It took a long time for me to get to Tokyo. International travel always involves long flights, waiting in lines, sitting on trains and buses, and delays that sometimes are self-inflicted, but for this trip the trek from my departure city to where I was staying in Tokyo felt particularly lengthy. My flight from San Diego to Tokyo was actually was pretty nice compared to what I’m normally accustomed to when flying—Japan Airlines takes good care of their guests—but it was still 11 hours long and I didn’t sleep much. On arrival it took me over an hour to complete all the necessary tasks of clearing Immigration Control, acquiring my pocket wifi device, getting some cash from an ATM, validating my rail pass, and then finally purchasing a train ticket to Tokyo. Narita International Airport, where most international flights arrive, is one of those airports that is not nearby the city it’s associated with, so you’ll need to catch a ride from there just to reach the city. Down in the basement level of the airport I purchased my train ticket, but for some reason I selected the wrong train station for my getting off point. I should have picked Ueno Station, which would have allowed to me to transfer to a metro line that would have taken me straight to the Asakusa district where I was staying. Thankfully that other station wasn’t way off, but this choice would cause me to lose even more time. The sun had gone down when I finally emerged out of a metro station in Asakusa and I then walked the last leg of the journey to my hostel, passing the Kaminarimon gate along the way. I checked in and unloaded my backpack in my room. Nothing else really happened the rest of that day. I was tired from hauling my backpack since arriving at the airport and my eyes were still strained from all the movies I watched on the flight. Still, I had made it to Tokyo. My quest had officially begun.
The next day I got up a little later than intended, but I was now rested and ready for the sightseeing blitzkrieg that I’m known for. First up was the Kaminarimon gate I had passed the night before. The gate itself was partially covered over for restoration work, so I just got some quick photos and then moved through it to the shopping street on the other side of the gate (for a little more info on Kaminarimon, see last Tuesday’s post here). Much of the stuff I saw in the stalls were touristy things I had no intention of buying, but there were one or two trinkets that I might have considered purchasing under different circumstances, as well as a stall or two that was selling snacks that in retrospect I really should have tried. I also remember there were a lot of middle school and/or high school kids walking around in their student uniforms that day. At the end of the shopping street was a large temple gate and a pagoda, and beyond that was Senso-ji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. This would be the first of many, many temples I would visit in both Japan and Korea. I partook of the ceremonial washing of the hands and mouth that’s normally done at temples but I didn’t offer any prayers or waft incense smoke onto me. Inside the temple I could see that some ceremony was going on and the priests were working through their motions. I watched for a minute and the moved on to photograph the rest of the temple grounds.
My next objective was the Tokyo Skytree and I could have taken a metro ride to it but I chose to walk instead because it wasn’t all that far from Asakusa. Crossing the Sumida River, I walked past the Asahi Beer headquarters with the famous golden “flame” on top and later came across some sort of building that was shaped like a boat. That small part of Tokyo between Asakusa and the Skytree doesn’t get many tourists so it was interesting to see a part of the city that was primarily made up of locals. The ticket line at the Skytree was surprisingly short and it only took me a few minutes to get up to the observation deck. It was a clear day in the area around the Skytree and Asakusa, but some clouds were hovering out west in the Shibuya and Shinjuku regions of Tokyo, blocking the view of anything west of those districts. Being way out in East Tokyo, the Skytree isn’t the best place for a scenic view of Tokyo’s most prominent landmarks, however it does a great job a helping you comprehend just how large the Tokyo Metropolitan Area is. In nearly every direction I couldn’t see the end of the urban sprawl. Only the ocean to the south and the clouds in the west brought an end to the buildings. It was there that I began referring to Tokyo in my head as “the Endless City.”
When I eventually came down from the Skytree I realized I had made an embarrassing oversight in not buying a couple days worth of food so I took the metro back to my hostel in Asakusa and found a nearby supermarket called Rox. From what I read online later on, Rox is viewed by some in Japan the way some people view Walmart in America—a corporate colossus that you should feel bad about purchasing from. Regardless, Rox had a good selection of food and was conveniently located close to my hostel, so I wound up going there another two times before I left Tokyo.
