Day One and Two of our 13 Day Trip
TR Robertson..The Robertson’s are off again on adventures around the world, this time to the beautiful island nation of Japan and the colorful blossoms of the cherry trees in bloom. We found out that in one park in Tokyo there are 65 varieties of cherry trees. People come to see the cherry blossoms this time of year but most of the trees had finished their blooming. We led a small group of friends from North County and met up with folks from around the nation in Japan for a 12 day sight-seeing trip to several of the major cities of Japan. Our tour group would eventually grow to 29 people once everyone arrive to Tokyo.
Our trip began in San Diego, early one morning in April, with a short plane ride on United to Los Angeles, connection to a United International flight for an 11 hour plane ride to Tokyo. Our United flight was uneventful, no one was pulled off and I was able to watch the first half of Season One of West World, an HBO show I had wanted to see. We crossed the International Date Line, meaning we left on a Thursday morning, but arrived on a Friday afternoon at Narita International Airport outside of Tokyo. We’ll pick up that day on the way back.
Pictures of the Trip will follow in a separate article on Pictures from Japan
Clearing customs in Japan was quick, a bit of a line, but it moved along. Our Go Ahead Travel guide, Akiko, was waiting for the group at the exit from baggage claim, along with others that had arrived on different flights. Several in the tour group are from Canada, several from the East Coast, several from Washington, New Mexico, and New York. Boarding our bus, we headed off to downtown Tokyo and Odaiba Island, where our hotel was located. We were staying for three days at the beautiful Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba Hotel. Lots of marble and extremely nice rooms. This part of Tokyo is built up on reclaimed land starting in the 1990’s. It is quite impressive as to what has been accomplished in this short period of time with the shopping areas, hotels and business buildings not to mention the high rise living accommodations established. Tokyo, the capital of Japan, has a population of over 13 million people. The city was originally called Edo, but the name was changed to Tokyo in 1868.
On the way to the hotel, we would begin to get our first impressions of Japan. First off, they drive on the left hand side, maybe a British influence from years ago. I actually saw, on the freeway, a couple of 1958 Chevy convertibles with steering wheels on the right hand side. Speaking of the freeways, even though this is a very populated country, the freeways moved along, no major slowdowns, and through the first couple of days I am amazed at the number of freeway overpasses, underpasses, lanes for trucks only and the rail transportation system as well as the extensive subway system, not to mention the number of pedestrian walkways. The United States, especially San Diego and Los Angeles could learn a thing or two about road construction and transportation systems from Japan. Our group also noticed how clean the city is, virtually no trash in the streets and very little graffiti on any of the buildings.
As we got closer to the city, we began to notice the number of high rise apartment complexes, all with balconies, Tech industry buildings, financial buildings, pedestrian walkways and pedestrian only streets. We passed by Tokyo Disneyland and the Tokyo Skytree Tower, which stands some 2,080 feet tall and is lite up at night. Many of the bridges, buildings and towers are colorfully lite up at night as well. As usual, when we travel, we look for familiar American brand sites and they abound in Japan. So far we have seen Burger King, McDonalds, Starbucks, Taco Bell, KFC, Sizzler, and TGIFridays, not to mention the familiar sports brand names. I like to stop by a McDonalds in each country I travel in to see what is on the menu that is not on an American menu. At the McDonalds just down from our hotel I saw a Ginger Pork Burger advertised, haven’t tried it.
Once settled in at the Grand Nikko, we were given a welcome buffet dinner at one of the restaurants. I was amazed at the selection of food offered for the weary travelers. I also noticed Shark Fin Soup available, something that is a bit controversial in the United States. From our hotel room window we look out on Tokyo Bay and can see across the bay a huge shipping area stacked with storage containers. We also look out on Rainbow Bridge, so called because at night it changes colors periodically. We can also see the Aqua City Shopping Complex, high end stores and Hilton Tokyo.
Day One ended with a shower and early bed time to try to catch up on missed sleep on the plane. Day two would begin with a buffet breakfast on the 30th floor of the hotel, equally amazing as dinner with the number of selections, both traditional Japanese dishes and Americanized breakfast items, including an omelet, salad and smoothie stations. From this restaurant we could got a 360 degree view of Tokyo, the bay and neighboring areas. One sight was the Giant Sky Wheel, a slow moving, huge Ferris wheel, much like The Eye in London. We also noticed a rather strange sighting we had not seen last night, that of a large Statue of Liberty replica about a block away from our hotel, right on the edge of the bay. We would visit it later for pictures.
