Tokyo & Nikko

DAY 1: We need to find our hotel!

There I was in Tokyo Narita Airport feeling much joy to be away from work and Red Deer. It was about time I had a vacation as I had always used those for trips back to Malaysia. Not that I am complaining about home … it’s just that I haven’t travelled outside Canada and Malaysia for a LONG time …

I arrived much later than YY. She waited about 6 hours at the airport for my arrival and got information on how to board the train to our destination — Ueno district, Tokyo. I count my lucky stars that I have her with me on this trip. She is well-versed in Mandarin and at the very least did take Japanese language courses in university.

When we arrived at Ueno, it took us half an hour to walk from the train station to the hotel, Ryokan Katsutaro. It shoud have taken us only 15 minutes but silly me … I had to panic at the sight of a dead end on the sidewalk. Also, I panicked at the fact that I could not see what was ahead on the road because we were blocked by a hill. As I saw a middle-age woman approaching our way, I suggested that we could ask her for directions for fear of venturing further into an unknown path on the other side of the road. And so, there we stood bravely attempting a conversation in the Japanese language with the woman …

“Sumimasen. Ryokan Katsutaro, doko des ka?”

(Excuse me, where is the Katsutaro hotel?)

Woman replies back in words I could hardly understand. We continued to ask a few more times, but she looked a little puzzled and frustrated. As silly as it sounds, she finally replied in English …

“Do you have an address?”

*sweat*

That was when I remembered the Lonely Planet book had advised to be prepared with an address if we were to ask for directions in Japan. Otherwise, we could just get nothing more than lots of polite smiles and apologies.

The funny thing was, if we had asked in English … it would have saved us a lot of time trying to figure out what she was trying to say. When we told her we didn’t have an address but only the map at hand, she walked across the road to ask a group of 11-year old boys dressed in soccer uniforms. Some of the boys stole quick glances of us, which were followed by some giggles. We had no idea what the discussion was about. Embarassing, but hey … I guess we tried. Finally, she told us that if we kept walking down the road, we will be able to see the hotel. Yeap, silly me.

Ryokan Katsutaro was a very cozy, Japanese-style hotel. The scariest thing was climbing up the staircase to the second floor; it was very, very steep and there wasn’t much room for our feet on each step. The room was a decent size, with two futons neatly placed on the floor. A small TV was available too and it was fun watching the Japanese TV talk shows. That night, I remember Terminator 2 was showing on TV. It was, interestingly, dubbed in Japanese language. Very amusing. After we checked-in at the hotel, we decided to head out and find some dinner for our hungry stomachs. Yoshinoya, a down-to-earth restaurant with a decent selection of cheap set meals, was our pick. We realized that all the patrons were men who had just got off work. The both of us were the only women in the restaurant and we concluded that perhaps Japanese women need not eat meals like that when they have the luxury of eating home-cooked food.

DAY 2: Exploring Tokyo

The next morning, we visited a nearby Shinto shrine called the Ueno *Tosho-gu. Shinto is the native religion of Japan. It is a type of polyethism and involves the worship of kami, which can be translated in simple terms as spirits. Hence, a Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to”enshrine” a Shinto kami. It was officially a state religion until after World War II, although some practices and teachings are still commonplace in today’s Japan society.

Ueno Tosho-gu

Protective charms known as O-Mamori

Almost every Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine in Japan sells protective charms, called O-Mamori, which carries the meaning “to protect or defend”. They generally sell for about 300 to 800 yen. As we walked towards Ueno Station, we passed by the National Musuem of Western Art.

Rodin’s Gate of Hell, National Museum of Western Art

Our first attempt to take the subway train was interesting. We were trying to get to Asakusa, which is another district in Tokyo. The stations are just like the ones in Singapore. We bought the appropriate ticket, inserted it into the automatic gate machine, and got pass the gate with much joy. However, our joy was short-lived. We soon realized that we went into the wrong entrance of the station. Even though we bought the correct ticket, we were not at the correct boarding platform. Little did we know too that the stations have about 10 different train lines that service to different areas in Tokyo. The Tokyo Subway Station Lines look like this (an image I borrowed from Google):

Yeap. Quite overwhelming. At each entrance, there are automatic gates and one manual gate where an attendant will be present. There, was our second attempt in using the Japanese language to explain how we got into the wrong entrance and wanted a refund for the tickets. At first, he did not understand what we were trying to say. Realizing that we were tourists, he just gave us a refund without much further ado.

