All that was left were a few last visits with the newly extended Brown family, before Ryan and I packed our bags and joined Hester and Terry on the highway bus back to Toyko (a particularly long trip!), where our flight out of Narita Airport would happily be waiting for us.
(Unselfishly, Terrance and Yuko also made the long drive to Tokyo with us – eager to say good bye to the tiny South African contingent that had come up for their big day, and at the same time probably to ensure that nothing went wrong our final adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun!)
The trip back to Cape Town was long but uneventful. We flew once again with Emirates, stopping over at Dubai International Airport as they do, before winging our way back to sunny South Africa.
Ryan of course struggled, which makes sense considering how squashed he is sitting next to me, but I enjoyed a good flight home, taking in plenty of movies and thinking back rather fondly on what had been a truly awesome trip.
My first ever overseas trip had gone smoothly in every aspect, with no hiccups and no bad experiences to tarnish the memory whatsoever. The country is a perfect blend of modern and ancient, has all the technology someone like me marvels at, is clean, safe and easy to get around in, and the people courteous and almost never in your way – and these observations still hold true for me more than a year on (i.e. when I at last got around to writing all these posts!).
Of course, I owe big thanks to Terrance for his friendship and his time taken out to show us the ropes, Yuko for all her effort in making sure that we had accommodation and the the routes all worked out, and an even more massive thanks to my brother Ryan, without whom this trip simply wouldn’t have happened.
So on that note, thank you to each and every one of you! :)
Japan has always been a place that I wanted to visit ever since I was a child, and now that I’ve been there, it is definitely a place that I want to return to – and next time definitely with Chantelle in tow!
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Having just enjoyed a stroll through the Imperial East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, Ryan and I decided that perhaps it was time to exit Tokyo for the day and make our way back to Yokohama – and to do this we decided that we needed to use the iconic Tokyo Station!
To get there, we would need to walk through Marunouchi, Chiyoda, one of Japan’s most prestigious business districts.
During the Edo Period, this area was located within the outer moats of Edo Castle and contained the residences of some of Japan’s most powerful feudal lords and together with neighboring Otemachi, Marunouchi is now home to the headquarters of many of Japan’s most powerful companies, particularly from the financial sector.
Mitsubishi Estate owns a lot of the land in this district, and over the last decade has driven a major facelift of Marounouchi, replacing pretty much all the older office buildings with towering, modern skyscrapers – a cityscape that completely awed us two Capetonians walking underneath their shadows!
Eventually, we spotted the iconic red brick facade of Tokyo Station, one of Japan’s busiest railway stations (in terms of number of trains per day – over 3,000) and terminal of multiple shinkansen (bullet train) lines!
The impressive red brick building (on the Marunouchi side of this sprawling train station complex) dates from the Meiji Period and truly is an amazing (and busy!) structure to behold.
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(Amazingly, despite the immense underground warren of levels, lines and passages, Ryan and I did actually manage to find a train and make our way back to Yokohama, our base of operations for this first leg of our Japan 2014 trip!)
Ryan and I certainly had our walking shoes on, having already taken in the sights of Tokyo Dome Stadium, LaQua in Tokyo Dome City, the Yasukuni Shrine complex, the Yushukan War Memorial Museum, the Nippon Budokan and Kitanomaru Park all in one day!
Not that we were finished yet mind you.
Next on our sightseeing list was the Imperial Palace East Gardens (Kōkyo Higashi Gyoen).
Although you can visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace (primary residence of the Emperor of Japan), you need to get the necessary clearance and book weeks ahead of time – something that the “no planning overseas holiday Lotter brothers” in no way actually bothered to do.
Instead, we opted to view the East Gardens which are part of the inner palace area but open to the general public.
The gardens are the former site of Edo Castle’s innermost circles of defense, the honmaru (“main circle”) and ninomaru (“secondary circle”), and whilst none of the original main buildings remain today, the moats, walls, entrance gates and several guardhouses do still exist.
(Edo Castle was the residence of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. Emperor Meiji also resided there from 1868 to 1888 before moving to the newly constructed Imperial Palace.)
We crossed the impressive moats and bridges, marveled at the ancient stonework of the remaining walls, walked to the top of the remaining foundation of what was once the tallest castle tower in Japan’s history (long since destroyed by fires though), and enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the beautifully maintained lawns and gardens.
We spotted the famed Mt. Fuji-view Keep as well as the Tokagakudo Concert Hall, and yes, Ryan once again hauled out his stuffed pig for a photo session.
And the view of Chiyoda didn’t hurt either.
Having now sated our tourist sight seeing urges, we decided that it was time to leave Tokyo and return to Yokohama – which of course meant even more walking was to shortly follow…
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Related Link: Imperial Palace East Gardens
My brother Ryan and I were certainly on the move on our first unaccompanied day in Japan. Having already seen the Big Egg stadium at Tokyo Dome City, relaxed at LaQua, reflected at the Yasukuni Shrine complex, and viewed a Mitsubishi Zero at the Yushukan war museum, we now found ourselves making our way through towards the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds.
