Friday, June 15, 2012

Tokyo – part II

On our second day in Tokyo, we headed out in the rain to experience something well off beaten tourist path. Ever since we began planning our trip to Japan, James had hoped that we could see a keirin race. In this format of competitive cycling unique to Japan, eight competitors dressed in bright colours race around the track while spectators bet on the results, just like horseracing. We felt very lucky that during our stay in Tokyo, a major competition was taking place in nearby Kawasaki City. We enjoyed an afternoon at the races, although we didn’t attempt to decipher the vending machines used to place bets. In fact, it took us three tries to purchase the correct tickets just to enter. Without being able to read anything at the ticket booth but the seat prices, we opted to splurge for the most expensive seats (a whole $9) since this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With our VIP tickets in hand, we were led to a smokey indoor room with plush chairs and screens displaying the latest odds - ideal for the big rollers, but not for us. And then we messed up once more. Eventually, we ended up with front-row seats at the finish line. The races began with the same formal ceremonies each time, including a synchronized entrance of the officials, a bow from each of the cyclists, and most delightfully, a cheerleading routine performed by two girls dressed head-to-toe in baggy rain slickers. We were the only tourists in the stadium, and people were more interested in us here than they were in more central parts of Tokyo. Everyone we encountered was very sweet; one man even approached us from across the room to give us a 500 yen (about $7) gift card to 7-11 as a present. 

Visiting the keirin stadium confirmed that the deliberate orderliness we had witnessed so far was not limited to the inner city. The day before, we had noticed two very serious traffic guards directing crowds onto the shuttle to and from the Ghibli Museum. The handful of people exiting the museum with us were asked to line up for the little bus behind a row of pylons and wait while the two white-gloved officers provided minute-by-minute updates about when the shuttle would arrive. Similarly, three different guards at the Tokyo Towers seemed tasked only with directing the traffic in and out of the elevators. White gloves directed us to enter and exit where there didn’t seem to be many ways to get lostAt the entrance to the keirin stadium parking lot the next day, three elderly men with whistles and megaphones directed the scant vehicles and people wandering through the single intersection. All of these officers seemed to take great pride in the importance of their duties, and Tokyoites always followed their instruction.

The rain wasn’t letting up after the keirin racing, so we decided to follow the lead of the locals and check out one of the main video arcades in Akihabara. We entered a windowless Sega building filled with floor after floor of games. We walked through each one, enthralled by the blinking and beeping of the games, and by the gamers completely engrossed in playing them. We even tried a few that looked accessible to us and had lots of fun, although Antonia was disappointed that she didn’t win one of the many varieties of adorable plush cats available as prizes.

We also had more time to soak up the atmosphere in Akihabara, which we had walked through the previous day to find a train station. We went into some manga bookstores and browsed the covers, many with sexual themes. Fantasy mixes with reality in Akihabara – the ‘maids’ dressed in anime-type costumes, and a sign that we read on a costume and lingerie store that offered a thirty percent discount if the manager could take a photo of you in your new outfit before you purchase it!


The next day was a sunny Sunday, so we set out for some people-watching in the Harajuku district. Harajuku is famous as a trendy area for young people to experiment with fashion and pop culture. It is filled with small stores selling anything from cute socks to goth costumes to Hello Kitty accessories. The streets are full of people parading their particular style by dressing up to extremes, whether it is as an anime-type superhero or a goth princess. While the Akihabara maids didn’t like to be photographed, posing was a main endeavour of the Harajuku crowd.

Contrarily, right in the middle of the chaotic neighbourhood of Harajuku is a shady oasis in the form of a large shrine complex dedicated to the late Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Before we hit the Harajuku streets in earnest, we walked around the peaceful, forested park to see the largest torii (Shinto gates) in Japan and the largest iris garden in Japan, which was really impressive, especially considering we are still at the beginning of the season and most of the flowers were still buds.

In the shrine itself we were lucky enough to see a Shinto wedding procession cross the courtyard shortly after we entered. There was also a bonsai competition on the grounds; we had never seen flowering bonsai before, and we learned that although the tree is miniature, the actual size of each flower remains the same, producing a beautiful effect.

