As Eric and I boarded the tour bus, I excitedly asked our tour guide, Demi-san, “How far is it to Tokyo?” I immediately regretted asking THAT question for two reasons. First, it wasn’t the brightest question as technically, we live in Tokyo. It’s just so large and spread out that it doesn’t FEEL like we live in Tokyo (especially now that I have been to Tokyo proper). Secondly, I had flash backs to me asking my parents and my daughters asking me, “How long till we get there?”. At least the “how long?” part was a better choice of words that “how far?” From Yokota Air Base to our destination in Tokyo was about 28 miles, however it took 1.5 hours to get there. That is why, here, people use time rather than miles to convey distance.
So yes, I was very excited (Eric refers to it as “pinging”) about our first visit to Tokyo (proper). We did take the “expressway” although there wasn’t much “express” involved…at least for busses, cars, trucks, vans, etc. Motorcycles however, have the right of way, and zoomed in and out and between our bus and trucks/busses/cars in the next lane. I just don’t think Eric and I are cut out for motorcycle riding in Japan. We kept Demi-san busy asking questions about the sights along the way. We saw a horse racing stadium and buildings with familiar names like Epson, Sharp, Conrad, etc
As we neared Tokyo (about 45 minutes from our destination), the expressway seemed to close in on us and it felt like we were running a gauntlet. Apartment buildings right next to the road loomed on either side and the further we drove, the higher these buildings rose. Many balconies had laundry hung out which is a rather common sight in Japan. We passed an orange radio tower looking structure (the Tokyo Tower I’m told) and Demi-san said that it used to be the tallest structure in Japan until the Tokyo Sky Tree was erected. The Sky Tree, at over 600 meters tall is twice as tall as the Tokyo Tower. It is a major tourist attraction and I think it costs about 5000 yen (about $50) to go all the way to the top! We were told we would get a glimpse of the Sky Tree at Asakusa and again when we took our River Cruise.
Spying a small river/canal along the side of the “expressway”, I asked the name and found out that this was actually what remained of the “outer moat” which surrounded the Edo Castle in the 600’s. Demi-san said that the “inner moat” is still in existence and surrounds the Imperial Palace (site of the original Edo Castle). Although we didn’t get to see the inner moat or the Imperial Palace on this trip, I did get to see my first real moat and the Imperial Palace is definitely on my “to see” list!
Our first stop was the Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. During the Edo period, this area was known for kabuki theaters and also it’s red light district! We arrived at the entrance to the temple, Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon) at about 10 a.m. and even that early it was very crowded. The gate itself is made of vermillion lacquer and has a huge lantern , hanging in the middle over the walkway. The lantern was donated by the founder of Panasonic. The lantern itself is huge, 13 ft tall and weighing 1500 pounds, which is why Eric could only hold it up for a few seconds!
On either side of the lantern are statues of the god of wind and the god of thunder. After going through the gate, we arrived on Nakamise Avenue which consisted of arcade style sales booths on each side of the street stretching for several (what we would think of as) blocks, selling fans, kimonos, various kinds of Japanese sweets, shoes, getas. socks, wall hangings, keychains, etc. The line of booths on each side of the street were decorated with limbs of delicate pink artificial (cherry?) blossoms.
At the end of the arcade was a second gate which led to the Sensoji temple. To the left of the temple stood a tall pagoda and to the left were gravesites. In the courtyard area was a round covered structure where incense was burning. Many burning sticks of incense were placed in sand and believers would wave the incense smoke toward themselves. Between the gravesites and the incense structure was a fountain with dragon shaped spigots spewing out water. Long handled aluminum (?) cups were available to catch the water and some sipped the water out of the cup and others dipped their fingers in the cup. I am not sure of the significance of this ritual.
We approached the temple and climbed the stairs to the entrance of the main hall. There was a station for visitors to drop a few coins in and say a prayer. I noticed that the people were not clapping their hands twice before and after their prayer as we have often seen at other temples/shrines. This may be a difference between Buddhist and Shinto rituals, I am just not sure. We entered the mail hall with its ornate decor. There were paintings on the ceilings and what I would call the “altar” area was almost all gold with the very center area in red with gold lanterns, etc. Everyone was taking pictures of this area.
After we visited the temple we set out to walk as much of the area as possible in the hour that we had left before meeting up with our tour group. We caught a glimpse of the Tokyo Skytree and saw kimono shops, rickshaws, cafes and restaurants with food we neither recognized or could pronounce and the ever-popular-in-Japan “Sushi Go
Round” where various types of Sushi travel down a conveyor belt past the customers booths/tables and you just grab what you want off the conveyor
belt. Prices of each type of sushi are indicated by the color of the plate. At the end of the meal, they look at your empty plates and add up the total – and
that’s what you pay!
I will continue our Tokyo travel report next time with our experiences on the Sumida river cruise and our Hama-rikyu Gardens adventure where Eric vowed never to drink green tea again!