There’s not a scrap of usable Japanese word in my pocket-sized notebook to help us explain our conundrum. After pointing on the map our planned destination, the gentle-faced policeman gives us a confusing instruction full of hand gestures. We nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. One thing is certain; we’d inadvertently gotten on the wrong train to Asakusa.
A Tokyo first-timer is bound to get lost. With intricate piles of overlapping routes, the map of the train stations looks like a bowl of tangled ramen noodles. “Check the color,” the policeman says, pertaining to the color-coded subway lines on the map. You see, there are at least three different companies that run the city’s train system, and each company has several lines. To add complexity, some trains even operate on the tracks of other companies. Perhaps doubtful that he made himself sufficiently clear, he beckons us to follow him all the way down to a long tunnel that leads to the next terminal station. “Wait for your train here,” he smiles with an unfeigned effort to catch his breath. After bombarding him with “arigatou”, we hop on the next train, eager to explore the world’s largest metropolis.
Day 1: Asakusa and Akihibara
“Coming through! Coming Through!” A young shafu (rickshaw driver) wearing a brown happi coat and zori sandals rushes past the crowd at the iconic Kaminarimon Gate, pulling a two-wheeled vehicle with high-perch seats called the jinrikisha (rickshaw). There are several shafu near the gate, sometimes yelling to attract prospective passengers. A popular method of transportation during the late 1800’s, the jinrikisha completes the old-world ambience of Asakusa, Tokyo’s leading entertainment district before World War II. Tourists flock to Asakusa to see ancient temples, shrines and other historic structures wedged between modern buildings and bustling streets.
Beyond the thousand-year old Kaminarimon Gate is the Nakamise-dori, a 250-meter shopping street that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) of the Japanese history. Sauntering down the arcade’s narrow lanes, I am drawn to the traditional shops that sell Japanese souvenirs like paper fans, samurai figurines, trinkets and geisha wigs. The mouthwatering aromas of freshly cooked takoyaki and ningyo-yaki from the nearby stalls waft through the air.
Asakusa’s main tourist draw is the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple which was built in the 7th century to enshrine the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, after it was found by two fishermen in the nearby Sumida River. Here, I see visitors fanning the smoke from the large incense burner toward their bodies with their hands. “It is for healing and for good fortune as well. Try it!” says the lady attendant of the stall that sells omamori or good luck charms. It doesn’t take me much convincing. What fool would resist good fortune?
Towering above skyscrapers, the Tokyo Skytree is impossible to ignore from the temple or from anywhere in the district. This new famous attraction opened only in May 2012 and is considered the world’s tallest communications tower, standing 2,080 feet tall. It has observation decks at 1,148 and 1,476 feet where visitors can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city.
After gawking at the cityscape, we catch a train bound for Akihibara, a district whose bustling streets and massive neon lights and signboards evoke a rush of excitement. Also known as the “Electric Town”, it is a jungle of electronic shops that sell every technological gadget one can imagine at a reasonable price. Turn a corner and you’ll find a store devoted entirely to, say, cameras or computers. In the recent years, Akihibara has emerged as the center of the anime culture, with shops specializing in video games and anything anime sandwiched between electronic retailers. Walk further and you’ll find several maid cafes, where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters.
Day 2: Harajuku and Shibuya
A large jungle crow squawks and soars from its perch as we enter the torri gate of the Meiji Shrine, a shrinededicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Walking under the imposing torri, we are transported to a different world as the sounds of a bustling city are replaced with the rustle of the trees. The 70-hectare forest surrounding the shrine has over 100,000 trees, donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was built in 1920. Emperor Meiji is highly revered for modernizing Japan without sacrificing its ancient traditions. He abolished the feudal system and the national seclusion policy and introduced the system of compulsory education.
Munching on a few sticks of butabara (skewered pork belly) and torinuku (skewered chicken), we cross to the concrete jungle called Harajuku, a district known as the center of Japanese youth culture and street fashion. We find ourselves walking in between teenage girls with heavy make up, pigtailed blonde hair and gingham miniskirts as we stroll along Takeshita Dori, a narrow street lined with fashion boutiques and quaint cafes. I later on find out that cosplayers usually gather at the Harajuku Station on weekends. Seeing women in traditional kimono, rockabillies with outlandish hairdos, trucks with anime designs blasting Japanese pop music, I am rather overwhelmed by the vibrant environment of the district.
Time seems to fly so fast in Shibuya, another colorful and busy district heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens. It is full to bursting with restaurants, nightclubs and shops that sell pretty much everything under the sun: apparel, car accessories, gadgets, furniture and even kinky sex toys, which are surprisingly sold in multi-floored specialty stores. It would be a shame not to walk across Shibuya Crossing, the famous intersection just outside Shibuya Station. Unabashedly armed with a selfie stick, I follow the surge of pedestrians as soon as the traffic lights turn red at the same time in every direction.
Not far from the crossing is the statue of Hachiko, the Akita who waited for his late master at the Shibuya Station everyday from 1923 to 1935, eventually becoming famous for his loyalty.
