I awoke to the Tokyo morning pouring in through the hostel curtains. Unlike yesterday, it wasn’t raining, so I decided to do something unheard of – put some makeup on and wear a nice dress. Well, when in Rome (or Tokyo), do as the locals do. I couldn’t look like a slob this entire trip, and if I was going to be walking around, I wanted to be seen to make an effort.
Ah, don’t get used to it. Slob life is the life for me.
The Tokyo Skytree was about half an hour’s walk from my hostel, and since it was unlikely I’d be coming back to Asakusa, I decided to do it – even though I’d already forked out for the Tokyo Tower. But it was different enough to justify the expense – at a whopping 634 metres, the Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, and was only constructed in the last decade. In fact, it was built to do something the Tower could not do – broadcast digital TV to the entire Tokyo region. It cost 3300 yen to go up, but unlike the Tower, I’d say it was worth the money.
So tall, you’re literally inside a cloud.
Owing to the poor weather, I couldn’t see as far as Mount Fuji (which at this point seemed to be deliberately avoiding me), but I could see over most of Tokyo. It’s strange how the city has so many different centres, hubs, and business districts, and seeing it from this high up really emphasised the enormity of the place.
For some unexplained reason, the Skytree also plays host to a Hello Kitty museum. It’s her 45th anniversary this year, and I think it’s hard to underestimate the cultural significance she has for Japan – she’s the symbol of ‘kawaii’ (cute) culture, an adorable and simple cartoon that’s loved the world over. Japanese people of all ages were riveted by the exhibition, and queued up to take their photo with iconic white cat.
I wondered if I’d look really sad doing the same, but decided that since I’ve never been cool anyway, I might as well join in the fun. A nice Japanese family did me the kindness of taking my picture for me.
Upon some Googling, I’ve discovered Hello Kitty is actually supposed to be a British schoolkid. If only the creators had met British schoolchildren, they’d find out we weren’t so cute after all.
The trouble is, Hello Kitty is so damn cute, this crazy cat lady needed to get her real cat fix. I headed back across the river to Asakusa to experience one of Japan’s famous cat cafes. Monta had really good reviews, so I got in an old-fashioned lift and rode it to the 8th floor of an office block, where 10 adorable cats were waiting for me. The man who ran the place clearly adored his cats, and was extremely concerned for the cats’ welfare at all times, which was great to see. I sat down and ordered myself a slice of cheesecake, listened to the relaxing Portuguese music that was playing, and waited for a cat to come and say hello.
Unfortunately for me, in the two days I’d been away from my own little cat, I’d forgotten that cats don’t come to you. They simply allow you to say hello to them. I petted one that had found itself a nice sunny spot, and stroked one that had parked itself on the floor.
This cat is an absolute unit.
This Abyssinian looks extremely proud.
When my time was up, I headed back down and got lunch at my favourite place – Coco Curry. I don’t think too many white people went into that particular branch, so I was something of a novelty to the staff. I ordered my curry medium hot, then sat down. Before I ate it I noticed the chef staring at me, eagerly waiting for me to take my first bite. I thought I was imagining it, so I did a double take, and she was still looking my way, smiling. I gave her a little wave, and she waved back, still watching. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the spice (if so, wrong – I’ve got Pakistani and Indian friends who trained me out of that), or maybe she just wanted to see if I liked it, but either way I gave her a big ol’ thumbs up. She seemed very sweet.
Alas, now it was time to leave Asakusa and head across the city to Shinjuku, the location of my next hostel, and where I’d start the G Adventures tour. I hopped on the subway and traversed the city – making sure to get on the train before the Tokyo rush hour started. I’d experienced it yesterday, and after having my face shoved into a salaryman’s armpit, I had no desire to experience it again.
