Tokyo – my last day in a great city – Part3

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Last day in Tokyo, a busy one!

My last day’s itinerary for Tokyo would be Senso-ji Temple, Denboin Gardens, Nezu Shrine, Meiji Shrine, Shibuya and Shibuya crossing.  Yes, yesterday’s hiccup with the overcharge took up most of the day.  Even so, it didn’t deter my enjoyment of my short saunter in Tokyo (Tokyo Part 2).  PS. After more emails, there was still no resolution grrrrr!

After a quick breakfast, I needed a caffeine boost to help kickstart the day.  The day before I had found a great coffee shop around the corner from the hotel.  I realised the following day it’s actually a hostel…a hostel which happens to have a great coffee shop.  Cool place, with an industrial décor, and military precision-made coffee.  What really impressed me was their meticulous approach to making the coffee; they weigh the ground coffee to ensure the precise amount is used to achieve consistency for every cup.  One of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had.  If you ever happen to be in the area its worth visiting Berth Coffee, I’d even make a short detour.

Tokyo Skytree, Asahi Beer Hall and Asahi Flame

Tokyo Skytree, Asahi Beer Hall and Asahi Flame, the last two are part of the Asahi Breweries headquarters – Tokyo

 

Sensō-ji / Senso-ji Temple

My day commenced fuelled by rocket strength caffeine, I was moving with gusto and purpose!  First, the Buddhist temple Senso-ji, the oldest in Tokyo.  To me, temples/shrines conjure up thoughts of zen like places.  A place of meditation, reflection or simply a place for peace and quiet to escape the world.  Not so here…I’ve been to music festivals with less people!

Senso-ji is at the end of a circa. 100m walkway, shouldered with shops on either side.  These shops aren’t a recent construction for tourists, they were specifically constructed as shops early in the 18th century.  Selling arts, crafts and temple related goodies along with sunglasses and tacky stuff…anything really.  If you like trinkets this place is your jackpot, but you need to wade through a sea of people.  It may be better if you visit very early or late, that would be my recommendation.  Consequently, even the most stunning of places can lose their sheen when packed full of people.  It’s the same throughout the world, pity.

Sensō-ji

The long corridor with shops as you enter the Sensō-ji / Senso-ji Temple complex – Sensō-ji / Senso-ji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensō-ji / Senso-ji / Sensoji Temple

Senso-ji became an independent temple not long after World War II, prior to this its association was with Tendai of Buddhism.  In fact, temple Sensoji Kannon main temple (Bodhisattva of compassion), is said to be the most visited spiritual site in the world – 30 million people per year!  Hmmmmm…explains why it was so busy, wish I knew that before visiting.

Sensoji Temple

Beautifully painted ceiling of the Sensoji Temple – Tokyo

Tokyo

5 Story pagoda in the Sensō-ji / Senso-ji Temple complex – Tokyo

With the first temple constructed in 645 AD, it followed a prior shrine dedicated to Kannon dating back to 628.  Included in the grounds is Sensoji Kannon, a five-story pagoda, Shinto shrine and the Asakusa Shrine – that’s not all it has, with 10 temple/shrines in total.  Can’t say much else about the main area, I got to frustrated navigating through the people….so I didn’t.   Moving on, I can’t say the visit to Senso-ji Temple was enjoyable, the noise and congestion irritated me.  As a result I found myself taking photos for the sake of doing so – I hate that.

Sensoji Temple

Bronze Hokyoin-to cast in 1761 – much bigger than it looks at 8m high.  Within the grounds of the Sensoji Temple Complex

 

Denboin Garden

I lost my ticket to Denboin Garden sometime during my travels, it wasn’t expensive that’s all I do remember. Funny, even though it’s not a temple the environment is akin to one.  Denboin Garden is adjacent to the Senso-Ji complex, an inconspicuous entrance hidden away.  Looking for relief from the crowds I found it by mistake (glad I did).  My timing was perfect (lucky), because it’s only open to the public between mid-March till early-May 😊.

Tokyo

Denboin Garden with the 5 story pagoda in the background – Tokyo

Keeping on the topic but going off on a tangent.  Without a doubt Japanese gardens are the most beautiful I have ever seen.  Tokyo gardens and parks are stunning, but pale in comparison to what I would see in Kyoto.  Gardens are manicured down to the blades of grass (that’s no metaphor, I saw this in Kyoto).  Still, with such pride and skill put into these pristine gardens they somehow manage to feel natural.  For this reason, some gardeners are revered in the same light as artists, Denboin Garden is a great example of this.

Denboin Garden is attributed to Kobori Enshu (1579 – 1647); an artist, celebrated garden designer and master of the tea ceremony.  A large pond filled with koi is the focal point of the garden, with a walk path around it.  Like taking a walk around a lake set in a little forest.  Within the grounds is one of the original lodgings where the monks working at the Senso-ji temple used to lived – you can see it but no entry.  It was great to get away from the hordes of people, but my time was limited, I had to a schedule to keep.  Nezu Shrine would be my next stop of the day.

Denboin Garden

Denboin Garden with the koi filled pond and the 5 story pagoda in the background – Tokyo

Tokyo

Old meets new, they do have a similarity. 5 story pagoda at Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

 

Nezu Shrine

Visiting Nezu Shrine is secondary if you go in early April to early May, why, because the Azalea Festival is on.  WOW!  My brief time in Tokyo was a Yin Yang metaphor. Not knowing the Azalea Festival was on, because I didn’t know it existed.  Completely distracted by the vivid lush display of the garden, paying little to no attention to the Nezu Shrine.

