Traveling can help you get to know yourself for sure. This “last trip” on our year long adventure was a point of contention. I wanted Iceland, Norway and Ireland, places that sounded good in the hot summer months and all places I had been looking forward to visiting. Besides, I am Norwegian on my father’s side and I wanted to visit Norway. Conversely, my family wanted to see Japan and China. China was a definite yes for the three dissenters and then the kids thought Japan sounded interesting; Grant had been wanting to visit Japan for a couple of years and it was mostly on the way to China. It was three to one and that was that. Besides, we know quite a few people who really like both Japan and China and to be honest there was the “6th continent thing” that was alluring to all of us. Lastly, and most importantly (SCOTT when you read this blog) I wanted to be a good sport because this travel thing was my dream and Scott and the kids have been great sports all year. Still though, during our planning and discussing I couldn’t help but point out that it would be hot and humid and in all honesty I may have difficulty being a good sport in the details of things (like being a tourist) in not Iceland, Not Norway and Not Ireland. Talk about self fulfilling prophesies…
Seventeen hours after leaving San Luis Obispo and eleven hours after leaving Los Angeles and a bumpy last two hours of flying, we arrived to instant “figure it out mode,” luckily the airport has a lot of helpful English speaking folks because reading the signs is impossible. We picked up our pre-purchased rail passes and boarded the train for the hour long journey from Narita International Airport into Tokyo.
Tokyo had the tourist effect on me, I must admit. We arrived late in the afternoon and planned three nights and two days knowing full well that we would be fighting jet lag. Two days in Tokyo had been a compromise. I thought there was no way to be a high achieving tourist in two days, but Scott pointed out that two days would be plenty of the chaos of a big city and it is a big city, the largest city in the world in fact. Some perspective; Japan is smaller than the state of California and has a population of a little over 127 million to California’s 38.5 million and about 38 million (give or take depending on the source) of those people live in the greater Tokyo area, which is about the size of LA county.
One thing I am picking up on this year is that Scott is wise about some things. Don’t get too excited here Scott but I really tried to listen to your thoughts on visiting this megalopolis. There is a lot to see in Tokyo and it is very spread out and I had a long list gleaned from Lonely Planet, Google and friends rattling around in my head, but the reality was that a few things to do and the adventure of finding them was plenty for a day. This proves to be very hard for me occasionally.
With only two and half days to complete my list in Tokyo, I cracked the whip and we dropped our bags at the hotel, ignored the siren song of the very comfortable looking beds and headed out into the Tokyo jungle. Some big ticket tourist items; Shibuya Crossing and Hachikō Statue would be struck from the list on our first night. Shibuya crossing is a famous and busy intersection outside of Shibuya Station. All of the traffic lights turn red at once and people cross in every direction. It is said to be the biggest pedestrian crossing in the world with around 2,500 people (during rush hour) crossing the five major crosswalks spanning ten lanes of traffic for about a minute.
This is the Hachikō Statue. I don’t know where I first read about it, but I do remember laughingly reading the description to Scott, something like, “the story behind this iconic Tokyo statue is bound to make you cry…” and then I proceeded to read aloud the story of Hachikō, a loyal Akita who would wait for his master to return from work every evening at the Shibuya train station. The professor died in 1925, but Hachikō unfailingly waited to meet his master at the station everyday for the next ten years until his own death. I looked up and sure enough, tears were rolling down Scott’s face.
We finished out the night by strolling through the busy and brightly lit streets and walking through a relatively quiet Takeshita-dori, a usually teeming area full of teens and crazy fashions, on our way back to the hotel. We stopped for a McDonald’s snack (you may think, why McDonald’s in Japan and I would have wholeheartedly agreed a year ago, but now I know that when hunger sets in it is best to not be picky) and then back to the hotel for a quick sleep and an early start the next day. And this was the end of a surreal travel day that started out in San Luis Obispo, California and ended after a night out in Tokyo who knows how many hours later.
The next day was our first full day in Tokyo and I was still feeling fairly balanced, but probably because we were out the door at seven to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. After some deliberation, we had decided not to get up at 2:30 am (Scott’s wisdom here) and get in line to see the tuna auction that takes place there most mornings (proof that the evil forces were still in check). I was tempted, but we were exhausted from traveling and the reviews promised it was still a fun experience even without the auction.