With food taken care of, I set out for the Imperial Palace East Gardens. Like much of the rest of the city, Tokyo’s Imperial Palace was largely wiped out in World War 2 by the American bombing raids. A few structures were rebuilt after the war but you have to use your imagination and the signs around the palace grounds to mentally reconstruct what it used to look like. From the East Gardens I then walked to the Yasukini Shrine. Housing the spirits of about 2.5 million people who have died for Japan in various conflicts, including 14 Class A war criminals, the shrine looks much like any other in Japan but because of the war criminals there’s a diplomatic incident with Japan’s neighbors any time a Japanese prime minister pays a visit to it. The Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and others who were victims of Japanese atrocities in the 20th Century have not forgotten what happened in the past and hence the shrine can be a controversial place for some people.
Before heading back to my hostel I stopped over at Akihabara. The sun was going down and the lights were starting to come on in the place that must be heaven for anime nerds, people obsessed with Japanese pop culture, and fans of Japanese video games. I distinctly remember walking down one of the alleys in Akihabara and seeing this one white guy, a little taller than me, with a blonde ponytail and a face that was lit up like he had just taken an ecstasy pill. He was in heaven. Personally, Akihabara didn’t blow me away, but I did enjoy going into the famous Super Potato store, which holds a lot of old and obscure video games. I thought about buying one but decided it was best to wait until the end of my trip when I’d be back in Tokyo again. Walking around Akihabara I also discovered that Maid Cafes are very real, and I’m never going to go into one. Ever.
A train and a metro ride brought me back to Akihabara where I had dinner at my hostel and then went out for a night walk in the area around Senso-ji Temple. There weren’t too many people walking around the temple at night. Back at the hostel I experienced a Japanese toilet in all of its glory. My life was complete at that moment, but I still had several more days left in Tokyo, so I went to bed to rest up for more adventures.
My second full day in Tokyo began early due to me having some trouble sleeping the previous night. This made me slightly cranky but it also gave me more time to do things that day. After breakfast I departed for the day’s main event: a national sumo tournament. The tournament was scheduled to last for two weeks and I had a ticket for that particular day, which happened to be the sixth day of the competition. When I arrived at the sumo stadium I spent a little while taking photos inside the arena and then sat down in the mat seating in the lower level. My actual seat was in one of the chairs in the upper level, but the morning hours of the tournament are when all the lower-ranked wrestlers have their matches and the ushers don’t care where you sit. I was a few rows back from the platform where the wrestlers do battle and in retrospect I should have been even bolder and moved forward a row or two, but it was still cool to watch sumo up close and I got some good photos. Leaving the stadium an hour later, I had a better, though still incomplete, understanding of how everything in sumo worked and this would help me tremendously when I came back later in the day and had to take my official seat in the upper level.
A long metro ride across town brought me to the Shibuya district. There I got a photo of the Hachinko statue, which at the time had a villainous cat taking shelter in it. Hachinko was a local dog that became famous for waiting for his master in the same spot every day, even after his master passed away. I next crossed the intersection at the famous Shibuya Scramble three separate times, just for fun. Since I wasn’t there at rush hour it wasn’t quite as crowded as what you’ve probably seen in videos online, but it’s still quite the sight to see a few hundred people simultaneously navigating the intersection. I also couldn’t help but notice how many of my fellow gaijin were in Shibuya. Tokyo is an international city and a popular tourism destination, so you have to go way out of your way to find a place with no foreigners, but Shibuya seemed to have a particularly high number of non-Japanese people walking around. I’m told that the nearby neighborhoods of Hiroo and Ebisu are where a lot of the city’s foreign population lives and if true then that would probably explain why there are so many outsiders in next-door Shibuya.
From Shibuya I walked north towards Harajuku. Along the way there’s a short stretch of the city where you suddenly feel like you’re in some sort of suburb with lots of trees and smaller buildings. Once you reach Harajuku, however, it’s back to normal Tokyo. I took a stroll down Takeshita Street, which became renown in years past as the youth fashion epicenter of the city, but these days it appears to be catering just as much to tourists as to fashion-conscious teens. A quick five-minute walk through the area and you’ll see all that’s worth seeing (at least, in my opinion). Before leaving I bought a pair of cream-filled fried pastries from a place called Zakuzaku. They were as tasty as I had hoped, and would be the closest thing I had to lunch that day.
