Exploring Tokyo

Today is our first full day in Tokyo, and with no big rush to be anywhere and with breakfast not included during this part of the stay, it was a bit more of a lazy morning to what we have been used to. We were still out ready to explore by 8:30am though, but by the time we got up the street Scott realised he was not going to make the day walking around with us, especially going up and down from subway stations. He therefore made the decision to do his own exploring closer to the hotel, and sent Denise and I on to explore on our own. After sorting out the purchase of a prepaid and reloadable public transport card, the first stop was Yoyogi park in Shibuya. With living space so tight in the city, parks are the places for club meetings and practice sessions and even play rehearsals, and Yoyogi draws all sorts of talent, from horn players to hip-hop dancers to rockabilly gangs, complete with poodle skirts and Elvis-inspired pompadours, who usually gather by the park’s east side entrance on Sundays to jam to American pop music from the ’50s. On Sundays you can also find the Gothic Lolitas and Cosplay kids, costumed fans of Japanese manga and anime characters, hanging out on the Harajuku bridge. Being a Monday however none of this was on offer, and the park was fairly quiet with only the occasional walker and children’s playgroups. There was many large trees forming what could basically be described as a mini forest, and walking tracks which make a nice escape for people from the city. Apparently there is also a little dog run where you can often see terriers decked out in rhinestones and denim or chihuahuas dressed like cheerleaders, however none of this was on offer either today. I will try to visit again next Sunday when it is supposedly lively, however I am due to depart the city for the Tokyo Bay on this day so I will see how I go.

Next stop was the Meiji Shrine adjoining Yoyogi park. Dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West, Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine is wonderfully serene and austere, not colorful or flashy like other Asian places of worship. The 40-foot-high (12-meter) torii gates at the entrances to the 200-acre park and closer to the shrine itself are made of 1,500-year-old cypress. Before entering the shrine there is a cleansing station where you can dip into a communal water tank and purify your hands and mouth before offering up a prayer. You can also write wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, or do as the locals do and toss some yen into the offering box then bow your head twice, clap twice, and bow once more. Sometimes on Sunday mornings you can also see a traditional wedding procession through the courtyard — the bride in a white kimono and hood and the groom in his formal black robe, walking together under a big red parasol, with Shinto priests leading the way and the rest of the wedding party trailing behind. Being a Monday again, no weddings in sight, but also being winter might play a part even if it were a sunday. There was however some small ceremony taking place with a large drum being played, however I have no photos of this as they were not permitted.

Jumping back on the train, we headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building (TMGO) in Shinjuku which boasts two towers and two free observation decks on the 45th floors. While waiting for the elevator to the top we were approached by a building volunteer who offered us a free english guided tour of the building with an introduction to some Tokyo history. We gratefully accepted his offer, and Denise and I were soon off exploring the building and its contents in areas we would not have dared wandering alone incase we were not supposed to be there. This included the public offices of city enquiries, government assembly, and the halls filled with pictures of some of Tokyo’s history. The tour ended on the observation deck of the south tower, which is apparently better than the north tower which we were originally lined up for. From the top we moved window to window with the city’s major buildings and highlights being pointed out, including Mt Fuji in the distance (about 100km away). It is only visible from Tokyo for 80 days a year, so we luckily had one of the right days. After a very informative hour with our guide we parted ways and Denise and I decided to find somewhere to sit and have a break. My earlier research had suggested the bar on the top floor of the Park Royal Hotel, a swanky and pricy New York style bar, is a great place for a drink with great views of Tokyo. This building is where the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ staring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray was filmed. Not knowing however whether it was open or even whether they even serve coffee, we still wandered over to check it out only to find it is only open of an evening. I might end up coming back and giving this one a go later if I am in the area.

In my Tokyo research I had read it would be a shame to come to Tokyo and not take a walk across the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station, so this was our next stop after another short train journey. On sunny afternoons or clear evenings the surrounding area is packed with shoppers, students, young couples and commuters. When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box. We were told by our tour guide earlier this is Tokyo’s busiest train station with about 3.2 million people passing through it each business day. Being early afternoon it was still quite busy, but not as busy as during morning and afternoon peak hours. After buying a coffee at Starbucks we had hoped to enjoy watching this chaos from the second floor viewing area, however it was quite crowded and had to enjoy it from a lower vantage point. After a lap of the adjoining streets which houses many boutiques and disposable fashion retailers, it was down into the station again to visit the Tokyu Food Show which is basically a large food hall containing cooked, gourmet and fresh foods. With many things on offer including things such as grilled eel and octopus on a stick, I settled with a pack of 12 dumplings which I shared with Denise.

Now being mid afternoon, we decided to make one more stop before heading back to the hotel and meeting up with Scott, so we headed to Roppongi Hills. The Roppongi Hills complex offers a garden, cinema, loads of shops, cafés and restaurants, observation tower, and art museum, however we were mainly interested in checking out a giant spider sculpture called Maman by an artist Louise Bourgeois. After a couple of a photos we wandered downstairs for another recommendation I had found being the Pintokona sushi bar. Even though we were not hungry, we thought we might stop for small plate to say we have done it. It is known as kaiten style, so you simply help yourself to the artfully arranged dishes as they roll by on the conveyer belt, or use the picture menu to let the chef know what you want. Upon arrival there was nobody in there at all, so the conveyer belt was empty with the exception of signs indicating what you could have the chef whip up. With this seeming like a very unexciting way of doing it, and with none of the dishes on offer taking our fancy, we decided to give it a miss and head for home.

Back at the hotel room we found Scott had been out wandering the neighborhood and had visited the nearby Asakusa, a really old temple complex in heart of Tokyo. This is something I will also have to do over my next week in Tokyo. After a bit of a sit around the room and with the sun started to fall, we headed back out into the nearby streets in search of some dinner. Not knowing where is good or what we even wanted, the easiest way for someone to get us in is to simply make an invitation and this is exactly what happened (I think they were wanting some business given nobody else was in there). We ordered a few dishes from their poorly translated English version of the menu, and within minutes the first one was on the table. The meal was good, however seemed more of a chinese restaurant rather than a japanese one. Back at the hotel the rest of the evening was spent trying to understand japanese tv, including some of their wacky game shows. I think they look like heaps on fun and would love to give one a go, with the only hurdle at the moment not being able to speak Japanese.