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Published: February 14th 2008
I actually did not notice the huge snowflakes profusely coming down until I was half through my breakfast at a small lounge on the sixth floor of my hotel. My cue came from other guests who kept glancing in the direction of the windows…
A heavy snowstorm is not a common sight in Tokyo, but having one just after a relatively warm day the previous day was really out of the realm of possibilities. Seeing the streets and trees in the park below already blanketed with a couple of inches of the white stuff gave me an immediate excuse to postpone my final packing for my 4:30 PM flight to Atlanta and go immediately out to hunt for pictures.
It was at this point that another series of thoughts crossed my mind in rapid succession: If the snowstorm is this heavy and visibility so minimal, what will happen to Narita airport? Would my flight be cancelled? What about the traffic between Tokyo and Narita? How soon do I need to leave Tokyo to make it to the airport in time?
So, before retrieving my camera and running out the door, I decided that the most reasonable thing to
do was to check with the hotel’s concierge to find out what I would need to do. As I sort of anticipated, the concierge said that the Narita Limousine bus that I normally take to the airport would take at least three hours to reach Narita (the trip is normally around one and a half hours under normal circumstances and traffic), so he advised me to leave on the one that departed around 10:30 AM (Not very good news for my picture taking plans).
Of course, the reasonable solution was to take a train to the airport. Trains are the most natural, reliable, and convenient means of transportation in Japan, and they are not bothered by bad weather. You can always set your watch according to train departures here! (unless there is an earthquake!). Trains work very well so long as you can be fairly agile navigating your way through train stations. At this point I wished that I were backpacking my way through this trip. With my 2-week business trip cargo and camera gear on tow, “agile” wouldn’t be the choice word to describe me.
So, would I brave my way through Shinjuku station with a large,
heavy suitcase, a roller case with my computer and office gear, and my camera gear backpack? Unless you have been in Shinjuku station before, you might think that I am making a big deal out of nothing.
Reality is that Shinjuku station is the most traveled station in the Japan rail system. Over two million (yes 2,000,000) souls go through it every day and even when you are traveling unencumbered, it can be quite difficult to find your way through it without getting lost or being “taken” by the crowds in the direction that you don’t want to go. I would equate the experience to that of swimming category 5 whitewater rapids upstream with your Kayak tied to your foot.
Well, my photographic passion prevailed and I decided to delay my departure and push my luck at Shinjuku station thus buying around two hours of free time in Tokyo’s winter wonderland. The only question was: where to go? What would be the best setting for this eternal juxtaposition of the ultra-modern and the ultra-traditional in this city transformed by this unusual winter storm?
Since I still did not have unlimited time, I had to restrict my image
hunting to the general vicinity of Shinjuku. Fortunately for me, in Japanese cities, you are never too far away from Shinto or Buddhist temples, which are such great representations of the traditional Japan and they are typically surrounded by ultra-modern Japan.
Within walking distance from my hotel, there are at least two such temples, and by going a couple of metro stations away, one can reach a third one, so my plans were set and I was on the move.
My first visit was Joen-ji temple, just a few blocks from my hotel. I arrived there when one of the temple staff members was already at work trying to remove the accumulating snow from the temple’s entrance and at least a couple of children were already engaging in the serious business of snowball fighting. What was difficult to do was to take pictures while keeping the camera lens free from the falling snow. I had to balance the camera with one hand and an umbrella with the other one.
After exhausting the photo possibilities there, I got on the metro system and went to Shinjuku-Gyoenmae station, which placed me a couple of blocks from Taiso-ji temple, famous
for a large Buddha statue within its grounds. My harvest of images was not as good at this temple because there was a large crew of workers assembling a large tent structure. It was difficult to take pictures without getting in the way of the workers.
I rode the metro back to Nishi-Shinjuku and walked to Shinjuku park, located right behind my hotel. Here is where I had seen the beautiful trees from above that had given me the motivation to come take pictures in the first place. Shinjuku Park is also the site of yet another temple where I actually found the best photo opportunities of the day. I should have come here in the first place.
At about 11:30 AM, my time in winter wonderland finally came to an end, so I returned to my hotel, finished my packing, checked out, and took the hotel’s shuttle to Shinjuku station. The shuttle was also a bit delayed because of the snow.
With my heavy luggage in tow, my trek through Shinjuku station needed to be timed carefully to avoid ending up in the middle of a human tidal wave. I waited a few minutes outside one
of the West side entrances to the station. After getting a sense of the pacing of the crowds, I waited until a major wave of people came out and then quickly tried to cover as much ground as possible towards the JR section of the station, including carrying all my luggage up and down several flights of stairs. When I sensed that another major wave was about to overtake me, I headed for the nearest column or wall and waited close to it until the wave subsided.
I repeated the exercise a few times until I finally reached the JR gates. Unfortunately, my approach had taken me to the wrong side of the line of automated gates… Because of my bulky and heavy luggage, I could not use the automated gates and needed to go to the opposite side where JR employees could manually open a larger gate and let me in. Getting to the other side proved to be a challenge in itself because there was a constant flow of people passing through the gates to get out.
There was only one thing to do: I closed my eyes and started moving slowly but purposely across the
line of gates. Some people actually had to jump over the heavy suitcase that trailed me, but to my delight, I did not cause any serious accident or pile-ups.
A few minutes later, I was at the track where my Narita Express train was going to depart. I even got there a full 30 minutes before departure time… I had survived the toughest part of my journey home! The fourteen or so hours that followed were much more pleasant and uneventful.
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