Tokyo: Yoyogi Park

I love to search for the green heart of a big city, and so we set off on a walk to Yoyogi Park. It’s reachable on foot from Shibuya within half an hour (maybe 40 minutes if you stop to check Googlemaps) and we left the fast pace of our temporary home behind us, passing more subdued areas with a few shops and cafes, before finally arriving at the gates to the park.

I have to say I caught my breath, there was just something about them. The clearly Japanese style is of course impressive and distinctive, but it was as if we really were about to enter a gateway to yet another different world within the excitement of this one. There they stood, those towering columns of the Southeast entrance, and beyond them a mass of still summery green and trees.

Yoyogi park is open for 24 hours and it’s a wonderful discovery for those who love to walk, especially in wide, open spaces, as well as those who know their plants and trees. Curving tree trunks, leafy crowns meeting overhead, ferns and acorns scattered along  the paths like green forest gems.

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We were walking through the park planning to stop at the Meiji Shrein on the way, when we saw a sign pointing towards some steps and saying Kiyosama’s Well. Intrigued, we paid the 500 admission fee, got a helpful map describing the individual spots we were about to encounter.

What we had discovered was actually a gem, a park within a park, the Meiji Jingu Inner Garden. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 the garden was owned by the Imperial Family. An enchanting green respite full of yet more plants, trees and beautiful nooks and crannies, the garden also stands out due to repeated mentions of the love, or “consideration”, Emperor Meiji had for his Empress Shoken. These feelings led to the construction of the Kakuun-tei, a teahouse unfortunately burned down during WWII, but carefully rebuilt in 1958. Empress Shoken was said to have loved this teahouse and “rested” there when she visited the garden, spending time by the pond nearby or strolling along a winding path lined with azaleas. It’s a hilly area, but with a “gentle slope”, according to our booklet – another loving detail. It certainly is a wonderful picture to imagine and I couldn’t help feeling curious about this woman. There is a lot of interesting information to read about her, and among other things it turns out she was a talented and active poet. She was also a whopping three years older than her betrothed, gasp, so her birthyear was officially changed to allow the marriage.

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The Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine and here too a strong connection to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken is apparent. Their graves are not located in the Shrine itself, but to quote, the “souls are enshrined” there. Before entering the territory you join other visitors next to a small fountain with multiple wooden gourds, and, following their lead (or covertly watching the Japanese if you did not read up on this beforehand), you fill a gourd with water, pour some in your hand, then some in the other hand, moisten your mouth and cheeks, then proceed. If you like, you can buy a fortune and make a contribution to the Shrine – 100 yen drops in to a wooden box and after a bit of rummaging you pull out a small bilingual scroll with a poem written (most likely) either by Emperor Meiji or Empress Shoken. A nice souvenir and a pleasant reminder of a visit to an interesting place filled with a sense of peace and at the same time some weighty history. Obviously the religious ritual isn’t obligatory, especially for tourists, but it’s a nice custom and the clear explanations tactfully placed throughout the Shrine make it easy to feel included. There are several Shinto prayer rituals described in the Shrine of varying degrees of openness and it’s touching to read the messages visitors leave behind.

 

 

 

 

Tokyo: Newbie Impressions 2

A friend told me before I left that there were no trash bins in the city and this is true. When we get snacks along the way, we carefully put all the waste in the plastic bag usually provided, or we just take one with us, and carry it around until we get back to the hotel. A pleasant consequence is that so far we have seen practically no litter in the city.

Eating while walking or generally on the street is considered ill-bred. We don’t see much of it here, but a few cases have been spotted, for example in Harajuku, although ice cream or those creative desserts from Angel Crepes don’t seem to be an issue. What we did today was simply pick a bench and quietly eat with our backs to the street. Clever!

The Japanese are very good at recognizing which things will lead to questions from foreign tourists, as is clear by some English translations we’ve seen around. Just when you start wondering, voila, there it is, the crucial point. “Please don’t touch the puppies and ask for assistance” in a very expensive pet shop in the Daikanyama district.

