So, with Saturday’s tour of Mt Fuji having been rather a bust, I planned to make up for it on Sunday and Monday, before leaving for Taipei on Tuesday.
There were three remaining sights on my tour list that I really wanted to see (given my limited time in Tokyo, and aside from the inaccessible Eisei Bunko Museum): the Tokyo Skytree, the Meiji Shrine, and the Tokyo Tower. So I started with the Skytree on Sunday.
Sunday, July 26th
[Probably a good idea to date these, if I’m more than a week behind. I’ll try to do that more.]
That was after my followup appointment with the Shiatsu guy at 10am. This appointment went much better. I only got a little lost under the Shinjuku train station complex — honestly, I don’t have even the slightest clue how that place lays out — and only arrived a little late. And the massage seemed a little more effective. I still can’t say it was worth it, but, hey. There we are.
On the way back, I descended once more into the bowels of Shinjuku station, to find again a shop that I’d passed in my earlier wandering, “QB House”. I’d read about this place on a traveler wiki — it’s a chain of basic barbershops for busy commuters, mainly men. You go in, they speed cut your hair, and you leave $10 poorer. I was overdo for a haircut, my last having been the excellent but super-short haircut on Koh Samui 8 weeks before, and I’d been planning on finding this place. I miraculously managed to find it again, with some help from Google Maps, and it was easy as cake. I walked in and took a seat on the waiting bench next to two salarymen, and after one was called to one of the 3 chairs, I noticed that they were holding ticket stubs clearly dispensed by a ticket machine just inside the door. I inspected the machine, figured out that it was asking for a bit over 1000 yen, fed it, and got my ticket. When the young guy motioned me over a few minutes later, I gave him the ticket, sat down and uttered my carefully practiced words from this super convenient webpage: “mijikai” (short) I said, gesturing to the sides of my head, and “nagai” (long), rubbing my hand front to back along the top. 20 minutes later, I had a surprisingly decent haircut, and a sense of accomplishment that I needed no machine-dispensed ticket to redeem. Plus a small sanitary towel packet with which to wipe the tiny hairs from my face and neck. (“Sanitary towel packets: they’re not just for restaurant tables anymore!”)
From there, I took the subway to the Tokyo Skytree. This is a new addition to Tokyo, completed in 2011, and is the tallest tower in the world at just over 2,000 feet high. It’s primary purpose is to be an actual digital broadcast tower — the old Tokyo Tower from the 50s had become a bit swallowed by the wealth of high rise buildings blocking its signal, so they needed something taller. But it’s more than just that, and was built alongside a sort of mall complex, with multiple stories of shopping and dining, and even a small astronomical museum and an aquarium, and the subways have a stop there for your shopping convenience.
I didn’t make it to the aquarium, but I did go to the museum — I had read about it in author William Gibson’s tweet on the train down to Tokyo (excellent timing) which mentioned that they were exhibiting a samurai sword recently made from a meteorite (as many early swords had been).
But before visiting the museum, I rather badly wanted lunch. There were many choices in this 10-story mall; guess which one I chose:
I realize that I should be trying local cuisine when I travel, and not just the local take on whatever my favorite foods are. To which I respond, “There are no shoulds. Except that the bartender should bring me a pint.”
This restaurant had windows with a fairly high view, but I was expecting to go up in the Skytree later and see an even better view. So when I saw the line for tables, I volunteered to sit at the bar — for faster seating and to spare the feeling that I needed to rush through my meal (or, at least, not linger while eating and reading) to make the table available for more customers. That’s probably less of an issue in a country where you don’t tip the wait(er/ress), so that his/her income depends on throughput. Curiously, while the restaurant was mostly staffed by Japanese, the bartenders were American and European guys in their mid-20s. I suspect that this is a marketing attempt by the restaurant to make their beer dispensing seem “authentic”. Fortunately, their ethnicities in no way impeded them from serving me a Kasteelbier Dunkel (a dark beer too desserty even for me, and I have a high tolerance for such things) from their very large beer list, and a plate of ribs. Soooo yummy.
