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Arriving in Tokyo, jet-lagged and with senses overloaded

Japan day one


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Tokyo, city of contrasts

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Tea house, Hamarikyu

Here, ancient meets modern. A tranquil garden with a traditional teahouse provides a haven among towering skyscrapers. Girls in kimono tour ancient shrines while others don cute or kitsch cosplay outfits to shop in the trendiest boutiques. Shops sell exquisite crafts and the very latest in electronic gadgets. And there are people everywhere ...

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Visitors to Senso-ji, Asakusa

Tokyo is an enormous city, a true metropolis, and its scale can be daunting. Where to go, what to see in a limited time, and how best to get around?

The solution, I think, is to slow down (hard when all around you are rushing), choose a few areas to focus on, and not beat yourself up about everything else that you have no time to see. And make sure you build in downtime – a pause to sit, look around you and take in the sounds, scents and sensations of this at times overwhelming experience of a city.

We started and ended our Japanese holiday here. For the first few days we were in Asakusa – relatively quiet, almost suburban in places, with the beautiful Senso-ji Temple at its heart. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. Although much of it had to be rebuilt following the World War Two air raids, it exudes history and, despite the crowds, a strong sense of the enduring faith that provides a stable background amid the frenzy of modern Japan.

London to Tokyo

We flew to Tokyo with British Airways on a direct flight from London Heathrow to Narita. The flight took 11.5 hours. That's a long while to be shut up in a tin box!

I'm useless at sleeping on planes and inevitably the time dragged, but the in-flight service was fine and the food served (dinner soon after boarding, breakfast before landing) also fine, if unremarkable.

The biggest challenge with this journey is the crossing of time zones. Tokyo is nine hours ahead of GMT, although ‘just’ eight hours ahead of London's British Summer Time when we travelled in early October. The timing of our flight meant that we landed a couple of hours after we would normally have gone to bed, to find Tokyo wide awake and ready to start a new day.

Luckily we found Narita Airport easy to navigate. The queues at immigration weren't too bad, our luggage arrived promptly, and we were soon through customs and searching for the counter where we were to pick up our pre-ordered wifi hub, before heading into the city. The holiday had begun!

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Subway platform at Narita

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Warning sign on the subway platform

To get to Asakusa we took the Kasei Line. We had already been supplied with preloaded Manaca cards, and with directions on the route to take. We followed the orange signs to platform 3 where we had about a 20 minute wait for the next through train to Asakusa. It arrived bang on time!

The journey took about 55 minutes. The first part was through an agricultural landscape (mainly paddy fields) before we entered the Tokyo suburbs. We had views of the Skytree on the left at one point.

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View from the train into the city

At Asakusa we decided that rather than make the 10 minute walk (with suitcases) to our hotel we would change to the orange Ginza line and travel one stop to Tarawamachi station which was quite a bit nearer - although the extra stairs involved in the change of train may have been no better than the walk as it turned out. But we made it OK and found the train to have been an efficient way to reach the hotel, given its location.

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In the Café Sunset

Unfortunately for weary travellers however, the hotel (one of the Toyoko Inn chain) had a check-in time of 16.00 so when we arrived late morning we could do little more than leave our bags and head out again to start sight-seeing. Looking for coffee to help us stay awake after our long overnight flight we came across a small cheerfully decorated cafe not far from the hotel, the Café Sunset.

The first sight that greeted us on entering was a model train set (in fact there are two here) and the second sight was the smiling owner with a helpful English coffee menu in his hand. I was warm from the journey so had an iced caffe latte, and Chris had a cappuccino. The drinks were nice and strong and were served with a small biscuit - just what we needed to revive us.

A little refreshed we felt able to get out and see some sights, starting with the nearby Senso-ji Temple. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. We had a fascinating couple of hours of wandering here and in the vicinity, despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with an eleven hour overnight flight plus eight hours’ worth of jet-lag!

Senso-ji

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Hozomon, Senso-ji

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Fishing the Kannon from the river

Senso-ji was founded in the 7th century and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the Sumida River right by this spot. The sacred statue is apparently still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes, but never displayed.

The approach to the temple is an experience itself. You enter through the huge Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate. Unfortunately for us, this was under renovation when we visited and largely obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, so I didn’t get a good look or a chance to take photos of it. The gate was originally built in 942 in a different location south of Asakusa in Komagata and was moved here during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). It has been destroyed numerous times, most recently by fire in 1865. It was only 95 years later that it was finally reconstructed by Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic (who are now sponsoring the renovation work, I noticed).

The gate is guarded on each side by fierce statues of the guardian gods Raijin (the god of thunder) and Fujin (the god of wind), and has a massive red lantern hanging above the entrance. The gods are there to guard the temple and people would pray to them to protect it against natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and fire. Over time however people came to pray for their own needs too – a bountiful harvest, good health and for peace in the world.

From here you proceed along a street lined with shops, Nakamise Dori. Nakamise means ‘inside shops’ and I assume the street takes its name from the fact that the stalls are inside the temple grounds. There have been vendors selling their wares here since the late 17th century, and many of the stalls have been owned by the same family for generations. But just because you’re inside a temple’s precincts, don’t expect the items on sale to have any religious significance. This is consumerism living side by side with worship in a way that everyone seems comfortable with here, perhaps because religious practice seems so integrated with daily life.

