Seven days in Tokyo

What to do when you finish one of the best paid gigs in the stressful world of English teaching in one of the furthest corners of the globe from your home in order to move to a much lower paying area of the world?

The answer is of course go on a holiday you’re not going to be able to afford again in the foreseeable future! Thus I found myself in mid-September enjoying the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, the most populous city in the world. And the view was peachy.

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The schedule

Other than a desire to climb Mt. Fuji, made sadly impossible by the fact that climbing season ended the day I arrived, I wasn’t sure what I could expect of my time in Tokyo. I knew I wanted to hang out in Harajuku, see the Pedestrian Scramble at Shibuya, and mooch meditatively around the Meiji Shrine, but what else?

I spent a couple of weeks searching for friendly Couchsurfers to stay with to provide this valuable information, all to no avail as I was also arriving during Silver Week, a five day bank holiday that only occurs when the dates align. Instead, Tokyo Metro stepped in to supply the answers.

The train and subway system is integral to the compact collection of small city areas which make up the whole, so each subway station is the centre of a world of its own. This makes sightseeing pretty simple and Tokyo Metro capitalises on this well, providing handy maps and guides with information on the main things to see at their main stations for sights. They also kindly provide free Wifi at key stations, a commodity considerably more difficult to find here in Japan than in neighbouring Korea, where it’s regarded as a basic human right.

On Day 1, I didn’t make the most of my three day subway ticket, instead opting to explore the area around my grubby-but-serviceable digs in Kinshicho. This included a backstreet wander up to the Tokyo Skytree and surrounding ‘Town’ at Oshiage station. As a new landmark (opened 2012) it has a strong visual impact on the Tokyo skyline, but for my tastes the ‘town’ area at its base is still a bit sterile in the way newly created areas can be. There’s a food court, which is the same as all food courts the world over, a nice tourist walkway full of Japanese trinkets and memorabilia, and lots of shops. It’s possible to go up the tower to the observation deck, but being already aware that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building also had an observation deck – with free entry – meant I bypassed that opportunity.

In the evening I headed past the crazy Golden Turd Asahi beer buildings and over the Sumida River into the historic district of Asakusa to see the Senso-ji temple and soak up the atmosphere of the winding streets. This would have been a great place to have dinner, but I was determined to finish my day with a run along the river so I headed back after enjoying the sunset and snapping a few photos of passers-by in the narrow lanes.

Day 2 was the start of my determined exploration of the history and culture of Tokyo, and I decided to start with the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art. It took a while to find, but involved a great walk down ‘Heart Street,’ where the lamposts were adorned with a diversity of mannequins in all styles, from totally abstract to cartoonish, eventually leading to the impressive monolith that is the museum itself. The current permanent exhibition focuses on developments in art in post-war Japan and is a fascinating insight into the psyche of a country shattered by the brutality and defeat of WWII as it pieced itself back together.

I had every intention of hitting up the Edo-Tokyo Museum, then heading to Ueno for the National Museum, and finishing up with an evening in Ginza, but I was instead sidetracked by the Matsuo Basho Museum which I spotted on a tiny guide map I picked up on the way. One of my favourite aspects of teaching schoolchildren in Peru a couple of years ago was a semester on poetry in which the classes on haiku were probably among the most enjoyable and successful for the greatest range of students, so it would have been terribly remiss of me not to pay my respects to the Master of the form.

It’s not a huge museum, and almost all of the information is in Japanese, but it was a pleasant diversion and I got to see the viewpoint over the river where Basho himself probably sat and meditated and wrote heavily truncated missives to Nature.

Again, it took a lot more time than I expected to find this inconspicuous house, so afterwards I headed on to Ueno but not in time to see the museums. Instead I enjoyed the golden afternoon sun in Ueno park before catching the sunset in the mega-glitzy upmarket shopping heaven of Ginza, where the light of the sun was replaced by the neon lights of commerce.

I finished the day’s ramble at Tokyo Station, having read that the building entrance on the Maranouchi side was impressive and worth a gander. My sources (probably Tokyo Metro) were correct. After extensive renovation since 2009, the Maranouchi entrance has been restored to the glory of its pre-war heyday and looks fantastic. There was no opportunity to truly drink in its grandeur as another major construction or reconstruction project which spanned almost the whole length of the facade was going on directly in front of it, but I took a long drive-by (or walk-by) and drank in as much as my cup would allow.

On Wednesday, I was determined to find out a little more about the history of Tokyo and resolved to start my day at the Edo-Tokyo musuem. This was a good decision and a great museum which I’d heartily recommend to anyone who wants a serious run-down of Tokyo’s development from Shogunate stronghold to Imperial Capital to war-ravaged devastation and finally contemporary uber-metropolis, all the while building and rebuilding after earthquakes and other natural disasters.

After a brief lunch stop where I met a charming gent with a fascinating camera and his English teaching son, it was off across town to Harajuku for the afternoon. Obviously, I was hoping to spot the examplars of Japanese teen fashion known to haunt the area with their crazy hair and other adornments, but it was a cloudy Wednesday and there wasn’t much action, so I headed on into Yoyogi park and the Meiji Shrine, high on my list of must-see attractions.

The atmosphere was perfect: lowering clouds, gathering dusk, darkening shadows. The broad paths between looming trees felt like they were guiding me into a fairytale, and the peace of the shrine itself was sombre and meditative in the still air. As I made my way back out it was closing time, and the lanterns along the path were just starting to light up. It transformed my subsequent walk from Shinjuku to Shibuya in the glaring lights of the temples of commerce.

