Friday, June 21, 2013

Travels to Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is the capital of Japan and the largest metropolitan area in the world.  It is the seat of the Japanese government and has been described as one of the three "command centers" for the world economy, along with New York City and London.  Today, Tokyo offers a seemingly unlimited choice of shopping, entertainment, culture and dining to its visitors.  As a foodie, I was excited to visit this city as the Michelin Guide has awarded Tokyo by far the most Michelin stars of any city in the world.

Ginza at night.
The city's history can be appreciated in districts such as Asakusa and Harajuku, as well as in many excellent museums, historic temples and gardens. Contrary to common perception, Tokyo also offers a number of attractive green spaces in the city center and within relatively short train rides at its outskirts.  We visited in late May 2013 and stayed near Ginza in the Shiodome district with easy access to the subway.  The Shiodome Station had a couple shops underground and we picked up tea and crepes one morning at Momi & Toy's Creperie.  Ginza is Tokyo's most famous upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district, featuring numerous department stores, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, night clubs and cafes.  We had one of the best dinners of our trip in Ginza during our first night at Rangetsu and again later on our last night at the famous Kyubey.

After dinner we watched Kabuki theater at the Kabuki-za, Japan’s most famous and grandest Kabuki theatre, dating from 1899.  It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since then – once by fire, once by earthquake, once by war, and once so a skyscraper could be built on top of it.  The structure was most recently demolished in Spring 2010, and just reopened in Spring 2013.  So we were lucky to catch a show.  Kabuki is a form of Japanese theater, aimed at the common people, and is gaudy and dramatic.  Actors wear elaborate colorful costumes and bright face masks, and express the nature and meanings of their characters using exaggerated poses and gestures.  All roles are played by men, but so skilfully do they control their gestures and voices, that it's often hard to believe that the female characters aren't played by real women.

Kabuki actors are also masters of vocal expression, so much so that much of the meaning of a Kabuki play can be picked up without understanding any of the words themselves. Each performance is accompanied by a small orchestra using traditional Japanese instruments, making Kabuki a true visual and auditory feast.  Don’t worry about not being able to understand anything – the language used in Kabuki plays is so old fashioned that most Japanese people can’t understand it either. The solution? Rent a headset so you can receive an excellent translation into English – along with some background explanations of the cultural context. Japanese people need to use the same headsets to translate old Japanese into modern.

Nearby is the famous Tsukiji Market - a large wholesale market for fish, fruits and vegetables in central Tokyo. It is the most famous of over ten wholesale markets that handle the distribution of fish, meat, produce and flowers in metropolitan Tokyo. Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world's largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day.  We grabbed sushi for breakfast here one day at Umai Sushikan and returned on our last day for a ramen lunch at Wakaba.

View of skyscrapers from Hama Rikyu gardens.
Hama Rikyu is a large, attractive landscape garden in central Tokyo. Located alongside Tokyo Bay, Hama Rikyu features seawater ponds which change level with the tides, and a teahouse on an island where visitors can rest and enjoy the scenery. The traditionally styled garden stands in stark contrast to the skyscrapers of the adjacent Shiodome district.

Sumida River Line boat cruise.
From the garden, we took a boat cruise on the Sumida River Line that runs from Asakusa to Hama Rikyu garden (45 minutes, 720 JPY, about 12 boats per day). The dock at Hama Rikyu is located within the garden's grounds, so disembarking here means that travelers also have to pay the garden's entry fee.  We boarded at the garden instead and then traveled a further five minutes to the Hinode Pier, where a transfer can be made to boats bound for Odaiba.  We stayed on the boat to continue on up to Asakusa and passed 13 bridges along the way.

Nakamise shopping street.
Asakusa's main attraction is Sensoji, a very popular Buddhist temple, built in the 7th century. The legend says that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them.  Consequently, Sensoji was built nearby for the goddess. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo's oldest temple. The temple is approached via the Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries.

