Temples, toilets, and towers – Tokyo 2011

Tokyo. Oh, Tokyo. How can I even begin to do justice to this city. The vending machines, the television, the toilets! Just 700 miles and a 2 hour flight from Incheon, but it felt like we had just landed on a another planet.

After getting the train from Narita airport into Tokyo, we inevitably got lost trying to find the hotel. Armed with our two words of Japanese, but three months experience of gesturing what we wanted to mystified Koreans on our side, we thought we’d try asking for directions in a shop. Wow. The shopkeeper didn’t know where the hotel was but got straight onto Google Maps, gave us a print out (with a translation!), walked us down the street to show us where we needed to go and wished us a pleasant trip. Having grown up in England, and having lived in Paris and Incheon (not exactly renowned for their manners), I was stunned by this level of helpfulness. The hotel receptionist was almost too helpful, in a creepy Uncle Fester kind of way that made us wonder whether we’d ever be able to leave the hotel again.

We did manage to leave the hotel, and we headed off to Asakusa, just a couple of subway stops away from where we were staying. Even the subway is more helpful than the maze that is the Seoul subway system. Each station has a name and a number, and each line has a name and a colour, making it very easy to work out where you’re going and avoiding confusion between places like Asakusa and Akasaka.

So we went to Asakusa to see the Senso-Ji temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Guanyin, the bodhisattva associated with compassion and the Goddess of Mercy. It is the oldest temple in Tokyo and one of the most important. While we were there I got my Buddhist fortune, a ‘regular’ fortune telling me ‘though you always desire to make up your request immediately, even if it takes too long, don’t worry about that. Just like step over many mountains, after so many hard work, your request will make out to fine. Treasures and wealth will be in your hand without any trouble.’ Make of that what you will…

The next day one of my lifelong dreams finally came true. I saw a panda. Two pandas actually, at Ueno Zoo. I don’t know where my obsession about pandas came from really, but this made me a very happy girl! Later that day we tried to go to the Imperial Palace, the main residence of the Emperor and his family, but unfortunately it was closed for the New Year. In the evening we visited Tokyo Tower, kind of like an tango-ed Eiffel Tower! We got there just in time for it to go dark, and from the second observatory, 250 metres high, you could really appreciate the sheer scale of Tokyo. It stretches as far as the eye can see. We also had our first experience of a Tokyo banana. Yum yum. It’s a surprisingly soft, light sponge filled with banana cream.

  That night we found the most amazing sushi restaurant, at first just an unassuming hole in the wall, right around the corner from the Tsukiji fish market. Even for a Wednesday night it was packed out with locals with not a tourist in sight, and we had a full on feast. Followed by another Tokyo banana.

The following morning we went to Maruyama Park, so quiet and so peaceful that you’d never know you were in the heart of such a bustling city. It is home to the Hokkaido Shrine, where the kami (souls) of the Emperor Meiji and his Empress are enshrined. Then, in complete contrast, we went to the Harajuku shopping area. It was a major technicolour attack on the senses! Absolutely insane and exactly what I had expected from Tokyo! Next on the list was the Shibuya crossing, the Japanese equivalent of Times Square. The traffic lights change and for 30 seconds the road becomes a sea of people, each going in their own direction. As soon as the lights go back on red, the crowds evaporate and cars take their place once again.

On our last day we paid a visit to the Mecca of all things geeky; Akihabara. So unashamedly geeky it’s actually cool. Huge, glaring superstores selling a plethora of almost futuristic electronics. And this wasn’t just a place for teenagers. From the geeky teens, to the business suits, men of all walks of life were poring over the latest manga and anime. Then the last place on our whistle-stop tour of Tokyo was Yasakuni Shrine. The moment we walked through the gates the atmosphere seemed to change. It is a Shinto Shrine, dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the Emperor of Japan. There are currently over two million souls enshrined there, and it is believed that all evil acts committed in life are absolved through enshrinement. The controversy however, comes from the kami of 14 Class-A war criminals, and 1068 Class-B and -C war criminals which are also enshrined there. A stark reminder of Japan’s brutal military history and their unwavering nationalistic pride.

Onto a lighter subject now, I think the Japanese toilet merits a section of its own. They’re incredible, yet terrifying. You’re almost too scared to sit on it in case something unexpected happens. They spray, wash, dry, deodorise, they even have heated seats; I half expected it to wish me a good day when I got off! How has something so simple turned into something that requires ‘operating instructions’? It felt quite mundane to get back to ‘normal’ toilets in Korea.

It is a city of real contrasts; old and new, Shinto and Buddhist, east and west, hi-tech toilets and squatters. Nothing will prepare you for Tokyo, it will blow your mind, but you can’t help but fall under it’s spell.