If you have a bucket list and it doesn’t include Mount Fuji, it’s worth revisiting it. There are different ways to see Fuji up close. The most preferred one is to go to the Fuji Five Lakes region. You can admire the magnificent summit of the mountain with boat tours on Lake Kawaguchiko. We opted for this route and took a boat out on the lake in the afternoon. Alternatively, you can also consider a bike tour around the lake. Fuji Q Highland, a theme park at the base of Fuji, awaits thrill-seekers with its very hard rollercoaster.
We arrived in Tokyo about 3 hours by bullet train from Kyoto. We split our time in Tokyo in two. We stayed 5 nights in Odaiba and the night before our return trip we stayed near Narita Airport. Two different accommodations made both our time and our return trip easier.
We started our first day in Tokyo by visiting two of the city’s most traditional and modern symbols: Sensoji Temple and Skytree Tower. We stayed at the Hilton Odaiba in the Odaiba district. The hotel was perfect, with its view overlooking Tokyo Bay and without the hectic pace of the center. We didn’t have any transportation problems. We could reach the center in half an hour with the subway line in front of the hotel. Built on a man-made island, Odaiba is connected to the mainland by the Rainbow Bridge. Especially after dark, the bridge and the view of the city behind it is worth seeing. This is one of the best viewpoints of the Tokyo skyline.
Tokyo is so big that if you treat it like more than one city, you will have no difficulty. So divide the city into 4 or 5 or something like that. Then divide these areas into different parts and start exploring. Otherwise you have no way to deal with the giant in front of you. Our Tokyo consisted of east, west and north. Since we were already staying in the south, eliminating this region from the beginning made our job easier. We had determined what we wanted to see in these three regions. The points on our priority list, the rest we would visit as long as our time permitted.
The first stop of the day was Sensoji Temple. This temple in Asakusa district is famous for the giant paper lantern hanging from the entrance gate. Its real claim to fame is that it is the oldest temple in Tokyo. Tens of thousands of people come here every day to perform religious rituals or to visit as tourists. For those who want to combine the busy, energetic atmosphere of the city with the traditional atmosphere of a religious shrine, this is an unmissable opportunity.
First we pass Kamiron, known as the “Gate of Thunder”. On the 200-meter road there are souvenir shops, all of them are full, there are queues in front of all of them. Apart from cemeteries, we have yet to see a secluded area in Japan. As we wandered around looking at the souvenirs, another giant gate appeared in front of us that we had to pass. Between the Hozomon, which they call “Treasure House Gate” and the main hall, there is a large incense burner. There were people around it trying to direct the smoke into their bodies with their hands. This gesture is believed to bring health. You can’t pass without doing it. Maybe after 13 days of exhaustion, the gods will grant our wish and our feet will stop aching.
The main hall is the center of the temple. The Kannon image is kept here. Worshippers pay their respects by lighting candles and throwing coins into a box. We repeated the same gestures and after paying our sincerest respects, we went to the wishing box. We shook a long hexagonal metal box and the thin rod that fell out of it had a symbol of a prophecy about our future. But this symbol was written in Japanese letters, so we had no idea what it meant. If we couldn’t find out, there was no way to find the box with the same letter or number on the other side. We had already inhaled the smoke and said our prayers before we arrived. What was the need to fall into such a riddle? Fortunately, a woman who solved our confusion saw the letter on the stick and showed us the box we had to open and we learned our fortune for the day. Always good, always beautiful… I wasn’t expecting a bad explanation anyway. Even in real life, can people who go to great lengths not to offend others write a negative word about people’s futures?
After completing our daily temple rituals, we headed to Tokyo’s tallest tower, Skytree. There is no doubt that the view from the top is beautiful. When we bought a ticket and went up to the 350 meter high observation deck of the tower, the view was really different. We couldn’t see the borders of the city anyway, and I’m not sure where the view starts and ends. I turned 360 degrees, the air was clear and the view was clear. I tried hard to see where the city ends, but to no avail. I also looked through binoculars but the result was the same. I even went up to the highest floor of the tower, 100 meters higher. I watched the view 360 degrees again from 450 meters. I was waiting for my astonishment to pass in the middle of a boundless city, the endless Tokyo. No matter how hard I tried, I had a hard time making a connection with Tokyo. He is a stranger to me and I am a stranger to him, maybe time will fix everything and we can mingle in the coming days, who knows?