View of Tokyo Tower from Sensoji Temple.
Koi pond at Sensoji Temple.
The current Imperial Palace is located on the former site of Edo Castle, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo Station.  It is the current residence of Japan's Imperial Family.  Guided tours of the palace are offered in Japanese, with an English pamphlet and audio guide provided.  Tours must be reserved in advance with the Imperial Household Agency and can be reserved online.  Before our 1:30pm tour, we grabbed a quick udon noodle lunch at Sobakichi.

Guard Tower at entrance to Imperial Palace.
Part of the inner palace area (accessible on select days/times with your entrance ticket) is the Imperial Palace East Gardens.  It is the former site of Edo Castle's innermost circles of defense.  A wide lawn and the remaining foundation of the former castle tower can be found on top of the hill, where the castle's innermost buildings once stood. The castle tower was completed in 1638 as the tallest castle tower in Japan's history. But only a few years later in 1657, it was destroyed by citywide fires and has not been rebuilt ever since. In place of the former buildings at the foot of the hill, a nice Japanese style garden has been created.  Although we just missed the full bloom of Spring season, the garden was still so beautiful and serene - the quintessential example of a Japanese garden.  We took a nice break in the shade and overlooked the ponds.

Roppongi Hills is one of the best examples of a "city within the city." Opened in 2003 in the heart of Tokyo's Roppongi district, the building complex features offices, apartments, shops, restaurants, a hotel, art museum, observation deck and more.  If you are a fan of Tarantino's movie Kill Bill, then grab dinner in Roppongi at Gonpachi.

For unique gifts, check out Akihabara.  Hundreds of electronics shops, ranging from tiny one man stalls specializing in a particular electronic component to large electronics retailers, line the main Chuo Dori street and the crowded side streets around Akihabara.  They offer everything from the newest computers, cameras, televisions, mobile phones, electronics parts and home appliances to second-hand goods and electronic junk.  In more recent years, Akihabara has gained recognition as the center of Japan's otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga are now dispersed among the electronic stores in the district.

Ryōgoku Kokugikan, also known as Ryogoku Sumo Hall, is an indoor sporting arena located in Sumida.  The current building was opened in 1985 and has a capacity of 13,000 people. It is mainly used for sumo wrestling tournaments, yet also houses a museum about sumo.  The sumo matches alternate between sumo halls across the country, but again, we were lucky to be in Tokyo while they were in town.  We caught a match during the end of the championship tournament. It was very cool to see this traditional athletic wonder.

View from NY Bar
We went to Shinjuku for a tempura dinner at Tsunahachi Honten.  Afterwards, we checked out the NY Bar & Grill on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel - famous for its scene in Lost in Translation.  While the view of the night skyline was cool, the steep price of drinks and "entrance fee" was far overpriced.

Shinjuku at night.
Although the area immediately surrounding Shinjuku Station is home to hotels, department stores, specialist electronic and camera shops, cinemas, restaurants, and bars, the rest of the city is a mix of residential with commercial areas concentrated around railway stations.  Shinjuku Station is the world's busiest railway station, handling more than two million passengers every day. It is served by about a dozen railway and subway lines, including the JR Yamanote Line.  (Get a Suica card for easy access to the subway and JR train lines.) Shinjuku is also one of Tokyo's major stops for long-distance highway buses and city buses. Speaking of trains - check out this crazy subway map that we somehow managed to master.

Shibuya is one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo, but often refers to just the popular shopping and entertainment area found around Shibuya Station.  In this regard, Shibuya is one of Tokyo's most colorful and busy districts, packed with shopping, dining and nightclubs serving swarms of visitors that come to the district everyday. Shibuya is a center for youth fashion and culture, and its streets are the birthplace to many of Japan's fashion and entertainment trends. A prominent landmark of Shibuya is the large intersection in front of the station's Hachiko Exit. The intersection is heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens and gets flooded by pedestrians each time the crossing light turns green, making it a popular photo and movie filming spot.

