Tokyo, Japan

by - February 27, 2014

Asakusa Senso-ji Temple

Day Five: Yanaka, Ueno and Asakusa

The Olympus hospital…
Tokyo, the largest city on earth, was always going to be nigh-on impossible to thoroughly explore in three days and it was very difficult to research and decide what we wanted to see.  Additionally, the metro map looks more like a plate of spaghetti than a useful tool for navigation, so we decided to rely fairly heavily on the recommendations of the guidebooks.  Before we could start this however we went to visit nearby ‘Electric Street’, which is home to the Tokyo Olympus repair depot, where we tried to get my camera fixed.  The depot felt a lot like a hospital for cameras, with waiting rooms and appointments and a specialist was able to tell me that I had broken the shutter and that while he could fix it, the process would take a week (time which I obviously don’t have).  Slightly disappointed (but happy that it is treatable) we started to explore.
Yanaka High Street
Ueno Park
We started our visit in the Yanaka district of the city which is on the suburbs and is a far cry from the Tokyo that I had read about and expected to see in the centre.  A tangle of busy streets is filled with modern houses, ancient temples and a range of shops with quite a bohemian feel.  Our visit to this part of the city essentially gave us an insight into how residents live, with no bonafide sights per se but a pleasant ambiance that made it worth a few hours of the afternoon.  Just to the south of Yanaka is the Ueno district, the location of the Ueno park and Tokyo National Museum.  This beautiful park is full of temples, lakes and forest as well as several museums.  We strolled around here until it got dark, while not going inside anywhere, before moving on to Asakusa.

Senso-ji temple
By now it had got dark (a lot earlier than we were used to in Hong Kong), but everything was still open and we did a bit of souvenir shopping in Asakusa before heading to the Senso-ji temple, perhaps the most popular temple in all of Tokyo.  Based around a temple complex, a pagoda and a ceremonial gate, the wider area included shops and restaurants and was very lively.  The large lantern in the gate, one of the iconic images of Tokyo, was donated by the city’s geishas.  After getting our obligatory photos of the temple we searched for our evening meal - Sergei was pretty hungry and decided to ask a Japanese policeman where he could find some cheap sushi, and with the crime rate so low he was happy to give us a hand.  The sushi was great and by Tokyo standards a good price and included a bottle of sake, a rice wine drink which has a reputation far worse than its actual bite and was actually quite pleasant.
Genuine Sushi

Day Six: Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku

Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park
The second day of the Tokyo adventure started with a big journey on the JR rail line to the west of the city. The Tokyo metro is extremely confusing, with a range of franchises owning different lines - meaning that changing stations can sometimes mean leaving one station, walking around above ground and then entering another.  The flip side of this was that Japan Rail, who issued our rail passes, allowed us to use the pass on any of their franchised lines - meaning that with a bit of planning we could travel around the city for free.  Our target was the Harajuku part of town, where we walked through the Yoyogi Park, another of Tokyo’s beautiful autumnal forested areas which contained several shrines including the Meiji Shrine, which is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji who oversaw the modernization of Japan (the so-called ‘Meiji restoration’)and is very highly thought of.  Once out of the park we walked through one of the major shopping districts of the city - home to all of the high end fashion outlets and some very interesting architecture.

Shibuya Crossing
We spent a while walking around the shops and had lunch at some street food stalls before stopping for tea at a Moroccan restaurant.  While Japanese food is extremely distinctive, the city is also home to cuisine from all over the world and actually has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else.  Next up, heading south from Harajuku was the Shibuya district, the main attraction of which is the Shibuya Crossing - arguably the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.  We arrived at 2pm, which was probably off-peak and sat in a Starbucks above the crossing watching the world go by.  The crossing was the first to use the unique 'everyone cross at once’ system that has now been used in London at the intersection between Oxford and Regent Street.  We would have waited around until it got even busier, but were worried that it would be difficult to get out of the area ourselves and we had plenty more to see.

Managing to stay on the free JR lines we made our way to Shinjuku, one of the most popular districts of the city for tourists as well as one of the major financial centres.  As if to prove how popular the district is, Shinjuku station is by far the busiest transport hub in the world - according to wikipedia it has over 200 exits and caters for an average of 3.64 million people every day (about the population of Bosnia…).  Unfortunately by this stage it was raining pretty heavily, but the rain gave us the opportunity to observe an ingenious, truly Japanese custom.  At some stage, the government of Tokyo obviously decided to flood the city with cheap umbrellas and gave them to all of the restaurants, shops and other buildings in the city.  In the rain, people are able to just pick up an umbrella in the building they are occupying then leave it by the door of the destination.  By doing so, it is ensured that there is a constant circulation of umbrellas and nobody gets wet.