Our journey started with a religious temple and continued with a modern building, but the next stop was a historical and traditional place. We were on our way to the Imperial Palace. Actually, we were not going to go inside the palace, but only to the garden. The time spent in the Ninomaru Japanese garden in the heart of the city, away from the crowds and hustle and bustle, was good for our tiredness.
Tokyo Station and the Ginza district were next. Ginza is a shopping paradise where high class products are sold. It is home to art galleries as well as boutiques.
In the evening we went to Shibuya, stopped by the Hachiko statue and came to the famous pedestrian crossing point.
There is no better place to capture the bustle of Tokyo than here. In fact, you can catch the pace of the city in the passageways and tunnels under the big subway stations, but what happens in Shibuya is something else. There is no space to step on the sidewalks, neon lights illuminate the night, men in white shirts and backpacks, women who stand out with their clothes, girls dressed as manga characters are everywhere. The only thing missing is traffic. At first I had a hard time understanding this situation, but it is. The thing we see the least in Tokyo is the automobile. There are few cars in traffic because it is possible to reach every point by subway. The majority also prefer bicycles.
Shibuya is a popular shopping district by day and a vibrant entertainment scene by night. The fourth busiest train station in Japan, getting out of Shibuya Station is as difficult as getting in. The best solution is to try to get lost and find the right way. It took us quite a while to find the Hachiko exit and reach the street. There were flashing video screens, bright neon signs and the famous Shibuya Crossing. It’s almost impossible to find a seat at the Starbucks directly across the crossing. When the traffic lights turn red, people rush to cross the street from all directions. It was like a great pitched battle. Armies are lined up and waiting on the sidewalks as if to charge at the first signal. When I first saw it, I thought there was going to be chaos, but no one managed to cross the street without hitting anyone.
People watching at Shibuya’s crossing was the most fun moment of the day. Tourists were at this intersection as much as locals. It was hard to tell how much of the crowd was there to watch and how much was actually on their way to work or home. Even though I am not a night owl, watching Tokyo after dark was the most exciting activity to do here. Time passed without realizing it. I don’t remember how many times I crossed the pedestrian crossing, but the effort, the excitement and the reflex to glide through people without bumping into anyone, to avoid tripping over anyone’s foot or selfie stick, was more fun than the pleasure we can find in five-star theme parks.
Another thing that impressed us was how clean Tokyo was and how safe we felt. We thought it was inevitable that there would be some problems in a city with so many people, but we went through our days without any incidents or problems. The city was full of contrasts, but everyone lived in harmony.
Ueno Park is full of attractions. First of all, the park itself is a natural gem. There are many temples and shrines in the surrounding area. The Tokyo National Museum, the National Science Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art are also here. Ueno Park is also home to Ueno Zoo, the oldest zoo in Japan. We didn’t visit the zoo, but the Tokyo National Museum was an opportunity not to be missed. Because it is the oldest and largest of Japan’s top national museums. It consists of more than 100,000 pieces, including the country’s hundred most important national treasures. There are Buddhist statues, painted sliding doors, scrolls, ceramics and maps, as well as cultural items such as masks, costumes, armor and weapons. One of the surest ways to get in touch with Japanese culture is to take a leisurely stroll through the museum and examine the details of each artifact one by one. Just outside the museum grounds is the Kuroda Memorial Hall, built with donations from Kuroda Seiki, known as the father of modern Western painting in Japan. Numerous cafes are scattered throughout the grounds, serving food to those leaving the museums.
Once known for its electronics stores, Akihabara is now famous for its shops catering to manga and animation fans. Nowadays, there are as many shops selling manga collectibles as there are mobile electronics vendors. Of course, most of them are for anime and manga enthusiasts. For those of us who were far from that culture, these were no different from any cartoon characters. The flesh and blood incarnations of these characters were also everywhere. Maid cafes with girls dressed as maids were plentiful. The streets were full of girls pretending to be heroes. This is a place where photography enthusiasts will also enjoy visiting. The decor is ready. All you have to do is stand in front of the colorful billboards and press the button.
East Shinjuku was as lively as Shibuya. Streets lined with neon signs and skyscrapers sparkle. With its bars, movie theaters, pachinko parlors and restaurants, this is the most popular place for those who want to experience the city’s nightlife. After making eye contact with Godzilla, whose angry gaze we caught over the Shinjuku Toho building and Hotel Gracery, we wandered the narrow streets without knowing our route and direction.
