My return trip from the mountains seemed to take ages, but my train finally glided into Tokyo in the midafternoon. Rather than completing the circuit back to Asakusa, I got off one stop early at Tokyo Skytree Station, which is located almost directly below the 634 metre tower on the east side of the city.
Then I stood in line for over an hour behind hundreds of other people waiting to buy tickets for the main observation platform. After getting my hands on a ticket and riding the elevator 350 metres up, the doors opened and I was struck by a breathtaking view of the sunlit city below.
The Tokyo Skytree Tembo Deck has three floors with a cafe, shop, and a restaurant. The tall glass windows encasing the main observation deck allow a 360 degree view of the city. Visitors are afforded sights of the Sumida and Arakawa rivers, Tokyo Bay, Dome, and Tower, Yokohama in the distance, and on clear days, Mt. Fuji on the horizon. While the visibility was better than average when I arrived, the air wasn’t quite clear enough to catch a glimpse of the elusive mountain; a late afternoon haze was washing over the skyline.
After burdening my camera’s memory card for a while, I decided to climb higher. The next observation platform, 450 metres off the ground, had to be accessed by a separate elevator. I bought another ticket and continued my ascent into the sky. Nearly half a kilometre above the streets, I was granted unbeatable views of Tokyo.
The Tokyo Skytree Tembo Galleria is a glass tube that wraps around the tower with an ascending slope, such that the walkway culminates in the tower’s highest accessible viewing platform.
An elderly lady and her grandson, who were visiting Tokyo from Hokkaido, asked to take a picture with me on the galleria. I said I was from Canada, and she explained that she’s been to Whistler to go skiing. When I told her I’d been skiing in Hokkaido recently, she nearly shed tears of joy. I’ve met some really kind people on this trip.
Sunset wasn’t too far away, so I figured I’d kill some time on the tower and stick around to watch it. I rode back down to the Tembo Deck, ordered an ice cream from the Skytree Cafe, and watched from my perch as the shadows grew longer.
The sun coasted toward the horizon, painting the haze.
As it sank, the molten orb cast fiery gold light.
Then it was gone, and twilight fell. The sky blushed pink and the city glowed a deep blue. This short interval between sundown and nightfall is my favourite time of day. The world holds its breath.
Photographers had been in a frenzy until the moment the last sliver of sun vanished, when a cheer went up on the deck. Then the mood mellowed to reflect the sky; observers pensively gazed upon the darkening city. Meanwhile, girls touched an interactive screen that gave a preview of the view after dusk.
As the sky dimmed, buildings lit up. Tokyo Tower, seemingly ignited by the fading sun, smouldered in the distance.
Then we saw it: the colossal Mt. Fuji, silhouetted against a crimson backdrop.
It was an unexpected treat. Seeing Mt Fuji, or at least a shadow of it, was undoubtedly the highlight of my Tokyo Skytree experience. Yet I still waited for total darkness to snap a few more shots of the illuminated city.
Finally satisfied, I descended back to ground level, ears popping from the pressure change. After distancing myself from the tower, I turned back to take a picture.
As you can see, Tokyo Skytree is glowing pink and white right now in celebration of cherry blossom season.
The sakura tree bloom is a huge deal in Japan. Meteorologists issue a cherry blossom forecast to predict precisely what day the first bloom will occur and what day the trees will be in full bloom in each city; this year in Tokyo it was March 23rd and 29th respectively. The cherry blossom flowers are featured in marketing campaigns in every industry. Check out this “special package” Asahi can, for example.
A wave of excitement sweeps over the country as the buds burst open in brilliant displays. It’s a definite sign of spring’s arrival. Festivals attract crowds of locals, who have traditions associated with the blossom, and tourists, who time their vacations to line up with the short window for viewing the flowers. Cherry blossom season doesn’t last long.
On Saturday the 28th, just as the flowers were reaching full bloom, I dropped in on the Sakura Festival in Ueno Park.
I couldn’t have asked for a nicer day, and nothing makes me happier than warm weather after a long winter. Thousands of people were drifting through the park taking pictures of the variously coloured trees. Many more were sprawled on blankets, chatting, letting the afternoon slip away. I saw some elaborate picnic meals spread out on plastic sheets.
Down by the lake, the walkway to Ueno Park Shrine was packed with food stands grilling meat, noodles, and vegetables. Customers streamed along the narrow path, attracted by the delicious smells wafting from under the tents. I bought some yakitori (the Japanese term for barbecued meat on a skewer) and a roasted cob of corn. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts, I was in a summer mood.
When the sunlight dimmed, the lanterns began to glow, and I moved on.
I took a detour on my way home and stopped at the Imperial Palace, the main residence of the Emperor of Japan and former site of Edo Castle. Though access to the inner grounds and gardens is very restricted, I headed for the northern park, where a swarm of people were crawling overtop of each other to take this picture of the moat lined with illuminated cherry blossom trees:
You can rent canoes to meander down the moat and admire the blooming flowers while Tokyo Tower watches in the background.
This week, while navigating a countless number of train stations, I’ve gained an appreciation for how massive the city of Tokyo really is. While the metropolis itself contains a mere 13 million inhabitants, the metropolitan area (the employment core plus areas with strong commuting ties) has a population of nearly 37 million, making it the largest in the world by a huge margin, surpassing the entire population of Canada.
Tokyo’s public transport system is one of the best on Earth. Though it’s crowded, the network is vast and efficient, connected in a web of light rail, subway, and monorail lines. Here’s a map showing the major rail lines in the greater Tokyo area.
The Japan Rail (JR) lines and at least some of the subway lines are pictured, but most of the private rails, like the one connecting my closest station to the Chuo Rapid Line, are not. There are 503 train stations in total, most of which operate multiple lines. Each of the lines also runs different types of trains that stop at varying combinations of stations, making them different speeds. The Tobu Isesaki Line for example has Local, Section Semi-Express, Semi-Express, Section Express, Express, Rapid, Section Rapid, and Limited Express trains. If you get on the wrong one during rush hour (and you’ll be packed in tight, pushed from side to side as people shove in and out of cars), you’ll probably blast by your desired station.
All of these trains can be accessed by swiping a card. The Suica card that I own can be loaded with yen at one of the transaction terminals in any station. Train stations are abuzz with beeps as commuters rush through, swiping their cards at the gates and hurrying to catch the trains, which come frequently but are always crowded.
Of the 50 busiest train stations in the world, 45 are Japanese. The busiest of all, Shinjuku Station, has 36 platforms, over 200 exits, and moves an average of 3.64 million people per day. The Japanese take transportation very seriously; trains are always on time, synchronized so that routes with multiple transfers can be reliably planned in advance.
While Toronto has a much smaller population of commuters, it’s easy to see why the TTC receives so much criticism.
I had a great spring break travelling solo, and I was able to see a lot of awesome things inside and outside Tokyo.
Before signing off, I’d like to give a shoutout to my best friends Mack and Lindsay, who are now together thanks to my brilliant matchmaking skills. They sent me a cherry pie on my birthday. My favourite! Thanks guys!
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