We discovered where the correct entrance was: south of the station’s building. Geez … and we thought it was just round the corner, but no … we had to walk three blocks down a hill and cross the road to get to that entrance. The station itself was that huge! Twenty minutes later, we arrived at our destination – Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo. This temple is Tokyo’s oldest and it is dedicated to bodhisattva Kannon also known as Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy. Dominating the entrance of the temple is the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate). The massive paper lanterns, painted in black and red tones suggest thunder clouds and lightning. Beyond this gate is the street, Nakamise-dori leading to the main temple. This street is lined with small shops selling souveniers. At the end of the street is the Hozomon (Treasure House Gate), which provides the main entrance to the inner complex of the temple. To the left of Hozomon, there is a five-storey pagoda structure dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu (I don’t know which buddha).

Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa District, Tokyo

At the main entrance to the temple, there is a well of cold, clean water. Everyone seemed to use this to cleanse their hands or face before entering the temple. We burned incense and proceeded to view the inside structure of the temple. Unfortunately, most temples and shrines do not allow photography inside the building. I do not know the reason behind it. I went to try my luck at fortune reading. It is very similar to other buddhist temples around the world, whereby you shake an encasement of an amount of numbered sticks and await for one stick to pop out from the rest. Then, you show the numbered stick to the monk and he will give you the respected fortune reading.

Uh-huh, I gave it a good shake. After three times, I got my fortune reading told. And it turned out to be the WORST!!! It was the most unfortunate of all! There was an English translation to it and everything was just unlucky. Naturally, I was quite upset. However, they had this cool rack where you can tie your unlucky fortune reading there, simply to get rid of the bad luck. I think it is psychological, but as you can see I was quite glad to tie mine at the rack.

Oh, and the glory of transparent umbrellas! We bought one each for ourselves. And they are only $3! Umbrellas are used widely in Japan, both by men and women. The extreme part of it was how they are adopted as a fashion icon. We could not believe how expensive and extravagant umbrellas in Japan can get. And by expensive I mean …. $200 or more!! Crazy, huh? For that price, do expect umbrellas of expensive material for UV protection or umbrellas with layers of lace. An umbrella like that would make you feel like you are walking through London in the Victorian Age. As for me, I can only afford the $3 for now. The Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. Apparently, it is only open twice a year during the two big festivals in Japan. That’s why we only got to see the East Garden where most of the administrative buildings are located. It was one beautiful garden (and a huge one too). The garden is situated close to Tokyo station.

A picture of me in my $3 transparent umbrella at the Tokyo Imperial Palace East Garden

Skyscrapers and metropolitan buildings surround the majestic palace and garden. It’s almost like a part of history still sits in the heart of modern, metropolitan Tokyo.

Our next stop was the Tokyo Tower, which is a communications tower located in Shiba Park, Minato, Tokyo. The tower has an Eiffel-like structure supporting an antenna, which broadcasts television and radio signals for important Japanese media. Yea, yea, fancy that … and I wondered how does this tower serve as a tourist spot too. Well, for one thing it is the tallest artificial

Tokyo Tower in Japan

Tokyo Tower

Mizuko-Jizo Guardian of Unborn babies

Mizuko Jizo – Guardian of unborn babies

structure in Japan. For another, it is a very beautiful sight when the lights on the tower illuminate the dark night sky. The funny thing was, we arrived there before dark, and so we waited … and waited … until we could see the lighted words “TOKYO” on the tower.

On our way back to the train station, we passed by a small temple. I don’t know what was the name of the temple, but we noticed that there were at least 500 small buddha-like statues surrounding the main temple structure. I discovered later that they are called Mizuko Jizo. The Japanese believe that a Jizo eases the suffering and shortens the sentence of those serving time in hell. A Jizo can appear in many different forms to alleviate suffering. In modern Japan, Mizuko Jizo is widely known as the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried, or stillborn babies. Women usually buy these statues and place them at the temple under the care of a priest.