Before I get into the Nezu Shrine (and garden!), I regret not taking more pictures on the walk from the station.  Particularly when walking passed traditional Japanese restaurants well-known for Fugu; Japanese word for the dish prepared with puffer fish.  Many chefs and staff in traditional dress standing outside, all stern looking.  My guess was it must have been their breaktime.  Sadly, I did not see this sort of thing again, hence my regret not taking photos.  For this reason, don’t be shy to take pictures if something catches your eye!  Another lesson I learnt the hard way.

Nezu Shrine

The Honden, the main shrine at the Nezu Shrine – Tokyo

 Background information; building the Nezu Shrine began in the beginning of the 18th century in Ishi-no-ma-zukuri style of Shinto architecture.  Considered of great cultural importance, it is old, famous along with being one of the oldest places of worship in Tokyo.  It is most well-known for its gardens…I’ll get to that very shortly.  At first it was located further North, “that” shrine was founded in the 1st century.  It was moved in 1705 to the current location by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709), by the fifth shōgun of the Tokugawa dynasty.

Nezu Shrine

The Romon at the Nezu Shrine – Tokyo

The temple complex consists of three main areas:

  • Honden – the main temple building
  • Romon – An elaborately decorative archway, a standalone structure. In this instance it acts like a gateway to the Honden
  • Torii – Look like elegant doorframes placed in many multiples to create a passageway. Mostly in red or deep bright orange

Yes, these are vague and basic descriptions – I’ll add more details about these are I post about my time in Japan – no, I won’t forget.

Torii at Nezu Shrine

My first bit of detail is about the torri.  I guess most people have seen these tunnel-like structures when looking at pictures of Japan, I certainly had.  Here would be my first opportunity to see them up close.  Their visual impact intrigues and lures you further down the rabbit hole as you walk through/under them; following the lay of the land, like a snake laterally undulating its way through the garden.

Torri

Torii tunnel at the Nezu Shrine – Tokyo

Torii come in various sizes, some are huge!  Not all are red/orange (vermillion to be precise) either.  Maybe it’s just my experience, or bad memory, but I cannot recall any small/short torii that weren’t vermillion.  At the entrance of some shrines/temples torii can me stories high, then usually make of massive timber &/or concrete.  The larger are normally singular structures, the shorter/smaller, as is the case at the Nezu Shrine are in multiples.  During my time is Kyoto I would see torii of a different kind, laid out in their thousands!

Azalea Festival

I’m not going to make stuff up about the Azalea Festival.  Like I said, I didn’t know anything about it!  That aside, you don’t need to be a horticulturalist to appreciate the beauty and colour on display.   Comparative to puffy clouds of green, red, pink, orange, purple and a sparing dash of white.  This river of colour, running through undulating gently rapids, large trees on its banks casting scattered shadows.

Nezu Shrine

Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine with the tunnel of torii – Tokyo

Azalea Festival

Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine – Tokyo

Bright vermilion torri dulled by the florescent colours emanating from millions of flowers.  From a distance the colour a solid blanket, like one massive flower ball – up close, thousands of dainty petals packed tightly together.  If your parachute didn’t open this is where you would wish to land, on a mattress made of flowers.  Just looking at it made me want to “bush-dive” onto them, it looked so soft and inviting…obviously I didn’t, nor am I advocating doing so 😊!

Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine garden during the azalea festival, the repetitive torii below – Tokyo

Azalea Festival

Balls of azalea flowers like puffy clouds – Azalea Festival at Nezu Shrine in Tokyo

Azalea Festival

The few dashes of white against the green, pinks and reds at the Azalea Festival, the gardens of the Nezu Shrine – Tokyo

Considering Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities, though not equally polluted nor dirty.  Nezu Shrine with its garden, is without doubt a sanctuary – a sanctuary of colour, flowers, nature and bliss, even when filled with people.  Coupled with me being mildly preoccupied about the hotel overcharge (it hadn’t been resolved), I left Nezu Shrine on cloud nine.  Walking back to the metro with effervescent floral bouquets still fresh in my nostrils and vivid in my mind.

….I hope my pictures do it justice!

Yoyogi Park

Moving on, I made my way to Shibuya to see the famous Shibuya Crossing, arriving earlier than planned.  I could have gone straight there then head back to the hotel.  Instead, taking a look on Google Maps, Yoyogi Park was less than 100m away.  Why the hell not kill time and go check it out.  Yoyogi Park combined with the grounds of Meiji Shrine may as well be the same thing.  Though large parts are, some of Meiji Shrine has separate paid entrances and fenced off.

Entering Yoyogi Park from Harajuku station is the largest wooden torri I’d seen (possibly the largest wooden one I’d see throughout my whole time in Japan).  Expecting small park paths after the torri, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I use the word “path” loosely, I’ve seen narrower motorways!  A gravel path/road, 6 cars wide easily, leading to the Meiji Shrine.

