Tokyo - the city of friendliness and organisation

April 22, 2010 - Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, United States

 We arrived at Tokyo's Narita airport at 7:30pm.  The hostel we had booked was at least 90mins away and included a few train changes as well as a 10min walk.  We were fully anticipating this to be abit of a nightmare given we don't speak the Japanese lingo and were expecting the 90mins to turn into way longer due to us getting on wrong trains or missing stops, getting hopelessly lost in unfamiliar territory.  However what we didn't anticipate was the friendliness and the helpfulness and efficiency of Japan.  From the second we walked off our plane, we had helpful Japanese people approach us and guide us to our destination. People going about their business would take the time of day and help a stranger.  The trains were so efficient, and link up like clockwork.  We have noticed since we have arrived here that most of the time the trains are already waiting on the platform or pulling into the station, and the longest we have waited was literally 3mins.

OUr hostel was clean, quiet and very convenient to everything we needed. The rail system map is very confusing at first glance but after a day we figured it out and discovered we were only a 10-15min train trip to anywhere we needed to go.

On our first day, our first stop was the Imperial Palace.  It was bitterly cold, neither of us were expecting that.  It was about 8 degs, we were wrapped up in layers of clothes and puffy jackets and even went into a cheap shop and bought some ugly gloves.  Despite this, the palace was an impressive site, as were the beautiful late blooming cherry blossom trees nearby.  Unfortunately the day we went there was the day that the gardens were closed.  The only part of the palace that is open to the public is the gardens so we came back a few days later to go in and look at them.  The gardens were like a botanical garden filled with native Japanese plants and of course cherry blossoms.  After the palace we went to Shinjuku area which is mainly just streets and streets of shops. The majority of them seemed to be restaurants, you could tell by the displays of plastic food in the windows which were meant to entice you in by their mouthwatering displays but for us it had the opposite effect- can you imagine what a plastic noodle in broth looks like!  Or a plastic glass of beer!

Day 2 we found ourselves at Asakusa which is an area nearby our hostel.   The main attraction here is the Senso-ji temple.  To get to the temple from the train line we walked through a bustling market which was jammed packed with tourists (although surprisingly very few western tourists, they all seemed be Chinese).  The markets were a mixture of cheesy souvenirs, clothes shops, traditional wooden sandles etc.  We found ourselves down a less touristy area of the market which seemed to be more for local shoppers.  We stopped at a little ramen noodle bar for lunch and that was an experience in itself.  First of all, you go to a vending machine where you choose your dish from a bunch of pictures and put your money in and hope like hell you get something edible.  You then take your ticket to the bar and then sit down on a shared table.  Two seconds later the waiter brings you a steamy hot plate of noodle soup.  Don't look for knives and forks, because their arent' any, so either practice your chopstick skills before hand or do your instant apprenticeship on the spot.  Ed was an expert in this skill, he'd downed his bowl with no effort at all, unlike Deb who spent half an hour just trying to pick up one noodle.  People in Japan literally go there to slurp down a bowl of noodles and leave 5mins later.  The other thing is that it is perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles, in fact it is considered to be a sign of appreciation to do so.  

After this we made our way down to the Senso-ji temple. You enter through an impressive tori gate and immediately in front of you is like a fortune telling stall.  You pay 100Yen (approx $1.20) and then pick a stick from a tin. On the stick is a Japanese symbol (maybe a number) and you have to match this symbol to one on a drawer - there would be 150 drawers so that took us some time. Once you find your drawer you open it and remove a piece of paper with your fortune written on it.  Once you have read your fortune you then roll the paper up and tie it onto a nearby wire.  Ed's fortune was called "Good Fortune" and told him of all the wonderful things he was going to experience such as good journeys, good things to come etc.  Deb was unimpressed as hers was "bad Fortune" and it appears that everything that could possibly go wrong in her life will do so!

Moving through the temple we had to pass a cleansing water trough, you're supposed to fill a container up and pour it over your hands to cleanse yourself however it was so friggen cold we decided against this ritual.  Then the next thing was a smoking insense bin where you are meant to draw the smoke over yourself for healing. 

The temple itself was very impressive, inside was a huge decorative alter where people would stand and pray and clap and throw money into a big slot.  Outside was a beautiful pagoda and smaller buildings and other smaller temples. 

Day 3 we went back into the city and this time headed to the famous Shibuya Crossing (don't worry, we hadn't heard of it before coming to Japan either!).  This crossing is meant to be one of the most photographed crossings in the world.  It is a four way street and when the lights change there is hundreds of people all trying to navigate through each other to get to the other side.  We wandered about the streets and got a few photos.  Incidently the train station of Shinjukiu is also one of the busiest of the world with nearly 3million people a day passing through it.  All the train stations are just monstrous, taking up streets and streets and is very easy to get lost.  They all have their own maps so you can find your way around and even then we had to keep stopping every few minutes to get directions.  As mentioned earlier, the Japanese are just so incredibly friendly that nobody ever minds.  In fact often we stop to get our map out and someone comes up asking if we are ok, it seems to be the norm here.  We would have to say that the Japenese are by far the most friendly, helpful and polite people we have met in all of our travels. 

We went to the see the Harijuku girls too.  These are teenage girls and guys who's pastime is to get dressed up in wierd costumes.  Some of them dress up like their favourite cartoon characters.  Others just wear very alternative clothes and full on makeup and hairstyles.  We saw girls in Hello Kitty outfits, wigs, guys with animal masks.   We spent about an hour walking up and down the markets people watching. 

That evening being our last night in Tokyo we decided to go up Tokyo Tower to see the night skyline.  We got our tickets and were sent up a glass elevator to the main viewing deck at about 150mtrs high. From here at night you are able to see views of the city lights and whilst we could not recognise any buildings, we were very impressed by the sheer size of Tokyo.  For 360degrees we could see the urban sprawl of Tokyo as far as eyes could make out.  We could have spent another $10 to go up another 100mtres to another platform but we realised we would only see more lights.  During the day, on a clear day, it would have been worth it as apparently you can Mt Fuji from here.

We booked our tickets for the Shinkansen train (bullet train) for the rest of our trip.  Next stop Kyoto - leaving first thing tomorrow morning.

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