Continuing our journey through Asia, the Runawayfamily stopped in the beautiful city of Tokyo just in time for the cherry blossoms.
As we slowly walked along the sidewalk running along the edge of the Imperial Palace, we casually observed the attempts by a street worker to work a piece of garbage out of a grate. This piece of refuse apparently had gotten stuck to the grate at a molecular level and was being obstinate in the worker’s attempts to dislodge it. This battle continued throughout the 20 minutes it took to walk past the street cleaner. Now this observation may not be significant to you but it entirely encapsulates the entire psyche of the Japanese and the joys of traveling through Tokyo.
Japan is the most intoxicating place for me. The Japanese culture fascinates me: the food, the dress, the manners, and the traditions. It’s the travel experience that has moved me the most.Roman Coppola
Magical Toilets and Free Pyjamas
We arrived in Tokyo after finishing our 72-hour visit to Shanghai and were headed to our airport hotel to rest before moving into central Tokyo. As soon as we arrived at our hotel and found our room for the night, we were immediately charmed by the amenities (everything from slippers, toothbrushes, razors, soaps, shoe brushes and more) and the free pajamas (big on the kids and Deanne; very small on me). However, it was the toilet that caused the biggest source of wonders and hilarity. This was not just any toilet. This toilet had more electronics installed inside it than our car. There was an entire control panel installed on the wall which held every single requirement you might need for a positive toilet experience. There were buttons for flushing, buttons for sprays for both males and females, buttons to regulate the pressure of said sprays, buttons to regulate the temperature of the seat. There were buttons for music to play during particularly traumatic moments with the ability to adjust the volume, buttons to pour you a coffee while you are waiting and buttons to massage your back while seated. Well, not the last two options but I’m sure that it was probably not out of the realm of possibilities. Much hilarity ensued as we played the music acting as the soundtrack to your time in the bathroom.
The children were schooled in the reasons why a spray would be needed much to their wonder and mirth. But, oh my, was the room tiny. After we had changed into the provided pajamas we took a few seconds to explore the room. It did not take long. The two beds pretty well took up the whole room. To get from one bed to the other, your best path was to clamber over the first bed. We had been in some pretty small rooms but this room introduced us to a whole new level of tiny living space which we were to enjoy during our time in Tokyo. Not to say it wasn’t a nice room. It was very nice. Everything had a place. It was neat, clean and well decorated. It was just very small.
What they have done in Japan, which I find so inspirational, is they’ve brought the toilet out from behind the locked door. They’ve made it conversational. People go out and upgrade their toilet. They talk about it. They’ve sanitized it.Rose George
Navigating the Trains
The next morning, after a brief, unexpected tour of the neighbourhood to find the train station, we were headed to our next location in Central Tokyo. Like Shanghai, the Tokyo trains were fairly easy to navigate with machines fitted with translators. It wasn’t quite as easy as Shanghai but not as difficult as we thought it might be. The train stations in Tokyo require their own section in this paragraph. From students wearing a wide variety of school uniforms to station workers holding pieces of cardboard ready to push commuters into already packed trains, each station was a fascinating view into the Japanese culture. Everything was orderly and clean with cleaners clambering onto trains at each stop to keep the windows and passageways squeaky clean. The stations even had their own soundtrack to differentiate it from the previous station. The music was quite intricate and varied. One station had a J.S. Bach motif while another station might have something more akin to the music you might hear in a video game. It was a lot of fun to pick out the tunes played at each station. Check out the video below talking about the creation of the different music and the man who composed it all.