A very short walk away from Harajuku is the Meiji Shrine. The dense forest of the shrine grounds is a stark contrast to the urban landscape all around it and as I walked down the path towards the shrine itself I passed through a pair of large, wooden torii gates and a large collection of ceremonial sake barrels. The main building of the Meiji Shrine was mostly covered over for renovation work but the construction tarp covering the shrine had a life-size image of the shrine on it to allow visitors to see what it would look like under normal circumstances. I got some photos and then checked my phone to see what time it was. Sure enough, it was time to return to the sumo arena on the other side of town. I said goodbye to the Meiji Shrine and started the long trek back to the arena. Thankfully in Tokyo you can get a good Internet connection while in the metro, so while riding across town I uploaded photos to social media.
I arrived at the sumo arena around 3:15pm and found my actual seat in the upper level. The arena was filling up quickly and about 15 minutes after I sat down there was hardly an empty seat to be seen anywhere. One of the wrestlers had won an important match and was wearing one of those ceremonial aprons that are given to prominent wrestlers. I only speak a few words of Japanese and thus had no idea what the announcer was saying, but it was clearly an important event from all the pageantry and how the crowd was roaring. The tournament then continued and lasted until about 6:00pm. My seat was one row back from the front and I had a fairly good view of the competition, though I had to angle my camera a little to avoid photographing the head of the guy in front of me. I knew sumo was a big deal in Japan but being inside the arena during the tournament showed me just how big of a deal it is. Individual wrestlers had their own cheering sections in the stands and the entire arena erupted during each and every match. I tried to get as much into the spirit as I could—placing mental bets on who would win each match and cheering along with the crowd. The wrestlers I liked the most were the ones with a knack for showmanship in the pre-match ceremony. They didn’t always win but I loved it when they showed some flair while stretching out or tossing salt into the ring. It was kind of a bummer when the final match ended and everyone started to exit the arena. I hadn’t suddenly turned into a sumo fan when I left, but if I’m ever back in Japan and there’s a sumo tournament going on I could easily see myself dishing out the money to get a seat.
When I got back to Asakusa I bought some more groceries and ended up chatting with a German guy as I ate dinner at the hostel. There would be no nighttime walk that day. Instead I spent some time going through emails, uploading photos and videos to social media, and looking various things up online.
A new guy had checked into my room the night before but I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself until the morning. I forgot his name but I remember he was from Mexico and we talked for a while over breakfast. When I left the hostel I took the metro to Ueno Park. The sky was cloudy and I could tell that rain was coming but I managed to explore much of the park before it started to come down. In the central part of the park there were a bunch a tents being set up for a cultural festival—or “festa” as the Japanese like to call them—and I took shelter in one of them for a few minutes while the rainstorm passed overhead. As the rain began to let up I decided to go over to the Tokyo National Museum which happened to be right next to where the cultural festa was being set up and spent an hour or two in there. The museum houses a large collection of artifacts and art from various periods in Japan’s history and thankfully had both Japanese and English descriptions of everything. When I came out of the museum the cultural festa was in full swing and a few dozen stalls were now cooking all sorts of food. I took a look at every single one and eventually settled on buying some sort of meat on a stick—partly because of the smell coming from the stall and partly because the chef’s red headband that screamed charisma. It turned out to be a good choice and was delicious, but as I was chowing down I started to realize something that should probably be made known to Western tourists visiting the country, namely that it’s not easy to be vegan in Japan. Every single stall in the cultural festa had food with some sort of animal product in it. Sure, if you buy all your food from a grocery store you can probably manage to make veganism work, but even then it can be a tricky. With my meat on a stick finished, I felt like eating something sweet and soon found an ice cream stand. I could have gotten some generic flavor, but why come to Japan if you’re not going to try something more outlandish? I bought “black vanilla” ice cream, which tastes similar to vanilla but is jet black in color. A girl was walking around the cultural festa and collecting donations for some sort of charity. I have her 100 yen without really thinking about it and got some sort of trinket for my generosity. As I left Ueno Park I passed the National Museum of Western Art. Having already seen much of the best art that Europe and America have to offer, I didn’t think it was worth my time to go in but if I’m ever back in Tokyo I might consider giving it a try.