We took the train to Ginza, Chuo District, which is recognized as the upmarket area of Tokyo. We were so thrilled when we walked out of the station to a street of luxurious shopping boutiques. Not to mention, this is where you get to see young, beautiful Japanese women, dressed to the nines, and arm in arm with older rich men.

Dior Shop, Ginza District

Chanel Shop, Ginza District

Not only do these buildings boast designer label names, they extravagantly display them through various ways. The Matsuya Ginza Building had horizontal lights that were elegantly changing colours throughout the night.

The Chanel building was the best. At 215 feet tall, this building is the tallest in Ginza. The architectural structure has lighting elements that are combined with a steel mesh, which are sandwiched between layers of glass. It integrates LED technology into its architectural structure. I discovered later that at night it becomes a curtain wall showcasing this spectacular video wall, and in the day time it is just a regular building with glass windows …

With privacy glass switched on and the shades drawn, at night the Chanel building becomes one of the largest black-and-white video walls in the world … Architectural Lighting Magazine.

We were so impressed! I think the security personnel standing guard outside the building must think we were a little jakun with our ooohs and ahhs. What else can I say? Ginzawas simply breathtaking.

Finally, we returned to humble Ueno. Before heading back to the hotel, we made a quick stop at the supermarket to get some breakfast food for next morning. It was … a cute supermarket. Everything in Japan screams cute. I just love shopping here, be it a supermarket or a shopping complex.

DAY 3: Off to See The Daibutsu

In my diary notes, I wrote this:

“More difficult encounters boarding JR line with minimal Jap language capabilities …”

Shopping in Kamakura district, Tokyo

Shopping in Kamakura

Haha, I guess we did take a little longer than before to figure out which tickets to buy, and which train to board. The journey to Kamakura, a city located in Kanagawa prefecture about 50 km south west of Tokyo, took approximately an hour. We arrived at the train station anxiously looking for food. Fortunately, there were plenty of restaurants around. Lunch was a scrumptious meal of oyako don (rice bowl dish with chicken, egg and spring onion). It is really amazing how simple the ingredients are for this dish yet the taste is just delicious! I lurrrrveee Japanese cuisine! 😀 We began our walk in search of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), a monumental bronze statue of Buddha. The map showed that we had to walk through the shopping street and head towards Kotoku-in, the Buddhist temple that houses the Great Buddha. Shopping was … sigh … can I live here forever?

Bronze Statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kotoku-in, Kamakura, Japan

Bronze Statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kotoku-in

Anyway, when we arrived at the temple we were shocked. Somehow, somewhere in our excitement frenzy, we forgot that it was a weekend. And weekends are usually crowded with school trips (you see, it’s the summer). There were lotsssssss of kids, especially seven-year-olds. Also, there were lotsssssss of seniors, and they came in groups too! It was difficult to take a peaceful picture of the Great Buddha statue. These kids were all posing as groups in front of the Great Buddha, letting out a school cheer as the photographer captures the perfect memory of a fun school trip. The old folks look on with smiles, reminiscing memories of their own youth. Great enthusiasm, but boy … was it ever crowded … and noisy.

A little bit of a history on this statue:

The bronze statue of the Great Buddha was cast in 1252 A.D.. In the year 1498, a tidal wave swept away the temple, leaving only its foundation stone. The body of the Buddha was not damaged. A big earthquake in 1923 destroyed the base foundation, but it was repaired in 1925. The latest repair was done in 1960, which was to strengthen the neck of the Buddha’s neck, which supports the head. Also, repairs were made so that the body can move freely on the base to avoid damage to the whole Buddha statue.