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s 23 special districts. With its skyscraper buildings and flashy neon lights in the entertainment district, it’s a poster child for modern Japan. Until the mid-1950s, this area was calm and quiet. As the transportation network expanded, the entertainment life shifted west to Shinjuku and Shibuya. There are corners of Shinjuku that still retain a nostalgic feel and are far away from high-rise buildings and current trends. Omoide Yokocho is one of them. We stopped by this narrow and long street north of Shinjuku Station for dinner. Small halls, adjacent stools, people eating side by side, drinking beer and chatting… It had an air reminiscent of Nevizade. Could there be a better closing scene on a Tokyo evening?
We started our fourth day in Tokyo with a visit to the Tokyo Tower, modeled after the Eiffel Tower in Paris and a bit taller. The tower has two viewpoints overlooking the city, one at 150 meters and the other at 250 meters. Yesterday we didn’t go up Tokyo Tower because we saw that we could see the city from the Skytree tower. Anyway, soon we will go to the city hall and we will watch the city once again from the viewpoints there.
West Shinjuku is not a tourist attraction. It consists of office towers. One of them is the city hall. From its 45th floor you can enjoy a spectacular view of Tokyo, and it’s free of charge. I was not disappointed with the view 202 meters above the ground. Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower was visible in the distance. I also saw the Meiji Shrine and the green oasis of Yoyogi Park. That would be our next stop.
We came to Harajuku to see Meiji Shrine. Meiji Shrine became one of my favorite places in Tokyo. The fact that there were not too many crowds around was also effective in this. Set in a vast forest of about 100,000 trees, Meiji Shrine is the perfect place to go when you get bored of Tokyo’s modern skyscrapers. Here you can enjoy a relaxing stroll in the shade and connect with nature. We left the temple and entered Yoyogi Park. We found a place to sit and mingled with the Tokyoites relaxing and playing on their phones.
Later, in Harajuku, we met living models of manga culture. Walking through the narrow streets of Takeshita-dori, we saw shops selling unique clothes and places serving pancakes. Although Takeshita-dori was fun to see, it was not a place where one would want to spend too much time.
We arrived in Tokyo without much planning, but we were sure of what we wanted to see and do, so our visit was fruitful. We spent a lot of time getting around the city on the subway, but it was one of the quickest ways to get to know the Japanese.
Today we checked out of our hotel in Odaiba and moved to Narita, from where we have a flight tomorrow evening. We spent today resting a bit and shopping. Tomorrow we will mix with the crowds of Tokyo one last time.
Just hearing the name of this city has a dizzying effect. Its rhythm is even faster than I imagined. Skyscrapers, narrow streets, crowded bus stops, hustle and bustle, neon lights everywhere… Tokyo is a city where the past, present and future exist in perfect harmony, but I wish it wasn’t so crowded? It was neither like what we had read nor like other cities we had seen. I have lived in different cities of the world, I know what crowds are, how traffic can drive you crazy, but this is another land. Another world, Japan. Even if I close my eyes, the city coming at me continues to take my breath away and make me dizzy.
Today is our last day in Japan. We left the Hilton where we were staying near Narita airport and took a shuttle bus to the airport. We left our luggage in two lockers and went to Tokyo. We used the Keisei Line to go to the city center. In the Tokyo travel guides, it was explained that there were different options for transportation between the airport and the city center, Narita Express was the fastest way, but the Keisei Line was not mentioned much. This line was a bit slower than the other one, with more stops, but you could get to the city center in about 80 minutes for half the price of the other options.
Our flight departed at 22:30, so we could spend enough time in Tokyo. First we stopped by Tokyo Station, which is the busiest train station in Japan. It is not only a transportation center. There are all kinds of options here, including shopping and eating, museums and accommodation. This station consists of a total of 28 train platforms and subway stops serving eight local train lines and seven Shinkansen lines. In other words, it is a place to visit without fear if you are willing to get lost to get somewhere. Foreigners who enter here and catch the right train leave behind an important stage of the test of survival in Japan. Fortunately, we were not in a hurry to get anywhere from this station today. The red brick station building from 1914 serves as a hotel, restaurant and art gallery. The opposite side of the station, Yaesu, is surrounded by skyscrapers. In the underground tunnels of the station there are restaurants serving interesting tastes of Japanese cuisine. If you like freshly made noodles and ramen, you can easily visit the restaurant number 42.
