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Posted by on Sep 10, 2009 in Asia, TripJournals |

Day 5 – Tokyo: Meiji Shrine, Imperial Palace, Toyota MegaWeb, Asakusa, and Ginza

Rested and relaxed from an unintentionally early sleep, we are awakened by a pleasant wake up call. Last night’s bed was such a contrast to the tatami mats of the night prior, I slept soundlessly and am fully recuperated from the wonderful activities of my Japan adventures.

Today is a full day; we are slated to check out of the hotel after breakfast this morning, tour around several areas of Tokyo, including the Imperial Palace area, Ginza, and then head over to Narita back to the Hilton for an overnight and to prepare for our flights home, thus completing the circle much like the spiritual Zen enso comes around full circle. Breakfast today is another welcome western retreat… although I would have welcomed more authentic traditional Japanese options, I have come to appreciate that breakfast at most hotels will be catering heavily to western palettes, of course, with the obligatory Miso soup and rice, and other Japanese breakfast items. The contrast of cuisines will be welcomed by first-time travelers to Japan and serves as an anchor to ‘reset’ the culinary senses for another day of exotic sights, tastes, and smells.

After our breakfast, we are greeted by the hotel’s staff, to see us off and wish us well. Although porterage of baggage has not been typically included so far (and we’re unsure if the Kao Plaza was supposed to do it, or simply did it out of courtesy), we are surprised by the helping hands that graciously sweep our luggage to our awaiting chariot (bus) with the same grace and hospitality that they did upon our arrival the afternoon prior.  One of the benefits of being conveyed by bus is the opportunity to have the scenery, whether natural countryside or cityscape, roll before your windows. A great benefit of Super Value Tours is that most of their trips max out at thirty-something, according to our helpful guide Maiko, with the average in the twenties; Our trip was under twenty total passengers. Since the busses used typically have about fifty seats, this means everyone (or at least most everyone on fuller trips) has the opportunity to obtain both and aisle and window seat, with room to spread out and lounge. We felt like being in business class seats, having paid for coach, and with the service and quality to match.

Making our way through Tokyo, we arrive at our first destination of the morning: the Meiji Shrine. This exquisite representation of Shinto architecture, beauty, and religious belief is easily accessible within the city only minutes from any of the main sections, yet worlds apart. I felt transported to a time of legend and wonder as, leaving the bus behind, I plied the path into wooded parklands with meandering paths leading through massive gates to a harmonious complex that was one with the surrounding nature. This shrine’s unique features include one of the largest Shinto gates in the world: two vertical trunks soaring upwards, supporting two horizontal bars atop each other, forming a square window through which we, the supplicants entered. These gates form the spiritual boundary of the shrine, delineating within from without, and encompass the sacred grounds on each of the four sides. One cannot miss the dozens of colorfully decorate Sake barrels arranged geometrically in a rectangle and erected just outside the Shinto gate. Each barrel featured a unique design of writing, color, and shapes, together forming a mosaic of three dimensional art arrayed like tiles into their frame for all to see. I was never able to find out the significance of the Sake barrels… was it religious, symbolic, or simply commercial in nature, perhaps an advertisement of the monk’s trade from decades and centuries past.

One wonder gives way to another, as we depart the Meiji Shrine and are transported to the Imperial Palace. What quickly becomes evident is that the Palace is not simply the collection of buildings and walls surrounding them, but the land surrounding the palace, and adjacent gardens. All combine to form the Imperial Palace grounds, tended by administrators of the Imperial Household, itself an organization worthy of essays. In short, the Imperial Household Agency is an independent pseudo-governmental body whose sole purpose is to maintain and serve the Imperial family, its’ household, the Palace, and the Gardens. Maiko notes that every Japanese looks up to the Imperial family, and many seek to serve… far more in fact than are ever allowed to volunteer service in the Imperial Household Agency. Those lucky enough to be selected are allowed access into what is very strictly regulated interiors of the household and none but privileged few ever see most of the interior; we learn that Maiko herself had served for a few short months in the Imperial Household Agency, often as liaison to visitors, throngs really, that come to pay their respects from the palace grounds during special holidays. And so, while we do not enter the Palace as such tours are very limited and require months of pre-approvals, we are able to view much of the outer courtyards from two hills across the moat where visitors are afforded a good view of the palace in its entirety. Harking back to the days of feudal Japan, the palace is built in a pragmatic defensible series of concentric squares. Even past the walls and initial moat, each building inside serves as a wall itself, allowing the occupants to further retreat inside should ever danger be present. Today, it stands as a testament to a bygone era of honor and conquest, the height of a beauty in architecture that marries form, function and elegance into symmetrical beauty like no other culture in way distinctly Japanese.

