Tokyo, Japan – February 2015

Shinjuku back-streets, Tokyo

Shinjuku back-streets, Tokyo

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

What a surprise! We didn’t have much of an idea what to expect here and other than the vague knowledge that Tokyo was on our eventual “to do” list – we would not necessarily have chosen to visit in the middle of winter!

Having spent my usual extensive research time studying where, when, how and why, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this would be a place for us. My in-depth poring over an online blog article called “25 reasons why you will hate Japan” (in preparation for the anticipated culture shock) probably didn’t create the most positive frame of mind for a visit ;-).

I am quite used to wandering around cities and countries alone whilst Geoff is hard at work but, in this case, I was more than usually concerned about my non-existent Japanese language skills particularly as I would be spending so much time alone. Whilst Geoff would be tackling the problems of the IT world in a warm cozy English speaking office, I would be wandering the wintery streets of one of the worlds largest and most populous cities with absolutely no idea of how to communicate or how to get around. I had already deduced that my usual fallback of walking everywhere to avoid public transport wasn’t going to work as it would probably take a week to walk from one side of the city to the other ;-).

Having survived the entire visit without a hitch I am happy to report to anyone contemplating a trip to Japan that you can safely ignore the above mentioned article (aside perhaps for a bit of background interest!) as there are at least 25 even better reasons why you will LOVE Japan rather than hate it 😉 :-).

I’ll concede that you probably won’t be able to read many of the road signs or some of the menus or a myriad of other useful information which might help you potter about the city, but Tokyo is a lot more western traveller user friendly than either of us were expecting.

That is not to say that one look at the Tokyo subway and rail system map didn’t have me contemplating shuffling back to bed on my first morning to hide under the duvet, but the sun was shining and it all looked far too exciting outside not to at least try to tackle it.

So, PASMO rail and subway pass in hand I headed off with some trepidation. I had already decided against struggling with buying individual tickets for each journey – one glance at the ticket machines and overhead map in the station was quite enough forewarning that that wouldn’t be fun ;-). Having checked out the recommended online Japan Rail and Subway route guide, shuddered (it looked far too challenging for a first run 😉 ), I decided to choose my own route and bit the bullet. My confidence was not initially boosted by a conversation with the receptionist on my way out of the door – she was adamant that I avoid the subway and told me she wouldn’t attempt it because it was just too complicated ….umm… great..

With hindsight, of course, I should have ignored her too!! 😉

My fears and trepidation were tempered somewhat on arrival at the station.

Joy :-). In addition to being spotlessly clean (every day I saw an employee hand vaccuming the escalator and polishing the hand rail at our local station ) – there were signs in English.

I could read! I couldn’t speak – but I could at least read :-). Yippee! Station names, numbers, line names… it was all there in glorious technicolor English. Even better, when you are on the trains they have announcements in English and most have electronic displays which alternate between Japanese and English – phewy… this would be easy after all :-).

Of course, the ability to understand which station you have disembarked at is one thing – surviving the crowds is quite another. Tokyo stations are some of the busiest in the world…one stop up from ours , Shibuya station, handles over 3 million people every day… and it is only the third busiest in Tokyo…. 3 stops up, Shinjuku station handles 3.6 million people every day (it also has 36 platforms and 200 exits – yikes). Needless to say, that is one hell of a sea of people to get stuck in the middle of when you literally don’t know which way is up and which way is down 😉 …

…but I wasn’t planning to stop at either of those on my first foray into the city, so all would be well ;-).

In essence, if you keep your wits about you, do your research beforehand and pin down roughly which of the choice of 20-200 exits you need so that you are (at least) facing in the right direction when you stagger up to daylight from the bowels of the earth, then there is a passing chance that you will be absolutely fine. And with luck your starved skeletal remains will not be stumbled upon in a decade somewhere deep in the under belly of this massive city ;-).

To be honest, the rail and subway stations are so supremely well organized it would have been quite difficult to actually get lost in any of them… the same doesn’t always apply at ground level.