And it is fun, even without the tuna auction. The market is full of people and all kinds of food, cooking utensils and produce. The kids laughed at how much I enjoyed eating from stall to stall but I was the one laughing later when everyone else was hungry!
Everything I read indicated that one must eat a sushi breakfast when visiting Tsukiji Fish Market and there are some very famous sushi joints that people get in line at 3:30 in the morning to get the first breakfast seating, but we opted for a random little place. The sushi was very good even if it was raw fish for breakfast and the chefs were fun.
There is so much to look at and so many unidentifiable foods.
The fruit is overly packaged and very expensive. About $9.00 for two peaches and $10.00 for a package of strawberries!
Outside the fish market, a little bit of English signage goes a long way. I am really appreciating that about Japan. It seems like the really important things have English instructions and although I like to know how to get out of the bathroom (I have had that moment of anxiousness this past year and Ashley did get trapped in an outhouse in Peru) or that the elevator will stop at the nearest floor in the event of an earthquake, it makes me wonder why just English?
Grant was drawn to Yodobashi -Akiba like a moth to a flame even though it was Not. On. My. List. It is the largest store in Tokyo’s biggest electronics chain and eight floors stuffed to the ceiling of mostly electronics of all shapes and sizes. There were a few random things thrown in like clothes, shoes and bikes for those shoppers accompanying their uber geek/nerd friends or family member into the store but with no interest in spending money on electronics. A good business model I would say.
I think we could have left Grant here for a few hours or days…there was a cafe.
We moved on to Akihabara, a district that is famous for its electronic shops, manga and anime.
Manga is everywhere.
Then we went to the Pokemon store, of course. Pokemon is a world unto itself. It was originally a game created by Satoshi Tajiri for the Gameboy in 1996, but in the twenty years since, has spawned a cult following and is so much more than a video game. The kids have been into Pokemon off and on for years and because now is an “on” time, it was especially fun to wander around the giant store and look at all of the cute creatures. The actual Pokemon game is one big story. Trainers (that is you) wander around in the game trying to catch Pokemon (little creatures). After you catch a Pokemon then you can train it and meet other trainers to do battle with your creatures (don’t worry, it’s not violent). The creatures evolve as they grow with different talents and strengths. As we walked out of the mall, Grant started telling me that the creator of Pokemon loved to collect bugs as a child and that is where his idea for the game came from. Grant always surprises me with what he researches.
We walked or should I stay stumbled with jet lag and exhaustion through the national garden, Shinjuku Gyoen, on our way back to the hotel. The sprawling park was originally Lord Naito’s (a “daimyo” or feudal lord) Tokyo residence sometime during the Edo period. Later it belonged to the imperial family and then in it was almost completely destroyed during WWII, but was eventually rebuilt and opened in 1949 as a public park. We had been on our feet for about eight hours by the time we made it to the park and dozed in the shade before heading back to our hotel.
It was still early afternoon and I felt like an accomplished tourist after eight hours of sightseeing and so I could peacefully enjoy an afternoon and evening at our beautiful hotel. We swam and worked out and ate dinner in the lounge high above the lights of Tokyo. A perfect ending to a solid day of sightseeing.
I pause here dear reader and ask, have you ever watched the movie, “A Beautiful Mind?” I’m horrible at remembering movies and I often change the story up a bit in my mind, so forgive me it I get it wrong, but the movie was about a really smart guy who was delusional and it was so well done that as the viewer you’re not quite sure what is real and what our hero is imagining. I have an evil tourist that lurks in me and makes appearances occasionally. The last time I saw her we were visiting Berlin, but she had been lurking in the shadows even before we left California and she was waiting to make her appearance.
I woke up very early on our second day in a full on tourist panic. It was dark and rainy and our last day in Tokyo with much to see. I had wavered on booking a sumo wrestling practice tour and lost the opportunity and so it was all on us to decide the day’s offerings. Definitely the Meiji Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shōken and the surrounding gardens (our true interest). We enjoyed a long breakfast and because it was raining, we stayed in the room playing cards and Duolingo. I was getting antsy, although everyone else was very content snuggled into our comfortable hotel room on a rainy day. What’s a little rain, people? I chose a cat café and the Tokyu food show to complete the day with the promise that it would be a short-ish day and we would return to the hotel to swim and workout and just chill out (the other travelers’ choices).
