08 Dec 2014
‘Where am I?’ It’s dark, my body’s awake before my brain. My head rolls following my eyes towards the huge window. Millions of diamonds on a velvet floor. Ah, Tokyo! And Jet-lag. Is there anything less glamorous than a 10 hour time difference directly after a 12 hour sleepless flight?
The view from our room is spectacular. We’re staying at the Park Hyatt on the 47th floor looking south over a twinkling city that sprawls as far as we can see; out to Tokyo Bay shimmering on the horizon. This city is something to behold, especially at night. Most buildings are decorated with red lights blinking on and off.
‘What time is it?’ asked my David sounding entirely too much awake.
‘Two forty-five am, let’s go back to sleep.’
We arrived yesterday afternoon and after an unusual check-in, promptly showered and snoozed for three hours. We set multiple alarms so we wouldn’t sleep through the whole day and awoke drugged, dazed and confused. That night we stumbled down to the traditional Japanese restaurant in the hotel. It was very zen. The waitresses were dressed in traditional Kimono in delicate muted colours. We ordered Shabu-shabu and the waitress kindly explained how to eat it: meat first, one at a time, then all the vegetables. next they take the stock away and prepare noodles for us. The beer was delicious: Yebisu from Sapporo. It was served in tiny tall thin glasses. What a delicious way to kick-off our Japanese Leg.
‘Two, please’ I cast my eyes around the elegant restaurant. There is a certain satisfaction with being the first guests down to breakfast. We were shown to a table by the windows overlooking the pastel grey metropolis. David ordered the traditional Japanese breakfast, of rice, fish, miso, tofu and other… things including fruit. I was less adventurous and stayed with the western buffet. I have promised myself that I will try to be as adventurous as David when it comes to exploring Japanese cuisine (besides breakfast). That is, I will not stop him from trying anything.
‘What shall we do today?’ David asked before taking a sip of hot smoky tea.
‘See that huge park,’ I pointed through the window, down to a dark green break in the texture of the city, ‘There is a Shinto shrine and a traditional Japanese garden in there.’
‘Great. Let’s walk.’ Neither of us were ready to navigate the public transport system just yet.
With map in hand we followed a main road past a jumble of narrow side streets which looked interesting.
‘It’s just like a Manga scene,’ observed David peering into one of the streets.
‘Let’s go that way for a few blocks’ I suggested, the streets were gridded so we couldn’t get lost. We turned into a quiet side street lined with little houses, short apartment blocks and power-poles festooned with a mess of wires. So many wires. People were out on push bikes; a tiny box-shaped van scooted past.
‘If we lived here, I’d drive one of those!’ I chuckled.
Back on the main street, lined with brilliant yellow trees we soon found the entrance to Meiji-Jingu, marked with a huge timber Torii (gate). We picked up an English map and followed it deep into the centre of the park. It’s late autumn and the maple trees were aflame with gold, amber and vermilion. The birds were busy twittering and chirping and the sun warmed our skin. We could see a vivid green bamboo grove, but we couldn’t get to it. Like Paris, it’s forbidden to lounge on the grass.
As we crunched along the broad gravel paths, we practised a few Japanese words:
Ohayo (Good morning)
Kon’nichiwa (Good afternoon)
Konbanwa (Good evening)
Sumimasen (Excuse me)
Arigato (Thank you)
Sayonara (Good bye)
‘I’m determined to learn the basics. I don’t want to be one of those ‘stupid foreigners’ who grunt and point. There’s no excuse in this day and age.’ David said. I’m so proud of him.
Around a corner we reached the side gate to Meiji-jingu. According to LP it’s Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine and is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Meiji’s reign was 1868-1912. The shrine was built in 1920 and reconstructed in 1958 after extensive war damage. Somehow it looked older than it’s years, more solid and established.
Before entering the shrine there is a font to cleanse your hands, purity being an important concept of the Shinto belief. I watched as people leaving would step over the raised threshold, turn back to face the shrine and bow, before turning back and moving on. It was very respectful.
Inside the sunny courtyard the main shrine building was flanked by two huge trees in perfect symmetry. One of the trees was surrounded by people’s prayers written onto timber leaves. They were written in many different languages. The ones in English were about giving thanks, and well wishes for their family and friends.
Wandering around the courtyard I was taken with the simple timber ornamentation to the buildings. There was a wedding about to start and we saw some of the guests dressed in beautiful traditional Kiminos, the children were adorable.
We continued through the southern gate, the main gate, along a broad gravel boulevard lined with huge timber Torii (gates) made from ancient trees. We were looking for Empress Meiji’s garden, and as we approached the discreet entrance we revealed in finally being here in Japan.
‘We’re here!’ Exclaimed David as he swung his arm around my shoulders and pulled me close.
‘I know! And we were walking in a frozen forest in Switzerland, a couple of days ago,’ It was a surreal feeling. ‘We’re so lucky that we can do this. Imagine if it was the 1940’s now.’ I’ll always remember a conversation I once had with an elderly English lady in 2001. She told us we were so lucky to be able to travel freely while we’re young. She couldn’t because of the war. It was a sobering moment.
Approaching the ticket booth we bowed and using his rehearsed Japanese words, David purchased two tickets to the garden.
‘We’re sure to get lost in here.’ I said looking at the maze of meandering forest paths on the map.
‘Good, let’s get lost.’ David grinned.
We ambled into the pretty woodland and soon emerged into a clearing where an elegant Tea House stood at the edge of the forest. Flame coloured maple trees surrounded the house. Apparently Emperor Meiji designed the garden himself to please the Empress and they frequently visited. In honour of the Emperor hundreds of Japanese trees from all over Japan were planted here.
Surprisingly we didn’t get lost and decided to head further south and into the Harajuku area for lunch. Back on the broad gravel path we passed a huge stack of sake barrels wrapped in straw. Every year sake barrels are offered to the enshrined deities, the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, as a sign of deep respect.
Leaving the shine grounds abruptly we were in contemporary Tokyo. The fashionable part of town people were dressed vibrantly and at times ridiculously. The streets were filled with people out shopping and, like us, looking for lunch. We passed a tiny Ramen place filled with people, and the windows were plastered with images of different kinds of Ramen. Originally we were looking for a specific place mentioned in the LP, but abandoned the idea and climbed the steps eager to try authentic Tokyo Ramen.
There was an English menu with pictures but the lady at the counter didn’t speak any English so Dave (regretfully) pointed at the pictures of our order. We were shown to seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen (perfect) and were promptly served the Ramen. It was delicious!
There was a huge queue waiting to get into this tiny joint. So as soon as we finished, we didn’t linger. Immediately upon stepping outside, jet-lag hit me like a freight train. I was so tired, limp, droopy. So we decided to head straight home but to walk. Retracing our steps back through the shrine to the North Gate, and to the Hotel.
It’s a struggle to stay awake beyond 5pm.