In this inaugural post covering our recent three-week trip to Japan and Hong Kong, I will cover the vibrant, pulsating, and overwhelming city of Tokyo. We began and ended the Japan leg of our trip here, spending about four full days here, and could easily have done a week if given the opportunity.
Tokyo is a city of contrasts, and although it is not outwardly a beautiful city, it is one that rewards the intrepid urban explorer with scenes of utter urbanity right next to jaw-droppingly beautiful parks concealing peaceful shrines and temples.
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When we first landed in Tokyo, it was an assault on the senses, but a very welcome one. Staying in Shinjuku that time meant that we were right in the heart of the restaurant and bar scene, and we wasted no time getting stuck into an izakaya (pub with food), visiting my favourite (tiny) bar “Albatross” in the Shomben Yokocho (“piss alley”) and ending up at a late-night ramen joint where we had to order through a vending machine.
The days we spent thereafter (on both visits) were spent covering a great deal of ground in both Western and Eastern Tokyo, and below is a selection of the experiences we had. As per usual there are many more photos to be found in the equivalent set over on Flickr so I do encourage you to check them out.
Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine
As per last time I visited Tokyo, the first morning of our trip happened to be a Sunday, and the best thing to do on a Sunday if you are in West Tokyo is to head down to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine. The former because there are usually odd people about (more on that later) and the latter because there is usually a Shinto wedding or some other ceremony going on. We were in luck because (as on my last trip here) the Seven-Five-Three “middle childhood” blessings were taking place at the Meiji Shrine, which meant loads of adorable Japanese kids in kimonos with their elegant parents only too happy to pose for photos.
Near the Meiji Shrine is the Meiji Garden, which is well worth the ¥500 (£4) entry fee as it is a lovely imperial garden set around a teahouse and a small lake, lush with vegetation and with the maples just beginning to show the very first signs of the autumn colours (momiji), and with kimono-clad women laughing amongst themselves.
Outside the Meiji Shrine and Garden is Yoyogi Park, a large green space providing some respite from the surrounding intense urbanity of Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya. Yoyogi Park on Sundays typically means a mixture of different “tribal” groups coming out to play, such as the Tokyo Rockabilly Club (previously) and cosplay people dressed up in animal suits. But today was pretty quiet in the park, even for such a nice day, and so we were able to enjoy the gingko trees beginning to shed their leaves.
Ueno Park and Yanaka
One afternoon towards the end of our trip we trekked up to Ueno Park, another haven of tranquility in the midst of the Tokyo sprawl. By this time the autumn colours had well and truly arrived in Tokyo, and it made a dramatic backdrop to the small shrines dotted amongst the park’s small hills and dales.
Near Ueno is an old neighbourhood (shitamachi) called Yanaka that is one of the last surviving pockets of low-rise “Old Tokyo” that remains. It is dotted with quiet market streets and various temples and shrines. In one of them we were approached by an 81-year-old man with good English who explained that there was a monument to a poet and his famous lover, a real beauty of her time, and that he had had the honour of hosting an actual blood descendant of the poet’s lover at the temple. We were suspicious at first but he gave us a print of a painting he had done to commemorate a line in the poem about someone letting a boy’s pet sparrow fly away. A lovely and odd little encounter, very Japanese.
Tokyo Sky Tree and Asakusa
A new addition since my last visit, the Tokyo SkyTree now looms over northeast Tokyo and you can use it to orient yourself wherever you might be, being that it is 684m / 2080ft tall. There are observation decks at 350m and (if you pay an extra 50%) at 450m. We attempted it one afternoon but were put off by extremely long queues. Returning the next morning we would have been OK if not for high winds causing restrictions to the operations of the lifts. More queueing ensued, and, in a very Japanese (i.e. crowded) fashion we finally got to go up the thing after a total time investment of four hours. Was the view worth it? Juuuuuuust barely. I am not sure I would go through that again; I imagine that for Tokyoites it’s somewhat the same as New Yorkers’ attitudes to the Empire State Building. Something for the tourists.
