Day 3 - Tokyo

Monday, August 27th, 2007

View from Hotel Window (SW)

The first full day in Tokyo. When planning the trip I was a bit disappointed that we are only in Tokyo for two full days. As time is at a premium here I decided we needed a bit of an overview of the city so this first day I arranged a half day tour to get at least an understanding of how to get around and where things are.

A couple of weeks ago I had called to confirm our tour which I had purchased at the time I organised my flights on the Internet. Following their directions we took the elevator to the main floor at 8:30 and waited by the doorman's desk– where the taxis drop their passengers for the hotel. A few minutes of admiring the rather nice black taxis (with their automatically opening and closing doors) the bus arrived to take us just a short distance down the road to a bus station where we were let out and directed to a desk where we exchanged our vouchers for tickets for the tour and told where to wait. We had a few minutes so wandered around the small lower floor of the coach station.

The city seems to be awash with machines dispensing drinks. There are banks and banks of them not only in buildings but on the street corners and in alleys all over the place. Drinks of all kinds. Yes, the expected soft drinks but also cold (and hot) coffee (black and white) of all different varieties and at reasonable prices. “Pocari Sweat” is also around a lot as well. I was interested in caffeine so started on a Pepsi while mother started on a cold coffee – she was not impressed.

The bus station appears to only be used for tours so the number of gai-jin around is quite impressive waiting for the various tours on offer from the many agencies here. Mother did have her first experience with Japanese toilets (the toilet in the hotel is more western – well, not really as it is electric and does…interesting things) and she appears to have survived (though I understand the crouching is a bit tricky when you are not used to it). Eventually we got on our quite nice coach for the tour with our guide speaking heavily accented English.

Tokyo Tower

The tour was not as complete as I would have liked starting with the Tokyo Tower. I had read in various books that this older tower no longer offers the best views in the cities (and is a bit of a rip-off) but nonetheless we enjoyed it. It is designed after the Eiffel Tower in Paris and it is certainly obvious that this is the case – despite being a few meters taller the Tokyo Tower certainly looks a lot like Eiffel. Tokyo Tower is painted red but other than that it could be mistaken for the other. It is nice being on a tour as we were taken straight through the entry gates and onto an elevator to the top of the tower. The views are quite interesting as we were able to see roughly where our quite tall hotel is and it is quite close to the tower and very, very central. We saw a number of interesting things from the top including looking down on a pretty looking cemetery and a very close monastery that we would like to visit – perhaps later this week…

View from Tower

Next on the tour was a quick drop off near the Imperial Palace (in the Imperial Palace Plaza) where we took a few pictures. Really it was just to see the outer walls though the area looks quite nice. A large amount of the palace area is actually parkland but there is a small area of it that is the residence of the emperor and his family. Evidently he does not leave his home very often at all…The walls are quite impressive slanted blocks of rocks on the other side of a substantial moat. We seem to be chasing the bus a lot today as we met him a few blocks away across a rather busy road. Did I mention it is quite hot to be walking a lot outside? About 33°C today and quite humid.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

The streets are quite wide and traffic seems to flow quite quickly. We head north on a local “expressway”. Often these consist of three or four distinct roads above the roads on the ground but are also quite close to the tall buildings all around – We passed by the sixth and seventh floors of buildings looking in on people at work, at home and at play – Not a lot of privacy with all that traffic zooming by so close. The guide pointed out that there are red triangles in many of the windows which indicate where emergency workers can get to people inside in case of an earthquake. Additionally we also noted that the buildings are all built apart from one another – only a few feet in many cases – as another safety precaution.

View on Expressway


We were able to catch a glimpse of the Akihabara district as we passed through. This is the electronics district that is not as popular as it once was. With the rise of the Internet and globalisation going to a particular area in Tokyo to get electronics is no longer required. Nonetheless it is still quite a site with all of the colourful signs and massive stores. We will have to visit…

Shopping Arcade at Sensō-Ji

The driver made his way now to Ueno Park and the Asakusa Kannon (also known as “Sensō-ji”) Buddhist shrine. This is quite an amazing shrine and this impression is first started with the massive main gate (“kaminari-mon” or “thunder gate”) off the street: A large red gate with a huge paper-looking (is it paper?) lantern hanging above the central area that you walk through. After that you pass through a relatively narrow corridor lined with small shops on either side (known as “Nakamise-dori” – “dori” is Japanese for street) selling all sorts of items both religious and not. I managed to pick up some rather tasty deep-fried doughnuts with a sweet bean paste in the middle but mother went for a bit more tourist shopping picking up a rather nice cotton Yukata – which is a light version of a Kimono. There were lots of things to look at in the stalls but we pressed through the crowd to make our rather tight deadline (I think we had a total of 45 minutes here) to get to the actual temple at the end of the shops. Of course, the temple itself is quite pleasant. Off to our left was a small stand selling incense sticks while in front of the temple incense burners (big bowls with sand) had the slender incense fingers lazily burning while more were added to make the thing look like a porcupine. Off to the left is a gate leading to the monks quarters so we paused to wash our hands in the fountain (pour a bit of water from a slender wooden ladle over your hands over the ground) to cleanse ourselves before entering the temple itself. Inside the temple the monks were making a killing with the selling of various religious notives including fortunes while there were a number of people making their prayers to the Buddha within.