Yoyogi Park

The huge torii at the entrance of Yoyogi Park heading to the Meiji Shrine – Tokyo

Yoyogi Park

The pedestrian “pathway” in Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine grounds heading to the shrine – Tokyo

Stereotypical to Japanese custom, the walk along the road was quiet despite the train of people in both directions.  A gentle crunching sound filled the air with a subtle hum coming from the grinding of gravel under foot.  Additionally, one thing stood out to me as I walked, the Japanese people don’t like to make eye contact at all.  They don’t just dim their eyes downwards, no, they dip their whole head.  In Japan this is a sign of politeness, in many other cultures it would perceived as negative.  During my short visit I found Japanese people to be very reserved and respectful, this can be misconstrued as being aloof.  However, when you do get to speak to anyone (hotel, train station, shop etc.) they are exceptionally friendly and willing to help – even if you ask a stranger on the street.

Sake

Almost forgot to tell you about the sake barrels!  These barrels add a colourful display and uniformity against the backdrop of the evergreen forest.  It goes without saying, the sake barrels are not solely there to attract tourists, Japanese don’t do things that way.  Uniquely sake and Shinto shrines have had an intrinsic relationship for hundreds of years.  Called (the sake barrels) kazaridaru when displayed near a Shinto shrine they are decorative barrels, and empty…imagine if they weren’t! 😊).  Considering the ancient Japanese word for “sake” is “miki”, which in turn is a combination of the word’s “god” and “wine”.  It explains why sake is seen and used as a conduit between the gods and people.

kazaridaru

Sake barrels (kazaridaru) in Yoyogi Park heading to Meiji Shrine – Tokyo

 

Meiji Shrine

A forest surrounds Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine, the latter grounds alone are 70 hectares. In fact, the park is the most visited park in Tokyo. I’ll explain shortly, why the Meiji Shrine has great significance to the Japanese.  For Edokko (meaning “people of Edo”, the term commonly used for people from Tokyo), it is the most visited shrine for hatsumōde; meaning the first Shinto shrine visited for the Japanese New Year.

torii

Another huge torii not far from the entrance to Meiji Shrine – Tokyo

Meiji Shrine is in honour of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, both are deified.  However, it is not their burial site, that is just South of Kyoto. Emperor Meiji played a large role in the Meiji Restoration (Part 1) this is in large part the reason for his veneration.  After the Emperor’s death in 1912 construction started, taking 6 years to completed (1915-1921).  It’s gardens however took an additional 5 years, finishing in 1926.  During WWII Tokyo was heavily bombed destroying much of the city and the shrine.  The shrines’ rebuild was finance through public funding and concluded in October 1958.

Meiji Shrine

The Romon to the Meiji Shrine – Tokyo

Meiji Shrine

Part of the wedding procession, the bride and groom in the background – Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Unsurprisingly, the shrine was busy when I got there.  Owing to a traditional wedding taking place, access to most of the shrine was closed to the public.  The bride and groom must either be wealthy or have high social status, that is my guess.  Personally, I think your average Joe could arrange nor afford a wedding at such a venerated shrine, maybe I’m wrong.  My rationale for this, not everyone can get married at St. Pauls, Westminster Abbey etc.  I’ve been to many weddings, this is by far the most sombre and austere.  Whoever they are I wish them longevity and happiness.

Shibuya

Back to my day, people seemed to be enjoying the weather and parks, the whole area a hive of activity.  Everything from ball games, picnics to musicians busking on the pavements, everywhere had a jovial atmosphere.  During my walk I came across a unique street performance of Japanese rockabillies between Harajuka Station to Shibuya station.  Rockabillies clad in denim, hair gelled back with high quiffs and wearing cowboy boots they danced to classic Rock ‘n Roll.  Notably their boots a testament to how much dancing they do; soles worn through, held together by layers of duct tape.  These rockabillies seemed so out of place in Tokyo, yet somehow fitting.

Central Shibuya mixes Akihabara and your bog standard shopping district, with distinctive Japanese flavour.  Including a few anime and manga places, but Shibuya isn’t known for that.  Strolling around is interesting, even with may Western brands dotted about its unmistakably Japanese.  I like Japanese signage, though I can’t explain exactly why.  It’s bright, bold with lots of colours and there is so much of it.  Creating a shockwave of light with no uniformity in size and positioned perpendicular to the buildings.  Looking down the roads it’s a kaleidoscope of colour and light, adding to the vivacious energy of Shibuya’s bustling streets.

Shibuya

Shibuya, Tokyo

 

Shibuya Crossing

It’s not often you can say going to a traffic intersection is your list of things to see, or a tourist hotspot!  Shibuya Crossing is just that, a large intersection next to Shibuya train station and it’s a tourist hotspot!  Added to the fact it’s not the biggest intersection I’ve ever seen, not by a long shot. Shibuya Crossing is somewhat a metaphor for Tokyo and the Japanese; discipline on a mass scale.  The place was packed when I got there.  Some videos themselves joining the crowds whilst crossing the road, others climbing up lampposts to get a better vantage point.  Starbucks offers one of the best views…with a long queue “buying coffee” to get a window seat to watch and watch people crossing the street – in an orderly and Japanese way.

I had no such luck in the Starbucks, nor was I willing to wait in the queue.  Instead, I found an OK spot inside Shibuya station.  Not the best of views, but away from the rugby scrum down below.  Whatever your fancy, this is an oddity of a tourist spot.  Only spending about 25 minutes at Shibuya Crossing, most of it taking up looking for an elevated position.  I was expecting more, actually, I don’t know what I was expecting…it is after all a traffic intersection.  In all fairness I wasn’t there during peak time, you wouldn’t think so judging by the amount of people.  Still, it was nice walking around Shibuya, with Shibuya Crossing simply part of the fabric of the area.

