Sunday, August 14, 2011

Journey to the Homeland

I was super lucky to get started on my Asia Bucket List this past week (right after the Typhoon, of course!). My friend Kristle and I flew Space A to Atsugi (a Navy base) on mainland Japan and began an adventure in Tokyo. Now, we are a bit cheap, so the trip included lots of walking while hauling around our bags in the heat and humidity. Not so fun.
To start, we had heard that the subway station was only about a mile away from Atsugi, so we figured it wouldn't be a big deal just to walk. Also, we had a plan of what we would do during this week, but no set agenda. We knew we'd explore several places in Tokyo, climb Mt. Fuji, and possibly take a couple of day trips to Kamakura and Nikko [Nikko didn't happen!]. As we were leaving the base we thought we'd ask the gate guard how to get to the subway station....which prompted more questioning about who we were, where we were going, if we knew how to get there, etc., etc., until it was clear that this gate guard was preparing to hear of our deaths on the local news within the first night. He had zero faith in us.
However, he did help us figure out what station we needed to get to to walk to our hotel and he also shared an iphone app with us that saved our lives: Hyperdia. You type in the names of the subway station you are leaving from and the one you are trying to get to and it lists all stops and transfers you will make along with the cost and approximate time. Pretty handy.
We traveled using Passmo cards, which we loaded with 1000Y and just swiped as we walked through the subway station. Very handy and took the confusion out of purchasing tickets.
Here is one of our first pictures at our first trip on the subway. We were VERY confused!

After a bit of walking around and some guess work at the result of a faulty "blue dot" on Google Maps, we found our first hotel: Hotel Horidome Villa. We found this little guy on a basic travel website and booked a room as soon as we landed in Atsugi. The total was $67 for the night....and like most Japanese hotels.....was itty bitty. The bed was hardly larger than a full (I think smaller) and the room was smaller than a cruise ship cabin. BUT, it was incredibly clean, and worked well for one night. We were lucky enough to find a room for two nights at the New Sanno, which is a military hotel in Tokyo, with a cheap rate by calling every. single. day.
The first night was pretty low key. We walked around Nihombashi, which is the prefecture where our hotel was located, and had a pretty good dinner. Nihombashi is a classy financial district, so it was dominated by important financial buildings and banks. We checked out of the Horidome Villa and into the New Sanno the next day and began our trip around Tokyo. The planned stops: Imperial Palace, Ginza, Ueno, and Asakusa.
 The Imperial Palace was beautiful and the East Gardens would have provided for a lovely walk, had we been prepared to tolerate the heat and not also planned on visiting other places that day. As this was the only place we visited in this part of the city, I can't say I'd go back and bring Turf. While the palace was iconic, it is also a replica of the original palace in Kyoto, which I'm much more interested in seeing. It was a good experience this time, but after visiting other places I think I will focus my energy elsewhere next time.
The palace itself is a bit like the White House: you can't actually go up to it or visit the inside without paying for a private tour. The best photos we could get were outside the gate on the historic bridge leading up to the palace.
 Imperial Palace, Tokyo

We then made our way to Ginza, which I purposely omitted pictures of. Our goal was to eat a sushi lunch around the giant fish market area. Our *Italian Map* of Japan told us to get off the subway at Ginza station. After walking in search of the market for a while, we realized this station was actually pretty far from where we were headed (Tsukiji) and we spent about 2 hours trying to find our way there only to find out that the fish market is only open from 6am-9am. No way, Jose, was I waking up that early to come back.
So, my take on Ginza: It wasn't as great as I was expecting. Again, probably wouldn't go back.

At this point we were tired and still hadn't eaten, but were focused on finding a place at the next stop: Asakusa. Can I just say, I LOVED Asakusa! It had the feeling of "old Tokyo", which is felt and seen on these back shopping streets. SO cute!
 We visited the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo's oldest and one of it's most important ancient Buddhist temples. It is the focus of Japan's Matsuri (Shinto Festival) that takes place in late Spring. Leading into the temple is Kaminarimon "Thunder" Gate and adjacent to it is the Pagoda of Senso-ji. Beautiful!

 Senso-ji Temple

Once past the Kaminarimon Gate, visitors can draw fortunes by shaking a large, metal canister. When shaken, a rod comes out with a symbol that corresponds to drawers that hold fortunes. Kristle and I both got very good fortunes!
Kristle drawing her fortune

Before entering the temple one must cleanse themselves by washing their hands using water from the fountain as well as taking a sip of the water to rinse your mouth using bamboo stick swith small cups attached to the end. One must also make a quick stop by the large incense burner and wave the smoke over their heads. This purification ritual is a common part of entering temples/shrines. 
The inside of the temple was beautiful, with intricate art decorating the ceilings.