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Nakamise Dori

So the stalls sell a range of items that just shout ‘you're in Japan’! Super-cute dolls, lucky cats, fans of all descriptions, hair ornaments, cheap polyester kimonos, parasols, chopsticks ... Nothing is very expensive and some of it looks as cheap as it costs, but there are also plenty of eminently purchasable souvenirs and, on our very first day in the country, I had to resist the temptation to buy!

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Stalls on Nakamise Dori

There are also some stalls selling edible treats at very reasonable prices. We snacked on some soy bean jam buns (one with pork which was good, one with sweet potato which was less so, being a little too sweet for my taste) which cost just 170¥ each, bought from some very friendly ladies.

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The soy bean jam bun stall

From here we arrived at another gate, Hozomon, the Treasury Gate. This also has its ferocious guardian gods and red lantern, and on its far (northern) side, a pair of huge straw sandals (O-Waraji) which should be taken as belonging to one of these gods, showing their great size. A sign on the gate explains:

‘This pair of huge straw sandals called O-Waraji had been made by 800 citizens of Murayama City in a month and devoted to Senso-ji. O-Waraji is made of straw and 2500 kilograms in weight, 4.5 metres high. They are the charm against evils because they are symbolic of the power of Ni-Ou. Wishing for being goodwalkers, many people will touch this O-Waraji.’

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Hozomon, and one of the giant sandals

At the top of the gate are storerooms, complete with modern disaster-prevention equipment, to hold Senso-ji's treasures and Buddhist objects.

Hozomon, like Kaminarimon, is thought to date from 942, and also like Kaminarimon has been destroyed many times by fire and rebuilt. The current design reflects its 1649 incarnation which had stood for 250 years until being burned down again in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two. This version is an exact copy of that, and very impressive.

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Five Storied Pagoda

As you pass through Hozomon you will see the Five Storied Pagoda to your left. This, like other buildings in the complex, dates originally from 942 but has been many times destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Most recently, fires from the World War Two Tokyo air raids raised it to the ground, and it was rebuilt through donations made by faithful Buddhists from all over the country. In 1973, the pagoda was further restored to include additional facilities such as a room for mortuary tablets. Relics of the Buddha are kept on the top floor.

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Burning incense at Senso-Ji

In the area in front of the main shrine you’ll see a large incense burner. This is where worshippers ‘wash’ themselves in the smoke to ward off or help cure illness. Either side of this are the fortune telling drawers. For 100¥ you can shake one of the wooden boxes until a bamboo stick slides out of the hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on the set of drawers. You then take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer of that number. I had read that the English translations were pretty obtuse so we didn’t try our fortune. In any case, if you don't like the fortune you get, you can conveniently cancel it out it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose nearby!

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Fortune telling at Senso-Ji

Beyond the fortune telling are some stalls selling prayer cards and amulets. And then you arrive at the shrine itself, Kannondo Hall. This too is a 1950s reconstruction of an older building lost in the March 1945 Tokyo air raids. Though it mirrors the original style, the current building features a solid reinforced concrete structure with titanium roof tiles – the Japanese are rightly taking no more chances.

According to legend, the hall was originally built in 628 to house the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. At the heart of the inner shrine or naijin is the gokuden which houses this statue, or so the believers say – it is never ever seen and cynics might question its existence. It also houses a duplicate statue and this is seen on occasion – once a year to be accurate, on December 13 when it is taken out for public viewing. Either side of the gokuden are the Buddhist protector deities Bonten and Taishakuten. You can’t enter this inner shrine but you can approach to view it through a grille, taking off your shoes to do so. I couldn’t see any signs prohibiting photography so I took one, respectful, picture.

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Main shrine, Senso-Ji

You can easily spend quite some time wandering around the grounds of Senso-ji, as we did, as there is so much to see here. To the north east of the main shrine is another, known as the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians). Unlike Senso-ji, which is a Buddhist temple, this one is Shinto and their proximity to each other mirrors the way in which these two religions coexist peacefully in Japan and often interact. In this case, the Shinto shrine serves as protection for the Buddhist temple.

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Asakusa Jinja, Senso-ji

It was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon in the Sumida River, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, and to their village chief, Hajino Nakatomo. According to the story of the discovery, it was the latter who realised the importance of the statue and who built the first temple on this site to house it. The three men seen as the founders of Senso-ji and indeed of Asakusa are themselves now worshipped here. The shrine is built in the architectural style known as Gongen-zukuri, which we were to see two weeks later in Nikko at the Toshogu Shrine. This is one of the few original structures in the complex, having survived the numerous fires and the air raids of World War Two.

Near here is the Nitenmon gate, named for the two Buddhist deities (known as ten) that flank it. Like the Jinja Shrine, this gate is an original structure. It dates from 1618 although the deities are a more recent replacement for two that were desecrated in the late 19th century when Buddhism and Shintoism did not live so harmoniously together. The present statues were taken from the grave of Tokugwa Ietsuna, the fourth Edo shogun at Ueno Park. For some reason I seem to have omitted to take any photos of this gate – possibly because it started raining as we reached this point in our explorations.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Meanwhile to the west of the main temple is a lovely garden area with some smaller shrines, statues of the Buddha, attractive planting and a stream with some large carp. There are a number of quiet corners and great photo opportunities. We spent some time relaxing on a bench here, still fighting sleepiness and jet-lag.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Chingodo Temple

After leaving Senso-ji we explored some of the surrounding streets, soaking up the atmosphere.