Originally built for the judo competition in the 1964 Summer Olympics, the 14,471-seater indoor arena Nippon Budokan (often shortened to just Budokan) is famous for both the varied martial art tournaments it has hosted over the years (including the infamous Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki fight, precursor to the modern mixed martial arts discipline), as well as the many international music concerts it has played home to over the decades!
(In case you were wondering, all the “Live at the Budokan” albums – like the Bryan Adams one on my shelf back home – are recorded here!)
As it so happened, this imposing octagonal structure was playing host to a Russian martial arts delegation on the day we were passing through, meaning that we were treated to a number of Russian martial art demonstrations and exhibitions – including Cossack fighting of all things!
But enough about a sports hall.
Kitanomaru Park, originally the location of the northernmost section of Edo Castle, is a public park in Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan located North of the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
After crossing a beautiful pedestrian bridge, walking over a rather green moat, and then finally entering the park through the ancient Tayasu-mom gate (built in 1685), you enter a tranquil, lush green park with rolling lawns, established trees, and even a lake!
Relaxed, peaceful, green – you almost completely forget that you are in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities!
Truth be told though, Ryan and I didn’t stop here for very long – after all, we were still on our mission to visit the Imperial Palace gardens!
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With the sights of Tokyo Dome and LaQua at Tokyo Dome City now done and dusted, Ryan and I turned on Google Maps and looked for something green to head towards. (In general, this is pretty much how we quite often selected where to go whilst in the big cities – Simply head for the big green open spaces on the map!).
We settled on visiting the slightly controversial Yasakuni Shrine, primarily because of the possibility of finding a war museum near this massive shinto shrine – which of course meant a lengthy walking journey to Chiyoda, Tokyo. (Seriously, you guys have no idea as to just how many kilometers Ryan and I traversed on foot over the course of our two week long holiday trip!)
The walk through Chiyoda itself was particularly pleasant, thanks to cool overcast conditions, a beautiful mix of towering modern and intricate old buildings, and a lot of greenery all around. We also took care to take a journey through many of the side streets, allowing us to stumble on quite a few pretty cool Japanese sights.
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Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji, dedicated to those who lost their lives whilst in the service of the Empire of Japan.
The spirits of about 2.5 million people, who died for Japan in the conflicts accompanying the Meiji Restoration, in the Satsuma Rebellion, the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Manchurian Incident, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, are enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine in form of written records, which note name, origin and date and place of death of everyone enshrined.
The Honden (main hall) shrine also serves to commemorate anyone (including non-Japanese such as Taiwanese and Koreans ) who died on behalf of the empire, people such as relief workers, factory workers, and other ordinary citizens.
This then is a very solemn place to visit, with a tranquil heaviness that hangs in the atmosphere.
The massive grounds feature a number of memorials and statues, as well as some truly massive torii (steel, bronze, concrete, wood) and mon gates (hinoki cypress) under which you need to pass.
(If fact, the first torii is the impressive Daiichi Torii, a massive steel arch that was at the time of its creation, the largest torii in Japan. It stands approximately 25 meters tall and 34 meters wide!)
One of the sights I found truly mesmerizing was the tall Statue of Omura Masujiro, which was created by Okuma Ujihiro way back in 1893. It was Japan’s first Western-style bronze statue, and honours Omura Masujiro, the man who is known as the “Father of the Modern Japanese Army”.
All in all, the visit to this massive 6.25 hectare complex was a fantastic, if sobering experience, and definitely worth a recommendation.
(Notice the white gloved policeman bearing down on me. Turns out one can’t actually take photos of this particular building! Oops…)
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Having now ogled more than enough baseball related things to satisfy our need, we next turned our gaze to LaQua, the adjacent spa resort (complete with shops, restaurant, and thrill attractions) that is technically still part of the bigger Tokyo Dome City complex.
(The reason for having grabbed our attention, is of course the giant, hubless Ferris wheel – Big O – and noisy roller-coaster – Thunder Dolphin – that passes right through both the building and Ferris wheel as part of its route! How can you not want to go and take a closer look at that!)
Although neither Ryan nor I was interested in visiting a spa at that time of day, it’s worth noting that if you did pay a visit to Spa LaQua, you would be treated to a particularly luxurious onsen experience, with the spa hosting natural hot spring pools, an outdoor bath, massage bubble bath, saunas and of course serene relaxation areas.
(And if I think back now to how all the walking seriously killed my feet, in hindsight perhaps we should have made a pit stop there!)
After watching people enjoy some of the thrill rides (note, LaQua also has a water slide on the premises!), we played around with the idea of grabbing a bite to eat (which by the way is quite easy in Japan thanks to their obsession with picture menus and of course their world famous plastic replica food displays to help you along), did a spot of shopping (technically browsing through a supermarket to see how it looks), and then settled for some delicious Halloween-themed ice cream from Baskin-Robbins, better known as 31 in Japan.
(Seriously, their selection of flavours are incredible!)
And what were we doing while we were wolfing down our refreshing treats?
Why taking in the immensely entertaining Water Symphony musical fountain display of course!
