>Day 2 18 Nov 2007 Tokyo Meiji Jingu, Shinjuku

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The hotel provided a simple buffet spread for breakfast. Less than the full spread one would get at the big hotels, but decent enough and better value than many Australian motels would. The Family Fifty’s at Maihama hotel is similar in structure and set-up to chain motels in the US eg Motel 6, in France like the Formula 1 chain. But I think this offers better value. For Tokyo, the rooms are a decent size, holding a double bed and a sofa bed which converts into a single bed, ensuite bathrooms and breakfast.
We had cold hardboiled eggs (orange yolks!) , bread, pastry, juice, milk, cereal, fruit and salad (I discovered the lovely tanginess of a Japanese sesame dressing!) . Then it was off to a day of sightseeing in Tokyo itself.

We took a bus to the train station (not cheap – it cost 200yen per adult, 100yen for a child, so all in the bus trip alone cost 700yen for all of us) which was two stops away. From there, at the station, we studied the big train map carefully and surveyed the automatic ticket vending machine with some trepidation before giving up and asking the man at the counter. KH and I used the Suica stored value card but had to buy tickets for the kids.

Up on the platform, it was sunny, briskly cool and windy – perfect day. Kasai Rinkai Koen spread out before us. We could see the large ferris wheel, the Tokyo Sea Life Park, the lovely resthouse fronting the manmade shoreline. I was thrilled to see that the leaves on the trees were already well coloured! I was a bit apprehensive that they would not be since before departure, I was religiously checking the Japanese sites for koyo updates and the picture did not look good – the sites were saying that lots of places were still relatively green or were just beginning to turn.

On the platform, noticed it was so cute that each train station had their own little piece of music that played when the train was departing. (Later on I would discover that Maihama station’s music was a Disney theme – fitting since it was the station for Disneyland!)

We had no problems arriving at Tokyo but noted that the walk from the Keiyo line to the Tokyo station was a long one. From there, we plunged into bustling Tokyo station and changed trains to the green Yamanote line which took us all the way to Harajuku station.

Harajuku station on a Sunday was packed with people. I was hoping to spot the infamous Cosplay kids but only saw a couple on the bridge to the park. We headed for the Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of the park. Lovely day to walk. Lots of Tokyo-ites and tourists leisurely moving into the shrine. It was about a shady 500m walk in, flanked by greenery and tall shady trees on both sides. We had to pass under two huge wooden torii gates en route. The wood was 1500year-old cypress from Taiwan. We saw lots of very very cute little boys and girls dressed in gorgeous kimonos!

It was the weekend for Shichi-Go-San. Literally 7-5-3. A festival for children aged 7, 5 or 3 yos where they would dress up in their best, go to the shrines with their families seek blessings for good health, success etc. Those little girls in their vibrant red, purple, mauve kimonos, some with a fur collar etc, in their tiny getas, hair piled up and pinned with flowers, looked so demure and so cute! We took lots of pictures of these little ones and were not alone in doing so – lots of other gaijins were also busy snapping away, grinning from ear to ear.

At the shrine, we did our first purification ritual for the trip – the first of many! Ladle some water from the trough, pour over one hand, then the other. Some people poured water into their cupped palms, gargled and spat into the drain below, but we just kept to the hand-washing bit. When we entered the shrine, we saw we were in luck! There was a Shinto wedding going on. The bride, powdered white and dressed in a white brocade kimono, stood under a tree with her groom, dressed in sober black and grey traditional robes. Later we saw the full procession, led by the Shinto priest.

The main deity enshrined in the Meiji Jingu shrine was the Meiji emperor and his empress. The kids and KH wanted to make wishes in front of the shrine, so we observed what everyone was doing and followed suit – drop a few yen into the collection box, clap twice, bow, hands clasped and make a wish.

I saw the ema votive tablets and decided to buy one for 500yen and write a wish on it. The ema would be hung up with the others and prayers offered for it the next morning by the Shinto priests. I wished for a speedy recovery for dad, Gillian passing her PSLE and good wishes for all of us. So far, two out of three ain’t bad!

We also bought an omamori for Gillian. This is a charm for success in an entrance exam. Very pretty thing in white brocade with the purpose of the charm and the shrine’s name embroidered on it. I also took the opportunity to get my ‘fortune’ slip – a stanza of a poem written by the Meiji emperor. It was a beautiful verse and I found it meaningful.
Mizu
Utsuwa niha

shitagai nagara
iwagane mo

tosu ha mizu no
chikara narikere

It means: Water does not oppose any vessels and takes the form of its vessel. Water seems to be obedient, flexible, and not self-assertive. However, water can break rocks with its consecutive concentrated drops. So people should also have flexibility for any situation such as thought and human relationship, and have consecutive concentration to do something important. I found this very meaningful.

