We left Manila at the crack of dawn for the land of the rising sun. I dozed off for half of the flight but woke up just in time to catch, as seen from our airplane window, the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji rise from just beyond the horizon. On the train ride from Narita airport to Oshiage, the scenery slowly changed from rice paddies into low-rise apartment buildings. As my second visit to Tokyo, it is definitely is more than its glittering skyscrapers, automated toilets, and the vending machines on every street corner.
We rented a modest apartment in a quiet neighbourhood near Tokyo Skytree for our six day stay in Japan. The narrow streets in the neighbourhood discouraged cars and so bicycles are a preferred mode of transportation by the locals. I myself have never learned how to ride one but I would’ve definitely enjoyed bicycling down the park along Sumida river. The ten to fifteen minute walk from our apartment to the nearest station, however, allowed us to get a taste of shitamachi (roughly translating to “old town”) culture. On our first day, an elderly lady from a family-owned bakery kindly gave us a discount for the bread that we bought from her after she realized we were tourists. Also nestled between the side streets and alleyways are local restaurants, small shops, and bathhouses. If you want to take a break from the faster-paced lifestyle of bigger cities, Sumida is definitely a great area to explore as relics of traditional Japan stands juxtaposed to large commercial buildings.
About a fifteen minute train ride away from our apartment is Ueno park, which used to be part of the Kaneiji temple grounds until 1873. Now as a public park, it is a rich site of Japan’s cultural heritage with its many shrines and museums. During cherry blossom season, which is from late March to early April, it is also a popular destination for hanami (“flower-viewing”). It is a yearly tradition to welcome the coming of spring wherein people would have a picnic under the blooming flowers for some good food and good company.
Kiyomizu Kannon-do is one of the temples found in Ueno park and overlooks the rest of the park from on top of the hillside. The temple houses an image of the Senju-kannon (“Thousand Armed Goddess of Mercy”) and the Kosodate-kannon (“Goddess of Child-rearing”) where the latter is popular among women who wish to conceive. Before entering, worshippers would purify their hands and mouth at a water trough (chōzuya). Beside the chōzuya is a cedar rack that holds wooden plaques (ema), which carry handwritten wishes and prayers. Photography isn’t allowed in the main temple area but you may throw a coin into the offertory box and say a short prayer. Here, you may also purchase a variety of amulets or charms that provide different blessings and protection.
Ameya Yokocho, or simply called “Ameyoko” by the locals, is a 500-meter open air market street located right next to the Ueno station. There are two theories behind its etymology. In the years shortly following the Second World War, candy stores (ameya) used to line the streets when sugar was a scarce commodity. Alternatively, “ame” is a colloquial term for America and the street became a black market site for American goods post-war. Today, they sell a variety of products from bags, to clothing, to snacks, to fresh fruits, to cosmetics, and so on. They’re even selling octopus arms! (See pictured above)
If you’re more into Japanese pop culture, Akihabara or “Akiba” is the place to go. As the hub of otaku culture, you can find stores that speacialize in selling anime, manga, and video game merchandise. While the rest of my family went shopping at Don Quijote, a discount chain store that carries miscellaneous items, my brother and I checked out four major anime stores in the area: Tokyo Anime Center, Animate, Mandarake, and Akiba Culture Zone. Akiba is also dubbed as Akihabara Denki Gai or “Electric Town,” since it was originally known for cheap electronics.
Standing before the busiest intersection in the world, the Shibuya crossing, you’re immediately reminded of how massive and populous Tokyo really is. It is isn’t difficult to imagine how a street corner can become iconic. Once the pedestrian light turns green, the crossing becomes the very definition of organized chaos: you’re jostled forward with the sea of people who skillfully weave themselves in between the crowd and before you know it, you’ve made it to the other side. Who knew that something as simple as crossing the road could be exhilarating?
Must try food in Shibuya and Harajuku!
Probably one of the most recognizable and impressive landmarks in Tokyo is the Kaminarimon, or “Thunder Gate,” with the huge red chōchin lantern hanging inside it. Guarding the gate’s alcoves are Raijin, “god of thunder and lightning,” on the left and Fujin, “god of wind,” on the right. After passing through this massive structure, you’ll enter Nakamise-dori, a street lined with shops selling souvenirs, charms, and street food. The street then leads up to the temple’s bigger and main gate, the Hozomon. Similar to Kaminarimon, a red chōchin lantern also hangs in the middle but with two smaller lanterns on either side. Hozomon also features two huge waraji (straw sandals) that belong to the deity Nio, whom the gate was originally named after. Past the gate is the Kannondo Hall, or the temple’s main hall, which they say allegedly houses a golden image of the Goddess of Mercy (Kannon).
Within the temple grounds, you may get your fortune or omikuji. After donating a small amount (usually 100 yen), you shake a metal container until a numbered rod pops out of one end. Though the number is written in Japanese, the corresponding drawer is pretty easy to spot. As you can see in the picture above, I will receive excellent fortune this year! If you receive bad fortune, it is customary that you tie the paper to a pole or metal wire to leave the bad luck behind. On the other hand, if you receive good fortune you may hold onto the paper to keep the good luck close to you, or you may multiply the luck by tying it on the metal wire.
From the Asakusa pier, we took the Hotaluna water bus to Odaiba Seaside Park. We were lucky that the weather was clear and sunny that day so we were able to enjoy the sights from the deck of the water bus.
Odaiba is a reclaimed island that was once used for strategic military defense in the 1850s. Today, it is a popular commercial and entertainment district. If you’re on a strict budget, simply strolling around the area gives you a bang for your buck as it is very pedestrian-friendly, offering many parks and walkways that have a breathtaking view of famous landmarks. (See pictured above)
Unfortunately, we missed the New Year’s Eve fireworks by the Tokyo Bay because we didn’t research beforehand. Fireworks aren’t popular in Japan as the New Year festivities usually happen at home with family or at their local shrine. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the view of the Rainbow Bridge at night, which is truly appropriate for its name!
Before we headed to the main hall of Meiji Jingu, we had a quick stop at the food stalls by the Treasure Museum Annex to try more of their street food. We had takoyaki, fried octopus, squid, crab, and sake to welcome the New Year!
In Japanese culture, a tradition called hatsumode calls for the first shrine or temple visit to greet the New Year. Meiji Jingu, in particular, welcomes over three million people over the first three days of the year. We, ourselves, were caught in that very crowd that patiently waited for their turn to say their prayers at the main hall for a prosperous New Year. Once we’ve reached the front, an enormous tarp separated us from the main hall. It served as a net that caught the offertory of the thousands of people that came before us. After throwing in my own offering, I bowed and clapped my hands twice before saying a short prayer to the deity. There is not much flair that goes behind hatsumode. At the very least, it is an intimate and contemplative moment for the individual.