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In Asakusa

We came across a tranquil tucked-away shrine devoted to the deity Otanuki-sama, the Chingodo Temple. Tanuki means raccoon-dog and the deity is thought to protect people and their homes from disasters such as fire and theft and is also, according to a sign I saw here, a god of ‘the art of public entertainment’.

Also here is a statue of Mizuko Jizo, the Buddhist monk guardian of aborted and prematurely dead children. Mizuko Jizō is often depicted as a staff-wielding monk with children in his arms or, as here, under his robe. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.

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Mizuko Jizo statues, Chingodo shrine

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The children at the Chingodo shrine

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Water fountain at Chingodo

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The Toyoko Inn Asakusa

By now it was late enough to check into our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, and we were weary enough to need a rest, so we headed back there to relax for a while before dinner. We got a friendly welcome, some soft drinks and toiletries as ‘gifts’ (including a gel that claimed to be able turn my ‘ugly body’ into one fit to be seen at celeb parties - yes, really!) and even the offer of a sterilised nightgown! Our 10th floor room was on the small side (as is common in Japan), but had no view other than of the wall of the next-door building. It was dominated by a large, comfortable bed, and we had everything else we needed for our stay too, including a bathroom with shower, washbasin and fancy Japanese toilet (heated seat, spray washes etc). There was a mini-bar, TV, hair dryer, kettle for tea-making and even slippers.

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Compact bedroom at the Toyoko Inn

As we were so tired we didn't want to venture far from our hotel that evening, so found a small restaurant on Kokusai Dori a block or so north of Tarawamachi Station. We had no idea what the name was as the sign was in Japanese only, but they did have an English menu and various set dinner options, which made choosing easier. Service was friendly, and although, as the only non-Japanese in there, we caused a small stir on entering, we felt comfortable and welcomed dining here. There is both western-style and traditional seating; the latter was all taken by a group of what I took to be local businessmen, and we were offered a choice of the one free table or eating at the counter, and chose the former.

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Futuwama

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Tempura set at Futuwama

We both had tempura meals which came with miso soup, rice, sauce for dipping the tempura, pickles and a small salad. We liked the tempura and the dipping sauce but I found the miso soup saltier than I am used to (and I like salt!) and Chris didn't take to it much at all. This was our first meal in Japan so hard to judge at the time, but looking back later in the trip we both agreed it was probably the least good meal we had. A shame, but possibly our tiredness had contributed to that impression, and at least it was good value and convenient for our hotel, so we could tumble gratefully into bed soon afterwards!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:22 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan culture temple hotel restaurants city shrine customs street_photography Comments (6)

First full day in Tokyo

Japan day two


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Exploring the city

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On a festival float at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

On our first full day in Tokyo we woke early, excited to get out and explore, although no doubt our jet lag would have been helped by sleeping a little longer. We ate breakfast in the hotel; it was served in the lobby area and consisted of a small but adequate buffet of mainly Japanese items (miso soup, rice) but also small pastries and slices of cake and decent coffee which we supplemented with juice from the inevitable vending machine.

Leaving the hotel we walked south to Kuramae station on the Toei Oedo line which would take us directly to Ryoguku subway station, just one minute walk from our destination.

Edo Tokyo Museum

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Museum entrance

This modern museum, which opened in 1993 in a rather striking building, is devoted to the history of Tokyo from the Edo Period which started at the end of the 16th century) to the post World War Two reconstruction and recovery. Displays include original artefacts, models and large-scale reconstructions. Despite suffering from considerable jet-lag that day (the worst I have experienced) I still found it absolutely fascinating – one of the best museums I have visited anywhere!

We bought our tickets on the 3rd floor concourse and took the striking red escalator up to the 6th floor where visits to the permanent exhibits begin. From our first arrival in the main exhibition area, with its replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge which you cross to reach the first Edo period displays, I could tell that I was in a museum that takes pride not only in its collections but in their presentation and curation. This early 19th century bridge was the gateway from Edo to such places as Kyoto (to the west) and Nikko (to the north). The original was 51 metres in length of and 8 metres wide. This replica is of the same width as the original but half its length.

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The replica Nihonbashi Bridge

As we crossed the bridge we could see below us the replica Kabuki Theatre, or rather the entryway into the Nakamuraza Playhouse where Kabuki Theatre was often performed. On this occasion some museum staff were busy setting up some musical instruments here so we lingered on the bridge and eventually were able to hear the start of a lovely performance on the koto (a traditional Japanese instrument) and some kind of flute. I made a short video of the koto player while we watched, and later the music followed us as we started to explore the rest of the exhibits in the Edo zone.

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Part of the playhouse

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The koto player

Koto performance

These included some very good models of Edo period buildings, both town houses and rich Samurai homes; a row of replica town houses from various periods; a fascinating display about wood-block printing (showing how each differently coloured layer of the image is built up one by one); and lots of artefacts from the time.

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Model of a street in the Edo period, with town houses

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Another Edo period street model

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Samurai mansion from the mid 17th century

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Replica of a print shop

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Replica of a print shop

The Tokyo zone which portrays the city’s more recent history is also very well done, although by the time we reached it jet-lag was kicking in and my body was screaming at me that it was now 2.00 am and I really should be in bed and asleep! Nevertheless, I was interested to see how European influences gradually crept into building design and shocked to see the devastation caused by the Tokyo fire bomb raids of World War Two. I was in this area when a guide was giving some American tourists a tour and I stopped to eavesdrop on what he was telling them – apparently more people died in these raids and in the fires they caused than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a result of the atom bombs – horrific. More positively, a small section near the end describes how Tokyo recovered and rebuilt, and how Japan as a whole embraced a technological revolution that led to its current strong position in the world economy.

