Denverite Abroad – Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing around 11am...imagine what it's like at Rush Hour!

Shibuya Crossing around 11am...imagine what it's like at Rush Hour!

For our first morning in Tokyo we hit the ground running, starting off by visiting the world’s most congested pedestrian intersection: Shibuya Crossing. Just outside of Shibuya subway station, Shibuya Crossing is quite similar to Times Square in New York City, in that it’s a major intersection point for the city, with several major city roads, subway lines, and districts. After finding a seat in the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing, Beth and I enjoyed our lattes and watched the crowd. People congregate in droves on the sidewalk corners surrounded by billboards, electric signs, and TV monitors. Cars, trucks, bikes and scooters fill the intersection, but suddenly the next moment is empty silence. Once the walking man changes from red to green people scatter throughout the intersection like marbles spilling out from a cup. For a few moments the traffic is halted by this endless wave of people, but as soon as the crowd fizzles out the traffic roars back again. Despite being just a regular ole urban, red light intersection, Shibuya Crossing is truly a unique Tokyo event that is worth witnessing.

Torii gate marking the entrance to the famous Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Torii gate marking the entrance to the famous Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Moving on to our next big stop, we head to Yogogi Park, home to Japan’s most well known shrine: Meiji Shrine. Yogogi Park is much like Washington or City Park back home in Denver…but much bigger. Filled with groves of Japanese cypress trees, ponds with water spraying fountains, and a beautiful rose garden Yogogi Park is the ideal place for a typical Tokyo urbanite to get away from it all. Moving into the Shrine we pass through a magnificent torii gate, signifying the entrance of a sacred place. Beyond the arch lays one of the best demonstrations of landscape architecture I’ve ever seen, with a massive and long pebble pathway lined with an old growth tree canopy. The natural tunnel effect of the trees is enhanced by the park workers dedicated to clear debris from the pathway. After a leisurely walk down the path we came across the entrance to the shrine, including the purifying water station.

Traditional Shinto wedding ceremony

Traditional Shinto wedding ceremony

Once we enter into the shrine grounds its hard not to be impressed by the intricate wooden designs in the ceiling and roof of the structures, as well as the way they create symmetrical patterns in the layout of the shrine. Large tiled plazas are on either side of the entryway. Compared to the bright colors of typical Korean or Chinese shrines, the Meiji shrine is a subtle balance of dark wooden beams, white trim, and an olive tile roofline. Inside the plaza prayers are given up at the face of the actual shrine building or written on a ceremonial placard and hung beneath a spiritual tree. As we made our exit from the grounds Beth and I were surprised to see a wedding party exiting from a building to the side of the shrine into the plaza. The slow and ornate procession made its way through the plaza before spilling out to the grounds for photos. Upon this we made our own exit back into Yogogi Park, and back to the Hibuya subway line to see the Imperial Palace.

hris and Beth outside the gate of the Japanese Imperial Palace

Chris and Beth outside the gates of the Japanese Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace has been the home to the Imperial family since 1868 when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. The palace sits on 2.86 square miles in the heart of downtown Tokyo. A completely secure compound, the entire park area is surrounded by a massive stone wall, complete fully functioning lake sized moat. Within this ring are acres and acres of beautiful large bonsai trees, exhibiting perfect feng shui between their needles, branches, and trunk. After walking down a grand promenade entrance way we were once again confronted by another set of walls and moat. Here, with guards posted at the bridge that serves as the main entrance to the Imperial Palace, was as far as we could go. But the vista looking across the water to the Palace, as well as looking out over the acres of pine needles and green grass with towering Tokyo in the background is well worth the visit. As we left the sun began to set and cast a gorgeous glow on our day out so far.

The streets light up in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo

The streets light up in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo

Before heading back towards our hotel we decided to pay a visit to the famous shopping and neon district of Ginza. We walked through the district with our eyes open wide to the wonderful signs and lights we expected to see, especially at the Sony Building. But as the daylight waned and we walked past blocks of shops we were a bit underwhelmed, especially with the Sony Building (which only has a wall of speakers and no light show). Some stores put on their best, like the GAP, Cartiers, and a wonderful Sapporo lit sign that looked like foamy beer. That being said most shops just had one or two backlit signs out, nothing special, up and down the streets. So all in all, the Ginza shopping district is great for high fashion, jewelry, handbags and shoes…but not necessarily for a dazzlingly light show. So growing hungry and tired we decided to head back to the hotel.

Tokyo Tower lit up in the night sky

Tokyo Tower lit up in the night sky

On the way we decided to stop off in Rippongi and walk the rest of the way versus taking the subway. Only 45 minutes away from our hotel, the main street in Rippongi offered a better glimpse of colorful nightlife and dining. As we wandered through the streets we ran smack dab into a beaming tower of orange and white: the Tokyo Tower. The tallest freestanding iron tower in the world, it’s mimicked after the Eiffel Tower in France. The bright orange and white colossus stands out among the many Tokyo skyscrapers and has become a major attraction in Tokyo. Feeling impulsive and looking for a great city view at night we decided to purchase tickets to visit both viewing galleries. The first rises up to 150 meters and acts as the main observation deck complete with a café, photo booths, gift shop, and a great view of Tokyo lit up in the night sky. Reaching out for miles and miles we were amazed by the hundreds of skyscrapers extending out in every direction. Rising to the secondary deck at 250 meters we get a more comprehensive view out but with no clear end in sight. Tokyo truly is an urban oasis in the world, seemingly endless concrete, subways, and asphalt.

