Thursday, July 3, 2014

Totally Smitten by Tokyo

Totally Smitten by Tokyo
Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fabulous Sighting of Fujisan:

            So, as hoped, the Mountain God was benevolent this morning and, as soon as I awoke, at 6. 30 am in Michael’s Hotel at Mount Fuji, I rushed to the window to see if the cloud cover over Japan’s tallest mountain had lifted. And guess what? It had! There is stood, Mount Fuji, is all its brilliant, snow-streaked glory, as we gazed upon it transfixed. Needless to say, we took loads of pictures, then washed, dressed and got ourselves ready for our long trek to Tokyo—our objectives in getting all the way to Fuji Five Lakes fully vindicated.

 A Far Less Arduous Journey to Tokyo:

            Getting to Tokyo from Mount Fuji was far more pleasant than getting to Mount Fuji from Kyoto—and also less expensive as we were able to use Japan Rail passes most of the way. We caught a local commuter (Fujityo) train line (at a cost of 970 yen each) from Gekkouji station for the 45 minutes ride to Otsuki, during which we had fabulous views of Fujisan—much to our delight. Once we reached Otsuki, I raced to the Chinese bakery outside to pick up almond croissants and coffees as we had gone without breakfast. Procuring reserved seats through our Japan Rail Passes, we found ourselves on a fairly good train line—although it wasn’t the Shinkansen. I was able to blog on the train and bring my journal up to date, and, two hours later, we were pulling into Tokyo Station, already feeling quite dazzled by Japan’s capital city.

 Checking into Hotel Heimat:

            Thanks to an old friend from Bombay, Vivek Pinto, who now resides in Tokyo and who had arranged accommodation for us through his Japanese wife, Hisako, we found ourselves checking into a really convenient hotel called Hotel Heimat right opposite Tokyo Station—it could not have been better located. Since check-in time was 3. 00 pm and we had arrived at 11.00 am, we stashed our baggage in the storage room and went out to discover Japan’s capital. And what a fabulous journey of discovery it turned out to be! We simply loved it, from the get go.

Looking for the Tourist Information Office:

            But first things first: the hotel did not have maps in English, so off we went across the street to the Japan Tourist Bureau to pick up maps in order to get oriented. While I had photocopied material from my travel guide books, I hadn’t found the time to read them adequately before setting out on our sightseeing mission. Hence, we had no choice but to wing it. Based on our location, it appeared as if the Imperial Palace was our nearest bet—and so off we set in its direction.

 Marunoushi and the Imperial Palace East Gardens:

            In order to get to the Imperial Palace, we had to trek across Marunoushi, a wonderfully commercial area that reminded us of New York’s Financial District. We crossed the beautifully laid out grid of streets after catching an admiring glimpse of Tokyo’s Main Station--a lovely red brick Victorian structure that reminded us of Melbourne’s Flinders Station (except that Flinders is a warm yellow while this was auburn).

            Although the Imperial Palace is not open to the public, it is worth heading towards the grand, sprawling park in which it is located—the lungs of the city of Tokyo. It is a vast green expanse that allows residents to get away from urbanity and immerse themselves in nature. A short walk across a broad water-filled moat brought us to the gates of the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace where a large number of visitors were heading. Once past the main gates, we were given an admission pass each (to be returned upon exit).

            The East Gardens are set in the property once owned by the powerful Shogun T…gawa whose bastion was guarded by dozens of samurai who functioned from out of a building called a Bansho. As we proceeded deeper and deeper into the gardens, we passed by solid, towering stone walls that were deeply impressive. But, on the other side, was the softness of a typical Japanese water garden with flowering water iris, loads of azalea bushes and low maple trees that would, undoubtedly, be very special at certain times of year. Even when not in flower, the entire layout of the garden that was started during the Edo Period, i.e, over two hundred years ago, was truly delightful with bamboo fencing, charming bridges, a small waterfall, stone lanterns, etc. We lingered a long while in this space, then found a shady bench on which to plan out the next part of our exploration of this city.

 Lunch on Ramen Street:

            Ramen Street is located in the basement of Tokyo Station and is highly touted by Lonely Planet as the place to go for really great Japanese-style noodles. Well, we did get there as hunger pangs made their presence felt urgently. We could not say where we were nor what we ate (as everything was written in Japanese) but we chose our dishes at an automated vending machine, paid for them with cash that we fed into the machine—thus, no money changed human hands! We had joined a long line of locals waiting patiently at the door and figured that since the place was so popular, it probably was good.