Luckily, I had also read and digested that the Japanese do not read maps oriented in a northern direction like westerners – so their street locator maps are not as immediately helpful as you might think at first glance. Once you’ve worked that out all is fine… and for once Geoff couldn’t laugh at me for turning my city map round and round in circles like a big kid so that it (and we) and the street locator map were all facing in the right direction ;-).

Street names on the street signs weren’t always as westerner friendly as they might have been – some are written in English but then they weren’t always written on the maps..and vice versa! Still, anyone with a good map, a rough sense of direction, an ability to interpret the relatively frequent street locator maps at strategic points on the sidewalks (even if many of them are only in Japanese) … combined with a vague idea of where you should be heading would probably not get TOO lost ;-).

Believe me – I managed it for days all alone before Geoff joined me for the obligatory guided tour of the hot-spots.

Luckily, my first day all alone (wide-eyed and cautious) started and ended on a high note – thank goodness :-).

I gate-crashed a traditional Shinto wedding at the spectacularly serene Meiji Jingu Shrine :-).

You approach the Meiji Jingu Shrine via a long shady tree-lined walk passing under huge wooden Torii gateways; the peace and quiet is broken only by the ritual hand claps of those praying; there are wooden prayer plaques attached to racks in the courtyard and the smell of incense in the air. It was the perfect place to settle in gently into the city.

Heartened, map firmly in freezing cold hand, I wandered back to Harajuku with it’s crazy teenager fashion stores, beautiful eclectic (almost Californian) architecture. No two buildings are the same… steel, glass, wood, traditional and cutting edge all living together side-by-side in harmony :-).

I meandered through the back-streets checking out the coffee shops; chocolate shops (it’s a national obsession which happily resonates with us 🙂 !); boutiques; plastic food displays (more on this below!); crepe vendors and bars. It was a tough morning ;-).

There were teenagers with pink and purple pig-tailed wigs, sporting the very latest in pajama fashion and furry hats with Mickey Mouse ears. White painted faces with round rosy painted cheeks and bedecked with soft toys and cuddly back-packs they padded about the streets in animal shape bathroom slippers. Another was in a tartan mini-skirt, long black socks, pink stilettos with Greek goddess wings , a black leather jacket and topped with a peaked shiny black military cap (further adorned with chains, key-rings etc etc). She had dark painted cat eyes and I am sure she would have been quite beautiful but that was all  one could see as the rest of her face was hidden behind a  surgical mask which really ruined the look a little ;-). Apparently the wearing of the surgical masks is almost obligatory in winter in Japa…it’s not a look I think would wear well in the western world ;-). Another teen was dressed as Little Bo Peep although without the lamb in tow :-). The crazier the better, it seems!

And finally, to round off the day, I gazed at the futuristic, contemporary glass and steel stores along the tree-lined Omotesando-dori. From one end to the other littered with expensive flagship stores such as Dior, Tod’s, Prada, Louis Vuitton etc etc ….Omotesando-dori is Tokyo’s self-proclaimed version of the Champs Elysees.

Back towards the station I was accosted by a small gaggle of immaculately dressed 7/8 year olds in gold-braided school uniform clutching a clip-board. Ordinarily, I would feign deafness or stupidity in order to avoid verbal contact with anyone under the age of 18 but they were very persistent and really very cute. Even I had to admit that for an 8 year old to tackle a giant strange white foreigner in broken English to carry out a school survey took some guts and probably deserved a little more bravery from me too ;-). They were obviously very happy with my answers to their questions and we all bowed and grinned at each other … still bowing… and grinning as I backed away 🙂 How cute is that? ;-).

It didn’t take me long to realize that this is probably the coolest city in the world. If I had the chance to be a teenager again (God forbid 😉 ) Tokyo is the ONLY place to do it with real style :-).

It also didn’t take me long to realize that I was already hopelessly smitten and I could barely wait to see Geoff after his first day in the office to tell him I knew he would love it too :-).