Well, that was it for Tokyo.  I was really beginning to enjoy Japan now, still no resolution on my hotels.com overcharge.  Kyoto would be my next stop.   Obviously, I’ll get into more details of why I chose Kyoto and how I got there etc.  Now, writing this post in New Zealand while visiting my brother and sister-in-law again…that’s a whole new story in itself.  Over the past month I’ve been out of kilter with my routine, totally off track with my writing too.  That in turn has demotivated me a little, but now I’m beginning to feel near normal again.

Putting some perspective on what’s yet to come; I haven’t even started on writing about my time in Sydney, New Zealand South island, Peru (some awesome archaeological sites), Bolivia (some of the most diverse and beautiful scenery), Bogota, New York, Switzerland, Munich, Italy and Greece…..LOADS more to come.  I hope you enjoyed this final snippet of Tokyo and enjoy what’s yet to come.

PS. I’ve tried a different approach/technique with my writing, you may or many not notice.  I’d be grateful for any feedback.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

Tokyo, Akihabara – Travelling throws up challenges – Part2

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Tokyo and the most expensive night I’ve ever paid at a hotel

As I alluded to in Part 1 about my time in Tokyo, it got of to a slow start.  Next morning started off with a bang!!!  Just to recap, I booked for one night at APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, a much better location than the first.  After my first proper day in Tokyo I had decided to extend my stay for another day, I let the hotel know when I got back from Edo Castle.

Next morning, in my daze turning my phone alarm off I noticed Monzo had sent me a message.  I didn’t think much of it at first; they send me a message any time I spend or deposit money, getting a message from them wasn’t unusual.  Through my blurry eyes I saw it was a charge, hmmm no surprise, it was likely for the hotel through hotels.com.  I turned back to snuggle under the covers.  Uhhh, the amount didn’t seem familiar, or was it my brain and eyes still in dream land?  I turned to check my phone, no, it can’t be!  I had just been charged £7 378.46!!!  In an instant I was as awake as if I had drunk a litre of espresso!  What the hell!?!?!?

Throwing on my clothes whilst checking my Monzo app, I saw it was for the hotel.  Adding insult to injury, Monzo had frozen my card too.  Monzo is a cash card, I only keep a few hundred pounds at most in it at most, topping up when needed – it is the day to day card I use; if it gets stolen at least not much will be taken.  Now, I was over £7000 overdrawn!  Just, to clarify, the hotel cost was ¥10 999.00 (which is around £73.00).  Bolting downstairs to Reception, eyes like saucers but looking dishevelled.  Having already tried calling Monzo, because of the office hours (Japan being 8 hours ahead) I got no answer – I left a message through the app.  The hotel staff were very helpful and efficient, I also thought is must be the hotel’s fault too!

Within an hour they had confirmation, and proof, from their accounts department that they had charged me the correct amount.  ARGH!  Who the hell’s fault was is, it could only be Monzo or Hotels.com.  During the hour of waiting for the Hotel to get back to me, I had left more messages, voicemails and emails for the bank and Hotels.com – the time difference was frustrating me – I had a problem yet had to wait patiently for that part of the world to wake up.

Time was ticking by aimlessly, it was near lunchtime.  Monzo was the first to get back to me.  After a few calls and many messages (calling from UK mobile/cell phone from Tokyo to the UK, costs were adding up!), they agreed to credit my account for the full amount; with the caveat that when Hotels.com corrected their error they would then deduct the money again.  Obviously, I had to prove to Monzo the actual cost of the hotel before they offered the credit.  Nonetheless, Monzo were brilliant from start to finish!  Hotels.com on the other hand were not!

What actually happened

The hotel reception at one stage even let me call Hotels.com from their phone, free of charge, they (the Hotel staff) gave Hotels.com their accounts department details too.  I had already spent over 2 hours on the phone to Hotels.com, it was like talking to a brick wall!  To give the short version:

  • The room cost ¥10 990.00
  • They charged me ¥1 099 000.00. Doesn’t take a genius to see the error!
  • Monzo had sent me all the details of the transaction, including reference numbers and all the banking jargon with what happened when and who did what – this I forwarded to Hotels.com

I had spent over two hours on the phone to Hotels.com alone and sent many emails.  They just used the old empathy card without resolving anything or taking ownership.  I was a little concerned about the whole saga, but mostly frustrated and angry – Hotels.com’s lack of responsibility was the most irritating.  I was reluctant to move on to my next destination in Japan without resolving this so agreed with the hotel to say an additional night.  This is when keeping an additional bank card for emergencies is worth a million dollars!  Thought it best to not use my Monzo card, at least until all this was resolved.  It felt like I was farting in the wind with Hotels.com, the day was wasting away, bugger this I’d go out and try to enjoy what was left of the day!