Asakusa Kannon

I only wish we had more time to enjoy the temple and the surroundings but we hurried off to find the bus parked behind the temple. We needn't have bothered as we waited quite a few minutes for the group to re-form eventually leaving behind something like 4 of them who did not seem to pay too much attention to the time (despite being warned over and over again by the guide).

The end of the tour was a disappointment. We were taken to the Tasaki Pearl Gallery where we attended a demonstration on how pearls are cultivated (basically they take a small bit of mother of pearl and insert it into the body of the oyster) and how they are removed – with a live demonstration. One of our group was given the pearl that was revealed. Actually I am being a bit harsh – It was quite interesting. The tour, of course, ended with the opportunity to buy pearls so mother and I admired the colours and what was on offer and made our way back to catch the bus. It was now about 1 PM.

Street Scene with Pedestrian Scramble

One of the things I knew I had to do in Tokyo, as I mentioned earlier, was to see the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka here in Tokyo. Tickets are difficult to come by and I actually had to get mine about two months ago in London (even then several of the days this week were fully booked). Unfortunately, the only day they could give me for the tour was today so now we needed to head off to the museum which is not right in the middle of Tokyo – Mitaka is a few miles to the west of the centre of the city. Having the bus drop us near our hotel which is a bit to the south and east of the centre would be counter-productive so we got on another bus that dropped us at a hotel close to the Shinjuku JR rail station. This whole area is a collection of massive international hotels and we were a bit lost until we asked a porter which way to go and he directed us through the hotel and along a street to the station.

Residences Near Mitaka

We are now old hands at catching the train so sat down and enjoyed the trip above the streets of Tokyo as we headed out to Mitaka. The train line eventually was higher above the street than many of the buildings as we traveled out of the immediate centre of the city. Eventually we stopped at the small Mitaka station. Exiting the station there was a bit of confusion as we tried to figure out how to get to the museum as I knew it was a bit of a walk (I also had a map to the museum anyway). We needn't have worried as there were signs, in English, pointing to the museum so we were soon on our way walking along a small street beside a stream. It is amazing the compactness yet beauty in the simplicity of the houses here. As we walked along we looked down narrow alleys with neat homes all along them. The noisiest thing here were the insects in the stream as we made our way along the quiet street. Periodically there was a bus stop for the bus that takes visitors directly to the museum (I think it does not operate very often – we never saw it). Coming across a bigger road we turned right and after about a quarter of a mile arrived at the museum – Only about a half hour walk from the station.

Ghibli Museum Entrance

The museum is actually quite understated but very, very well done. There is a small dark green sign with light yellow lettering on the street pointing the way as we pass by the front ticket gate with a Totoro behind the glass seemingly waiting for visitors to present their tickets (a polite sign, of course, points people to the real entrance around the corner). Walking around the organic-looking curved building we presented our vouchers at the main entrance and were given tickets (consisting of a strip of film) for the small (but famous) theatre that shows animation shorts throughout the day (movies that can only be seen at the museum). Walking down the main entrance the windows are all stained glass featuring characters and scenes from various Ghibli animation productions and the room itself is almost Mediterranean in feel with glass chandeliers and earth-tone colours throughout. At the bottom of the stairs is the main atrium of the museum where you can see up all three levels. Above us is a clock and kids are swarming everywhere – But that is intentional with the emphasis on the museum being fun and interesting things for the young at heart.

Arguing with Totoro for Tickets

We started with a room having a small exhibit on the history of the Ghibli studios with a bit of information about how animation actually works. This was all in Japanese (as is much of the museum) but was interesting nonetheless. We made our way across the main floor from the history exhibit to the small cinema where we were lucky to be one of the last few admitted into the screening. The cinema is very interesting with the projector in a glass room at the back of all of the inclined rows of bench seating. When the lights were lowered a painting in the roof of the sun was replaced by one of a moon and stars…The short was about the love affair between a water spider and a water beetle. There was no speaking in the film and it was very well done and quite moving – Both typical attributes of a Ghibli film. The children in the audience (which outnumbered the adults, it seemed) seemed to very much enjoy the film.