I didn’t spend much time in the mall’s shops — it wasn’t what I was there for, after all, and when you have no place to put anything, shopping loses some of its luster. But there was clearly a lot going on in this futuristic building:
After lunch, I went back down to the lobby level and across a blazing, sweltering pavilion to the base of the Skytree. There was a considerable line to get in, most of it in the blazing, post-noon sun, and I was considering opting out. But then I sorted through the confusing signage, risked speaking to an attendant, and discovered the gaijin (and only gaijin) could bypass that line by paying a little extra. That’s the ticket, I thought, and followed the attendant’s instructions to the interior of the ground level where there was a short line occupied mostly by white people and Chinese. Another attendant was making the rounds with a price sheet for the tickets, a sheet which caused me to immediately exit this line. The tower had two levels, and you had to pay extra to get to the higher level (much like the Sapporo TV Tower, if you can remember that far back in my travels). With the international visitor fast-pass, that added up to Y2820 for the lower level, and Y3820 for the upper level. I was already cranky from the insanely hot and humid afternoon. And with all the dining out I’d been doing I was starting to feel a bit cranky about spending money — particularly here, where the fees to ride an elevator up a tower with a view were probably 1/3 of the price of a Disneyland ticket. I nearly gave up and left. And then I thought, “Grrrr… you’re here, who knows when you’ll be back. Better to do it and find it pointless and overpriced, than not do it and feel like you wussed out and missed taking advantage of being here.”
[Quick side note: I’d considered going to Tokyo Disney, and chose not to. Heat, humidity, summer crowds, and no company for the trip persuaded me to wait until I can come back when those problems have all been solved. Friends, take note! You’re on call for this one.]
So, for the avoidance of regrets, I got back in line and paid to go to the 1st platform, as a compromise — that took me to the 350th floor, if not all the way to the 2nd platform at the 450th, and I figured that would be good enough. This turned out to be wise. The acceleration of the elevator was in many respects the most impressive part of the trip. The 350th floor (actually, 3 floors connected by stairs) was air conditioned, nicely decorated, with tasteful gift shops and little displays describing what you were looking out on, and was pleasant enough. But, thanks to the weather, the views were not that impressive. Take a look for yourself:
As you can see, the air is so hazy that you just can’t see that far across the city. I learned later that, from the much shorter Tokyo Tower, on clear days (especially winter mornings) you can see Mt Fuji, and I’m sure you’d get a great view of it and many other things from here and it would all be very impressive. But today? Not so much. I was really glad that I’d saved the extra 1000 yen by not going higher — thanks to the haze, the view would have been no better from that height, and I’d really just be paying extra cash to say that I’d done it. Hey, look: “I’ve done it!” See, I can say that without paying anything, which is a much better deal.
I hung out up there for a while, trying to get my money’s worth. Obviously, there were other directions one could look from the tower than just the one I’ve included above. And I looked out over most of them. The picture above was the most picturesque, IMO, so there’s little point in including the others. But if you want more, here’s Google on the subject and the air is even clear! Once again, you’re welcome.
BTW, IMO again, a view is hardly a view if it’s really just city. I need more. I need mountains, and parks, or forests, and serious water action, and impressive skies. A seemingly endless expanse of mostly similar buildings? Only interesting in a science fiction movie. So even the Google images I linked to above move me only to “meh”. I’m glad I went up there, because I did it, and I’d have felt like I was wimping out otherwise. But… meh.
I left the Skytree, and that’s when I wandered over to the little astronomical museum and saw the sword. I wandered around a bit more — was kind of curious about the aquarium but never found it — and then left and headed for Akihabara again, figuring that I’d get to see much more on a Sunday afternoon than I did with Liu that night. In this I was correct, because they shut down several blocks in that area for people to wander about in. I don’t know if the weather was suppressing the crowds, or if it was the time of day, but the crowds weren’t all that crowded by the time I got there:
There’s not much I could include in the way of pictures besides this. The contents of the shops are really only interesting to geeks and electronics enthusiasts. Fun fact though: if you ever want to lose your hearing, I can highly recommend spending quality time in an Akihabara arcade. I didn’t go into one myself, but here it is from the outside:
I wandered into a bunch of shops, didn’t seriously consider buying anything (although I might have, if I’d found anything super-portable that I liked), and a couple of hours later headed back. By this time, it was probably close to 7pm, and the idea of relaxing in air conditioning and having a peaceful evening sounded very appealing. So I did.
Monday, July 27th
So, Monday was my last full day in Tokyo, and I had two places left on my must-see list: the Tokyo Tower and the Meiji Shrine.
I set out to Tokyo Tower first, around mid-morning. Honestly, if you’d told me I could only visit one thing in all of Japan, I’d have picked this. Why? It’s the one place in Japan that I have some degree of sentimental connection to. Tokyo Tower was built as a TV broadcasting tower in the 50s, and it was such a landmark in Japan at the time that it’s appeared in numerous anime and manga. My favorite manga artist group, CLAMP, has used it a lot, and it’s featured prominently in several anime based on their manga, including my favorite TV show, Cardcaptor Sakura. So this was really my only must-see.
