Just Me in Japan – Tokyo Day Tour

Tuesday 27 November 2012
  
There were a few things I didn’t get to see on my last trip to Tokyo. So today I’m going to do the touristy thing and sum them all up in one Tokyo day tour and a night tour of Shibuya and Shinjuku.
 
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.

Tokyo Tower has now been surpassed, in height anyway, but the new Tokyo Sky Tree which opened in May 2012.  The new building is double the height of the Sky Tree.
 

 
Kaori is a great guide, she speaks English really well and has loads of interesting facts and stories peppering her tour spiel, including many interesting toilet tales about automatic seats that remove all domestic arguments and the need for flushing sounds to hide embarrassing noises.
 
Back on the bus, we head to Happoen Gardens to participate in a traditional tea ceremony.  The tea ceremony (sado: “the way of the tea”) is a ceremonial way of preparing and drinking tea.  The custom has been strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism and nowadays, is a relatively popular hobby.  Many Japanese, interested in their own culture, take tea ceremony lessons.  The ceremony itself consists of many rituals that have to be learned by heart, with almost each hand movement being prescribed.  The matcha green tea is first prepared by the host, and then drunk by the guests.  Prior to drinking the green tea, guests are invited to eat sweets – these sweeten the palate, to balance the bitterness of the green tea.

 

The ceremonial building is situated in beautiful garden surroundings, and is also home to some very old bonsai.

 
 
 
 

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.

The Sumida River is a river which flows through Tokyo.  It branches from the Arakawa River at Iwabuchi and flows into Tokyo Bay.  What is now known as the “Sumida River” was previously the path of the Ara-kawa, however towards the end of the Meiji era work was carried out to divert the main flow of the Ara-kawa to prevent flooding.
 
I was all lined up to do the Sumida River Cruise on the last trip, but unfortunately I underestimated the crowds, and by the time we got there, there was a massive queue and an even longer waiting time (the Japanese love to queue – I’ve heard stories about people queuing for up to 8 hours to go into a new shop without even knowing what they sell!), so we had to kiss that plan goodbye.

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.

 
The space aged Himiko river boat

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. 
 
Tokyo Sky Tree on the left, and the Asahi Building on the right

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.
 
Nakamise Shopping Street
Unmissable Sakura (cherry blossom) flavoured ice cream.
 
Straight afterwards, I jump on the subway for Shibuya.  I arrive early, but that’s a good thing considering how dark it gets early and that I still have to find the meeting point for the Lights on Tokyo tour.
 
Arriving early also gives me the opportunity to watch the “Shibuya Scramble” in action at Shibuya Crossing.  Shibuya Crossing is probably one of the world’s most visually famous four-way intersections where the green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity.
 
Shibuya scramble
You can see in the picture above a big billboard advertising Johnny’s World.  Let me tell you about Johnny and why he holds not one, but two Guiness World Records…
 
Johnny is Johnny Kitagawa.  He is the founder of Johnny & Associates, which is a production agency for numerous popular boy bands in Japan.  He is regarded as one of the most powerful figures in the entertainment industry and has held a virtual monopoly on the creation of boy bands in Japan for more than 40 years!
 
But it’s not all good clean cut fun in Johnny’s World.  In the late 1990’s, Johnny was the subject of a number of claims that he was taking advantage of his position to engage in improper sexual relationships with boys under contract to his talent agency.  Johnny denied the claims and was awarded an 8.8million yen judgement against the magazine that published the allegations.  An appeal was launched by the magazine, which resulted in a partial reversal of judgement.
 
Anyway, he was presented with two Guinness World Record awards, which make him not only one of Japan’s richest men, but also one of the most successful music producers in the world.
 
The first award was for the most No. 1 singles produced by an individual.  He has accumulated an astounding 232 chart-topping songs between 1974 to 2010.
 
The second was for the most concerts produced by an individual.  Between 2000 and 2010 Johnny produced 8,419 concerts! 
 
Anyway, looking at the billboard, my guide and I decided that none of the boys look remotely like Ken Watanabe, so we lose interest and move on.
 
