Our last 4 days in Japan were spent taking in Tokyo’s sights and experiences. These ranged from the conventional to the bizarre; but they were all carried out in a spirit of adventure.
To me, experiencing the conventional in Tokyo means exploring temples such as the Zojoji Shrine which was conveniently located near our hotel.
Rain was falling heavily on the day we visited but we were fortunate to be at the temple when a ceremony was about to take place. I didn’t have a clue as to the ceremony’s purpose but the priests were welcoming of worshippers and at least tolerated casual onlookers. As I looked on, I became more intrigued by what seemed to me to be parallels between the Catholic mass and this Shinto ceremony as both are imbued with icons, ceremonial dress and prayer murmurings.
During our stay we also took in the Meiji Shrine which is dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken….
As far as Japanese shrines go, this shrine may be venerated but I didn’t find it nearly as interesting as say… the Sensoji Temple.
The Sensoji Temple was more interesting not only for its brighter colours but also for the surrounding pagodas and numerous stalls leading up to the temple entrance. Maybe there’s something to be said for style over substance? Or maybe I’m just superficial.
Another conventional tourist must-do in any crowded city is to escape the terrestrial hurly burly for higher ground from which to peer down on the masses. We did this at two locations: Tokyo Tower (which is practically next to the Zojoji Shrine) and Mori Tower. Since I am old enough to remember Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics some old memories and nostalgia welled up when I learned that Tokyo Tower was built specifically for the Olympics as part of Japan’s “re-emergence into the world” after the devastation of WWII.
At street level you get the sense of Tokyo as being a cement monolith but it’s when you can look down on the city that you realise you’ve vastly underestimated what a concrete behemoth Tokyo actually is. When I look at these pictures it surprises me that the city didn’t make me feel claustrophobic because it should have – such dense urbanity.
As I’ve stated previously our trek across Japan was timed to the northward movement of the cherry blossom season. To this stage of our Japanese trip we were amply rewarded with blossoms but we hit the jackpot at Tokyo’s Meguro River which was choking with blossoms.
I’d think the majority of visitors to Tokyo also want to venture out of the city to nearby Mt Fuji for a look-see. Agnes and I certainly did, so we signed up for a bus tour and enjoyed the journey through the mountainous countryside only to find Fuji enveloped in cloud cover. We had been warned though: before the bus left Tokyo the tour guide said that the bus could only go as far as Station 2 on Mount Fuji and, oh by the way, the tickets are non-refundable. Pfffft!
I’ve been ripped off in such ways on other tours but it still surprised me that even polite, considerate Japanese tour operators would resort to such devices.
The Imperial Palace is also a requisite stop; however, the views of the palace are obscured by high walls. Quite reminiscent of visiting Mount Fuji on a cloudy day, actually, for all that is revealed to the tourist.
Part 2 of my Japan posting might leave one with the mistaken impression I am a junk food devotee. Not so, although junk food can serve as a welcome substitute for sea food in my diet. Anyway, the first thing I wanted to do after we had checked into our Tokyo hotel was to go out for some chicken and noodles at a bona fide Japanese restaurant. This extremely well lit diner was the first we came across and the eating was fine – there was not a fish face in sight as I happily scooped down my meal.
We had a similarly fine dining experience a few days later at this rustic restaurant.
I particularly mention these restaurants because I liked their atmosphere. Instead of tables we ate in cramped booths which were in close proximity to the kitchen so we could hear the food sizzling away and watch the frenetic, but still polite, staff dart in and out of the kitchen.
I didn’t want to totally foresake the less healthy types of food, though. When it comes to fun food Tokyo is up there with the best of them in my book with its offerings of crepes and fairy floss.
One very welcome discovery was the “all you can drink” option at some restaurants. SCORE!!!! The four of us spent our last night together at the Ka Gu Wa dinner theatre in the Roppongi district. Alan and Ruth were leaving the next day so we went out to celebrate the end of a great trip and I was determined to make it a liquid time.