With the morning’s sights behind us, we head to Tokyo’s Asakusa district for lunch, shopping, and a small cultural surprise that can only occur in Japan. In Japanese culture, many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often were the source of pilgrimage and travel. It would occur naturally, then that many temples were surrounded by markets catering to the travelers which today metamorphose into markets catering to all or specialized markets. Though this is true all across Asia, nowhere is the art of the market elevated to the levels of quality and efficiency than in Japan, a culture prizing both highly. While walking towards our destination, a high quality sashimi lunch at Kura restaurant, we pass a most unusual yet fairly common occurrence in Japan: the Asakusa Shinto Shrine, adjacent to and sharing the grounds and access roads of Sensoji Buddhist Temple. Only in Japan where air and earth and water flow harmoniously together, do these two religions co-exist harmoniously almost one atop the other with the average Japanese following both paths concurrently and quite contentedly without conflict. Sadly, we have no time to explore either the shrine or the temple and vow to do just that on a return trip to Tokyo. Maiko leads us through the square grid straight streets that meander not by curving or turning, but by the shifting of sights and sounds at each corner…even as straightforward and grid-patterned as the streets are, it is easy to get turned around or disoriented when looking at shops and stalls along our way simply because of the phantasmagorical effect all the colors, smells, and sights have one you. Further down, we arrive at Kura for our Sashimi lunch. As promised by Maiko, the Sashimi here was very good. What was most memorable about Kura, though, was the fresh and refreshing home-made tofu served steamed in a basket. Intended as a side-dish to the main course, Nathan and I were awed by the texture which somehow succeeded at being both firm and soft, just the right balance of acidity and savory tastes. Our standards for tofu will never be the same again.

Our return to the bus was slow and leisurely after lunch; the tour allowed us just a brief amount of time to explore the stalls on our way back… not enough to stop too long or dawdle, but fortunately long enough to peruse two handful stores featuring everything from candies, cookies and confections which the Japanese have an insanely diverse variety of, to clothing, crafts, and knick knacks. Not to dawdle on the cookies and sweets, but a lesson we learned and share with all travelers to Japan: if ever you see sweets, cookies, or traditional confections that you like or better yet taste and enjoy, make sure to buy them on the spot. While there certainly are mass-produced confections and sweets that one sees frequently, perhaps at the airport on departure, Japanese confections vary greatly from store to store, and dramatically so from region to region such that no two are exactly alike. I found green tea (macha) custard balls early in the trip, shared some with our traveling companions; even with five of us scouring all the sweets shops, no one ever saw them or anything similar to them again the entire duration of the trip. I am rarely an impulse buyer, but offer this pearl of hard wisdom again: should something sweet tickle your fancy, buy it. While there is a chance the more popular sweets may be found again in a department store or confectionary shop, there is more chance that you will not find such again elsewhere.