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My coffee set

Once we had seen as much as we could take in we went back to the ground floor and got coffee and a bite to eat in the coffee shop there – a coffee plus a cake 'set' for 650¥. I chose ice cream with rice dumplings and a sweet bean sauce, and Chris had pancakes with chestnut puree. This revived us and we were ready to tackle some more sightseeing.

Sky Tree Town and Sky Tree

I had wanted to go up the Sky Tree as soon as I read about it when researching our trip, and had planned to do so this afternoon, but the light rain that had been falling all morning was becoming more persistent and any chance of views from the top seemed remote. But we decided to head over in that direction in any case, optimistic that the clouds might lift. We were becoming more familiar with the subway system so the short but slightly more complex (two changes) journey to Oshiage station was easily accomplished, but we emerged from the station to find that the top of the tower so lost in the clouds that visibility would have been close to zero.

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Sky Tree

So we had to content ourselves with snatching glimpses from below, and with exploring the bustling modern shopping centre that sits at its foot, Sky Tree Town or in Japanese, Solamachi. This apparently has over 300 shops and restaurants, and I can believe that! On this Saturday afternoon it was packed with locals, mostly young, and was a fascinating place to watch young Tokyo at play.

We didn’t shop but we did enjoy seeing the range of goods available and the different displays. We were struck by how cutesy much of the clothing and the accessories were – we’re used to seeing Hello Kitty at home, but she looks positively sophisticated next to some other Japanese trends! There are also a lot of food shops and we were offered some free samples as we browsed.

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Chocolate cake in 100% Chocolate

We stopped off for refreshments at the appealingly-named 100% Chocolate cafė, where I had an excellent iced mocha and Chris a regular coffee and small chocolate cake. The cafė also sells tablets of its own chocolate in a wide range of flavours (56 of them to be precise). I was tempted - but buying chocolate gifts so early in our trip seemed a bit impractical (they would never have made it home!)

Soon after this it was time to head back to the hotel; our Essential Honshu tour was to start officially that evening and we were meeting up with our tour leader and travelling companions for a briefing and to go out for dinner.

Meeting the group

The group briefing took place in the lobby of our hotel, where we had eaten breakfast. By now my jet-lag had subsided and I was able to enjoy meeting everyone and hearing a bit more about the plans for the next couple of weeks from Andrew, our tour leader. There were also some practical details to attend to – he needed copies of our insurance documents and also took our passports as he had offered to go to collect our JR Passes the next afternoon, leaving us more time for sightseeing.

Andrew was to prove an excellent tour leader. An American, he had lived and worked in Japan for quite a few years – initially in a Japanese company and more recently for Inside Japan. This gave him great insights into the culture while ensuring that he understood what we would find most puzzling and/or intriguing. He was also good company and very flexible – happy to lead people around but not at all bothered if anyone preferred to go off and do their own thing, and full of helpful advice to assist us in planning our individual explorations.

After this initial meeting he invited us to join him for dinner, and nine out of our group of thirteen accepted. While this meal wasn’t included in the tour price, it seemed to us a good idea to benefit from his local knowledge and also use the time to get to know our travelling companions a little better, so we were among that nine.

Andrew proposed one of his local favourite spots for dinner, one of the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) on Kaminarimon Dori, about ten minutes’ walk from the hotel. On arrival we all removed our shoes and put them into the lockers provided. We had a large group table on the third floor with semi-traditional sunken seating (much easier for Westerners than sitting on the floor!)

Andrew suggested a selection of dishes and as we were all still pretty new to Japanese food we were happy to go with his ideas. A good decision, as everything he picked was very tasty, including spicy udon noodles, delicious pork dumplings with hot sauce to dip them in, and chicken minced and formed around cheese on skewers. Most of us had dessert - I chose the ‘citrus sherbet’ (sort of like a lemon sorbet) and Chris had a really good chocolate fondant. We both drank draft beer (Santory) which was very good too. The whole meal, with the drinks, was excellent value, and we had a great evening out with our new friends.

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In Watami

Our tour had officially begun and the next day we would explore more of Tokyo together ...

Posted by ToonSarah 04:01 Tagged tokyo japan history restaurants city museum music Comments (7)

Seeing more of the city

Japan day three


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

We spent the following day in Tokyo exploring in part with our Inside Japan group and in part on our own, setting the pattern for the rest of this very flexible tour. Most of us left the hotel together after breakfast and walked with Andrew in the direction of the Senso-ji Temple which Chris and I had already visited on our first afternoon in the city. We were happy to return however, as on that occasion our weariness from the journey had meant that we had missed seeing, and photographing, some parts, including the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians).

It was interesting too, to hear Andrew’s commentary on the sights. While the role of tour leader on an Inside Japan tour is rather different from that of guide (you are warned that he/she is there to help with logistics rather than provide detailed information on history etc.), having lived in Tokyo for some time he was very familiar with the temple and could tell us quite a bit about it to supplement our own reading. It was he who told me, for instance, about the practice of tying an unappealing fortune to a frame to cancel it out!

The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

From the temple we walked east towards the Sumida River. Here we had a good view of the Asahi Flame. Apparently the building it sits on was designed to look like a beer glass, as it is one of a small complex housing the headquarters of the Asahi Breweries. But very few people look at the building itself as the eye is inevitably drawn to the structure on its top. The Asahi Flame is said to represent both the ‘burning heart of Asahi beer’ and the frothy head to be found on a glass of it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if the company was looking to get noticed and talked about!), the thing that most people consider it resembles is rather more prosaic. Hence its nickname, ‘the golden turd’ or kin no unko!

