It’s been a dream of mine for a while now to go to Japan, although to be honest I’m not 100% sure why. I guess it’s some combination of what I imagined to be the urban insanity of Tokyo plus the hi-tech gadgets they’ve had for years before we did. William Gibson novels like Neuromancer didn’t help either. In fact, I think the most accurate information I had about the country came from the Simpson’s episode where Homer loses all their money in Japan and have to compete on a wacky game show to get back home. Maybe that’s it; the unknown factor. Still so much of Japan is foreign and unknown to Americans, and that was really what sold me. So when my wife and I compared wish lists of places to travel and Japan was at the top of both of our lists, I knew we were in for a crazy trip.
On a twelve hour flight, you’ve got a lot of time to kill. Luckily Singapore Air kept me pacified. Dark Knight Rises, Amazing SpiderMan, Bourne Legacy and a few episodes of Newsroom and we were there. We were determined to beat jet lag by staying awake until we got to our hotel; too bad that was 8am LA time. We got about 4 hours of sleep then got to work on Tokyo. Not sure if you know this, but Tokyo is huge. Godzilla huge. I guess I didn’t realize just quite how big a city of 13 million could be. It’s massive, and almost as futuristic as I imagined, but cleaner. We jumped around a lot thanks to our JR Rail passes, but I’ll try and consolidate some of the highlights per city.
This is the first place we hit and it was an eye opener. Home to the Senso-ji Temple, which is only about 1300 years old. To get to the temple steps you first enter through the imposing Thunder Gate, then walk down a long, crowded, narrow street flanked with shops on either side, selling everything from traditional costumes and snacks to Godzilla toys and solar-powered waving cats. At the steps of the temple you can bathe yourself in incense smoke to help cure whatever ails you, or at least smell like smoke all day. At the temple itself you toss in a coin, clap, say a prayer and pull a random fortune from a little drawer. Kat got the one bad luck paper, while I got the best luck paper so we figured they cancelled each other out. One train stop away from the temple was the Tokyo Sky Tree, the newest, tallest space needle-like building in Japan, which is the second largest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa. Thanks to the cost and 2+ hour wait, we didn’t actually go up to the top of the tower; but from the looks of the 4 story shopping mall underneath it where we spent several hours, most of the locals didn’t either.
By far, my favorite part of Tokyo. Akihabara, Akiba, Electric town, whatever you call it, this is where you go to get your gadgets. And by gadgets I mean anything from obscenely big screen TVs and crazy iphone accessories to the smallest replacement part for your vintage toaster. Akiba is a famous district of Tokyo where bootleg transistor radios could be found just after WW2. Now it’s a thriving main street lined with arcades, electronics and toy stores, but true to it’s roots the back alleys are where the deals are. The line between the grey market and bootleg market is pretty much invisible there. This is where we ate ramen at a shop where you placed your order outside from a vending machine. Inside you hand the chef your ticket and in 2 minutes you are slurping down some spicy udon. It’s also where I discovered vending machines in Japan sold both cold and hot beverages.
Imagine Times Square but bigger, even more crowded, more neon lights and minus all the freaks. They love shopping, but Shibuya is like the shopping capital. If you arent careful you can drop all your money here. Naturally my favorite part was the Shibuya Scramble, that crazy intersection where about a thousand people cross every two minutes. If you’ve seen Lost In Translation, you’ll know what I’m talking about because they show it like 10 times.
Seriously though, the Shibuya Scramble is no joke. If you go to Japan it’s one of those things that you have got to experience. Hopefully I’ll have my video of it up soon.
We hopped on the Shinkansen, the JR bullet train, and stopped in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. I’m not sure why, but I was imagining it to be more rural. And I guess in a way it was, but our first impression was it was just as busy as Tokyo. Kyoto is famous for a lot of reasons, but most notably the crazy amount of temples and shrines dotted through out the city. They’re everywhere, and a modern city just grew up around them so you can be walking down the street and pass some high end stores and suddenly there would be a shrine in the middle of them.
It seems like any image I’ve ever seen trying to embody the idea of ‘Classic Japan’ was taken here. The giant Fushimi Inari archway, the Golden Palace, the Thousand Arches, The Bamboo Forest, the Geisha District in Gion, all in Kyoto. We were a little too ambitious with our schedule and only got to see half the sites we planned to, but even that made for an beautiful experience.
Man, what to say about this. If you could find one word to describe the our visit, it would be heartbreaking. The city itself looked pretty similar to any other in Japan, meaning a it’s a sprawling metropolis like many, many others. What sets it apart is the Peace Park at the center of town, dedicated to remembering the atomic bomb detonation in World War 2.
Most visually striking is the Genbaku Dome, now renamed the A-Bomb Dome. It was pretty much the only structure left somewhat standing after the bomb, since it exploded about 600 meters directly over it. Everything else in the city was decimated. They’ve preserved the skeleton of the building as a standing memorial and a reminder of how tragic an effect nuclear weapons have. They also have an entire museum dedicated to the events before, during and after the bomb. It doesn’t pull any punches either; the exhibits are pretty gruesome and shocking at times, but also very thorough. It doesn’t try to paint any country in too specific a light, it’s goal really is to just capture the details, and the individuals effected by that bomb. It’s another must-see in Japan to really put into perspective how many countries can easily end the world as we know it through nuclear weapons.
Amazing trip. It really opened my eyes to what was almost an alternate universe to me, where public transportation actually works, massive metropolises are spotlessly clean, watermelons can cost over 200 bucks, toilets play music for you and grown business men love to read comics and play claw prize games till the wee hours in the morning.
God bless Japan.