Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thoughts on Japan - part 2 (Tokyo)



One of the things that I was most looking forward to about seeing Tokyo, was just seeing the difference between that big Asian city, and the big Asian city I've been living quite close to for over a year. Depending on how you define city limits, both "cities" have a population of roughly 10 million people, both cities are built upon the ruins of former occupation and war, and both cities are built "up" in a way that is still a bit surprising to little ol' Western Canadian me. For a guy who's never been to New York, Tokyo still seemed like the biggest city I could visit and after having been there, I'm still a bit undecided about whether or not I would like to go back.

There again, you base your opinion on your limited experience, and as we only had 2 and a half days to wander the streets of Tokyo, I left that city (as I did the others) with a very unfair and unbalanced impression. Still, there was a lot to see, a lot we did see, and some things I might even go back again for or to see for the first time.

We arrived at Narita airport a lot later than expected as our flight had been delayed 2 hours. As a result, we found ourselves on the Tokyo subway late at night, doing our best to navigate our way towards our capsule hotel that we had booked in advance. The capsule hotel held a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my first time sleeping in a space no bigger than a sit-up coffin (the "pod" is essentially your hotel room), and it was my first time showering and bathing with Japanese commuters followed by naked strolls on the 9th floor balcony over-looking the Asakusa neighborhood. Hell - you only live once.

Tokyo for us was a bit of a schmozel. Again, if you want the details, there's lots to see and read in my photos and it would be trying to go into the details here. But, for the purpose of offering overall opinions, I can say that I'm not entirely convinced that I would get back to the city any time soon. I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like to live in Japan, then visit Seoul for 2.5 days in the rain. My estimation is that it would have been a similar experience: crazy crowded shopping districts, lots of neon, some extremely upscale areas, and a whole lotta people.

There was, to be sure, plenty of cool stuff. Being a popular culture aficionado at least to some degree, I was pretty excited to check-out some of the more famous districts just to see what was there. There were a few times, in Shinjuku and Akihabara most clearly, when I felt like a plastic figure on a huge model railway set. There's obviously a great deal of modernity in Tokyo, but there are other places where you feel the age of the city. Yes, most of it is post WWII as a result of the fire-bombing, but some areas cling to that '50s feel and that was interesting to step into.

We did see some historical sites (temples and monuments) while in Tokyo, but most of our time was devoted to the city stuff. Seeing the shrines and temples we did see however, it was interesting to note how most structures had been rebuilt as a result of allied bombing. After having toured countless palaces and temples in Korea that had been rebuilt after Japanese occupation, centuries-old invasions, or the Korean War, it brought a little bit of perspective to where I was. Let it be said that the design of the Japanese temples may be less colorful than their Korean counterparts, but they are no less majestic or beautiful.

So, I promised general statements about Tokyo and I have been getting a little too detailed, haven't I? Okay, well let's throw some highlights out there - in no particular order of course:

1) The capsule hotel - After getting over any claustrophobia I didn't know I had, I really dug being in there. You've got privacy, you've got a tv and radio if you need it, you've got a light and you've got The Lonely Planet: Japan. Best of all, you've got a throw-back pressing nostalgia for sleep-overs and summer camp. Lots of friendly people too - not mention three Swedes who each had their own huge coffee table sized copy of "Arnold's Guide to Body Building." It's good to have a hobby when you're travelling.

2) Shibuya Crossing - That place we all saw in Lost in Translation, the huge video screens, the massive five-way cross-walk. Lonely planet is described it the best: "A green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity." I still think I would prefer Main Street in Bedford Falls, but this was very cool. I could have crossed that street all day.

3) Shinjuku - The West and East side. The West offers some of the most modern high-rise office buildings in Asia and we were happy to get a view from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Municipal Government Tower. From there, we could see the Park Hyatt Hotel where Charlotte and Bob stayed in Sofia Coppola's flick. We would have gone in for a beer if only I had packed my suit in my backpack.

From here you can see a lot of the luxury of Tokyo. On a clear day, we could have seen Mount Fuji. It was here that we were reminded that this is a city that asks its visitors for perhaps more money than we have. The East side was ridiculous - insane neon, back-alley sex and porn shops and some truly seedy-looking action. It was fun to walk around, and to see the many doors labeled "Japanese Only", but it mostly looked like a pre Guilianni Times Square - interesting, but inaccessible.

4) Harajuku - this one almost fell into a separate "Disappointments" category as a result of the weather. Hoping to see the goth / Lolita / cosplay girls in their finest finery, we had to unfortunately settle for catching the odd one as she ran away from the rain under her umbrella. Still, it was a cool place to visit and I would go back on a good day. Walked around, looked at crazy architecture and things we mostly couldn't afford, but that was half of the fun - seeing how the other half lives.

5) Asakusa - I'm perhaps a little biased, but it was nice to have one of the premiere sites in Tokyo literally five minutes from our capsule hotel. Senso-Ji is the most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo and it was nice to be able to wander there at night and during the day to see throngs of people lighting incense, then waving the smoke over themselves to purify before approaching the main hall.

And that about wraps-up Tokyo. I saw more than this. Akihabara and Ginza don't really make the list of places I'd go back to though - certainly not on another 2-day itinerary. But Tokyo was interesting. We were wet with rain, tired from a month of intensives, and more than a little too cranky for a city that busy and of that size. But still, I survived two days in Tokyo, we saw a lot and if we ever win the lottery or become over-the-hill famous enough to shoot commercials for Suntory beverages, we'll be sure to stay at the Park Hyatt and see Tokyo as perhaps it's meant to be seen. Either way, like all places, we needed more time and more money, but were mostly satisfied with what we were able to squeeze-in.

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