Archive for the ‘Tokyo’ Category.


With the exception of a Time Out Tokyo City Guide in my bag, I arrived in Tokyo after an overnight flight from Singapore completely unprepared. In every other place I have visited, that would not have been a big deal. Tokyo on the other hand marches to its own beat. My first step at Tokyo airport was to find a tourist information counter to book me a hotel, as they do all over Europe and in South Africa. No such luck. At least I had a guide book, I could research and call some hotels, this is exactly why I brought my mobile phone with me, to handle urgent situations like this. Not a chance. While my phone was fully functional everywhere else I have been, it is useless in Japan which runs exclusively on the new 3G network. So I decided to get some cash from the ATM so I could get some change to use the pay phone. What’s this, Japanese ATMs don’t accept any foreign bank cards? Wonderful. Thankfully I had 120 USD that Matt and Adam gave me in Cape Town after I charged the car rental. That got converted to Yen, I booked a train ticket for the 40 mile journey into Tokyo, got some change for the payphone, called the first listing from Time Out under moderately priced hotels in the Roppongi district, and was told to stop by, rooms were available. After a fairly hideous hour in the airport, where I felt like I was sticking out like a 6’3″ blonde alien in a land of 5′ tall dark haired people, things seemed to be turning in my favor. When the Narita Express Airport Train droped me off at Tokyo Station, I was still on the wrong side of town, but had studied the subway map in detail and felt confident that I could handle it. I stopped by the information booth at Tokyo Station just to make sure I was on the right track. Ahh, of course, you speak absolutely no English sir, thank you very much. So I watched a few people buy tickets to see how it worked, then with relief noticed there was an English button on the ticket machine display. Ticket in hand and in a subway that has thankfully added English to all of its signs, I made my way via Ginza to the Roppongi station. The Ibis Hotel Roppongi is right by the subway exit, and as I saw it I patted myself on the back for accomplishing what seemed like a monumental task at the time – booking a hotel and making it there from the airport.

Five minutes later the front desk attendant tells me that the hotel is sold out.

Things went hazy at this point, and exactly what I said is unclear. All I know is that a few minutes later I had a room key in my hand and all of the attendants at the front desk were bowing at me. I think I was polite, but at the same time firm. Very firm.

After that opening half-day fiasco, things just seemed to get simpler, and before I knew it, I was out exploring. There are 23 districts in Tokyo, each of which is described as a city unto itself. With only eight days, I struck most of them off the list, keeping it simple.

In the Marunouchi district lies the Imperial Palace and East Gardens. While the palace is off limits, the gardens are open to the public. The Otemon Gate entrance


And the gardens, a good place to relax on a sunny day in Tokyo


Down by Tokyo Bay is the famous fish market where the daily catch is auctioned off each morning, with some of the fish going to the local sushi stands that sell it at the pinnacle of freshness. The stands are intermittently located along with vendors of everything else Japanese in tiny alleys heaving with masses of people. Suffice to say there was only so much time I could spend in those tight quarters before dashing off to the first open space I could find


The Yasukuni Shrine in Marunouchi is the national war memorial



In 1979 Yasukuni leaders secretly enshrined, among others, former prime minister Tojo Hideki, who ordered the Pearl Harbor bombing, and General Matsui Iwane, who was responsible for the absolute pillaging of the Chinese capital of Nanking. Both had been tried, convicted and executed as war criminals by Allied war tribunals. According to the Yasukuni priests, the Allied tribunals were a sham, and the category of war criminal is a modern, Western construct that is irrelevant to the Shinto religion. Based on that sound reasoning, fourteen executed war criminals in total were enshrined in this national memorial.

From what I can tell, the presence of these war criminals in the shrine has been the biggest hindrance to Japan improving its relationships with neighbors like China and Korea that were harmed in the past by Japan’s imperial ways. The international anger has flared recently with current prime minister Junichiro becoming the first premier to make annual visits to the shrine, including a visit two days after mine. The Chinese this week have accused Junichiro of permanently damaging Chinese-Japanese relations, claiming that honoring the criminals enshrined at Yasukuni is tantamount to the German’s erecting a war shrine in honor of Hitler. The tension over this issue makes it seem like the war just ended. I just read that the Yasukuni Shrine website has been virtually disabled by a denial of service attack that has been ongoing since September 2004. The source of the attack? A Chinese domain of course! Good stuff, I will be interested when I am in China to get some opinions on this.

