I manage to find the first tour meeting point at the Keio Plaza Hotel without too much hassle, which is more difficult than it sounds, because you need to work out how to get to the other side of the train station without going through the fare gates.
|The ‘other side’ of Shinjuku|
Our guide for the day is Kaori – “but don’t worry about pronunciation”, she says, “just call me Curry cause I love curry!” The tour is supposed to end at 5.00pm, which should leave me just enough time to head on over to Shibuya to start tour number two at 5.50pm. But the opening sentence out of Kaori’s mouth is that the tour finishes at 5.30pm – phwaor that’s gonna be tight! Within the next half an hour she’s revised it to 6.00pm. Boy am I panicking! There’s no way I want to miss the night tour, and I can’t even call them or email them to let them know I might be late because I have no internet connection!
However, within an hour, Kaori’s going through everyone on the bus, checking where they would like to conclude the tour, and I overhear her telling some of the other women they could get off the bus at Ginza, which is closer than coming back to the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal, so I let her know my plans and she agrees that will be easier and give me more time. Panic averted!
Our first stop on the tour is Tokyo Tower, reminiscent of a red and white barber’s pole. Taller than the Eiffel Tower, the 333m structure, completed in 1958, was designed as a transmitting tower. There are exceptional views of the city and today has another surprise in stall – it is clear and there set against the blue sky is Japan’s beloved Mt Fuji. I was so glad to be able to see it after missing it on my last trip and also on the train the other day. And the Japanese are right, there is something magical about Fuji.
|And now making a rare appearance on the skyline, the one, the only, the AMAZING Mt Fuji!!!|
Quirky fact: the good people of Tokyo will have you know that your love will last longer if you watch the lights of Tokyo Tower get turned off with your partner.
Kaori tells us that 60-70% of Japanese are Buddhist and 80-90% are Shinto, meaning that the Japanese are kind of flexible when it comes to religion and that a lot of people practice both. Then of course when Christmas rolls around, everybody is a Christian – cause Santa’s coming!
She also asks whether we’ve noticed people walking around with masks on their faces – which of course we all have. She thinks the Japanese are a little obsessed with masks and says that if you go into a drugstore, you can how many types of different masks there are – there are ones that make sure your makeup stays in place and even ones that are scented and have benefits for your skin. Apparently when it is exam time, lots of people put on masks either to stop themselves from passing on bugs, or to stop themselves from getting any colds going around.
Lunch time is beckoning, and we head to Chinzanso Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel. The grounds of the Four Seasons Hotel are stunning and we are lucky enough to see both a traditional wedding and a coming of age ceremony.
|Two new life chapters – a wedding…|
|…and acelebration of the coming of age.
Seated in groups around grill plates, we await our barbecue lunch with anticipation. First up is a small salad of lettuce, carrot and red onion with a sesame tasting sauce. Then a selection of thinly sliced pork, chicken and beef, along with vegetables including capsicum, carrot, onion, asparagus and some type of potato, which has the restaurants name ingrained into it) are grilled on the hot plate and served along with rice. I’ve been dying for a plate of vegetables for the last couple of days, so I’m delighted. A small bowl of vanilla icecream rounds the meal out. It’s a really nice lunch in wonderful surroundings.
Back on the bus, Kaori tells us a bit about the New Year in Japan. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new year is a big deal in Japan and on New Year’s Eve, the Japanese attend Buddhist temples to hear the tolling of the joya no kane (bell). The bell is rung 108 times, one for each cardinal sin in the Buddhist universe and which is said to purify sins and allow the new year to start afresh. The hefty list of sins includes ostentatiousness, ambition, stinginess, know-it-all, self-denial, humiliation and jealousy.
But people are busy these days, and apparently there are a few temples that have web sites so you can ring the bell “virtually” and of course there are mobile apps too!
The Imperial Palaceis home to the Japanese Emperor and his family, the world’s longest unbroken line of monarchs. The impregnable moats and stone walls occupy a 110-hectare expanse of green – its innermost folds the habitat of rabbits and pheasants, its outer ring of moats and bridges the home of turtles, carp and gliding swans. The Imperial Palace is totally closed to the public, except on New Year’s Day and the Emperor’s birthday on 23 December, so all you can really see is a watch tower and the front gate. But nevertheless, it’s a nice stop.