Geoff, on the other hand, could hardly wait to share his observations of the day which were far less exciting ;-). I had an in-depth lesson in elevator etiquette and the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of the bowing culture. There is, for anyone planning a trip to Japan, a strict set of rules from which there is no apparent deviation if one finds oneself in an elevator with a Japanese businessman. Everyone must face in the same direction, that is, facing outwards towards the door, everyone must stand equidistant with those around you, head must be bowed, arms must be rod straight at one’s side, there must be no verbal communication at all and absolutely no eye contact whatsoever ;-). These rules still apply even if you have just spent a fruitful few hours chatting happily away with someone and then stepped into the elevator with them … elevator rules are not to be broken ;-). To make it more complicated, when someone exits the elevator, everyone must exit the elevator , one must file out in orderly fashion, eyes down, arms straight, head bowed, and then file silently back in again to continue one’s journey…So, there you have it – let it never be said that this blog doesn’t have its useful tidbits from time to time 😉 !

Day 2 – full of enthusiasm and feeling infinitely braver I decided to take on the full might of the Tokyo rail line AND the subway system. Is there no challenge large enough for me to tackle ??!! 😉

Of course, this city is somewhat huge… 45 minutes of travel took me half way across Tokyo to Asakusa in Northern Tokyo from Southern Tokyo where we were based, in Ebisu. Following the stream of humanity from the subway it wasn’t exactly hard to locate the busiest, craziest, probably most ornate shrine in Tokyo – Senso-ji. Ram-jammed with school kids, tourists and locals making pilgrimages to the shrine – all crawling slowly along Nakamise-dori – it was absolutely chaotic. Chaos is not something you see much in Japan as it is usually notably orderly and peaceful even when you do get inadvertently caught up in the flow of relentlessly moving people soup.

The entrance to the Shrine complex is impressive to say the least – passing under Thunder Gate with its 1500 pound giant red paper lantern and flanked either side by bronze statues of the gods of thunder and wind. After shuffling through the billions of kids on Nakamise-dori you pass under the Hozomon Gate with it’s 3 giant lanterns. The highlight is, of course, the temple and the 5 tiered pagoda surrounded by busy stalls selling prayer papers, prayer sticks and incense sticks. In the centre of the courtyard is a large incense burner where visitors were waving the incense smoke over themselves for its alleged curative effects.

The central courtyard was filled with smoke and chatter and kids running around excitedly…. I guess it must have been a fun day trip out from school.. lucky me!! 😉

The downside to being a very obvious foreigner in some of the more popular tourist sites in a city (which surprisingly didn’t seem to have that many western tourists – at least not in the depths of winter!) is that when you are spotted by a teenager wanting to practice English you aren’t spotted by just one…but by the whole class… This lead to some delays to the start of my long militarily planned day of city exploration.

After the second teen with the same set of questions pounced on me at the shrine I was rather hoping I could avoid what I knew was number 3 approaching me with a beguiling smile and an identical clip-board but unfortunately she was accompanied by her teacher who wasn’t going to let me escape. In the end it was one of the few moments of human entertainment I had that day (being the ONLY actual conversation I had all day in my own language 😉 ). At first, the teacher seemed to mistake me for a famous actress which made me smile – perhaps we westerners actually do all look alike to our occidental cousins??! ;-). Then he enquired if I were perhaps a famous singer (I was rather hoping he wasn’t mistaking me for Barbara Streisand) .. eventually he gave up trying to guess and asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was an artist at which point he squeaked to his student – “She famous artist – you hear? Famous artist! you hear?!” at which point he bowed so low I thought he was going to hit his forehead on the concrete path… they wandered off exclaiming excitedly to each other leaving me in peace ;-).

Left alone at last, only 10 steps away at the side of the Shrine, tranquility reigned in the Japanese garden where I finally had some time to wander amongst the Buddha statues and smaller shrines without being asked to take a quick (usually slow 😉 ) survey.

Continuing on through the back streets of Asakusa led to another world… older traditional buildings, some tourist shops and then on to Kappabashi-dori – an entire street dedicated to the sale of items used in the catering business. Each store specialized in one particular kind product: lanterns, neon signs, cutlery and hardware, tea-pots, and my favorite – the stores specializing in the production of highly realistic look-alike plastic food – ice cream, crepes and waffles with 100 different varieties of toppings (cherry, strawberries, cream, chocolate sauce etc etc… you name it there is a plastic replica of it!), pizzas with pre-cut slices suspended in mid-air, pasta with forks flying in mid-air, sushi, plastic meat, salad and vegetables with different colored dressings…. mind-boggling varieties of every possible type and combination of food stuffs known to man…. and not a single one which looked remotely appealing to either of us ;-).

