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Published: November 30th 2018
Moon Over Tokyo
This was the scene that greeted me as I exited the monorail to transfer to the Tokyo subway at Daimon station.
If you followed my Midlife Crisis Flashpacking Trip
series, you may recall that that trip had a couple of false endings while I sorted out terms of employment with a potential (and now my current) employer. I’ve been at my new job for over six months now. Because I had a number of use-it-or-lose-it days off, I decided to visit family and friends in Singapore during Thanksgiving week. When I booked my flights, I chose an option with a 16 hour layover in Tokyo, one of my favorite cities. As this was my eighth time in Tokyo (three visits + five long (12+ hours) layovers), I didn’t have a specific list of sights I wanted to see other than a vague plan to eat breakfast at Tsukiji after landing, and then look for fall foliage.
Tsukiji: A Shadow of its Former Self
I landed at Haneda Airport just before 6am, cleared immigration, topped up my Suica card, hopped onto the monorail, and switched over to the subway to get to Tsukiji. As I walked through the subway station, a worker who was cleaning the hand rails stood up, bowed, and greeted me with ohio gosai mas
. You just have to love
My chirashi bowl for breakfast at Sushi Zanmai.
the service culture in Japan.
The Tsukiji Inner Market - which includes the wholesalers and the world famous tuna auction, recently moved to another location, but the Outer Market remained at Tsukiji. I was curious to see how this has impacted the stall holders in the Outer Market. The answer was obvious as soon as I approached on foot: the Outer Market was a shadow of its former self. Many stalls were not open or were only just opening when I arrived at 7.20am, and the formerly dense crowds were thin. This would have been a perfect time to visit one of the famous sushi restaurants like Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi, but they were closed as it was a Sunday. Drats. Anyway, I walked around, assessed which stalls were open, and then selected one of the Sushi Zanmai branches which I had never eaten at in the past because there was always a long queue to enter. This branch was full of Japanese people, so I felt good about my choice. I opted for a reasonably priced 1,500 yen chirashi bowl, which came piled high with different types of seafood. It was pretty good but not the best
One of the boats made of vegetables.
I’ve had. After this, I wandered around for a bit, ate a blowtorched Hokkaido awaebi (abalone) and a boiled snow crab leg from two street vendors. The crab leg was very tasty but priced steeply at 1,500 yen. I also visited the shrine at Tsukiji and saw evidence of a temple celebration as there were what I assumed to be offerings scattered all over the shrine as well as a vendor selling the offerings. While there, I witnessed a small group of devotees purchasing offerings and chanting as they proffered their gifts.
Desperately Seeking Fall Foliage
After eating my fill, I retrieved my backpack from the coin locker where I deposited it, and made my way to Shinjuku station which I decided would be my base for the rest of the day. Reaching Shinjuku, I found a coin locker exactly where I needed to board my train that evening for Narita, deposited my backpack there, and then headed towards Harajuku. Back in 2010
, Jeff and I wandered around Harajuku enjoying the kids in cosplay costumes and the girls in goth and lolita garb. As this was Sunday, I wondered if Cosplay Sunday was still a thing. Unfortunately, the
View of the Shinjuku skyscrapers from the Government Building viewing gallery.
fad appears to have died down. I sat down for a coffee at Tully’s and plotted my next move. I decided to walk over to the nearby Meiji Shrine to see fall foliage on the grounds. I had already been to the Meiji Shrine in the past. Sadly (for me), the trees were mostly still green. Nevertheless, I had a enjoyable few hours strolling the peaceful grounds. Visiting the shrine itself, it again looked as if I had missed a major temple celebration; there was an impressive display of produce that devotees had given as offerings, and a pretty display of chrysanthemum. There were also two “boats” made up of vegetables. I couldn’t extract any more detail from the displays, though.
After this initial disappointment, I thought maybe Shinjuku Gyoen might have better fall foliage. I decided to make my way there on foot. En route, I started thinking that it looked like a clear day by Tokyo standards. During prior visits, I’d paid good money to visit the viewing platforms at Tokyo Tower
, Tokyo Skytree
, and Mori Tower
, only to be a tad bit disappointed that my views of the far horizon were obstructed by haze. I realized that the free
Fall foliage at the lake.
viewing platform at the Shinjuku Government Office was on the way to the gardens, so I made a short diversion and found that the 45th floor observatory was open. I joined the queue and started getting my hopes up that I might be able to see Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed as soon as I stepped out of the elevator - it was hazy; I had been deceived by the blue skies at ground level. Nevertheless, I still had an enjoyable time surveying the Tokyo megalopolis from yet another vantage point.
The fall foliage at Shinjuku Gyoen looked promising from the observatory, so I made my way there. The gardens were pretty and there was a little more fall foliage than at the Meiji Shrine. I had an enjoyable couple of hours strolling the grounds and observing the locals enjoying their local park.
The Possibility of Endless Fascination
It was past 2pm when I departed the gardens. I wanted some lunch and I thought about a friendly little hole in the wall donburi and noodle shop nearby that I had patronized several times on past trips. I made my way there, collected a ticket
Lanterns lit up at night.
from the vending machine for my 650 yen lunch, and happily devoured the value meal handed to me by a cheerful English speaking lady.
I finished my meal at around 3pm and wondered what else I could do as I wasn’t ready to head to Narita Airport. I started wandering aimlessly towards Shinjuku station and then came across crowds and street vendors near the Hanazono Shrine in Kabukicho. Wandering into the crowd, I marveled at the street vendors and saw people carrying the same type of offerings that I had seen earlier that morning at Tsukiji. I turned right towards the shrine and saw even more people and vendors. At the shrine itself, there were many stalls selling the offerings, and a long line of devotees waiting to go to the shrine, presumably to pay their respects. Now, I don’t speak the language, I didn’t know what the heck was going on, but I still reveled in this amazing display of local color and culture. This is what travel is all about: the possibility of endless fascination. Independent travel can be tedious at times, but the effort can really pay off when one encounters gems such as these.
After observing the temple celebration, I still wasn’t ready to head to Narita, so I decided to visit the same onsen I visited last September
which, incidentally, was right next to the Hanazono Shrine. I spent a very enjoyable 1.5 hours soaking in the various pools, and then decided to enjoy a different perspective of the temple festival after sundown. The celebration was even more spectacular by night with lighted lanterns.
After another gander through the temple celebration, I reluctantly made my way to Shinjuku, retrieved my backpack, and took the next train to Narita Airport.
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