Having seen Tokyo from above thanks to our trip up Tokyo Tower, we next started making our way towards Odaiba, the popular sightseeing and shopping district that is situated on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay!
In order to ensure the best views, we took a trip aboard the elevated Yurikamome train line, and indeed were treated to some spectacular views of first of Tokyo and then Rainbow Bridge itself as we cruised in towards Odaiba.
Our intended target was very clear, and beautiful walkways guided us to Odaiba’s DiverCity – and more importantly, the 18 meter high, life-size Gundam model standing guard in front of it!
If you are (or ever were) into anime then there is no way that you won’t get a kick out of seeing this gigantic, hulking figure spewing smoke and moving a couple of joints, all accompanied with a booming sound track and big screen visuals projected behind it.
(DiverCity actually hosts a big Gundam shop and a bit of a Gundam museum, so you can pretty safely say that this is sort of a Mecca for Gundam fans!)
Anyway, after our first official cup of coffee at one of Japan’s many coffee franchises, we headed into DiverCity to explore our very first Japanese shopping center – where we also encountered what was to become my little ‘thing’ for the rest of the trip – hunting down Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlours!
(This being Japan, the flavours are pretty out there. After all, Japan generally doesn’t do sweet, meaning some pretty interesting – if sometimes strange – flavours were waiting to be hunted down! Oh, and because it was getting close to Halloween, pretty much everyone had something spooky to go along. Turns out the Japanese are quite fond of co-opting American holiday customs!)
Also, we stumbled across a game arcade on one of the top floors – which excited Terrance to no end as he immediately made us challenge him at a drum beating rhythm game.
It did not go well for me.
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Having safely reached Japan, successfully travelled from Yokohama to Minato, and taking an unscheduled stop at Zojoji temple, we had finally reached the first tourist attraction on our list of things to see in Japan – the iconic Tokyo Tower!
Just as the Eiffel Tower is used to frame a shot as being in Paris, France, so does Tokyo Tower drive home the point that we’re in Tokyo, Japan.
This gigantic communications and observation tower, located in Shiba (Minato, Tokyo), was built in 1958 and towers at 332.9 meters high. With a design paying homage to the aforementioned Eiffel Tower itself, the Tokyo Tower was built to withstand earthquakes twice the intensity of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, and typhoons with wind speeds of up to 220 kilometres per hour.
When the 90-metre antenna was bolted into place on October 14, 1958, Tokyo Tower was the tallest freestanding tower in the world, taking the title from the Eiffel Tower by 13 metres. Despite being taller than the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower only weighs about 4,000 tons, 3,300 tons less than the Eiffel Tower. While other towers have since surpassed Tokyo Tower’s height, the structure was still the tallest artificial structure in Japan until April 2010, when the new Tokyo Skytree became the tallest building of Japan.
Greeted by Older Brother and Younger Brother (Noppon, the mascots of Tokyo Tower), we skipped FootTown (a four-story building located directly under the tower which houses museums, restaurants and shops), and headed straight up to the first observation deck, the two-story Main Observatory which is located at 150 meters up the structure.
Although plenty of things to see and buy inside (including a fun and friendly self-propelled robot merrily chugging along), it is without a doubt the spectacular views of Tokyo that steal the show here.
Pretty much all the big landmarks of Tokyo can be seen, and if the sky is clear enough (which sadly it wasn’t on the day), one can even glimpse a view of Mount Fuji itself!
Fun as he was, Mr. Robot couldn’t join us as we opted to shoot up to the even higher (but smaller) Special Observatory, which sits at an uncomfortable 249.6 meters up in the sky!
The smaller space obviously made things much more crowded up here, and as long as you weren’t suffering from any form of vertigo, you were treated to even more spectacular views of Tokyo and its surrounds.
It’s only really once you are this high that you can appreciated just how massive a city Tokyo actually is. Quite frankly, it dwarfs what we know as cities here in South Africa – and truly is something amazing to take in.