The other amazing thing about these train stations is that many harbour vast underground warrens of shops, restaurants and grocery stores. Going down into a train station is a risky experience in some spots as you can quite easily get lost trying to navigate your way through the shopping areas to your train. We had spent some time attempting to find a Lego store in the central Tokyo area train station. While we thought we were in the spot that Google Maps had indicated, we could not find the store. What we didn’t realize was that the map was not quite sophisticated enough to discern that the store was actually 3 levels underground in the train station. Once we realized this, we attempted to find our way into the maze of the train station. It took us a bit of time to find the store. It was quite hilarious. This major Lego brand store hidden deep in the corridors of a train station. It literally took us almost an hour to find our way through the train station to get to this tiny store. However, many stations were like this with little restaurants tucked into alcoves in the stairways and stores selling everything you might need as you travel between destinations. Unlike most places in the world, the stations were still neatly organized and clean with people moving in orderly patterns from platform to platform. When we did get confused, everyone went out of their way to be helpful. While often introverted, the Japanese were very kind and pleased to help in any way they could. What we couldn’t get over though, and this was particularly true on the subways, was that everything was so quiet. No one talked on the trains, there were very few streets noises. In places like New York, the background cacophony of blaring taxis, shouting, and constant street noises makes for a very intense experience; at first jarring, then soaking into you until you gradually become numb to it. In Tokyo, there was none of that. No one talked while walking on the sidewalks, there were no horns of any type coming from the traffic, and in the subways, the only noise you heard came from the announcers. We knew our kids were loud, but being in Tokyo made it 50x more noticeable. We were constantly shushing the children; not because they were talking any louder than they usually do but because everyone and everything around them was completely silent. It was just an odd, albeit pleasant contrast to other cities we have visited (even though we were always in fear of being kicked out of Japan on account of our kids being so loud!).
Arriving in Downtown Tokyo
Having arrived at our new hotel, we were once again faced with another tiny room. Including the bathroom, the room was about 8×10 in size. Deanne had had difficulty finding rooms that fit 4 people which apparently is an unusual amount of people needing to room together. When she found this room with its incredible location near the Imperial Garden, she jumped on it. Later, we found out that the 4 person option must have been a mistake. Out of curiosity, when she went to check the hotel online later during our time in Tokyo, there was no option for 4 people for any of the rooms at the hotel. One look at the room, one could easily understand why. The hotel receptionists must have realized a mistake had been made when they saw us trooping into the lobby to check into our one room. There were two single beds and one tiny seat built into the wall next to a tiny piece of wood jutting out of the wall masquerading as a table. However, we did have our ultra-tech toilet and what was actually a great shower. To sleep in this room, we ended up having to move the two single beds together and squeeze ourselves widthwise across with the kids sleeping head to feet to allow for more space. They were pretty tight quarters but we made do. The Japanese have not quite got the idea of the free included breakfast down yet. While our hotel advertised a free breakfast, their concept of a free breakfast consisted of a variety of bread which you could collect from the lobby.
Eating Our Way Through Tokyo
Having suitably flung our belongings throughout our new room, we headed out to see the Imperial Palace by way of lunch. Unfortunately, our area did not have much in the way of eating establishments but we did manage to find someplace to eat just near the entrance to the Imperial Palace. We couldn’t have picked a better place to eat for our first meal in Japan. It was quite simply a revelation. Udon noodle shops are quite popular and can be found everywhere in Tokyo. While we usually went to the Udon Noodle shops for lunch, we would often see people eating udon noodles for breakfast in the train stations. The udon noodle shops became the main staple of our lunches in Tokyo. They are quite simply amazing. As you walk in, you choose the size of noodle bowl you want. You need to choose carefully as the amount of udon noodles you are given can very quickly become overwhelming. Once you have your bowl of noodles selected, the broth is added to the noodles. Your next big decision is what type of tempura would like to add to your bowl. Anything from tempura shrimp and chicken to squid can be chosen and added to your bowl; all of it freshly made. Once you have finished ordering, you can add bits of tempura and green onion to your soup. By the time you are done, your meal has taken on gargantuan proportions. We struggled through our first meal, tasty as it was, vowing to choose smaller portions for future meals. The udon noodles were so delicious! That first taste sent us into raptures of happiness. Even the kids loved the noodles and they are notoriously picky. While we mostly had udon noodles for our lunches, they were not the only foods we ate while in Tokyo. Our room did not come with kitchen facilities (go figure), so we had to eat out for all our meals while still trying to stay on budget. However, we did have one lunch at a sushi restaurant.