Much more rewarding is the other de rigeur visit of northeast Tokyo, which is to Asakusa and the Senso-ji temple therein, whose massive front gate complete with giant paper lantern is a symbol of Tokyo. A long street, packed with visitors sampling temple-themed pastries and deciding whether to buy plastic swords, leads back to an open space with another large gate, a five-story pagoda, and the main hall. All around are places to determine your fortune, often by donating a ¥100 coin and gaining the privilege of shaking a stick out of a tin, then matching the script on the stick with a series of drawers, retrieving a piece of paper with your individual fortunes. Our fortunes were mixed, but Nicola’s prophetically told of success in marriage awaiting her…
Tsukiji Fish Market
Something I missed last time around is the famous fish market of Tsukiji, in southeastern Tokyo. It was imperative that we visit it this time, as evidence continues to mount that the current, rather organically-grown market will be shuttered in the next couple of years, moved to some brand-spanking-new state-of-the-art facility where the real work will go on at ground level and tourists will be confined to some overhead gallery. Which is, on balance, appropriate given that it’s a wholesale market and the tourists just get in the way in the old setup, but I would have felt robbed had we not been able to wander around the tiny lanes, dodging motorcarts and stepping around discarded tuna heads, interacting with the market sellers and watching the meticulous process of filleting a sea eel up close. Behind glass and/or upstairs from the action will be a very different kettle of fish indeed.
In any case we were spared the ignominy of rising at 3AM to contest for a place watching the famous tuna auction, as it was now December and the auction was closed to the public for the busy holiday season. So we arrived jauntily at 9AM to see the wholesale market, and found to our delight that there was plenty of frozen tuna still to be seen, it’s just that in this case there was nobody yelling about it. We were OK with this.
That’s about it from the Tokyo side. We went to many more places in Tokyo than this, of course, and there were a host of nightlife and eating establishments that we may well document in due course. But Tokyo is too vast to ever fully capture, and that is surely a good thing.
Next up: the Fuji region of Hakone, and the tranquil park and temples of Nara.
I had a visit to the Mercado Central this morning to grab a saltena (a kind of an empanada with meat or chicken, gravy and potatoes inside) and to see the market on a working day. I had been there on Saturday but it was a sad affair then, with the odd Quechua farmer selling a handful of raggedy beets. Today was a much more lively affair, as a lot of folks from the outskirts come into town on a Monday to get shopping, bank business etc done, and the market was in full swing. Still can't quite get over the heaps of unrefrigerated beef and chicken being sold, but I guess that's what you get when you're ordering beef at $3 a kilo (!).
First of all yesterday’s post should have been titled “First photos from Sucre“, not “Potosi”. I guess I was already thinking ahead to the next place on my itinerary.
Yesterday afternoon while up on the hill in Recoleto enjoying the view, I bumped into a pair of interesting Brits, John and Lisa. John lives over here and is a junior doctor doing volunteer work. He used to be in the air force which is where he met Lisa, who’s over for a visit before she ships back over to the UK and eventually Afghanistan to help with community development work. We met for dinner last night and due to the dearth of open restaurants (everyone in Bolivia is having dinner with their folks over New Years weekend) we ended up on Gringo Alley. Not too bad though as the restaurant we found (La Bodega Veija) was a mixed local/gringo affair. I finally got to sample one of the Bolivian national dishes, pique macho, which is basically multiple types of meat intermixed with lots of grilled onions, bell peppers, chillies, and french fries, all soaking in a picante sauce. Topped with a boiled egg. Heart attack on a plate. I must admit it defeated me. And the chocolate fondue which followed was not my idea.
To recover we are doing a mini trip today of about 60km over to the town of Tarabuco which is famed for its Sunday market, showcasing indigenous handicrafts from this region. The textiles are supposed to be very well crafted and it is just possible I may actually start buying stuff to bring back with me. Space is tight in my pack though so it will have to be good. Plus I have yet to buy any ethnic tat so this would be a big step for me.