That said, I didn’t buy any curios or trinkets whilst we were up there! :P
(But we were treated to an impromptu and energetic drum solo by a very active girl drummer and her following video crew once we were back down on solid ground again…)
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Related Link: Tokyo Tower
Continuing our trek to Tokyo Tower on foot, we exited the Hamamatsucho business district and entered Shiba (Minato, Tokyo), and in the process stumbled onto what would be my first taste of Japanese religion proper – the Zojoji temple complex that serves as the principle temple of the Chinzei branch of Jodo-shu Buddhism.
Stepping through the massive wooden Sangedatsumo main gate (the front face of Zojoji and whose name literally means to escape/be delivered from three earthly states of mind – greed, anger and stupidty), one enters this tranquil complex that is made up of a number of striking buildings and amazingly detailed stone statues.
Originally founded in 1393, Zojoji was only relocated to this current location in 1598 after Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, entered Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1590 to establish his provincial government. After the start of the Edo Period when the Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan, Zojoji became the family temple of the Tokugawa family and also served as an administrative center to govern the religious studies and activities of Jodo shu.
Although mostly destroyed through the air raids of World War II, many of the building have subsequently been restored, including the impressive Daiden (main hall) and smaller Ankokuden (home of the black Image of Amida Buddha, which was deeply worshiped by Ieyasu Tokugawa).
This is an active temple and as such is called home by many worshipers, and indeed, a heavy religious air does linger over this historically important place.
Amongst the fascinating pieces of history is the giant bell Daibonsho, which was completed in 1673 and took as many as seven castings to get right. It has a diameter of 1.76 meters, a height of 3.33 meters and a weight of 15 tons, and is renowned as one of the Big Three Bells of the Edo Period.
Zojoji is also the mausoleum of the Tokugawa Shoguns – the tombs of six Tokugawa Shoguns (as well as resting places for their wives and children), and that of Imperial Princess Kazunomiya (wife of Shogun Iemochi) are all situated and accessible here.
One part of this temple that was particularly hard to walk through was the eerie Garden of Unborn Children, which contains row upon row of child-sized stone statues, each decorated with toys and clothes left behind by the parents remembering their miscarried, aborted or stillborn children.
Having had our fill of the melancholy attached to this last garden, we grabbed a quick refreshment (truly, Japan is the land of the drinks vending machine), and hit the road once more, edging ever closer to our goal of Tokyo Tower…
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Related Link: Zojoji Buddhist Temple
I had no trouble in having a good sleep in my bed in our small Super Hotel Yokohama room following our first night in Japan, and indeed, woke up refreshed and super excited to tackle this wondrous new world full of signs that I couldn’t understand but an environment that nevertheless I felt quite capable of navigating.
Terrance was with us on our first day here in Yokohama, and following his lead, Ryan and I successfully navigated a particularly delicious breakfast in the hotel’s cafeteria (true, we weren’t particularly adventurous in terms of food tasted), before we nipped out to explore a bit of the beautiful Yokohama Park that was literally just outside the door (whilst Terrance returned to his room to prepare for the long day ahead).
Yokohama Park was established in 1875 by British technologist Richard Henry Brunton, who designed this cozy park between the Japanese part of town and the foreign settlement. In those days, foreigners played cricket there sometimes, and soon baseball games to promote international friendship were taking place between Japanese and foreign teams. Now the park is dominated by the Yokohama Stadium, the home ground of Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars.
It’s a stunningly beautiful and tranquil park with interesting sculptures, a Japanese garden, a fish pond, a kids play area and of course lots of trees and flowers – the park is known in particular for the 69 cultivars of tulip that reside there, resulting in stunning mid April displays when anything up to 160,000 of these flowers may bloom!
Without getting lost, we managed to find a spot where Terrance eventually arrived to pick us up, and off we strolled towards the nearby JR Kannai train station, which given that this is the stomping grounds of the local baseball team, is bedecked in DeNA Bay Stars mascot livery!
