We finally made it to Tokyo! And we made the 350km trip in an hour and a half on the ‘Superexpress’ bullet train, which in itself was exciting. It was great that my brother James met us in Tokyo and is spending time on and off with us over the month.
The week before we left for Tokyo Andrew took a trip with his lab as a sort of team building experience. He went to Ise, which we’ve been to before but he got to stay in a fancy ocean front hotel and got served gourmet food (one dish of which was abalone–grilled alive ! Andrew took a video of it squirming away from the grill it’s on but I can’t put it on here it’s too cringemaking), got to sit naked in a clear water bath with his coworkers and then sing karaoke and play mahjong all night. Here is a photo of the traditional style Japanese room he stayed in with Tatami floor and where you sleep on the floor and everything is oriented very close to the floor.
It doesn’t get more Japanese than that! He also told me they found this little ice cream cart with all kinds of wild and crazy flavours of ice cream, one of which was onsen flavoured. I asked him if t tasted like a sweaty old man and he said sort of sweaty old man mixed with cedar. Anyway I think the trip did it’s job of bringing everyone a bit closer.
Our first stop in Tokyo was Asakusa temple:
This is Tokyo’s oldest temple. The legend goes that in the year 628, two brothers found a gold statue of the goddess of mercy in their fishing lines out on the Sumida River and even though they put the statue back in the river, it kept returning to them.
The temple (related to the Buddhist religion) is joined in the same complex as the shrine (related to the Shinto religion). Part of the process of visiting the shrine includes symbolic purification prior to approaching it. It’s hard for us not to look like huge amateurs but we did our best to look like we knew what we were doing.
A common thing to do at a temple is to read your fortune. Lots of people do this on New Years but since I never got a chance we decided to do it here. You shake this box and take out a stick with a symbol on it, then match the symbol to one of the drawers, and the fortune inside the drawer is yours!
We explained this all to James and he went first, to our surprise this was his fortune:
We were a bit shocked at the bluntness of this fortune! I knew it was possible to get a bad fortune but my friend had told me you just pick another fortune then (I guess people don’t loose too much sleep over a bad fortune!), but I didn’t realize how bad the fortune could actually be, especially considering in my experience Japanese tends to be very indirect and passive. The part about starting a trip being bad was a bit concerning for James but we just laughed it off.
Tokyo is really into observatory towers. They have the Tokyo tower, the newly built Sky Tree, a view from the top of the government buildings, as well as observatory decks at the top of multiple skyscrapers. We went to the viewpoint at Roppongi hills.
It was a clear day but still felt hazy. I was raving on and on about how clean Tokyo felt compared to New York and how much spacier it felt. It’s not really a fair comparison since NY is so much denser crammed on an island, whereas Tokyo sprawls an unbelievable amount. Not only was there no end of development in sight from the top of Roppongi hills, but when I took the train between Nagoya and Tokyo there was literally no ‘country’. There were buildings, houses, settlements, car-parks, warehouses, etc the entire way. Of course it was speckled with small plots of greenery, rice and tea fields, but there was no stretch of just unused space. Tokyo doesn’t reach all the way to Nagoya, I have no idea where they arbitrarily cut it off but it is the largest metropolitan area in the world. I stopped raving about its cleanliness when all of a sudden the wind picked up and everything turned into a dust storm. When we got home after a day of biking around we literally had black grit in our hair, ears and my skin felt coated with grime. It wasn’t pleasant.
We headed across the Rainbow bridge for an amazing sunset over the Tokyo Bay
One crazy area we spent time exploring was Akihabara, which is famous for electronic shops. From what we understood this was a place the showcased the latest in technology, top of the line stuff that we could explore. Instead it was more of a practical place to go if you needed computer parts or adapters or something. But meshed in with the electronic stores were giant gaming centres. We’ve seen these before but never so many all together and so big. Here are some shots of the street:
We went inside one of the multi-floored gaming centres and it was full of people playing games faster than I thought humanly possible. For those of you who know James you will relate to his Guitar-hero/Rock band skills which I would have said were pretty advanced. Well, in Japan he’s considered a beginner a think. Here was his attempt:
Here is what he was up against. I couldn’t believe these people were playing so fast. What’s crazier is we saw an old lady playing a similar game on her iphone at similar speeds on the train home.
Still searching for the alleged electronics mecca, we found the Sony building which had a show room that was actually pretty cool. Top of the line speakers and cameras and sound systems. We couldn’t resist trying out the virtual reality car
racing game. I actually felt car sick after.
Lights and chaos in this crazy city where you can go to a restaurant and watch robotrons fight (which we didn’t do), eat fresh sushi at the worlds biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world (which we did do!), get confused by the giant replica of the Lady Liberty in the Tokyo Bay, or order a drink of coke, tea and milk, served mixed up together and apparently called a delicacy. It’s a city with a lot of weird stuff, and this first trip was a great introduction to it’s different areas and we did a lot of milling around, but my next trip I want to make an effort to do as many obscure and weird things as possible.
Despite a million and one things left for us to explore in Tokyo we happily took the three hour flight to the main island of Okinawa Prefecture. There are a handful of outlying islands that look amazing to go to, secluded and pristine but alas we didn’t have time to do everything. We explored the main island which although is quite developed, has it’s fair share of beauty, isolation and nature. The people and culture in Okinawa is very different than Japan, and apparently their dialect is so different some people can’t understand them. Okinawa evolved as it’s own entity known as the Ryukyu Kingdom until 1879, playing a huge role in terms of maritime trade with surrounding countries. They developed their own mishmash of traditions and cuisine that are heavily influenced by the places they traded with. But I’ll save that for next time!