Tokyo Prefecture, Kanto, Japan
Friday, August 15, 2014
Our trip to the bright lights of Tokyo city from Kyoto’s cultural cool takes us a little under three hours on the Shinkansen (bullet train). The train ride is an easy one, the seats are comfortable and spacious, there are little hooks next to the window seats for you to hang up your umbrella, handbag or shopping should you need to. Even the toilets are almost luxurious on these trains, like most public places in Japan, the seats are pre-warmed, toilets flush automatically and there are these fantastic bidets that allow you to choose the kind of sprinkling your nether region desires – these Japanese, they think of everything!
The Japan Rail Pass is only available for purchase by foreigners outside of Japan, our 14-day pass costs us close to $AUD500 each so we intend to make full use of it. It is also valid on some local and rapid trains which prove to be very handy as we travel in and around Tokyo. Every hour a food and drinks trolley comes by where you can purchase snacks and even little souvenirs to remind you of your delightful trip on the train.
We stay in the happening area of Shinjuku which proved to be a great spot (thanks, Eli!) close to a huge shopping area, great restaurants and from what we can see lots of great looking little bars and cafes. There is so much to see in Tokyo and we only have four days to cram it all in. Tokyo is a vast sprawling metropolis, actually more like a few mini cities joined together and are connected seamlessly by an incredible metro and train network. Peter and Nikki are naturals at logistical planning so we get around easily. Most stations also have English signage and instructions and almost all employees speak English so it has been relatively easy to get around.
We spend the first couple of days in the famed Harajuku area, which is considered to be the epicenter of Japan’s most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, but it also offers shopping for those of us outside the 18-25 age bracket. The main area of interest is on Takeshita Dori (street) and its offshoot side streets, which are lined with fashion boutiques, vintage clothing stores, crepe stands and fast food outlets geared towards the fashion and trend conscious teens. Apparently, Sunday is the day that Harajuku is transformed into a live stage with scores of people gathering around to engage in cosplay (costume play), dressed up in eccentric costumes to resemble anime characters, punk musicians, etc. We come across a small group sitting in a café and individual girls in little bo-peep style costume but we miss the masses who parade around on the bridge to be seen, unfortunately.
The lure of shopping was just too strong for us girls. More so for Nikki and Cara who have been in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia for the last six months. As they come across a Forever 21 megastore they know their resolve to travel light is lying in tatters, like the multitude of discarded clothing items on the floor of the changing room. As for Peter and I, we spend most of our afternoon giving the credit card a workout at the Oriental Bazaar for wonderful Japanese gifts – from beautiful crockery (how these gorgeous porcelain beauties were my kryptonite!), wonderfully authentic woodblock prints, dozens of t-shirts with Japanese inspired motifs and glorious textiles.
Oh, how I could write an Ode to Joy about the beauty of Japanese ceramics and porcelains – their designs are tastefully elegant with imprints of seasonal changes, patterns with undulating swirls with inlays of plum blossoms and delicate foliage scroll work to name a few. We decide on a few pieces to take home for ourselves – sets of four teacups and bowls with what looks like a little man climbing up midway in a sea of flowers and waves.
We also spend a couple of hours in Ginza which is Tokyo’s most famous upmarket shopping, dining, and entertainment district. In fact, it is considered to be one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world. Apparently, a single square meter of land in the district’s center is worth over ten million yen, making it one of the most expensive real estate in Japan. As it is a Sunday we pleasantly discover that the central Chuo Dori is closed to vehicular traffic and it becomes a large pedestrian zone with inviting looking chairs sitting under umbrellas.
It was a lovely way to spend a hot afternoon with cones of deliciously cold gelato and a spot of people watching. Looking around the stores, virtually every leading brand name in fashion and cosmetics has a flagship store here. Then, we notice a lone monk dressed in robes, chanting a mantra as he makes his way slowly up the street, his traditional dress and presence seem so antithetical to the world of high-end fashion. But then again maybe that’s why he’s here – as a stark reminder about the transient nature and hollowness of excessive consumerism.
One of the must-do suggestions from friends has been to visit Akihabara, a district in central Tokyo that is famous for its many electronics shops. In more recent years, Akihabara has gained recognition as the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga are now dispersed among the electronic stores in the district. We walk into one of the newer buildings that have recently opened called Yodabashi Akiba and it is simply enormous. I imagine this would be equivalent to what heaven must be like for the techno-savvy geeks out there, there are nine, that’s right, you read it – NINE floors full of hi-tech equipment. It is regarded as probably one of the largest electronics stores in the world. Cruising each floor, there are things I never knew even existed but there is something for everyone, even for the technologically challenged like myself. We while away a good couple of hours enjoying the air-conditioned comfort of the store and indulging our inner geeks.
