Finally, we were properly according some time to explore Japan. Apart from this being our first time together to the Land of the Rising Sun, it was also landmark in it being our first self-guided vacation (past trips to Bangkok and Hong Kong do not count because almost no one goes on a guided tour in these cities).
This vacation started out as one that divided our time between Hokkaido (北海道) and Tokyo (東京). The ambitious plan eventually didn’t pan out because the missus was too busy at work and couldn’t find the time to plan for the Hokkaido leg. We settled for the next best option – shortening the trip and spending 12 entire days in Tokyo. Sounds a tad excessive to many who claim that they could finish exploring all of Tokyo in 3 days. But so not true. Read on to be convinced.
I wayfared to Tokyo on my own since the mister had already headed there some days earlier for work. As it was my very first time there on my own, I got him to travel all the way from downtown Tokyo to Narita International Airport to pick me up. The buddy E (whom we were bunking in with for the whole duration) tried convincing me that it would be very easy to find my own way to his place, but I would not have any of it.
E was correct. Getting to downtown Tokyo from the airport is so idiot-proof it appeared like I made the mister travel 2.5 hours to the airport for nothing. For the uninformed, there are three ways to get to downtown Tokyo from Narita: by car, by train or by bus. Most people in their right minds would not go for the first option, even more so in Tokyo. That is unless airport transfer is provided free-of-charge or is a company claimable transport expense. Why is this so? Because Narita is not anywhere near downtown Tokyo and the taxi fare could easily set you back by almost S$200, more so if you wish to get to Shinjuku (新宿) vicinity on the western side. Not unaffordable, but hardly a justifiable splurge when cheaper options are easily available.
The N’EX (Narita Express) takes about 53 minutes from the airport to Tokyo Station (東京駅) at its fastest, and costs 2,940¥ per way. In comparison, the Airport Limousine Bus would take about 100 minutes and costs 3,000¥ each way. A direct comparison easily leads to the conclusion that taking the N’EX is a much better deal. However, we always opt for the Airport Limousine Bus every single time we make our way to Tokyo, with the exception of the very first trip the mister made when he landed a few days back. I too, thought that the N’EX would be a better choice but the mister swore never again after his one-time experience. According to him, it was not that easy finding luggage space on the train. Furthermore, doing train transfers with heavy luggage in tow can be very burdensome because the Japanese are healthy people who believe in stairs and walking a lot.
E stayed very close by Kamiyacho Station (神谷町駅) on the Hibiya Line (日比谷線), so the nearest Airport Limousine Bus Stop would be at Hotel Okura. A rather commercialised district with many embassies and missions in the area but quiet enough in the night to have a restful sleep, and convenient enough to get to all other parts of Tokyo. More importantly, by crashing with E we saved a huge chunk of money on accommodation (close to the region of S$2,000), something not known to be cheap in Tokyo. I also liked the fact that there is a Starbucks branch downstairs of his apartment, and a row of vending machines by the side of building entrance. Geographically speaking, we were almost right smack in the centre of downtown Tokyo. The most convenient place to put up at, I would say. Not to mention that the Tokyo Tower was just a short walk away. Honestly, I wondered if we would have bothered visiting the tower if we weren’t staying at E’s apartment.
➔ ➔ ➔ Tokyo Subway Map (click to go to map)
E was not home when we got to his apartment. While we were on a vacation, he was obviously in Tokyo on a more permanent basis because of work thus explaining his absence. I freshened up a bit and then we were ready to be out and about again. We started with an easy route, which was going on the Hibiya Line to Ebisu (恵比須) and then transferring onto the Yamanote Line (山手線) to Harajuku JR Station (原宿駅), a major station. I needed to purchase a Suica for travelling on trains in Tokyo, and I can only buy a new one in one of the major stations so Harajuku was our choice. Not Kamiyacho for sure.
Harajuku JR Station must be one of the prettiest and most interesting stations I’ve come across due to its strikingly attractive facade. It reminded me very much of my favourite Bavarian architecture. And it is also one of the most crowded train stations in Tokyo given its close proximity to Meiji Shrine (明治神宮), Harajuku and Shibuya (渋谷).
