Tokyo, round 1

Trip Start Dec 30, 2006
Trip End Jul 27, 2007

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Friday, February 9, 2007

A quick trip to Tokyo to start the trip.  For those that don't know, I bought a Star Alliance Round the World Fare, departing from Japan, instead of North America, because it saved me just over $3000.  Buying a separate ticket to Tokyo, return, from Seattle - at just over $900 above the main round the world ticket, was still significantly cheaper than starting my trip anywhere in North America.  Plus, it had the added bonus of starting the trip with a bang in a foreign country where I would stand out, unlike what would happen in the US or Canada. 

Although I could fully recline I only got about an hour of sleep - I ended up watching a couple movies and some BBC before we landed almost an hour early.  Very quick through customs & on the Keisei rail line within 30 minutes of landing.  Just about caught the wrong one though as I jumped on the first train I saw...I'm blaming it on the sleep deprivation...luckily realized in time, jumped off - found the right platform & caught the correct limited express train to Aoto station.  Got some help at Aoto, transfered on the correct train and was soon at Asakusa station, within a supposed 5 minute walk of the hostel I was staying at in Tokyo.

Once I got out of the station I realized I had not printed the very clear directions to the hostel I had looked at on thier website.  All I had to go on was a name and a vague recollection it was near a temple & an amusement park - should be good enough so I headed out.  Since I came out of the subway station near a very large entrance to the Sensoji Temple & Asakusa Shrine, I got a little cocky.

I walked down a cool street market that was just closing up, which I later learned is the historic Nakamise shopping street leading the way from the main gate to the main grounds of the temple.  It was after reaching the temple that my plan backfired.  I figured, based on my vague recollection of the directions, that as soon as I arrived near the centre of the grounds I would see a large amusement park.  I did not.  So I kept walking.  and walking.  and walking.  It seemed the thing to do as thousands of people where out shopping, drinking & eating among the different streets around of the more traditional districts of Tokyo.  About 30 minutes of walking later I spotted what looked like an amusement park.  After walking around 75% of the park I spotted the Sakura Hostel.  Thankfully the size of the park is approx. three city blocks and not equvalent to Disneyland.  That could have gotten ugly.

Looking back I'm not sure where I got lost, exactly - as at most the hostel is 10 minutes away from the subway station I got out of.  Looking back it was a pretty straight line from the amusement park to the shrine.  I'm sticking to the story that I was just interested in lugging around both my packs to do some early sightseeing after a 9 hour flight & 17 hour time change.

Sakura hostel was very nice & very new....rated one of the top ten hostels in Asia and also one of the cheapest in Tokyo at Y2940 a night (around $29 cdn).  I dropped my stuff and headed out to the local area - despite a headache from the flight and being very tired as I wanted to sleep at a later time so I could better adjust to the 17 hour time difference.

Lots of people out and about all over Asakusa area.  I felt safe wherever I went as even the smallest alleys are filled with people and shops.  Great older area of town where you could see brand new high rise buildings beside historic older buildings.  Asakusa is considered the area in Tokyo most true to how people lived in Tokyo 40 or 50 years ago.  Lots of small family run stores that have been around for years & great hole-in-the-wall restaurants.  Pedestrian/bike only lanes made the area very easy to explore on foot.

Finally found a place to eat and headed back to the hostel which was much easier to find the second time around. 

Met Guo, one of my roommates.  A 26 year-old from Beijing studying Japanese & International Relations at Hiroshima University.  He has been studying Japanese since 2005.  Chatted for a bit before crashing for the night.

7am wake-up after an early night and headed down with Guo to the main room.  The hostel had advertised a breakfast for Y310, which I had assumed was some sort of traditional Japanese breakfast so I paid and then found that "breakfast" was toast & tea or coffee.  a bit of a rip.  At least the bread was perfect squares.  And I got jam.  Unlimited jam, actually.  It was pretty sweet.

First stop was Ueno, a major part of Tokyo.  I got out of the station looking for Ameyoko - a former black market that formed after WW2 with all the American soldiers in town.  In recent years it was cleaned up but continues to be a popular destination for bargain hunters on the weekends.  Ameyoko was supposed to be right outside of the Ueno station.  I got out, looked left and right, couldn't see it and headed right to ask someone where it was.  I later learned that if I had turned left and walked 10 feet I would have run right into it.  I did not.  Instead i asked a police officer who pointed me towards Ueno Onshi Park, assuming that is where I wanted to go.  Granted, it was a place I wanted to visit but not at that particular moment.  

I headed up to the park, which is a HUGE refuge in the middle of a very busy center of town.  Caught some minor-league practice going on - a couple of the kids had some pretty impressive arms on them.  After watching a little practice, I found the Toshogu Shrine, built in 1617, it survived the massive bombings of Tokyo during WWII.  An impressive building and crowds had already begun to form for the 9am open time while I was there.