Things I started to notice about Tokyo and Japan

My plans for the day were out the window, today I’d go freelancing – head to town and cruise about with no plan at all…not much time left of the day too.  I had to get out the hotel, my frustration levels were peaking, almost lost my tempter with Hotels.com a few times.  I had my phone with me (I had already incurred a lot of cost so a little more at this stage wouldn’t matter) so throughout the day I made a few calls and sent more emails, to Hotels.com!  Starting off near Tokyo Station, head towards Ginza then Nihonbashi

Tokyo

I like this photo, near Ginza, Tokyo

Most of the roads were closed to traffic in Ginza, the shopping centre of Tokyo, making it enjoyable and easy to get around.  I’ve mentioned it before, the roads in Tokyo are the cleanest I’ve ever seen.  Considering it’s one of the biggest and most populated in the world, the place is spotless!  Wandering about, I noticed how calm the people seemed to be.  Groups of people were talking to each other, however quietly, not whispering just very in obtrusively.  Almost no one makes eye contact either; again, not in a dismissive or unfriendly manner, no, more a reserved and respectful demeanour.

Tokyo

Clean streets of Tokyo (near Tokyo Station)

Ginza

Closed off streets in Ginza, Tokyo

Nobody smokes in the open, roads or pavements; there are designated smoking areas – normally slightly out of sight and away from the crowds…even these areas are clean.  In almost all parts of the world shopping areas are diluted from the country’s identity.  Here it is similar, with the signage very different, the people are dressed modern with an unmistakable Japanese twist and identity.  I like it. I can’t really elaborate much of the day, it was short, my mind preoccupied too.  Another thing that stood out to me was the number of very high-end shops I saw.  In a small area 5 Tiffany’s & Co stores, three Prada stores with many other examples – just odd I thought.

Tokyo

Ginza, Tokyo – Nice building

I came across an outdoor restaurant, come courtyard, come outdoor tea/coffee area I have no clue what it is normally used for.  A band of sort was playing, very oddly dress for the music they were performing, more so for the majority of the audience who were listening/watching.  Adding to the unusual ensemble was them singing 80’s pop (Jackson 5), in English.

I carried on wandering around into Nihonbashi.  An area that used to be the main fish market for Tokyo for over three centuries.  Now, only a small monument next to the Nihonbashi river a reminder of the importance of the area and its historical importance.  I couldn’t help noticing just how obedient people are to road/traffic laws, especially when crossing the road.  Even if there were no cars, not even visible in the distance, if the pedestrian crossing was red, nobody crosses.  I’d notice many nuances throughout my time in Japan, I’ll come to them in a latter blog.

Tokyo

Nihonbashi river, used to be one of the busiest river networks in Tokyo for 3 centuries – Tokyo

Nihonbashi

Nihonbashi bridge with motorway above. Stylish lamppost flanked by two Kirin at the base – Tokyo

Nihonbashi

Monumnet to the Nihonbashi Riverside Fish Market. The market was relocated in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake – Tokyo

Tokyo

one of the narrowest buildings I’ve even seen, just as you cross the Nihonbashi bridge – Tokyo

Akihabara

The day was uneventful from a sightseeing perspective.  I was already back at the hotel, knowing that I had a LOT to see and do the next day.  My head still a little preoccupied with the unresolved circa. £7300!  I could stay at the hotel and get more frustrated, with no positive impact or change in circumstances, or do something to distract my thoughts – after many calls and emails throughout the day there was nothing else I could do, I was now waiting for Hotels.com to get back to me.  Akihabara is around 1.5km away from the hotel, why not go, so I did.

The name Akihabara originates from the word Akiba, a deity who controlled fire.  Whose shrine was in the area, however destroyed ironically (or not) by fire in 1869.  Akihabara, colloquially is known as Akihabara Electric Town.  When you get there, especially in the evenings, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why it is referred to as Electric Town!

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

With neon lighting up advertising boards covering nearly every inch of every building, this part of Tokyo hardly needs street lights!  Aligned to the “difference” of the people of Tokyo/Japan, Akihabara, is a combination of adult and childlike Las Vegas….centred around otaku.  Otaku for short, is an obsession predominantly with anime and manga – it does include video games, computers etc too.  Japanese’ used to use the word otaku as a negative reference, these days not so much so.  With the word spreading internationally, it is now used as a descriptive of a fan (more fanatic) of anime and manga.  Though the word is less derogatory now, in Japan is it still used as a reference to “nerd/geek” and a person so indulged in the anime & manga world that they have lost sight or reality.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Walking around Akihabara, I was only there for about 30 minutes, the area really is “different”.  Japanese cartoons are a world apart from Disney, ranging from kawaii (I’l explain shortly) to 21st samurai esc.  Akihabara is what some would describe as a town of arcades.  Anime & manga are big business in Japan, with avid cult followers of these characters and genres.  The area is also known for its maid cafés. Kawaii is a reference to cute/lovable, a culture in Japan of “cuteness” with a touch of vulnerable, childlike and shy.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Girls, dressed to look younger than they are (like young school girls), fronting these cafés handing out pamphlets and enticing people inside…mostly men, older men.  I didn’t go into any of them.  I was going to take a photo of some of the maid girls, but couldn’t; it just felt wrong, sleezy.  I appreciate cultures are different, but this didn’t sit well with me.  I’ve read that the government is cracking down on these maid cafes, god, I’m glad.  I cannot see how this couldn’t result in sexual exploitation.  What makes these cafes so odd (cringeworthy), is that is seems so at odds with how the Japanese people present themselves; reserved, law-abiding and have a very strong ethic of honour.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

I’m not saying the whole of Akihabara is filled with maid cafes, there are a few, they area a small part of Akihabara.  If you like anime, manga, arcades etc. this is the area to be.  I liked it just because it is so different.  Akihabara isn’t just an adult playground (taking away some of the questionable cafes and animations), though heavily weighed to attract men.  There is something for all ages and sexes to enjoy, if not only just to go see the Electric Town that is Akihabara.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Wow, having read this and my pervious post of Tokyo it seems so negative, when in fact it really wasn’t.  Like I said, my time in Japan got better each day, I can confidently say it was one of my most enjoyable countries to visit….sounds contradictory when reading my post 😊.  The next day, I like to think of as my first real and full day of Tokyo.   The more you travel the more likely “things” will happen, somethings good, sometimes bad….the good far out weigh the bad.