Several miles of walking a roundabout route (I mislaid myself briefly 😉 ) further onwards took me to Ueno (another of the bigger and scarier stations according to tourist legend) and to my intended destination – the Ameya Yokocho Street Market. The stalls are literally underneath the rail line. A busy, traditional, working class market operating against the background rumble of trains overhead, the stalls sell fish, meat, dried food, seaweed, trays of tiny shrimp, fruit, vegetables, and many unidentifiable brightly colored sweets and desserts positively glowing with every variation of food coloring and jammed full of E numbers … they made me twitch even from a relatively safe distance ;-).

By the time I arrived in Ueno I wasn’t planning on actually walking further to my next destination – Yanaka – a more northerly suburb. I had fully intended to brave the subway again. Albeit generally bright and sunny in February it was freezing cold for our thin Floridian blood and I was in fear of hypothermia by mid-afternoon. However, one look at the confusing signs in the entrance to Ueno Station and I almost lost the will to live so I chose the lesser of 2 evils and braved the chilly winds instead.  Distracted by temples and shrines along the way, I hot-footed it across Ueno Park as the sun was beginning to dip in the sky. I started to wonder if I might have bitten off more than I could chew in one day when the previously vaguely helpful street locator maps suddenly dried up at the exit from the Park. As it got colder and darker and even more cold and even more dark – I began to notice that the street names were now only in Japanese. I was wondering if tourists weren’t supposed to wander this far alone ;-). With only my sense of direction (and not generally renowned for my directional prowess) and an almost completely useless map, it came as quite a surprise (and no small amount of relief) that I actually popped up exactly where I wanted to be :-).

Yanaka is a small mom and pop traditional township. Wandering the streets, one has absolutely no sense of actually being in the middle of a massive city… which is probably why we both liked it so much. Small traditional stores, cafes, fishmongers, back-street bakers, interesting winding alleyways and lots of very fat and happy street cats… what more could we want?!

For a moment, on my first visit, I almost felt as if I had walked onto a movie set in small town France. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why….something vaguely romantic about it, old world wooden stores, women cycling up and down the street with shopping in their willow baskets waving at friends on the sidewalk. I almost bumped into an older lady as I wandered aimlessly in a back street and she bowed, smiled and said something I suspected was probably “Good evening”.. although it could have been far less friendly, I guess ;-). Eventually, I realized I was listening to an almost subliminal level of piped music through the main shopping streets – they were playing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” :-).

On the subject of piped music, the Japan Rail stations play an interesting collection of tunes as you arrive at each station – each one different. Unfortunately, our local station played something which brought to mind a cross between a tune from a Vaudeville freak show (a la American Burlesque of the 1880’s) and a psychotic killer clown movie (a la Stephen King genre of the 1980’s). It was a little disturbing and I’m sure played on my mind in the darkest hours of the night ;-).

And so the scene was set for the remainder of the visit – exploring for the purposes of the guided tour on Geoff’s days away from the grind of the IT world.

As I knew would transpire, Geoff was smitten too after an hour or so of highlights on the Grand Tour. He was, of course, taken on the very best “J Gardner Travel Service” guided tour without a hitch and so he didn’t actually get to experience the full joys of wondering which exit to take of the dozens available at each station ;-).