Famous intersection of Shibuya.
Harajuku refers to the area around Tokyo's Harajuku Station, which is between Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote Line. It is the center of Japan's most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, but also offers shopping for adults and some historic sights. Harajuku is not only about teenage culture and shopping. Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo's major shrines, is located just west of the railway tracks in a large green oasis shared with the spacious Yoyogi Park.  The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken.  At the entrance are unique barrels of French wine as well as barrels of sake - all stored here as offerings to the late Emperor.

These sake barrels are offered every year to the enshrined deities by members of the Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association to show their deep respect for the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
The barrels of wine have been offered by the celebrated wineries of Bourgogne in France with the earnest prayer that France and Japan will enjoy many more fruitful years of friendship.
While at the shrine, we witnessed a traditional Shinto-style wedding.  It was neat to see the beautiful dress and witness the awkward interactions of the newly formed families.  The bride looked like Princess Amidala, the mother of Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars.

Yoyogi Park is one of Tokyo's largest city parks, featuring wide lawns, ponds and forested areas. It is a great place for jogging, picnicking and other outdoor activities.  We took a quick stroll through the park to see the bountiful rose gardens.

Lovely roses in Yoyogi Park.
For a side trip one day, we took an hour train ride south of Tokyo to the coastal town of Kamakura.  Sometimes called the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, Kamakura offers numerous temples, shrines and other historical monuments. In addition, Kamakura's sand beaches attract large crowds during the summer months.  Having grown up in Hawaii and then gone to college in California, I am quite familiar with the Pacific Ocean - so I had to see "the other side" while we were in Japan.  After walking around the beach, we stopped for lunch at the Cafe Hula Hawaii.

The "other side" of the Pacific Ocean at Kamakura Beach
Hasedera is a temple of the Jodo sect, that is most famous for its statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The statue shows Kannon with eleven heads, each representing a characteristic of the goddess. The 30 feet tall, gilded wooden statue is regarded as one of the largest wooden sculptures in Japan, and can be viewed in the temple's main building, the Kannon-do Hall.  It was carved from the same tree as the similarly tall Kannon statue worshipped at the Hasedera Temple in Nara Prefecture.

Hasedera is built along the slope of a wooded hill. A pretty garden with ponds is found at the base of the slope just after entering. The temple's main buildings are built further up the slope, reached via stairs. Along the way stands the Jizo-do Hall with hundreds of small statues of the Jizo Bodhisattva who helps the souls of dead children to reach the paradise. Next to the Kannon-do Hall stands the Amida-do Hall, which exhibits an almost 10 feet tall golden statue of Amida Buddha. Nearby is also an observation deck with views over the coastal city of Kamakura.

Next to the temple garden at the base of the slope stands the Benten-do, a small hall that contains a figure of Benten (also known as Benzaiten), a goddess of feminine beauty and wealth. Sculptures of Benten and other minor gods can be found in a small cave (Benten-kutsu) next to the Benten-do.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura, Kamakura Daibutsu, is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha, which stands on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple. With a height of nearly 44 feet, it is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan, surpassed only by the statue in Nara's Todaiji Temple. The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall.  However, the temple buildings were destroyed multiple times by typhoons and a tidal wave in the 14th and 15th centuries. So, since 1495, the Buddha has been standing in the open air.  The statue was quite an impressive sight to see and one of the highlights of our trip.

Great Buddha
Just for fun we snapped this picture of our TV screen during one night.  It was a news station talking about what next steps President Obama might take against the impending missile attacks by North Korea.  It was a funny caricature that showed Asia's perception of our American leadership.

Unlike our visit to Seoul, we had a bit more difficulty communicating.  I was surprised how little English the locals spoke, especially with Tokyo being such a large metropolis.  Their culture is much more reserved and the people have a unified sense of pride that perhaps comes off as being a bit less warm to foreigners.  Regardless, we enjoyed our trip and appreciated the efficiency of transportation, delicious food, and cultural sights.  Have you visited Tokyo before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!

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