I was excited to be staying in Shinjuku. It’s a much more happening place than Asakusa – there are more hostels located there, for starters, and the bar scene is arguably the best in all Tokyo. Plus, it was closer to the tourist hotspots of Yoyogi Park, Harajuku (where all those quirky dressed up teenagers come from), and Shibuya. But I wouldn’t be experiencing all of this alone, as I was about to meet my tour buddies, who I’d be spending the next 10 days with. Naturally, I was worried about making a good first impression. What if everyone thinks I’m an obnoxious motormouth weirdo? Or worse, I freeze up, and people are fooled into thinking I’m a quiet sort of gal?
But as I am known to do, I was worrying too much. I checked into the hostel and met my roommates, 5 lovely girls from the UK, Australia, and Europe. Unusually, I was the oldest person in the room, and quickly found myself using phrases like “when I was your age” and “ah, youths”. I’ve always been a grandma at heart, and now I finally felt able to act like one.
We headed downstairs for the welcome meeting, which was led by the most adorable person I have ever met. Machi was to be our guide, a sweet Japanese lady with a thirst for adventure and a passion for showcasing the wonders of Japan. She knew all there was to know about her home country, so we were in safe hands.
Machi could see that the ice needed breaking, so she took us for a stroll round the neighbourhood, which had plenty of talking points. I bonded with a fellow veggie – the lack of vegetarian (or even healthy) food in Japan is enough to bind any two people who consider themselves foodies together, but we were also of a similar age and outlook on life. I could tell we’d be fast friends.
Though dazzled by the bright lights and the noise of Shinjuku, it gave me a rush to think that this was only the start of my big Japanese adventure. I could have stayed there all night, wandering around the narrow streets and alleyways, hearing the lively conversation emanate from bars, and watching rowdy tourists and businessmen alike stumble out of tiny taverns and inns.
Shinjuku is also home to the famous Robot Restaurant – I think it’s like a dinner show, where you eat bog standard food, while the robots blow your mind with crazy stunts and weird and wonderful musical renditions.
Sadly, we quickly learned this would not be a stay-up-late kind of tour, as we were to go exploring the next day at 8:30AM sharp. First on the agenda was the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park, one of the most famous Shinto shrines in Japan. Shintoism is an interesting religion – it’s not really got any organisational structure or hierarchy, and you don’t have to publicly declare yourself to be a believer. It simply states that everything on Earth has a spirit, and it’s those spirits you pray to. In this case, the Meiji Shrine allows followers to pray to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) and his wife, Empress Shoken.
The Meiji Restoration was a turning point in Japanese history. It brought down the centuries-old Tokugawa Shogunate, and with it, the power of the samurai. Meiji himself had considerable support from the West, and his reign saw a move away from traditional Japanese practices, towards Western ones. Construction of the Meiji Shrine was finished in 1926, and commemorates the Emperor’s role in the Restoration.
On the ten minute walk through Yoyogi Park to the shrine, you pass under three Torii gates. You bow to each before you proceed, and every gate helps to purify your spirit before you enter the main temple. The path is lined with verdant trees, and a stunning Iris garden, but make no mistake – you’re still in central Tokyo.
Many buildings like this also dot the route. I can’t tell you what it’s for, but it looks pretty!
The main shrine was quiet when we were there, but you still had to queue to pray. It was here Machi taught us how Shinto prayer rituals work. First, you have to wash your hands and mouth in a very specific way. Then, you throw 5 or 10 yen (less than 10p) into the donation pit. Close your eyes, and bow twice. Clap twice and feel the vibrations on your palms. Then, make a silent prayer in your mind, before a final clap brings you back to reality.
I prayed for a good trip. And for sunnier skies, of course.
When I turned around to face the courtyard, a crowd had formed around the main path. Turns out, lots of Japanese weddings happen at the Meiji shrine, and a procession was about to start. We lined the route to catch a glimpse of the happy couple, on their way to the wedding.
The miko (priestesses) go first, followed by the bride and groom, who are shaded by a red parasol. From what sun, though?
The family followed behind. They wore an interesting mix of traditional kimonos and Western-style suits, but it really sums up the spirit of the Meiji restoration. A balance of Japanese tradition and Western cultural imperialism.