Together we re-visited my favorite spots and added many more in a whistle-stop whirlwind long weekend tour; Shibuya Crossing (which we enjoyed alongside all of the other 3 million people traversing it from the station to the surrounding high rise shopping malls 😉 ); Geoff also loved the crazy, busy Senso-ji Shrine and the back streets of Harajuku, Asakusa and Yanaka (which we both loved the most for its small-town stores, winding alleyways and what became our favorite coffee and chocolate shop (there is ALWAYS one!); Shinjuku and the seemingly endless thousands of flashing neon lights and business signs (this is, I suspect, what everyone envisages when they think of Tokyo); tiny shrines on street corners and hidden in unexpected back streets; Yoyogi Park where we smiled sweetly at two pretty maiko girls (trainee Geishas) and they obligingly smiled back at us for a quick photo :-); the view of the city lights at night from the Observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building; Roppongi Hills and the Mori Building (the Art Gallery was closed for a few months which was mildly irritating as I was vaguely contemplating taking time out from my busy schedule of daylong exploratory hikes traversing the city to do something more useful… oh well.. the thought was there.. 😉 ); Ginza Crossing with the famous Wako Building and the luxury stores reminiscent of London’s Knightsbridge; the Zojo-ji Temple with its memorial statues of small infants where parents of still-born, aborted or miscarried children can choose one of the statues and decorate it with knitted clothing, knitted red caps, flowers and toys… a poignant experience with the children’s windmills spinning in the breeze and some of the older statues left to be consumed by moss over the passage of years – all under the shadow of the looming 333 meter high Tokyo Tower (taller than the Eiffel Tower but without the full visual appeal and glamour of the Parisian version – sorry guys 😉 ).

One of our favorite experiences was the UN University’s Farmer’s Market where we sampled our way round far too many of the home made cakes and cookies, pickles, green tea purveyors and homemade jam vendors. If we had a dog back home no doubt we would have been tempted to invest in the doggy salt scrub bar to go with the one intended for humans which I bought at enormous expense ;-). We managed to avoid the onset of hypothermia with one of the most delicious latte’s we have had in weeks from a converted VW camper van – who would have guessed ?! :-). In fact, selling one’s wares from the side of a VW camper is obviously de rigeur at this particular market – there was everything on offer from Indian food to sushi to a van with a built-in pizza oven! Although diminutive in scale, it is one of the best farmers markets we have visited – all home grown, home-made and immaculately tidily presented – even the vegetables were tied up like bunches of flowers :-).

The famous Tsukiji Fish Market is top of the list of most tourists “must-see” spots in Tokyo. Frankly, nothing can possibly be worth getting up for at 4am – perhaps the occasional flight to somewhere suitably exotic but definitely NOT a tuna auction – even if it is the largest in the world. Nothing could have compelled us to tear ourselves from a nice warm hotel bed to brave the below freezing temperatures in order to stand around in the icy cold and wet of the trader’s warehouses just to take a few snaps of a tuna auction – so we didn’t bother! ;-). Instead, we drifted through the outer market and wandered into the wholesale market long after the auction action was all over – and that was quite enough! Much more time wandering about there in arctic temperatures amongst the crates of tuna, twitching crabs already pre-coated with breadcrumbs and millions of other unfortunate sea-dwelling creatures and I fear we would both have taken the plunge into full blown vegetarianism. And that would surely have led to starvation in Japan because they don’t seem to sell many vegetables in their restaurants! ,That sentiment lasted however, as far as the first oyster stand – for Geoff at least – even starvation couldn’t convince me to swallow a giant, slimy, grey oyster ;-).

We felt compelled to tear ourselves away from the city for a few hours just because we thought we should explore further afield. So we took a train out into the wider scarier, non-English speaking world – and headed into the very kitschy but attractive town of Kawagoe. Unfortunately, my inefficient research lead me astray and we found ourselves at the wrong station – having disembarked one stop early… ooops..!

Before we had even turned our map around 3 times in a variety of directions trying to locate ourselves, a teenager with a sign around her neck saying “Ask Me!” was by our sides and pointing us in the right direction. We bumped into her again later in the day and she stopped to ask if we were enjoying the town and whether we needed any more help. Impressive. Where we were born and raised gangs of teenagers are more likely to run off with your handbag than offer assistance.

We had been warned that Kawagoe may not be the height of excitement by local Tokyoites but, if you ignore the cheesier of the stores selling penny candy (this town was once the supplier of confectionary for the entire city of Tokyo) it was fun for a few hours. The Edo-era (1600-1800’s) architecture of the renovated warehouse-style kurazakuri buildings was gorgeous; we warmed up on some of the sweetest sweet potato we have ever eaten purchased from a street vendor. This is not the sweet potato of our homeland USA but something more akin to hot candy 🙂 ); and our visit to the 538 Gohyaku Rakan statues (carved between 1782 and 1825) was memorable if for no other reason than the attentions we received from a supremely friendly ticket collector at the entrance to the Statues who clearly wanted to practice his English.

