Tokyo for me was the ultimate place I wanted to go. There are more places left don’t worry! But I had it highest on my list! And it did not disappoint. I completely fell in love with the place and am keen to visit again in a few years and explore more of the country. I would have loved to have spent more time there but I feel like we got pretty much everything done in the city, and got everything done I had on my list so I really feel we got to know the place, I also left with quite bad blisters!! I will admit that is wasn’t love at first sight like it was with New York, a first this place confused me a little and wasn’t quite what I expected but once we explored more and more and got to know the the place I got it, and once I did I was head over heals with the city.
Firstly, this is probably quite long, but I have included quite a lot of photos after the writing, so stick with it!!
The thing was when we first arrived we were in an area which was quite residential, small winding streets, shops and restaurants… We were expecting it to be like a Japanese New York! Buzzing and lights flashing, frenzies of people, here there were little electric cars buzzing around and over night hotels everywhere. It felt kind of, strange!! One of the first things that hit me was the smell, not bad but just quite different, being my first time in the Far East I could really sense the difference of this place, this was the furthest I had ever been from home and that first impression really made me realise that how far away we were!
Hardly anyone spoke English which I hadn’t expected (not sure why), also my attempts at Japanese didn’t seem to successful either! But, you know, that’s the fun of it and the challenge of it that I enjoy. We went out the first night for a quick snack as we were totally out of sync with the time zone! We wandered around for a while and had a look at some of the shops and parks near by and even found a little temple.
One of the first things you notice in Japan is the nature of the people and just how polite they are. I found that although many might not speak English well that doesn’t stop them trying to help you out and at times really going out of their way for you. They thank you over and over as well for even the smallest purchase or just stepping out if the way, it’s really refreshing and nice to see people so respectable to each other. It’s strange at first to see people bowing but without even realising it you start doing it and it’s great because even if my ‘Arigato’ sounded like complete gibberish to them at least my bow told them thanks!
The city is also really clean and you see the people employed for this really taking pride in their work and locals tidying their area I pavement too sweeping and clearing rubbish. Another thing is the jungle crows, what’s with these guys!! They are massive and perch on all the pylons all over the city and very loud too, I feel kind of sorry for them because where else do they go. But they are still a little scary and it’s kind of an odd sensation to be in such a built up area and still here these crows above everything, apparently a gang of them attacked a jogger a few weeks back!
Walking around Ueno was interesting, mainly because it was so totally different to what we expected! We just walked and walked with no real clue where we were going, just exploring and getting lost. It was a fun way to be introduced to the city and to get to know the local area around the hotel. We found a few shrines and the park too and wandered along the winding side streets seeing peoples homes and little local shops.
After a few days exploring further afield in the city we came to realise that we are lucky to be staying where we are, other areas much more popular such as near Shibuya/ Shinjuku or the posher areas such as Roppongi Hills/ Near Tokyo station are more along the lines of the Tokyo you expect, and don’t get me wrong, I loved this, and I loved the diversity of the city, the craziness of some areas with the quiet reflection and history of others, but this is the Tokyo you cannot fail to miss, it is the Tokyo in the guidebooks and on the TV. But the Tokyo of where we stayed is something you may easily miss but tells you just as much about the city as the more popular areas.
Now the first day as I said was one of mostly exploration on foot which lead to a slightly confused first encounter with Japan, after we had successfully passed out due to fatigue in the hotel lobby and were mercifully allowed to check in a hour early we unintentionally ended up fully awake in the early hour of the morning. So we decided to take another walk out and see what it was like at this time and if we could get something small to eat. Much like New York the streets were still surprisingly full with people at this hour and unlike the UK not one of them were drunk!
We wandered for a while and came across a little shack selling what we thought were rice balls, the little old man was so nice and I can only imagine described to us the contents of the balls many times and so sold them to us under the assumption that we were ok with what turned out to be freakishly large tentacle pieces complete with suckers!! In the end we settled for a bag of crisps each and some sweets!! We soon realised that not many people speak English and especially around the area where we stayed were tourists were few and far between.