After the shrine, we walked across to Harajuku and the very busy Takeshita-dori. More Cosplay kids were coming out now. The trend seemed to be doll-like 19th century dressing with stiff corsets, flowery prints, stiff petticoat skirts, high frilled lace collars and bonnets – paired incongruously with kohl-lined gothic make-up! We also saw a grown man dressed as a baby – complete with baby bonnet and giant pacifier! The kids couldn’t take their eyes off the guy asked me why the man was dressed like that. I said that some people just enjoy dressing up like that for fun. Lame, I know.

Owain was whining for McDonalds or sushi but there wasn’t a sushi joint in sight. So we pushed on, followed our noses which led us up a flight of stairs to a teensy ramen joint, bar counter seating, vending machine for tickets and a queue that stretched halfway down the stairs with the locals so we figured must be good.

When we finally got a seat, we filled up 2/3 of the restaurant! The ramen was very good and came with an extra bowl of rice. We had to order extra bowls of noodles cos the kids loved the ramen so much. I think it was about 600-700yen a bowl (with the rice). But I think I was conscious that we could not take our time to eat leisurely as the queue was forming already outside the place. When we left, I practised my teensy bit of pidgin Japanese and to the choruses of “arigato-gozaimashite” from the cook and the helper, I said “Gochiso-sama deshita!” and it was good to see their looks of surprised pleasure!

We walked down Omotesando Blvd – the Orchard Rd of Tokyo but much much higher end. Saw Prada, Issey Miyake and all the big names. At one point, I remember KH lifting Owain onto his shoulders for a view. Because the street was a slope, we all turned back to look down the slope and my gosh – it was a just a huge sea, a constant wide rushing river of people that just kept coming and coming. Where do all these people come from? I had to keep reminding myself that Tokyo was a city of 16million.

On Omotesando you really see all kinds of people. Dogs dressed up in turtle neck sweaters. Goths. Lolitas. And a very weird old man on a bike dressed in a skirt, with a flowery hat and two fishbowls of live goldfish dangling from his ears or his hat or something like that.

We took the subway to Shinjuku and walked to the TMG – it was 4pm, almost sunset by then. The picture on the right is the Citizens Plaza. Up on the north tower, we could see the lights of Tokyo coming on, the neon of Shinjuku just starting to glow and the sun setting, Mt Fuji in silhouette. Far below was the vast expanse of green that was Yoyogi Park and a glimpse of the turquoise roofs of Meiji Jingu shrine. It struck me how much a concrete sprawl Tokyo was, how huge.

When we got down, we walked for a while in East Shinjuku checking out dinner options before settling on a kaiten sushi place. 105yen per plate for ‘normal’ sushi and 210 for the more expensive cuts. We were too big a group to sit together so we split up. The older kids sat together and KH and the younger kids and I took another space. With no one to ‘control’ how much they could take, the bigger kids went wild – plates of ikura, maguro etc piled up quickly. I tried some natto – ugh. For the first time in my life I actually left some sushi uneaten. I thought it was uni (sea urchin) but it wasn’t. The smell was just too overpowering. I’d tried uni in Singapore and never had a problem so I think this was probably not uni but natto.

We went to the Alta building, famed for the big screen and where everyone seemed to be waiting for everyone else. Crowds of young people stood there on the chilly pavement, oblivious to the crowd and the cold, busy flipping open their mobile phones and texting away or playing games. After a while it was a case of too much neon, too tired kids and too cold! So we took a train back to Tokyo station. On a hunch after I checked the map, we took an escalator up and voila – the Tokyo International Forum – one of the most interesting architectural landmarks in Tokyo. The building, meant for conventions and meetings, was built like a glass ship – lots of steel and glass soaring upwards connected by sky bridges. It was beautiful, especially when lit at night.

So ends our first day in Tokyo.

Other little things that struck me today – how the Japanese religiously separated their trash. You’d never find a bin that one can just throw rubbish in. We found ourselves carrying bits of used tissue paper and accumulating them because we just could not find a bin to throw them in. Waste receptacles were clearly labelled: bottles, PET bottles, cans, newspapers/papers. Now why couldn’t we do a similar thing in Singapore? Just using less plastic bags in Singapore already created so much resistance. And here in Japan, people were readily, automatically already separating their trash in public – don’t even talk about how they do this at home!

Another thing that struck me – the keep left unspoken rule. On an escalator, everyone keeps left, leaving the right a clear path to move up. Back in Singapore I’ve seen this happen too, but not as religiously as in Japan. You could get a scolding from someone in a hurry if you did not keep left!

Also while walking in Takeshita Dori, I saw someone carrying a baby in an MIM sling! He saw me and we sort of nodded/smiled a bit – must be from the same neck of the woods!

And when we were at the very busy Shinjuku station, Trinity decided to lie facedown on the station floor to do the breaststroke. All attempts to lift her up were met with screams. So we decided it was best to just let her be. sigh. The Tokyoites just stepped around her and went on their way but not before casting curious looks – I don’t think their kids behave like this in public. Come to think of it, I don’t think their kids behave badly at all! I’ve never seen a Japanese kid scream or throw a fit in public. Nor have I seen Japanese parents stand and furiously tell their kids off, fingers wagging – as I have done.

More tomorrow!

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