Day 2: Typhoon Tour of Tokyo (Morning Tour)
NOTE: Because of a seventy-picture limit for each post, I will have to split each day into two entries, beginning with this one. The next half will be re-uploaded on the fifth of next month, and each entry thereafter will follow this pattern. Moushiwake arimasen!
Alongside the earthquake of the previous night was a howling typhoon, which ripped past the side of my hotel window while I was asleep. The next day began in the tail end of this typhoon, with a heavy rainfall and misty atmosphere covering the city. It gave the city a unique ambiance, but also created inconvenience, as you will see later in this entry.
I woke up early in the morning, with two hours to spare before my tour bus leaves its destination. I used this time to look for a quick breakfast, which I settled for a meatloaf meal with eggs, rice, and veggies from 7-11. During this time, I remembered reading up on the convenience stores of Japan, and how they offer complete, pre-packaged meals at a low price; this knowledge helped me save time and money for food.
However, the problem at the moment was not finding food, but finding a place to sit! Because it was raining, there was no place to sit outside. I had difficulty finding a place to eat within the hotel I was to meet my tour guide (different from the one I was staying in), as the tables in the lobbies were branded with messages stating that they were not to be used for eating. Eating while walking was out of the question: this is considered impolite in Japanese etiquette.
During my search, I came across my first Shinto shrine: the Takayama Shinto Shrine. Later, I discovered that this shrine was built in front of where the shoreline of Tokyo Bay used to be, and that it served to bless its ships and seafarers with safe travels. At the time, I did not know what purpose this shrine served; combined with the gloomy rainfall, the building gave off an ominous aura that left a lasting impression on me during my stay in Shinagawa.
With the exception of coming across the Takayama Shrine, this hour was completely stressful: not only was I unable to sit and eat anywhere, but I also had to find my tour guide! I knew when and where to meet my guide, but not what to identify him/her with. I asked around in the main lobby of the hotel if they knew about/were associated with my tour; I was met mostly with confusion, even from the receptionists. As I saw a tour leave the lobby, I panicked, wondering whether or not that was my group. Eventually, I did find my tour guide and signed myself into the group with no trouble; it turns out that I was the only person from this stop going on the tour.
On the bus, I solved my food problem when I asked the bus driver and assistant if I could eat. While there was some issue with the language barrier, they eventually understood what I was asking about when the driver lifted his fingers in the shape of chopsticks. This was when I discovered the importance of physical language when traveling overseas: if the language barrier is too thick, communicate with your hands.
It took an hour for the bus to pick up passengers from all the hotels before the tour actually began. Winding through the streets of Tokyo, I felt disoriented by the city's sprawling road system: even with my filmographic memory, I could not easily trace steps or set landmarks as I could anywhere else. Learning the city's train system (which is the best of its kind) made navigation a lot less daunting, but the streets are only manageable when one sticks to a single area. Below was one of the buildings I saw on this route... somewhere.
The first stop of the tour was Tokyo Tower, a good place to get a panoramic view of the city before the tour explores it in detail. Because Halloween was near, the tower was decked in Halloween paraphernalia. It was adorable.
The rain here was especially a mixed blessing: it gave Tokyo a characteristic noir atmosphere, but also limited our visibility. Landmarks that were further off in the horizon – like Tokyo Disneyland or Mt Fuji – were completely obscured by fog, with only the signs to point towards where they would be. Still, the sights we did see were lovely in this weather, including a cemetery...
… the supports of Tokyo Tower...
… the Rainbow Bridge...
… and this VIP hotel.
After taking in this sight, the tour descended down to the tower's second floor and roamed in the souvenir shops before continuing. While I knew when we were supposed to meet at the exit, I did not know that it was in a different part of the building from the entrance! I waited in the front lobby until the meetup time, and knew something was off when that time came. I scurried back up to the second floor, where I discovered the actual exit and ran to my bus. I gave my apologies to the tour guide and continued to Meiji Shrine.
One thing I loved about Tokyo was the amount of greenery within it. Between its many historical sites, religious sanctuaries, parks, and gardens, there are many places where one can escape to an atmosphere of tranquility, either to enjoy the skyline from a different perspective or flee the city altogether. Meiji Shrine is but one example: cloaked in its own personal forest, it is blocked off from both the noise of the surrounding city and the light of the sun.
Here are sake barrels donated from across Japan...
… and wine barrels from around the world.
The magnificent torii standing in front of the path to the shrine:
This was my first experience with the purification fountains found at the front of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The purpose of these fountains are to cleanse the body and soul: to go about this, one would take a ladle, wash one's hands, rinse out one's mouth using a free hand, then rinse the handle of the ladle. However, I was not properly introduced to these fountains until later tours: here, I observed how the other tourists used them, which I came to the conclusion of, “take a ladle, pour water onto one's hand, then drink the water so it cleanses one's entire system.” It is the thought that counts.