This was our first introduction to the relatively complicated Japanese train system. Luckily for us though, the big cities are making a push for more and more English language signage, meaning that together with Terrance’s fledgling Japanese, we (and by we I mean Terrance) worked out how to get to where we wanted to be and what tickets to buy (through very clever ticketing machines I might add) – our destination, Hamamatshucho in Minato, Tokyo.
After all, we were going to be hitting one of Japan’s most iconic symbols as our first tourist sight – the legendary Tokyo Tower!
Train rides in Japan are very different from train rides in Cape Town. Well, rather, the train part is very similar – the noise levels however are completely different! (Let’s just say, this was one of the first trains where a) we could hear ourselves think and b) we were definitely the loudest onboard!)
We arrived in Hamamatsucho which is a very productive business and commercial ward in Minato, and in the process stumbled across one of our very first sights – the Tokyo World Trade Center Building.
Completed in 1970, this 40-story commercial skyscraper is one of Japan’s earliest skyscrapers!
Anyway, fixated on the sight of Tokyo Tower in the distance, and mesmerized by all the surrounding tall buildings of this obviously busy and well off part of the city, we grabbed our cameras and started walking…
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So as I outlined before, last year Ryan and I embarked on a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, he an already quite seasoned international traveller and me heading overseas for the very first time in my entire life. (In other words, together he, Terrance and Yuko pretty much made all the arrangements, while I stared like a lost little puppy in the background).
Anyway, the 30th of September finally arrived, and Ryan and I met each other at Cape Town International, eager for our adventure to begin – even if the first leg was to be an agonizingly long 9hr 45min flight from Cape Town to Dubai aboard an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER.
First mistake though. Security immediately relieved me of my shampoo because the bottle was too big. Rookie error on my part for sure. That said, surprisingly, my small set of screwdrivers passed the screening with no mention at all!
Anyway, amazingly, I managed my first ever overseas flight reasonably well, ingesting movie after movie, enjoying the surprisingly good airline food, sleeping, and playing the odd two player game over the in-flight entertainment system against Ryan.
(Ryan however didn’t have quite as good a flight as me – but he blames part of that for the fact that I took rather more of his personal space than what a thin person normlly would!)
Dubai’s International Airport was my first real taste of the size of what a real international juggernaut airport is like, and needless to say there was quite a lot for me to take in – not that I had all that long to do this mind you – first time around, we only had about an hour to kill before the next 9hr 35min flight kicked off!
(Oh, and in case you were wondering, there was no way in hell my little set of screwdrivers were getting through the screening this time around though – all Ryan could do was literally face palm in disbelief at this horribly incompetent flier that his brother was turning out to be!)
The second leg of our journey was much the same for me as the first, long, boring but not particularly uncomfortable and I was more than entertained from start to finish. Ryan however again suffered a bit, but to be fair, I hadn’t shrunk after a mere 10 hours or so, meaning that I was still stealing a fair chunk of his allotted personal space!
(Seriously, he must have hated me for the segments where we were forced to fly or sit next to one another – which in hindsight I think was pretty much all of the time!)
Eventually we were given the signal that we were approaching Japan’s Tokyo Narita International Airport, and after filling in the necessary declaration forms, we sat back, enjoyed a smooth landing, and then more or less breezed through customs – before at long last finally being reunited with an excited Mr. Brown himself!
Surprisingly, we were still relatively fresh after our long flights, and with Terrance leading the way (his reasonably decent Japanese proving invaluable to us now), we made a few stops around the massive airport complex in order to collect the few pre-booked odds and ends (like our mobile data sim and portable modem), before being shuttled around by bus and then on board a fancy looking train – possibly the KEISEI Electric Railway’s Skyliner, but I can’t really remember because a) it was dark, b) it had been a long flight, and c) it was a YEAR ago – heading out of Tokyo and into Yokohama where we were going to be based for the first leg of our three part trip.
(Of course, this late in the evening already it was dark, and thus not much to see, but already just the sheer scale of Tokyo and its surrounds compared to our own minuscule Cape Town kept me absolutely captivated from start to finish of our train ride!)