Chris and Beth with Tokyo sprawled out in the distance

Chris and Beth with Tokyo sprawled out in the distance

We headed down from our bird’s eye view of Tokyo and now famished were determined to find dinner in the Rippongi district. In stark contrast to the high-class shops of the Ginza shopping district, Rippongi is filled with bright neon lights, loud music, and people out and about looking for a good time. There are dozens of bars, storefronts, and restaurants along the main drag, all a diverse mix of various cultures. As we walked around there were plenty of American and English themed bars, Mexican, Italian, Korean, and Turkish restaurants to choose from. After an enticing sample of grilled chicken, we settled in at a wonderful little Turkish grill. We ate a wonderful meal, sampling their shaved beef, lettuce, sauce and rice all followed by an amazing, authentic eggplant dish with spicy sausage, peppers, tomatoes, garlic yogurt, served with a side of pita bread. Absolutely delicious! Finally, we went back to the hotel after a long day to prepare for the early rise to the fish market tomorrow.

Crates of fish as far as the eye can see...only at the Tsukiji Fish Market

Crates of fish as far as the eye can see...only at the Tsukiji Fish Market

The next morning we were up and early, but not early enough. Even though we woke up at 5am and made it to the Tsukiji Fish Market by 6:30am, we had missed the fish auction and the reserved tickets to see it. That being said we had no idea that there were reserved tickets or that the fish market was closed from 6:30am – 9am to the public so that the freshly auctioned fish can be properly dispersed and displayed. So with that in mind we accidentally snuck our way into the fish market amongst the hustle and bustle of Japan’s fishmongers. High-speed forklifts, push carts, and three-wheeled scooters owned the roads and pathways in the market. Styrofoam crates, wood crates, and plastic crates all filed with ice and water extended through the walkways as far as we could see. Oh, and the fish! Lots of fish. All kinds of fish; little fish, big fish, tuna fish, eel fish, cut-up fish, noodle fish, you name it. Oysters, muscles, and clams of every kind, not to mention a whole horde of shellfish, from the mighty tiger prawn to the lowly blue crab. Simply amazing! But our amazement was cut short after we strolled down our third row and a policeman (with a look of surprise) informed us that we could not be here for another two hours or so…oops! So to kill some time we decided to visit the futuristic Obaida Island.

Futuristic Fuji TV Station building on Obaida Island, Tokyo

Futuristic Fuji TV Station building on Obaida Island, Tokyo

We headed out to the shoreline, eventually finding our way to the monorail line that goes over Rainbow Bridge and does a loop around Obaida Island. Once we reached the island we realized that it’s really an office park by day and shopping/bar mecca at night. The extensive collection of malls and amusement area rides were like ghost town, all closed til 11am. Aside from the steady stream of black and grey suits headed to work we were the only people on the whole island. Still, we got to ride on a smooth monorail over the famous Rainbow Bridge, which was a scenic break from the subway cars. We also got a great view of Tokyo bay-side and the bridge, and got to walk around some of Tokyo’s best skyscrapers, including the futuristic Fuji TV Station building. But there is only so much to do in an island ghost town, so we headed back to the fish market before packing up for the afternoon train to Hakone.

Just one of seven large buckets of eels and salamanders of varying sizes

Just one of seven large buckets of eels and salamanders of varying sizes

Entering correctly this time, we walked among the stalls and sushi dens, as well as dozens of fish monger gear vendors with ice hooks, galoshes, and waders. With proper guidance and instruction we made our way back into the fray, but by now things were mostly calm, many of the trucks and dollys already packed up and out of the way. Still there were all sorts of sights to see, and with permission we were able to take photos of the merchandise and stalls. However, bottom line is if you really want to see the fish market in action (and auction) getting up at 5am isn’t going to cut it. You’ll need to be there at 5am or earlier to be one of the 120 people (first come first serve) each day that are granted entrance to the viewing area.

Just a couple of camera toting, tourist giajins running around Tokyo

Just a couple of camera toting, tourist giajins running around Yogogi Park, Tokyo

On the whole Tokyo is a clash of cultures and histories. On one hand it is one of the most urban and densely populated places on Earth, and on the other hand it’s a patient, timeless city with beautifully preserved heritage sites. I strongly suggest if you ever make it to Japan to spend a few days in Tokyo. There are so many other things that are left to see and do there (not to mention a whole host of restaurants to try) that we hadn’t the time for and I am already planning our next itinerary. But for now we move south to get away from the concrete jungle and enjoy the serene hillsides of Hakone, complete with native forests and scenic riverside waterfalls. More to come…

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Posted on November 18, 2011, in Denverite Abroad and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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