We had decided to have a go at visiting a sushi restaurant in Japan as we wanted to experience the unique nature of a sushi restaurant. Sushi restaurants are quite a bit different than the ones in North America. Expecting the usual California rolls, dynamite rolls with teriyaki sauce and tempera filling and cucumber rolls, the kids were a little overwhelmed by the vast assortment of very raw seafood sushi. I wasn’t sure how well this was going to work out with the pickiness of our children. However, when in Japan….When you walk in, you sit on a stool directly in front of a conveyor belt where individual coloured plates with single servings of sushi bounce along. Not knowing Japanese, it was very difficult to determine what kind of sushi each plate held. It was fun seeing the plates going past us. The colours of the plates denote the amount the sushi costs. You just take what you want, stack the plates in front of you and, when you are done, the waitress tabulates the cost according to the colours of the plate. It’s a very neat system. However, I wasn’t sure if we were actually going to have any stacks of plates built up with us being fearful of choosing something that would frighten both our palate and our stomachs. Thankfully, you had another option for ordering. Above each stool was a screen with other options you could choose to have specially made. This screen had the option to see the dishes in English which was a huge relief. Thus we began our plate collection with plates of shrimp on rice and potato salad rolled in seaweed winging their way towards us. These choices were not served on the conveyor belt, however. As each order was made, they would be sent out on a little train which would trundle its way down the track built into the middle of the conveyor belt. Each order would stop at your screen and the screen above you would blink indicating that your order had arrived. Taking the plate off the track, the train would then return to the kitchen in the back. It was a very cool system and the kids wanted to order food just to have the train chug it’s way to their seat, which would quickly have become very expensive! It was probably one of our more expensive meals in Japan but worth it for the unique experience. Suppers in Tokyo were not quite as fancy. Once we got back to our hotel in the evening, Deanne would troop out to the local convenience stores to pick up sandwiches and other items. However, even the sandwiches from the convenience store were tasty and nicely packaged.
The Cherry Blossoms
The Imperial Palace was our first trek out into the city. While you can’t actually visit the Imperial Palace, as the emperor and family still live there, you can wander around the beautiful gardens all immaculately tended. This was also the season for the blossoming of the cherry trees and there was nowhere better to see the cherry trees than around the edge of the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace walls. To say that the blossoming of the cherry trees is a big deal in Japan is like saying that Christmas is a big deal to North America.
The Japanese wait with bated breath closely watching the weather reports for hints as to when the blossoms will bloom. People travel from far and wide to see the blossoms with hotels, trains and planes all becoming expensive to purchase during this time. One has to book far ahead to get any kind of good rate during cherry blossom time. Luckily, Deanne had booked a year ahead not knowing that we would arrive at the perfect time to see the gorgeous trees spreading their branches full of gentle pink blossoms over the pathways and sidewalks of Tokyo. However, you do not go casually to view the blossoms. To see the blossoms in a prime location like the area outside the Imperial Palace where we found ourselves at sunset, you must be prepared to join the other 2.3 million other inhabitants doing the same thing. We shuffled our way along the path alternating between marveling at the beautiful blossoms, people watching and attempting not to drown in the sea of humanity drifting along with us. Once you entered the stream, there was no turning back. To turn and try to go back was folly and we just ended up drifting along with everyone else happily experiencing this amazing view of the setting sun mingling with the cherry blossoms as the lights of the city quietly came on. This was not the only time we were going to experience this singular marvel. Tokyo is filled with cherry trees and there are many popular areas to go cherry blossom watching. This was our first experience seeing something so uniquely a part of Japanese culture. Vast parks were overrun with companies that had rented picnic spots for their employees to come to have picnics throughout the day. They would have tarps laid down and the employees would be there with food and drinks enjoying the spring air. Families and friends would also have sections laid out to celebrate this unique period. It was very much a party done Japanese style, which meant that everything was orderly, neat and clean. With the day finished, there would not be a scrap of garbage left anywhere. You would not have known that 10,000+ people had packed the park that day. In North America, that park would have been trashed and closed for repairs for the next ten years. It was something we noticed everywhere we went in Tokyo. There is hardly any trash anywhere. I have never seen a cleaner city. I am not sure how the Japanese manage to do this but to find a scrap of garbage anywhere would be a major undertaking. Even the homeless people we did see (only three the entire time we were there) had the belongings neatly stacked beside their tent and their shoes lined up in orderly fashion outside their tent.