Driving through Ginza, we head to Hirode Pier to take a cruise up the Sumida River. During the Edo Period there was little to suggest the sartorial elegance and good taste the name Ginza now conjures up. Back in the day, it occupied a rather undefined area between the feudal mansions of the Outer Lords and the newly reclaimed land of Tsukiji. The word Ginza means “Silver Mint”, and the suburb was so named after the silver coin mint which was established ther ein 1612 during the Edo period. Now it’s an elegant and exclusive suburb, and a world famous shopping destination.
|Sumida River bridges guide|
Thankfully I get to do the tour today and also get to see the space aged river boat “Himiko” which I wanted to see last time.
Disembarking from the boat across from a view of the new Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Building, we walk a brief way to the Asakusa Kannon Temple and the Nakamise shopping street leading up to it. Along the way Kaori points out the beginning of the Ginza line, which I need to catch to Shibuya, and I decide that as I’ve already seen the Temple, I’ll browse the Nakamise and then head to Shibuya early.
The Nakamise shopping street stretches over 250m from Kaminarimon to the main grounds of Sensoji Temple and is lined by shops offering all kinds of local specialities and tourist souvenirs. This includes cherry blossom flavoured ice cream and although it is freezing cold, I can’t resist it’s call.
|Johnny’s a busy boy…|
I meet my guide for the night, and I’m ashamed to say I don’t catch her name. I think I’ll have plenty of opportunity when the other people on the tour arrive and she introduces herself, but then she tells me I am the only one on the tour and I’m too embarrassed to ask now. She is a tiny little thing and absolutely lovely, I can tell the tour is going to be a good night out right away.
First stop of the evening is a small izakaya for a yakitori dinner. The Izakaya probably seats about 15 people, with some table seating and a small lot of bar seating where you can watch the yakitori being prepared. Yakitori are skewers of grilled chicken and vegetables and it is a great accompaniment with beer or sake. First we are served a small bowl of mixed vegetables including mushrooms and lotus root, sauted in some kind of sauce, which is really, really nice. Then we have about five small serves of different yakitori dishes including chicken, and green peppers. The food is really lovely and I thoroughly enjoy the visit and having a chat. Oishi des ne!
We survive the train ride, and head over the the Metropolitan Government Building to get a glimpse of Tokyo from the night sky. The 243 meter tall twin towers and surrounding buildings contain the offices and assembly hall of the metropolitan government of Tokyo, as well as observatories on the 45th floor of each tower. The view from the southern tower is considered slightly more interesting. I have been to this building before, but during the day, so it was good to get a view of Tokyo by night, and my guide even manages to track down the Domo-kun merchandise I’ve been trying to find for the last two days.
|Golden Gai by day…|
|…and by night!|
Golden Gai is a ramshackle area in Shinjuku consisting of six tiny alleys and it’s right behind my hotel. There used to be over 200 bars and eateries crammed into this area, most of them seating only a few people, but its now estimated that are about 140. The buildings have miraculously remained through war and earthquake, though they are now dwarfed by new high rises. I wanted to visit Golden Gai on my last trip to Japan, but just didn’t get around to it, and looking back probably just didn’t feel confident enough to tackle it. Despite feeling quite comfortable staying in Kabukicho, being the fraidy cat I am, as much as I would love to just go out and take a trip down Golden Gai – I would never be able to make myself do it. Why is why I have booked the Backstreet Guides to take me there tonight!
It’s said that many of these miniscule bars do not welcome westerners and/or non-Japanese speakers, but my guide thinks this is not true, and wandering around I can see a lot of signs saying “English welcome”, so maybe you shouldn’t always believe what you read!
At the back of Golden Gai, hidden from the main streets, is Hanazono Shrine. It is one of the important Shinto Shrines found in Tokyo. Hanazono Shrine was first established in the middle of the 17th century, during the early Edo period. Over the hundreds of years there’s been various redevelopments to the current buildings found at the site. A number of fires had destroyed the buildings including sever damage and destruction during World War II. Hanazono literaly means Flower Garden. The land surrounding Hanazono Shrine was once part of the Imperial Gardens, now developed with the many tall buildings of Shinjuku.
|Entranceway to Omoide Yokocho|
|Pocari Sweat – for a heavy thirst!|
I’m absolutely freezing cold now, and though I’m sorry that my fabulous day of touring the city is over, I’m really looking forward to a glass of red and a warm hotel room.
I can’t recommend either of my days guides enough. They made my time in Tokyo so interesting and memorable and helped me to understand and fall in love with Japan that little bit more.