February 18, 2009

Tokyo - yo

Japan was a last minute trip for me, and I didn't spend much time planning what I should see and do in Tokyo. For most of my travels I had at least looked through a guidebook for suggestions, before I arrived in a new city or country, this way I had a rough idea of what I wanted to see. I only gave myself three days to sight-see in Tokyo, and it wouldn't have been the same experience if it wasn't for the hospitality of Ryosuke and his family. Ryosuke is the older brother of Shunsuke, who is my old roommate from when I lived in Colorado, many years ago. Their family is from Tokyo, and I had always wanted to come visit.

I arrived early in the morning by overnight bus from Kyoto. The bus dropped me off at Tokyo Station, and it took me a good thirty minutes to get my bearings and figure out where I was supposed to go. I have seen some pretty complex subway lines in London and New York, but nothing prepared me for Tokyo. The Tokyo underground is a massive combination of subway and commuter trains, all rolled into one map. Go figure. After my third day I started to get the hang of travel in Tokyo, but it took me a while. As for those images of thousands of Japanese commuters cramming into train cars, I never really saw that. I did travel around rush hour some days, and it was packed, but nothing out of the ordinary. The only thing that was different were the number of people wearing surgical face-masks. I am not joking. Remember the SARS epidemic, with all the news images of people wearing face-masks? Well, I guess that fad never went away, and people wear them now if they are sick with a cold or flu, or to prevent getting ill. Talk about respect.

I checked into the Aizuya Inn for three nights, which is located in San'Ya, by the Minamisenju metro stop, in the old part of Tokyo. The hostel was clean, extremely cheap (I had a private room for $32 USD a night), the staff was really friendly, there was free Internet, and it was small and comfortable. I should mention that I had a traditional Japanese room called a washitsu, which consisted of a futon on a bamboo tatami mat on the floor. It was the smallest private room I have ever had, but it was cozy. The hostel is also walking distance to Asakusa and Ueno, two old parts of Tokyo with fantastic sites.

My first day in Tokyo was spent with Ryosuke and his family. I only expected to spend a couple of hours with them seeing a small part of the city, but we ended up spending the whole day together, and I basically saw most of Tokyo in the span of twelve hours.

I met Ryosuke and family at the Mitsukoshi department store in the famous shopping district of Ginza. The Mitsukoshi store is similar to a Saks or Bloomingdale's store in the US, and a destination for designer brands. From here we walked around Ginza which is similar to Fifth Avenue in New York, and then made our way over to the Imperial Park where the King resides.

It was a sunny, Sunday afternoon in Tokyo, and it just happened to be the day that volunteers rented out bikes for free to ride around the park. So the four of us grabbed some cruisers and peddled around the park. We didn't go into the palace, but the grounds were nice to visit, and it gives me something else to see when I come back another time.

We ate lunch at a nice restaurant in Ginza, which is similar to midtown Manhattan, and then we headed out to visit the neighborhoods of Shinjuku and Shibuya. Whereas New York has their large Times Square, Shinjuku and Shibuya are both massive shopping districts with huge neon signs everywhere, and trendy youths hanging out. In Shinjuku, we first walked down the touristic Takeshita street that was filled with kids in crazy hello kitty style school uniforms and goth outfits, and then made our way over to visit city hall, to get a view of the Tokyo skyline from the top of one of the towers.

The Tokyo city hall building is a massive high-rise of two towers, and some beautiful architecture if I may say so. As with many buildings in Tokyo, there are free viewing platforms on the top floors, to see out over the city. Our goal was to try and see Mt. Fuji in the distance, but although it was clear in Tokyo, the mountains had a veil of clouds, and it wasn't meant to be. Even though we couldn't see Mt. Fuji, the city skyline was impressive, and Ryosuke pointed out all the places we had visited earlier that day.

From Shinjuku we walked to Meiji Jingu, which is the most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo, and it was packed with locals coming to pray and make a blessing for the new year. The shrine is located in Yoyogi Park, and surrounded by beautiful trees, which is a nice contrast from the city's concrete jungle. The long walkway was lined with ice sculptures that were being judged for a contest, and the designs really blew me away. I had never seen such intricate work with ice before. We stood in line to pray, and threw in a five Yen coin which is the luckiest of all coins, according to Ryosuke. We bowed, and clapped our hands, and it felt good to pray for a better year in 2009. Too many people have lost their jobs and homes around the world, not just in the US. It was a sad sight, as there were many homeless sleeping in the Imperial park, and Ryosuke mentioned that many new homeless in Japan, are the result of the world economic crisis.