After restraining myself from singing classic Brit wedding songs (the YMCA would not have gone down well) to celebrate, I got chatting to a couple of fellow Brits on the tour. They were two London girls of Greek-Cypriot heritage, and were very surprised to find out just how much Greek music I listen to. “You know Konstantinos Argyros? What about Koufos?” Mais oui, Koufos is one of my favourites, I said. Like a reflex, my body just had to burst into song. “Pende, tessera… tria, dio, ena!” I heard myself shout. One of the girls expressed how bizarre it was to be hearing a basic English girl singing a Greek song in the middle of Tokyo. Bizarre indeed, but variety is the spice of life.
Likewise, the tranquility of the Meiji Shrine contrasts with the thriving neighbourhood you’ll find it in. It’s adjacent to Harajuku, a part of Shibuya that’s known worldwide for its crazy shops, colourful streets, and teenagers with an unusual taste in fashion. Among other cliques, you’ll find goths, Lolitas, kawaii dressers, and a bunch of cosplay fans. Sadly, teens being teens, they’ve cottoned onto the fact they’ve become mainstream, and have gone into hiding from the tourists that seek them out. They’ve done that so well, that the only people I saw dressed up were Westerners.
And mannequins, which I often mistake for real people anyway. So it’s nearly as good.
That doesn’t mean Harajuku is no longer worth visiting, though. If you don’t mind the crowds – and there will be crowds – on Takeshita Street, you can check out some super trendy and unique shops. One store we went into had a floor full of Lolita clothing, a floor for goth clothing, and so on. There’s also a shop filled with Sanrio merchandise, so you can pick up your Hello Kitty souvenirs and get goth Bo Peep outfits in one fell swoop. There’s truly nowhere else like it.
When you get peckish, pick up a Japanese crepe – they’re sweeter than the French variety, filled with cream, and like everything in Japan are very brightly coloured.
The last thing on my sightseeing list, at least for now, were the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. When you look on Google Maps, there’s a big green blob right in the heart of Tokyo. This is Chiyoda – an impenetrable floating island complex that was once home to Edo Castle, the primary fortress of the Tokugawa shoguns. To this day, the Imperial Palace is located there, but you can’t visit it – or even see it from anywhere in the vicinity. The only part of the islands that are open to the public are the East Gardens, which are free to enter, and contain some ruins from Edo Castle.
They’re exceedingly pretty, especially in this time of year (June). But I think the most beautiful thing about them is the way the modern city rises above the ancient one.
By the time I’d started walking around the grounds in search of the Imperial Palace (which, again, is deliberately not visible – don’t waste time looking for it like I did), it had started to rain, so I didn’t stick around. I headed back to Shinjuku to meet up with my tour buddies and go for dinner at an izakaya. As far as I can make out, these basically do ‘pub grub’ served in a casual atmosphere. Think Spoons, only much cleaner.
Not healthier, though. Meet chips and deep fried cheese croquettes, both served with butter for extra cholesterol.
Still, I can’t complain. It was vegetarian, and it was definitely filling. It seems that was a useful bonus in Japan – us vegetarians didn’t know when we’d be eating next, at the risk of sounding like Oliver Twist. We needed the carbs to silence the rumbling in our stomachs.
We washed this deep-fried dinner down with a highball or two, then headed out to Golden Gai – an area of Shinjuku known for its micro-bars. Often, they only fit 4-8 people in at any one time, which means you have to get very chatty with the other patrons. Some bar owners don’t speak English, and discourage foreigners from going inside, but others want that tourist dollar and are very welcoming to gaijins (non-Japanese).
However, there are oodles of micro-bars, so these days you have to find some way of standing out. I desperately wanted to go inside this one…
With a friendly cat like this, I could have stayed there for eternity. It’s just below the Harley Davidson bar, if anyone wants to go on my behalf.
Instead, we went to a more foreign-friendly (and cheaper) place, and ordered a round of sake (Japanese rice wine). We toasted our time in Tokyo, and wished for an equally good time at our next destination – the picturesque mountain town of Takayama.
Until next time (or blog)!