I stopped in Ginza next. Ginza is home to a lot of Tokyo’s stores for luxury goods and high fashion, and on weekend afternoons the Chuo Dori street is blocked off to traffic, turning the street into a pedestrian boulevard. I tried my hand at taking a few artsy photos as I walked down the middle of the street. The sky was still cloudy, making for a lot of gray in the photos. While in Ginza I paid my first visit to a Japanese 7-Eleven and it turns out they are so much better than American 7-Eleven shops. In Japan the 7-Elevens have decent food, reliable ATMs that accept foreign debit cards, and the trademark level of customer service that Japan is known for. During the rest of my time in Japan I would be stopping by 7-Elevens many more times. When I walked out of the 7-Eleven I checked my phone and I still had some time before I needed to get to the next place, so I walked over to Hibiya Park. There was some sort of event going on with a long line of teenagers waiting to get in and I could hear a live band playing behind the wall of event area. Strangely, it sounded more like a practice session than an actual concert, with occasional stops in the music. I looked around the park some more and soon enough it was time to leave.
A metro ride took me to Roppongi, where I was to meet up with a cousin of mine who lives in Tokyo. Years ago she made a complete life change, moved to Japan, and she’s been living in Tokyo since then. I met her in the Roppongi metro station—which was also the place I first saw a poster for the Fullmetal Alchemist movie—and then we went up into the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower for coffee and chatted for an hour. From the cafe windows we could see Tokyo Tower, whose lights were just starting to turn on. No matter how many times it gets destroyed by Godzilla or another giant monster, the Japanese always rebuild Tokyo Tower. I hung out with my cousin for the rest of the day and the night. We stopped by the mini-apartment where she lives, which truly is one of the smallest living spaces I’ve ever stepped into. She has a tiny entryway area, a small living room that doubles as a bedroom, a kitchenette, a small bathroom, a closet, and that’s it. Nothing makes you appreciate the space you have in your own house like going into a tiny residence like that. For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant that was celebrating its anniversary of being open and was giving out free food. My cousin knew the owner and got us in, and a lot of my cousin’s friends and associates were also inside. I’m ashamed to admit I hardly remember any of the people I met there, but I do remember this one Nigerian guy who worked for the Nigerian embassy/consulate in Tokyo. Later on that night we, and a ground of my cousin’s friends, went to one of her favorite bars in the neighborhood. I don’t like the taste of alcohol but I had a beer to be social and on the plus side there was some good live music being played there. When I said goodbye to my cousin and left the bar I caught the last metro of the night that was going back to Ginza and there I got on the last ride to Asakusa. Had I been a few minutes later I would have been out of luck. It was sometime after 2:00am when I finally went to bed.
Predictably, I did not get up as early on the next day as I would have liked. My phone’s alarm went off at 8:00am but I dozed off and suddenly it was 10:30am. It was pouring rain when I finally left the hostel and the rain kept coming down all day. The Umbrella of Constantine would be seeing a lot of action that day. I took the metro to Tokyo Station and from there walked to the area near Otemachi Station. Being a Sunday, I thought it would be interesting to attend a church service in Japan and a few days earlier I had looked up churches in Tokyo with bilingual English/Japanese services. The congregation that met near Otemachi was called Grace City Church and since they didn’t have a church building of their own they were renting a conference room. Hymns were sung in Japanese but with dual language lyrics on a screen. The pastor was a Japanese man who preached a sermon in Japanese about the faith of the Israelites as seen in Joshua 6:1-20. Live translation of the sermon was provided via earpieces that were handed out to anyone who needed them. After the service ended I talked with a few of the congregants and found them to be very friendly. The church is geared towards native Japanese people but has a number of foreigners in it.
Since I had attended an early afternoon service it was mid-afternoon when I departed and made my way back to Tokyo Station. To stay out of the rain I went down into Tokyo Station’s basement shopping level and looked around at what was available there. The shopping level was called Tokyo Character Street and I went there because when I’d be back in Tokyo at the end of my trip I would be purchasing gifts for my siblings and I figured I’d take note of any store down there that looked promising. While I was there I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and for some reason I felt like going back to Shibuya. The rain had not let up even slightly when I got there and after some walking around not even my umbrella could keep me from getting drenched. There wasn’t much else I could do with the day almost over and the rain being unrelenting, so I returned to Asakusa. There I tried out a new grocery store called Life, which I struck me as being sort of like Japan’s version of Whole Foods. Nothing else significant happened that day. My sleep schedule had been thrown off by staying up late the previous night, but on the other hand the unrelenting rain would have kept me from doing much that day even if I had gotten up on time.
