Of all of the places I’ve had the good fortune to explore, Tokyo was the one that surprised me the most. The neon metropolis with impossibly polite people and futuristic bathrooms had a different vibe than I was expecting; it felt somehow less personal than I expected it to be, yet it was fantastic and an assault on the senses all at once.
While there I stayed at the Hotel New Otani, a very nice business hotel near the Imperial Palace, in the Chiyoda District. The New Otani impressed me with their cleanliness, efficiency and gardens. It wasn’t the kind of hotel that screamed “fun!” but to be fair, that’s not the New Otani’s goal. My view wasn’t particularly inspiring, but I did like the Suntory building below my room. I’ve watched Lost in Translation forty-seven times, so I couldn’t look out the window without thinking, “for relaxing times…make it Suntory time.” I never did have a Suntory while in Tokyo, which may explain why my level of relaxation was less than optimal.
This is the second “pre-blog” in the “memories of” series. I truly wish I had been writing these in real time, while I was in the moment, but it wasn’t to be. So this is the next best thing – memories from some of my favourite places in the world, places I explored before I started writing about them.
As this as a travel and photo blog, please keep in mind these photos were taken well before I got into photography.
So without further ado, here are five memories of Tokyo:
1/ The Meiji Shrine is worth the trip. Getting around Tokyo, despite a very modern and complex transit system (more on this later), can be a bit of a challenge for people new to the city. Taxis are more expensive than anywhere else in the world that I’ve been, so they were out. What this meant was I was constantly asking myself, “is (fill in the blank with the attraction of your choice here) worth the trip?” In the case of the Meiji Shrine, the answer was a resounding yes.
I loved the Meiji Shrine. I was there on a gorgeous April day, and the spring air was fresh – it felt like the kind of day I should be visiting a Japanese shrine. Walking into the park, you go through gates like these (and you’ll see more of them on the property).
Walking around you’ll pass decorated sake drums (pictured below), Shinto priests, tourists, and locals wandering through the park in a quest for tranquility. The shrine is right in the city, so it really is a reprieve from the sights and sounds of the city.
One of my favourite parts of the shrine was a section where they have votive tablets available for 500 Yen. Once you buy your tablet you write on it – in this set people wrote down their dreams, something they are thankful for, prayers for loved ones, prayers for themselves…whatever had meaning for them in the moment. Then the next day the Shinto priests would bless the tablets. Reading through them is an emotional experience.
The shrine is in the middle of a park that covers more than 170 acres – amazing considering how densely populated Tokyo is. There are various buildings and museum-type artifacts on the grounds, but my most vivid memories come from the outdoors – the trees, the sake barrels, the people, the thousands of prayers written on tablets. If you’re going to Harajuku, the shrine is nearby, so you can enjoy both on the same day. This leads us very conveniently to point 2 in the post…
2. Harajuku is worth the trip, especially if you’re going to the Meiji Shrine anyway. Harajuku Station on the Yamanote line is really convenient for both the Meiji Shrine and the Harajuku neighbourhood, so this is something I took good advantage of. The main walking street in Harajuku is Takeshita Street, a clearly marked area where you can shop, eat, and check out all the young Japanese dressed in their counter culture and classic lolita / goth / steampunk / aristocratic outfits. My camera died at the Meiji Shrine, so I have no photographic evidence of being at Harajuku, which is a crime because Harajuku is a place where you definitely want a working camera.
3. Traffic is orderly but the crosswalks are insane. Having just come from Thailand, Japanese traffic was a breeze. People pay attention to the lights and the general rules of the road, so right there you have a huge upgrade on the safety front. The crosswalks, however, are insane. Once the signal changes everyone scatters in all directions:
Once you get used to it, it’s actually kind of fun. Growing up in North America, taught to never veer away from a straight line, I always felt like I was getting away with something by walking crossways through the intersection. The biggest hazard here is walking into other pedestrians (and getting twisted around in the middle of the street). It’s a system that works, though, and I came to appreciate it and even look forward to busy crosswalks as my experience grew (as I said in an earlier post, I’m easily amused).
4. Vending machines are awesome. No one does vending machines like the Japanese. They have more vending machines per capita than anywhere else in the world. Everything you need to know about Japanese vending machines can be summed up by listing sixteen random things that you can find in a vending machine in Japan: bread in a can; sake; manga; lettuce; neckties; bananas; Suntory whiskey with M&Ms in a delightful combo pack; t-shirts; live crabs; ice cream; noodles; eggs; LEGO; women’s underwear; toasted sandwiches; cooked meat; draft beer, poured into a glass for easy quaffing. Basically, if it exists, the Japanese will find a way to fit it in a vending machine. I can’t believe I ever left.
5. The people are fantastic, with a quirky sense of humour. Being Canadian, we are usually stereotyped as being overly polite. The Japanese, I think, find themselves in a similar situation. I respond well to polite, and enjoyed my interactions with kind people in the subway stations (I had no idea what I was doing), restaurants, and on the street. As for the sense of humour, I can’t pretend I always knew what was going on, especially when watching one of the plethora of game shows on Japanese television, but I smiled a lot when I was there, had a great time, and that’s all you can ask for.
What are your favourite memories of Japan?
Comment below (and feel free to mention your own blog) – cheers!