After exploring the main drags of Harajuku, we headed to nearby Yoyogi Park, which buzzes with activity on Sundays. In the entrance, we were mesmerized by several groups of amateur dancers dressed like greasers and dancing to rockabilly music on their portable stereos. These people were obviously very serious about their hobby – they had matching jackets with their club names and had obviously put a lot of thought into perfecting their look. They danced for hours with undying enthusiasm, but the strange thing was that they weren’t particularly good (or maybe we were missing something?). No matter, they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and so were their spectators.

When we finally pulled ourselves away from the rockabillies, we spent the rest of the lovely afternoon strolling the sprawling park for some of the best people-watching anywhere. This was a definite highlight of Tokyo for us, and we highly recommend it to anyone planning a visit. There were people of all ages relaxing in the park, but more often totally engrossed in whatever passion they practiced. There were Harajuku girls on parade, and some still getting ready with their hair and makeup bags spread out among them. There were tango dancers, and drummers, and a jump-ropers, and a group of ukulele players. Emilie remarked that there is a new, very specific club around every corner, at which point we promptly turned a corner and discovered a didgeridoo club. There was a group of people giving out free hugs.

Everyone seemed to be having a great time doing whatever they loved best, or taking it all in. These girls epitomized many cute, sweet and shy people we encountered in Tokyo; when we approached to take their picture, they covered their mouths and giggled, then fixed their hair and posed with the peace sign.

We then made our way to neighbouring Shibuya district to see some of the biggest crowds yet. Outside of Shibuya station is the world’s most famous pedestrian scramble. You have probably seen it before in any documentary trying the demonstrate increasing urbanization or the rapidly growing population of the world. When the lights change and pedestrians are given permission to walk in every direction, a turbulent sea of humanity swells onto the street. We watched this phenomenon from the outskirts for awhile before diving in ourselves. It was amazing to see the number of people crossing, and then to see that number being replicated again within seconds as they continued to pour out of the metro or the surrounding streets, waiting for the next light.

Also outside Shibuya station is a mural and statue dedicated to beloved Hachiko, a dog who would follow his master to the station every morning, wait for him all day, and return home with his master once he re-emerged on his way home from work. Sadly, his owner died suddenly while at work one day, and faithful Hachiko continued to wait for him, not leaving the station grounds for ten years, until his own death. He was sustained by locals who brought him food and water during his long, fruitless wait, and then memorialized him for his loyalty.

As it was our last night in Tokyo, and James somehow decided he hadn’t seen enough wacky manga stores, we headed out to a comic and figurine supermall. Floors two through four consisted of store after store of anime figurines of every size and variety. They also sold charms for cell phones and many other cute accessories that are unique to Japan. Goods ranged widely in price; they also ranged from child-appropriate toys to figurines that wouldn’t be appropriate to put on your desk at work.
Before heading to the Mount Fuji area the next morning, James, Yann and Emilie got up very early to visit the Tsujiki Fish Market, the largest in the world. Antonia decided that she would prefer sleeping in. Some other things she would have preferred include: getting a root canal, walking across hot coals, and squeezing lemon juice into an open wound. While approaching the market Emilie, Yann and James noticed that many people were leaving the market wearing tall rubber boots and figured that that wasn’t a good sign for travellers in sandals.  Boots were unnecessary, though, since James discovered that the market area, where retailers and merchants purchased their fish, was closed to the public between 7:00 and 9:00am.  Disappointed but undeterred, they explored the area around the fish market where restaurant supplies and vegetables were sold. There were also small sushi restaurants serving possibly the freshest sushi in the world.

That afternoon we said sayonara to Tokyo and headed into the Japanese alps to try to get a glimpse of the notoriously shy Mount Fuji – stayed tuned to find out if we succeed! Regardless, we are sure to have a fun adventure – so far, Japan is very different from Canada, yet travelling in it is quite easy. This seems to be a rare combination in travel destinations, and makes exploring it a pleasure.


  1. You need to find and play this game:

  2. More bicycles! Or food. Or people dressed weirdly.