It was the next day when I first experienced what I saw to be a common pattern in Japan: one day there is a nonstop downpour of rain and the next day it’s clear, sunny, and really hot and humid. On the plus side the lack of rain meant I could utilize my hostel’s outdoor clothesline and I did a bit of laundry in the sink and hung it out to dry before leaving the hostel in the morning. It was a long metro ride out to Shinjuku and when I got there I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Both of its towers have free observation decks on top and I opted for the south tower, as I had read online that its view was slightly better than the one in the north tower. I remember there were a few Australians with me in the security line and we cracked some jokes while we waited. Up in the observation deck I finally got my first view of Mt Fuji, though you can only see the upper half of the mountain from Tokyo. Being closer to central Tokyo than the Skytree, I could more easily view some of the city’s landmarks, but I didn’t have a lot of time before I had to make my way down and take the metro to meet up with my cousin again. One of the things you need to keep in mind when visiting Tokyo is the amount of time you’ll lose getting from point A to point B. The public transit system is good, but the city is big and you need to budget some amount of time for transit when making plans for your sightseeing.
My cousin and I met up in the Hiroo neighborhood for lunch at a place called the Aloha Table. I remember I had some sort of pancakes and my cousin gave me a few more ideas for things to see and do in Japan. Originally I had planned to take a day trip to the coastal town of Kamakura immediately after lunch, but I had forgotten my rail pass back at the hostel in Asakusa, so I had to go all the way back and get it before going to Tokyo Station to catch a ride down there. It was still hot and humid when I finally arrived in Kamakura, but thankfully there a little sea breeze blowing that made the weather more bearable. From the train station I walked to the Great Buddha, which is one of the largest Buddha statues in Japan. There were a lot of people at the Great Buddha but I was able to catch a few gaps in the crowd and photograph the Buddha by itself. I next tried to visit the Hasedera Shrine but it was too late in the day when I got there and it had already closed. Walking back through town, I came across a small shrine hidden away among the backstreets. Most visitors to Kamakura stay on the main boulevard and miss out on stuff like this. The sun was going down and I wanted to do at least one more thing before returning to Tokyo, so I walked to the beach. It was good to breathe in that ocean air. A lot of people were hanging out on the beach and a few surfers were in the water. The waves weren’t big but were just large enough to catch. With the sun having already dropped below the nearby hills, I pulled out my phone and captured a short video of the beach that I’ve kept on my phone to this day. I hadn’t spent as much time in Kamakura as I would have liked, but it was still a worthwhile day trip.
The train ride back to Tokyo was packed and I had to stand most of the way. Back in the city I finished up the day’s sightseeing by going up to the observation deck at Roppongi Hills. The nighttime view of Tokyo from up there is great and it wasn’t overly crowded so I found a good seat and just stared out at the city. For the full version of my time up in Roppongi Hills, and some saxophone music, see the post I published earlier this year titled The View From Roppongi. In addition to the observation deck, there’s also an art gallery in the top level of Roppongi Hills and I checked it out before coming down and returning to Asakusa. My first time in Tokyo was rapidly approaching an end.
I woke up on my last day in Tokyo and collected the laundry that I had hung out to dry the previous night. After eating and packing everything up I left my backpack at the hostel’s front desk and set out for some miscellaneous sightseeing to fill the time between then and my departure. I first went back to Shinjuku Station. I wasn’t going anywhere outside the station and just wanted to see the world’s busiest train station in action. For 10 minutes I just walked around as thousands of people streamed passed me in every direction. From there I took a train down to the area around Tokyo Tower. It was about a 10-15 minute walk from the train station to Zojo-ji Temple with Tokyo Tower looming over its shoulder. There weren’t any ceremonies going on at the time and I walked around the backside towards the tower. Along the way I passed by a graveyard with a prominent “Keep Out” sign, as well as a pair of small shrines. At the base of Tokyo Tower I got a few photos but didn’t go up. The observation deck at the tower was being renovated and I figured I had already gotten three good views during my time in Tokyo and wasn’t desperate for a fourth. I returned to Zojo-ji Temple and meant to just pass through to head back to the train station but I discovered another shrine that hadn’t caught my eye the first time through. Along the side of the temple, next to a road, there were rows of small statues of infants. A sign next to the statues said that this was a shrine dedicated to miscarried and stillborn children. I don’t know why, but the sight of this shrine really stuck with me and the photo I took of it was one of the most memorable of all the photos I captured in Tokyo.
My time in Tokyo was now up and I needed to get back to my hostel. I picked up my backpack from the front desk, loaded the items from my daypack into it, and set out for Ueno Station. There my first shinkansen (bullet train) would take me north on the next leg of my journey across Japan.