In Yokohama at last, Terrance treated us to a short taxi ride to the Super Hotel Yokohama, which proved to be our first real taste of how the whole politeness thing of Japan works. The taxi experience itself was pretty cool – doors open automatically, we are not permitted to stow our own luggage as this is considered rude, and everything is precise, cordial and proper – i.e. about as completely opposite of minibus taxi experience as what you can get.
Locating the Super Hotel Yokohama proved to be relatively easy – checking in slightly less so. However, Terrance persevered, and together with our e-mail printouts and one or two phone calls for a language assist, he gained us access to our rooms for the night – our very first taste of just how cramped living space in Japan really is!
(Ryan and I shared this room. I’m pretty much standing by the door for this shot – on my right is the door to the bathroom… capsule.
Yes, the toilet is very cool and very electronic – but it is very small and in the end, my big bottom’s personal nemesis for pretty much the entirety of our Japanese adventure!)
Amazingly, after all our travelling and despite the lateness of the night, Ryan and I were so pumped that we immediately wanted to head out for a stroll in the middle of the night – something unthinkably dangerous to do in South Africa mind you – a request which Terrance was most happy to accede to.
After all, this was his wonderland to show off – and thus, our trip to Japan had finally officially begun! :)
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(P.S. I slept like a log that evening once we had eventually got to bed – after spending who knows how long trundling along the city streets and taking in all the late night sights!)
In October 2014 I embarked on my very first overseas trip ever – to the one destination that I’ve always wanted to see above all others: Japan.
Terrance, a friend I have known since primary school, has been living in the land of the Rising Sun since 2011, teaching English as part of their JET programme. In that time, he also found a fiancé in the form of Yuko Omiya, and thoroughly besotted with this wonderful woman, the date for their wedding was set: 12 October 2014.
Of course, he was very keen to have any of his South African friends come up and join him and Yuko on their big day, and although it was certainly something that I wanted to do, it wasn’t something that I could actually afford to at the time (you know, all the usual expenses that comes with being a married adult with children and bonds to pay).
However, my brother Ryan certainly could, and as such, he implored and convinced me to join him on the trip – and thus our Japan 2014 adventure was forged!
Surprisingly, we didn’t actually put loads of research into the trip, in fact, it boiled down to less than a handful of Skype and e-mail chats with Terrance, and one or two real life meetups for Ryan and myself. However, it took almost no time at all to come up with a plan that would see us in Japan for a period of two weeks, travelling to the metropolitan marvel that is Tokyo, then to the rich spiritual, historic and cultural hub that is Kyoto, and finally enjoying the fresh, more rural air and pace of Ina and Komagane, situated within the Nagano prefecture.
With our destinations and our period of stay in each decided, Yuko handled the task of tracking down affordable accommodation for the two of us (it was much easier to organise that on their side than for us to try and do it from here), while Ryan handled the nitty gritty of all the flight tickets, insurance, etc. – and once the final hurdle of getting our Japanese visas via the embassy in Cape Town was cleared, all that was left was a little bit of wait time until we finally took to the skies.
Needless to say, I was excited as a puppy dog who has just discovered he can actually chase cats and they WILL run away!
The trip itself was everything I could ever have wished for (I’ll sum it up as amazing, and not at all what I might have imagined), and despite the fact that we actually spent very little time with Terrance and Yuko as a whole, Ryan and I were more than capable of getting around by ourselves in a land where very little English is spoken – and get around we most certainly did!
(Though to be fair, a big thank you to the wonder that is mobile data and Google Maps is in order.)
I’ve got 47 photo albums taken over the course of those 14 incredible days, all neatly sitting on my hard drive, patiently waiting to be uploaded and thus see the light of day – and although it is now nearly a year later (life as a dad to two small kids is so incredibly busy), I think that you’re finally in for a treat.
In other words, prepare for an upcoming deluge of amazing sights courtesy of probably one of my most favourite countries in the whole wide world – this is Japan 2014! :)