#54 Day 32: Tokyo, Japan

Thursday 27 April 2017

I woke up with a smile on my face (I was in JAPAN!) and enjoyed a relaxing lie-in, plus breakfast in bed. My trip to the supermarket had provided me with cereal, strawberries and a yoghurt, which I finished off with a nice cup of bush tea from my flask that I’d made the night before. Perfect! Before going to bed I had planned my day and my first port of call was the famous Shibuya crossing, rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world. All the lights turn red at the same time to allow people to cross, and it is said that at peak times over 1,000 people cross the crossing at any one time; definitely a sight not to be missed.

It’s quite hard to get a decent picture of the crossing because it is so big, but I’d read that a good view could be found from the Starbucks on the first floor of a shop on one of the corners. It was fascinating, first of all seeing all the vehicles going to and fro, then the road completely emptying and then when the lights changed watching people stream across the road around the four edges and the diagonals. I spent ages there, hypnotised by the ebb and flow, and enjoyed the sheer buzz of being in the middle of it. In the end I roused myself as I had other sights to see, and if I hadn’t have moved I’d have probably stayed there all day! Last time I was in Shibuya I’d visited Shibuya 109, a shopping mall that boasts over 100 boutique shops. I had hoped to buy some jeans and non-hiking clothes in Japan but this mall was not a place for bargains, one look at the price tags and I was reduced to window shopping once again … I was almost tempted by the shoe shop and the handbag shop but had to settle with taking pictures for my niece Emily, who loves that sort of thing.

I don’t think I’m a big city person, I prefer small quaint towns and the countryside, but Tokyo is an exception. I love it! The thing with Tokyo is that it has lots of different neighbourhoods (47 in total, with over 1,000 train stations), each with their own atmosphere and look and feel, providing exciting sights and sounds around every corner. For example, Shibuya is the major entertainment, dining and shopping district, Akhiabara specialises in electronics and Japanese popular culture, Ueno has colourful markets, museums and cultural attractions and a lovely park (where I spent a relaxing afternoon reading my book by the lake in 2008) and Asakusa (where I was staying this time round) which used to be a ‘pleasure district’ but is now a historical centre with temples and royokan – traditional Japanese Inns that haven’t changed since the 1600’s.

I decided to wander to my next destination as I feel that when you walk the streets you often see things you could miss when underground on the metro. My walk took me past Tower Records, where there was a great crowd of people outside all excited, obviously a celebrity had arrived. I took a quick snap and then a second later it was all over and the crowd dispersed. I walked past a radio station, the DJ’s sitting in a studio with one wall a plate glass window that looked out onto a street (it was called Shibuya Cross FM). Further on I saw two boys with a PA system rapping, and came across a cat café! I wanted to go in but I was almost where I wanted to go – the Meji Shrine.

This is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine, dedicated to the late 19th century Emperor Meji and his wife, Empress Shoken, located in a 200-acre park. It was a sunny and warmish day and as I was not in the UK my map reading skills led me there with no problems (see #15). Again, I had visited this shrine before but it was worth seeing a second time. Entering through the 40-foot-high torri entrance gate, reportedly made from 1,500-year-old cypress, I walked through shady paths to the second gate and the shrine.

This place is less touristy than other temples and there weren’t many people there, making the atmosphere peaceful and relaxing. I stood reading the petitions on the prayer wall (the ones written in English!), and showed my respects by following the local tradition of tossing some yen into the offering box, bowing my head twice, clapping twice and bowing once more. I’ve been to many different kinds of temples across the world and don’t usually adopt the local worshiping customs, because it is sometimes inappropriate if you’re not of that religion, but here it felt right. The origins of the Shinto religion date back to the 8th century, and in the present day Shinto shrines are devoted to the worship of a multitude of gods and people are encouraged to take part in local traditions no matter what religion they are.

Not usually one for superstition, I also bought my fortune: “47. GOOD FORTUNE. Nothing goes the way you would like at first, but if you work hard perseveringly, you will receive the blessing of the Divine and a good fortune you had never imagined will be yours.”. This could be true of anything, but it summed up this trip perfectly. I had worked really hard to plan everything and so far it has been much more wonderful than I could have ever imagined.

With an inner glow I walked to Shinjuku, my last destination of the day. I am a big Jackie Chan fan and a particular film called The Shinjuku Incident had stayed in my imagination and I decided I wanted to go there for no other reason than that! I also needed to activate my Japan Rail pass, which could be done at any main Japan Rail (JR) station. I found the JR office and booked my seat on the 12.03 bullet train to Kyoto for the following morning. Seeing the big shopping malls and entertainment complexes around the station I was minded to go to the cinema as Fast & Furious 8 had been released. A friend and I compete with each other who can see the latest film first and I didn’t want to be out of the running. The Tourist Information office was also in the train station building and I found out that there were two cinemas that showed films in English in the vicinity.

The problem was that it was already late afternoon and I’d bought enough food for my evening meal at the hotel so it wouldn’t make sense to eat out, and I needed to sort out my kit and repack my rucksacks in preparation for the move to Kyoto. I had wanted to go to the Tokyo Tower as on a clear day it is possible to see Mt Fuji. At 333m high it is the world’s tallest, self-supported steel tower and 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. It was the country’s tallest structure when it was completed in 1958, and remained so until 2012 when it was surpassed by the Tokyo Skytree.

The Tokyo Tower was in the centre of Tokyo though, and a bit of a journey. I was also tempted by the Tokyo Skytree, which I could see from my hotel in Asakusa (see #53), but last night I had read that you can visit the Toyko Metropolitan Government Building (in Shinjuku) where it was free to go to the observatory floor of each of the two towers and look out over the city. It was a fairly short walk from the station and I got there just after 5pm. Even though the observatory at 202m was not as high as the Tokyo Tower or Skytree, it was impressive to look out over the vastness of the city and see the various landmarks.

It was dark by the time I made it home. I wanted to stay longer but consoled myself with the fact that I’d have another day in Tokyo after the monastery. I went to sleep thinking about the exciting things I could do on my return …

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