Friday, September 27, 2013

Japan and Taiwan: Days 1, 2 and 3

Tōkyō 東京, I couldn't believe I was in Tokyo again.

Well, actually, I could. But it had been about seven years since I'd last set foot in the city I consider to be my most favorite in this world, and it felt great to be back, even it was only to be for three nights in total on this visit. I flew into Tokyo's Haneda Airport 羽田空港 on a Wednesday afternoon, and quickly made my way from there to Shinjuku's 新宿 west side 西新宿, where my hotel was located. After checking in and dropping off my bags, it was time to grab some dinner and take a walk in the evening through some familiar haunts:

The east side of Shinjuku Station 新宿駅. Always busy no matter the day or night. Even if you've never been there, you've probably seen Shinjuku-dōri 新宿通り in movies or music videos. 

Hanazono-jinja 花園神社. This Shintō 神道 shrine has occupied the space for several centuries, while the city grew up around it. It looks more attractive after dark than in the daytime, which holds true for much of the Shinjuku area.

Behind Hanazono-jinja is a network of narrow lanes filled with tiny bars, the most famous of which is Golden Gai ゴールデン街. On my next visit to Tokyo, I'm determined to pay a visit to the punk rock bar which was just getting ready to open as I walked by.

Shinjuku's Kabukichō 歌舞伎町 area was as lively, though sleazy, as ever. Unlike in many Western cities, however, Japan's red-light districts are relatively safe to walk around in, and have many legitimate bars, clubs and restaurants in addition to the other "attractions". 

The next morning I woke up early to do some sightseeing. On the way to the Tochōmae subway station 都庁前駅, I passed by some of the west side's striking high-rises:

The Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower hadn't been built yet the last time I was in town

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building 東京都庁 shone brightly in the early morning sunlight. I was up before six and out of my hotel around seven in order to avoid Tokyo's notorious rush hour crush. The reason for doing so was to see Tokyo Sky Tree 東京スカイツリー, the city's newest attraction (for me, at any rate), and at 634 meters (2080 feet) Japan's tallest structure.

The view from the lower level. Tokyo is a sprawling city, but with the exception of Mount Fuji 富士山, there aren't any landmarks that immediately draw one's gaze (and Japan's iconic mountain wasn't visible on this morning). Still, all that concrete at that elevation does make for a fascinating sight, even if the admission fee (¥2000-3000, or about $20-30, depending on how high up you want to go) is a bit, ahem, high.

In the foreground is Tokyo's Ryōgoku 両国 area, home to the Edo-Tokyo Museum 江戸東京博物館 and the National Sumō Stadium 国技館. In the distance could be glimpsed Tokyo Tower 東京タワー, once the city's highest icon but now in serious danger of being made irrelevant by Tokyo Sky Tree.

Looking down and toward Asakusa 浅草

Sky Tree casts a shadow

It's a long way down

Tokyo Sky Tree from the outside looking up. From the tower, I took a walk over to, and then across, the Sumida-gawa River 隅田川 to Asakusa.

I've been to Asakusa many times in the past, so I didn't stay long in the area. The top floor of the new tourist information center across the street from the iconic Kaminari-mon gate 雷門 provided a nice view of Tokyo Sky Tree, as well as of Philippe Starck's notorious "flaming turd" building.

The same floor also looked out over Sensōji-ji Temple 浅草寺 and the Nakamise-dōri shopping street.

From Asakusa, I took the subway to Marunouchi 丸の内 and the recently restored Tokyo Station 東京駅, which now looks more like its 1913 self than it has in decades. Marunouchi, in fact, has been transformed from a dull business district into an area of top-end shops and high-priced restaurants.

The National Diet Building 国会議事堂 is in the process of being hemmed in by high-rises

The garden at Marunouchi Brick Square 

At this point, it was lunch time and I had a date with an old friend, Aviva, whom I hadn't seen in far too long a time. We met in Shinjuku and caught up at an old cafe that looked as if it hadn't changed much since the 1970's, an appropriate setting for a couple of old vets such as us. Though I have to admit that Aviva is aging far better than I am, resembling a vintage bottle of wine while I'm turning into vinegar. It was wonderful seeing her again, and I regret being so absorbed in our conversation that I neglected to take any photos. 

A lot of new construction has taken place in Shibuya 渋谷, but it's youthful energy was still in abundance. I passed through here on my way to see another old friend.

This time I remembered to take out the camera. Doug and his charming wife Keiko treated me to an extremely delicious home-cooked dinner, while their dog Bruno provided the evening's entertainment. Getting to see two old friends on the same day by itself made this vacation a worthwhile endeavor. 

The next morning (Friday the 13th), it was time to leave Tokyo, but not before having lunch. I couldn't leave Japan without having my favorite dish, tonkatsu とんかつ, and why wait until the end of my visit?

Traveling by a combination of the bullet train 新幹線 and the limited express 特急 Inaho いなほ, I made my way from Shinjuku to the small city of Tsuruoka 鶴岡, located in Yamagata Prefecture 山形県, a journey that involved changes of train in Ōmiya 大宮 and Niigata 新潟. On this trip I was to make good use of my JR Pass.

Passing by the Sea of Japan 日本海 on the Inaho

The view of the autumn moon from my hotel room in Tsuruoka. I would stay here for three nights, the reason for which will be explained in the next blog post.

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