I was famished by then but we didn’t want to just settle for any fast foods. We walked around the vicinity looking for Ramen but because this area is widely known to be more popular with the teens, fast food restaurants are more the rage. In contrast, we could hardly find any authentic Japanese food that we wanted to eat. Finally we settled for a fusion-styled Western hot plate kind of food. It was forgettable although I am fairly certain the happy youngsters dining in the crowded restaurant wouldn’t think alike.
After lunch, we crossed the road back to the side of Harajuku Station and headed towards Meiji Shrine, the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his Empress. Emperor Meiji played a pivotal role in Meiji Restoration (明治維新), which is widely believed to be responsible for the emergence of Japan as a modernised nation. It is also a known fact that the Japanese love and respect this enlightened ruler who moved Japan away from one of feudal rule to a market economy.
Getting to the inner precinct included a long walk through a beautifully maintained forested area about 175 acres large. But the rain just got heavier and heavier by the minute. What would have been an enjoyable, leisurely walk turned into a let’s-get-to-shelter-soon kind of brisk walk. We met very few people along the way because 1) it was a weekday and 2) most people in their sane minds would not want to trek to the inner precinct in such weather. What can I say? We are two irrational, idiotic tourists on a mission.
The inner precinct was almost deserted due to the rain. We hung around the shrines a little longer than we usually would, waiting out for the rain to stop. Not a bad thing in itself, since I could slowly look around to appreciate the details in the architecture and take pictures without feeling rushed. It did eventually stop raining, much to our immense relief.
Walking out of Meiji Shrine premise was a lot easy since the rain had eased quite a bit. Then it was time for window-shopping. With no destination in mind, we started wandering about the area, walking a lot to soak in the atmosphere and finally found ourselves at the Shibuya Station (渋谷駅). We contemplated if we should leave via the station or continue exploring the area. The mister made a decision to leave, and it was the best decision ever – we got to see the shibuya1000 art project at the underground station’s corridors.
The first set of photographs we came by were of Japanese putting their forefingers to the lips. Walked a little further down and saw another set of photographs capturing images of right palms. The third set just photographed people right in their element doing their own stuff or simply smiling for the camera. The fourth set, admittedly, kind of freaked me out. The photographer post-processed the faces he took by matching two different halves to form a face. On hindsight, this set of photographs were weird, but artsy in a way.
My favourite sets of photographs must be the one of children and the black & white rainy day series. According to the official website, shibuya1000 is held every year in the month of Mar. But it was already Oct when we saw the project back in 2008 so to be honest, I’m a little confused.
We finally met up with E late in the evening when he knocked off work. The mister and him arranged to meet at the famous Roppongi (六本木) crossing so that he could bring us to his favourite Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) place for dinner. Well… E was kind of leading a high life as an expatriate in Tokyo so he acquired some discerning taste. This restaurant he brought us to is not that easy to locate (and thus not known to have walk-in diners), and has a small sitting capacity. Correspondingly it comes with a rather hefty price tag but it could also be due to the Wagyu beef we ordered. E insisted on treating us so we graciously accepted his generosity, determined to return the favour with another meal before end of our vacation.
And the dinner was unforgettable. I was never big on beef or teppanyaki prior to this but this trip changed me completely. The foie gras tasted equally exquisite. And the Japanese cherry tomatoes were so sweet and juicy. My mouth waters just thinking of this dinner.
We went to have some drinks after dinner. The thing with Tokyo (and generally Japan) is that they do not have large-scaled night spots. Instead they have many small, intimate pubs that don’t close till daylight. This is quite different from what we have in Singapore because over here, most night spots can legally operate till 2-3 am. Heard from E this is because after midnight when the public transport stops running, most Tokyoites (many don’t drive in Tokyo due to high costs and they stay too far away to take taxis) can’t get home so they hang around in the night spots till public transport starts running again the next morning. Well for once, I actually appreciate living on a small island.
Tokyo (東京 – with a literal translation meaning “east capital”), officially known as Tokyo Metropolis (東京都), started out as a small fishing village called Edo (meaning “estuary”). Its name was changed to Tokyo in 1868 when it became the imperial capital. Tokyo’s history was filled with catastrophes given its close proximity to the boundary of three plates, the most significant being the Great Kanto earthquake (関東大震災) in 1923, the deadliest earthquake in Japan’s history. Fatalities was estimated at 142,800 and included 40,000 who went missing and were presumed dead. Despite this, Tokyo bounced back stronger and more resilient every single time. In 2012, Tokyo was named the most expensive city for expatriates.