Johnny’s a busy boy…
 
 Shibuya is also known as home to Hachiko, a life-sized bronze statue of a dog by which millions of Tokyoites have been arranging to meet since it was first put in place in 1934.  And it’s this statue that is the meeting point.  So why a statue for this pup?
“Well, from early 1924, an Akita dog by the name of Hachiko used to accompany his master – a professor at Tokyo University called Hidesamuro Ueno – to the train station in the morning, and would be there in the afternoon to greet Ueno’s return from work. All was well until one day in May 1925, when the professor suddenly expired while giving a lecture. Unaware that his beloved master would no longer be returning home, Hachiko continued to wait at Shibuya Station for the following decade. (The station’s employees were apparently quite fond of the mutt, giving it food, water and somewhere to sleep while presumably making sure that it didn’t poop in the ticket hall.”
 “A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan”, Ben Stevens
 

Hachiko
If you want to watch the whole story from go to wo, get out the DVD of the same name, slightly ruined by the fact that Richard Gere, who played the professor, is not actually Japanese, nor is the story set in Japan.

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!

Heading down the steep narrow staircase, back out into the night, we wander around the streets of Shibuya, looking at the different sites, before heading via train to Shinjuku. This is where I get my first taste of the crush on peak hour Japanese trains. You think, surely no one else can get on, but they do. I was ok, if not hot, but I felt really sorry for my tiny guide, who’s face was squashed between the backs of two men standing on either side of her. She said sometimes when the train is busy and people want to read on the train, they put the books on her head! Nice!

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.

Twinkling Tokyo 
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.  

Because it’s only me on the tour and we are going well for time, I’m guided to Omoide Yokocho, or Memory Lane. This is another place I wanted to check out last time, but didn’t get to, and I wasn’t expecting to see it this time either. It’s a small network of alleyways dedicated to yakitori and combination restaurants. I use the term restaurants loosely as they are more like little wooden sheds, most seating about five people.  

Entranceway to Omoide Yokocho
Omoide Yokocho is situated on the west side of the Yamanote Line tracks. There is a tunnel under the tracks near the entrance to Omoide Yokocho which is nicknamed “Gokiburi Yokocho” (cockroach lane) or the slightly more (?) endearing “Shomben Yokocho” (piss lane). I’m not sure if its the kind of place I’d eat in because I can see a number unidentified animal parts being served up and I’m just not that game!
 
 
I’m guided around the streets of Kabukicho, getting a look at the “information booths” (rather a disguise for girly clubs), pachinko parlours, capsule hotels, internet cafe hotels and japanese host clubs, the boys out on the street, with their perfectly coiffered hair trying to drum up business.
Interesting conversation anyone?
Kabukicho sure is an interesting place!  I’m so glad to have been able to get into its veins and see what makes it tick.
 
 
 
Now my final thing to try today is drinking Pokari Sweat.  Sounds disgusting right?  Well, I asked my guide tonight and apparently its just a kind of sports drink, so I track down a can and give it a go – the result?  Lemony.  Not a hint of sweat.  
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.

Just Me in Japan – Taking to the Shops in Tokyo

Monday 27 November 2012

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.

 
 

Isetan is a really expensive department store, Even their gloves start from about $50 a pair! But the main attraction Isetan holds is its basement level food paradise. You have never seen such a place! It’s a shame you aren’t allowed to take photos in there because it’s a sight to behold. There is wine, fresh fruit, fish, pickles, cakes, breads, sandwiches, gyoza/dumpling stores, pattiserie’s and ready made meals of all kinds. The apple I paid $7 for came from here, but it was double the size of the apples back home, and with not a blemish to be seen. And it tasted like heaven!  And they don’t just bung your goods in a bag and go ‘see ya later mate’.  They put anything delicate in a little box, with special little chiller bags are frozen and stay cold for up to 2 hours, along with an eating utensil and a napkin.  The Japanese know service and they do it so well.

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 wonder around the streets in the rain, really not having very much luck finding anything. I usually have no end of options when looking for things for Lola, but I just can’t find anything here!

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.


The light show, when I find it, isn’t really that impressive – obviously it’s much more impressive than any Christmas displays we have in Perth, but maybe it was the rain that made it seem less special.