Inside the Meiji shrine

Inside the Meiji shrine

Nothing, however, can transform the pedestrian scramble. Arriving at the famous crossing during the evening rush hour, I was completely unprepared for the hordes of people surging in every direction under the pulsing beat of the music blaring from nearby Tower Records. I completed a circuit of the area for the novelty of being there and seeing it, and ran.

In fact, I ran quite literally, heading back to Yoyogi park to join the Namban Rengo or Barbarian Horde – Tokyo’s international running club – for their regular Wednesday run, already missing my Seoul Runsploring compadres. It was a very welcoming group and I ran my socks off for an hour or so, enabling me to eat holiday food with impunity for the remainder of the week.

Gundam!

Gundam!

The remainder of the week did not look good on Thursday, when a full day of non-stop rain and gloom dictated an indoors day. I decided to take the opportunity for a shopping day and explored the tech-and-manga haven of Akihabara, ‘Akiba’ for short. This really was a chance to indulge my inner nerd and spend four hours in Bic and Yodabashi camera playing with camera lenses I could never afford and comparing camera gonks I don’t really need. In the end I came out with a very handy cushioned lens case and a list of 100 camera-things-I’d-love-to-own-but-will-never-be-able-to-justify. Then I went for a Gundam coffee and enjoyed the best of 80s retro manga latte art and a spot of people-watching.

By Thursday and Friday, the non-stop sightseeing action had tired me out and I was back at my capsule by 8pm both nights to make the most of the basement ‘onsen’ or Japanese bath house. Similar to a Korean jjimjilbang (but in this case smaller and grubbier), the basement featured a stone sauna (the stones are in neat beds that each person can lie in, rather than the Scandinavian bench model of sauna) and a shower room with a large hot bath at one end. I soaked and sauna-ed the rain away and then wrapped up in my Japanese robe and bundled myself into my capsule with a good book.

The Couchsurfing community of Tokyo did come good in the end despite the holiday season, and I had arranged a hiking trip outside of the city with another CSer for Saturday. That suddenly left me only Friday and Sunday to wrap up the lengthy list of Things To Do And See. My money was dribbling through my fingers at an astounding rate so I had to finally rule out a trip to the Robot Restaurant (next time, Tokyo, next time…) instead plumping for the more cultural alternative of a one-act ticket at the Kabuki-za – a reconstruction of the original Kabuki theatre which enchanted Edo audiences. I also squeezed in a ramble around Tsukiji fish market, a walk around the Imperial Palace park and gardens, and I did make it up the TMG towers to gaze out over the whole of the city. Mt Fuji, my number 1 icon to see in Japan, remained elusive, obscured behind clouds in the mid-distance.

The Saturday hike was a great change of pace and quite literally a breath of fresh air. Taking the train from Shinjuku station, I met my companion for the day at Takao Sanguchi and we set off together up the mountain, stopping to admire the view of the city, the other mountains, and the temples and shrines along the path. I was clearly doomed not to see Mt. Fuji as it was a beautiful, clear day but the one, single cloud in the sky was parked neatly in front of sacred Fuji-san.

Fuji - allegedly

Fuji – allegedly

The experience

I was enchanted from start to finish by the similarities this no. 1 megacity bore to the much smaller city of Kyoto. Despite the incredible density of population, streets were generally peaceful, calm and incredibly clean. Main roads were broad and generally allowed for free-flowing traffic. Cycling is beyond rampant and I was hugely impressed by provision for cyclists everywhere, from parks, to stations, to brilliantly organised stacked racks under houses and apartments.

As a solo traveller, Tokyo has to be one of the best destinations in the world. Capsule hotels, tables for one in cafes and restaurants, no one bats an eyelid if you turn up on your own. No waiters looking uncertainly over your shoulder to see who else you’re with; every place I walked into I was greeted with a quick, “One person? This way…” or equivalent in Japanese + liberal gesticulation.

Getting around was slightly less easy than it is in Korea. I couldn’t work out if that was due to my limited but helpful knowledge of Korean language and custom, or whether it really is just a bit more difficult in Japan. From my experience, English seemed a little less standard in use on things like transport and signage, and Wifi provision was less universal, so having an analogue backup for your Googlemaps or online guide books is a very good idea.

Meeting Tokyo-ites was relatively easy and would probably have been even easier if it hadn’t been smack in the middle of the biggest holiday break all year. Couchsurfing and Meetup.com are both active and full of regular groups and activities. Meeting fellow travellers would have been easier in a better known hostel or even capsule hotel, such as the one in Asakusa which seems to be essentially like a hostel.

Travel in Tokyo is actually much cheaper than Japan’s international reputation led me to expect. I jumped at the 1500 yen 3 day subway pass at the airport, but it then turned out I needed to make around four subway trips a day to make it worthwhile. If you plan your day around different areas, you really don’t need to travel that much and it’s much nicer to walk.

In all, the hardest part of spending a week in Tokyo is trying to decide what not to see or do. From couture shopping in Ginza to nerd shopping in Akiba to fashion in Harajuku, from historical districts to ultra-modern, from sumo to Noh to Robo, there really is something for every taste.

The Links

As ever, a collection of my favourite references:

Tokyo Metro Guide to Popular Attractions

Backpacker Lee’s Top 10 attractions in Tokyo.

Omotenashi Japan – a handy link a very helpful Tokyo Couchsurfer sent to help me out.

Double bridge Imperial Palace

Double bridge Imperial Palace

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Angie
    Oct 22, 2015 @ 01:54:42

    All I can say is, cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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