Continuing our shopping, we stop by a clothiers store specializing in Yukatas, the long traditional court lounge-wear that we luxuriated in back in Atami during our amazing Kaiseki Ryori dinner. Nathan has been fixated on finding one to his liking and his size, given he is over six feet tall. After some digging, we find his perfect Yukata, and I am able to convince him to defer his purchase of an elaborate Obi belt until perhaps our next trip, since the Yukata comes with a standard Obi of the same cloth as the Yukata. Of course, Nathan is only mildly mollified, since to truly don the Yukata in style, one should have an Obi hand selected much as westerners select our ties or cuff-links. Just like ties and cuff-links, good Obis often cost more than the Yukata which they are meant to hold closed. After purchasing some crackers and cookies along the way, for what good is shopping if one cannot savor the sweets of a culture, we stumble next upon a craft store featuring hand carved Japanese wooden dolls. While other stores featured the dolls here and there, they seemed the standard run-of-the-mill high quality workings of craftsmen (if anything so beautiful could in fact be called run-of-the-mill). This one had dolls of various styles and varying quality. One ‘rough-styled’ doll, unique in its design, struck us as quite beautiful and it was very reasonably priced. She was of a light wood, bleached, painted white, and carved in the shape of a cylinder roughly thrice as high as she was wide. The stylized body was geometrical and symmetrical in style, with a wrapping of wood around the base for the hands/ sleeves of the kimono and the head on top: very unique, very simple, yet elegance in simplicity being all too Japanese, the perfect keepsake and memento of our trip. Nathan had already picked up a porcelain and silk doll of Hello Kitty from amongst half a dozen variously adorned and dressed versions at the Meiji Shrine, no doubt a steady source of revenue for the monks’ coffers. Although not a fan of shopping myself, I felt comfortable amongst the eclectic and authentic stalls in Asakusa, and when the time was forced upon us to depart, it was only with reluctance and on Maiko’s herding and urging that I made my way back to the bus.

[Nathan] As we departed the Asakusa, I witnessed something that I had not seen during our entire trip so far. Sitting on a bus bench, an obviously homeless older lady was reading a newspaper that had been fished from a dustbin. The sadness on her face struck harshly when juxtaposed against the happy smiles that seemingly spread so easily across the face of most of Japan’s citizens. I offered her a small note, hoping to ease her suffering just a little bit, yet she waved me away and refused to look at me.

Maiko later explained to me that the homeless tend to fall into 2 categories, either they are the mentally ill or they are elderly individuals who have lost everyone else in their family and have no one to care for them. Both of these categories have access to government help with food and shelter but for some unknown reason refuse it. She mentioned that, especially, with the elderly it was a matter of honor, pride and the belief that if they could not fend for themselves they did not deserve assistance from others. This sobering sight was a realization that even in this seemingly utopian land, with low unemployment rates and even lower crime rates, that the problems that plague all of humanity are present.

Our drive across town, on our way to the Toyota Megaweb, took us along one of the elevated freeways that spread out through Tokyo. Like an octopus, with arms crossing and bisecting, weaving and pushing their way through the most compact thorough fares and alleys. It is surreal to look out the window of a motor coach and feel as though if you were able to stretch out your arm you could touch the seventh floor of the buildings whizzing by. The coach took out of the heart of the city and across the bay to the complex that houses Toyota’s Megaweb, a cross between a shopping mall and a amusement park, the site is dominated by a huge Ferris Wheel painted in otherworldly neon colors with various anime characters sketched onto the buildings, duking it out for control of the entertainment yen.

[Marc] Our next stop is an interesting twist on a modern museum – Toyota’s MegaWeb is a privately funded museum of historical and futuristic cars. Alongside historical Toyota models, current models, and Toyota specific memorabilia, the most interesting feature is the wildly creative Concept Cars hall featuring very futuristic designs and vehicles. Some of these features will eventually make their way into practical use in future car models, but it was fascinating for a non car aficionado like me to experience nonetheless the full designs; Nathan on the other hand was giddy and beside himself, being the aforementioned car freak. On the other hand, the Toyota Automatic Car system ride is not worth the time spent contemplating it, much less the time wasted waiting in line, or on the ride itself. At least Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride had something interesting to look at and a bit of excitement; here, Mr. Toyota’s Lame Ride is a sad, sad testament to poor execution. The steering wheel appears to move left and right, but don’t assume that means anything: we were able to give the steering wheel a spin of at least 80 RPMs with no effect on anything whatsoever. The only controls that actually worked on the “car” were for the windshield wipers which we were clearly instructed not to touch in the preparatory laminated “safety” cards. This form of punishment is surely in violation of international treaties on the humane treatment of prisoners, for make no mistake: once you board this lame, lame ride you are indeed a prisoner. As my only retribution for this unjustly applied torture, I click the windshield wipers on turbo-drive the second I find out they are indeed functional and leave them on until we disembark. Oh, and did we mention you are charged 200 ¥ per person for the privilege of being flogged to boredom by this torture contraption? User your time instead on the futuristic concept car exhibits or other much more fascinating exhibits, and look elsewhere for a ride.

