04.08.2012 - 04.08.2012 90 °F
Konbawa (good evening) from Tokyo! Our time here is 2/3 done, and we are still loving the city. Today started with another early morning, and we decided to hit the gym when we woke up, then relaxed in the room with coffee and breakfast ("fresh bread" for Kevin that was best described as a mix between angel food cake, a donut, and a slice of Wonderbread, and yogurt + chia seeds from home + my last orange from home for me). While running on the treadmill this morning, I noticed some looming dark clouds and wondered whether they would get in the way of our planned hike of Mt. Takao-san ... a quick look at weather.com confirmed that this might not be the best idea, so we swapped tomorrow's itinerary with today's. My Type-A self kind of panicked at first , but I'm glad we did - it turned out to be a great day!
We started by walking to the Meiji Shrine. Our concierge told us it would take about 45 minutes, but it wasn't that long, and we got to explore some neighborhoods on the way.
When we got to the Meiji Shrine, we were impressed by the beautiful green forests and huge entrance gates (torii), which mark the entrance to Shinto shrines and symbolize passing from the profane to the sacred. I knew from researching that you are expected to bow upon passing under the torii (to show respect), and it was fun to feel like we knew what we were doing!
Because the park was so pretty, we took a very circuitous route to the actual Meiji Shrine, and saw a few interesting sites (like the below casks of sake, which are offered every year to the enshrined deities by members of the national Sake Brewers Association).
After a while, we got to the actual Meiji Shrine, which was built in 1920 to commemorate Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken (and rebuilt after fire in 1958). Both the Emperor and the Empress are enshrined here, and we learned that people particularly respect and honor Emperor Meiji because of his push to modernize Japan and adopt many Western practices. Empress Shoken was also very committed to women's education. When you face the place that they are buried, it is custom to bow once, clap twice, and bow once again. The guards were very strict about not taking pictures very close to the burial area, so here are a few of the surrounding shrine.
Just as we were about to leave the shrine, we saw a ceremonial procession coming through the middle of the courtyard! We are still not sure what the ceremony was, but there was one person dressed in a large white outfit that seemed to be the center of attention. There were about 8 costumed people at the front, and about 25 people in plain, Western-style clothing following them. Don't worry - dozens of tourists were snapping pictures along with me, so I don't think I was being rude (or at least I really hope so!).
After leaving the Meiji Shrine (through the wrong entrance thanks to me trying to follow 3 different Japanese-only maps), we decided to walk to Yoyogi Park. On our way, we passed the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center, which we thought might be an Olympic training facility, but we think is actually a youth education program. Yoyogi Park was another huge, well-maintained, very green park (it's SO nice that they have so many despite the city being jam-packed with people and buildings!), and it was fun to see several performing arts groups practicing (a capella, theater, and dance). By this time, we had been walking for several hours, and it was about 90 degrees, so excuse the sweatiness!
After Yoyogi Park, we planned to walk to Shibuya Crossing, and passed a great music festival on the way (the National Stadium is in the background). We weren't sure exactly where the famous Shibuya Crossing was, but every single intersection seemed to be a madhouse of people going in every direction (the traffic lights turn red all at once, and people can cross the street in any direction, including diagonally, simultaneously). After a few, though, we came across one huge one that just must be "the real deal." The pictures don't do it justice - it was crazy!
We stopped for lunch at a place that required us to ride a very small elevator up to the 6th floor, and then meander around some unmarked hallways before finding it. After several days with no fruits/ veggies on any menus, I was THRILLED to see "seasonal stir-fried vegetables" listed, and ordered it right away. It turned out to be bok choy + some unidentified vegetable (bamboo?), and it was just what I needed! Kevin got some gyoza and a bunch of side dishes, and really enjoyed it. While we were at lunch, the rain came pouring down, and stopped just as we were done - perfect!