 Cleansing before entering the temple

Like I said before, I loved the feeling of old Tokyo in Asakusa. The shops were adorable, there were tons of little places to eat and a lot to see!
 Small street in Asakusa

Our next stop was in Ueno. This is another place that I loved. We didn't get to see much of it, as we were both crashing from a long day, but we did visit Ueno-Koen (park) and saw Toshogu Shrine. Ueno's Toshogu Shrine was built in 1627 by a warrior, Todo Takatora and has survived many natural disasters and battles. It is one of the few physical links that remains in Tokyo to it's Edo past. The park itself is huge and magnificent and definitely somewhere I would return to see more of during the day!
Ueno also had a seperate shopping street that we didn't have a chance to visit. Here, you could find anything from clothes and souveniers, to fresh produce and fish!
 Ueno Toshogu Shrine

We also saw the huge stone Lantern, one of the three great stone lanterns in Japan. It was given to the Toshogu Shrine as a gift from Sakuma Daizennosuke Katsuyuki in 1631. It towers at 6 meters high!
Giant Stone Lantern

We checked in early that night to rest, as Mt. Fuji was on the agenda for the next day. Since our bus to Mt. Fuji departed from Shinjuku we decided to go a bit early to visit the 45th floor observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, which offered a free view of the city. The view was incredible! At one point, we experienced some awkward moments: We asked a Japanese person to take our picture in front of the window, and suddenly were bombarded by about 15 other people all taking our photo on their own cameras. As if that weren't enough, they each decided that they would like their own photo with us, and rotated in one at a time. They didn't even leave once their picture was taken, they stayed to take pictures of the other people with us! Very strange.. :) 

45th floor view, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

It was then time to head to Mt. Fuji. We had scheduled it so that we would begin our climb at 10pm and get to the top in time to see the sunrise. Before we started, we thought we'd have plenty of time to take a nap before we had to get back down to meet our bus, which was scheduled to leave at 10am the next morning. Let me tell you, Mt. Fuji is probably the hardest thing I've ever done! Some people had told us that it was a "piece of cake" or that they did it in shorts and a big deal! We were not mentally prepared. Not only was it not a piece of cake, but we most definitely needed ALL of our warm clothes we had packed. I got altitude sickness about half way up and threw up some trail mix, but felt a bit better after that and made it to the top. The mountain was never ending, and we were literally climbing on all fours over the top of rocks to make it up. It took us about 6 hours to get to the top, by which time we were freezing and exhausted.
*Side note: You are expected to pay a "tip" to use the bathrooms on Mt. Fuji. The "tip" gets more expensive the higher you go. At the 5th station, where we started from, the charge was 50Y (about $1) and at the top it was 300Y (almost $5 with a terrible yen rate!). I spent almost $9 on using the outhouse bathrooms! And no, you can't just go outside, as was my original plan, because it is very crowded with climbers! Did I mention that there were little children (as young as 8!) and old people climbing?!

At one of the early stations, still enjoying the hike!

The view was breathtaking, but I hate to admit that we were so exhausted and cold, it was hard to enjoy. After eating a bowl of ramen, I forced myself outside the little food hut briefly to take some sunrise pictures. Looking back at the photos and remembering the views, it was incredible
 and like nothing I've ever seen. I was pretty impressed that we made it all the way to the top of Japan's highest mountain!
Some fun facts about Mt. Fuji:
It stands at 12,389 Ft. high
It is one of Japan's three Holy Mountains
It is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1707-1708
There are several well-known sayings about Mt. Fuji---"One who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs twice is twice the fool"---"Mt. Fuji is for looking, not for climbing"

 Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
Standing in the early morning on top of Mt. Fuji

And lets talk about getting down, which, dare I say, was more troublesome than getting up! The path down was an endless trail snaking back and forth all the way back to the 5th station. You could literally see how far you had to go the whole way, which looked like it would never end and never seemed to get any closer. It was the most frustrating thing ever! The trail was steep and a horrid mixture of dirt and rock, which caused many rolled ankles and trips. With every step we took we had to catch ourselves from falling, which didn't do well on our ankles, knees, and backs. It tooks us 3/4 hours to get down. We were cursing the whole way and nearly in tears that it felt like we'd never get down. I don't know what our friends experienced when they told us climbing Mt. Fuji was easy, but I was happy to hear that we were not alone in hating every second of it! I scoured the internet and found many quotes from climbers that sounded very similar to ours here .

Somehow, after a long shower and nap back in Tokyo, we mustered up energy to go to dinner and visit Shibuya. This is home to the iconic big crossing often seen in movies, etc. This place was awesome, lively, and had tons of shopping! I will definitely be back!
 Shibuya Crossing

We then packed up and headed back to Atsugi to try to get a flight home. However, since we had a day to kill, we decided to take a day trip to Kamakura, one of the other places on my Asia Bucket list. We visited the Kannon Temple, which was gorgeous, and it was nice to see a smaller Japanese town. It was by the ocean and sort of reminded me of the towns on the Oregon coast, only larger. 
 Jizo-Guardian Diety of Children

 I love Japanese ponds and gardens. They are just so pretty!

 Standing outside the Kannon Temple, which Houses Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy

We even went a little native and prayed to the Goddess. When you pray to a god or goddess you must bow deeply twice, clap twice, say your prayer and bow again. I think Kristle did pretty good!

And, of course, my main reason for wanting to see Kamakura, the big Buddah (Diabutsu). The Diabutstu is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha and is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. It was cast in 1252 and was originally constructed inside a temple. However, after years, the temple itself was destroyed and the Buddha now stands in open air. 
 Great Buddha Diabutstu

And finally, what is a trip without making some friends? On the subway back to Atsugi we met these [very drunk] Japanese friends, who basically tried to talk to us by throwing out every English word they knew, including Haagen-Daaz (I didn't have the heard to tell them it wasn't actually English!). The friend we are with here for some reason kept winking, pulling his sunglasses up and down, and crossing his eyes. We had a great little conversation of Janglish before the end of our trip!

My synopsis of Tokyo: Definitely visit Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, and Asakusa. Make a day trip to Kamakura and if you are really brave, climb Fuji! Make some friends on the subway, get lost on the metro line (not too often), go without a set plan, and have fun!

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