As the afternoon begins to wind down, we are dropped off in Ginza to wander the shops independently; after our guide provides the necessary directions and instructions on our meeting point and time, and offers to assist anyone looking for specific shops, we are much left to our own devices for a few hours of independent strolling. Again we welcome this free time to stroll the streets of this trendy area, drink a soda or hot beverage and people watch, or peruse the upscale shops and department stores. While Ginza definitely has more upscale and boutique shops, and a handful of mega department stores, I prefer markets in Asakusa for my travel shopping. Granted, for household goods and clothing, a good department store may be required. As evening engulfed us, we chanced upon a Buddhist monk in traditional conical pauper’s hat; his task to wander the city or countryside, with nothing but the clothes on his back, living off only the alms he collected, to further his studies and journey towards enlightenment. We offered a few coins to aid him, and he proceeded to chant a prayer.

Personal shopping preferences and feelings aside, there is, however, no denying that the Japanese elevate the department store category to art form much as they do everything else. In the basement alone one, which is all we had time for before dinner after perusing the streets and shops outside above ground, one can find such jewels of specialty goods of very high caliber. In the Matsuya Department Store, our guide led us through a brief tour of the food arcades. Each shop offered specialty goods from sweets and cookies to meats, fruits, vegetables, baked goods and specialty foods. Where else in the world can you buy four cantaloupe melons, perfectly rounded, all of equal size and shape, arrange geometrically in a square wooden box that is lined with shredded linen paper that we use for resumes back home, then tied closed by ribbons of orange silk. It is this evident attention to detail that permeates Japanese culture and cuisine that will have us coming back again and again to be treated like nowhere else.

[Nathan] When the sun sets, this district came alive. Flashing neon signs so bright that you felt as though you needed to pull out your sunglasses to keep from being blinded lined the façade of every building. The hippest of the city’s occupants were out in full force, donning the latest fashion from Milan and Paris. In all truth I must admit that I chuckled to myself as I watched individuals with one thousand dollar shoes and thirty thousand dollar watches, unfold themselves and step out of the smallest micro cars in the world and onto the street. We sat below one these flashing signs as we awaited our entire group to convene at the appointed time for dinner. Once everyone had returned from their Ginza experience, Maiko led us to the restaurant where we would be dining that evening. The entrance was down a narrow set of stairs in the basement of one of the tall high rises that seem the norm in this amazing city.

[Marc] Tonight’s dinner, our last supper on the tour, is Shabu Shabu, an “all you can eat” style of meals where there is a large reservoir of boiling water in the center of the table. Thin slices of meat and vegetables are brought to the table for family style sharing. You simply throw whatever you feel like having into the boiling water and wait for it to cook. Kind of like an aquatic version of Korean all-you-can-eat Bar Bie Que. The meats were fresh and good cuts, with vegetables adding a nice addition. Although we had a vegetarian sitting at our table, they did have plenty of options for him. If you are very strict in your requirements this may not be your style, however. The solution that was provided by the restaurant staff is an S shaped divider to separate the circular water boiling pit into what, ironically, resembles a Ying Yang symbol. This divider is used to separate the meats and veggies into different sides of the water container, but I noticed with a sick inward chuckle that some of the meat oils made their way into the veggie side. Definitely not very ‘kosher’ of an arrangement, but accommodating nonetheless.

After a wonderful meal with sake abound, we finished with a milk flavor ice cream cone, and then stumbled up the stairs to the awaiting coach. Almost everyone on the transfer back to Narita and the hotel fell asleep while riding, as it had been such an exciting and active day. The next day we would be our last in Japan, so Nathan and I hit the bed as soon as we entered our room, wanting to be refreshed for the final portion of the tour before our flight back home tomorrow.

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