Day Two began with a half day bus excursion to a number of locations in Tokyo. First stop was to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto Shrine. Shintoism is referred to as Japan’s ancient original religion. This shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who passed away in 1912 and credited with opening Japan to Western civilization. At the shrine we walked through a forested area, through the Inner Garden, saw an impressive display of barrels of sake wrapped in decorative straw, large casks of Bourgogne Wine used for consecration and passed through several huge Japanese arches. Along the way we watched a procession of Shinto priests pass by. The group was able to take part in the custom of pouring holy water on our left hands, bowing, clapping and wishing for good luck. Huge camphor trees are in the park area and two of the large trees were planted beside one another. They are said to be comfort trees and the custom here is to clap your hands, hold them in a prayer position and pray for good luck. Not far from this spot was another divine camphor tree, surrounded by Ema, votive small wooden tablets, which could be purchased and personal prayers could be written on them. There was a 500 yen charge for these, around $4.60 U.S. Money raised here supports the upkeep of the shrine. There was a fundraiser underway to repair the copper roof of the shrine. We also saw a parade of a newly married couple and the wedding party and guests passing through this part of the shrine.
Our next stop was a walk down Takeshita Street, a long narrow pedestrian street full of trinkets, tourist gifts, t-shirts and anything else you can imagine. We saw an ad for the Cat Café, a coffee shop we had heard about, full of cats or where you could bring your cat. Missed this one. Not far from here we drove over to Shibuya Station, a trendy shopping area, famous for the world’s largest multi-directional pedestrian crossing. You may have seen it on television. When the light changes for pedestrians to cross, the huge crossing area is completely full of people, including the center sections of the street. Downtown Carlsbad has a tiny version of this at the Carlsbad Boulevard and Carlsbad Village Drive intersection. Another reason to stop here was for a quick look at the famous Hachiko Statue to the Akita dog named Hachi. Hachi was born in 1923 and adopted by a University of Tokyo professor, Hidesaburo Ueno. Every day when Ueno went to the university, Hachi would walk with him to Shibuya train station and wait there for him to return. One day in 1925, Ueno did not come back, he died from a cerebral hemorrhage during class. Hachi kept waiting. For nearly ten years he would come to the station and wait at the same spot for the return of his master. There are now bronze paw prints where Hachi used to stand. One of Ueno’s students found out that Hachi was one of only 30 purebred Akitas in Japan. The dog became famous for his loyalty and faithfulness. In 1934, a statue of Hachi was dedicated and the dog took part in the ceremony. The dog passed away in 1935 and a monument was erected next to Ueno’s grave in Aoyama Cemetery. The stuffed body of the dog can be found in the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno. At the University of Tokyo a new statue has been completed of Professor Ueno and Hachi together again. Richard Gere starred in an Americanized version of the movie, called appropriately, “Hachi”.
As we drove to our next stop an unusual building was pointed out, the Asahi Beer Company building. The building is supposed to look like a glass beer stein with beer being poured in, but the architect has created something the Japanese laugh at. The beer being poured in artistic section is referred to by the Japanese as the “Golden Turd” and when you look at it, it does has the appearance this nickname is referring to.
Our final stop would take us to Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Sensoji Buddhist Temple, also referred to as Asakusa Kannon Temple. The arched entrance begins with two large stone sculptures of the gods of thunder and wind. Large crowds were at this site, the temple receives over 30 million visitors a year. Just inside the beginning arches is 656 feet of very tight quarters of a shopping arcade called Nakamise. The temple waits for visitors at the end. The arches and temple were first built in 942 AD and reconstructed numerous times throughout the years, the last time in 1964. Funds had been raised to reconstruct this temple since the burning of the temple as a result of the bombing raids on Tokyo in 1945 during WW II. Around the temple are various other statues and structures. Two Buddha’s representing mercy and wisdom were on the right side as well as a Bell of Time, built in the 17th century. The large temple was crowded on all stairs leading into the temple with lots of visitors.
Day Two ended with an automated tram ride across the bay to a busy section of Tokyo and a dinner at the Watami Sushi Restaurant, where we learned how to make sushi, non-rolled style, using tuna, yellowtail and salmon. The dinner also included a selection of tempura dishes. Each of the attendees received a certificate as a Sushi Chef. A fun way to finish a very busy day.
Look for more adventures in Japan in the next issues of The Vista Press. We haven’t decided our next trip for 2018, if you have some ideas, let us know. We are considering Cuba and India.