I manage to find the first tour meeting point at the Keio Plaza Hotel without too much hassle, which is more difficult than it sounds, because you need to work out how to get to the other side of the train station without going through the fare gates.
|The ‘other side’ of Shinjuku|
Our guide for the day is Kaori – “but don’t worry about pronunciation”, she says, “just call me Curry cause I love curry!” The tour is supposed to end at 5.00pm, which should leave me just enough time to head on over to Shibuya to start tour number two at 5.50pm. But the opening sentence out of Kaori’s mouth is that the tour finishes at 5.30pm – phwaor that’s gonna be tight! Within the next half an hour she’s revised it to 6.00pm. Boy am I panicking! There’s no way I want to miss the night tour, and I can’t even call them or email them to let them know I might be late because I have no internet connection!
However, within an hour, Kaori’s going through everyone on the bus, checking where they would like to conclude the tour, and I overhear her telling some of the other women they could get off the bus at Ginza, which is closer than coming back to the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal, so I let her know my plans and she agrees that will be easier and give me more time. Panic averted!
Our first stop on the tour is Tokyo Tower, reminiscent of a red and white barber’s pole. Taller than the Eiffel Tower, the 333m structure, completed in 1958, was designed as a transmitting tower. There are exceptional views of the city and today has another surprise in stall – it is clear and there set against the blue sky is Japan’s beloved Mt Fuji. I was so glad to be able to see it after missing it on my last trip and also on the train the other day. And the Japanese are right, there is something magical about Fuji.
|And now making a rare appearance on the skyline, the one, the only, the AMAZING Mt Fuji!!!|
Quirky fact: the good people of Tokyo will have you know that your love will last longer if you watch the lights of Tokyo Tower get turned off with your partner.
Kaori tells us that 60-70% of Japanese are Buddhist and 80-90% are Shinto, meaning that the Japanese are kind of flexible when it comes to religion and that a lot of people practice both. Then of course when Christmas rolls around, everybody is a Christian – cause Santa’s coming!
She also asks whether we’ve noticed people walking around with masks on their faces – which of course we all have. She thinks the Japanese are a little obsessed with masks and says that if you go into a drugstore, you can how many types of different masks there are – there are ones that make sure your makeup stays in place and even ones that are scented and have benefits for your skin. Apparently when it is exam time, lots of people put on masks either to stop themselves from passing on bugs, or to stop themselves from getting any colds going around.
Lunch time is beckoning, and we head to Chinzanso Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel. The grounds of the Four Seasons Hotel are stunning and we are lucky enough to see both a traditional wedding and a coming of age ceremony.
|Two new life chapters – a wedding…|
|…and acelebration of the coming of age.
Seated in groups around grill plates, we await our barbecue lunch with anticipation. First up is a small salad of lettuce, carrot and red onion with a sesame tasting sauce. Then a selection of thinly sliced pork, chicken and beef, along with vegetables including capsicum, carrot, onion, asparagus and some type of potato, which has the restaurants name ingrained into it) are grilled on the hot plate and served along with rice. I’ve been dying for a plate of vegetables for the last couple of days, so I’m delighted. A small bowl of vanilla icecream rounds the meal out. It’s a really nice lunch in wonderful surroundings.
Back on the bus, Kaori tells us a bit about the New Year in Japan. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new year is a big deal in Japan and on New Year’s Eve, the Japanese attend Buddhist temples to hear the tolling of the joya no kane (bell). The bell is rung 108 times, one for each cardinal sin in the Buddhist universe and which is said to purify sins and allow the new year to start afresh. The hefty list of sins includes ostentatiousness, ambition, stinginess, know-it-all, self-denial, humiliation and jealousy.
But people are busy these days, and apparently there are a few temples that have web sites so you can ring the bell “virtually” and of course there are mobile apps too!
The Imperial Palaceis home to the Japanese Emperor and his family, the world’s longest unbroken line of monarchs. The impregnable moats and stone walls occupy a 110-hectare expanse of green – its innermost folds the habitat of rabbits and pheasants, its outer ring of moats and bridges the home of turtles, carp and gliding swans. The Imperial Palace is totally closed to the public, except on New Year’s Day and the Emperor’s birthday on 23 December, so all you can really see is a watch tower and the front gate. But nevertheless, it’s a nice stop.
Driving through Ginza, we head to Hirode Pier to take a cruise up the Sumida River. During the Edo Period there was little to suggest the sartorial elegance and good taste the name Ginza now conjures up. Back in the day, it occupied a rather undefined area between the feudal mansions of the Outer Lords and the newly reclaimed land of Tsukiji. The word Ginza means “Silver Mint”, and the suburb was so named after the silver coin mint which was established ther ein 1612 during the Edo period. Now it’s an elegant and exclusive suburb, and a world famous shopping destination.
|Sumida River bridges guide|
Thankfully I get to do the tour today and also get to see the space aged river boat “Himiko” which I wanted to see last time.
