Saturday, 6th February 2019
Glasgow and an early start to get out to the airport for the 8.15 flight to Heathrow. All going smoothly and connected to Haneda flight on time. One good thing about a 4.30 am start, in fact probably the only good thing, is not feeling guilty about enjoying a G & T on board prior to lunch. Couldn’t fault BA for the level of service and the courteousness and helpfulness of their staff. Lunch was okay for airline food (Teriyaki chicken and rice) though, unlike my seat companions I hadn’t thought to practice with chopsticks beforehand so felt very unsophisticated using my knife and fork! Nor did I think to bring my slippers. As soon as the Japanese passengers got seated the first thing they did was remove their shoes and put on slippers. (Note to self: buy ‘plane’ slippers in Tokyo for the return journey.) Didn’t manage to sleep but did get to watch a couple of films and while away the rest of the journey being plied with snacks and drinks. Arrived Haneda at 10.30 p.m. our time / 7.30 a.m. Tokyo time and delighted to see Faye (and baby bump) waiting patiently at the airport and also surprised and delighted to find mild weather and sunshine.
Sunday, 7th February
Bus to Shibuya using my new Pasmo (a prepaid smart card for all public transport) and then taxi to Faye’s apartment which is very small but nevertheless delightful.
Almost made my first faux pas by attempting to close the taxi door but was stopped in time by Faye who later explained that this is always done electronically by the driver. First Japanese custom learned.
Having decided to stay awake until evening, had a long walk around Hanegi Park which is strolling distance (up the delightfully named Plum Tree Hill) from the apartment. Lots and lots of families out enjoying the mild weather. Apart from the many joggers we seemed to be the only ones without at least one small child or a tiny dog (resplendent in winter woolly). Too early in the year for cherry blossom but lots of plum trees starting to flower so should be spectacular by next week when the annual Plum Festival begins. Also a lovely Japanese garden and lots of magnolia trees and ginko trees, sadly still bare after the winter.
By now, having walked off the tiredness, a wee jaunt into Shimokitazawa, a local venue for fashion retailers, cafes, bars, theatres and live music venues. Never have I seen so many shops crammed in together, especially in the smaller side streets, with an amazing display of things I didn’t even know existed.
Finally, my first meal in Japan. Okonomiyaki (okonomi meaning “what you like” or “how you like” and yaki meaning “cooked”) – a type of savoury pancake with cabbage and beansprouts cooked on a hot grill plate with added mochi (pulverised rice cake which looks and tastes like melted cheese) and topped by bonito flakes (wafer thin slices of preserved fish which are so thin that the hot steam of the pancake causes them to writhe around and appear alive!) As this is a typically Japanese restaurant the only eating implements on offer were chopsticks with which I struggled but, only barely, avoiding embarrassing myself with.
Monday, 8th February
An early start and a bus to Shibuya Crossing .
Out to Yoyogi park (the people’s park) and Meiji Jingu, one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Despite being in walking distance of bustling city life this is an oasis of calm and tranquility and feels a world away. The two torii gates at the entrance of the shrine are forty feet high. When you pass through you are symbolically entering a sacred place and leaving behind the everyday. The tradition is that one should bow before entering the torrii gates and walk either to the right or the left of the gates, avoiding the middle path which is holy ground but not many people stick to this tradition any longer. The long path to the shrine buildings is beautifully lined by large cedar trees. On the way to the shrine there is an impressive display of colourful empty sake barrels (kazaridaru) giving honor to the gods and opposite this another display of empty wine casks. In front of the shrine are water basins and copper ladles, chozuya but pronounced temizuya, The idea of this is to purify yourself in both mind and body before praying to the gods. The tradition is for water to be scooped over both hands and then water from a cupped hand should be swilled around the mouth before spitting it out on the ground but many people ignore this last step and just cleanse their hands before entering the shrine. The tradition here is to bow slightly once you approach the front of the shrine, the haiden, throw a coin into the offertory box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and then bow slightly to excuse yourself and walk away from the front of the shrine. On exiting the shrine there is a wall of wooden plaques (Ema) on each of which visitors to the shrine have written their own message and also tags can be purchased specific to whatever they are wishing for.
Once out of Meiji we passed the quaint Harajuku Station which is deceptive as the railway system in Japan must be one of the most efficient and modern looking systems in the world. The trains are spotlessly clean (no doubt helped by the no eating or drinking policy) and always on time and although it would have been almost impossible for me to find my way around the stations on my own, with Faye by my side we changed from station to station and train to train seamlessly.
Having missed lunch time a lot of the eating places in Tokyo were closed until the evening but fortunately Faye remembered the wonderful Mr Farmer vegetable restaurant where we had the best home made ginger ale I have ever tasted and some very good pumpkin soup, salad and bread with, surprisingly, a small dish of marmalade rather than butter.
Finally a quick trip to Omotesando, one of the most expensive areas in Tokyo and a luxury shopping destination.
Tuesday, 5th February
Today started at Setagaya Daita railway station for our venture to Nijubashimae, Marunouchi and the Imperial Palace, the primary residence of the Emperor Although not able to enter the palace, or indeed the grounds as it is surrounded by a wall and a moat and guarded by an incredible number of policemen we did get glimpses of the palace itself as well as the impressive gates and gatehouses. The palace itself is built on the site of the old Edo Castle and including the gardens covers a total area of 1.15 square kilometers. At one time it was thought that the palace grounds were valued by some to be more than the value of all the real estate in the state of California. As with Shibuya and the Meiji shrine, the palace is located next to the concrete jungle that is the financial district of Tokyo where most government offices and the British Embassy are situated and yet manages to retain a sense of peace and calm. Around the perimeter of the palace grounds is a popular 5k running circuit which, with the continuing mild weather, we were able to walk. As with all things Japanese, the running course has its own etiquette with runners all running counter-clockwise keeping the palace on the left and keeping to single file.
Next on to Ginza for yet another astounding display of shops, restaurants etc.
Tonight we ate at Torigin, a Yakatori restaurant. Basically yakitori is meat and vegetables on skewers grilled over charcoal and seasoned with salt or tare sauce and is absolutely delicious. Our second course was kamameshi, rice cooked in an iron pot (kama) with a variety of meat, seafood and vegetables with some form of stock. Again decidedly delicious with the best bits being the burnt bits at the sides and bottom of the pot which were extra tasty. By the time we had finished eating my chopsticks technique had definitely improved. Something I did notice was that no-one puts their handbags on the floor. They either put them in a designated space beyond the eating space or, if sitting at the kitchen grilling space, then baskets are provided under the chairs for them. Another Japanese custom learned today.
After a quick look around yet another luxury shopping area of Ginza where notably luxury designer fashion shops rub shoulders with tiny wee everyday shops, we headed back to Shibuya crossing for a night view. As with our previous visit which was just after lunch on Monday it wasn’t as busy as it can be but to me the sheer number of people and the competing sounds from all the adverts was almost overwhelming.