On our first full day in Japan, we wanted to see the Imperial Palace. The palace is the main home of the Emperor of Japan. We stopped by the American-turned-Japanese doughnut chain called Mister Doughnut for some doughnuts.
As we walked to the palace, we ran into some kind of big train festival. It looked like it was for the introduction of a new model of train and a celebration of trains in general.
The palace is easy to spot- it’s the area with a large moat and wall running around the perimeter. Inside the walls is a large grassy area with walkways and ponds. A 5k race was underway, with runners weaving in and out of the palace gates. Other people were doing yoga or just out for a Sunday morning walk. Unfortunately, most of the palace buildings are closed to the public and are hard to see over the inner moat and wall. Other features in the area include a fountain garden and a statue of a samurai warrior.
After seeing the palace, we headed over to the Roppongi Hills in the Roppongi district. Roppongi Hills is an area of shops, apartments and businesses all located in a group of high-rises. In the Mori tower is an observation deck called Tokyo City View, 52 floors up. It’s higher then Tokyo Tower and provides a spectacular view of Tokyo. I knew the city was large, but I had no idea just how large until I saw it stretch all the way to the horizon. I could see Mt. Fuji peeking out from behind the clouds around its peak.
Admission to the deck included access to an art museum that had an exhibition of modern Chinese art. The displays included a memorial to the children who died in the Sichuan Province earthquake to a clever sculpture made out of interlocking bicycles to a tea house that was made out of tea.
On the way out, I stopped by the restroom and found my first hi-tech Japanese toilet. The toilet had features like a bidet, heater, dryer and my personal favorite- a button that plays a flushing sound. The reason for the button is that Japanese women do not like others to hear them as they go about their business. So to avoid that problem, they often flush the toilet to cover up the noise. The button does the same thing but saves on water in the process.
Another thing I noticed about the restrooms in Japan is that nearly all of them have both Western sit-style toilets and Eastern-style squat toilets, with the squat ones being more common. The oddest toilet I saw was one I didn’t think was even physically possible- a female urinal! Like its male counterpart, it’s mounted on the wall and it’s out in the open instead of enclosed in a stall. The differences of the one I saw was that it was low to the floor and had a large bowl-like bottom. Presumably it could be used much like a squat toilet, but I didn’t see anyone using it. It was the only one I saw during the trip, so I’m guessing the concept isn’t too popular with other women either.
The next district we stopped in was Shibuya. It’s famous for its crosswalk near Shibuya Station that stops vehicle traffic in all directions and lets pedestrians cross in every direction, including diagonally across the intersection (also known as a pedestrian scramble). The Japanese are quite strict in following crosswalk signals. I even saw a crosswalk guard near the palace who would blow a whistle at anyone who ignored the signal.
For lunch, we stopped in a Yoshinoya– a Japanese fast food chain known for its beef bowls. The food was tasty, although I’m not quite sure what the pickled dish was. But that’s half the fun of eating in another country.
We stopped in a park area where folks were out enjoying an afternoon in the park. I saw a lot of swordfighting going on, and lots of little dogs. I don’t know what it is with the Japanese and little dogs, but they were very popular. I only saw one large dog in the park that afternoon. In the park, I realized just how homogeneous the Japanese population is. Almost everyone I’ve seen throughout the trip looked either Japanese or had some kind of Asian background. So I was startled when I saw a black gentlemen hanging out with friends in the park. He was one of the few gaijin– foreigners- I remember seeing outside of the airport.
Near the park by Harajuku Station is an area famous for “cosplayers”- people dressed up in outfits from anime comics. That day, at least half a dozen people- mostly girls- were dressed up in colorful outfits and just standing around talking to friends. They did get the attention of the crowd who kept looking and taking pictures of them.
Next up was a visit to a Japanese shrine- specifically the Meiji Shrine. The shrine is in a heavily wooded area. The entrance is marked with a torii– gate- leading into the complex. The shrine included barrels of sake donated to the shrine, prayer wheels and many walking paths. In the center is the main part of the shrine and visitors use a fountain to go through a ceremonial handwashing before entering. The shrine had a large plaza where workers were setting up seats for a play happening later in the evening. Further in was a place to pay homage to the gods. It was a peaceful place to be in. I saw some priests walking about and a mother with her child who were both dressed for some kind of ceremony.
In stark contrast to the calm of the shrine was riding the subway at rush hour. So many people crammed in a small space. And yet, it stayed very organized. Subway employees would hold people back at the entrance to keep the platform from getting overcrowded. The trains stayed right on their very precise schedule. Everyone was so polite in the train even when everyone was jammed in shoulder to shoulder.
We headed to another part of town to see the neon signs at night. We also stopped into a restaurant for dinner and had some tasty tempura. While we were walking around, some guys were handing out packages of tissues that advertised different businesses on them. It really shows just how much the Japanese emphasized cleanliness.
Before heading back to the hotel for the night, we stopped into a hole in the wall place for some yakatori. This was the first place that didn’t have an English menu or any pictures or plastic food models. So we had to rely on our English-Japanese dictionary to figure out the menu. The cook working that night quickly figured out that we didn’t know Japanese and printed out pictures from the restaurant’s website to help us out. Through more gesturing and our limited Japanese vocabulary we managed to order five pork yakatori skewers. When the cook brought out the skewers, he point at each one and then pointed at his cheek, then his heart, then his stomach. We realized then he was indicating which skewer had which pig organ on it. I’m still not sure what all we ate that night, but it was good. We also got to talk to the cook more since it was a slow night and found out that he had been to New York City before. It was one of the most memorable conversations of the trip, language barriers and all.
After feasting on various piggy parts, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.
Tomorrow- Street performers and what happens when I get jet-lagged.