Disembarking from the boat across from a view of the new Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Building, we walk a brief way to the Asakusa Kannon Temple and the Nakamise shopping street leading up to it. Along the way Kaori points out the beginning of the Ginza line, which I need to catch to Shibuya, and I decide that as I’ve already seen the Temple, I’ll browse the Nakamise and then head to Shibuya early.
The Nakamise shopping street stretches over 250m from Kaminarimon to the main grounds of Sensoji Temple and is lined by shops offering all kinds of local specialities and tourist souvenirs. This includes cherry blossom flavoured ice cream and although it is freezing cold, I can’t resist it’s call.
|Johnny’s a busy boy…|
I meet my guide for the night, and I’m ashamed to say I don’t catch her name. I think I’ll have plenty of opportunity when the other people on the tour arrive and she introduces herself, but then she tells me I am the only one on the tour and I’m too embarrassed to ask now. She is a tiny little thing and absolutely lovely, I can tell the tour is going to be a good night out right away.
First stop of the evening is a small izakaya for a yakitori dinner. The Izakaya probably seats about 15 people, with some table seating and a small lot of bar seating where you can watch the yakitori being prepared. Yakitori are skewers of grilled chicken and vegetables and it is a great accompaniment with beer or sake. First we are served a small bowl of mixed vegetables including mushrooms and lotus root, sauted in some kind of sauce, which is really, really nice. Then we have about five small serves of different yakitori dishes including chicken, and green peppers. The food is really lovely and I thoroughly enjoy the visit and having a chat. Oishi des ne!
We survive the train ride, and head over the the Metropolitan Government Building to get a glimpse of Tokyo from the night sky. The 243 meter tall twin towers and surrounding buildings contain the offices and assembly hall of the metropolitan government of Tokyo, as well as observatories on the 45th floor of each tower. The view from the southern tower is considered slightly more interesting. I have been to this building before, but during the day, so it was good to get a view of Tokyo by night, and my guide even manages to track down the Domo-kun merchandise I’ve been trying to find for the last two days.
|Golden Gai by day…|
|…and by night!|
Golden Gai is a ramshackle area in Shinjuku consisting of six tiny alleys and it’s right behind my hotel. There used to be over 200 bars and eateries crammed into this area, most of them seating only a few people, but its now estimated that are about 140. The buildings have miraculously remained through war and earthquake, though they are now dwarfed by new high rises. I wanted to visit Golden Gai on my last trip to Japan, but just didn’t get around to it, and looking back probably just didn’t feel confident enough to tackle it. Despite feeling quite comfortable staying in Kabukicho, being the fraidy cat I am, as much as I would love to just go out and take a trip down Golden Gai – I would never be able to make myself do it. Why is why I have booked the Backstreet Guides to take me there tonight!
It’s said that many of these miniscule bars do not welcome westerners and/or non-Japanese speakers, but my guide thinks this is not true, and wandering around I can see a lot of signs saying “English welcome”, so maybe you shouldn’t always believe what you read!
At the back of Golden Gai, hidden from the main streets, is Hanazono Shrine. It is one of the important Shinto Shrines found in Tokyo. Hanazono Shrine was first established in the middle of the 17th century, during the early Edo period. Over the hundreds of years there’s been various redevelopments to the current buildings found at the site. A number of fires had destroyed the buildings including sever damage and destruction during World War II. Hanazono literaly means Flower Garden. The land surrounding Hanazono Shrine was once part of the Imperial Gardens, now developed with the many tall buildings of Shinjuku.
|Entranceway to Omoide Yokocho|
|Pocari Sweat – for a heavy thirst!|
I’m absolutely freezing cold now, and though I’m sorry that my fabulous day of touring the city is over, I’m really looking forward to a glass of red and a warm hotel room.
I can’t recommend either of my days guides enough. They made my time in Tokyo so interesting and memorable and helped me to understand and fall in love with Japan that little bit more.
Today I am taking time out to do something dear to my heart, something I didn’t do enough of in Japan on my last visit…get out the credit card and go shopping! Shinjuku – get ready!
The shops in Japan don’t open until 10/11am, which is VERY late for someone like me. And unfortunately Monday seems to be the day that all the other interesting places that I might like to check out to fill in time, like the Tokyo Edo Museum, choose Monday as their day to be closed. So I kind of drift around the streets until 10am when Isetan opens.
