Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Narita
07.10.2013 - 14.10.2013 73 °F
I arrived at Tokyo airport, NRT, a day before Steve so had a chance to check out the town of Narita. Friends, Dorit and John had recommended the Narita Gateway (Port) Hotel, and they were spot on. Close to the airport with free shuttles to NRT and the Japan Rail train station in town, it was both very convenient and a good value. (It was not available for the night before we departed Tokyo so we stayed at Hotel Sky Court. It was not nearly as good a choice). There is a very famous 1000 year old temple in the town, Naritasan Shinshoji, and I had enough time to visit it. As the legend goes, a famous monk made a sculpture of the Buddist god of fire, fudomoyo. During one of the many rebellions against the empire, it was taken to the battleground to squelch the uprising. Which it did and was subsequently placed in Narita. Apparently it liked being there because when they tried to move it, it spoke and to paraphrase said, "no friggin' way." . This is where the sculpture remains today. And if that wasn't enough, I found a little place along the main street to get get dinner. Here it is... I pointed at my surrounding neighbors when I saw a dish that looked interesting and wound up with scallops wrapped in bacon, skewers of quail eggs, and other yummy but unidentifiable things. Some hot sake to drink and all was well. When I left I saw a trip advisor notice on the door. And here I thought I had discovered this hole in the wall!
The next morning I went to NRT to meet Steve. As a testament to Japanese efficiency, 25 minutes after the plane landed (exactly on time), Steve walked into the international arrivals area. That's after deboarding, immigration, baggage pick up, and customs. I hadn't seen him for seven weeks but am happy to report he was still recognizable! I didn't react fast enough to take his picture so you will have to take my word for it.
To get into Tokyo there is a bullet train from the airport to downtown. We had purchased a Japan Rail Pass, much like a Eurorail pass, for the week which we highly recommend. It covers all JR trains and buses including the airport express. Of all the countries we have visited, Japan is the best for tourist help and information. There are people who give assistance and easily identifiable in train, bus, and metro stations. Information centers in cities and towns are well marked and signs are displayed in English. Should you not find any of these, anyone you stop on the street, from pedestrian to policeman, will graciously respond to your request for help. They are friendly and polite and oh, so meticulous.
In preparing for our visit I was surprised to learn (I must have slept through this history class) that It has never been colonized. Its Imperial family is the oldest continuous monarchy in the world and said to have begun in 660 BC. Like China it is a nation of a single race and much of its culture like language, religion, and customs come by way of China.
Again thanks to Dorit and John, we stayed at the Asakusa Shigetsu, a traditional ryokan or Japanese guesthouse. Our room was very charming albeit small. We slept on futons on top of tatami (straw mats) in a room with shoji (paper sliding doors). Our bed...
The room had a wonderful woody smell. There was a very small ensuite bathroom (a modern adaptation). When we entered our room, we removed our shoes at the door and put on slippers which are provided. In the closet were two yukata, Japanese bathrobe, to really get you in the mood. Steve complained he couldn't get me out of the bathroom because of the toilet. For those of you who have used one, you will understand why! On another floor was the traditional common bath. The latter was made of wood and filled with hot water like a hot tub. Before entering you wash down. When I used it I was solo so I didn't get the communal experience.
The area of Asakusa was a great choice for us. At one time it had been the "entertainment"district. Right out our front door was this neighborhood filled with hundreds of small shops and food outlets. And a two block walk took us to Tokyo's oldest temple and one of its most significant, Senso-Ji. It is to the Mercy Goddess. According to legend, her statue was found in a Sumida river by some fisherman. (Here is Steve by the same river in Tokyo Bay 1400 years later).
The chief of their village recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple in Asakusa in 645 C.E. so it could be worshiped by the villagers. Later it was co-opted by a shogun clan. I think this is one of them...
During World War II, the temple was bombed and destroyed. It was rebuilt later and is a symbol of rebirth and peace to the Japanese people.