Afterwards, I am still looking for that elusive sandwich, so I bite the bullet and head to Isetan’s food wonderland. I find the sandwich I eye off earlier and because of the miserable weather, decide to treat myself to a bottle of red and a spectacular looking nectarine dessert. Check this out! A right way to spend a miserable rainy night!
 
I sure hope that rain stops overnight cause I have a double-banger tour day lined up and it better not get cancelled!

 

Just Me in Japan – Tokyo Lights

Sunday 25 November 2012
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?



This is how fast the Shinkansen goes…
The trip takes about 2 hours via Shinkansen and this time I’m lucky enough to have a spare seat next to me so I don’t have to contort myself for the trip. Can I just say, that some Japanese girls spend an inordinate amount of time prepping themselves and looking at themselves in the mirror! Brushing and rebrushing their perfectly straight hair – it’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it!

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.



Welcome to Shinjuku
I’ve chosen to stay where I stayed last time I visited, at the Best Western Astina Shinjuku….in Kabukicho. Yes, I know it’s a red light district, and No I haven’t chosen this location for my love of naked karaoke. I just really liked the hotel last time and I wanted to feel comfortable that I would know my way around a bit, so Kabukicho is it (not to mention that I have since discovered Zara and Topshop are both about a 6 minute walk from the hotel, which absolutely sealed the deal!). Anyway, its apparently now rare to see Yakuza wandering through Kabukicho.  So no worries.

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.

This weekend at most of the shrines I have visited, there have been small children dressed in traditional robes, which I think is part of the 3-5-7 Shinto ritual to bless the children for good health, but it doesn’t always occur on the actual day, because people are so busy, they choose a date around the usual date?  Not sure – so don’t quote me on that – all I know is there’s lots of adorable looking little kiddies around!
 
There was also some kind of vegetable and fruit thing going on – not sure what that was all about, but check out this fruit and veg boat!
And there was also what looked like the remains of a chrysanthemum festival, which occur at various locations around Tokyo and Kyoto at this time of the year.  I thought these ones below were particularly stunning.
 
But I can’t find the cool kids, so I leave it for the day and spend some time shopping at Oriental Bazaar, Kiddyland, Mango and Zara. Despite thinking Kiddyland would be a one stop shop for all things doll-like (well it is if you like the bare-breasted manga type dolls), its the only one of the shops I come out of empty handed! Back to the drawing board for Miss Lola. I’ve got so many shopping bags, people are staring! I swear it’s only because I got a huge bag at Mango for a new winter coat that I bought – on sale of course.

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
So what to do with the afternoon. Well of course I need fruit, so it’s off to Isetan’s basement, which is basically a massive food fest of all sorts of fresh, baked and pre-prepared goods. I don’t think there’s anything you can’t buy here. I spend $20 on fruit – an apple, a small container of diced pineapple and a punnet of raspberries. Yes I can hear you – $20 for that! But you have never seen such awesome looking fruit as this! Truly! The apple itself is worth every penny of the $6 that I paid for it.

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…



Families enjoying the autumn leaves


The new greenhouse
 


From inside the greenhouse


Joy of joys – a late flowering cherry blossom

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.
The plan was to go to Roppongi to see the Christmas lights at Tokyo Midtown but I couldn’t (couldn’t be bothered) trying to work out how to get there without transferring trains.  I actually got on the train, and then turned around a couple of stops later, cause I was tired then, and started imaging trying to find my way out of the station when I was beyond the point of thinking (though I have noticed that it doesn’t seem quite so hard to find my way around as last time – I haven’t had to carry my suitcase so much either).  So I stuck to the lights of Shinjuku instead.
Dinner was at a little place of Yasakuni Dori, which pretty much specialised in wine and pasta.  My serving of Gorgonzola and Walnut Penne was tiny, which was probably a good thing, because it meant there was room left for a blueberry crepe at Crepes Marion, which looked good and tasted good for about the first 2 bites, but then it was all just too much!  Gotta do it though!
P.S – check out Shinjuku after dark (ie. that’s any time after 5.30pm!):
 
 
 
 
 

Surrounded by Sakura

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!

Shinkansen, Geisha & 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…