I was overtaken by awe as I entered the shrine itself.
The courtyard opposite of the entrance was a no-photograph area, as taking pictures of certain sacred people or spaces is irreverent. Within this courtyard was a bare stone slab... where over 800 deities are congregating at a single time. Between the courtyard and the visitors was a series of long donation boxes, where I learned how to make a donation: bow twice, throw a coin into the box, clap one's hands, and bow once more. Behind the courtyard was a large taiko and the occasional monk.
Our tour was lucky, as we managed to see a Shinto wedding in process. Here, we saw the black-clad groom and the big-horned wife, being guided by a priest and two maidens to the altar. Unfortunately, I did not take a good picture of the bride and groom, but the people in the below photo are the guests following the couple. Our tour guide told us about the costs of holding a Shinto-style wedding, with one expense being a $300 entry fee for each guest!
By now, the rain has stopped, and the weather is now overcast. Our next stop was Akasaka Palace, a guest house for VIPs such as international political figures. Like how Tokyo Tower was modeled after the Eiffel Towel, Akasaka Palace was modeled after Buckingham Palace.
Because the bus only stayed briefly before continuing, there is not much to say about my experience here. Instead, I will tell you about something amusing that happened on the way there: our tour guide asked what the national sport of Japan was; the correct answer was “sumo wrestling,” but the first sport that came to mind was “baseball.” With its popularity in Japan, it was easy to come to that conclusion.
Our next destination was the city's actual equivalent to Buckingham Palace: the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor and his family are housed. Because the palace was under heavy security, the only area visitors were allowed was its historical section: the East Garden, which has plenty of beauty and marvel in its own right.
Upon crossing the moat, we came across the gates of the garden. What amazed me about the Japanese fortresses I have seen were their combination of sturdy construction and labyrinthine design, for the maximum security. In this case, the area in between the two gates served as a buffer for invaders: As the gates are the only weak point of the palace's defenses, two of them are installed to slow invaders' progression. Furthermore, the second gate is placed perpendicularly to the first gate; this forces armies to turn as they enter the palace, not only further slowing their advancement but also leaving their left side spaced out and vulnerable. With walls as impenetrable as the ones bordering the surrounding moat, this small space was critical to the vitality of the entire stronghold.
Beyond this space, we walked on a gravel road, passing by the royal guards' training dojo (not pictured), along with two guardhouses, the second of which housed 100 guards!
Eventually, we reached a stagnant moat and a large, stone wall: these are the remains of the castle during the Edo period.
And then we approached the Ninomaru Garden.
A motif of this garden – as well as other Japanese gardens, is one of longevity. One of the icons representing this are the black pine trees, which can last beyond any human and takes centuries to even train.
Another icon of longevity are the koi. While unassuming beyond their beautiful colors, these fish last a surprisingly long time, which according to my tour guide was around seventy years! I found a new respect for these fish after learning this, and made me all the more fascinated by them.
One thing I love about Japanese gardens are their ability to mimic nature even when man-made objects are clearly present (if they are not already embedded within nature). Nothing feels out of place, and the materials used – stone and wood – blend well with the surroundings. This fountain and creek are one example of this.
I tried to take a picture of a spider on my way out of the garden, due to its beautiful color patterns and web design. However, because I was still learning how to use my camera, and that the rest of my tour was well ahead of me, the below photo is the best I could do. The most distinct feature of the spider was its abdomen: the yellow, linear spots on its tip made it reminiscent of Buddha's head.
And not to forget this:
Before leaving, we looked into the palace moat to say hello to the less colorful common carp. They do not look impressive now, but imagine what they will look like at level 20!
Now we were on our way to lunch. On the way to the restaurant, we passed by the Kabuki theater. The tour guide told us about this medium: Kabuki is performed by an all-male ensemble, and is spoken in a variant of Japanese so archaic that even native speakers need translators to understand the dialogue; I can imagine it is their equivalent to Old English.
We had lunch in a traditional Japanese restaurant located in a modern-stylized shopping center. My meal, as well as almost everyone else's, was pre-paid; however, because some tourists did not pay for the meal and were asked to pay on their own, this gave me confusion as to whom was to pay for whom. However, after asking the tour guide, everything was sorted out.
Everyone who pre-paid for lunch was given the same meal (clockwise from top-left): vegetables, shrimp and vegetable tempura, salad, seaweed, miso soup, meatball, pork, and chicken tempura, steamed rice, and what I assumed was an egg dish. For dessert, we were served chawanmushi, or egg custard. While I did not like the egg dishes, I enjoyed the rest of the meal.
After lunch and listening to the amusing mumblings of the family next to me, we walked to our bus and met our new tour guide for the second half of the tour. It was bittersweet leaving my very first tour guide of the trip, but considering that the two halves are treated as separate tours (with people in the “Grand Full-Day Tour” being part of both), it was understandable. We gave her our thanks and began the second half of the tour.