The Meiji Shrine is a Shinto Shrine. Shinto is Japan’s official religion, but it’s not technically a religion, nor is it a way of explaining the world. It is rather the Japanese devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers called kami, to shrines, and to various rituals, and is deeply rooted in the Japanese way of life. Kami are spirits that like our attention and want us to be happy. When the kami are pleased they will properly intervene resulting in benefits like health, wealth and success. The religion has no book or founder and because it is all about ritual the Japanese regard it as a way of life and not a religion. We began at the shrine gate.
We hiked for a long time looking for the actual shrine in the acres of park.
The Meiji Shrine for me was nice, but just another shrine in this land of many. Please forgive me fans of beautiful and old shrines in Japan, as symbolic and mystical as they seem, for me they just don’t inspire interest therefore my research is nonexistent resulting in fairly complete ignorance of Japanese shines. I admit that I do not appreciate them as I should. The sight that did capture my attention and bring tears to my eyes was a beautiful tree in front of the shrine surrounded by little wooden tablets that people from around the world had inscribed their wishes, prayers and hopes. As I read them, I could hear the murmurings of the world.
As I read them, I could hear the murmurings of the world. Of the cards that I could read, so many wished for the health and happiness of their loved ones.
Some were cute and funny.
And some were thankful. I wondered if the authors of these cards were the happiest of all.
We wandered the grounds some more and found our way to the “Inner Garden” which is the only part of the property that existed before the foundation of Meiji Jingu. Each season there is something different to see and summer is the time to view the Iris Garden.
We especially enjoyed the Iris Garden. Emperor Meiji designed the garden himself to give the Empress Shoken “fresh energy.” The Emperor and the Empress were beloved by their country and truly a team. Emperor Meiji was the 122nd emperor of Japan and ascended the throne in 1867 when the shogun resigned after ten years of resisting the tide of Western influence. Emperor Meiji transformed Japan from an isolated, feudal country into a country of world prominence, all the while avoiding colonization from Europe and convincing his people to adopt Western ideas like studying math and science, while preserving their culture. Empress Shoken devoted herself to promoting both national and international welfare and women’s education. She donated a fund to the International Red Cross that is still used today. One of the values of Shinto is “Magokoro” a sincere heart and it seems like these two loved each other and their country with one giant sincere heart. After their deaths in 1912 and 1914, the Japanese people and many around the world donated over 100,000 trees and worked voluntarily to plant them to create the forest around the shrine.
We’d wandered around the garden for a while and it was past lunch time so after a quick pit stop (one thing I appreciate about Japan is the bounty of bathrooms) our plan was lunch. Upon returning from the restroom I found Scott and Grant chatting with a man and here we got a differing viewpoint of the respect and ritual that is everywhere.
We met Hideo Asano, a self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” whose goal is to save the Japanese people from themselves. He told us that Japan is the most dangerous place on Earth and although the Japanese may seem steeped in their culture, so respectful, devoted and meek, it’s all a mask. This was turning out to be an interesting conversation and I couldn’t help but think that like the differing stories behind the masses of seemingly homeless dogs in Peru, the truth was somewhere between what Asano believed and the meek, eyes lowered and bowing, shoe doffing behavior of many people we observed. He believes that the Japanese are robots (he is Japanese by the way), that there is such a thing as too much culture and that ancient and tireless devotion to culture does not allow for free thinking. He admonished, “Look around; there are no demonstrations, no graffiti (I thought the mention of graffiti as proof of freedom of thought was incredibly interesting), no free thinking. There is only bowing, bowing to shrines and bowing to people.” He told us that in Japan there is complete conviction, if you get arrested you are as good as convicted and citizens turn each other in all of time. So I fact checked this a little bit and there is a 99% conviction rate in Japan and the government strongly encourages people to help fight crime. Asano’s journey is to save the Japanese people from their inability to think independently. He recently went to New Zealand to work on his ideas, books, poems, and drawings but found that living there was too expensive and commented that, “People cannot survive on beautiful mountains alone. They are nice, but people need bread too.” Currently, he is trying to raise funds to go to Berlin to work on his ideas with all of the artists and free thinkers there. I find it ironic that Asano was peddling his ideas in an area dedicated to one of Japan’s original free thinkers, Emperor Meiji.