Throughout the park I found very detailed maps in both English & Japanese.  I therefore got lulled into a false sense of security.  Though I thought I was heading in the general direction towards Ameyoko in the end I was totally turned around.  I now realize the importance of a good map.  It was a bit of a wake up call.  I finally re-grouped, wrote down clear directions when I found another map and found the damn place over an hour after leaving the park.  It was maybe three blocks at most from the Sujo open air stage where I had left the park.  very nice.
Ameyoko Arcade was a very busy open air market.   Just over four blocks of merchants yelling, all sorts of smells, fresh food being prepared & people - lots of people. 

After grabbing some food at the street stands I headed over to the JR line @ Okachimachi station...headed for Akihabara station, the heart of Electric Town - world famous as THE place to buy new electronics in the world.  You can find it here, whatever it is, long before you will see it in North America.  I walked around, looking at different shops and the future of electronics.  Ultimately though, I had been looking for Katsu Hakubutsuken, a transportation museum that was supposed to be in the area.  After looking around I asked a police officer who told me that it was now closed so headed back to the subway station.

Next stop was supposed to be Shibuya but I stopped one station short at Omote-Sando station.  I got off early so I could walk to Shibuya as I had been told by Guo that it was an amazing walk.  I may never know.  I headed down what I thought was Aoyama Dori but obviousilly wasn't.  Actually, I shouldn't say that - at the time I thought it obviousilly was Aoyama Dori - it wasn't until I ended up in the Harajuku area and NOT in Shibuya that I realized it obviousilly wasn't Aoyama Dori.  After arriving in Harajuku (not necessarily by plan) I ended up turning and walking down an alley-like pedestrian street PACKED with people. picture doesn't do the area justice.  The whole area (about 5 blocks or so) was just filled with all sorts of fashion and accessory stores and the people to buy those fashions & accessories.  I walked up Takeshita Dori and found a JR Rail station at the end, which I quickly grabbed heading to the next stop - Shinjuku.

Shinjuku was interesting but mostly office towers.  I hear at night the north side of Shinjuku gets a little rowdy with lots of bars and other "entertainment" but no signs of drunk Japanese salary-men in the afternoon.

Headed back to the hostel in Asakusa - very tired.  Met up with Guo and after a quick nap he decided to make a traditional Chinese dinner for us.  It was very good, pork stir fry, dumplings and something else that I'm not sure what was at the time.  tasty.  Especially the Japanese beer that accompanied the dinner.
Hung out for a bit and we both decided to make a late-night run to Shibuya....the "Times Square" of Tokyo.  It was not raining when we got to the subway in Asakusa.  It was pouring when we got off the train at Shibuya.  Neither of us had brought jackets.  Needless to say we didn't spend too much time in Shibuya.

Got off the train the next day and headed to the FUJI TV headquarters which has a very unique design.  Great self-guided tour of the 5th floor where you can watch Japanese TV programs being filmed...headed up to the 7th Floor to take the elevator to the 25th floor observation deck...but thought I would be smart and bought the Y500 ticket before grabbing the elevator.  What nobody mentioned was I could go to the 24th floor observation deck for free.  A bit of a rip.  The 25th floor wasn't that impressive and had tonnes of kids as "laugh" had a big display.  "Laugh" is the big blue cartoon dog mascot of Fuji TV & is VERY popular with the 5-year old kids.

Headed across the street to the Aqua City & (for some reason) a replica of Lady Liberty?!?  Went for an afternoon foot massage at Kanada - took my shoes off to the amusement of the staff...who don't get many size 15 feet to work on.  Lots of giggles as the slippers they gave me didn't fit & i think they brought out the master to work on my feet.  Very relaxing.  Older Japanese man who didn't speak english but we worked it out.  Most of the staff came over during the massage to discuss the size of my feet.  I felt like a celebrity...or a circus act.

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation was close by and I popped over.  Think robots & lots of them.  Unfortunately it was closing up as I approached the building.  I got a couple pics of a large world globe made up of tonnes of tiny LCD screens that was showing (I think) real-time weather patterns across the globe.  Impressive.  Since I could not get in as it was closing, I headed to the next building, "Venus Fort"

For a second I thought I was in Vegas.  This place is like an exact replica of the Shops at Caesar's Palace, right down to a mega-casino attached to the mall.  Walked through the other side to Palette Town a huge entertainment / shopping facility.  Toyota Mega Web was attached to the building One of the best features of the facility though, in my opinion, was the opportunity to test drive ANY Toyota or Lexus vehicle on an indoor/outdoor test track for free, as many times as you want.  Sadly, I had left my international drivers permit at the hostel and could not participate.  I will be coming back here on my return trip to Japan though!

On my last day in Tokyo I headed back over to Akihabara where I bought a new camera at a ridiculously low price.  Very nice, 7.1mp, 5x zoom, small as a credit card.  It was fortunate I did buy it though because when I got to San Francisco my old camera stopped working.

Everyone says that Japan, and specifically Tokyo is ridiculously expensive but after visiting I'm at a bit of a loss as to why that rumour exists.  I did not find that to be the case and found it very easy to maintain a $75 cdn / day budget...(excluding the new camera purchase that is).  I'm looking forward to visiting again at the end of the trip and to visit smaller towns on my way up from Hiroshima to see the differences between smaller centers and the very large Tokyo.
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