Our next stop was Shinjuku. We spent the most comfortable hours of our 17-day tiring sightseeing program in a massage parlor here. After a break of about an hour, we felt like we had been reborn. We wandered the streets without catching up. We walked among the crowds, risking to get lost. We spent hours like leaves in a river, not knowing where the current would take us. At one point, we came across one of Tokyo’s symbols, a giant 3D cat. This billboard on top of a building was made especially for cat enthusiasts, but over time it became the sign that managed to attract the most attention among thousands of bright billboards. The cat is as mischievous and cheeky as the real thing. Every now and then it meows and looks at passersby on the sidewalk.
For those who want to get away from the dizzying crowds of Shinjuku, there is a paradise nearby. The park is called Shinjuku Gyoen. It is very different from the crowded streets around. As soon as we passed through the turnstiles, we stepped into a peaceful land. It offers an escape from the concrete cityscape of Tokyo. Once the domain of a feudal lord, it later became the imperial garden for the imperial family, nobility and invited guests. While Yoyogi Park, the Imperial Palace and other temples and shrines offer green spaces, none can match Shinjuku Gyoen, which covers a massive 144 acres and remains one of the best places to visit in Tokyo. We spent a lot of time walking and taking our time, the enchanting hues of autumn reflected in the leaves of the trees. The poetic landscape was a beautiful reminder that we were nearing the end of our trip to Japan.
Time seemed to pass faster today than any other day. It was time to say goodbye to the park, to Tokyo, even to Japan.
We took the Keisei Line to the airport, took our suitcases from the locker, processed our tickets, passed the passport line and headed to the gate of our plane.
During our time in Japan, we immersed ourselves in the hustle and bustle, we made wishes and prayed at temples and shrines as much as a Buddhist. We got lost in the subways, we traveled shoulder to shoulder on the trains. We had gotten used to the rhythm of the country, at least our brains no longer rejected what we saw, but our feet? With the fatigue of so many days, our feet were too tired to fulfill the commands given.
The traditional beauty of ancient temples, mystical shrines, majestic castles and the modern buildings of big cities meet in an unbroken balance in Japan. Here we saw contrasts living together. We had a hard time understanding the contrasts between society’s outward appearance and its inner world. Here it is easy to get the idea of two opposing Japanes. One is the hyper version of neon and new generation technology. The other is a defender of deep traditions, from Shinto to samurai. Tokyo’s seemingly never-ending sprawl, for example, was wonderful, but there was also a mystical world of silent petitions in hidden temples. Kyoto proudly wears its ancient history on its sleeve, but we also saw a great deal of interest in the capsule hotels, cafes staffed by maids and pachinko parlors in the city center. Some distance from the urban sprawl, onsen baths, towering mountains and empty beaches sought to distract people from the pressures of modern life.
One has to live here for a long time to recognize its characteristic traits, famous for their contrasts. Extremely reserved but sometimes aggressive, very kind but sometimes rude, loyal and ungrateful, brave and cowardly… All of these are the most distinctive characteristics of the Japanese nation. The happy coexistence of two such opposite moods is a question mark that no one can easily find an answer to.
Even though we know that we cannot unlock Japan with a 17-day trip, we leave with good memories from our first meeting. If we have time, if we can afford it, maybe we will visit again next time. Not only in the big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but also in the rural areas of Japan, where we will discover places of traditional and modern wonder. We will continue to visit historic towns. Maybe we’ll relax in a hot spring or climb Mount Fuji. This place is full of endless beauty. We will get to know its nature better, and who knows, maybe we will roll our own sushi. Maybe all this will happen if we come back here again. Maybe…But today is “Farewell to Japan” day. The plane we will soon board will take us home. The life we interrupted will continue. I wish we could take more breaks from this life. If only we could catch such opportunities more often.
We left the park and arrived at Shinjuku station, where we took the train to Narita Airport. It was dark, Tokyo was saying hello to another glittering night. At the stops we passed along the way, everyone was in the same hurry to get somewhere. I remembered 17 days ago when we arrived at Osaka airport, how fast time had flown. The days chased each other, new ones were added to the sights we saw every day.
We encountered many surprises in our first contact with an unfamiliar culture. We got lost, tired, hungry, but we never regretted coming to Japan. Japan has been one of the most interesting places in our lives. With its temples, food and people… With behaviors we had never encountered before…
We are used to the surprises of other countries and foreign cities. There are so many places to explore, so much to see, but today I am going home. I remember the inscription on the old stone I came across in a Zen temple in Kyoto:
“I only learn to be content”
Next: Hello and Farewell to Japan