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Published: October 29th 2009
Adrian at Imperial Palace, Tokyo
There is a form in our hotel room that requires us to report any illnesses immediately. By not doing so, a "guest may be subject to punishment". It is the first of many precautions against H1N1 (the swine flu) that we'll see. Being non-compliant Americans, we decide to ignore the form for a day or two. Adrian has a head cold which started the day before we left and blossomed into a really nasty cold during the 11 hour flight (the wonderful Japanese people sitting around us dutifully wearing their face masks to protect others from their germs must have been really upset with all his coughing). He doesn't have a fever, so we don't think it's swine flu, and is medicating with lots of DayQuil.
The view from our hotel room is just amazing. Tokyo is a sea of buildings that go on for miles and miles. Skyscrapers all the way to the horizon. We had no idea it was so vast - and home to 12 million people (compare that with about 800,000 in San Francisco; or keep in mind that all of California = about 35 million). Since space is at such a premium, the compactness has
resulted in some impressive solutions. One is building vertically - tall buildings, underground passageways. The second is the most incredible transit system we've ever seen. It's not a simple matter of one or two or six metro lines - there are 12. And that doesn't include the commuter and other train lines that connect in to them. And the trains run on time. To the minute, maybe even to the second. The general theme of Tokyo seems to be ORDER. Everything is spectacularly orderly - the systems, the people. And it's clean. No litter anywhere. From what we can tell, the Japanese are trained to put the good of the community ahead of the good of the individual, giving up a few freedoms for the benefit of all. It certainly seems to work well.
We woke up around 7am and headed out to a local cafe for breakfast. Coffee and pastries seems to be popular for breakfast. There are Starbucks, Tully's, and Mister Donut's everywhere in addition to some local chains. We had lattes at Excelsior Cafe (OK but they don't offer non-fat milk - Starbucks does) and a "barbarian pumpkin scone", which we think is somehow linked to
Gardens near Imperial Palace
the far north island of Hokkaido, where pumpkins and "barbarians" come from.
Our morning walk was through the ritzy Ginza neighborhood. Chanel, Dior, Burberry, the Apple Store. We had two goals - one was to find an ATM and the second was to get our Japan Rail Pass at Tokyo Station. We accomplished the second pretty easily but spent over three hours seeking out various ATMs to try our cards with absolutely no luck. In a near panic (what if we can't use ANY ATMs throughout the the entire trip???), a lovely woman at the local Citibank office pointed out that, if we wanted to take out approximately $300 USD, we should punch in 30,000 Yen (given the exchange rate of roughly 90-100 Yen/dollar). We'd been trying to take out 300,000 Yen ($3,000 USD), much higher than our Wells Fargo daily limit. Exchange rate now firmly fixed in our minds - check!
After solving that mini-crisis, we wandered over to the Imperial Palace, the former site of Edo Castle. Waaay back in the early 1600s, a powerful new shogun had decided to move the capital of Japan from Kyoto (where it had been for over 1,000 years) to
Crossing at Shibaya
a small village called Edo (later changed to Tokyo; interestingly, the capital wasn't officially changed to Tokyo until the late 1800s - but with the power base suddenly shifted away from Kyoto, it became capital in name only). The castle sits on a hill in the middle of Tokyo, surrounded by a moat and high stone walls. Little remains of the original castle but the Imperial Palace, which currently sits on the site, is the home of the current Emperor and Empress of Japan. Unfortunately, they like their privacy and it's not open to visitors, but the beautiful East Gardens usually are (apparently, though, not on Fridays, so we would have to come back later).
We grabbed lunch in Ginza. Ordering at restaurants is difficult. Most menus are entirely in kanjii (Japanese characters) and it's hopeless to try to figure them out. The system that seems to work best is point (at photos on the menu or at the plastic food display outside) and hope for the best. We were surprised to find that not many Japanese that we interacted with speak English (or at least aren't very confident with their English). We can't blame them.
Adrian gives the drumming video game a try in Shibaya - impossible to understand how to play the game since verbal instructions are provided in Japanese.
the afternoon we took the metro over to Harajuku, the young hipster neighborhood filled with stores selling cheap trendy clothes and accessories. It was packed with kids (mostly teenagers and 20-somethings) and a few tourists mixed in. The hipster look for women tends to be either short short skirts or super short denim shorts, a cute top, dark knee-high socks and either knee- or ankle-high boots. Kind of Hello Kitty crossed with Leather Babe.
About a mile or so away from Harajuku is the famous "times square" of Tokyo - Shibaya, featured in the movie "Lost in Translation". It's an enormous intersection of about five or six major roads which is lit up with all kinds of neon lights and multimedia displays (think NYC times square) and, when the lights change, thousands of people cross the street in all different directions. We watched the action for a while and then searched for a restaurant whose menu we could read (dim sum seems to be universal!) and then headed back to the hotel by about 9pm for an early night.
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