The flame is hollow but still manages to weigh 360 tonnes. It was designed by the prominent French designer, Philippe Stark, and apparently made using submarine construction techniques. I read somewhere that it was originally intended to stand upright but that this proved impossible to achieve; that may be an urban myth, however, as I haven’t been able to find it substantiated anywhere. Whatever the truth of it, it certainly can’t fail to attract attention and must be one of the most photographed modern buildings in this part of the city.

The building to its left, by the way, is meant to resemble a giant beer jug complete with a foam shaped white roof. I’m not sure it achieves that, but at least it doesn’t remind me of anything else! The complex is built on the site where Asahi started brewing beer over 100 years ago, and although we didn’t go any closer than these photos suggest, you can visit bars and restaurants here to enjoy some of that beer.

Sumida River cruise

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Sumida River boat

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On the Sumida River
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Tokyo Tower seen from the boat

Reaching the river we boarded a boat for a short ‘cruise’ to Hamarikyu Gardens. The ride took about 45 minutes to journey down river. As we travelled we had a commentary in both Japanese and English which seemed mainly to be about the various bridges we passed under (12 of the 26 in total that span this river in the city), but as the volume was set quite low on the English version and there was lots of chatter on the nearly full boat, I may have missed some bits.

We didn’t see much in the way of views of famous landmarks and historic sights on this trip, apart from a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower through the haze, but it was interesting to observe life beside the river. There were some modern apartment complexes and some nicely landscaped green areas where people were jogging or simply relaxing (it was a Sunday morning). Just before arriving at Hamarikyu there was one other famous sight, the Tokyo Fish Market, although this was silent and inactive by the time we sailed past (mid-morning). We then turned into an inlet to moor at the gardens’ dedicated pier.

Hamarikyu Gardens

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

I was really pleased that on our first morning of the tour we were able to visit these traditional Japanese gardens in the heart of modern Tokyo. The gardens were originally built as part of the Tokyo residence of the Tokugawa Shogun during the Edo Period (1603-1867). They are of the ‘strolling gardens’ style – large gardens with ponds, islands and artificial hills that could be enjoyed from a variety of viewpoints along a circular trail. They were first laid out in 1654 by the brother of the fourth shogun who had part of the Sumida River shallows filled in and built a residence on the land thus reclaimed, with strolling gardens and duck hunting grounds by the river. Over time various shoguns made changes and developed the garden, and it was finally finished under the 11th and has remained more or less the same since then. After the Meiji Revolution the residence became a so-called Detached Palace for the Imperial family. It and the gardens were badly damaged in the air raids of World War Two and after the war the gardens were given to the people of Tokyo and reconstructed, opening to the public in 1952.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

So today the gardens retain much of their original appearance despite serving more as city centre park than anything else. For instance, there are several reconstructed duck hunting blinds and you can still see the remains of an old moat. There is even a ‘duck grave’ created in 1935 to console the spirits of the ducks that were once killed here.

One style often employed in these traditional gardens was known as ‘borrowed scenery’; in this, surrounding scenery was incorporated into a garden’s composition. Of course today the surrounding scenery is of city skyscrapers but for me the contrast they create only served to emphasise the tranquillity of this green haven.

As I explored I found it hard to believe that every hill here is artificial – it all looks very natural. The pool at the centre of the gardens is an obvious focal point and is very pretty, with some traditional looking bridges, lovely trees and a teahouse on a small island.

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Nakajima Teahouse

This is the Nakajima Teahouse, and as we didn’t get to attend a full tea ceremony while in Japan, I was pleased that we had the chance to drink tea here. Our visit included many of the main elements of a traditional ceremony – the formal offering of the tea (though the preparation was done elsewhere), the style of the utensils, the accompanying sweetmeats and the detailed instructions on how to drink our tea.

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In the tea house

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a very prescribed ritual for the ceremonial preparation and offering to guests of matcha, or powdered green tea. It has its origins in Chinese traditions and in Zen thinking. There is a specific order to the events, and responsibilities for both host and guests to follow the particular actions laid down by tradition, from arrival, through the preparation and drinking of the tea, and the clearing away of the (often very precious) utensils.

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Matcha and sweets

For us, drinking matcha here, there were only a few suggested rules. These involved eating the sweets before drinking the tea, as the sweetness is intended to counteract the bitterness of the tea (I’m afraid I disobeyed and ate part before, part after); and holding the bowl in a particular fashion, turning it a quarter turn before drinking. This latter custom relates to the sharing of a single bowl in some parts of a traditional ceremony I believe.

Matcha is rather different to regular green tea and is something of an acquired taste I suspect. For me it was a bit like I imagine drinking grass would be, were that possible! It was certainly interesting to try it, and the traditional setting and sense of occasion made for a great experience which I can certainly recommend even if you aren't too keen on the drink itself.

Elsewhere in the gardens one of my favourite spots was on the north side where a large area is devoted to a sort of wild flower meadow, the Flower Field, which changes with the seasons. When we were there in early October it was the turn of the autumn planting of cosmos – beautiful!

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The Flower Field, and statue of Umashimadenomikoto

Umashimadenomikoto was the god of war. According to a sign next to the statue, it won a contest organised by the former Ministry of War to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Meiji in 1894.