Unlike the Skytree, Tokyo Tower did not disappoint. I got there early enough that the walk from the subway stop was only warm, not broiling. Here’s the view from that subway stop:
Like the Skytree, Tokyo Tower also had 2 levels, with the second one costing extra, but it was much cheaper: 1,600 yen for the whole thing. And the view was much better in spite of — or, actually, because of — being much lower:
You see that orange pylon with a clown face in the distance? That’s an actual guide robot! It circles around the observation deck pointing out the landmarks you can see — in English!
I’m lucky that I managed to get a bit of the robot giving its tour guide spiel. Shortly after that, the robot became the center of 3 or 4 kids who found nothing more fascinating than standing in front of it, forcing it to stop and say, in what was I’m sure very polite Japanese, “Get the gods damned hell out of my way would you?” and maybe “Oh, please, for pity’s sake, stop pestering me!” over and over. I watched them toy with it for 10 minutes, hoping that they’d go away and I’d get another bit of recording, but then I gave up and left before I had to witness the poor thing’s nervous breakdown. (It was coming, you know it was.)
Side note: as yet another sign of how much the Japanese love baseball…. During a renovation to the tower, construction workers found a baseball inside the antenna post at the top of the tower. No one knew why it was there. So they made a small shrine for it.
Then there was a great early lunch break.
What with this being a Nice Place To Sit And Read, and all, I should probably mention the Nice Thing To Read! I’ve been a bit behind on that part of this blog, I have to admit. Partly due to being a bit behind on reading, but also because these posts can get kind of long, and after I’ve described the events, I’m often really just done writing. And you’re probably just done reading. Nonetheless, I should make more of an effort in this arena, so here it is, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book:
This is a fairly classic work of science fiction. And by “classic” I mean: really good, won awards, I’ve heard of it for years, and it was published in 1992. Because that makes things classic now, being published in the early 90s. Because I’m old.
It takes place in, well, I guess it would have been 1992’s future, in a late 21st century mostly like ours except they’ve invented time travel. And — gasp — video phones! But not cell phones apparently, because significant plot elements revolve around people’s complete inability to contact other people unless said other people are hovering over their land lines. In truth, it’s a pretty modest future, and I don’t remember them ever mentioning the actual year, and I’d be more inclined to think of it as an alternate-universe 90’s if Wikipedia didn’t claim it for the late 21st century. Kind of feel like all the imaginative content went into setting up the premise, and left the reality of a late-21st century world to the user’s imagination. Of course, it’s also set in Oxford. They’re pretty traditional there. So, whatever.
Anyway, there are two leads, a young woman in the history department who persuades her professor to let her go back farther in time than anyone has gone so far, to the Middle Ages. And the professor, who has to frantically cope when Things Go Wrong. I’ll leave the description at that, to avoid spoilers, but the characters are engaging and enjoyable to read, the funny bits are funny and the serious bits are quite serious, the writing itself is a pleasure, and there are Medieval Things. And — gasp — video phones! Life’s simple pleasures. So, I’d call it worthy of its rep, and recommend it to anyone interested.
There! Mission accomplished. Back to the Tower:
I did take the opportunity, at the gift shop below the tower — well, gift mall is probably a better description — to pick up a couple of souvenirs, a couple of pins and then, after, a Tokyo Tower keyring that was a much better choice than the pins because I could thread it onto the backpack’s metal zipper tab without any risk that it will catch and get pulled off as a couple of my pins have this year. (In fact, the pin thing is not working as decorative technique on this pack, but I’m at rather a loss for other solutions. Will keep working on it.)
I also picked up 2 boxes of Tokyo Bananas, the traditional omiyage (souvenir) that you bring people when you’ve visited Tokyo: one for my Sapporo-outskirts host Kazunari, and one my city host Kenta when I make it back to his place 3 weeks later. I’m not sure that Kazunari cares for these; he had a box out for people when I arrived, and I suspect that he did that to get them off his hands. (I don’t blame him — I have discovered that although they’re not bad, they’re not great either, despite the high praise in the video below.) But it’s a traditional gift, so by gods he’s getting a box.
One year, when I come back to Tokyo, I’ll climb the tower stairs instead of taking the elevator. They give you a certificate for doing that… but at this time of year it’s a death certificate, and I’m in no rush to get one of those.
The tower had some other things in the base, notably some sort of One Piece themed experience, but I’m not really a One Piece fan, so I didn’t bother.
