops selling every imaginable kitchen item from bargain basement plastic gadgets to high end commercial appliances and mobile popcorn makers. Need glossy wooden sushi boats? This is the place. Japanese steel knives? Got you covered. Plastic versions of all the menu items for display at your restaurant? No problem. I could have spent hours here poking through the shops and buying this and that, but it was closing in on time for lunch. I did manage to find a Japanese mandolin with three different blades for slicing and dicing veggies before we headed off to find somewhere to eat.
Kawagoe “Little Edo”
Kawagoe is one of the easier day trips from Tokyo, about 30 minutes north of the city by train. The reason to come here is the historic main street. It is lined on either side by Kurazukuri, old-style clay walled warehouses reminiscent of the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). Edo is the original name for Tokyo, before it was changed when it became the new capital of Japan. (Tokyo literally means east capital. Kyoto was the old, west capital).
We soon discovered it was a fairly long walk from the station to the historic centre, but there was plenty to see along the way. These days, the warehouses have been turned into shops, eateries and galleries, making it a popular destination for tourists.
The bell tower is the most visually prominent landmark, but not far away we found Penny Candy Lane, an area which had been producing candy since the early 1600s. In the 1920s, there were upwards of 70 shops located here. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in Tokyo, they produced and supplied candy for all of Japan. Today the shops sell Japanese sweets to tourists. We bought green candies of an unidentified flavour, possibly green tea.
Busy Shibuya turned out to be another one of our favourite haunts and not just for the crazy pedestrian crossing that rose to prominence after it was featured in the movie Lost in Translation. Although that has to be one of the best places for people watching ever. The best vantage point turned out to be the second floor seating at Starbucks, although it’s much more fun to be right down in the midst of it all. We went during the day. We went after dark. We wandered around aimlessly. Here we also stumbled into narrow alleys where we found quirky restaurants and ate futuristic sushi and unidentifiable meats on sticks. It’s also where they have some of the most expensive fruit I’ve ever seen anywhere. $200 for a melon. $18 for four albino strawberries. Are you kidding me?
Sumida River Walk & Tokyo Skytree
One day, we stumbled upon a walkway along the Sumida River, which separates Asakusa from Tokyo Skytree. This wide pedestrian walk was virtually empty. We strolled along and watched the long, low, barge-like river boats ply their way up and down stream and enjoyed the views of Tokyo Skytree. We even found a cafe with outdoor seating where we could sit in the sun and enjoy a cold beer. A seemingly undiscovered Tokyo gem.
Tokyo Skytree, a new TV broadcasting tower that opened in 2012, has quickly become the preeminent landmark of Tokyo. It is the tallest building in Japan at 634 metres. This place is incredibly busy. Obviously it is a must see stop on the tour bus routes. Thanks to Chris’ online research, we were able to bypass the main queue for tickets, which was about an hour long, by paying a premium at the Foreigner Ticket Desk. It didn’t help us jump the queue for the elevators going up, but at least it gave us a bit of a head start. Skytree has two observation decks, one at 350 metres and one at 450 metres called the world’s highest skywalk. From up here, everything looked pretty small and ant like below. There were fantastic 360 degree views over Greater Tokyo, but sadly, Mt. Fuji was still being elusive. The only downside were the crowds and the dirty smudges on many of the windows. Once we had our fill of the panoramic views, we had to queue up once again for the elevators going down. It was a bit of relief to get out of the crowds when we reached the bottom.
We spent our last day in Tokyo going to visit yet another observation tower. The Tokyo Tower was one of the few attractions that we hadn’t seen yet. This tower, which is 333 metres tall and modelled after the Eiffel Tower, also has two observation levels, one at 150 metres, and a second one at 250 metres. It was completed in 1958 as a symbol of the economic rebirth of Japan after World War II and to this day is a working TV and radio broadcast antenna. Although the scale of this tower is dwarfed by Tokyo Skytree, the crowds weren’t so crazy, so it made for a rather pleasant morning. It helped too that the air seemed a little bit clearer on this day…and everything didn’t seem so far, far away below us. I found it surprising that this viewpoint had signs in Braille posted around the viewing platform, presumably to describe the view.
Ueno Park & Tokyo National Museum
Chris was a good sport and humoured me with a morning at the Tokyo National Museum on the condition that he got to pick our afternoon outing (which turned out to be Akihabara). Fair enough. It’s a good thing there were several interesting displays of samurai armour, saddles and swords mixed in with the ancient pottery, silk robes, painted screens and other items of “important cultural property,” or he might not have lasted as long as he did. Afterwards we wandered through Ueno Park, home to a giant sculpture of a humpback whale. Don’t get me started on Japanese whaling culture (or the whale meat restaurant we spotted in Shibuya).
Riding the Trains
To get around Tokyo, we relied on the Japan Rail (JR) trains and several of the private metro lines. Aside from our initial confusion as we figured out how to get around, going just about anywhere from Shinjuku was usually direct or only involved one line change at most. Some of the lines were obviously older and I wouldn’t want to ride those in the peak heat of summer when they are crammed full during rush hour. But there were also modern new trains aplenty. Either way, they were all very clean and so were the stations, although some of the older ones could use an expansion to handle the volumes of people passing through. I think the longest we ever had to wait for a train was about ten minutes. Usually they ran every three to five minutes, often with ten cars or more.
Some of the newest subway lines are incredibly deep underground and you really appreciate all the escalators. But overall, I have to say that I preferred to ride the JR trains more than the metro, because for the most part, the trains were above ground and provided occasional glimpses of different Tokyo neighbourhoods. And I didn’t have to worry so much about being trapped four levels underground during an earthquake. And yes, we did experience a quake which woke us up in our Tokyo hotel one morning. Unnerving to say the least.
On our first day, we purchased a Suica card available from Japan Rail. We paid a 500 yen deposit for the card and added some credit. Maybe this wasn’t always the cheapest option (you can get unlimited use day passes too), but it was certainly the most convenient. When we needed to, we just added another load and then swiped the card as we entered and again as we exited. No need to buy separate tickets for each individual trip. The machine at the gate let us know how much credit remained on our card. Although the JR trains and the metros are not operated by the same company, the cards are valid on all the lines as well as on busses and trams. Easy. Plus, we got our deposit back at the end of our stay.
At the stations, the biggest challenge was figuring out which platform we needed to be on. I had a very handy offline app on my phone called Trains.jp which was great for figuring out what line to take from A to B but fell short in telling us which direction the train should be heading and which platform to use.
On the platforms, everyone queues up for the trains at designated spots where the doors will open. Generally, everybody waits until those leaving the car have exited before piling on. On the trains, nobody talks on their cell phones, drinks or eats. It’s all very orderly and impressive to watch the flow of the crowd, especially during rush hour.
Coming up, we’re heading south on the bullet train to Kyoto for the weekend.