He was keen to discover in which years we were born and then proudly pontificated that Geoff was born in the year of the dragon and I was born in the year of the snake. Our task was to locate the 12 statues with 12 animals and stroke the head of the animal relevant to the year of your birth. This would apparently bring good luck. So Geoff hunted down the snake for me (my least favorite slithery creature on earth) and the dragon for him and we diligently stroked their heads – as per the photos – only to discover upon later online googling that he had got them completely wrong ;-).

Perfect! Goodness knows what kind of bad luck THAT is now going to bring us. For future reference – it transpires that Geoff was actually born in the year of the snake (1965) and that I was born in the year of the horse (1966) – my second least favorite creature, having been bitten by one as a child and harbored a grudge ever since ;-). Typical!

With Geoff back at work, my final sad day was spent exploring another area I know Geoff will love too … he’ll just have to wait until our next visit ;-).

Kagurazaka, wedged in between 2 stations is another small gem in the city with winding, cobble-stone streets and tiny narrow lanes, many of which meander and then just dead-end. Around any number of corners I found lovely, shady looking restaurants and cafes with tiny Japanese gardens decorated with pots of flowering camellia and miniature bamboo.

And so, finally we left Tokyo, heavy of heart and determined to return not only to explore more of this city (8/9 days really only scratched the surface) but also to travel further afield to Kyoto, Hakone, Osaka, Mount Fuji, Hokkaido and who knows where else….

Tokyo is a city of superlatives….

The most cutting edge architecture and the most beautiful traditional wooden buildings side by side in perfect harmony.

The best Italian food outside of Italy; some of the best Indian food outside of England ;-); and the best patisseries outside of Paris; the best coffee outside of Italy, France or our favorite coffee shop back home in Sarasota ;-); and the best sushi in the world :-).

The friendliest people – if you stand around looking lost for long enough – be that on a street corner with your map upside down, or staring blankly at one of the complicated ticket screens in the station – some kind soul with a smattering of English will try to help you out. I don’t think there are many Londoners or New Yorkers who would invest the time and energy to help out a confused looking lost foreigner when you are rushing to work.

It is, without a doubt, the cleanest city we have ever visited – even more spotless than Singapore!

For reasons we cannot fathom, we actually felt somewhat at home here despite the fact we could barely communicate. Mastering “hello” (konnichiwa), thank you (arigato) and “yes” (hai) doesn’t always cut the mustard for all of one’s travel and food related needs ;-).

What struck us most about the city is it’s subtle beauty. It doesn’t have the jaw-droppingly fabulous Manhattan skyline or the architecture of London’s Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge, or Paris’s Montmartre  or other such obvious picture postcard images.

For us, at least, its beauty lies in the variety of its neighborhoods, the old and the new side by side in perfect harmony, it’s sense of peace and quiet, calm and serenity even in a crowd (Shibuya and Shinjuku aside!), turn a corner and you are as likely to spot a geisha in a fabulous kimono or a beautiful garden with a shrine, the smell of incense in the air and prayer papers fluttering in the wind.

And where else in the world can you watch (with some considerable admiration) people elegantly eating Indian naan bread or chicken legs with chopsticks; or listen to the sound of a waterfall in a public toilet when you close the door behind you (in order to preserve one’s bathroom related privacy, naturally 😉 ); or (as Geoff tested out with great enthusiasm) have your butt washed with a stream of warm water and then blow-dried by the world’s most complicated toilets with the flick of a few buttons ; or bump into 2 huge sumo wrestlers in a chocolate shop wearing blue flip-flops and carrying matching blue handbags?… or sit next to a beautiful Geisha on the train texting her friends?

It is a city of pure class, simple elegance, design and architectural innovation, history and style :-).

If only we could speak Japanese we would move there :-).

Did I mention just how much we love it? 😉 🙂

8 replies »

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