Japan – part 2: Tokyo

Three days in Tokyo, and we made the most of them. Tokyo is huge – no news there – and we tried to get in is much as we could. Truly amazing place, with so much to do. Never a dull moment.

trainPrior to arriving in Japan, we reserved a 14-day pass on Japan Rail East – the pass is good for five days’ use over a two-week period. We used it when we arrived to get from Haneda Airport to the main JR train station, where we boarded the high-speed Shinkansen train to Akita. It’s the only logical way to travel between Tokyo and Akita; traveling up to 250 mph (or maybe more) in places, it’s a four-hour train ride, whereas by car, it’s a 12-hour trip. We pretty much slept away those four hours on the ride up, so we were keen for the ride back, with our eyes wide open. What a great way to travel, zoom zoom. We picked up our bento box lunches at the Akita station and it was all aboard for Tokyo.

We were staying at Superhotel, a few blocks from the Tokyo train station, which made it very convenient to get around the city, as well as to see the sights nearby. First things first – dinner, which we found at a little restaurant housed beneath one of the many train lines that ride above ground. No wasted space in Tokyo! Talk about unusual – to be eating your rice and duck while the train rumbles overhead every five minutes. After dinner, it was a short walk over to the Ginza district – the definition of bright lights, big city, with its towering stores with names reminiscent of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Power nights followed by power days – it’s the only way to get it all done. We began the next day with a walk over to the Imperial Gardens, within which is the Imperial Palace, all enclosed by a moat. From there, a taxi ride took us to Yasukuni Jinja – the Shrine of Peace for the Nation – a peculiar name for a shrine that honors war heroes, and it also causes quite a stir among the Chinese and Koreans whenever a Japanese prime minister comes to visit the shrine, given how those countries suffered under Japanese imperialism in days gone by. Time for a Guinness!

And then it’s time to get on the subway. Which one to take?

tokyo subway mapThat’d be the one that takes us to Shibuya Station, one of the busiest stations tokyo Shibuyain Tokyo. We navigate through the masses and take the Hachikō exit, which opens up to the masses above ground in one of Tokyo’s popular shopping districts. An endearing story gives the exit its name. Hachikō was the pet dog of a professor at the University of Tokyo during the 1920s; each day Hachikō would wait for his master at Shibuya Station. The professor died onetokyo shibuya station day while at the university, and every day for the rest of the dog’s life, he waited patiently at the appointed time for his master. Talk about loyalty – we all love a good story, but the Japanese especially take it to heart, and today, we can all remember a dog’s love with the statue they’ve placed in the  Hachikō plaza. Amazing story, considering the throngs of people who pass through each day.

On Bridget’s suggestion, an hour or so later we were off to Shimokitazawa, a district full of winding streets and narrow alleys chock-a-block with stores and shops that cater to the hippies among us. Meandering about, we get the picture …

One more place to hit before the day is done – and this would tokyo akihabarabe Sean’s favorite district to visit when he comes to Tokyo: Akihabara. It’s where all the geeks go for their electronic needs and then some – games, music, videos – it’s all here. Apparently there are a lot of nerds in Japan – the streets are packed, and the stores that rise seven stories or more are equally congested. And that’s it for our sightseeing day. Back to Tokyo Central to meet up with Sean’s friends for drinks and Mexican dinner.

sumo lineWe were up bright and early on our last full day in Tokyo, for the big event: sumo wrestling’s May tournament, held at Ryogoku Kokugikan. We were in line at 7:30 in the morning, waiting for the box office to open at 8, when they dished up 250 day-of tickets for Day 1 of the two-week tournament. I’m not sure how many seats there are in the arena, but the 250 available is what it takes to fill up the last row up in the nosebleeds; the rest of the seats had all been purchased in advance.

It’s an all-day affair, with the preliminary rounds starting at 8:30 and the top division bouts around 4:15. Most people don’t show up until until the later rounds, and we opted to do the same. It’s Mother’s Day, a good day to take Mom to Odaiba – an artificial island in Tokyo Bay that was originally constructed in 1853 as a series of fortresses, mostly to fend off the advances of Commodore Matthew Perry. Time moves on – from fortress to park to wasteland to its current conglomerate of hotels, businesses, shopping centers, museums and parks, all popular with the tourists.

On to the main event – not just ours but all of Japan’s. They love their sumo wrestling, akin to Canadians loving their hockey, only more so. We arrive in time for the Juryo matches – the second-highest ranked wrestlers – which sumo 5starts with the dohyō-iri, the ceremonial walk around the ring. Fourteen matches later and the highest ranked, the Makuuchi, follow with their dohyō-iri and their 21 bouts. A match takes anywhere from a few seconds to maybe 20 seconds – the time it takes one wrestler to either push the other wrestler outside of the ring or get some part of his body other than his feet to touch the ground. There’s plenty of ritual before the two wrestlers begin the grapple, including the throwing of salt into the ring by both wrestlers – a purification ritual that goes back to when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. There’s also the squatting on their haunches, slapping themselves, staring at their opponents, going back to their respective corners, throwing more salt, back into the ring, more squatting, back to their corners, wiping their brows, more salt throwing and back into the ring, all building up to the moment they lunge. Seconds later, it’s all over – the judge declares the winner, who is then handed a packet of money, and it’s time for the next match. Pretty amazing stuff.

After sumo, what could be more Japanese?

Karaoke, of course. We didn’t pass on that either. I think I’m turning Japanese

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