Other features include a peony garden and wisteria trellises (sadly we were here too late in the year for these), a 300 year old pine that has needed to be considerably propped up (said to have been planted by the sixth Shogun in the 17th century and apparently the biggest pine tree in Tokyo), and several pavilions. I loved my time taking photos here and could happily have spent longer, were there not so much more to be seen in this amazing city!

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300 year old pine

Shiodome

After our relaxing time in the Hamarikyu Gardens we emerged on to the busy streets of the Shiodome area of the city. It was a Sunday however, so while there was a lot of passing traffic, the precincts around the skyscrapers were for the most part eerily quiet – very much like visiting the City of London on a Sunday, I thought.

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In Shiodome

Shiodome is a very recent development (2002) and it shows. The glitzy modern towers accommodate offices, shops, cafés, restaurants, etc. etc. They are separated by elevated walkways and footbridges that allow pedestrians to stroll undisturbed by city traffic. It is all slightly reminiscent of Blade Runner. But Shiodome wasn’t always like this, naturally. The clue is in the name – Shiodome literally means ‘halt the tides’. This was at one time a tidal marshland which separated the Imperial Palace from Tokyo Bay. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) the marshes were dried out and developed into residential land for feudal lords. Later this became the site of Shimbashi Station, the Tokyo terminus of Japan's first railway line. When the railway tracks were later extended to Tokyo Station, Shimbashi was moved to its current location a little to the west, and the Shiodome area was converted into a freight yard. It remained like this into the 1980s when the yard was demolished to clear the site for the development we see today.

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Plastic pub food

We only passed through the area on our way to Shimbashi Station, but there was time to stop for photos and to get a bit of a sense of what was here. Some of the bars and restaurants looked good and seemed popular as a Sunday lunch destination with locals. I spotted a very incongruous-looking bar that styled itself a Victorian pub, the Rose and Crown, but which could not have looked less Victorian, or less English – at the foot of a modern skyscraper block and with a typically Japanese display of plastic food to tempt you into its equally plastic interior!

One sight worth looking out for here is the amazing clock on the side of the Nippon Television Tower. Its official name is the ‘NI-TELE Really BIG Clock’ (yes, really!) and it was created by a famous manga artist and anime director Hayao Miyazaki over a period of four years.

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The NI-TELE Really BIG Clock

Its design reflects his enthusiasm for what is known as ‘steampunk’, a term coined in April 1987 by the American writer Kevin Wayne Jeter. He defined it as a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history and speculative fiction characterized by worlds which use all kind of steam-powered machines, from trains to airplanes and even computers. In addition to steampunk stories and movies, fans of the genre have created real-life steampunk objects, some of them totally functional, and this is apparently one of the best-known examples, though I had never heard of any of this when I was brought up short by the sight as we passed by. The clock is made mainly of copper and lives up to its ‘Really BIG’ name, being ten metres tall and 18 wide. At certain times of day its 32 mechanical scenes come to life – the various human-like robot figures spin wheels, turn levers, work the smithy and perform other operations. But unfortunately, our timing was wrong for seeing this all happen, so I can only go by what I have since read when I say it must be quite a sight. If you want to time your visit better than we did, the ‘show’ happens at 12:00, 15:00, 18:00 and 20:00 every day of the week, with an additional performance at 10:00 on a Saturday and Sunday. The show starts 3 minutes and 45 seconds before each hour so get there a bit early!

From Shimbashi station we took the subway to Harajuku on the JR Yamanote line. Here our group split up, with Andrew going off to collect our JR Passes for tomorrow, when we would be leaving Tokyo to start our journey around Honshu Island, and the rest of us fanning out to explore on our own or in smaller groups.

Takeshita Dori

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Entrance to Takeshita Dori

Harajuku is known as a focal point for some of Japan's most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, and Takeshita Dori is the epitome of this. Its narrow pedestrians-only (thankfully!) length is lined with uber-trendy clothes shops interspersed with the kind of refreshment stops likely to appeal to its mainly teenage market. This is a great place to come, and in particular on a Sunday, if you want to see Tokyo’s youth at play.

The most eccentric and colourful fashions will be those of the so-called ‘cosplay’ aficionados, cosplay being short for costume play, in which fans of animė, manga etc. dress in the costumes of favourite characters. While this started as a practice for fan conventions and similar gatherings, today it has extended into life on the streets and the range of costumes widened. As well as these costumes you’re likely to see Goth, punk and many other styles – often several combined in the one outfit! And the shop windows of course display fashions in the same vein. I wasn’t surprised to read later that Lady Gaga apparently shops in at least one of these!

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On Takeshita Dori

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Shop window, Takeshita Dori

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A face in the crowd, Takeshita Dori

Chris and I squeezed ourselves into the crush of people walking along Takeshita Dori and wove our way between them. The shops here are mainly independent ones, clearly targeted at the young people who flock here to shop for cute accessories and the latest fashions, but there are one or two chains among them, including 7-Eleven and McDonalds for refreshment breaks. We wanted something more Japanese than the latter so, despite feeling a little out of place in this youthful crowd, decided on lunch at the Caffe Solare which had both Western and Japanese light meals (I had a great toasted sandwich with avocado and cheese – so not so Japanese after all maybe!) We managed to get a table by an upstairs window which gave us a great vantage point from which to watch the passing crowds.

