Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tokyo tromping

Despite the fact that we were going to Japan ostensibly to ski and we aren’t necessarily big-city types, it seemed silly to not spend at least a little time in Tokyo, since it’s one of the world’s great cities and sports the highest population density in the world, which in itself was a bit of an intriguing concept to experience.  So with our flight home leaving Sunday night we hopped a flight from Sapporo to Tokyo on Saturday morning for a 30 hour visit. 

But before I get there, I have to share this photo with one of our fellow bus-mates as we were on our way to a different area to ski earlier in the week:
I've seen a lot of kids driving with their goggles on, but bus-riding with them on?

As we were on our way to Japan it occurred to me that I could have a great connection there.  John Duley was a fellow track/cross country runner in high school (whom I was always worried about blowing by me in the last 200 meters!), yet our paths had not crossed much – actually, at all – since graduation. But I had known that he had spent at least a little time in Japan and fortunately our mutual friend Dave had all of John’s known email addresses, so I fired him a quick message asking if he was indeed out there and was able to get together with us in Tokyo.  As we waited for our skis to come around the luggage carousel it occurred to me that it’s not often you get a chance to see someone for the first time in 30 years!  But upon exiting customs there he was, looking no worse for the wear!  With one 2 year break back in Portland to care for his ailing dad, John has lived in Tokyo since he graduated, building up a fine life that includes a great family.  And they were all gracious enough to take us in for the weekend and show us the various Tokyo sights. 

Like a lot of cities, Tokyo’s main attraction is just heading downtown and wandering around.  The subway is famously extensive and with John gracefully navigating the labrinthine  - but extraordinarily efficient – system we were whisked into the heart of downtown Tokyo and emerged to a veritable sea of people:

Because it was a weekend, there was no need on the subways for the apparently-famous “pushers”; those people employed by the city to man the subway landings and physically push people into the cars so that the doors can close.  Apparently quite necessary for the morning and evening commutes…..

As expected, shopping appears to be the primary weekend activity for Tokyonians, and the retail world is happy to oblige, with more Tommy Hilfiger, Prada, Versace, American Eagle, etc stores than you can shake a stick at.  Including this one:

Though with the temps in the 70’s and a population of 13 million it was a bit hard to imagine backcountry and powder, even though we were just in it the day before. 

The shoe-oggling – both in the stores and on the feet – was super impressive:  Japanese are famous for their sneaker culture (I was hoping to bump into one of those stores) and their high fashion, with Kenneth Cole, Jimmy Choo, and other big time shoe vendors (I tried to take a pic of a $2500 pair of stillettos in Jimmy Choos but was apprehended before I could even surrepititiously shoot from the hip; they had me pegged as a shoe picture-taker from the moment I walked in!).  Here are a couple of cool examples:

We made it over to the big monument/park in the middle of town – it’s sort of Tokyo’s version of Central Park – that was quite an oasis in the midst of mayhem.  Hundreds of acres (hectares, I suppose) of lush, green forest right in the heart of the city, with nice paths and a beautiful temple in the middle.  Here we are near the temple:

And this is a huge collection of sake casks:

That night we were hoping to take John and his family out for dinner, but they were keen for a good old-fashioned ‘Merican barbeque, so in the heart of Japan we threw down burgers, beer, and potato chips! 

The next morning we got up and ran about a mile down to a nice park that had about a mile-long loop in it, where we got to see the typical Asian exercise cultures: very slow jogging, very slow, methodical martial arts-looking stuff, walking backwards, weird exercise equipment, and  - despite the fact that there was a nice dirt trail – strolling on the cement paths.  We did see a few folks on nice road bikes, but given the flatness, the traffic, and the incessant traffic lights, we agreed that road riding Tokyo seemed like a bit of a frustrating experience at best.   

Then back into downtown, where we went up into the top of City Hall, for the most expansive views of expansive Tokyo:

Including their famous architecture, which we were keen to see:

We then moved on to the “big temple” (I can’t remember the name) that is probably the most-visited site in all of Japan.  Here’s the crowd:

And here’s the coolest tourist in the crowd:

These folks sweep smoke from the burning incense onto themselves as a blessing:

And there was a wedding with a traditionally-dressed bride:

We are always keen to get local, unusual street food, and while I can’t remember what these are called, the combination of cabbage, flour, ham, and other goodies in this kinda folded-over savory pancake was great:

We didn’t partake in the ice cream burger:

Though we probably should have! 

We had heard that  - like many big cities – bikes are a huge part of Tokyo life:

Though a weird little thunderstorm came in and took care of a lot of them:

Soon enough it was time to start our long journey home, which involved John not only helping us haul our skis and gear to the subway, but again navigating the subway system to ensure that we got on the right train to the right place.  Thanks again to a great host!

While we were only in Tokyo for a day-plus, we felt like we got a pretty good sense of it and probably won’t tourize ourselves there again (though we will connect with John again), and were psyched to get that taste.  I had always heard that the Japanese culture was pretty refined, and we definitely found it to be true:  very little litter, people dressed very nicely, super cordial and polite, and everyone gracefully accomodating everyone else, which they sort of have to do.  And where else can you be assured of getting a nice bathrobe in your hotel room:

And a heated toilet seat!

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