The Robot Restaurant, Shinjuju
Our goal for the evening was to visit the 'Robot Restaurant’, a true Tokyo institution (for tourists at least).  This incredible place, which apparently cost £83 million to construct, is not well known for its food but is all about the show that goes with your meal.  Entering from the street and for the cost of about £25, we were given a seat right next to the stage/dance floor and had the most insane hour of my entire life in store.  It started with scantly-clad girls playing drums and from there is difficult to describe with words.  Basically, there were four 'performances’ that included samurai robots, rainbow afro dancing robots, giant robots, lights, pyrotechnics, a shark robot, pole dancers, a panda riding a cow, loud music and much, much more.  It was an astonishing performance, unlike anything I had ever witnessed and was a lot of fun - all of the girls seemed to be having a genuinely good time too.  The Robot Restaurant had been recommended by Eric and Sam and I can only pass on the recommendation to future visitors to Tokyo - if you are reading this and you find yourself in the city, move heaven and earth to visit.

The Robot Restaurant

Day Seven: Imperial Palace, Ginza and Akinabashi

Tokyo Station
Our final day in Tokyo (and my final day in Japan) was unfortunately dominated by the rain.  We left the hostel mid-morning in a cold drizzle that persisted throughout the day, but were not willing to be put off the sightseeing plan and made our way south to the Imperial Palace.  The Palace and its gardens dominate the map of the centre of Tokyo but only a small proportion of the complex is actually open to the public, with the rest being reserved for the Emperor, his family and his guests.  The grounds were a five minute walk through the skyscraper-laced city centre from Tokyo Station and were entered by a bridge over a moat.  From what we saw, the grounds were more like a park than the fountain/statue/flower-stuffed gardens that would be associated with a European palace, with large grassy areas surrounded by autumnal-coloured leaves.  It actually felt more like Central Park in New York City, with the skyscrapers lining the perimeter, but we weren’t willing to stay too long due to the cold rain.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Park

Tokyo International Conference Centre
Heading back towards the station we looked to visit some of the skyscrapers and architecturally interesting buildings in the city centre.  After a bit of lunch in one of these, we found the stunning Tokyo International Conference Centre, which looks a lot like a 21st century ship and was the first Japanese structure to win an international architecture award.  The grand design feels like it deserves to house something more epic than conferences and was quite quiet, but was nice to wander around for a while, not least to be out of the cold.  Next up was the ‘Ginza’ district of the city, which Lonely Planet describes at the Tokyo equivalent of Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street.  This was where the leading clothes and electronics shops could be found and we decided to dive inside the Sony Centre – the main outlet for Sony in Tokyo and the place where concepts and not-yet-released products are tested out.  It was therefore an opportunity to explore some of the new technologies that might be commonplace in ten years’ time.  Amongst these were:
  • the most amazing televisions I have ever seen,
  •  Bluetooth camera lenses to be used with smart phones,
  • glasses that are used with a PS3 to allow two people to play simultaneously on the same screen and yet see two totally different images,
  • a headset that allows a HD movie to be played through a pair of glasses

Tokyo Sony Centre

The maid cafe…
We were all thoroughly impressed.  The rain was getting heavier unfortunately by this stage so we decided to make our way to a different part of the city closer to our hostel – Akinabashi, which is famous for its love of anime (Japanese cartoons) and other thoroughly Japanese forms of entertainment.  A recommendation by Eric and Sam (who had come up trumps with the Robot Restaurant yesterday) led us to the “@home café”.  This place is proving quite a challenge to describe as it is unlike anything else that I have ever experienced and if I get the description wrong, may lead the reader to see me as a complete weirdo.  The café is coloured almost entirely pink and the waitresses are all dressed as French maids. All of the food and drink looks like it is seemingly aimed towards a six year old girl (think tomato ketchup smiley faces and pink tableware) and yet clients are usually adults.  A range of set menus ranged from receiving a drink and having a photo with a waitress, to having a full meal and being allowed five minutes to play a game of cards with a waitress.  We were given a card with pictures of all of the waitresses on when we sat down and were able to choose which one we wanted our photos with and, unbelievably there were lots of tables with young men (who had arrived by themselves) sitting drinking a milkshake playing snap with the waitresses.  Up to this point you might be thinking it was completely seedy, but it was made very clear that clients were not allowed to ask any details of the maids (let alone have any physical contact) and that no photos were allowed.  In fact there were several families eating there.  It was like the most innocent brothel on earth and further proves how completely culturally unique Japan is.  We left in quite a daze and made our way back to the hostel where I picked up my bag and made my way back to Osaka where I was staying overnight ready for my flight in the morning.

I have finished this post fairly abruptly because Japan has been such a novel experience that I feel obliged to write some kind of summary and evaluation of the trip.

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