Wearing socks with shoes is very popular among ladies, and oh, what socks they are. The shoes alone are worth several articles of ecstatic description, but the socks are not far behind, in every color imaginable, with ribbons, pearls, feathers etc etc. Feet are taken seriously here. As is everything else, it seems? I saw a woman with pearls lining the hems of her jeans and generally being “dressed” is certainly filled with a new meaning over here, at all times of the day.

In contrast to hotels in other countries I’ve stayed in, we have not heard or seen the housekeeping staff in our hotel, but when we come back from walking, everything is comfortable and pristine, and the robes (yes, we get robes, unexpected) are folded on the beds like I never could fold myself. Only it doesn’t button all the way down, because, once again, I’m too big for Japan.

Some of the talking does sound like what you may have heard during your childhood anime watching. It’s generally a melodious, sometimes even sing-song language, and you understand why the Japanese have a reputation of being musical and good at singing.

Long lines outside of Western eating places are a very common sight, often made up of mostly teenage school students or young people, none of them looking bored, but either doing something on their phones or chatting to each other. Dessert places are frequented especially heavily and the excitement about what’s on offer is palpable. The Disney theme regularly pops up among sweet food and seems to be at home among the poppy brightness that is one part of what we connect with Japanese culture.

Nobody stares at me when I think I’m being awkward with my chopsticks. They just enjoy their own meal and let others eat in peace.

And while locals do of course talk and laugh among themselves in the city, even in Shibuya I get the impression that if it weren’t for the traffic, it would generally be pretty quiet. It might be an inner quality, maybe that’s why it’s always possible to sit down and think here.

 

 

 

 

Tokyo: Newbie Impressions

The toilets talk. It’s a wee bit unnerving. No (British) pun intended. OK, they don’t actually talk, at least I haven’t, er, experienced anything like that yet. But they are always warm. Some of them make a noise when you, er, get very close. Others lift the lid up by themselves when you enter and the panel of buttons next to the seat is intimidating at first glance, but the most important one is usually illustrated unmistakably or simply helpfully labeled with FLUSH in English.

There was one fantastic toilet I didn’t want to leave for a while, because there were paper cups by the sink and little packages of what turned out to be self-toothpasting toothbrushes. You hold them under running water and voila.

When shopping, cash is put in a small tray placed in front of you for that purpose, and if you miss this step and hand it over to the cashier, you apologize, because that is not how things are done around here, and since the cashier is thanking you so graciously you feel horribly disrespectful. Your change, though, is given back to you by hand, but I can’t help wondering if that is happening because of my aforementioned blunder.

Little towels soaked in warm water await on tables in almost all the cafes we’ve been to so far, and it’s very refreshing after a lot of walking in the city. Most containers on the tables will include a sauce for food, even if said container looks like a teapot to you and you accidentally ruin your sister’s green tea by wanting to be helpful and pouring in to her cup from said container.

Almost everyone, and that’s a seemingly constant stream of a great many people, walk on the left. Navigating becomes a habit, and even if you do err to the right, locals will politely skirt around you, giving you breathing space to step back to where you belong.

Even if your waitress only speaks Japanese and you, unfortunately, don’t, she will stay until she has made absolutely sure that she has understood your order correctly, even if you start repeating “OK” like a parrot just so as not to feel like an idiot and let her do her job. Her attentiveness will cause blushing and feelings of subsequent gratitude in your soul.

Locals also like to stop and watch traditional Japanese weddings and film them with their (considerably more advanced than mine) mobile devices. No pushing or yelling.

If you go inside a jewelry shop like Osemawa in the Harajuku district and open your mouth at the sheer amount of earrings on offer, after a closer look you will see a sign reading “FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT HAVE PIERCED HOLE”.

There are people everywhere and most of them look happy and industrious.

And I want to take pictures of practically every sign, poster or ad, because I can’t read them, but each letter is so intricate that it all looks like a work of art.

 

 

Tokyo, Here I Am

“You look like a hobo,” my sister said as I emerged from my cocoon of airline-provided blanket, pillow(s) and a sleeping mask with a glorious bedhead. We erupted in laughter at the rear of a very large plane, and I was temporarily blinded by bright sunlight when I yanked the illuminator shade up too quickly. Our breakfast was being served as we neared Tokyo.