Our conversation with the freedom fighter was interesting but my tourist clock was ticking loudly. The gardens had been a major wander and then the conversation had set us back another twenty minutes. I had been checking my impatient tourist anxiety all morning and now it was afternoon without a lunch break. We needed to get a serious move on, just like this blog, so I’ll make a long story bearable here. We walked a half hour to the the cat cafe and couldn’t find it. We gave up and continued to the Tokyu Food show which I couldn’t remember the exact name of, but I did know that it was in the basement of the Shibuya station. We paused inside the station to get our bearings and a well meaning and outgoing Tokyo-ite stopped to help. He told us laughingly, “Oh no, no food in this station.” He would show us where to find food and so we followed behind this very nice but maybe a tiny bit condescending man, who pointed us towards a bank of elevators. I was breaking down. I was on a major sugar low, jet lagged and my cat cafe had been a bust and worst of all, we had checked off one thing on our list for the entire day. Scott suggested grabbing a snack in what we later learned was the Tokyu Food Show, the place I had wanted to see, and continuing our search for my desired destination, but it wasn’t me he was talking to, the Evil Tourist had already taken possession and my head spun around and my eyes rolled back into my head and I said, “Let’s. Just. Eat.” We found food and returned to the hotel. By this time Scott and the Evil Tourist were no longer communicating. I looked up the cat cafe again and the food court and invited the kids to go out again with me to right some wrongs. Scott ended up going and it was fun and interesting but the day had deflated a bit.
I don’t know how I knew about cat cafes but somewhere in my head I knew that cat cafes existed in Japan. As I searched for a suitable place to visit, I learned that they really run the gamut from someone’s living room with rescued cats to this beautiful two story apartment created with cozy seating areas, WiFi and vending machines. You pay in ten minute increments or you can purchase half an hour or an hour at a bit of a discount.
I had read that people liked this particular cat cafe because the cats had a lot of room and the ability to remove themselves from the public rooms through little “cat only” doors.
The design of the place was really impressive. There are a lot of rules. You cannot pick up or cuddle the cats. They can climb on you and sit on you but it must be their choice.
The younger kittens were definitely more friendly and playful while the older cats dozed out of reach. It seemed as if the people in the cat cafe equally fit the personality of the cats. Some were there to interact with the cats and others were there just reading or working or studying in the calming (as advertised) presence of the cats.
The kids enjoyed it and I was happy that we had made the extra effort to find the cafe. Sometimes it pays to take that taxi.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we wandered back through Takeshita-dori and just as promised by the guide books it was shoulder to should people and many of them teenagers wearing, shall we say, some very creative outfits.
We ate cotton candy…
…and crepes filled with cake and ice-cream.
We wandered through the Tokyu food show…
…and then back out to cross the Shibuya crossing one more time.
It was a long two days full of contrasts, especially our last day in Tokyo. What did I learn? Well, I learned that traveling can teach you a lot about yourself and the lessons learned in Tokyo were not pleasant and not things I wanted to know about myself (the most important kind, right?). I can lose sight of some of the most precious tidbits in life, the journey part, the little, unexpected treasures along the way part, the laughing and swimming in the hotel pool while Tokyo gets on it with its bad self forty-one floors below part. There are many choices that one can make every single day all the days that will eventually make up my (or your) entire life. You can’t choose to see and do and experience everything which means you will always be in a state of missing out on something. The trick is to be okay with that and know that if you aren’t okay with the thing ( millions of things over the course of a life) you are missing out on, you will mess up the thing (millions of things) you choose. On our second day in Tokyo I became obsessed with what I wasn’t able to check off of my list and that twisted my perception of everything around me. There is always an adventure to be had and it doesn’t need to be in bold in a guide book to be valuable or memorable. That is the lesson that I will take from Tokyo and I think it is the best thing I found there.