Last year I finally decided to take a trip to Japan. I've always wanted to go, and I figured that if I didn't go now I'd probably never get over there. So I called a travel agent, made some plans, and between September 3 and 11 I had the time of my life.
I'd like to share some of my impressions of Japan with you. I'm going to break my thoughts into multiple posts — Tokyo, Kyoto, everywhere else, and some general thoughts. Here's my thoughts on Tokyo.
If you have to travel to Japan, you probably don't want to schedule your trip for the middle of typhoon season. Unfortunately, I did.
Tokyo is not a beautiful city. It's very modern — it kinda has to be, since the whole place was firebombed to the ground during WWII — but in practice all that means is that there are lots of boxy, concrete monstrosities competing with each other. If I had to compare Tokyo to anywhere in the world, it reminded me of New Jersey. Not the nice parts. If you're primarily interested in Japanese culture, you probably shouldn't spend most of your time in Tokyo. There really aren't any locations of historic interest, for obvious reasons, and its cultural treasures are dwarfed by those located nearby. On the other hand, it's a great place to buy crap and live it up.
Tokyo in early September has some of the most disgusting weather you'll ever see. The temperature hovered around 90 degrees, the humidity around 75%, and you couldn't take five steps without sweating like a pig. Thank god there were eight million vending machines selling Pocari Sweat. On the other hand, there aren't many public trash cans either, so get used to the idea of carrying empty bottles with you for a good long time.
Getting around Tokyo is very easy — the subways are very well connected, everything is labeled in Japanese and English, and it's pretty easy to find a route map — but it's also very expensive. You're probably better off just walking to and from the nearest train station on the Yamanote loop rather than trying to get close to your destination by subway.
The Japanese are not morning people. You might be able to catch a train at 5:30 in the morning, but the shrines aren't open yet and you probably won't find any place open for breakfast before 7:30. Fortunately, service at Mr. Donut is pretty damn snappy.
Places to Go, Things to Do
The Sengakuji holds the distinction of being the first place I saw that wasn't an airport, hotel, or train station. It's not much, really — just a tiny little temple nestled in a residential neighborhood, that also happens to be the burial place of the 47 Ronin.
I've never really been a big fan of tall places, so it's no surprise that I found the Tokyo Tower to be a bit of a dud. On the other hand, there are some neat places clustered around its base, including the Zojoji, which used to be the family temple, and Shiba-Koen, which is a nice place to take an early morning stroll. Ueno Park is another fun place to take an early morning stroll, which you can finish up by a famous statue of Saigo Takamori walking his dog. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to avail myself of any of the cultural facilities located in the park. Maybe next time.
You're not actually allowed to see all that much of the Imperial Palace, since it's still the Emperor's primary residence. Don't waste your time.
If you can only see one shrine in the Tokyo area, it should be the Sensoji (also called the Asakusa Kannon Temple). It's got some impressive buildings and statues, a raucous shopping arcade, and a chaotic area in front of the main shrine where visitors can rub "healing smoke" into their bodies. It's crazy, in a good way. (The picture in the background of this blog is the Sensoji's main gate and a nearby pagoda — just in case you were wondering).
I wanted to check out Hie-jinja in Akasaka because of an awesome photo in the Lonely Planet Japan book. I'm convinced that the photo must be mis-labeled, because after climbing the incredibly steep stairs that go up to the shrine there's not much of a payoff. Fortunately, there's an awesome ramen shop not too far from the main entrance that made the trip worth it.
If you're looking to buy stuff but aren't the Ginza type, take a stroll through Harajuku. They've got everything — weird clothes, six-story toy stores, even an entire building devoted to Peanuts merchandise. What took me by surprise, though, was a little sign on the main drag directing me to the Tintin Store. It's tiny — blink and you'll miss it — but worth the trip.
If you're looking for that Lost In Translation experience you'll find it in Shinjuku. At night it's crammed full of thousands of people and illuminated by a zillion television screens showing some of the most incomprehensible advertisements you've ever seen. If the information overload is too much you can take a break in the nearby grounds of Hanazono-jinja. And hey, while you're over there, you might as well take a peek at the nearby red-light district of Kabuki-cho...
If you've got some time to spend in the Ginza, but don't have money to spend on anything, see if you can find the Godzilla Statue out in front of the Toho Productions building. It's harder than it sounds.
If you make it out to Ikebukuro, try finding the Namjatown arcade located in Sunshine City. It's home to the Ikebukuro Gyoza Stadium — a crowded food court area where dozens of different vendors sell every type of gyoza imaginable. The food even comes with a stamped certificate of authenticity, decorated with cute cartoon cats and gyoza chefs who look like the strain is about to give them an aneurism. And while you're there, you might as well check out Ice Cream City, which applies the same principle to ice cream.
One location you shouldn't miss is the Yasukuni Shrine. Actually, the shrine itself isn't all that much — what you really want to check out is the Yushukan War Museum next door, which recounts modern Japan's military history from a scary ultranationalist perspective. Some of the military hardware on display includes kamikaze bombers, fighters, and even a kaiten (kamikaze torpedo). And if that's no't your cup of tea, right across the street is the Nippon Budokan Hall, the perfect place to live out your Cheap Trick fantasies.
On my last day in Japan I was lucky enough to snag tickets to the Yomiuri Giants-Chunichi Dragons game at the Tokyo Dome. Now that was an experience. Competitive cheering, bizarre mascots, incomprehensible home run celebrations, beer vendors dressed in fetishistic costumes, cheerleaders and dance squads — heck, it's probably worth a blog post all by itself. And all this for a team with a losing record Why can't American baseball be more like this? Plus, I got to pick up some Kazuhiro Kiyohara shirts for cheap, since the Giants were dropping him like a hot potato at the end of the season. Cool beans.
Here are some of my favorite photos of Tokyo, in the order in which they were taken.
Paper lantern in Shiba-Koen
Shinjuku at night
The Tokyo Dome