Tiptoeing through the Shrines
The other place we saw lots of cherry blossoms were outside the shrines. There are a lot of shrines in Tokyo almost all reconstructions of even older shrines destroyed during WWII or the various fires that swept through the older versions of Tokyo. Though jam-packed with people (It was funny. While walking through Tokyo was generally an easy, crowd-free experience, visiting sites like the shrines often would serve to remind you that there are a lot of people in Tokyo all crowding around to see the same sites as you.), the shrines were beautiful and filled with young ladies, and some men, all dressed in traditional kimonos to have their pictures taken with the cherry blossoms blooming in amongst the ancient looking shrines. Most of the shrines were also filled with food stalls and souvenir stands which we generally avoided. However, we did stop to purchase something one of the many vending machines found around Tokyo. We were interested to sample something different and only found in Japan. One of the more unique offerings were the single serve coffees. Once purchased and collected from the slot, the can would immediately heat up dramatically. It reminded us of the hot pads you fold to start the chemical reaction that makes the heat pad hot. The can would almost get too hot to hold. It was lots of fun ordering strange drinks from the vending machine and were lucky enough not to get anything we didn’t end up liking.
On one of our days in Japan, we headed out on a day trip to Kamakura where there were some more famous shrines. Words can not really describe tiptoeing gently through the pathways, little gardens, temple buildings in these shrines nestled in amongst the quiet neighbourhoods and shops. To say that they are beautiful, reflective places of solitude would be inadequate. The one shrine held an enormous Buddha sitting amongst the temple buildings. While the temple itself had been destroyed during a Tsunami many years ago, the Buddha was so massive and heavy, it remained the only thing standing. It was an amazing structure. You could actually walk inside it for a few pennies and it was even more incredible to see on the inside, imagining the engineering and molding the metal would have needed to put something together of this size. We saw lots of ladies in their kimonos at these shrines here as well and it added a beautiful touch to the shrines, like a little glimpse into a different time and world.
Eating with Hedgehogs
While old Tokyo, with its shrines, lurked around every corner, Tokyo also had many things that revealed a more quirky side. One of these things were the little cafes you could go to which featured animals you could eat with. There were owl cafes, puppy and kitten cafes, snake cafes and more. We decided to try our luck at a hedgehog cafe we passed on our way back from one of the shrines we had just visited. To say that the kids were excited is an understatement. When they discovered where we were, their eyes widened to the point where I thought their eyes might pop out. The hedgehog cafe was a huge hit with all of us. It’s quite the system. You go in, and once you are seated, you are handed a hedgehog to care for. The tables all have little boxes that are designed into different scenes you can place the hedgehogs into while you are eating. Scenes included little playgrounds, or a little park with a fake cherry tree and Mt. Fuji painted on the back. Our hedgehog was very curious and didn’t like being kept in one place though and kept attempting to escape much to our children’s excitement. They had a fabulous time trying to keep the hedgehog from escaping. They were even more excited when the storekeeper came over with little items of clothing you could put on the hedgehog. It’s not cheap though. Not only do you have to purchase a minimum of drinks, but you also pay for the time with the hedgehogs. However, it was a very fun splurge though the kids were constantly hounding us afterward to go back. It was probably the most unique tea time we had ever had.
There were many uniquely quirky things hiding all around Tokyo. Heading down to the Harajuku area, we shuffled along with all the other tourists to view the area of the city known for its culture of cosplay. Cosplay is the style of dressing up in the manner of your favourite character from popular culture. Liam and I had done some cosplay during our visits to the two Star Wars conventions where we dressed up as Jedi’s. However, the cosplay culture in Tokyo is significantly more advanced with young people congregating in various parts of Tokyo dressed up as their favourite Manga or anime character, shedding their mundane lives and personalities for something, in their minds, richer and more fulfilling for a short time. They will walk around in these costumes as if they were ordinary people doing ordinary things showing off their immaculately recreated costumes to the tourists and others dressed up doing the same things. One group that drew a lot of attention were a group of men dressed up as greasers from the movie “Grease” dancing to a Japanese version of Elvis style music. They ignored the crowds watching and were entirely engrossed in their characters interacting with each other as if this was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. It was quite entertaining to watch. I was a little disappointed, however, as I had been expecting quite a bit more of the extreme cosplay with the wild costumes, highly coiffured hairdos and colourful makeup, which I had seen in a lot of guidebooks. There were lots of subtle cosplays going on but very few of the more amazing ones. Deanne read online that many of the cosplayers had moved to other areas of the city as it had become too mainstream in the Harajuku region. Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to wander through the nearby park with its hordes of people having their picnics under the cherry trees. We may our way from there to the world’s busiest intersection.
