Amazingly Japan did not open to international trade until 1853. Tokyo, then a small fishing village called Edo, slowly morphed into a major trading hub with the West and is now the most populated urban area in the world. In spite of its population density, the crime-rate is very low. The city boasts the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world as well as a hotel and a restaurant staffed by robots. The Shibuya (pedestrian) Crossing, known as the incredible scramble, is the busiest intersection in the world with 7 crossings that accommodate up to 2,500 people at a time. There’s obviously no end of things to see and do, and we four were excited to see what Gate1 had in mind for us in this ancient meets state-of-the-art city.
Our first stop this morning was at the serene Meiji Jingu, a relatively new (1920) Shinto shrine nestled in a 170-acre artificial forest right downtown. It honors Emperor Meiji, the 122nd emperor of Japan, and his empress, honored here for their successful efforts in ending Japan’s long isolation and ushering a very reluctant population into the modern era. No small task.
We approached through the peaceful forest, planted 100 years ago by 100,000 volunteers. Our route took us past a wall of beautifully painted sake barrels and a wall of unpainted French wine barrels, nods to the emperor’s love of western wine as well as the traditions of his country. We walked through three huge wooden tori gates before arriving at the wooden structures nestled in the trees. Hiroko, our tour manager, explained the appropriate way to approach the main entrance of the temple (drop a coin into the appropriate box, slowly bow twice, slowly clap twice, say a small prayer, bow once). She pointed out the area at the base of a sacred tree where people hang messages they’ve written on small blocks of wood and she explained the thick twisted rope on each sacred tree near the shrine. The shrine is an unexpected, peaceful retreat in a city of 13 million.
For a complete change of pace we went next to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Opened in 1935, it eventually became the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It kept that distinction until 2018 when the inner market, famous for its 3:00 AM wholesale tuna auctions, relocated. The outer market remains, however, and that is where we spent some time this morning. It is a mixture of wholesale and retail shops that sell kitchen tools, restaurant supplies, groceries, and seafood. As you can imagine it is an ideal location for restaurants, especially seafood restaurants. Our biggest surprise were the white strawberries going for $1.30 each.
Wouldn’t ya know it, we had to make our own lunch! Kinda. After strolling around the market we enjoyed a demonstration led by a professional sushi chef. He ran us through the art of creating sushi and sashimi and then we ate our little creations. Sandy and I gave all but one of our five pieces away, but Dan and Alan thoroughly enjoyed the treats. Once the dishes were cleared away, we were each brought a tray with more food: miso soup, tempura, sashimi, salad, and a savory custard.
After a couple hours of downtime at the hotel, Hiro (short for Hiroko) offered an optional walking tour around our neighborhood of Shinjuku. My favorite parts were the old, narrow alleyways that have been preserved just as they were years ago with their five-seat bars and restaurants. Patrons have to sit shoulder to shoulder. Once the person the furtherest in wants out, everyone must get up to allow this exit to transpire. In total contrast to the neighborhood’s nod to the old are the 3D space ship and larger than life 3D calico cat (3D glasses not required) as well as all the bright lights and countless billboards.
We jumped on our bus this morning and drove about 50 miles south to Hakone, the most famous National Park in Japan. Along the way we made a stop at a museum devoted to textile artist Kubota Itchiku (1917-2003) who spent his entire adult life reverse engineering and then mastering the labor-intensive silk dyeing technique used to decorate elaborate kimono during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The thought of it makes my head spin. The art museum highlights Itchiku’s kimono creations that depict themes of nature, the cosmos, and the seasons. A bit mind boggling is his unfinished masterpiece, Symphony of Light, a huge work comprised of 80 kimono that together form of a picture of Mount Fuji. The pyramid shaped museum, situated in wooded hills, is supported by 16 wooden beams that are 1,000 years old! It is surrounded by the Itchiku-designed gardens and buildings made of coral and limestone from Okinawa.