I’m dying for a sandwich today, just a good old fashioned normal sandwich, and I eye the perfect place, but it’s not time for lunch yet, so sure that I’ll find another awesome looking sandwich somewhere else, I head back out into the rain in the direction of Top Shop. Top Shops range is a disappointment. Of course, it’s heading towards winter here (as if it’s not freezing enough in Autumn), so the stores are full of jumpers, jackets and coats, but the range is just not very exciting. I leave empty handed and decide to try my luck in Zara. Their stock, whilst a little better, is still not fabulous. But I do leave with a bag full of clothes in any case. One thing that impresses me about Japan – is they are on the ball with everything – wet weather? well we wouldn’t want your new purchases to get wet – here, lets fix that –
|Ta da! Ingenius!|
I am drenched to the bone, having chosen not to wear my Dr Martens out today (really stupid move), so I decide its time to head for Kirin City for curry and a beer. Well I thought I ordered a beer, but it turns out I must have ordered a beer soft serve, because that’s what it came out looking like!
I wonder the streets a little more until the only true option is to go back to the hotel early and have an arvo rest and get ready for my tour this evening.
Unfortunately it is raining so much and so constantly that my tour planned for tonight was cancelled. I was so disappointed as I was really looking forward to it. The rain had better smarten itself up because if tomorrow nights tour is also cancelled, I will be REALLY upset!
So what do I do with an empty evening looming? Well, seeing as I didn’t make it to Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi last night, I decide to give it another try. I was obviously too tired to tackle it last night because I have no dramas working out how to get there tonight.
This morning I leave Kyoto for Tokyo. I grab a taxi and head for Kyoto Station. Japanese taxis are a treat – immaculately clean with antimacassars on the headrests and chairs, the backdoor opens automatically for you and the drivers always get you to your destination safely. I’m way early, but I can sure fill in some time shopping for snacks. Did you know you can get Green Tea flavoured Kit Kats? Well you can and they are delicious! The Japanese have a knack for presenting things and it makes you want to buy snacks just cause they are wrapped pretty!
Quirky fact – On May 5, 2011, Tokyo’s Shiodome Nihon TV Studios witnessed one of the greatest human feats of all time, when 21 members of the Caless Dance School squeezed into a Mini Cooper. The reason? Quite simply, to see if 21 women could squeeze into a Mini Cooper. Why else?
About 15 minutes out of Yokohama Station, a couple of old ladies across the aisle start cooing – I’m wondering what the hell is going on, when I see people start to get their cameras out. Apparently Mt Fuji is clear today, and of course I’m on the other side of the train so I miss it. Hopefully I’ll be able to see it from the Metro Govt Buildings in a couple of days, because I missed it last time also.
I have to change trains at Shinagawa and I have 2 minutes to do so. Two minutes! That’s near on impossible to get from one platform to another in these public holiday crowds. I get stuck behind a crowd on the escalator and I’m wondering what happens if I miss the connection, but up ahead there it is, the exit I need to get onto my train. Coming down the escalator, I can see the train is there. I can hear the chiming noise indicating that the doors are about to close, but I’ve got too much in my hands to pick up my suitcase. In seconds, I reach the bottom of the escalator and fly across the platform, leap onto the train, with my suitcase flying behind me and I make it onto the train JUST before the door closes. Talk about a leap of faith – must have been pretty amusing for the other passengers to watch!
You’re probably well aware that Shinjuku Station is officially the busiest station in the world. In 2007, it registered an average of 3.6 million passengers per day. On a more peculiar note, however, it also has more exits than any other station – over 200 at the last count. It’s a massive complex which includes shopping centres and department stores and is so large that part of it actually lies outside of Shinjuku Ward and into Shibuya Ward. Nonetheless, I arrive at Shinjuku, and I don’t even get lost.
As today is Sunday, this is the day to head to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine. Sunday means people watching day, and that’s exactly what I want to do – rockabilities, goth lolitas, bands and mostly likely some of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls – all sorts of people gather here to hang out.
Meiji Shrine is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Located in Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The shrine was completed and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken in 1920, eight years after the passing of the emperor and six years after the passing of the empress. The shrine was destroyed during WWII but was rebuilt shortly thereafter.
At this point, the best thing to do is to head back to the hotel to drop off my purchases, and hopefully it’s time to check in, which it is. I’ve booked a single room and it’s really cool, complete with my own chaise lounge! Such a good value hotel!
|Best Western Astina Shinjuku|
Leaving the fruit aisle, I head to Tower Records to pick up some CD’s from a couple of Japanese artists that I like. One of my favourites – Headphones President – put a new album out this year, and whilst I could have ordered it online, I thought it would be far more awesome to get it from Tower Records.
