The end of my teaching practicum coincided with the beginning of spring break. I thought about traveling out of Japan for the week, but why leave? Despite having already lived in Tokyo for months, there were so many areas I had yet to explore. I set off with a backpack and a camera at my side (like a true gaijin?), but instead of leaving Tokyo, I went full tourist inside the city. Here are some of the things I saw.
After a lazy Saturday on the couch (flipping between anime, Japanese soap operas, and sumo wrestling while finalizing a university submission), I geared up on Sunday with a breakfast feast. It was a beautiful sunny morning when I left the house and boarded the train.
One of the city’s main attractions, Meiji-jingu, is a forested shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who modernized the feudal isolationist state of Japan at the end of the 19th century. Wooden torii gates tower over the path to the shrine.
It’s ritual to purify yourself by pouring water over your hands before entering the shrine. The atmosphere inside the walls was calm and peaceful, even under tourist invasion. Visitors were praying along the far wall, or scribing wishful messages to the deities on wooden tiles hung beneath a sacred tree. I arrived just in time to watch a silent procession shuffle slowly through the heart of the shrine.
Behind Meiji Shrine I strolled through the sprawling Yoyogi Park, which was sprinkled with locals enjoying the sun and picnicking on the lawns. The park was a nice escape from the crowds, though the city was always in sight.
Back near Harajuku Station, I hit Takeshita-dori for lunch. The street was absolutely packed with shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrians, oozing in a slow stream between eccentric shops and fast food restaurants.
This main artery of Tokyo’s fashion subculture bazaar is especially crowded on Sunday afternoons, when teenagers gather to indulge in sweet crepes, the official street food, and show off their unique styles of dress. As I arrived, the explicit lyric, “F—— you, I’m a dirty b——” followed by a beat drop blasted from a nearby speaker. This certainly set the tone for the wild items in shop displays and the alternative fashion choices of loitering teens, whether they be gothic or full-blown costumed. See for yourself.
Those are two of my favourites, but there’s no end to the fashion possibilities when teenagers from all over Tokyo make the Sunday pilgrimage to Harajuku to mingle among the crowds, showing off their style and engaging in cosplay.
After lunch and a fruity dessert crepe, I rode the circular green Yamanote Line into Chuo, which is a large commercial centre often considered to be the heart of Tokyo. The Ginza district especially is full of corporate headquarters and high-end shopping. I had splurged the night before and booked a hotel room at the classy Mitsui Garden Hotel Ginza Premier, where I headed for a short rest. My wallet took a hit when I paid in cash upfront, but after checking into my room on the 23rd floor and approaching the window, I immediately decided it was worth the expense.
My view of the Ginza metropolis was a nice appetizer, but I hungered for more sights of the city. By nightfall, I had my eyes set on Tokyo Tower, the glowing orange symbol of the city. It was visible from the hotel lobby.
The half hour walk was a pleasant one, and my anticipation grew as the tower loomed closer. When I arrived, I learned that there are multiple observatory levels. I started at the lowest one, then paid extra to ascend higher in another elevator. The illuminated city stretched into the distance on all sides of Tokyo Tower.
Satisfied, I returned to my hotel room to prepare for a relaxing bath and a glorious sleep. I kept the blinds open — how could I not?
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
I had originally planned on waking up at 4:30 to try to secure one of the limited spots available to view the tuna auction, but it didn’t happen. Maybe I’ve softened up a bit since my swimming days. Regardless, the famous Japanese fish market was still worth visiting later in the morning.
Tsukiji is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It is the epitome of controlled chaos. The inner market restricts access to visitors, and I can understand why; the buyers and sellers rushing around doing business have no patience for wandering gaijin like myself cluelessly crossing their paths. Styrofoam containers packed with fish were being transported on trolley carts, bicycles, motorbikes, motorized hand carts, and trucks. These vehicles dashed around the market with frightening speed, swerving between each other in a rapid dance, their drivers focused on hauling seafood to its destination as quickly as possible.
These images do not do justice to the sheer energy of the inner market theatre; vehicles were blasting by in a constant stream. The most common were the hand carts with the wide steering wheels, because they could carry large loads and were easy to manoeuvre — at least the drivers standing behind the controls made it look easy.
I didn’t stay for long; no matter where I stood, I felt like I was in somebody’s way. Stressed, I returned to the outer market, where fish is prepared and sold at stands or in restaurants. Tourists are welcome. Just about any kind of seafood can be bought (yes, including whale…), along with fresh wasabi, various types of seaweed, and high quality Japanese knives that are far outside my price range.
The market is a maze of countless shops, stands, and restaurants, many of which are tiny or hidden within narrow alleys. As I strolled through the fishy air, I gained an appreciation for the immensity of the entire operation. Some of the statistics are staggering; about $20 million worth of seafood is sold on an average day, and in 2013 a single 489 pound bluefish tuna was auctioned off for ¥155.4 million (about $1.7 million) to the owner of a sushi restaurant chain.
In a back alley, I happened to run into a couple friends who were just sitting down for a sushi breakfast (“what are the chances!?”), so I joined them and ordered some deliciously fresh thick-cut tuna. It melt in my mouth.
Tsukiji is a one-of-a-kind place. It’s been featured in numerous forms of popular media, including the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the music video for Clean Bandit‘s hit “Rather Be”, both of which I highly recommend you watch. The market is slated for a controversial relocation next year in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. It’s not going to be an easy move.
Before checking out of the hotel, I showered again to try to kill the smell of fish. Then I hopped on a southbound commuter train.
Kamakura is a small, picturesque town surrounded by temples, about an hour trip outside of Tokyo. I arrived at the station and managed to navigate the 2 kilometre trek through quiet hillside neighbourhoods on my way to the Kamakura Daibutsu. I guess it was hard to miss, sitting 13.4 metres tall.
There’s no doubt The Great Buddha has a presence.
Before leaving the self-proclaimed “Shopping Town”, I checked out Kamakura’s most well-known street, Komachi-dori. The quaint novelty shops along this road were interesting to step inside as the sun went down. A soft melody drifted from a shop selling ocarinas; for a moment I felt like I’d ventured into Hyrule.
Then I saw this sign and the spell was broken. I promptly left.
If an offshore earthquake had occurred at that very moment, not even The Great Buddha could have saved me.
The city of Yokohama is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture. It’s Japan’s second largest city behind Tokyo, and they’re only separated by a half hour train ride. I had to transfer through Yokohama Station on my way home from Kamakura, so I decided to stop for dinner. What better place to eat than the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum?
That’s right; there exists a museum dedicated to the history of ramen. It was worth the additional subway ride to Shin-Yokohama station to examine the exhibits and thoroughly educate myself on the thrilling history of the Japanese noodle soup dish. Just kidding – there were no English translations. Instead, I walked through some creepy hallways, pretending to understand what the voices were saying. It was actually a very strange experience.
Of course by this time my stomach was growling and I was craving the featured dish. Inside one of the small restaurants branching off from the main hub, I devoured a bowl of ramen. It had a base of pork-bone, extra thick noodles, and a sprinkle of garlic chips on top. The warm broth was just what I needed.
I was pretty exhausted by the time I finished eating and I still had multiple train transfers standing in the way of my bed. However, I was quite proud of all that I’d accomplished in only 2 days.
My break isn’t even close to over, and I’m planning more trips within Tokyo and beyond. Stay tuned for Part 2!
|Read Part 2 →|