Yes, it has been a while since I boarded a long-distance flight. Expecting to be very preoccupied with the duration of the journey from Frankfurt am Main to Japan’s capital (a first-time trip for me and my sibling, by the way), I was surprised by how quickly I settled in my temporary little nest, though I didn’t finish watching Me Before You. Instead I wrote and slept, or attempted to do the latter, and listened to the stewardesses gossiping behind us. When my sister said we had already covered half the distance, I actually worried about having time to finish the second meal and get enough sleep to stave off jet lag for as long as possible upon arrival.

Tokyo greeted us with fabulous, sunny weather and a wave of warmth rolling in from outside. No trace of the typhoons that had been rocking the city for the past few days and not a speck of rain to be seen. The immediate politeness of airport staff and especially the nodding and thanking (I don’t know what I did, but I’m happy if they’re happy) was one of the first things I noticed after disembarking. And I began to worry about seeming rude, with my usual smile, nod or greeting suddenly seeming noncommittal in comparison.

We got on the Airport Limousine bus to get to our hotel and once again I (we) received a bow after a polite poster reminder to fasten our seatbelts. Plenty of fresh-looking green trees caught our eye before we got to the city with its towering skycrapers, many roads, metro trains and cars, but somehow it all made a harmonious impression together and I have always found cityscapes fascinating. Bright logos, giant screens, ads, shops and cafes became more numerous as we neared the Shibuya district, and everything that I had thought, or not thought, about Tokyo began to slowly take shape.

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Finding our hotel did prove to be a bit of a challenge after all. We got halfway and were just puzzling over the directions on Google Maps, when a Japanese gentleman politely asked us if we needed help. Normally I don’t pull a Blanche Dubois and depend on the kindness of strangers, but in this case we trusted our guts and did indeed encounter the Japanese friendliness and willingness to help (clueless) foreigners. I hope that gentleman had a nice day. He also pointed out the 24-hour Maurietus Petit supermarket right near the hotel, and the very street we were searching for en route turned out to be a little gem, dotted with several inviting local eateries and red paper lanterns that lit up as soon as darkness settled.

Tokyo has so far not thrown me off my feet. It’s big, busy and always alive, based on my first impressions, but it also has a cosyness to it, nestled in its side streets full of unexpected discoveries and quintessentially local cafes tucked away so neatly amongst the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, where we are staying, that you have to look twice to pick them out. After a delicious lunch of rice, salad, soup and pork fillet simmering in a mouth-watering mixture of onion and scrambled egs in the Mark City Mall – a convenient stop before you fully get your bearings – we were ready to start taking on our slice of Tokyo. No pun intended.

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We also needed to stay awake until the evening. Yes, jet lag, if that’s you, it has been a while.

My guidebook allowed exactly that which I had been hoping to do – simply walk on and explore. We set off towards the famed Shibuya Crossing, drinking in the sheer multitude of everything around us – buildings, cafes, fast-food restaurants, mini-marts and supermarkets, electronics stores, shops, signs, Japanese letters, pictures, billboards, music, shop staff methodically calling out about promotions, schoolgirls giggling in twos and scrolling through their (very high-tech-looking) phones. The number of people passing through Shibuya’s streets was immediately impressive, especially when viewed from a higher vantage point. Multiple rivers of humans seemed to merge and then part, but it was neither chaotic nor uncoordinated. Not one single case of pushing or tripping, just an elegant, goal-oriented mass of locals going about their business.

On this first afternoon alone I have seen more gorgeous shoes on women’s feet than I could count and more imaginative outfits than I could recreate. Everyone is well-dressed, even those who seem to be wearing simply a T-Shirt and shorts, but if you look closely, the pockets on the shorts are cut in a shape resembling the human eye (an interesting impression should the pockets be positioned on the back of the shorts) and the shirt has an understated, but artsy statement hidden in its hem. So not only well-dressed, but individually dressed. The shopping frenzy in shops marked with the magic word Sale is apparent, but since we are literally big in Japan, we only look.

A quick pre-bedtime stop at the nearest Family Mart yielded this exciting loot. Clearly the fact that even sweets include green tea make them a healthy snack. Oyasuminasai.

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