Moving up the winding staircase onto the first floor we paid (literally) a visit to a small shop selling books and various bits of art (credit cards are handy) then we visited what had to be my favourite part of the whole museum which was a set of rooms set up like an animator's studio. The rooms are stacked with various inspirational books (mostly art-oriented, and in English) and other artefacts (a toy plane here, a boat there, a ball of string…). The walls are literally covered with thousands of original small pieces of art which, amazingly, are largely untouched by visitors though you could easily do damage as you walk right by them! The sense of wonder and magic seems to pervade this whole place. Really interesting.

Of course, the main shop was very busy but we managed to pick up a few things including these very odd ornaments they have here – They are meant to be hung (some how) from your mobile phone. The Ghilbi ones are particularly good.

Outside of the museum we were feeling a bit hungry so took a look at the museum's café but it did not look terribly appealing (quite formal really and also a bit of a queue of people sitting on chairs outside waiting to get in) so we ended up grabbing a lemonade from a small snack stall beside. It was some of the best lemonade we have ever had – Very refreshing (not too sour, not too sweet).

Outside the Ghibli Museum

The museum is located in the corner of a very large park. We were not really in a hurry to get back to the hotel – the museum was closing but we had lots of time so we walked from the museum to another JR station that was just as close as the Mitaka one – Kichijoji. Along the way we passed many mad cyclists and saw many cycles leaning on various edifices (many of which do not appear to be locked up). The road was quite busy but we eventually came up the station area and we were quite surprised. After walking alongside the park for so long the station area is quite built up with 5-6 stories on either side of the quite narrow road. Lots of interesting places to eat but we had spotted somewhere else to try for dinner…

Near Kichijoji

Earlier in the day we had passed by Ueno and spotted (it was, admittedly, also pointed out by the guide) a market area leading away from the station under the train tracks. This is the Ameyayokocho arcade area and we both thought it might be interesting. Leaving Ueno now we were looking for something to eat but of course this did not mean we could not do some souvenir/nick-knack shopping and Tokyo seems to be quite good for that. We went into a shop jammed full of small little cute items and gadgets. There are the mobile phone dangles I mentioned earlier but also designer stickers for your phone as well, cute hair accessories, small plastic figures and, of course, many of the “capsule” machines. These are machines that you feed your yen into (typically 100) and out comes a hollow plastic ball containing toys. We spent a few minutes just looking at the toys on offer: Plastic bugs, science fiction figures, dolls, toy cars, wind-up toys, etc, etc. Very good for small Christmas gifts we thought…

Ameyayokocho Market

Away from the main street we walked along the market area. Many of the meat and fish stalls had already closed but there were still many stalls opening selling clothing, music, electronics, etc. so we wandered around them looking for somewhere to eat. Eventually we found a dingy corner where there were a number of “salarymen” lined up on crowded benches around a food stall – We were in the right place. This is not a tourist place at all. Prices are extremely good but there was a bit of a complication as the menu was in Japanese and no one spoke any English (our Japanese is not good enough to be able to competently order food like this). We were getting a bit frustrated and hungry as we walked a short distance away and eventually found a place that had pictures on the menu – this was something we could do. Stepping inside the small air-conditioned (thank goodness) restaurant we were motioned to a seat. There were more “salarymen” at the bar running along one side of the narrow shop with a few tables lined up against the wall on the right. Eventually we managed to make our desires known to the gentleman serving us (though he did not look terribly interested in helping us as it took a bit of effort to get his attention despite being two out of the 16 people in the restaurant). I had a bit of a fish dish and mother had a donburi (a dish of rice with a bit of chicken, we think, on top). It was not that bad but I am not entirely sure it was a real Japanese place…It seemed that some of the patrons may have been Chinese (though they were speaking Japanese). The reason I think this is important is that I always try to have local food – Food that the local people are eating, not just those places where the people with lots of money go.

Walking around after our dinner I also tried a deep-fried snack as well. A bit odd that. It was the size of a baseball and the entire middle consisted of a thick paste that had pieces of things like prawn and hotdog (no joke) in it. They also put a bit of mayonnaise on top along with katsuobushi (fish shavings) on top (which mother really enjoyed – though that is all she tried). It was actually quite tasty. Had a bit of a chat with the guy running the stall (a short chat as he spoke not a lot of English but was very friendly) while I was eating and trying not to burn my mouth on the very hot insides. Looking this up on the Internet, evidently it is called “Takoyaki” or “fried or baked octopus” though I don't recall too much (if any) octopus in it…The description of everything else is right though…

We wandered back to the hotel via the JR (Shinbashi station). It has been a very long day. Tomorrow I don't think will be any shorter and the day after, well, don't get me started…

Day 4 - Mount Fuji

Further Information

For further information, please see: