Facebook is great at remembering dates that happened, “On This Day”. Eight years ago this month, I made my way to Tokyo while a friend worked abroad there. Memories made, some remembered vaguely, and the experience of a lifetime ensued next.
After 20 hours of flying leaving Boston on a Friday at 10:30am, I arrived in Tokyo on Saturday at 5:20pm with a 13 hour time difference. Meeting up with my friend Katie, we made it to our hotel in the Shinagawa ward of Tokyo after an hour train ride from the airport to the city. Having dinner and several Kirins, we ended up meeting an Australian couple at the hotel bar who was in town for breeding horses. I end up doing a couple of tourist attractions with the couple later in the week as well.
The next day we made our way over to the ward of Asakusa with open-air markets and several shrines. Japan has two primary religions: Shinto and Buddhism, which co-exist and are complementary to each other. Here we could participate in a few rituals such as wafting smoke to inhale from burning incense, collecting water from a fountain with a cup but then drinking it from your hand to then spit back out, paying to write prayers on a piece of paper to attach to an outside post to the shrine, or participating in yoga-like prayer while tossing coins into a tin collection. We also experienced a customary lunch that day which required your shoes to be taken off and sitting crossed-legged on pillows as you cooked your meats and vegetables in a hot broth being boiled on your table.
That evening we took the subway to Shibuya, with an equivalency comparable to NYC Times Square. An immediate difference, however, is the cleanliness of the city and the politeness and friendliness of the natives to foreigners. The area hosts thousands upon thousands of people shopping, eating, and walking about. Great entertainment if you enjoy people watching. While having dinner that evening at a restaurant called 603, we felt our first earthquake and learned the experience was somewhat common and experienced several more throughout the week. This happened to be a year and a half before the terrible earthquake and tsunami hit Japan 2011.
The next day I ventured solo, south of Tokyo by train, to Kamakura. I ventured to Engaku-ji Temple which houses monks and an 8-foot bell at the top of a hill which requires you to take several flights of stairs to access. I made my way around the small city center to do a bit of shopping and to tour the Great Buddha, otherwise known as Diabutsu, within the Buddhist temple of Kōtoku-in. It is a bronze statue that stands 37 feet tall. It was massively impressive. Making my way back to the train I visited Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Kamakura and where one of my favorite photos of Sake Barrels was taken.
The weather in August is hot, humid, and some days full of rain. This day happened to be one of them, as were most of the days of my trip.
The next morning we were awoken to our 16th-floor hotel room shaking at 5:02am. We were experiencing our 2nd earthquake. Unsure of what to do for the 30 seconds that seemed forever, I vaguely remember hopping into the tub. Unsure of our rational back then, it seemed like the most logical solution. By the way, Japan’s technology seemed to be quite ahead of Americans, that even the toilets and showers light up, heat up, and self-clean. But I digress. Eventually, the shaking stopped but we were pretty rattled ourselves so decided it was a good time to head over to the famous Tsujiki Fish Market in Shimbashi district.
Tsujiki is the largest fish market in the world. We probably saw every type of fish imaginable, along with whole Tunas that was claimed to be the most expensive in the world. The workers were quite disgruntled with having to work around the tourists and it being already close to 100 degrees by 6am, I can understand why they would be annoyed.
Making our way back after an incredibly hot and humid trip, I showered up again and then took a bus tour from the hotel to Mt. Fuji and the town of Hakone. After a 2 1/2 hour bus ride, we made our way to the 5th station (out of 12) and also the highest point cars can drive up to Mt. Fuji. We were given some time to explore, shop, and walk around. I hiked a bit of a trail but unfortunately you could not see the peak due to the clouds.
We then continued to drive on to Hakone, which houses sulfur hot springs and Lake Ashi. Upon arrival, we took a cable car up to the hot springs. Unfortunately, The cloudy weather stuck with us and made it difficult to see anything. However, you could certainly smell the sulfur. Here you could participate in a ritual where one is supposed to eat a boiled egg from the sulfur water that turns the egg black, claiming to add 7 years to your life.
We drove our way back down to the Lake, where we got on a large Pirate looking ship and took a cruise. Our tour ended with taking the Bullet train back to Tokyo. The ride was incredibly fast, lasting 30 minutes. I was also on the tour with the Australian couple we met earlier in the week, in which I found out the husband, Kerry O’Brien, had participated in the ’68 & ’72 Olympics for the Steeplechase. The world is so interesting!
That evening we had dinner with them, a couple of their associates, and I ended up going to a traditional Japanese Karaoke Bar late night. However, word of advice, don’t leave your friends overnight, in a foreign city, without a working cell phone.
The next morning I toured parts of Tokyo. When I got off the subway a Japanese University student named Takashi, wanting to practice his English, offered to help show me around. We went to the Imperial Gardens where the emperor lives. We went to Ginza, which reminds me of 5th Avenue or Newbury Street. We then made our way over to Roppongi and viewed the Tokyo Tower.
After several days of jet lag, I finally slept through the night and got an early morning start the next day to visit Harajuku and Ueno. Harajuku is famous for the Japanese youths for shopping including American/British style clothing and some girls that dress up like baby dolls. A colorful area for sure. After, I made my way to Ueno park and visited the zoo and Tokyo National Museum of Western Art.
The city is vibrant with culture and history but also modern with advanced technology. I’m lucky and happy to have made it to that side of the world.