With 3 days left on my JR Pass, I took the shikansen north-east to Yokahama, just short of Tokyo and then north to the north side of Mount Fuji and the Fuji Five Lakes. One can spend all day walking via the Fuji Sengan-jinga, a temple that frames the perfect picture of Mt Fuji (when the top can be seen). Smothered in cloud early in the day, it surprisingly cleared at six in the evening and was clear the next morning. The 3776m mountain was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2012. With the top half still covered with thick snow, the real climbing season begins in June and is climbed by over 300,000 people a year in one long chain of people. None of the mountain huts are open until June. 90% of people who climb the mountain take a bus to one of the four fifth stations half way up the mountain and take 5-6 hours to reach the summit. At this time of the year, it requires crampons and an ice axe, but one strong French guy from our hostel climbed it starting at 3PM and reaching the summit at 10 the next morning. The crater at the top has a 4km circumference.
On my last JR Pass day, I took the train through Tokyo on my way to Nikko (pop 90,000), a sanctuary that enshrines the glory of the Edo Period (1600-1868), after which it was replaced by the Meiji Restoration, signalling the end of the feudal period of Japan. Nikko, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is one of the major attractions of Japan and is a crowded place at any time of the year but especially in the summer and fall.
Nikko became famous when chosen for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who took control of Japan and established the shogunate that ruled for more than 250 years. He was laid to rest there in 1617 and his grandson commenced work on his shrine in 1634 that can be seen today.
Tosho-gu was the work of 15,000 artisans from across Japan who took two years to build it. Inside the shrine gate are three sacred storehouses, a sacred stable (engraved with the three famous monkeys of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” fame, the three principles of Tendai Buddhism), a hall, a hall of worship, a famous wood carved sleeping cat (hard to know what they get excited about with this one), the three Buddha hall and finally the Tomb of Ieyasu up a big flight of stairs.
Futarasa-jinga, a Shinto shrine, is Nikko’s oldest. Rinno-ji is a shrine constructed of 360 zelkova trees and has three 8m gilded Buddhas. Tauhuin-byo enshrines Ieyasu’s grandson and is lovely and not crowded. There are many wonderful features in all these shrines and temples. I then got the train back to Tokyo for last day of my JR Pass.
With 34 million people in the metropolitan area (includes Yokahama), this is the biggest city in the world. But the metro system, although complex with many route and transfer opportunities, is easily navigable. All cars announce stations in English and a handy digital sign board in every car announces all stations also in English. JR also has trains in addition to the metro but my JR pass has run out and I didn’t use them. I have three days before I have to fly to Bangkok to catch my flight back to Tokyo and home to Vancouver. It is not possible to cancel a leg of a flight and my original flight is Bangkok-Tokyo-Vancouver. It was half the price to fly to Bangkok rather than simply cancel my whole flight and book a one-way to Vancouver.
History. Originally called Edo (literally ‘Gate of the River’) due to its location at the mouth of the Sumida-gawa River, this small farming village rose from obscurity in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu established his shogunate (military government) among Edo’s swampy lands. By the 18th century, it had already become the world’s most populous city. When the authority of the emperor was reinstated in 1868, the capital was officially moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was then renamed Tokyo, meaning Eastern Capital. After 250 years of self-prescribed isolation, Tokyo finally welcomed foreign influence when Admiral Perry arrived in 1854.
In 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake and ensuing fires leveled much of the city and it was again torn to shreds during the Allied air raids during the final years of WWII. The 1950s and 60s saw soaring economic growth that culminated in the 1980s Bubble Economy. The resulting bust of the 90s led to a recession that continues today.
There are a giddying variety of things to see so I had to pick and choose how to spend my last 3 days in Japan.
I was staying in Asakusa so spent my first day exploring there and nearby Ueno (both in the north). Senso-ji is Tokyo’s most visited Shinto shrine and crowds and tours packed the area. It supposedly enshrines a golden Kannon image (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) but it is not on public display and it is a mystery if it even exists! The nearby Tokyo Sky Tree is the world’s tallest free-standing communication tower at 634m (openied 2012) and has observation decks at 350m and 450m. I didn’t bother as it cost 3000 yen.
I walked over to Ueno to Ueno-loen (park) to see the cherry blossoms and two museums. The National Museum of Western Art building is Unesco World Heritage listed and contains all the masters including a whole gallery of Monets. The Tokyo National Museum is a sprawling complex of separate buildings with perfect specimens in this perfectionist society.
Cherry blossom season is on its last legs here. Predominately white, there are a few light pinks. The season can last from a few days to two weeks ending with a big wind storm or rain and when the trees finally leaf out. The popular social thing to do is sit under the trees on blue tarps, eating and drinking and it was packed. A group of retro greasers with enormous pompadour hairdos, black leather and pointy boots danced a weird “Japanese only” style of individual expression. Music was 50’s rock and they could take some jive lessons.
The only accommodation I could find (that was inexpensive) was a capsule hotel. Much better than expected, you stayed in spacious booths that gave good privacy. But there was no fridge or kitchen and few plug-ins which was OK as I was gone all day anyway. After 2 nights, I moved to a typical hostel and stayed in similar capsule bunks.