On our first full day we were keen to get out and see the Tokyo we had been dreaming of, to spread our wings a little and just explore the city further. We headed out to Shinjuku and Shibuya where the buildings are high and it is full of people, noise and lights. This is where you can begin to see the comparisons to New York and where you start to get that lost in translation type feel, at times just stood in the middle of a bustling street without a clue where you are headed, I loved it!
Shibuya crossing is even crazier in real life and is something really worth experiencing, its great to just stay and watch for a while, all the different types of people all setting off in 10 different directions all at once, this area is a hub and has a real times square like feel. Sitting in the Starbucks overlooking the crossing for a while is a great way to chill out and watch the craziness unfold.
After this we wanted to head on out to Rappongi Hills but were a little unsure of how to get there, we had a little confusion at the subway station over the tickets! Turns out that there are two systems, the metro and the JR, our station was on the JR so we mainly stuck with that line and just got the odd subway single here and there. But having arrived with a copy of the main metro line map and with no one at the station able to explain how it worked in English we were highly confused! Good job then that they have a tourist information point at Shibuya station in an old converted train, they explain our tickets were also valid on buses, so with blind faith we just jumped on the bus!
Amazingly it did actually get us to the Rappongi Hills complex, which again was yet another different side to this city. We saw the Louise bourgeois statue Maman around the front of the building which is quite a sight close up and looked impressive against the back drop of the building. We got passes to go up to the observation deck of the Mori Tower to see the city from another perspective. This is always something I like to do early into a visit to a city if I can, I took my parents up the Rockefeller when we visited NY earlier in the year on the same day we arrived, I think it allows you to get an overall picture of the city, the geography and the scale, to allow you to place yourself within it and makes finding your bearings a little more comprehensible. It’s also just amazing to see such a city from this view point and leaves you in awe and really aware of your surroundings.
We stayed up here for the sunset and headed to a nearby sushi restaurant. Now although I love Asian food, and especially oriental, this was actually the first time I had ever had proper sushi (I’ve had some pre-packed western excuse for sushi!). The restaurant itself was a little daunting as it was almost empty apart from a few locals and the chef and waiters seemed to want to shout (More like chanting) when we walked in and when anyone ordered anything! I’m sure they were only shouting “Hi, welcome!” but it was a little scary!!
It was a restaurant I had seen recommended as it has a traditional style conveyor belt but you can also order a dish to be specially made if you are unsure of what is passing by you, which of course we were so it came in helpful. Now, my impressions of sushi are mixed, it’s certainly not the worst thing I have ever had but it’s not exactly top of my list! By the end I was struggling to eat what I had after the Wasabi (Now realise I totally hate the stuff!) had finished me off, but I am glad we came and experienced it properly. For us a couple of dishes each was enough, but looking around people seemed to be having one after the other! Even if I loved it I doubt by chopstick skills would have allowed me to eat that fast!
Not content with just going back to the hotel we had a quick stop off in Akihabara or Electric town on the way back to just check it out to return another day. This place is totally mental and after coming a few days later it really is like two different places day and night. We found many of the arcades to still be open and wander around watching the skills of the players and having a few turns ourselves.The streets seemed to be filled with girls dressed in strange school like uniforms who were quite reluctant to have their photos taken, this seemed quite dodgy to us but apparently they are waitresses in rather overpriced themed cafes.
We were definitely excited to return here to visit all the toy and manga shops! I have to say if I had to describe what it is like being in this part of town it would be like being stuck inside a manga themed computer game! There is just music everywhere, really high-pitched singing, several different songs can be heard at any one time, then there are the noises, even the pedestrian crossings sounds like something from sonic, flashing lights and signs everywhere, total chaos but absolutely amazing!
After the craziness of our first day we decided to see yet another side to this diverse city and explore some of the temples. This was the day when I really fell in love with the place and it kind of all came together for me and I started to understand the place. Our first stop was the Senso-Ji temple in Asakusa which is the most well know and oldest temple in Tokyo and here there is also the Asakusa Shinto shrine.