Tokyo, Cherry Blossom, Edo Castle – got off to a slow start – Part 1

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My journey to Tokyo

My time in Tokyo was limited, because I only had 10.5 days in Japan; self-imposed as a result of how I booked my round the world ticket with Star Alliance – later on my travels regrettably, finding out just how easily it can be changed (I’ll get into that during my time in New Zealand). As per my usual modus operandi, I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do and see in Japan, except hopefully to be in time to see the cherry blossoms.  As with a few of my destinations, Japan and Tokyo started off rather slowly, then there were a few interesting challenges, however afterwards it went from strength to strength…Japan turned out to be fantastic!

Booking my accommodation in haste whilst on Gili Air, the night before flying out to Japan; my rationale was to get a place close to Tokyo centre for two nights, in the hope that this would be enough time to suss out the location, if good stay, if not then move.  One thing I didn’t fully appreciate was just how expensive Tokyo and Japan accommodation is, wow!  It seemed even more so because of what I had been paying the previous few months in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.  Yes, it is expensive, but compared to places like London, New York etc. it is about the same, but with very few lower end types of accommodation.  It seems that for a reasonable place prices start at around £70 per night – there are cheaper, but honestly, they seemed very low-end and not places I would like to stay.  Another option is to stay in a “pod”, these are a-plenty!  I know you can get them in other cities, but here, oh my, there are loads of pod-hotels and seem more the norm that normal hotels.  Reminiscing about my time in Japan I really should have tried a pod-hotel, even if it was just for one night – some of them are very fancy, and expensive too, more so than some of the places I stayed in.  Reason for not doing so was quite simple, my criteria for choosing accommodation is a simple formula, 1. Private bathroom, 2. Wifi, 3. Location (preferably a central location so it saves me time and cost on transport when site seeing.  I still mildly regret not at least trying a pod hotel for one night.

My first hotel was APA Hotel and Resort Tokyo Bay Makukari.  Arriving at Tokyo Narita (4th April) airport just after 8:00 am, immigration was stereotypical of what I thought it would be like in Japan, swift and efficient, from there a bus to the hotel within 45 minutes after landing.  Airport information was great too, I had no idea how to get to the hotel and would have taken a taxi (airport taxi’s throughout the world in my opinion are a bloody rip-off); with the help of airport information I was on the bus which would stop about 1km from the hotel, at a fraction of the cost of a taxi – I must have got to the hotel just before 10:30, bloody tired!

Not to labour on about it (but I will 😊), I was tired.  I caught the first public ferry (only 25 minutes at most) from Gili Air to Lombok Bangsal at 7:15, leaving my hotel at 6:30. From the ferry I had a 2.5 hour taxi ride to Lombok Mataram airport to catch my flight at 12:15 arriving at Kuala Lumpur at 15:20.  My next flight would be to Bangkok but only at 20:55 so, I had lots of time to kill (at an airport that’s extremely boring), I would arrive at Bangkok at 22:05.  From there catch my flight to Tokyo at 23:50 landing at Narita airport at 8:10am.  It felt like I was constantly busy though not very productive, and I didn’t sleep on any of the flights!  All this rambling just to say I hadn’t slept properly for over 24 hours, so arriving in Tokyo I was out on my feet.  In addition to that, arriving at a hotel so early it is seldom they let you check – there was no way I could muster up enough energy to leave my bags and go see any sites!  Thanks to the hotel I was in my room by 11:30. I got to my tiny room (more about that later), put my head down and crashed!  That about sums up my first day in Tokyo!

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Ueno Park, this is a fraction of what the parks and Tokyo would look like durig peak cherry blossom season

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There were still a few trees blossoming in the city – Tokyo

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Tokyo’s oldest temple Kiyomizu Kannon-dō inside Ueno Park

I was out of kilter with time having slept for an entire day, things weren’t helped by the fact I had turned-off my phone’s auto time adjust, meaning I was two hours behind – I did think it was odd going for dinner at 8:30 finding almost everything deserted (it was actually 10:30); I only realised the time difference the next morning when I missed breakfast, getting there at “9:00” when in fact it was 11:00. Having missed my first day sleeping I had now shortened my second day by mistake/error, grrrrrr.  With what felt like lead strapped around my ankles I headed into the city.