The cherry blossoms along the Meguro-gawa canal were magnificent. It was a big walking day that ended in Shibuya and Harajuku. Shibuya is the center of the city’s teen crowd and a great place to people watch. I found looking at the shoes more interesting – big platforms and spike heels. Shibuya Crossing, in front of Shibuya Station is the world’s busiest intersection with up to a thousand crossing all at once with each light change. Tokyo’s Times Square, it is a spectacle of video screens and neon. A statue to a dog commemorates an Akita who waited for his master daily for ten years after he died in 1925. Nearby Harajuku is Tokyo’s catwalk with fashionistas and goth-loli girls (think zombie Little-Bo-Peep). Nearby is a giant park, Yoyogi-koen with more cherries, ponds and picnics.
On day three, I started my day early hoping to be in the first 120 who get to witness the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market. It starts at 5AM, my taxi dropped me of two blocks away at four and I ran around asking where the tuna auction was to guys in the market who spoke no English. I missed it by ten minutes and got all sweated up in my down jacket. Flip flops are not meant for running. With nothing to do at 4:30, I had a pleasant 1 1/2 hour stroll along the river back to the hostel. It was lovely and peaceful. I returned to the fish market at 9 to see the dizzying array of sea creatures in the Seafood Intermediate Wholesalers area – whale, tuna, crabs of all kinds, every kind of shellfish, octopus and of course fish. The product was amazingly fresh as I watched a guy sort prawns keeping most of them still live. With a one-day metro pass, I continued on to the National Museum of Photography with three special exhibitions (no constant exhibits). One was on Robert Cappa, an American who hit all the world’s war hot spots between the 1930s and 1954. I finished the day off at Yaukuni-jinja, a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million soldiers including the 14 class-A war criminals from WWII. The annual decision by Japanese politicians whether or not to visit the shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII, is closely watched by neighboring Asian countries and the world. The shrine was rather underwhelming, a simple shrine. The nearby Museum dealing with Japan’s imperialist war history up to WWII is even more contentious as it portrays Japanese behavior in a way that makes people’s blood boil.
More observations on Japan
I have heard that Japanese consider foreigners “dirty”. I’m not sure if it refers to actual body uncleanliness or our external appearance, but we are certainly not as neat as Japanese – often unshaven, long hair, clothes not perfect, women showing cleavage, and often overweight. Compared to Japanese, we are certainly not as well dressed – most men are businessmen in dark suits, white shirts and ties, women obsessed with their hair and makeup, clothes, shoes and accessories – all perfect. Japanese must be the least overweight people on earth. Except for some children, nobody has a belly. They must not have suffered many famines over time. On the metro, seats next to me are always the last occupied and they will often stand instead of sitting next to me. On one train there was a black guy with short, orange hair. I sat next to him in the sea of empty seats around him. He was from Cameroon and had been living and working in Tokyo for four years. I asked if it was difficult for a black man in Japan. Socially it was hard and he had made no friends, just casual acquaintances. I may have been the first person to ever talk to him on the subway. Japanese culture does not involve interacting with strangers. Nobody ever makes eye contact with you – you simply don’t seem to exist.
This is a very closed culture and acceptance is hard to come by. Even if one lives here for many years and eventually becomes a Japanese citizen, foreigners are never allowed to vote. In stores, Western hygiene products are unknown. After Japanese live in a foreign Western culture, they often don’t like many aspects of Japanese culture.
Gambling for money is illegal in Japan. Pachinko is a type of slot machine where small balls are released, navigate obstacles and end in little cups. All you can win are prizes and tokens but apparently money can be exchanged for the prizes. Pachinko and slot casinos are everywhere and do a roaring business with 4.5 million gambling terminals.
The lack of garbage cans is more than made up by the plethora of bathrooms, all spotlessly clean, odorless, and with the best toilet fixtures.
An enigma here is that smoking is illegal commonly outside. Whole districts of Kyoto have banned smoking outside. Smoking areas are small cordoned off areas well removed from doors. Japanese don’t walk around with cigarettes in their hands. However most restaurants allow smoking! Go figure.
Construction sites are interesting. They are routinely surrounded by large solid plywood fences, orange cone barriers and the buildings themselves out of view behind scaffolding covered in plastic. A legion of guys with orange wands control sidewalks where any construction is going on.
Contrary to third world countries where nobody seems to read, there are many Japanese, especially on the metro, with their face buried in a book. The books look all the same, small and soft cover. Everyone knows that they read from the back to the front, right to left and scan vertically down the page. Manga, or cartoon books are immensely popular.
A recent UN ruling forbid Japan from whaling in the Antarctic. They have had a quota of 450 minke whales for many years but have not recently used the entire amount, something they seem very proud of. The claim is that they whale for research but only two minor research papers have been produced in the last decade. In the newspapers, they were surprised at the ruling. It is obvious that the whales are for the commercial food market.
Traditional Japanese homes have no insulation, just simple thin walls. These are great in the summer where airflow helps with the high humidity, hot weather. In the winter, they wear a lot of clothes inside.