Archive for November, 2013

In Tokyo it’s always peak hour.

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Tokyo is big.

It is regarded as a Megalopolis and one of the three command centers for the world economy, along with New York and London. It is also has the largest metropolitan area of any city in the world.

Tokyo has over 13 million inhabitants and each day a further 2.5 million people commute into the city centre.

It’s a city that never seems to stop yet there is no road rage, raised voices or even looks of annoyance.

The Japanese are too polite for that.

In the mornings and evenings it’s the people from the ‘City’, with their black suits and white shirts, that stream through the railway stations, single-mindedly heading to the office.  Trying to walk in the opposite direction was described to me as, “You feel like you’re a salmon swimming up-stream”

The business people of Tokyo work long hours and they will never leave the office if their boss is still there.

The crowds don’t stop once the business people are at work. Then the groups ‘Nanas’ are out with their friends, visiting shrines and sites of historical importance. The older women are not alone as, in equally large numbers, school kids are also out on excursions to the same places.

Late in the evening, after business shuts down, Tokyo again fills up, this time with young ‘Hipsters’ heading to the bars, clubs or whatever is the most trendy place at the time.

We were told that a Hawaiian pancake shop had just opened and that was the current hot spot. The proof of its popularity were the hundreds lining the streets just to sample this latest fad.

On our first day we had arranged to do a morning tour of Tokyo.

The rain was back, a result of our fourth or fifth typhoon, we had lost count. The new camera was relegated to the hotel room.

It’s easier to take snaps, while holding an umbrella, dodging puddles and chasing a fast moving tour guide, with the much smaller RX100.

Our first stop was the Tokyo Tower, where we were whisked up to the observation deck to get a ‘special’ view of Tokyo. It was very special indeed, as the windows were either obscured by the condensation, or scaffolding and netting from the current renovations.

Tokyo Tower is 333 meters high and was built in 1958. It’s just slightly higher than the Eiffel Tower, which is 320 meters. After the war the people of Tokyo wanted their tower to be taller than the one in Europe. That post war sentiment is still in existence today, hence the line:

“The Tower makes you happy.”

Tokyo Tower is very similar in design to the one that Gustave built back in 1889.

“The Japanese are copycats” was a quote from our guide on the morning tour.

The rain continue and so did we.

Meiji Shrine was next.

After the emperor’s death, in 1912, the Japanese Government decided to build the shrine to commemorate his part in the Meiji Restoration. Construction started in 1915 and was finally completed in 1926.

It was destroyed during WW2 and rebuilt by public funding in 1958.

The final stop of our morning tour was the East Garden of the Imperial Palace. This is the only area of the palace that is accessible to the general public. Except on January 2nd, for New Year and December 23rd, for the Emperor’s birthday. Then the public can enter through the Nakamon, or inner gate, where the current Emperor usually gives a short speech.

The palace is built on the site of of the old Edo castle and the area, including the gardens, measures 3.41 square kilometers.

During the Japanese property boom of the 1980s, the land was said to be worth more than all the real estate in California.

In the afternoon, free from the umbilical cord of the tour guide, we went into Tokyo city.

The Ginza is regarded as one of the most luxurious shopping strips in the world. That’s easy to understand when you see the big brands lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along this wide boulevard.

It was Saturday and the road was blocked to traffic, so we were able to meander from side to side.

Ironically this mecca of luxury was a former swamp that was reclaimed in the 16th century.

Trying to master the complexities of the Tokyo Metro, we headed down to Kaminarimon Gate, Asakusa Shrine and the 5 storied pagoda. The shrine was constructed in 1649, during the Edo Period.

It was dusk and the shrine and pagoda were illuminated against the deep blue evening sky.

In the same area, just near the Sumida River, is the Asahi Brew Hall.

This was designed by the French architect and industrial designer, Philippe Starck. Completed in 1989 it is one of the most contemporary pieces of architecture in Tokyo.

The main building is a black cube with illuminated glass steps on all sides. It is topped with golden styalised beer foam.

The locals call it the ‘Golden Turd’.

We had booked another tour, this one was an all day affair, called the Nikko World Heritage Tour.

It involved a reasonably early start and a long drive to Nikko, which is to the north west of Tokyo in the middle of Honshu Island.