On Monday we decided to head out to Nikko which is about two and a half hours out of Tokyo. Getting into Nikko via local train there are buses that take you around the whole UNESCO Heritage listed site where you can hop on and off at the various shrines and temples at your leisure. Set in a forest of cedar trees on the mountain above Nikko, we are primarily here to see the Tosho-gu Shrine which is an impressive monument to the shogun who ended the warring between states and brought about a period of peace which lasted 250 years.
Tokugawa asked to be buried to the north of Edo castle, the direction of ill luck where demons come from so that he could protect the country after his death. He specified a simple shrine, but his grandson expanded the original structure to show what he felt was a more fitting tribute. It took over 4 and a half million people over a year to finish the ornate and stunning wood carvings, sumptuous gold leaf, and other ornamentation of the various buildings. In particular, the imposing Youmeimon tower gateway is famous for its lavish decorations that include over 300 dazzling carvings of mythical beasts, such as dragons, giraffes, and lions, and Chinese sages. The well-known carvings of the three “see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil” monkeys, can be seen on the Sacred Stable.
The Tosho-gu Shrine itself is our most anticipated visit and it does not fail to impress, while part of the area is under refurbishment we are still able to climb up the hill to the main shrine itself. Looking up the staircase as you make your ascent, your eyes are met with the most amazing forest of ancient cedar trees that greet you like imposing guardians. It’s not hard to get lost in the feeling that you are in another world, or in fact transported back into the 17th century, and that at any moment Tokugawa himself might stroll by deep in thought. It starts to rain midway through our visit but it only serves to make the surroundings all the more mystical. We decide to leave as the sun is about to set when suddenly, the last rays of sunlight pierce through the light veil of rain illuminating the ancient trees and you feel as if you have witnessed something magical. I take that as a good omen and buy a talisman (my first and only) for luck and success.
Walking back to reach the station we pass by the Shinkyo sacred bridge which sits between the town of Nikko and its main shrines. It’s red lacquered span arches gracefully across the sparkling Daiya River and it is much smaller than I thought it would be. Legend has it that the hermit who settled Nikko was carried across the river here by two serpents. In feudal times, the sacred bridge could be used only by the Emperor. I read that the bridge has long been considered one of the most beautiful structures in Japan, its simple elegance contrasting with the wildness of the river, the green hills, and the gushing river. Standing there listening to the roar of the water coursing along and kicking up a fine mist I find myself exhaling, there is always something so calming I find about being near water. Despite the heavy traffic zooming by and the busy commerce of life in Nikko I am amazed too at how crystal clear and unpolluted the waters are.
One of the drawbacks I do have to mention has been the lack of English signage along the way, however, you can hire an audio tape which in hindsight we should’ve done. It has been a long day and another few hours to get back to Tokyo but Nikko was really worth the visit.
On our last day we decide to take it easy, we fly out in the evening so we take in one last stop so we can have fresh sushi and sashimi for breakfast. Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world’s largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. Tsukiji Market consists of an inner market where most of the wholesale business and the famous tuna auctions are taking place and an outer market whose retail shops and restaurants cater to the public.
We don’t make it to the auction as you need to start lining up by 4 am and there are only about 150 who are let in every day but we do make it in time for breakfast. Each restaurant has a mouth-watering array of the freshest fish and seafood on offer and we gaze upon the stuff of my dreams. There are bowls of fresh sea urchin sitting amongst glistening pearls of fat fish row nestled on top of still warm sushi rice, rows of the freshest salmon and tuna sashimi, tender octopus, prawn, eel… I wish I had enough room for all of them or that I had more days to visit so I could eat each dish for every day of the week. Peter settles for rows of tuna maguro and for me a humble bowl of tuna, salmon and fish roe on rice. Each mouthful is divine, the freshness of the seafood which was caught only hours before is an experience that you shouldn’t miss out on if you are ever in Tokyo. It is just blissful. I read that Tokyo has more Michelin hats than any other city in the world, judging from the food at the humble markets it is entirely believable.
All too soon, bags are packed and it is time to go. We say a sad and teary goodbye to Nikki and the delightful Cara who we’ve become very fond of. As we get into the taxi Sofia waves and shout continual goodbyes to Nikki through the back window until she has long disappeared from view. It is hard farewelling one’s children and knowing you will not see them again for awhile. Japan has really been a most memorable trip and one I highly recommend to anyone – with or without children. Sayonara Japan, we will be back again one day. I promise.