            And we guessed right! It was absolutely fabulous! A lunge mound of thick noodles arrived in a separate bowl together with a thick, coconut-milk like broth filled with pork, fish and mushrooms. We ate heartily as we listening to the slurping of fellow-diners all around us. At a neighboring table, we were joined by an American couple named Brad and Sarah with whom we entered into conversation. They gave us tips on how to prepare for an excursion to the Tshujiki Fish Market to view the daily auction of tuna.

 Ginza—The Beating Heart of Tokyo:

            Many moons ago, when I was still a teenager in Bombay, I had read an article in National Geographic magazine about Tokyo’s Ginza that carried the visual feast of brilliant pictures that had made me feel like dropping everything and visiting the area. Well, I only had to wait for four odd decades before I was able to bring reality to my yearnings. Using a walking tour that appears in the DK Eyewitness Guide, Llew and I found our way on foot to this most colorful part of the city that contains a bunch of upscale stores including the very classy Parisian establishment, Printemps. Of course, I was thrilled, as I loved all things French. And how elated I felt when I found a lovely classy hat such as I have seen the elegant Japanese women wearing. I am not entirely sure that I will have the chance to wear it myself but at $25, it made a worthy souvenir of my stay in Japan and I was pleased to pick one up.

            Out rambles in the Ginza continued with ducks in and out of stores such as the super-expensive Mikimoto (home of the world’s finest pearls), Matsuya and Mitsukoshi (very luxurious Japanese department stores in which the shoppers dress just to shop!). It was great to people-watch and I did a great deal of it. I am absolutely charmed by the elegance and style of Japanese women that reminds me very much of the kind of sophistication one sees in Paris. At all times, they are simply superbly turned out, their outfits marvelously color-coordinated, their bags and shoes totally trendy. We stepped into a Starbucks for an iced café mocha, the half an hour, continued our rambles in the midst of a very busy afternoon with folks to-ing and fron-ing as they went about the serious business of shopping. Japan is evidently prosperous and there is no sign of poverty anywhere, not even a homeless person anywhere to be seen. If there is one country that seems to have wiped out poverty, this is it.

 Back to the Hotel for a Nap and Rest:

            Having been on our feet for most of the day, we felt the need for a nap and rest. So, testing our Japan Rail Passes for use on the local Tokyo subway system, we were little to discover that they overlapped. Seekign the station nearest us, we found our way back home in about ten minutes—that’s how well situated our hotel is. Without minutes, I was asleep while Llew pottered with his smart phone. It was about 7. 30 pmn that we set out again—this time to discover Tokyo by night. And what a magical place it is!

 Tokyo By Night:

After dark, Tokyo scintillates. And I mean, seriously. The entire city is lit up brighter than Las Vegas.  Imagine New York’s Times Square or London’s Piccadilly Circus with their spectacular neon lights, their changing billboards, their hordes of people scurrying about—and there you have it. All of Tokyo is like a circus after night falls.

            Using our guide books, we headed on the subway line for Shibuya where the world’s most famous crossing exists. We were instructed, once again, to bag a seat at Starbucks which is head above their heads. Each time the lights changed, hundreds of them surged forward like so many ants (from our perspective) hurrying to their next destination which lights winked and blinked all around them. It really was a stupendous sight.

            After about half an hour of watching this fascinating, orchestrated surge of human movement, we took a walking tour throuogh the area known as Central Gai with its hundreds, no thousands, of young folks (high school and college age, who frequent the slot and pachinko machines in the brightly-lit amusement arcades and karaoke bars that make up this area. Record shops, boutiques, eateries, catering to their special needs cram this area and make viewing the rabble of humanity a fantastic sight. The drizzle did not dampen our spirits as it cooled the place down for Tokyo, like Kyoto, is awfully humid and it can be uncomfortable staying outdoors, even after the sun has set.

 Back To Our Hotel:

            By 10 pm, we were flagging and decided to pick our steps back home. It was been a superb introduction to a city that appeared to be constantly on steroids—but it truly was love at first sight.

 Until tomorrow, sayonara   





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