Now, the world’s busiest intersection may simply have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. You call something the world’s busiest intersection, hundreds of thousands of people show up to see how busy it is and, voila, you have the world’s busiest intersection. However, being Tokyo it could very well have been busy right from the beginning. It was busy as we got swept through the intersection with the rest of the people standing, waiting for the walk light. The intersection is one of those “all ways” intersection. When the walk light goes on people walk through the intersection from all directions. We didn’t really have any reason to cross but we crossed anyway. Actually, we were looking for the underground shopping area which sold fruit. We don’t usually cross insanely busy intersections just to buy fruit or in our case, just to look at fruit but this wasn’t just any ordinary fruit. This was the creme de la creme of fruit. Responding to Japan’s inclination towards luxury and dramatic gift-giving, fruit specially grown and picked for its high-quality looks and taste can fetch prices over $100. As we gawked at the absurdness of it all, we saw melons selling for about 130 dollars. We saw baskets of strawberries for ten dollars each and watermelons selling for over 200 dollars. It was crazy ridiculous. However, many Japanese will actually purchase these items as expensive gifts when they go to visit someone they want to impress. We have no idea if the fruit tastes any better (we couldn’t get anyone to give us a sample) but couldn’t imagine any fruit tasting better than the fruit we can get ordinarily. We left the shop shaking our heads in wonderment at the craziness.
Another quirky, albeit more mainstream, activities we did was something that Deanne found on our last day in Tokyo. We weren’t sure where she was leading us – and all our guesses were wrong – until we passed a store offering karaoke. That’s when I realized we were in for something special, or painful. Going into one of the buildings, we were given a tiny little soundproof (thankfully) room and a machine with all the songs we could sing. Luckily there was an English option and we happily scrolled through the music selection choosing a number of our favorite songs. ABBA, Queen, Greatest Showman, Frank Sinatra and more were sung with great gusto and enthusiasm. It was surprising how much fun it was! We even got ice cream and pop as part of the package we purchased. It was so much fun. We had originally signed up for one hour but ended up staying for two hours! We left with very tired vocal cords and huge grins on our faces.
To complete our time in Tokyo, we packed up and headed out to Tokyo Disney. Catering to a more Western-leaning audience, our rooms were much bigger and we all were able to have our own bed. Nonetheless, our room was still well supplied and up to the usual Japanese standards. We had our magical toilet, our numerous amenities and a shoe warmer. The shoe warmer was especially welcome in our room as the weather had taken on a more distinctly wet feel and our shoes were already soaked. Usually, when our shoes are wet, Deanne arranges them in the sink, covers them with towels, sticks the blowdryer in and leaves it drying for an hour or so. While this process works well, it leaves a very distinct atmosphere in the room! Thus the shoe warmer/dryer was very welcome! We also got our complimentary pajamas but only the top part leaving us quite baffled. We did have our own pajamas though I had grown rather fond of the ones the hotel supplied.
Having settled in, we wasted no time in heading out to Disney Tokyo. While smaller than the ones in North America, it was still fairly large and had two sections, Tokyo Disney, which incorporated most of the usual Disney rides and settings, and Disney Sea. Disney Sea was vastly different from any other park in the world and included a Jules Verne setting, an Arabian town, Cape Cod (?), a Medieval fantasy castle and a recreation of a Mediterranean town with bits of Venice built in. Our first day was spent in the very recognizable Disney park. However, this was Disney on adrenaline. It was like they took all the best parts from all the Disney’s in the world and multiplied it by fifty. Everything shone as if it was brand new, everything was clean, and all the employees looked so happy that it was like they had been given drugs. Their smiles never faltered, they were forever waving and encouraging people to come to the ride and they were determined to make sure that you understood how to get on the ride safely, carefully guiding you into your seat and happily waving you off. It was absolutely incredible. Disney World ain’t got nuthin’ on Tokyo Disney. It was hugely enjoyable. I believe that the main difference is that the employees feel honoured to be working at Tokyo Disney whereas most employees in North America just see it as a minimum wage job and act like it. Not to say that the North American Disney parks are not fun or that their employees are grumpy or anything. It’s just that the Japanese version feels like that just raise the bar up 20 notches. There is not much else to say about Tokyo Disney as it pretty well has the same rides and structures as the other parks. Disney Sea was an entirely different park altogether.