We then went to visit the other famous shopping district of Shibuya. I had met a girl in Bali who was on vacation from Tokyo, and lived in Shibuya. She was surprised when I told her I had no idea where this was. I guess it's like someone saying they've never heard of Times Square in New York. Even if you don't know it by name, I'm sure you've seen images of hundreds of people crossing the main intersection at once. We got to Shibuya around dusk, and went up to a walkway that gave us a good vantage point over the intersection. I had a good laugh just watching and taking pictures of people crossing in all directions at the same time. Not just in a rectangle, but in a diagonal as well, all at the same time! We then joined the masses and crossed back and forth several times until I had my fill. I had to do it, and I'm glad Ryosuke entertained the idea of several crossings.

If you're a woman, and you don't mind overcrowded shopping malls, then you need to visit the famous Shibuya 109. It's where you'll find all the new brands. We walked the mall just for kicks, since it reminded me that I was a long way from home.

We finished off the day with an amazing meal at Top of Ebisu, on the thirty-eighth floor of the Ebisu Garden Place, which provided night views over Tokyo. The meal was one of the best I had in Japan, the ambiance and hospitality was top notch, and we were entertained the whole night by Kona, Ryosuke's four year old daughter.

I was completely worn out by my first day in Tokyo, and so I spent my second day touring the local neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno. These neighborhoods are in the old part of Tokyo, and the buildings are traditional and only several stories high. I stumbled upon a sushi stand not far from my guest house, which served up amazing traditional sushi, sashimi, and maki rolls. Standing beside some locals, I practiced my Japanese that Ryosuke taught me, and ordered from Yoshi, the old master sushi chef. I wish this place had a name so I could recommend it to others, but alas, it will be remembered as the sketchy sushi shack on some lane way, with fantastic food, and a humble chef Yoshi san.

I walked to Asakusa first, and visited the famous temple of Senso-ji. It was a national holiday and the temple was packed with locals. Leading up to one of the temple entrances is the hawker street of Nakamise-dori. If you can bear the slow pace of crammed people inching along the narrow street, while looking at souvenirs, then go for it. I made it about three quarters of the way, then had to duck out onto a side street. I did however get some great hot sake to go from a vendor before I left. All the little streets around the temple in Asakusa are very picturesque, and it's worth taking a stroll. There is even an old tiny amusement park with some ancient looking rides if you're looking for some additional excitement. After my experience with the famous Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island, New York, I vowed never to get on a ride older than I am. Also, Asakusa is famous for its soba and udon noodles, so soups here are not to be missed.

From Asakusa I made my way on foot to Ueno. By this point I was exhausted and didn't spend too much time walking around, but I did manage to stumble upon the Tiger factory on a side street while getting lost. For those of you who don't know about Tiger, they make the best rice cooker to date. It was recommended by my former roommates Shunsuke from Japan, and John from Korea, and I've owned one for about thirteen years. Picture this, I jumped in joy when I saw the building and would have asked for a tour if only they were open. The rice cooker is an institution in my kitchen. I also heard that Ueno has some great museums and galleries, but I was too tired to find out if this was true.

My last day in Tokyo was spent getting up at the crack of dawn, to visit the Tsukiji central fish market in downtown. Let me just preface this by saying I thought I had seen it all in markets around Asia, but nothing prepared me for Tsukiji. I was warned ahead of time, not to get in the way of the bustling workers, and boy were they moving quickly. Between dodging the massive motorized carts used to transport the seafood, and trying not to get smacked into while taking photos, I was able to get some nice shots. Unfortunately the relative size of the objects doesn't come across in the pictures, but take my word for it, I have never seen fish, clams, mussels, scallops, and crabs, as big as these. It was as if all the mutated monster fish were snatched up by Japanese fisherman. I lasted about twenty minutes in the actual market and then spent my time wandering the food shops outside the market entrance.

When I was getting my divemaster certification, an instructor named Peter told me he didn't eat seafood because they're our underwater friends, and divers rely on thriving marine life . I never really got it until I went to Tsukiji, and saw fishing on such a large scale. Since my favorite food is sushi, I'm starting to rethink my eating habits.

Tokyo is amazing, it's not as expensive as everyone claims it to be, and Japanese hospitality is not to be missed. A big thanks to Ryosuke and family for a wonderful time. Go out and see for yourself. I heard that Dragon Air has some cheap flights to get there. In the meantime, here are my photos from Tokyo.

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