As I left the tower, I stopped at this neat ice cream crepe shop at the base and had a very yummy ice cream crepe thingy. Much fortified, I wandered through a small, woody park, enjoyed its waterfall and the cicadas and birds, then headed back to the subway and off to the Meiji Shrine.
However, I got considerably diverted from my goal when I got off the subway near the Shrine, because opposite the subway station was a crowded shopping street, which I simply had to wander down to see all the things that I wouldn’t be buying there.
I wandered into this street mainly because it vaguely reminded me of the shopping street that Sakura and her friends wander down during an episode where they visit Tokyo Tower for the first time. In fact, the resemblance is minimal, but I didn’t discover that until I got further into it.
I was rewarded at the end of the street by this:
I wandered a couple of blocks further and discovered that I was actually in Shibuya, a district known for its high-end shopping and dining and also popular with the youngs. It apparently has more 2-story TVs than anyplace else in the world, but I somehow missed those in favor of this tree-lined shopping street:
And they had what may be my favorite shrine in all of Japan:
Sadly, the Apple Store didn’t have what I needed: new iPhone and iPad cases, both of which were falling apart. I mean, they had cases, but nothing I wanted. For example, I wanted to replace the simple, dark grey, silicon case I’d bought from Apple a year before, as it was cracking, but they only had the fluorescent neon cases. Disappointing, but I was sure to find another store elsewhere that would have them.
I wandered this street for maybe 90 minutes, before heading up to the Meiji Shrine. I’m sure that you’ll be relieved to hear that there’s not really much to say about the Meiji Shrine. Honestly, it’s just a really big Shinto shrine, and it follows the same pattern that they all do: a big, square layout of buildings with a central courtyard (often white gravel but sometimes flagstones), a couple of trees with sacred decorative bits hanging from them, and the shrine proper opposite the gated entrance.
I find the small Shinto shrines to be lovely, and the large ones to be kind of sterile. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of worshipping done here, and from everything I’ve heard, the Japanese don’t either. They visit the shrines on significant ritual days, to offer short prayers for various kinds of good fortune, in ritual ways, in what is more of a heartfelt embrace of superstition than anything you’d be inclined to call spirituality. “I’ve got tests coming up; I should do this, just to be safe.” And when you hear them talk about it, it’s more as a thing they do than a thing that moves them. There’s more to it than that, of course, and far wiser people than me have written about it. But, personally, I just never get the feeling that the heart of Shinto is in these big places. It’s in the small ones, where the local kami live (gods, large and small), amongst the trees and rocks and running water. Not in these structured, formalized, paved edifices.
Thankfully, the area around the Meiji Shrine is a very large park with very large trees, and feels much more the thing.
I could have spent rather a while wandering the rather large grounds around this shrine, and I will the next time I visit Tokyo. But it was late afternoon, I was soaked in sweat, had been walking about the city for many hours by now, and had my flight to Taipei the next morning, so I headed home instead. I tried out an alternate route that Google thought might be a shorter walk, bypassing the confusing Shinjuku station in favor of the next one down the line, and naturally got a little lost in neighborhood back streets so no time was actually saved. Still, it was good to see the Tokyo neighborhood backstreets, and gave me this delightful view that I’d have missed otherwise:
Tuesday, July 28th
My flight to Taipei on Tuesday was at 2:30pm, but Narita Airport is about an hour away on the train, and I wanted to be there 2 hours ahead, and I figured a nice, relaxed lunch at the airport wouldn’t hurt, so I left at a little after 10:00. I had booked my flight from Narita to the Taoyuan International Airport basically by typing in that I wanted Tokyo to Taipei and then picking pretty much the cheapest agreeable flight; only later, I learned that these newer airports are much farther from their city centers than the older airports for those cities, and I’d have had much easier transit at the endpoints if I’d picked the older ones. Ah, well, live and learn.
Working my way through Tokyo Station was slightly harder than I expected, mostly because the train I was trying to catch was on a somewhat distant platform, but I was helped by signage along the way:
The train ride in the air conditioned first class car through beautiful morning farmlands was, as expected, lovely, and the coffee was decent, and I arrived in due course and made my way to the China Airlines ticket desk through a very modern and helpful airport.
Ticket acquired, I moved on to lunch.
After that, airport security went easily (thanks to not having my entire, massive backpack to unpack and repack), and from there, it was just a matter of killing time with Twitter until my plane boarded and we took off.
The Taipei Experience will have to wait for the next post. Soon, my pretties. Soon.