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Following our night time Yokohama walkabout, my brother Ryan and I found ourselves spending the first day on our own in Japan by taking a trip out to Bunkyo, Tokyo, in order to visit Tokyo Dome City, home of The Big Egg, otherwise known as Tokyo Dome!
Home of the Yomiuri Giants (the oldest baseball team among the current Japanese professional teams), Tokyo Dome is a 55,000-seat baseball stadium that first opened back in 1988. It is recognised as the world’s largest roofed baseball stadium.
Its original nickname is The Big Egg, stemming from the fact that thanks to its unique dome-shaped roof, it well… looks a bit like an egg. The roof itself is pretty interesting. It is an air-supported structure, with the flexible membrane covering being held up by a slight pressurization on the inside of the stadium.
Tokyo Dome forms part of what is known as Tokyo Dome City, an entertainment complex built on the grounds of the former Tokyo Koishikawa arsenal.
It features a number of other attractions, including a hotel, multiple sports arenas, the Japanese baseball hall of fame museum, spa, shopping center, amusement park (which is home to Big O, the world’s largest centreless Ferris wheel, and Thunder Dolphin, Tokyo’s largest roller coaster – that just happens to pass right through the center of aforementioned wheel!), video game centers, and the largest JRA WINS horse race betting complex in Tokyo.
We were of course the most interested in the baseball aspect of the complex, and as such spent plenty of time browsing through the baseball curio shops, with Ryan picking out a few nice items to bring back home with him.
And of course, as is Ryan’s international travel custom, out came the stuffed pig for a photo op:
Actually, the pig makes a pretty good model truth be told.
True, it doesn’t pay heed to any of the instructions that you might give, but generally it stays nice and still, holding pose for as long as you need it to.
Sadly, there weren’t any baseball games being played on the day that we were there, so instead of going inside the actual stadium, we ended up being lured away by the colourful LaQua building across the bridge…
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Having just enjoyed the panoramic views of Tokyo via the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, we next marched off through a very busy Shinjuku (lunch time foot traffic) in search of food and electronics, grabbing the former from a most unexpected source: Burger King.
Seeing as Halloween is amazingly quite commercially popular in Japan, Burger King decided to release a black burger as part of the festivities that year. (I see it must have been a success, because this year they’ve brought it out to the rest of the world as well!)
Black buns, black cheese, black tomato sauce – well, you get the picture. Terrance and Ryan couldn’t wait to sink their teeth into these squid ink and bamboo charcoal coloured whoppers, whilst I on the other hand played it safe and went for the boring standard Burger King fare – which to be fair was still a first for me seeing as I hadn’t yet tasted the stuff back home either!
If I remember correctly, they kind of liked it, but what I can’t remember is whether or not it subsequently turned their poo green – as social media will have you believe this year’s batch in the States is currently doing.
Next it was electronics hunting, and Terrance introduced us to the marvel that is Yodobashi, a literally ginormous electronics store that has floor upon floor of pretty much anything and everything electronic that you can think of.
And of course, this being Japan, there is an overkill of Otaku stuff to be seen/had as well! (But all I bought was a spare battery for my camera. Figures. I finally get to Japan only to discover that I’ve completely outgrown my otaku phase.)
After a fair bit of walking around Shinjuku, we ended up taking a bit of a break on the top of Keio Mall (aka Keio Sky Garden).
There we caught our breath, rested our feet, and started the prepping that came with the fact that Terrance was about to leave us and go back to Komagane, meaning Ryan and I were about to embark on a trip in a foreign country that doesn’t speak any English with no support other than Google Maps and the data dongle we had organised for the trip.
Not that we were worried mind you. By now Ryan had the trains more or less figured out, Google Maps was proving to be awesome thanks to the excellent signal coverage we were getting, and we had more than enough Yen in our pockets to make for an enjoyable (albeit very unplanned) trip! :)
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So day 1 of our Japan 2014 tour had been pretty awesome, and with tour guide Terrance still at our disposal for half a day, day 2 kicked off (after a delicious hotel breakfast of course) with a trip to Shinjuku, Tokyo!
Our target for the morning was the impressive Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which literally houses the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which governs not only the 23 wards, but also the cities, towns and villages that make up Tokyo as a whole.
Of interest to us were the panoramic observation decks situated on floor 45 of this unique looking, immense skyscraper complex, which would allow us fantastic views of the highly developed commercial Shinjuku ward.
Coming from a small city like Cape Town, it was overwhelming to walk in the shadows of so many skyscraper and highrise buildings, and it is an absolute incredible sense of awe that one has walking through such an obviously productive area.
It’s impossible to miss the imposing Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and after a lackadaisical bag check, we were ushered into the elevator and whisked up to the 45th floor, to an spacious observation deck outfitted with a restaurant, curio shop, and of course, lots of posters in anticipation of the 2020 Tokyo Games!
As expected, the views of Tokyo were phenomenal, and you eventually left the building now even more in awe at just how large the city of Tokyo actually is!
Oh, and did I mention that access to the observation deck was free? In other words, a definite tourist attraction if you ever find yourself in the Shinjuku area.
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Related Link: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building