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Shopping on Takeshita Dori

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In the Caffe Solare

After lunch we walked a little further down the street and grabbed some more photos. But we are clearly not in the target market for these shops, so relatively soon we retraced our steps and crossed the road by Harajuku station to enter Yoyogi Park.

Meiji Jingu

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Meiji Jingu: torii gate

The main draw in Yoyogi Park is the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. It was originally built between 1915 and 1921 but was destroyed in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two, so what we see today is the 1950s reconstruction.

Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867 as the first emperor of modern Japan. His accession brought an end to the feudal shogun era and ushered in a period known as the Meiji Restoration, during which Japan modernised and westernised herself to join the world's major powers. This shrine celebrates that achievement so is a significant place in the country’s history and sense of itself.

The shrine is surrounded by an evergreen forest that consists of 120,000 trees of 365 different species, by people from all over the country. We strolled through these trees along wide paths, following the crowds of both Japanese visitors and tourists. The first thing we saw was a large number of sake barrels displayed by the side of the path. These are offered every year by sake brewers from around the country to show their respect for the souls of the Emperor and Empress in recognition of the encouragement given to the growth of this and other industries under the Meiji Restoration.

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Sake barrels

Near here we passed through the first of several torii or shrine gates. This one is the biggest of its style (known as Myojin) in the country – 12 metres high with a 17 metre cross piece spanning its 1.2 metre wide pillars. It was made from 1,500 year old Japanese cypress or hinoki in 1970 and is an exact replica of the 1920 original.

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Torii at Meiji Jingu

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Part of the main complex

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The temizuya

Passing beneath this the path continued to the main shrine which we entered beneath another torii. Just before this on the left is the temizuya or font where the faithful purify themselves before entering the shrine.

Once inside we found ourselves in a large courtyard surrounded by several buildings and with the shrine itself in front of us. People were milling about, and there were amulets for sale and prayer plaques, known as ema, on which people were writing prayers and wishes before leaving them hanging for the spirits to read. Around two sides of this courtyard we saw hundreds of dolls and soft toys lined up in rows, with more being added even as we looked. I wasn’t sure whether these are given in gratitude for prayers answered or as offerings to ensure a positive response to entreaties.

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The ema or prayer plaques

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Soft toys and dolls

Perhaps because it was a Sunday, we were lucky enough to see several weddings in progress while we were here, and no one seemed to mind us watching and taking photos. The bride in the photo below had an especially beautifully embroidered white kimono and a striking headdress, but all were lovely.

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Wedding procession

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Wedding photo

After some time wandering around and taking in the sights I was a bit weary and wanted to rest. We sat on the steps near the entrance but were asked to get up – this is sacred ground and it seems sitting on it is not allowed. So we headed back to the visitor centre area beyond the outer torii. Here there is a self-service café selling light meals and drinks, a restaurant, shop and also a treasure house where you can see personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the carriage which the emperor rode to the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution in 1889. We decided to skip the treasure house however, as time was getting on, so after a cold drink we headed back to our hotel to rest up for a while before dinner.

The Asakusa Grill Burg

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The Asakusa Grill Burg
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Burger with egg

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In the Asakusa Grill Burg

In the evening we decided to try the Asakusa Grill Burg restaurant, almost opposite our hotel on Kokusai Dori. The menu (there was a single English one, which we had to wait to see) suggested a fusion of Western and Japanese cooking styles, which we thought might be interesting. The decor appealed to us too, with an interesting mix of art work displayed on the walls.

To start with we shared some crudités, and for mains both chose burgers with cheese and egg topping and soy sauce with wasabi. These came with a few vegetables (including bean sprouts and broccoli) and rice. We drank two small, draft Asahi beers each. The meal was OK although nothing special, but the beers were good and the service friendly, with a little English spoken, so we had a good evening.

The next morning we were to leave Tokyo after breakfast, but return eleven days later to a very different part of the city.

But that is for a future entry!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:06 Archived in Japan Tagged skylines people tokyo shrines parks architecture flowers japan culture temple restaurants city garden customs street_photography Comments (6)

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

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Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

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Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

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Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

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On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

Coming full circle

Japan day seventeen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Trains at Tobu Nikko Station

We were up quite early to enjoy another simple breakfast at the Turtle Inn Annexe. We then finished packing our small bags (having left most of our luggage in storage at the Ibis Hotel in Shinjuku) and our hostess kindly called a taxi for our drive to the Tobu Nikko Station.

We got to the station early so had plenty of time to shop for the obligatory bento boxes for the journey. Then I started to think about a missed opportunity from the previous day. As I mentioned, I was quite taken with several of the items we saw for sale in various shops in Nikko, as the quality of the workmanship here seemed high, but we already had several souvenirs by this point (a secret box from Hakone, a sake dish from Kyoto, our lovely wood-block painting from Takayama so I was persuaded yesterday not to buy anything else. One item though had stuck with me, and it was my turn to do the persuading, convincing Chris that it would be light and easy to carry and was easily worth the price asked.

So I left him guarding our luggage and walked up the main street to one of the shops we had visited the previous afternoon.

Nikkobori

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My souvenir of Nikko

In a small shop on Nikko's main street a local woodcarver makes and sells his beautiful work - small bowls, hand mirrors, boxes and larger items, all carved with intricate flowers and stained red with a dye made from cashew nuts. This style of carving, known as Nikkobori, is typical of the Nikko region, employing a unique v-shaped gouge known as a hikkake (meaning ‘scratcher’). This was originally developed during the restoration of Toshogu Shrine, as the triangular shape of the end made it the ideal tool for scraping off the difficult to remove varnish. Later, at the end of the Edo period, this tool began to be used in carving, using it to gouge out the design by pulling towards the carver. You can see being used in this YouTube video I found. Another characteristic of Nikko carving is the use of plant life as the main theme, influenced by the carvings at Toshogu - tree peony, chrysanthemum, Japanese apricot and cherry trees are all common.

