A week doing next to nothing in Fiji turned out to be the perfect preparation for what was to follow: ten days in Tokyo! The contrast could not have been any greater. On arriving at Narita Airport in Tokyo we braced ourselves for our first challenge, the Tokyo transit network.
However, with typical Japanese organisation and efficiency we followed the coloured line painted on the floor that took us from the Airport to the Rail Station and with a little help from a guard found the fastest route into the city without too much difficulty. On buying our tickets we had our first experience of Japanese rail precision. We asked when the next train to the city centre was due: “in four minutes from Platform 1…a two minute walk” came the reply indicating that if we walked with purpose and without deviation or hesitation we would arrive at the platform with two minutes to spare. As long-suffering users of what can loosely be called the British Rail system, we aren’t used to an unquestioned confidence in a train timetable let alone any expectation of trains either arriving on time, or even existing. No such worries in Japan. Over the course of our time in Tokyo (and beyond) not a single train, of the dozens we have taken, were a minute late departing or arriving. Apparently the arrival of a train more than a minute late is treated as a customer care disaster with profuse apologies issued, including a pre-printed note to hand to your employer explaining your late arrival for work.
One of the consequences of a superb (and extremely fast) rail service is that we were able to combine sight-seeing in this astonishing city, with day trips far out into the countryside. This ability to balance extreme urban with relaxing rural makes Tokyo one of the finest places we have visited on our travels.
This contrast was exemplified within the city on our first venture out when we mixed the urban jungle of Shibuya and Harajuku, with the quiet and reflective atmosphere of the Shinto shrine and gardens of Meiji Jingu.
Shibuya is famed for its neon and its diagonal crossroads over which thousands can walk when the pedestrian lights turn green. It’s a mix of Times Square and Oxford Circus – on steroids.
Having negotiated it safely and promising ourselves a night time return, we headed for Meiji Jingu which abruptly offers a sedate and green environment in stark contrast to its noisy neighbours.
A long sweeping, gravelly avenue takes you through huge Torii Gates, past a colourful display of Sake barrels that are donated every year to enable Sake offerings to be made to the deities enshrined at Meiji Jingu.
There are gardens galore where you can take diversions deeper into the park, sneaking further away from the crowds. We headed to the main shrine areas where we found people writing wishes on small pieces of wood and hanging them up in the hope that their wishes will be realised by the Shinto gods. It did cross our minds that we should lodge a request for the mighty Albion to stay in the Premier League next season, but decided this was neither appropriate or feasible, even for the great Shinto Gods unless one of them was prepared to sign on as a centre-forward.
The shrine itself is a really impressive concourse and building where we enjoyed the unexpected bonus of seeing a wedding procession move slowly past led by a priest wearing the most extraordinary clogs.
As if to emphasise the two sides of Japan – ancient and modern – we then made the very short trip across the railway line to Harajuku, the epicentre of Tokyo’s alternative fashion culture, and came across another remarkable statement in footwear..and indeed everything else wear.
Singing/wailing away happily she was the perfect welcome to the crazy area of Takeshita Street: you go for retail therapy….. and leave needing a lie down. However, you can get some pet therapy by popping into a Shiba petting store where you can stroke these gorgeous Japanese canine icons – so cute and dainty that you really want to smuggle one out in your shopping.
Trains, trains, trains
Our first day trip out of the city was into the countryside, temples and shrines of Nikko – a favourite jaunt into the mountains north of Tokyo, made so accessible by the Shinkansen (Bullet Trains) that whizz you to and from destinations in speed, style and comfort.
We aren’t train geeks by any stretch of the imagination, but we couldn’t help but get excited watching different Bullet Trains pull up at Ueno Station …they just look so good!
and even Hello Kitty trains!
Nikko hosts the Shinkyo Bridge which acts as a gateway to the parks and shrines. On its own it looks beautiful – but although you can walk over it, it doesn’t actually take you anywhere and it’s rather spoilt by the road and heavy traffic that runs alongside it. Getting a good shot of the bridge takes some rather careful photography and cropping!
There are a series of lovely shrines at Nikko that include ornate carvings that leap out at you with their intricacy and colourful design, including three famous monkeys…
and dramatic dragons..
However, it may be that we’ve become slightly jaded and “templed-out” because the area we enjoyed most at Nikko was away from the temples up at Kanmangafuchi Abyss. Here a long line of Bhudda’s decorated with red hats and bibs line a relaxing walk along the gorge.
There is a tradition that you count the Bhudda’s on the way up and on the way back, and you will always be one out due to the so-called “ghost Bhudda”. We tried this – well, Sam did it as I get too easily distracted, and sure enough there was one more on the way back than out.
It’s a very restful walk, especially after Tokyo, and even the crowds at Nikko’s temples!