With heads dazed and amazed by Itchiku’s talent and determination, we continued along the scenic rural road to Hakone. Once there we rode a gondola on the Hakone Ropeway to the Owakudani Valley’s volcanic zone which is an area around a crater created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone 3,000 years ago. Much of the area is still an active volcanic zone as evidenced by the sulfurous fumes, hot springs, and hot rivers. Eggs cooked in the hot pools have shells blackened by the sulfur. With the promise of prolonging lives by seven years or more they are a popular item in the gift shops. We were each given one as a gift from Hiro.
Next up: a relaxing cruise around peaceful Lake Ashinoko. This beautiful crater lake, surrounded by mountains smothered in trees, was formed in the caldera of Mount Hakone. The lake’s shores are mostly undeveloped adding to its allure. We were hoping for a clear day because the location is ideal for great views of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji, also known as Fujisan, which stands proudly above the rest at 12,000+ feet. Although clouds drifted in and out we had great views of this famous volcano, still snowcapped, that Dan and I climbed 50 years ago.
To finish our circle trip we took the train, the romancecar actually, back to Tokyo. Dan and I picked up sandwiches and chips at the station, so we ate our dinner during the pleasant ride to Shinjuku station. The train attendant, neatly dressed in her uniform, bowed as she entered and exited our train car.
We rallied for the bus ride to Hakone before 8:00 this morning and did not get back to our room until after 7:00 tonight, so it was a full, fun day. I woke up at 3:30 this morning (jet lag) and Dan is still not feeling up to snuff, so we made it an early night.
Today (Easter Sunday)
As long as we’re in town, why not pop by the Imperial Palace. Right? The current palace is built on the former Edo Castle grounds and is surrounded by a moat and large stone walls. It includes residences for the current imperial family. Dropping by is not encouraged although we did get to see the lovely Nijubashi Bridge that stretches over the inner moat of the palace. It is used as a main entrance to the inner palace grounds and is only open to the public twice a year, today not being one of those days. The east garden is open to the public, so that is what we enjoyed this morning. The azaleas and flowers were in full bloom and beautiful; the stone walls along the moat were more than impressive; and the large traditional garden with its hybrid koi known by their extra large delicate tails was peaceful and pretty.
Next up: Tokyo National Museum, the oldest national museum in Japan. It has a comprehensive collection of Asian art and cultural objects but is focused on ancient and medieval Japanese art and Asian art along the Silk Road. Our focus today was on the permanent displays of traditional Japanese art and artifacts of all kinds ranging from silk screens to kimonos to samurai armor to delicately carved netsuke to swords, saddles, and statues.
Our last site in Tokyo was Asakusa Kannon Temple. Completed in 645, it is the city’s oldest temple. The approach takes visitors through the outer gate which is a 38-feet-tall Buddhist structure that features a massive paper lantern weighing a whopping 1,500 pounds painted in vivid red-and-black tones. From there the faithful walk along a centuries-old shopping street that is about 200 yards long where opportunities abound to buy souvenirs and snacks. The casual stroll ends at the second gate which is two stories tall and leads straight to the main hall and, to the left, a five-storied pagoda. The beautiful, warm day coupled with the fact that it was Sunday brought out massive crowds, but it was none the less a worthy stop.
Before calling it a day we had a short, fun calligraphy lesson in a private home. Talk about being our of our element.
Dinner tonight was at a local restaurant.
… It’s a Fact Jack ...
A top of the line kimono can cost over $10,000, no small investment, not counting the undergarments, obi, socks, and sandals.
We saw lots of women dressed in kimonos at the Asakusa Temple today, but Hiro told us the kimonos would have been rented for the day. She also said that no doubt the women had gone to what is called a beauty parlor for assistance is getting dressed.
Mt Fuji is an active volcano that last erupted in 1707.
There are sushi conveyor belt restaurants here.
A slow moving belt moves along in front of diners who just reach up and take what they want.
$1.00 = ¥132 (yen)
They drive on the left here.
Japan consists of 6,852 islands. We will do all our exploring on the southern part of Honshu.
One thought on “Tokyo, Japan (April 7-9, 2023)”
Schele, what an adventure packed with many amazing sights and facts! Thank you for sharing with us! The most amazing bit of information, however, is the fact that you and Dan climbed Mt Fuji! Wow! We want to hear more about this…