After taking enough photos of the Great Buddha, we took a stroll around the garden surrounding the temple. It was a nice retreat, away from the crowd. While we were taking photos in the garden, we met with the caretaker of the temple. I couldn’t remember his name but he is 75 years old, and his spoken English amazed us. He was friendly and we had a good chat about general topics such as education, where we came from, and our culture. He was so kind that he gave us a tour of the garden. There are four monumental stones with famous haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) written by well-known poets of the century. He took the time to translate and explain the meaning behind the poetry. Each poetry describes the surrounding beauty as you stand to watch from this location during each of the four seasons.

We continued on to visit Hase Kannon Temple, which is located on a hill in Kamakura. The temple houses the famous Goddess of Mercy statue. The golden statue shows eleven heads, where each face has a different expression representing the Goddess of Mercy’s compassion for all kinds of human suffering. It stands at 9.2 meters tall and is the largest wooden sculpture in Japan. We were not allowed to take any photos, but I remember it being very intricate and magnificent.

Buddha statues in Japanese gardenThe garden surrounding the temple was vast. Even though it was a very hot day, the scenery was breathtaking. From the terrace next to the temple’s main buildings, we could enjoy the view of the coastal city of Kamakura. There were hydrangea flowers sitting proudly everywhere. We took a short hike up the rest of the hill, and I think it is suppoze to be a quiet walk to self-reflect or something like that. All I could remember was … attractive hydrangeas! Although, it wasn’t a very peaceful walk. The crowd was in the way. And everyone was trying to snap a photo of these cute-sy buddha statues, sitting happily amongst the blooms.

DAY 4: Attempt at the Shinkanzen: Trip to Nikko

The morning attempt at validating our JR (Japan Railways) train pass was a stressful one. We had to validate this pass before boarding Japan’s high speed trains (bullet train), namely the Shinkanzen. This pass is very cost effective especially for tourists who are planning to visit more than one region in Japan. However, it is only available at travel agencies outside of Japan.

Bullet Train

A view of Tokyo city from the Shinkanzen (Bullet Train) station

People kept giving us wrong directions. The good thing was we were at the correct train station but, there were at least 5 different JR counters and we thought that any counter would be able to help us out. To our surprise, these counters were not open for business yet. We could not wait until then as the Shinkanzen schedules to Nikko were not as frequent. Furthermore, Nikko is located approximately 140 km north of Tokyo which makes it a two and a half hour journey, and so we were hoping to get to Nikko early to make the most of our time there. We asked for directions … from the security guard to the other counters that we thought had the same service … basically, we were running around in circles. It was 7:30 in the morning but that train station was already full-blown crowded. I wonder how early these people actually wake up for work. Finally, after many attempts at different counters, we found the correct service counter to validate our pass. YY and I were so glad! They helped us with choosing a suitable time for our tickets too. Then, we bought some bento lunches and onigiri (rice balls) for the journey.

I am so impressed with the Japan railway system. Every train, including the Shinkanzen, arrives on time to the second. Moreover the railway network itself is so complex and covers most regions in Japan. Yes, it is that freaky, but boy, you’ll start to wonder if Malaysia will ever get to that point. Heck, even Canada or the U.S. will never reach that phase … not in the next 10 years I suppoze.

Oh yeah … the Shinkanzen was the best experience ever. Quiet, smooth, comfortable seats … I’d take this train anytime over any economy class plane ride. Ahhhh … here are some snapshots I took while travelling on the Shinkanzen:

The Shinkanzen did not bring us directly to Nikko. We had to stop at Utsunomiya, the capital city of Tochigi prefecture. At the train station, we switched to a local train that brought us 35 km west of Utsunomiya to the city of Nikko (literal meaning: sunlight). The main attraction here is the Nikko National Park, which is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. YY snacked on her delicious bento lunch on the train. Sigh … I wish I can have bento lunches like that everyday. There was a packaged deal or rather, a combination ticket to visit the recommended five attractions at the park. Even though we knew we won’t be able to see all five in time, we just bought it. Our first stop was the Shinkyo (sacred bridge), which marks the entrance into the park. It is a vermillion lacquered bridge, which is also known as Yamasugeno-jabashi (snake bridge of sedge). It is 28 meters long, 7.4 meters wide, and located 10.6 meters above the river. The Shinkyo is the oldest drawbridge, and one of the finest three bridges in Japan. We thought we could cross the bridge to get to the other side … but no, apparently they don’t allow visitors to use the bridge for its original purpose.