On returning to the station we found another masterpiece of train design sitting on the platform. Unfortunately this wasn’t the train taking us home, but it was such a pleasure to look at…isn’t it wonderful to see high quality design and public transport combined.
Just behind the driver’s cabin is the plushest and most high class viewing lounge we’ve ever seen on a train, talk about luxury train travel…
Parkrun in Tokyo has been going for an even shorter time than our new running habit, so it felt extra special to find out where in Tokyo it takes place and work out how to get there. As it’s an 8.00 am start in Tokyo and we had a 30 minute train journey across the city it was quite an early start for us, but it was worth it not only to add Tokyo to our list of parkruns but the locals are incredibly fun and friendly, asking about our travels and what we thought of Japan.
Despite being tired, hot and sweaty we made a detour on the way home. I’m a big fan of the film The Third Man and had read that at one of the metro stations the famous film tune is played when trains leave the platform. Sure enough Ebisu Stations’ chosen music – known as Eki-melody – delivers, although it sounds as though its being played on a steel drum rather than a zither: sacrilege!
Senso-Ji and Asakusa
In theory Senso-Ji is a old and venerated shrine that attract tourists and worshippers alike to its site in the bustling neighbourhood of Asakusa. While all of that is true it does get slightly overwhelmed by the fantastically busy and colourful markets that surround it, making it another ideal spot to visit, people watch and immerse yourself in Tokyo lifestyle.
Many young women and men wear kimono’s in this neighbourhood, adding to the evocative atmosphere…although you won’t find authentic Geisha girls here.
…along with weird and wonderful food stalls that sold all sorts of treats that we weren’t tempted to try!
..but eventually hunger got the better of us and we did stop for lunch at a restaurant and enjoyed our first proper sushi since arriving. We plumped for some delicious raw mackerel and spent the next 30 minutes reacquainting ourselves with the art and etiquette of eating with chopsticks.
To round off our visit to this wonderful neighbourhood a very polite demonstration wandered by that loudly announced the marchers love of dolphins and whales. There were no leaflets distributed or petitions to sign, so we couldn’t be sure if this was about conservation or admiration. Whichever, it was typically good natured, enthusiastic and honourable which seems to be a Japanese hallmark.
Our second day trip out of the city is an absolute must: Mount Fuji. Once again the rail system delivered us to our destination with effortless efficiency. Given that we were officially in rainy season, and its great height, we had been warned that we might not see much of this Japanese icon. On arrival we feared that the brief glimpses we were getting of the peak, as dramatic as they were cloaked in cloud, might be as good as it got…
Remarkably, however, as the day drew on the cloud lifted and we made our way to Lake Kawaguchi where we were told there were the best views of Fuji. Sure enough we were able to marvel at this magnificent sight.
With the clouds rolling by, the mountain seemed to be constantly changing character and we even had the bonus of watching a water-skier flashing past on the water with the mountain as a backdrop – what an incomparable setting. There are a few things to do in the Five Lakes area including a pleasant cable car ride and a multitude of museums, but we found wandering around looking at Fuji from different angles couldn’t be beaten by any of the other attractions.
A Busted Flush and a Flustered Bush!
We really need to talk Japanese toilets. First they delight you – is there anything better than plonking yourself down on a heated loo seat? It’s a treat you can routinely look forward to in Japan. But just as you’ve got comfy your eyes stray to the toilet control panel and instructions….and the torment begins. Which button to press, and how to start and more importantly stop the damn thing.
During a thoroughly enjoyable guided electric bike ride through Tokyo we stopped for a quick comfort break. Sam suddenly shot out of the toilet looking decidedly “flushed” and very wet! Apparently she had started randomly jabbing at the buttons by the toilet which caused a geyser like jet of water to shoot up between her legs, soaking her clothes. Our honourable Japanese guide discreetly avoided asking why her t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms were now soaking wet and clinging to her.
A few other strange things happened on the bike ride. We came across a group of people dressed in Super Mario gear driving Go-Karts ON THE ROAD ….
…and at the beautiful gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace we witnessed an enraged security guard wielding a large stick and shouting angrily at a tourist (Chinese we believe) who had the temerity to step beyond the boundary line de-marked by his green and white bollards. It was rather scary and put a bit of a dampener on the picturesque setting.
….and we were treated to a display by an origami grand master whose skills seemed to be fading: he was all fingers and thumbs (ho ho).
After hearing we were English, he made Sam an English rose with a few quick moves of his fingers and voila – a perfect rose.
The whiff of weirdness is another one of Tokyo’s attractions. We have to admit that the last thing we expected to find at the top of Tokyo’s very impressive Sky Tower was a Hello Kitty exhibition…
…but you can’t help but enjoy the moment and pose. For some reason Kitty looked extremely angry and sinister in this shot, which given her outfit seemed an odd pose to strike. Normality (that is a relative expression in Tokyo) was restored when Sam sat with the feline wonder…
Everywhere you turn in Tokyo seems to present you with another unexpected and amusing, larger than life sight that leaves you scratching your head and fumbling for your camera….