We went to the Ka Gu Wa on the recommendation of a tourist brochure. The theatre resided in my Goldilocks zone: Not too upmarket/Not too seedy/Just right. I didn’t understand the show’s storyline but that was secondary to my appreciation of the ornate costumes.
Of course, the morning always comes and with it regrets about my lack of control where alcohol was concerned. But as my hangover dissipated so did my regrets. I’d re-do that night all over again.
If you do attend the Ka Gu Wa theatre keep an eye out for the 10 Sluts bar next door, if only because of the name. A bit of an internet research will reveal that the bar has a rather interesting history.
One of the things I love about walking through Asian cities at night are the bright, even garish, light displays. I can’t read the signs or billboards but I can entertain myself by just imagining what it is the signs are saying in their attempt to lure customers.
In Tokyo it’s not only the light displays that you need to look out and up for. Occasionally you’ll also come across Godzilla peering down at you.
If you’ve got a passion for the quirky then you can’t miss Tokyo’s Takeshita district with its myriad “out there” clothing shops. As Takeshita is literally across the street from the venerated Meiji Shrine you go from traditional Japan to modern quirky Japan in the crossing of a road. We even stumbled across a taste of home in our walk over as we came across a Japanese busker playing the didgeridoo. We were intrigued enough to stop for a chat and learned he had spent time in Australia. I, of course, left him with one of my koala souvenirs to lend more authenticity to his musicianship.
Takeshita particularly caters to Japanese youth. We tourists may be young at heart but we’re not young so the clothes shopping in Takeshita wasn’t our thing but it was still enthralling to walk through the area and gawk. You’ll find interesting clothes not only in the windows but also in the crowd as well.
Even the advertisements circling the Takeshita area add to the atmosphere of youthful exuberance. My first introduction to Baby Metal was via this mobile advertisement but I was way behind the curve on recognising this band because only a few weeks later their album was high up on the Australian charts.
Moving on from the Takeshita to Shinjuku district takes Japanese quirkiness to much more “adult” places. First off, there is the robot restaurant which I only sampled from the outside.
The restaurant looked like it had potential but I balked at the $160 it would cost for the two of us to dine with robots. Our daughter had also reported from her previous year’s Japan trip that while the robot restaurant was interesting it wasn’t worth the price. So that was that.
Shinjuku has numerous “adults only” stores. Without getting too graphic I will say that the Japanese do have a different conception of erotica than most Australians have.
In most conversations about the Japanese sense of erotica (at least the conversations I’ve had) the one topic that will always come up is whether there really are used panty vending machines in Japan? In my determination to find out if these machines were myth or fact I prowled through one of the adult megashops and found just such a vending machine – yes they do exist! And here is photographic proof.
It wasn’t easy to track down. I did a floor by floor search through mounds of adult material. It was not until the fourth floor that I finally found my prey.
No, I did not buy any of the wares; but that still did not lessen my sense of satisfaction at confirming the existence of this most elusive of fetishes. Parenthetically, I will also add that combing through those four floors exposed me to a lot of other eye popping fetishes – and I don’t think I’m a prude in such things.
And in summary…
And so that’s it. In Tokyo we did a gradual movement from mainstream tourist gaping all the way into the darkest recesses of Japanese fetishism.
As I said in Part 1 of this three part series I had been to Tokyo in the mid 80s but wasn’t all that impressed. I now would like to revise my initial opinion – Tokyo can be a lot of fun. Perhaps my initial view was somewhat coloured by visiting Tokyo at the end of my Asia backpacking trek when I was tired and looking forward to getting home.
Nor am I finished with Japan. I’ve been checking out the Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage Trail which appears to promise a deeper immersion into Japanese culture than the Nakasendo Trail. The fact that it is described as a more challenging trek is a challenge Agnes and I are willing to accept. We are already looking forward to our next Japan visit.