This place is just beautiful and is just one of those things that when you see just really amazes you. A little like when I first set eyes on St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow I just wanted to stand there and just look at it for ages! This place is pretty big too, you have a main gate and a row of shops, then another gate then the temple and a 5 storey Pagoda. As a fan of Buddhism anyway it was great to actually visit my first temple and to see the statue of Buddha and to just observe the customs and traditions of the people.
One thing to note which seemed the same at all the temples and shrines that they are very much used by the public and although they are a massive draw for the tourists in actual fact the majority of people visiting are there to pray and use the temple as intended. This gives you a chance to take in the rituals of these places and observe the routine of praying, such as washing the hands using cups in a bath of water, the large bowl of incense burning at the entrance which you waft over yourself and the clapping and bowing after donation once at the main building. We decided to follow suit and try some of this out for ourselves too!
The smell of incense is something you also get used and seems to be almost everywhere, you know you are close to a temple when you begin to smell it, maybe that is one of it’s uses as many times we came across shines and temples by just following our noses! I think this was the side to Japan I was most exited to see and it is, along with Shibuya, the typical image of Japan. I think these two very different types of place really sum up the contrast in Japanese culture, the super modern, fast and loud with the historic, traditional and calm. I think one seems to provide the antidote to the other and both somehow go together seamlessly.
After this we decided to head over to the Sky Tree which is one of the newest landmarks in the city and is in fact the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest building in the world. We could see the tower from the temple (and in fact from most areas of the city) so we walked over instead of getting the metro to see more of the historic Asakusa district before crossing over the river into the ultra modern Sky Tree complex. Now as much as the building is impressive and it is definitely one of those things you have to do in Tokyo, given the status of the building on a world wide scale, I did not really enjoy the experience entirely (I mean, I didn’t hate it, but it was just OK).
Firstly the queue to even buy tickets was over an hour long and ended up almost outside the building, it was just jam packed full of tourists, I felt like I was queuing for a ride at Universal studios. The price was pretty ridiculous too for what it was, more than twice what we paid at the Mori Tower and it turns out that once you get up to the main floor you have to pay again to get right to the top, what a rob off, we decided paying once was enough! You queue again to cram into lifts and once at the main observation deck it was so full it was difficult to get to the edge to see the view!! But the view was amazing when you finally found a gap and it did give a totally different perspective than the Mori Tower and even better you could actually make out Mt Fuji in the background.
After queuing once again to get the lift back down we decided to head to a temple in Nippori which is close to where we were staying. This next temple was called Tennoji Temple and is famous for its Buddha statue, cemetery and tranquil setting. The temple is steeped in history and like most in Japan has been built and re-built over the years following conflict, fires and bombings, the original being constructed here in 1274. As soon as you step out of the train station you can feel the history of the area and to access the temple must walk up a small winding path where you find the temple and cemetery surrounded by traditional houses.
This temple compared to Senso-ji is much quieter both in terms of visitors and design. When we visited we were the only ones there apart from a few monks wandering silently around going about their business it really is hard to believe you are in the same city as all that chaos and noise, it really is a place you could come to clear your mind and reflect. The Buddha statue is also impressive and the cemetery and local area a nice peaceful walk with some interesting sights.
So again from here we ended up in a totally different part of the city, stopping off at the metro station “Daimon” to pay a visit and spend too much money in the Pokemon centre. Actually slightly disappointing in size but non the less exciting to two self confessed Pokemon addicts! Although this part of town I found a little bland and too buisnessy and lacking the character of many other areas, but its good to see all sides to a city.
From here we could just make out the famous Tokyo Tower and having done some research I knew there was also another temple not to far from the foot of the tower so we decided to head in that direction. Now although this would be our third tower in not even as many days I felt like we should probably go up it given it’s history, landmark status and also the fact my dad visited on his trip back in 1998.
