07 March, 2018

Getting springy in Tokyo...

Our long trip in Japan is almost over - to finish off we had a few days in Tokyo to get our washing done and do some final, relaxed, sightseeing. It seems that Spring has arrived in Tokyo, it's now about 5-9C, much warmer than we we first arrived, and forecast rain thankfully stayed away. Enjoying the sunshine over several days, we visited a few places we missed out on during our previous stops here. One night, we felt another modest earthquake which shook our bed on the 30th floor in Tokyo, our second this trip.

There's a lot of Tokyo we didn't cover!

Manga billboard ads near Shinjuku Station.

Rated as one of the three best gardens in Japan, we took the JR Yamamote line to Sugamo Station, and walked about a kilometer through what we saw to be the very upmarket suburb of Komagome in Bunkyo-ku to the Rikugien Gardens. Our route passed very nice stand-alone houses with their own lock-up car garages, surely a relative rarity in this huge city.

A wintery feel in Rikugien Gardens, brown grass and no cherry blossoms yet.

How to brighten up a shady corner of a garden.

The Edo style garden itself was a delight, but we were about a month too early for the legendary cherry blossoms to be out. Plum blossoms were out and colourful. Rikugien (which means "six principles of waka or poetry") was built around 1700 for the fifth shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and supposedly reproduces 88 scenes from famous poems. We saw several examples where a posted photograph demonstrated that a particular aspect had been designed to look like a specific Japanese location.

Stepping stones in Rikugien Gardens.

For another garden, we took the Metro to Otemachi, and found our way through a serious business district to the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda district where the East Garden is open to the public. This was also a pleasant spot with the plum trees in blossom, but historically it contains the ruins (moats and ramparts only) of the legendary Edo Castle, now become a look out. Edo Castle is where the Tokugawa shogunate was established, lording over 300 daimyo throughout Japan, and lasted from 1603 to 1868 when the Meiji Restoration brought about the fall of Edo. Fire destroyed the castle in 1853 after which the new Imperial Palace was built nearby. The firebombing of 1945 devastated this site.

New blossoms and old ramparts at the Imperial Palace.

Essential study for touring this country.

Plums blossom a month before the cherries.

Bamboo grove at the Imperial Palace East Garden.

And, within yet another garden, we went to the important Meiji Shrine which abuts Harajuku Station, but we walked there from our Hilton in Shinjuku and entered via the "back gate". This shrine commemorates Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. Meiji (1852-1912) is credited with transforming Japan from an "isolationist feudal state to a capitalist and imperial world power" (Wikipedia) and is revered around the nation. This major Tokyo shrine was completed in 1921, destroyed in WW2, and since rebuilt.

Near Harajuku Station, the main pedestrian entrance to the Meiji Shrine.

Gate to the Meiji Shrine.

Fantastic wooden door at the Meiji Shrine.

Sake has been donated for centuries out of respect to the Emperor and Empress.

Wild gardens of the Meiji Shrine.

We were lucky enough to be in town for the annual Tokyo Marathon, one of the six "majors" in the world's marathon gland slam. We had a spectacular view from our hotel room. Fortunately, they didn't take applications on the day, lest we were tempted to enter! Runners from Kenya and Ethipia won the race. Being only 200m from the start, the Hilton Hotel accommodated many entrants, so it was busier than ever what with Chinese New Year still raging.

First wave of runners in the 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

Tokyo Marathon runners heading through Shinjuku.

After trying and failing to find this on two separate occasions, we finally located the stunning 30m mural by Japanese artist Taro Okamoto called "Myth of Tomorrow" in a prominent location in a busy building at Shibuya Station. The mural of a burning landscape is an abstract depiction of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and was commissioned for (but never installed in) a hotel in Mexico City in 1968, and (after being lost for decades) was finally given the exposure it deserves at Shibuya in 2003. We were pleased to have finally found the mural and discovered that its location also offers a better view of the busy Shibuya crossing than we had seen before.

"Myth of Tomorrow" by Taro Okamoto at Shibuya.

Supposedly the busiest crossing in the world, at Shibuya, on a Sunday.

And one sunset we went to the seaside, to the district known as Odaiba, a very modern tourism-oriented part of a renewal project on man-made islands in Tokyo Bay. Odaiba started as a string of small man made fort islands ("daiba" means "fort") built in late 1800's to guard against possible attacks from the sea, specifically the USA. Modern redevelopment was spurred along by construction of the "Rainbow Bridge" (1993) and the Yurikamome ("black-headed seagull") line in 2006. The Yurikamome line uses a driverless automatic rubber tyred train sets, so is fun to ride on, but as we discovered on the way home, it's also a serious commuter route, being packed with businessmen after work.

Panorama of Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo skyline.

Traversing the Rainbow Bridge, the Yurikamome subway line uses driverless trains.

Futuristic Fuji TV building at Odaiba.

Skillful artist painting watercolour of Rainbow Bridge.

A puzzling sight in Tokyo, the one seventh scale replica of the Statue of Liberty at Odaiba.

All Tokyo trains are always full, but on the Oedo Line that same evening we encountered crowding of the level that you read about. Our subway train was so full, the passengers so packed together, that it would be impossible to fall over. We're taller than most Japanese, so could see what was happening - many passengers don't even bother to hang onto the straps, they are held upright and in position completely surrounded by and buffered by their neighbours. (And, everyone on board was totally focused on their mobile phones - we tried to imagine the system behind this massive use of bandwidth in an enclosed train maybe 100m underground. We even received a text message during the crush.) The manoevering to get on and off at stations is indescribable. Luckily, almost everyone got off at Shinjuku, like we did.

Hazy sunset over Tokyo west of the city.

Welcoming decorations at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office.

So, what's our wrap-up of Japan? We discovered that there are two Japans - one packed with foreign tourists, and the other where there are few. The two Japans are entirely different. In the Japan occupied by the Japanese, the trains may be crowded but the streets are clean and the people are restrained and polite - they say konichiwa to each other on the footpaths, even to us. Pedestrians walk on the left, but in touristy Japan, mostly populated by loud-mouthed visitors from elsewhere in Asia and elsewhere, the Japanese are bullied into walking on the right, and their traditional protocols seem to fall by the wayside. Oh, how the locals must deplore these and other affronts caused by outsiders! Japanese must feel squeezed out of their own cherished beauty spots. Non-touristy Japan is a much nicer place to be.

A fair spread over Hokkaido and Honshu, but nothing south of Miyajima, nothing on Kyushu or Shikoko or any outer island. There's still a lot of Japan to see!

During our most recent visit to touristy Japan, Hakone, we were alert to the effects of this invasion and paid particular attention. Japanese facilitators are everywhere, giving amplified advice on where to stand on crowded platforms for example, what bus to catch etc, but it's all in crystal clear Japanese, a language which is incomprehensible to 80-90% of the audience. We know from local English language newspapers that this is an issue well understood by authorities, and they plan great improvements for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Specifically, we've heard that tsunami warnings, which can be transmitted to every mobile phone in a region, will soon be available in English. There's a long way to go.