As soon as you walk into the Mediterranean town built around the lagoon at Disney Sea, you can already feel the difference. The attention to detail is already there as you walk through the area built to resemble the hilltop towns of Tuscany. Having been to Tuscany in the fall, it brought back happy memories of walking through San Gimignano. However, it’s when you get to the other side of the plaza and overlook the huge lagoon in the centre that you really get a shock. Tokyo Disney has built an incredible park brimming with extraordinary sites, rides and adventures. Though we were overwhelmed, Deanne quickly led us towards the huge volcano sitting in the middle of the park. Later in the day, we got to see the volcano actually spew smoke and belches of flames but for now, we needed to get inside the volcano to the rides which were the most popular. These rides are not found in any of the other parks and are therefore quite popular. We got there before most of the crowds and settled into our spots of the rides. The whole inner volcano area is made up as a cross between steampunk (which the kids knew from New Zealand) and Jules Verne. The two rides there actually were taken from two of Jules Vernes books, Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which was made into a Disney movie quite a long time ago. I remember reading the book after begging my parents to pick it up for me after a visit to Newport, Maine. I loved it then but haven’t actually read it since.) The first ride, Journey….., was actually a fairly gentle ride through the volcano where we got to look at various imagined fauna and landscapes. It wasn’t until the very end when the ride suddenly picked up speed careening down and around the outside of the mountain before coming to an unexpected stop. The other ride took us “under the water” to see the remains of Atlantis and other shipwrecks. You didn’t actually go under the water but it was really well imagined and fun. The kids really enjoyed it. It was our next ride that got the kids really excited though. We went from the volcano area to the Mayan temples where the Indiana Jones ride waited for us. Liam was particularly excited to go on this ride because he had always been too short to go on the ride the other times we have been to the Disney parks. We had fast passes for the ride which were necessary as the line for the ride was often around 50 mins long. It was actually quite different from the Indiana Jones rides we had done before which was quite nice. We then headed over to the Arabian area which was very well imagined. As Liam said, it felt like Morocco without the dirt, donkeys, and motorcycles. It was beautifully created like all the areas of the park. The Cape Cod area was well designed looking exactly like a small New England town. It was a little jarring to go from Mayan jungles to a Cape Cod setting but there you go. There really wasn’t much there to do as was the case for the New York area which had the Tower of Terror (we didn’t go on it) and some shows you could view. We attempted to see some of the shows but a) they were either canceled due to the windiness of the day or b) were all in Japanese so we couldn’t have understood it anyway. We did see one show in the Arabian area which featured the Genie and a short live magic show but most of it went over our heads being in Japanese. The Medieval Castle area was a lot of fun to explore though. Mixed in amongst the turrets and passageways were recreations of several Leonardo Da Vinci inventions. The views from the castle were also lovely overlooking the Mediterranean and lagoon. We passed a lovely day wandering around soaking in the atmosphere, riding on all the rides we could. By the end of the day, we felt we had seen everything we could possibly have seen. We didn’t really want to go but we knew we had a long day with a flight taking us back to Abbotsford.
The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. In their country, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short. Like the man picking out that tiny piece of garbage from the grate, the attention to detail and the pride the people had in their home was evident everywhere and in every part of their lives because of this respect for the fragility of life. The importance of leaving this world better and more beautiful was a part of every single thing we saw. I was a little apprehensive leaving Australia to head to Shanghai and Tokyo. We would be safe but I didn’t know if they would be too exotic and difficult for us. I wasn’t worried about myself or Deanne so much but more worried about having two overwhelmed children. We needn’t have worried. Shanghai and Tokyo turned out to be two of our favorite spots on our world trip.