Shinkyo (Sacred Bridge)

Then, we fell in love with the magnificent *Tosho-gu shrine. It is famous for its decorative splendor and crafstmanship on the building’s exterior and gates. This shrine is specially dedicated to the memory of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the shogun (military dictator) who worked to unify the nation, ushering in 2.5 centuries of peace under the Tokugawa regime (1603-1868). Here is a picture of the lavishly decorated Yomeimon Gate of Tosho-gu:

Yomeimon Gate

Walls of Tosho-gu

There were sake (Japanese rice wine) barrels stacked nicely along the side of the path leading up to the main gate of the shrine.

YY and I had a rather interesting conversation on these sake barrels …

“I think people donate sake to temple as offering to the Gods”

“Er … why would you offer alcohol to the Gods? Isn’t alcohol like prohibited in religion … so the Gods actually do drink it too???”

“Errr … I don’t know why … but we do serve that to some Gods in the Taoist-buddhism religion too. I know I did it before in a ceremony back home and it was Hennesy whiskey”

“So if the Gods accept alcohol as the serving, wouldn’t they be like pretty drunk too considering everyone across the country will serve them alcohol???”

“…”

“… lol, who knows …”

The two most famous wood-carvings at this shrine are the Nemuri-neko (sleeping cat) and the trio of monkeys in the “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” pose. I managed to take a picture of the sleeping cat but not the monkeys.

Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat)

Now, there is a funny story to this. I did not realize that the sleeping cat was not the only attraction everyone craved to see. As we walked throughout the shrine, we came to the Inukimon gate and wondered why everyone was crowding in line to pay for some entrance fee. There was a sign next to the gate that read, “Sleeping Cat here” and a direction arrow pointing up … But we read the arrow as … straight ahead. Naturally, we had to pay an additional 500 yen to cross the gate. Behind the gate was a flight of about 200 stone steps. On first impression, we both thought the sign meant that the Sleeping Cat was beyond those steps. Since everyone else was so eager to pay up and climb the hill, we thought we would follow the crowd too. Little did we know that the steps actually lead to the Tomb of Ieyasu. And so, we dragged our heavy arses up those stone steps to the top of the hill without knowing that there was no sleeping cat whatsoever to be seen. Honestly, I cannot understand how these Japanese women travel to a place like this with fancy high heels. We, in our ugly-looking hiking shoes, were already cursing the hell out of these steps everywhere. Beauty is pain.

Tomb of Ieyasu

When we arrived at the top, we were both puzzled. Actually, by the end of it I was like @*?#!! Anyway, we did not know it was the Tomb of Ieyasu. Yeah, blame it all on poor research before the trip. Believe me, we were so puzzled that we thought the sleeping cat was somewhere on this tomb. Oh, and there was this weird looking tree trunk … well, I guess it could be like over a few hundred years old or something … but everyone just crowded around in awe of the tree. YY and I were lost. We could not understand what was going on. And then we thought maybe the sleeping cat was there! But no, all we saw was a tree trunk. Grrrr.

We decided to head back down the steps to start our journey back to the train station. Therefore, we passed through Inukimon gate again. For some reason, I looked up at the gate and to my surprise I found the Sleeping Cat atop the center of the gate entrance. Both of us felt lamed out by our stupidity. That’s when we realized the sign that we read was actually pointing up at the cat not towards the steps of stones!!! We felt cheated, haha! Oh well, at least we got to see the famous tombstone.