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Interesting first dinner in Tokyo, don’t ask me what it’s called….I call it delicious

Now, I totally miscalculated the location of my hotel in relation to the city/tourist centre, an hour on a semi-fast train to get remotely into the city centre.  The area of the hotel was an odd one, lots of formal style commercial buildings everywhere, no sky scrapers, at most 6 storied buildings, but all very big (width and breadth), the hotel was the highest building, in itself a huge hotel.  What struck me was how quiet the area was, even though it seemed surrounded by companies, a university and tucked away small wholesale shops/malls.  The roads were near dead quiet, there was almost no people; it almost felt as it the place was deserted but it couldn’t be.  Deserted of people yet still full of buildings and everywhere was very well maintained, signage on buildings (of well known companies) – the whole of Japan seems to be.  The only thing I can compare it to, is Canary Wharf (London) on the weekends; the difference here was it was even quieter, no high-rises and isn’t the finance/banking centre of Tokyo…..hmmmm….still puzzles me today.  Most things are not new, but they could be as everything from buildings, streets, pavements etc. is extremely well maintained and clean, therefore everything seems to be in good condition.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean pavements, there are signs on the walkways for bicycles, pedestrians and no smoking signs too.  I’ve thought back on the area of the hotel many times since and can’t put my finger on “what” the area is, absolutely safe, as it felt everywhere I went to in Japan.  It’s not an industrial area, it was more like a massive commercial area….except I saw hardly anyone…very strange.

Cherry Blossoms & Ueno Park

I headed to Ueno Park, famous for cherry blossoms.  I’ll keep you out of suspense, I missed peak cherry blossom season by about 1 week to 10 days, such a shame.  Even so, there were still plenty of blossoms to give me a faint idea of what the place must look like during peak season.  It must me other worldly, fantasmal (I know that’s not a real word, but you get the idea), that’s no exaggeration!  Swathes of the city and parks taken over by delicate flowers ranging from white, faint translucent pink, right through to deep blood pink and all the variations in between.  Tree trunks looking like barren stems void of foliage leading up to an impenetrable blanket of dainty flowers.  This parasol of colour, a ceiling of flowers casting shade for everyone wandering below all who are looking skyward to take in this floral spectacle.  I’ve never seen a city with such colour; these elegant and delicate flowers juxtaposed within a concrete jungle.  One of the most densely populated cities in the world, yet you feel as if you are walking through the pages of a Disney story.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think what this place must be like in full blossom, I would love to see it with my own eyes though.

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Ueno Park, what was full of blossoms now filled with fresh light green foliage

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Taken from the porch of Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple – Ueno Park

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Ueno Park, something about parks that calms the soul, the floor a blanked of dead blossoms

Yes, I was disappointed to have missed the peak season, but my main downer was my state of mind; a combination of being tired, oversleeping, my hotel location gave me the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, the weather wasn’t bad i.e. cold, yet a low hanging blanked of grey reminded me of winters in London.  All in all, I just felt a little down.  When this feeling comes about I find the best way to change the paradigm is to change what I have control over and accept what I can’t change.  I wondered around Ueno Park station for a bit for the sake of “site seeing” then thought to hell with this, I’m in one of the greatest cities in the world, there should be no reason to feel like this.  First things first, head back to my hotel (it was late afternoon and it cost me less to when using wifi), eat, do a little searching and find a new hotel is a better location…….and have a normal night’s sleep.

Ueno Park

A small fraction from the latter end of the cherry blossom season – Ueno Park

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Don’t know why but I just like this photo, taken from Ueno Park – Tokyo

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Part of the market area by Ueno Park Station – Tokyo

Moving to a better location in Tokyo

Coincidentally, my next hotel was the same chain of hotels, APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, still an odd location (I’ll explain a little later), but much better; at least I felt like I was surrounded by people and occupied buildings; an area mixed with residential and office buildings (maybe akin to Dalston in London, however more developed and a millions times more orderly and clean).  Another good thing about the new location was the transport, easy access to three Tokyo metro stations (I’ll get into the metro later too).  I can’t say my head was totally in a right state, without doubt I was feeling more positive – I had booked for 1 night; at this stage I wasn’t liking Tokyo (not liking cities seemed to be becoming a trend)  Both APA hotels had tiny rooms, the smallest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, even so they are designed exceptionally well, like a compact Japanese car.  The rooms have everything you would expect and more, considering the size – Massive TV, ¾ bed, bath & shower in one (1/2 the size of a normal bath), nice toiletries (better quality and lots of it compared to a normal mid-range hotel), an all singing and dancing toilet (built-in bidet – with temperature setting for the water and toilet seat, various spray setting etc. etc.), bathrobe with slippers, a separate gown/pyjamas with slippers (I saw a few people walking around the hotel wearing the latter), a torch on the side of the bed (I guess this is for is/when the electricity goes off caused by earthquakes or storms – I guess), desk, heated bathroom mirror so it doesn’t steam up etc. etc. basically the rooms are bloody small yet packed with everything you could want or need – I’ve stayed in a lot more expensive hotels that have far less!  Aggravatingly I don’t have the pictures, again, I’m sure I took pictures of the room but I cannot find them….I must have deleted them by mistake ARGH!!!!!

Early check-in at the hotel went smoothly again and I was heading out back into the city centre to see Edo Castle.  Tokyo Metro map is one of the more complicated metro maps I’ve seen, likely the most complicated, made more so by the writing!  It looks like such a mess, with so many stations is can get confusing, thankfully all the metro employees I spoke to were fantastic, with a good standard of English making it even easier.  Like all metros/underground systems you only need to use it once of twice to get the hang-of-it – all the major stations I went to also have signs in Japanese and English.

Edo Castle / Chiyoda Castle

I wondered around town for a bit before heading to the castle, now this was more like Tokyo compared to the day before!  I was feeling better already.  Tokyo Station is up the road from Edo Castle, a wide paved walkway runs perpendicular between the too.  Just like everywhere else the place is spotless, as if the pavements were installed recently, parks are pristine and manicured, very impressive – later during my time in Japan I’d see parks and public spaces making the gardens in and around Edo Castle look less than average!