I want to take a second to mention a few things about etiquette in Japan. It is absolutely astonishing how kind everyone is, even when dealing with foreigners who don't speak a lick of Japanese and have to point to the menu to order things! Any time you enter any restaurant or store, you are greeted with a chorus of every employee in the place singing out "irasshaimase" (which basically means "I am here, ready to serve you!"). They also call something out when you leave, although we haven't quite been able to catch what it is. Waiters are very attentive to any requests in restaurants, and some customers seem to almost ignore them. We read that a waiter or a store employee is literally meant to serve their customer, and the customer is "king or queen," so some people take the liberty to treat the employees like servants. There is a very elaborate and explicit culture of bowing, the rules of which we don't quite understand (certain bows require your hands to be in different positions, and the length of bows indicates both the "hierarchy" of the bowers, as well as the intent of the message), so we generally try to give a little nod to people who help us out, and hope we're not offending anyone. Money (or credit cards) are also treated with respect, and you must use both hands to present them (and many stores use little dishes instead of handing the money directly to the employee, to show deference). Everyone smiles all the time, and I just can't stress enough how friendly everyone has been to us. Being in a country where we can't even make out any letters (symbols) has really made us appreciate seeing foreigners in the US, and I hope we help them out a bit more in the future!
When we went down to the metro at Shibuya Station, we were greeted by an amazing surprise - a GIANT grocery store! It wasn't like an American grocery store, but rather there were hundreds of individual mini-stores, each one selling a different type of item (bakery goods, sweets, meat, fish, sushi, prepared foods, etc.) - I can't imagine doing my real shopping here, and having to go to several different stores to get what I needed. It was such a bustling place (with every employee, of course, calling out a greeting to everyone who passed, which was nearly constant!). I love exploring the foods of different cultures, and this was like paradise - I could have walked around for days (and we did stay for over an hour!). I got to sample some really interesting things, like crunchy dried mushrooms, several types of cakes, edamame, passion fruit, corn, and more. And perhaps most interestingly - we figured out why fruits and vegetables are nowhere to be found on menus in Tokyo ... produce is SO expensive!!!! If you can even believe it, this small package of grapes was about $39, and a single (large) peach was about $10! I had grand hopes of bringing back some fruit and veggie snacks to the hotel room, but settled for a $7 3-pack of oranges. Wow! (By the way, it's worth mentioning that, while Tokyo is a relatively expensive city in general, most things are not as crazy as the running shorts and produce that I've harped on. These are anomalies!) I also spotted what I believe is the Japanese version of the American Food Pyramid. This stuff is crazy interesting to me, so I could go on for hours, but I'll assume that not everyone is as interested as I am and stop for now!
After Shibuya, we intended to go to the Mori Tower observatory and the Sony Building, but the day was still pretty overcast and Kev wasn't as interested in the Sony Building as I had thought he would be, so we passed on both. Instead, we went to another subway-station-grocery-store right by our hotel (I was hooked!) and explored for a while, before coming back and taking a quick nap and shower. We were completely beat - we estimate we covered over 6 miles and had been standing ALL day. It is actually pretty amazing to me that either of us could run 6 miles in a heartbeat, but walking for so long made us exhausted and sore - our feet/ ankles/ calves were killing!
Tonight, we headed back to the same area as last night (which we think is Kabuchiko) for dinner and more exploring. We had done so well in eating "authentic" Japanese food, but tonight we caved and hit an Italian restaurant. The good news is that we were the only white people in the place, so it made us feel a bit less like sell-outs! Kev demolished a tomato-basil-mozzarella pizza, and I got a mixed vegetable salad plus a side of vegetable stew topped with a poached egg, which was great! We were pretty tired, so we headed home, and on the way stopped at a convenience store, where I found this awesome-looking frozen dessert (that I assume was a wafer + green tea ice cream + maybe some of the bean curd we tried the other day?). Unfortunately, it was only OK, but don't worry, I also got some sweet potato cookies, which were pretty amazing!
We're still looking at a 40% chance of rain for tomorrow, but we're planning to head to Mt. Takao-san anyway, unless it looks really bad in the morning. Stay tuned for our last day in Tokyo!
-Megan and Kevin