We returned to Tokyo late in the evening and just went to Ameyoko market to have dinner. After that, I realized that I couldn’t find my keys to the luggage. I thought I lost it and so just to be safe, we stopped by the 100 yen store to buy a hammer. By the way, 100 yen store is like … heaven! It is way better than dollar stores in Canada. So yeah, I bought a small hammer with hopes that I could break open the lock on my luggage. Before I started the operation, I decide to check my handbag thoroughly again. YY helped out and ta-da … she found a hole in the inner layer of the bag. True enough, the key slipped through the hole and was trapped in between the outer and inner layer of the bag … *sweat*

DAY 5: Our Last Day in Tokyo

It was a rainy day but we decided to try, as much as we can, to cover the rest of the districts in Tokyo. Our first stop was Ikebukuro, a large commercial and entertainment district in Tokyo. The Ikebukuro train station is the second busiest station in Japan. We took an exit up to a shopping department called Metropolitan Plaza. There, we visited the Japan Traditional Arts Center, which displayed a variety of Japan’s well-known arts and crafts.

The objects on display and sale in the Center must fulfill a number of strict rules, among them being that the article is used mainly in everyday life, is primarily manufactured by hand, is manufactured using traditional techniques that are at least a century old, is formed mainly of traditional materials, and is of a regional nature – travel.blogdig.net

It so happened that there were classes offered to experience making paper-dye crafts. I decided to give it a try. I mean, why not? We were already there and we should make the most of it! It was at a small cost of 300 yen, and I truly enjoyed it. It is a special type of paper, folded into a triangle-shaped accordion. By holding the accordion together, we dipped the three ends of the triangle in different colours. The dye sips through and when you unfold the paper accordion, the dye forms a uniform fan-flower like pattern!

For lunch, ohhhh … it was sooo good even though it only costed 800 yen. We went to the food court located in the basement of the plaza . I had a cold soba dish and YY had hot udon soup. Mmmm … yum …

We made many observations on how other tourists would pick out their restaurants. I think because of our Chinese background, we can relate better to Japan’s local meals. Not necessarily sushi, but even just plain noodle soup or a chicken rice dish. More often than not, the servers and chef mistaken us for our nationality too until we start talking in English. We had people on the train look at us with much confusion too. Anyhow, Caucasian tourists always seem to pick the more classy looking restaurants. Perhaps, it seems like a comfort zone for them. Nicely spaced out tables, western dining environment, and perhaps better looking waiters in uniforms. We tend to go for the hawker-style food. Cheap and oh-so-tasty! Even my co-worker mentioned that he would not be able to survive for long on a holiday trip like this without eating toast and jam for breakfast.

Next up, we took the train to Shinjuku station, which is the main connecting hub for rail traffic between central Tokyo and its western suburbs. In 2007, statistics showed that the train station was used by an average of 3.6 million people per day, making it the busiest train station in the world. Can you believe there are 200 exits at this station? I guess it is quite believable since it is registered with the Guiness World Records. It was so busy that I could not stop to take a video or a picture. The crowd was like constant waves hitting the shore, there was no way of stopping just for a second to tie my shoelace. Crazy.

Anyway, here’s something better. We transferred trains to head to Shibuya, the central business district of Shibuya ward. It is well-known as a major nightlife and fashion center, especially for young people. The reason why we came to Shibuya was to experience walking the famous Shibuya scramble crossing. This crossing stops vehicles in all directions to allow pedesetrians to walk across the entire intersection. Also, there are three large TV screens mounted on the building walls that overlook the crossing. I can never forget how I felt just walking with the crowd here. The rush of adrenalin and the endless sights and sounds … I feel like I belong. We headed to the Starbucks store that was overlooking the crossing, and this is where I snapped a before and after photo of people inundating the intersection.

Pedestrians waiting to cross at Shibuya Crossing

Pedestrians crossing for more than a couple of minutes!

I may not have advertised this well enough, but go Wikipedia Shibuya crossing and you will find better pictures there. This intersection is huge. The vehicles had to wait at the traffic light for about one minute. I’m sure that’s an awfully long wait for drivers.

Oh, oh, the green tea frapuccino is soooo good! 🙂

I did not realize how much I have forgotten living the urban, city life. I really miss this lifestyle, I really do. Hence, I will not allow Red Deer to consume my remaining days …

(to be continued on next page)

*Tōshō-gū (東照宮) is any Shinto shrine in which Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last shogunate of Japan, is enshrined with the name Tōshō Daigongen – Wikipedia.org

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