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Tokyo Station, Spotless clean walkway between the station and Edo Castle behind

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Some of the park area near Edo Castle and the Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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I like the juxtaposition between the city and nature – Tokyo

The first major structure was built by the warrior Edo Shigetsugu some time in the early 14th century.  The Edo clan ended in the 15th Century due to the uprising in the Kantō region, after which Ōta Dōkan who worked for the Uesugi clan built the castle in 1457.  Edo Castle, is also referred to as Chiyoda Castle, as it is now in the Chiyoda suburb of Tokyo, the former area used to be known as Edo.  Ōta Dōkan himself is also known as Ōta Sukenaga; taking the former surname after becoming a Buddhist priest, he was a samurai warrior, military strategist and poet amongst other things.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle dōshin-bansho (guardhouse) is where samurai guardsmen would have been stationed (there were a few guardhouses) as protection for the castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Some of the impressive stone walls leading from the guardhouse into the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

As with many of these types of structures/areas within history its ownership changed hands a few times.  The Later Hōjō clan took over in 1524 after the Siege of Edo, then the castle was abandoned in 1590 because of the Siege of Odawara. After that Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo Castle stronghold base after he was offered eight eastern provinces by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  He later defeated Toyotomi Hideyori, son of Hideyoshi, at the Siege of Osaka in 1615, and emerged as the political leader of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of Sei-i Taishōgun in 1603, and Edo became the center of Tokugawa’s administration (a lot of this paragraph came straight from Wikipedia – it was easier for accuracy purposes).

Edo Castle

What remains of the foundation of the main castle tower – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle

The gardens inside the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle is surrounded by a moto and part of a much bigger complex including a few huge gardens and Tokyo Imperial Palace (the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan) – visits to the palace are allowed by specific prearranged guided tours….I didn’t go because of the waiting list.  Very little remains of the original Edo Castle and the vast complex of the grounds.  The area used to have waterways, many motes and canals with a circumference of nearly 16km.  Construction started in 1593 and completed in 1636 by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu; the Tokugawa shognute (clan) rules from 1600 till 1868 when the Meiji Restoration happened; restoration of imperial rule

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Some blossoms in the gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Chiyoda Castle

Edo Castle gardens (yes, similar the one of the other pictures, but I also like this one 🙂 – Tokyo

The area was totally transformed, from pushing out the coastline in some parts to bringing the sea closer to enable boats to dock close by.  With ramparts as high as 20m, 12m high inner walls and 34 massive entrance gates, this was like a town created from almost nothing, however it was a castle/palace complex.  Considering the population of the near vicinity was only 150 000, a small population for such a massive undertaking.  To resolve this people who fell under the ruler either supplied money, resources &/or people to undertake the construction – at its height there were 300 000 construction workers. 

Edo Castle

Gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

The Fujimi Yagura (A Turret of The Edo Castle), 1659 – Tokyo

An interesting story that happened in the castle, made famous to the Western world by Hollywood (embellished to the extent of making it fictional fantasy), is the true story of the forty-seven ronin.  At the beginning of the 18th century within the Great Pine Corridor of the Edo Castle, Asano Takumi-no-kami drew his short sword and attempted to kill Kira Kōzuke-no-suke for insulting him; it is said Kira wasn’t the nicest of people and had been spreading rumour and lies about Asano.  This action resulted in him being sentenced to commit  seppuku, furthermore his samurai warriors were banished.  These ronin plotted revenge for the honour their lord Asano, two year later their plot was put into action and succeeded.  These ronin’s actions were against the law, as with their lord Asano they were sentenced to commit seppuku.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Edo Castle from the outside, massive walls and mote – Tokyo

If I’m honest to myself, and anyone that reads this, Edo Castle is ok, I can imagine the Imperial Palace must be a total different kettle of fish.  As most of the castle is not longer there, what remains is some of the layout, ramparts, foundations, some motes and walls – what remains is impressive though a tad underwhelming.  What remains of the stone construction is impressive, with huge stones at perfect angles and flattened sides.  Of the motes still functioning, they are some of the longest I’ve seen anywhere.  Their retaining walls could have been built yesterday, that’s how well they were made and have been preserved.  Considering their size and length, they are an impressive feat of engineering.  At it’s prime, this place would have been amazing, today, the gardens are more the main attraction, as beautiful as they are, like I said, I was a little underwhelmed.

After walking through Edo Castle grounds, I made my way to the main entrance of the Imperial Palace.  The Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) leads to the main entrance gate of the palace called Nishinomaru-mon with the Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi) in the background.  Both bridges used to be wooden arch bridges replaced during the Meiji period with what we see today. 

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Main gate to the Imperial Palace with the Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) in front – Tokyo

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The Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi), Edo Castle, Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th-century samurai who fought for Emperor Go-Daigo in the Genkō War – Tokyo

Tokyo had got off to a slow start, that is obvious.  From my state of mind to what I had seen wasn’t spectacular, the up side was my mind was moving into the right space, so I was optimistic for the days to comes.  The next morning started off started with a bang….not a good one – I’ll get into that in my next blog post. 

 

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Near Ueno Park Station, a small prelude to what I’d see later on during my time in Tokyo