On the way we passed through the grounds of the Zojoji temple which was also pretty quiet. This also has a lot of history connected such as the Sangedatsu Gate which was built in 1622 and survived WW2. It is said that if someone passed through this gate he can free himself from three passions (貪 Ton; “greed”, 瞋 Shin; “hatred”, 癡 Chi; “foolishness”. There is also a tree in the ground which General Grant planted on his visit in 1879 and the graves of several Shoguns, all these temples have great stories and histories. Whilst here we was lucky enough to see the monks praying, all sat down with drums facing Buddha.
Another cool feature at this temple is the fact the Tokyo Tower is right behind it creating quite a contrast between modern and traditional but almost ironically the Tower itself is now becoming more historical than modern having been over taken by the Sky Tree. I almost feel sorry for it, the once magnificent symbol of modern Tokyo, which is in fact taller than the Eiffel tower of which is it based, now is forgotten and overlooked. The tower itself has clearly seen better days and it clad in scaffolding and nets, hopefully for a facelift, and the top floor is inaccessible due to broken lifts, but the price is pretty cheap!
We had a wander round near by spotting some traditionally dressed women waving an important man on his way and went up the tower as it was going dark to see the city from above at night. The views again were amazing but would have been nicer to get a little higher up, I am glad we stopped by this symbol of a Tokyo which at the time of construction was just about the city finding its feet again and building its new identity after a brutal and bloody war. Also strangely enough we came across some Tokyo Tower and hello Kitty branded combustion dried cuttlefish…err no thanks! Which child wants that!
Finally we headed back to Shinjuku for an epic search for a recommended Tempura place called Tsunahachi, the food was amazing and the atmosphere really authentic watching our food being cooked in front of us and being shown the correct way to eat each section made it a meal to remember.
For our next day we decided to concentrate more on the parks and gardens of Tokyo first heading out to the imperial palace gardens in the traditional centre of the city. These really contrast the built up financial area around the station and seem to cross you over into the past just by crossing over the main road. The gardens are massive and could easily take a whole day to see, the area is beautiful and worth a visit. Although none of the main buildings remain today, but the moats, walls, entrance gates and several guardhouses still exist as the former site of the Edo Castle’s innermost circles of defense, the honmaru (“main circle”) and ninomaru (“secondary circle”).
The castle tower was completed in 1638 as the tallest castle tower in Japan’s history, but only a few years later in 1657, it was destroyed by citywide fires never to be rebuilt. I did find that the area surrounding the palace felt a little sterile and I can imagine is build for the benefit of visiting diplomats and the like and reflects little of the culture and richness to be found in many other parts of the city and was also interestingly the only one of two in which we came across a Japanese flag being flow, the other being the temple for the war dead.
After this it was time to head out to the Shimbashi area to find the Hama Rikyu gardens and the tea house in the middle of the lake. There was a small entrance fee but the gardens are impeccably kept and surrounded by tall buildings and sky scrapers reminded me very much of central park, albeit much more tidy! These gardens are not too big either that you can’t walk around the whole area in around an hour.
I loved the trees and plants in here, just so different to what we have at home and look almost like full size bonsai trees, one of them in here which is propped up by stilts is 300 years old. We also came across this crazy yellow, black and red spider which freaked us out a little but we manager to edge close enough for a photo much to the amusement of the park care takers! One of the main reasons for coming to the park was the tea house situated on the lake, I had been doing some research into tea ceremonies and many seemed quite expensive and required booking in advance, this was neither and was in an amazing setting.
They even had instructions on how to drink the tea and eat the sweet with it which we tried to follow. The tea itself was actually pretty thick and being not exactly a fan of tea myself was a bit of a mouthful, but actually I think green tea is nicer than normal tea and I am glad I managed to drink it, even if I did have severer dry mouth afterwards! After finishing with a stroll around the park coming across some wild crabs, probably from the near by moat filled by the waters of the Tokyo bay, we set of for Yoyogi park and the Meiji Jingu shrine.
This is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken and is tucked away in this dense forest like park. Originally built in 1920 it was destroyed during the bombings of the second world war and rebuilt through public fund raising in 1958. Notable here are the rows of sake barrels with ornate decorations, actually empty I am lead to believe but full of symbolism. Sake in Japan is a way of bringing the gods and the people together and is used in several ceremonies, rites and festivals at the shrines.
