Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 18 and 19: Tokyo Days 3 and 4

Note: I highly recommend you read my previous two posts about my adventures in Tokyo, as some of the context and references in the post below may be lost on you if you haven't.)

Yes, my traveling companions, Rachel and Roxanne, and I received yet another 9 a.m. intercom announcement about the commencement of fire alarm system testing, but having been out until God knows when the night before, I managed to fall back to sleep for an hour or two. Despite our best intentions to get up and get moving so we could enjoy more of what Tokyo had to offer, we did not leave the hotel room until noon, when we went to the hotel sandwich shop for "brunch." After filling our bellies, we kicked off what would turn out to be 10 hours of walking. And walking. And more walking.

Our first stop was the Imperial Palace. I should have done some reading before we went, because I was expecting to be able to tour the palace, much like the numerous shrines and castles that dot the Japanese landscape. But once we arrived (by subway, and then a lot of walking through the palace's outer gardens) I realized that the emperor and his family still resided there and there would be no tours of any imperial buildings, much less the palace. In fact, ordinary citizens are only allowed within the gates of the palace once a year on January 2, when the emperor appears on a palace balcony and blesses the crowd. The American in me bristles at the haughty treatment of the citizens who support the royal lifestyle, but, then again, I wouldn't want millions of people traipsing through my home, either. I can barely keep my house clean as it is with three males in residence.

So, we made do with a tour of the East Gardens and a photo opp at the gates of the palace. As we arrived at one of two gates to the East Garden area of the grounds (the entire palace grounds are more than a square mile in the heart of Tokyo) one man was feeding the swans in the moat... and the swans were having to compete with the carp and catfish for the bits of bread. It was actually quite funny to watch.

 At the front of the gate was a map of the Imperial Palace grounds, but most of it was in Japanese, so it was difficult to decipher. We ended up just wandering around "encountering" things.

Across the street from the gate was this ad wall. Tokyo has but in its bid to be the host of the 2020 Olympics (this is the year my oldest graduates from high school!) and promotional materials are displayed all over the city.
 Once inside the outer gates, there is one piece of the original gate on display, described as a stylized dolphin. Most of the palace grounds had been destroyed by World War II bombings, so only fragments, like this one, are left of the original structures. Actually, much of Japan is like this. Very seldom will you see a centuries-old structure. Most have been destroyed in wars, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and other man-made and natural disasters.

There were about three other gates to get through before we actually got to see the beauty of the East Gardens. While cherry blossom season had ended the week before, there were still plenty of plants and trees in bloom and it was just beautiful. We were also lucky in that the weather was sunny and warm.

A decorative lantern at one of the entrances to the gardens.

The building behind me is the Tea Pavilion.

Once you get deeper in to the palace grounds, which is much like a city central park, you will find the original foundation of the Tenshudai donjon (a donjon equivalent in Europe was known as the "keep" or tower), which was built, and subsequently destroyed, by fire a few decades later, all in the 1600's. It was never rebuilt.

View from the top of the donjon foundation on to the park and skyline.
 After walking around the palace gardens, it was time to make our way to the Imperial Palace front gates. To get there, you had to exit the grounds entirely and then walk a third of the way around the grounds to the front gate of the palace itself. Of course, our view of the Imperial Palace was seriously limited, but here is what I was able to get.

At this point, Roxanne (on the right) dubbed us "Team Oreo," so I was too busy laughing to get the hair out of my face or consider displaying a peace sign.

Across from the Imperial Palace gate is another part of the park with a large, tall statue of a samurai, which I thought was interesting.

Then we were off to see Harajuku, where the oddly-fashioned young tend to gather. We took the subway a few stops away and got off, walking to the main street where "oddballs" can be found. It was a Thursday,  and relatively early in the evening, so there weren't too many people to truly gawk at, but we did manage to find a few things of interest:

After eating a very-late-lunch-pretty-much-dinner at a knock-off English pub called Hub Harajuku, we headed off to find the "dirty" district of Tokyo, Shinjuku, in search of used women's underwear dispensed in vending machines (apparently this is a trend in Japan and we wanted a photo of a machine.) While we did not find any dirty underwear machines, here is what we did find...

Lots of bright lights....

Available men...

And price sheets for the available men...

Hotels to take the available men...

And we also found lots of little tiny bars all smashed in to a square block with narrow alley ways. It was dark, so none of the photos came out that would do the scene justice, but imagine a series of short back alleys with narrow doorways in buildings two or three stories high. Inside the open doorways, you could peek in and find a bar with about seven stools, a completely full wall of alcohol choices and single bar tender, either male or female. There had to have been at least 50 of these bars in the small area. I am not sure what they story is behind these true "holes in the wall," but I would love to know.

We then decided to head home... but we had some trouble finding a train or subway station that would get us there. After walking around for about an hour trying to locate one, we found a train, but took it a stop in the wrong direction before we realized our mistake. We finally made it back to Hiro-o around 10:30 p.m. Fortunately a Thai food place, Shangri-la, was open until 2 a.m., so we were able to get a late night meal to recharge us from our 10 hours of walking.

A Thai vegetable plate appetizer. I have no idea why I had been expecting carrot and celery sticks with Ranch dressing...
 After another (relatively) late night, we headed back to the hotel for our last sleep in Tokyo. Oddly enough, even though it was scheduled, we did not get a 9 a.m. fire alarm system announcement Friday morning. It was a good thing I was woken up by my roommates' packing because I hadn't set my alarm, planning to get up when I heard the broken-English announcement.

Since we didn't need to checkout of our hotel room until noon, and our plane didn't leave until after 3 p.m., we headed out to the Hiro-o district one more time for some last-minute souvenir shopping and an American-inspired breakfast of champions.

There was this gorgeous arrangement of fresh flowers in the lobby of The New Sanno Hotel as we gathered to leave. I just had to get a photo.

We said goodbye to Roxanne who was heading back to the States and was taking a shuttle bus to catch her flight out of the Narita airport. We took a taxi to one of the main subway stations, and then jumped on an almost-direct line to Haneda airport (it only had three stops in between the station and the airport, instead of the 15 normal ones), and arrived with plenty of time to grab a chair massage and lunch before we had to board.

Our flight landed in Iwakuni on time at 5 p.m., and Rodney was there to pick us up.... and it took me four entire days to recover enough so I didn't feel groggy and unmotivated. A clear indication that I am getting old....

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