We did get our one and only glimpse of Mount Fuji as we were driving out of Tokyo.

Unfortunately the main gate of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine was being renovated and was surrounded by a huge temporary construction.

It was Sunday and I am sure that half of Tokyo’s 13 million inhabitants were out on the road after a wet few days. Many of them had come to Nikko, so the shrine was awash with day trippers. It was difficult to get a clear view of anything, let alone a good shot, as there were so many people.

Our time at the shrine was cut short as we had been held up in the traffic jam coming out of Tokyo.

Our guide, Yasushi, told us the Japanese are very liberal when it comes to religion. Ninety percent of the population follow Shintoism, eighty percent Buddhism and fifty percent get married in a Christian church. However when they are asked, they deny having any religion and most of them only visit the shrine as a tourist.

There were a lot of tourists there that day.

We then went to Tamozawa Imperial Villa. The villa was constructed in 1899 for Prince Yoshihito, who was later to become emperor. It was used by three emperors and three princes until 1947. The current emperor was evacuated to the villa in 1943 and spent about a year there as a young prince.

There are 106 rooms in the villa and many of them overlook a beautifully crafted Japanese garden. It is only one third of its original size but still very impressive.

It was opened to the public in 2000 after extensive renovations.

Kirifuri Falls, just out of Nikko, was our final destination for the day. It was late in the afternoon and the low light illuminated the Autumn leaves that surrounded the 75 meter drop.

It had been a long 12 hour day, with half of it sitting on a bus.

I think I am over escorted tours, well at least for the time being.

On our third day we took ourselves south west of Tokyo to the Miura Peninsula. Firstly to Hase to see the Big Buddha and then to Kamakura.

In the past few weeks we have been warned several times about the problems that deer and monkeys pose to tourists, here it was kites.

In Hase they were constantly circling the shrine and wire had been strung across the garden to deter them from swooping on unsuspecting visitors.

Hasedera Temple in Hase has its origins dating back to 721 AD when the monk Tokudo Shonin commissioned two large statues of Buddha from a giant camphor wood tree.

Just up the road from the shrine is the Great Buddha Kamakura. Construction of this national treasure was started in 1252 and continued for ten more years. It is truly great, measuring 13.4 meters high and weighing 121 tones.

Hase is a fishing village and the beach was full of fishing boats with fishermen mending their nets.

We then took the train back a few stops to the the seaside town of Kamakura. This was the capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333.

After a couple of false starts we found the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine that dates back to 1063.

Here there were many children, with their families, celebrating either their third, fifth or seventh birthdays. They go there to be blessed for a lucky, healthy life, dressed in traditional costume. Most struggle up the steep stairs, unaccustomed to wearing the classic Japanese sandal, a style of thong that is worn with socks.

On our last day we tacked the morning metro rush and headed to the Tsukiji Fish Market. This was our first real experience of the metro crush. The carriages are so tightly packed that you can barely move and when the train jolts to a stop, there is little fear of falling over, as there just isn’t enough room.

This is the largest fish market in Japan and the variety on offer was amazing. Frozen Tuna is a specialty of Tsukiji and cold carcasses are everywhere. They are so large that the wholesalers cut them into manageable pieced with a bandsaw.

In between the siteseeing we had a great lunch with our nephew Mike, his lovely wife Natsumi and their delightful children Manami and Josh.

It was a good opportunity to get a bit of insider information about the workings of Tokyo from Natsumi.

I have always loved Japanese woodblock prints, especially the ones by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) so we headed back to the Kaminarimon Gate.

Buying the real thing was out of the question but I did manage to find a well made copy, ’36 Views of Mt. Fuji [The Great Wave off Kanagawa]’ actually done as a woodblock and the same size as the original.

Then back down to the river to get a few shots of the Asahi Beer Hall in daylight.

One last trip on the subway took us to the Tokyo Railway Station.

Opened in 1914, the station is said to be based on the Amsterdam’s main station, however the architect, Terunobu Fujimora, denied this.

Its other claim to fame is that the Prime Minister Hara Takashi was assassinated there in 1921.

We were set an ambitious four week itinerary, by Mina from Japan Package Tours and despite the typhoons, we managed to tick most places off the list.