Sake manufacturers donate so many barrels to the shires and in turn once empty they are stacked up, tied together and displayed on a large frame. Soon it went dark and the park closed so we had a wander around the area near by and ended up finding some cool shops, shorty got a new bag for work/ college and I picked up a Japanese football shirt as I collect them when ever I can whilst travelling.
After a manic few days we tried to have a more relaxed day and let my blisters heal! Heading back over to the area we had been the night before we ended up doing just as much walking and came across a shop called “Kiddy land” which despite the dodgy sounding name was amazing! Full of toys and geeky stuff there was probably more adults in here than kids, we explored the whole place and came away with a few cool purchases.
We went then for a walk over to the Olympic stadium but was slightly disappointed that they didn’t do tours, but an impressive looking construction from the outside at least which will again see action and redevelopment for the 2020 games. After that it was on the to Jingu baseball stadium where the Tokyo swallows play. The baseball season had finished by the time we were in Japan so we expected to either get a tour or just visit the shop. On our arrival we discovered that a college game was underway and for only 600 Yen went and watched the rest of the game.
It turned out that the side of the stadium we sat in hosted the fans for the team who eventually won although I have no clue who they were! It was interesting to see how the game works over here being a follower of MLB and having watched the Mets play earlier in the year. The standard was pretty good and we enjoyed the game, I have also heard that they have a few differences in the rules over here too such as draws being allowed and having smaller fields.
Continuing with the baseball theme we had heard about some batting cages over at Shinjuku and thought it would be fun. After a proper mission to find it which involved being sent the wrong way several times, doing impressions of playing baseball to numerous puzzled people and ending up on the roof of a department store (After purchasing a random dog toy!) we finally found the place.
I have never actually been to a batting cage before although I have played quite a bit of baseball with shorty. It was so much fun and so cheap we ended up having a few goes and in the end were completely worn out, I also managed to pull pretty much every muscle in my upper body, shorty reckons I am too aggressive with my swing… don’t know what he is talking about!
That night we tried to find a noodle place that I had be recommended but after wandering aimlessly for ages we decided to go in a very traditional looking place which ended up being the funniest and strangest meal I have ever had. Firstly we were sat in our own weird, very dark booth with a sliding door and it all felt a little like something from a film where you get dragged off unbeknownst to the other customers/ awaiting victims!
We ordered from the very small and vague menu and had to wait ages for it to arrive. The first thing that came was a little starter type thing that we didn’t actually order, I can only describe it as a cold meat ball that resembled cat food, no idea what it was but after a nibble I wasn’t too keen! Next came the starters, shortys first and then mine 10 mins later! He got off OK with what was pretty much fried chicken wings, but mine was a 3 inch thick omelette that had a very strange sweet flavour to it, it was just massive too, no way I could eat all that for a starter. For our main we ordered what was described as “Pork and potatoes” so really could have come out as anything! It was like a stew with pork and veg and some strange worm looking things. Actually not too bad in itself but again had a very sweet flavour too it that just seemed a little strange with ingredients!
One thing we noticed that night is that people work till very late over here, the trains are full of business people from around 9-11pm and there are a lot of people who fall asleep on the train, sometimes stood up! In Japan they actually have a word specifically for “Death from overwork” – Karōshi (過労死) and I can see why. It seems that the Japanese are very driven in their sense of duty and honor in all aspects of life and it is interesting to note that Japan also has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world which is also something very much linked with the history of the country from the ritual suicides of the samurai to the Kamikaze bombers.
So came the last day and I really wanted to stay longer… I knew I would but I also knew I would rather come here, if only for a week, than go somewhere closer just for the sake of it. Besides, it gives us a good reason to come back again in a few years and see more of the country. But in all honesty from the list of things we had that we wanted to do we had managed almost everything, and we still had a full day to finish a few off.