For extremely cheap finds, we go to 109 Men’s and Don Quixote. These stores cost me more yen than I want to think about. Thank God for the small ramen joint with bright yellow Japanese signs near the Berksha building. One sip of its thick, smoky-flavored ramen broth alleviates my guilt for splurging on new shoes and gadgets.
Day 3: Odaiba and Ginza
“Irashaimase!” A smiling woman greets us with a nod at the entrance hall of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, simply known as Miraikan, on the reclaimed island of Odaiba in the middle of Tokyo Bay. We arrive quite early, excited to see a humanoid robot, which I hear is being programmed to give guided tours at the museum in the future. Here, robotics makes up a large portion of the exhibits. A robot on display that is usually swarmed by giggling children takes the form of a baby seal, which reacts to people’s touch. Another section talks about the dangers of plastic to the environment and the current research to make plant-based plastic. We are thrilled to see a full size model of a section of the International Space Station, where visitors can walk inside to have a glimpse of an astronaut’s life in outer space. The museum also has highly interactive, bizarre and fascinating exhibits about information technology, medicine and biology.
Japan’s unforgiving cold this time of the year brings us to a hot spring theme park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari, just a short walk from Miraikan. Inside, a replica of an ancient street filled with bars, restaurants and game booths recreates the ambience of the Edo Period of the Japanese history. Guests, who are required to change to a yutaka (kimono) and obi (belt), can experience at least 14 bathing facilities using natural hot spring water coming from the underground. It is also important to note that tattooed guests are unwelcome at any onsen (hot spring baths). This disfavor dates back to the ancient times when criminals were forcibly branded with tattoos.
Odaiba has pretty much everything to keep us entertained the entire day. Here, we see some of Tokyo’s boldest architectural designs, like the Telecom Center and the Fuji TV building. One cannot miss the gigantic Gundam Robot statue standing head to head with Diver City Tokyo Plaza. At night, the robot’s eyes and body light up and change to different colors, making it seem like it has come to life. A short walk from the statue is another shopping and entertainment complex called Palette Town, where we see a 115 meter tall Ferris wheel, museum of vintage cars, showroom of Toyota’s latest car models and a huge gaming arcade. At the nearby Decks Tokyo Beach, also a shopping mall, we get a good view of the breathtaking cityscape and the brightly lit Rainbow Bridge, which connects Odaiba to the rest of Tokyo.
If unlike us you don’t watch every yen, head to the upscale Ginza district, where every leading international brand name in fashion and cosmetics has a presence. Time-constrained, we skip the fancy malls and head straight to the Kabukiza Theatre to catch the last Kabuki show for the evening. A Kabuki is a traditional Japanese drama performed with elaborate costumes and highly stylized singing and dancing. A full performance comprises of three or four acts and usually lasts more than four hours. Thankfully, we are allowed to buy tickets for just a single act. The performance we catch tells a story of a fugitive named Naozamurai who risks one last meeting with his lover, the courtesan Michitose. Accompanied by the Kiyomoto narrative music, the act ends with the lovers parting forever.
Day 4: Tokyo DisneySea
We keep a tight grip on the rail as our smoke-powered subterranean vehicle accelerates into a dark tunnel. Illuminated only by colorful glowing crystals, the car enters a mushroom forest, which is inhabited by giant strange-looking insects. Suddenly, the ground shakes, causing the cavern to crumble, forcing our car down another path filled with huge egg-like sacks. We are nearly struck by a lightning as we emerge on a shore. Before we could catch our breath, our vehicle plunges into the depth of an active volcano, where we come face-to-face with a monstrous centipede.
We are breathless at the end of The Journey To The Center of the Earth. It is one of the highlights at the Tokyo DisneySea, a 70-hectare amusement park that is inspired by the myths and legends of the sea. Here, we experience our wildest childhood imagination through its seven themed ports: Mermaid Lagoon, Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront. Centerpieced by Mt. Prometheus, an active volcano that spews out balls of fire every hour, the park is beautifully crafted and has magnificent architecture that takes us to different parts of the world. The entrance, for example, is styled after an Italian port town, complete with Venice style canals and gondolas. Though suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to appeal to an older audience, with faster and scarier roller coaster rides.
Tokyo is chaotic yet orderly, modern yet traditional, crazy yet peaceful. Yes it is expensive but with careful planning, a shoestring budget can go a long way. And what’s not to love about the Japanese? They are amazingly well disciplined, big-city people with warm countryside attitude. Despite the language barrier, they take pleasure in helping an ignorant backpacker with directions. Full of contradictions and surprises, Tokyo is an exciting city to get lost in.
How To Get There:
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have direct flights to Tokyo (Narita Airport).
|Accommodation (Azure Narita) 4 nights||15,900 Yen|
|Train fare||6,000 Yen|
|Tokyo Skytree entrance||2,600 Yen|
|Kabuki ticket||1,200 Yen|
|DisneySea entrance||6,900 Yen|
|Meiji Shrine Museum and Garden entrance||1,000 Yen|
|Miraikan entrance||600 Yen|
|TOTAL||57,200 Yen (roughly Php 22,880)|