I had fallen for one of the shallow bowls, which cost me 4,000¥. Each one is unique so that isn't a bad price at all, and the items are all so light and easy to carry (and of course, as this is Japan, beautifully wrapped on purchase) that they make great souvenirs of your trip or gifts for someone back home. This one was very definitely a souvenir for me (it still sits on a table in our front room). I only wished, however, that I had taken my camera when I went back to buy it (I’d left my heavy bag with Chris, taking only my purse), as I would have loved to have captured a picture of the artist at work and of some at least of the many other beautiful items he has created.

Returning to the station in good time for the train I rejoined Chris for the ride back to Tokyo. As on the outward journey we travelled via Shimo Imaichi to Shinjuku. There we headed for the Ibis to check in and retrieve the luggage we had stored.

Exploring Shinjuku

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Street art in the Shinjuku skyscraper district

The bad weather that had been forecast had arrived, with driving rain and strong winds. but we were determined not to waste the last afternoon of our trip to Japan. So we grabbed our umbrellas and ventured out of the hotel to see more of Shinjuku. The area to the west of its massive station (the busiest in the world!) consists mainly of skyscrapers, some of them very distinctive in design – I loved the so-called Cocoon Tower! But in the pouring rain it was hard to get decent photos.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

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Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

At the western edge of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district is this, its tallest. Indeed, when it was built in 1991 it was the tallest in the city, an honour it held until 2006 when it was overtaken by the Midtown Tower. It was designed by architect Kenzo Tange and intended to resemble a computer chip (no, I can’t see it myself!), while the twin towers are said also to echo the design of a Gothic cathedral. It is 48 stories high with three further levels below ground, and splits into its two towers at the 33rd storey height. Both towers have an observatory on their 45th floor which is open to the public and free of charge.

On a good day you can see Mount Fuji from here; on a bad day you can’t see much further than the next skyscraper. Unfortunately this was a very bad day! Of course we knew how bad the weather was before ascending and had no illusions that we might get much of a view, but it was free and promised time in the warm and dry, so we headed up. I had reckoned on poor visibility but, rather stupidly, had not considered that the glass windows would also be streaming with rain, which made it even worse. So – no great photos even of the surrounding streets, but it was fun to be so high for a while and peer down at the traffic (light as it was a Sunday), although frustrating to be told by informative plaques at every window about the great sights we weren’t seeing!

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Looking down from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Sompo Japan Museum of Art

As well as checking out the architecture in this part of the city, we visited the small but interesting Sompo Japan Museum of Art which as well as showcasing the work of Japanese Cubist-influenced artist Seiji Togo, has several notable Impressionist works including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought at the height of the 1980s bubble economy by the insurance company which owns the building for a then unprecedented five billion yen) and others by Gauguin and Cezanne. It’s not a large collection by any means, but a visit here is worthwhile if you are interested in art of this period, and especially in poor weather.

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Umbrella lockers at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art

On our way back to the hotel my umbrella finally gave up its fight with the wind (we learned the next day that we were on the edge of a typhoon). But there was a trusty Lawsons nearby, the chain we had come to love when staying in Hakone, and they had the ubiquitous Japanese style of large transparent umbrella for sale, which coped much better with these conditions than my flimsy telescopic one brought from home.

Our last evening in Japan

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In 82 Ale House again

We decided that given the weather we would eat in the hotel restaurant that evening (an OK pasta dish, salad and garlic bread) but the rained eased a bit later so we went back to the nearby pub we had spent an enjoyable hour or so in a few evenings previously, the 82 Ale House. It was a Sunday evening and the place was as busy as before but luckily not totally packed, and again we were welcomed and shown to a table.

I had developed a taste for Japanese whisky so sampled two of the four on the menu, deciding that the Yoichi was my preferred one. Chris again had local beer (Kirin) and we had a lovely last evening in Japan in this cosy spot.

Postscript

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The Cocoon

Of course the next day was fine and bright, just as we had to leave! To return to Narita Airport for our flight home we travelled not on the subway but using the so-called Friendly Airport Limousine service, which was more convenient leaving from Shinjuku. I say ‘so-called’ not because it isn't friendly but because it isn't really a limousine but merely a bus. However, it is a good and useful service nevertheless - and probably far far cheaper than any limousine would be!

We had pre-booked the bus we wanted a couple of days beforehand, on arriving back in Tokyo from Nikko. It's always best to do this to be sure of a seat, although as it happened when we arrived at the stop early we were able to get on the bus before the one we'd booked.

The buses run very frequently throughout the day and the journey is advertised as taking 90 minutes although we did it in about 75 (and that in the morning rush hour). We were dropped off right in front of the main entrance to departures, so it couldn't have been more convenient. And as a bonus, we got some great views of Tokyo on the first part of the ride as the route follows an elevated stretch of road that loops around some of the high-rise business districts. I was glad I had my camera at the ready to capture a few last shots of this amazing country.

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Seen from the bus to the airport

Posted by ToonSarah 11:42 Archived in Japan Tagged art buildings tokyo rain architecture japan pubs city weather street_art skyscrapers crafts Comments (6)

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