Just as you wouldn't visit Italy without seeing its most beautiful churches, the same is true with Japan with its beautiful temples and shrines each with its fabulous gardens. So the next day we went to the Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu, with 175 acres of dense forest where the city can be neither seen nor heard. Shinto is an ancient, original Japenese religion. It has no founder, no holy book, nor even the concept of religious conversion. Instead it is about values, e.g. harmony with nature and virtues, e.g. A "sincere heart." Divinity is found in mythology, nature, even human beings. (Of citizens who claimed a faith, 51 percent were Shinto, 44 percent were Buddhist and 1 percent was Christian. Shintoism and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive and most Shinto and Buddhist believers follow both faiths). So this shrine is the burial place of the deified Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken. He ruled from1868 to 1912 and is credited for developing modern Japan. Here is where I left an IOU...
For a change in pace we went to the funky area of Harajuku which was said to be the area of youthful trendsetters. We couldn't find any so went onto the famous shopping street of Omotesando. It is actually a beautiful, wide, green lawned, boulevard littered with luxury stores. Then onto Ropponi Hills which turned out to be a mammoth shopping center. It was getting late and many restaurants close between 2 to 3 pm. Steve found a nice little family run place that where we just made last call. Then back to hotel to grab our dirty laundry and find a laundromat and call it a day.
The next morning we rose at 6 am to visit the largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji. Unfortunately, we were too late to see the early morning tuna auction but thought we could visit the wholesale market. It was not to be. Visitors were not allowed to enter until 9 am and we had purchased train tickets the day before to travel to a town outside Tokyo, Nikko, and had to get to the station.
Nikko is in the mountains is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is known for several important shrines and temples and the beautiful surrounding countryside. The Sacred Bridge...
This was a day we tested the Japanese transportation systems. Steve notes: "Thursday was a big travel day.
This picture is of the Shinkasen / Hikari Superexpress that we took from Tokyo to Utsunomia on the way to Nikko a Temple town North in the country. It goes up to 320 Km / 200 MPH.
1st two subways to the Tokyo Fish Market
Next two subways to Tokyo Central station
Then two trains to Nikko
Return with two trains to Tokyo
Last one subway to our hotel
The trains and subways are clean and efficient. You only wait a couple of minutes and can get anywhere in Tokyo easily, a city of nine million."
The only transport we didn't take that day was a taxi. They are very expensive but you have to love them. Again, Steve's account..."All taxis are spotless inside and out, drivers wear coat and tie, hats and white gloves. The doors open and close remotely. The seats are covered in white linens that look to be changed daily. We never took one, didn't want to get it dirty!" Judge for yourself...
On our return we had our first conveyer belt sushi experience. What was especially cool is that each dish you choose has a chip. At the conclusion of your meal, the waiter comes over with a device to scan the plates and print your bill!
The next day we got up and checked out early since we had booked a bullet train to Kyoto. The city is called the "social soul" of Japan and was the capital for 1000 years. It has 2.5 mil people compared to Tokyo's 13 mil. It's also the cultural center with many beautiful temples. We visited several like this one to the Shinto god of rice, Inari.
The most splendid is Kinkaju-Ji because of its golden pavilion. It was originally the villa of a famous Shogunate who later had it converted to a Zen Temple. It is built on three levels each with a different style. The first is Shinden, the 11th century aristocracy style. The second is the warrior style, and the top is the Chinese style. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels and it is a sight to behold...
Our favorite , however, was another Zen temple, Ginkaju-Ji because we were met by a charming trio of Japanese college kids. They were all taking English courses and offered a free tour to English speakers. Their objective was to improve pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. You have to wonder why they chose us!!
We concluded our stay in Kyoto with a visit to the Gion section of the city. It's an area of old wooden buildings, tea houses, good restaurants, and most importantly, geishas. While it is not the only geisha area in Japan, it is probably the most famous. As it turns out, the last is an endangered species with an estimate of less than 1000 geishas remaining in the country. I stalked one down a side street but she really moved fast!
On our return to Tokyo via another bullet train, Steve enjoyed the passengers across the aisle.
And as only Steve can say it..."and the BEER lady came by every half hour. Carol Bates slept while I PARTIED with the BABES. that's right guys, BEERS with HOT SAKE SHOTS! Doesn't get any better than this:-)
With considerable reluctance we departed from Japan but already planning a return. This sign seemed fitting...