Escape from Seoul
In January, Seoul was hit by a cold wave and I desperately needed a break. Tokyo’s weather report recorded temperatures above 0 °C and that was good enough for me to accompany Basil on his business trip. The weather played spoilsport on the day of our departure and our flight was delayed by a couple of hours. Despite being 2 hours (flight time) away from Seoul, we landed in Narita International Airport in the evening. We had wasted an entire day on travel. That left us with Sunday to visit Tokyo (together) and make the most of what we had missed in 2012.
Tokyo Subway Scenes
We rarely revisit cities or places. There’s too much to see in this world and not enough time (or money). But Japan will always have a special place in our hearts and Tokyo — we’d find very hard to forget. Back in 2012, it was the first time I accompanied Basil on an official trip to Tokyo. We spent the first 10 days travelling around Japan before arriving in Tokyo. After staying in a service apartment, in Ikebukuro, for a week and pretending to live like a local, I realised: it isn’t easy being a travelling spouse. That week felt like eternity and it was the first time I didn’t enjoy travel or at least this sort of travel arrangement. But we also had our highs (with the lows) and it paved the way for subsequent trips to other cities, which in turn prepared us for expat life in Seoul.
The Tokyo subway map looks like a puzzle at first glance and once you solve it — you’re good to go. It’s best to avoid rush hour, or else practice saying, “Sumimasen” (without an accent) and hope to be understood. That said, the Tokyo subway is very convenient and perfect to travel across the city.
Omotesando Avenue is popular for fashion, shopping, and the unique architecture of its buildings. The main avenue is lined with trees, earning it the nickname, Tokyo’s Champs-Elysées. On a Sunday morning, most outlets were shut and sidewalks were practically deserted. Tourists were the only ones around. We tried to get our orientation right and walked towards Meiji Shrine.
Meiji Shrine was constructed, in 1920, to honour the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji is credited with modernising Japan and adopting western ideas.
The Torri (gate of a Shinto shrine signifying a transition from the temporal to the spiritual realm) was teeming with tourists and Japanese visitors. The sun was out and I was happy to walk under the forest cover. The tranquil environs, of the forest, drowned eager tourist banter and sounds of the buzzing city.
Sake and Wine
Every year, barrels of sake (wrapped in straw) are donated by members of the Meiji Jinju Nationwide Sake Brewers’ Association to honour Emperor Meiji and his royal consort. On the opposite side, wine barrels (donated from Bourgogne) are symbolic of the Emperor’s efforts to bridge the gap between western and Japanese culture.
We walked along the gravel pathway that cut through the forest — leading us to another Torii. Beyond it, ice sculptures were brought to life through the imagination of very talented Japanese artists.
Ritual Cleansing of Hands and Mouth
Before entering the main complex, you need to wash your hands and rinse your mouth. The water was cold and my fingers nearly froze as I poured water on them.
Inside the Main Complex
The Offering Hall
Visitors had formed a line outside the Offering Hall and we joined in. Visitors are only allowed to the main entrance of the hall and photography (of the main shrine) is strictly forbidden. An instruction poster guides a visitor on the customs of veneration. I bowed, put in some coins, and clapped my hands. But I forgot to make a wish.
Marriage is on a decline in Japan and it’s not common to see a Shinto wedding these days. Two years back, a Japanese friend of ours had a Shinto wedding ceremony and I was captivated by her wedding pictures. I never thought we’d get to catch a glimpse of a Shinto wedding ceremony. The Meiji Shrine was the venue of two weddings that day and I felt like wedding crasher or uninvited guest as we stared (clicked pictures) at the wedding procession.
Ema: Keeping Faith
Making wishes, offering prayers, and buying charms are essential rituals of a Shinto shrine. We bought some charms to take back and remind us of our visit.
Harajuku Station is a stone’s throw away from the main Torii of Meiji Shrine. Harajuku is synonymous with popular youth fashion and culture. It was nearing 2 p.m. and we had to head to Shibuya.
Shibuya Station was lively and brimming with people. It was Sunday afternoon and it would be hard to beat the crowd here.
I’ve always been amazed by cities that manage to preserve tradition and blend it with modernism. And Tokyo definitely offers a heady mix of the two. A man dressed in a bunny suit was offering free hugs. In a city where it’s not too hard to feel lonely and isolated, I could understand why someone would want to offer free hugs. But, I’m also not someone who could willingly hug a stranger. I had to pass this one.
The Shibuya Crossing is the definition of touristy. It’s pretty funny that a crossing has become so famous. Tourists will cross the signal multiple times to take the perfect picture. I couldn’t understand why had it become such an important landmark.
It was around 4 p.m. and I had to rest my tired feet. There are many coffee shops around the signal and if you’re lucky — try the ones with the view. As we sat there and saw people blindly follow a signal, I couldn’t help but smile. Six months earlier, we were standing on a Mongolian mountain, straining our eyes to spot Takhi (wild horse) in their natural habitat and here I was, sitting in a coffee shop, looking at people turn into robots. The irony was not lost on me.
Back Alleys of Shibuya
The back alleys of Shibuya have some interesting buildings and places to shop. Tokyu Hands is one of my favourites and I was happy to browse through its floors.
We reached Ueno pretty late and shops had started closing. It was nearing 8 p.m. and we had to search for a place to eat. We got lucky and found a small restaurant (literally a hole-in-the-wall joint) that served tempura and udon. We could hear the train pass over us as drank sake.
Asakusa takes you back in time and at night — it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine life in old Tokyo. It was our third visit here and the deserted streets flooded our tired minds with old memories. I could’t believe how 5 years had passed.
Sensoji Temple looked resplendent in red. There were very few visitors and the silence was rewarding. It was a fitting end to the chaos of the day.