The 20k e-bike trip around the city, involved much cycling on the pavement – the norm here – which necessitated a lot of swerving around pedestrians, but it was great fun, especially having the boost an e-bike gives you.
We were the only two on the guided tour, so had the benefit of a guide all to ourselves, taking us off the beaten track to Tokyo’s backstreets and lesser knows areas. It culminated in a great sushi lunch where our guide politely pointed out the correct etiquette of eating Japanese food. Yes, it is ok to slurp and burp your way through the menu!
It turned out to be a far better way of seeing the city than by river. Sadly you don’t get to see very much of any interest pootling along the Sumida River – unlike in other major cities, it just doesn’t work in Tokyo. Indeed the most interesting sight is the boat itself which has been designed to look like a bullet train.
Neon Nights and Tokyo’s Dark Side
No trip to Tokyo would be complete without the sensory overload that Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara deliver in spades.
Akihabara was our least favourite as we aren’t computer game or comic geeks for whom this neighbourhood must be nirvana. However, the most disturbing aspect of Akihabara are the girls working on the street dressed in schoolgirl outfits ostensibly to entice you into restaurants and cafes for food, music and conversation. However, at best these “maid cafes” are the thin end of the wedge that will see many of these girls finding themselves working in the sex industry. There is an unhealthy interest in dating adolescent girls (known as JK girls) in Japan, and the bizarre infantilisation of young women in cartoon imagery and in reality. It’s all rather grotesque and strengthens the country’s reputation for misogyny. While in Tokyo a news feature reported Japan’s (male naturally) Labour Minister saying high heels for women at work were “necessary and appropriate”. What a shameful thing for anyone to say, let alone a Government Minister.
Shibuya and Shinjuku by night are extraordinary sights, with day-glo colours filling the night sky and your senses.
Our favourite find was Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku, a narrow alleyway flanked on both sides by tiny crowded bars and eateries, bursting with life and tourist camera flashes.
We managed to squeeze our way into one of the bars that had maximum seating for eight. Crammed in against a well-stocked bar (which was bigger than the seating area) we spent a very happy hour enjoying a beer and incredibly cosy atmosphere.
Given the lack of space it was very difficult to find an angle to capture the bar properly in a photo, but here is another example of the intimacy of this fantastic little alley.
We returned to Shibuya’s crazy intersection by night to find it even busier, with several hundred people launching themselves across the crossing at the same time. It’s not clear if people actually want to get somewhere when they cross or simply want to experience the sensation of being carried along by and towards a pedestrian swarm! At no point during these night time forays into the bustling hotspots, or indeed anywhere else in Tokyo, did we feel unsafe, intimidated or sense the need to be extra cautious. It feels like a very safe place to be a foreign tourist.
Our final trip to the pretty town of Kamakura ended up being a bit of a wash out as for the first time on the trip we felt the brunt of rainy season. It wasn’t heavy, but instead misty rain that seems to get you wetter than a downpour and gets right into your bones. Armed with brollies we made our way around the cluster of shrines and temples coming across an archery centre by chance…
…and a beautiful Japanese Garden beside a Bhuddist Temple..
Delightful as the temple buildings are, it was one of the ceilings that really caught our eye with its striking design and colour.
Intriguingly we came across a site that used to provide protection for women escaping abusive husbands at a time when divorce was not possible – a sort of ancient women’s refuge. These grounds were beautiful and it remains a venerated site, with Bhudda providing a serene presence among the flowers.
Tokyo is everything you hope it will be and so much more. A wonderful mix of old and new that can overwhelm at times but offer respite and reflection at others. We were fortunate to have such a relatively long stay, but felt we had only started to scratch the surface, and as with any great destination it more than satisfies your appetite for adventure and wonder, but leaves you wanting more. Perfect.
Top Travelling Tips
If you plan to spend time travelling in Japan, even if its just Tokyo and its surrounds, its well worth getting a Japan Rail Pass. These give you free travel on the JR network throughout the country, including the incredible Shinkasen (Bullet Train) service. We found them incredibly convenient and good value. They can be bough for one, two or three weeks – but must be purchased before you arrive. So it pays to plan ahead. The pass doesn’t cover all rail networks, of which there are dozens, by the JR network is very comprehensive and we only used other networks a handful of times.
The other must-do is downloading the Train App: Japan Travel by Navitime. An excellent App that helps you journey plan in real time with full confidence on the times quoted. It helped us plan trips in the cities and all over the country with no difficulties.
Next Up: It’s a Japanese Triple Header: Kyoto – Hiroshima – Osaka.