The main plan was to stroll around the city, explore and just take in as much of it as we could before leaving. There was also one last shrine to go and visit which is the Yasukuni Shinto shrine. This particular shrine is interesting due to the controversy surrounding it as its main purpose it actually a war memorial. Now really for someone visiting who can’t read all the inscription you wouldn’t even have known so it’s not really in your face about it, and in my opinion all those who die in wars deserve to be remembered because at the end of the day each side believes themselves to be in the right, and usually the ones on the ground who die are just pawns in a game for politicians.
But either way the shrine itself is a particularly beautiful one with fabric draped over the main area and wonderful green roof. Whilst here we decided as it was our last stop at a shrine to leave an Ema (絵馬) which is a small wooden plaque on to which you write your wishes or prayers which are left hanging at the shrine for the gods to receive. I liked the idea of leaving something in Japan, something spiritual and hopeful and one day returning to see it again.
After our stop here is was back to Akhiabara to see it in the day time and do some geek shopping! We spent ages here going in and out of all the labyrinth like shops, many of which seem to have several floors which after 2 or 3 start turning into different sections of porn… the higher up the more disturbing! Manga porn seems to be quite popular! Strange! This place was fully of cards, models, toys rare and unique we had never seen at home, it’s like forbidden planet on steroids and a million miles away from the temples and shrines!
Again, multiple sources of music blasting out from even several corners of the same crapped room, random sound effects, flashing lights, every colour you could ever imagine, even the buildings looked like cartoons! Weird and wonderful, and utterly confusing at time! Some building we really had no clue what they were for, one floor was an arcade, one was a office, one had karaoke booths…another had some strange dark rooms which we were ushered out off, then the next floor would have kids toys, baffling!
After this sensory overload we needed something a little calmer and went back to Ueno park to have a better look around, starting at the other end this time. Here there is an amazing shrine in the centre of a lake on an island, surrounded by lilly pads, koi, ducks and turtles. Next to this was a little boating lake too which we decided to have a go on, we got a little pedal boat for a few yen and ended up crashing and nearly capsizing due to shorty’s driving skills!
From here we wanted to walk back through the park and nearby neighbourhood instead of getting the metro to have a bit of an explore. We had expected this to not take too long but we pretty much got lost, somehow managing to loose the park and just end up on what looked like an estate! Loads of traditional houses and little streets around here, small shrines, kids playing on bikes. We ended up not really having a clue where we where and just walking in a general direction. We ended up meeting and speaking to some really nice people around here whilst asking for directions and even ended up inside someones house who was a photographer and was exhibiting photos of a sumo wrestler in his parents living room!
Well, what can I say, what a wonderful adventure we have been on, traveled to almost the other side of the world and experienced new and amazing things and people. Travelling is amazing in the way in open up your mind and I believe, makes you a more tolerant person, especially if you take part and embrace the culture of where you travel. Tokyo at times is exactly how you imagine it and then totally unexpected and surprising, It can be so overwhelming at times but yet I always felt so comfortable. It’s thrilling, intense and exciting, but at the same time reflectful, inspiring and peaceful.
You can get lost so easily and find something amazing, at times when at a shine or park you even feel like you have lost the city itself. Open vistas and sprawling parks to tiny winding streets and cramped trains, crazy address systems (that make no sense!) and spaghetti like subway maps! The smell of the incense and the cawing of the crows, monks beating a drum and a constant manga soundtrack! Respectful and polite people going out of their way to help you, strange food in plastic models outside the restaurant, vending machines selling anything you could ever want on every street corner, gaming arcades, the smell, the humidity.
I absolutely loved my time in Japan and fell in love with the place, I cannot wait to get a chance to return and to explore the amazing place that is Asia in more depth in a couple of years when we go travelling for much longer. I would have loved to have gone for longer but feel we did so much in a short period of time and made the most of it and most importantly some amazing memories.
I also can’t finish this without mentioning the toilet, lets just say, going to the toilet will never be the same again!! The amount of functions available is insane for such a simple task and many aren’t labeled up in English either. My favourite has to be the recorded flush noise to cover up your own noises, which sounds totally fake and just draws more attention!!