Tokyo is massive, as is the population, and its biggest districts cater to the every need of that population. On any given neon lit block, you can find an Armani shop, a Pachinko & Slots parlor, tasty sushi, a bourbon bar, all night massage parlors, Starbucks Coffee, and love hotels renting rooms by the hour. Everything seems to go in a culture where everybody is noticeably polite and impeccably dressed. It was strangely contradictory, in that anything you want can be had, but yet there is a noticeable lack of hustlers out there trying to draw you in to have it. After all, that would be considered rude.

Shibuya, an endless sea of neon and humanity


Shinjuku, the neon even looks bright by day


I discovered a Citibank ATM in Shinjuku that was happy to accept my Chevy Chase Bank card. Proximity to this Citibank was a deciding factor in my relocating from Roppongi to the Shinjuku Washington Hotel. From my new room on the 18th floor looking up at the Park Hyatt, made famous by the movie Lost in Translation. The atrium on the top of the right tower with the triangle of windows contains the 43rd floor Peak Bar. The middle tower, the 51st floor New York Bar & Restaurant, and I believe the atrium atop the tallest tower contains a swimming pool. Great views from the Peak & New York bars, stopped by there on a few different nights to sip a few tasty but outrageously expensive cocktails. Two Jack & Cokes and two beers = 10,000 Yen ($90)


Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No. 1, also known as the Tokyo twin towers, has observation floors at the top of both towers


It was the one shot I had of getting a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, but it was too hazy to see that day. Looking south at one of Tokyo’s largest parks, Shinjuku Gyoen, that supposedly turns pink when its 1,500 cherry blossom trees are in bloom. Off to the left, a knock off of the Empire State Building that, not coincidentally, is connected to a shopping complex called Times Square. Off in the distance beyond the cityscape is Tokyo Bay. Since it was too hazy to see out there, I decided to venture over for a look around


Across Tokyo Bay is Odaiba, a massive island completely created by land reclamation from the bay. A monorail system takes you over the bay on Rainbow Bridge and around the island. A shot here from the monorail, the Fuji building on Odaiba, with Rainbow Bridge in the background as well as the Tokyo Tower, a knockoff of Eifel’s tower. Not coincidentally, the Tokyo tower is a few meters taller


Yanaka is home to Tokyo’s highest concentration of temples, and was a cool place to spend a few hours wondering around. It is very quiet, seemingly a maze of twisting streets and alleys that I got lost in a few times, only to stumble into another temple. Each one is a shrine to somebody who contributed significantly to Japanese culture over the centuries



Apparently there are an average of fifteen earthquakes a year that are strong enough to actually be felt in Tokyo. I experienced two of them in four days. On Sunday at the Roppongi Ibis I was woken up from an afternoon siesta by my bed shaking. As I sat up and put my feet on the floor, I realized it too was shaking. And the curtains were swinging back and forth. Before I could even get to the supposed safety of the doorway it was all over. The Tokyo news had immediate coverage and showed some video from public cameras of a few things shaking around, but at 5.1 on the Richter scale I don’t think there was much to worry about. Strange experience though.
Wednesday evening I was relaxing at the Shinjuku Washington watching the movie Dazed and Confused on my laptop, and within the span of a few minutes, that was exactly how I felt. My bed started to vibrate, then the floor and the walls, and then, the sickening sensation of my entire room, on the 18th and top floor of the hotel, noticeably swaying back and forth. This didn’t end right away, and I was quickly dressed and running down 18 flights of stairs to get the hell out. By the time I did get out it was all over. I spent about a minute feeling relieved before realizing nobody else had shared in my panic. So I took the elevator back up to my room and spent the next two hours on the internet reading about earthquakes until I calmed down. This was a 6.2 quake according to the news. I am starting to think this is par for the course around here. Take a look at the sign on the back of the door to my hotel room


Kura and Remy working behind the bar at Punky Music in Roppongi. Roppongi goes all night non-stop, and in keeping with that, so does Punky Music, open 24 hours a day. This worked out well with my up-all-night-sleep-all-day jetlag still in effect for the first few days. Once Kura found out I liked blues, he played CDs by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and a Chicago Blues Harmonica compilation, all back to back. Good man. Walking home at 7 a.m., I was definitely in the Land of the Rising Sun


Eight days in Tokyo flew by, you could spend months there just getting your bearings, but you’d need some deep pockets. After a hectic few hours earlier in the week at the Chinese Embassy, my travel visa had been approved and so it was time to move on, next stop Beijing.