Checking out Shinjuku Gyoen Park is also on the cards. They have just spent months renovating their greenhouse and I’ve heard that it’s another great spot in Tokyo to see the Autumn leaves, so when in Rome…
The greenhouse is a little reminiscent of the inside of the new Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, but on absolutely nowhere near the same scale.
I last visited Japan in April 2010 to fulfil my birthday wish of “wanting to be surrounded by cherry blossoms” (oh, dear Aries child!). Thankfully my Mum indulged me and luckily she had always wanted to visit Japan.
All the reports indicated it was going to be an early cherry blossom season that year. Meaning March. Meaning they would be gone when I got there in around the 9th of April. As we flew into Narita, there were a few cherry blossom trees dotting the landscape, and I thought to myself, well at least you’ve seen a few from the plane, but that’s probably all you’ll see. Oh well, you’ll still have a fantastic time.
But as the train rushed toward Tokyo, there were more trees dotting the landscape, and we could even see them outside our hotel window. How lucky!
Our first day there though, we decided to take a train ride to Yanaka for a quick wander around. And I can’t describe what I felt when we got there and the place was just covered with cherry blossom trees. Yanaka cemetary could only be described as exactly the kind of place I would want to be buried -the place was not only covered by cherry blossom trees, with their petals gently wafting down through the breeze, but there flower beds filled with pansies, cats and dogs running around and people picnicking! It was such a happy place! We ended up spending a lot more time here than we thought we would.
The cherry blossoms were everywhere, but that wasn’t all this trip had in store for us. When we arrived in Takayama, it was cold. No, actually it was freezing. We had on about four or five layers of clothing on! And the next morning, we found out why. I woke up on my birthday to see out my window, not cherry blossoms, but snow! I had never seen snow in my life and certainly wasn’t expecting it in ‘light jacket wearing’ spring!
The trip was awesome. We saw Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama, Nagoya and Osaka. We saw snow, cherry blossoms, the Spring Matsuri and perfectly packaged strawberries and apples. We saw strawberry shortcake in Harajuku and geisha in Gion. But we didn’t see Mt Fuji (we tried, but she was hiding in 10 degree cold, rain and fog). We ate sakura flavoured icecream and octopus balls. We went white water rafting in Arashiyama. The experience was awesome. The people were so friendly and helpful.
And it was this experience that makes me think, yep, I can do this trip. by myself. And if I can’t do it in Japan, then there’s no hope for me!
Flights? Check! Accommodation in Narita for my first night? Check! Accommodation in Kyoto? Check! Accommodation in Tokyo? Check (red light district seems suitable for a single female traveller – right???).
It’s all coming together. I know what I want to do and where I want to stay. But I’ve never travelled by myself and I am freaking out!
I will arrive in Japan on the late afternoon of 21 November, so I’m not even going to chance getting on the trains. Instead I’ve opted to spend the night in Narita near the airport at the Holiday Inn Tobu Narita. Next morning I’ll go back to the airport, sort out my trains and head to Kyoto.
In Kyoto I’ll stay as near to Gion as possible (or rather as I can afford!). I’ll be there for three nights and was thinking about doing a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, but there seems to be so much in town I didn’t see on my last trip that I might just hang around Kyoto and explore it properly. I’d like to do an afternoon trip to Nara though, and would love to head back to Arashiyama to see what flavour ice cream is on the menu for Autumn (in Spring it was Sakura which was DIVINE!).
Then I’ll get back on the train and spend three nights in Tokyo. I’m booked in at the Best Western Astina Shinjuku, which is where I stayed with Mum on my last visit in April 2010. Even though it’s in Kabukicho, it’s not too far from Shinjuku Station, there was lots of shopping and dining, and the hotel itself was wonderful. So it’ll be familiar to say the least…I’ll just have to keep away from the hustlers!
I didn’t get to visit Golden Gai either on my last trip, so I’ve found a tour company that does a night time tour of Tokyo, taking in Shibuya and Shinjuku, and of course Golden Gai. I also want to do a day trip out to Nikko, which I believe is gorgeous in Autumn. I’ve also booked a “Dynamic Tokyo Tour” that visits quite a few sights (some which I did see last time, but most that I didn’t get around to) and includes a barbecue lunch and a boat ride along the Sumida River. Apart from that, I want to do more shopping, hopefully pick up some of those divine, individually packaged strawberries from Isetan again and hopefully get to Yoyogi Park to do some people watching.
Then back on the train to stay another night in Narita. I’ll have about half a day to explore Narita, which a lot of people probably bypass. There’s a lovely temple and park there, which will be interesting to check out. Then I’ll be hopping on a plane home! Easy! Surely!
So 8 months to go, and I am so excited…