Day 101-103: Tokyo, Japan

We flew from Okinawa to Tokyo on April 15, which is the middle of sakura (cherry blossom) season. Lucky us! Late that same night, our friends Chris and Greg and their girls Mika and Hannah also arrived, flying in from Sydney, Australia. All of us were to spend 10 days travelling around Japan. The plan was to spend three nights in Tokyo, then hit the road in a minivan, then end up back in Tokyo for three more nights.

It’s easy to experience Japanese culture in Tokyo, as the city is vast and there is an estimated 38 million people living in the Greater Tokyo area. Our Tokyo Tourism Travel Guide (highly recommended and free at the airport) lists no less than 20 distinct districts to visit.

Sakura season

Growing up in the Lower Mainland in British Columbia, Canada, I was used to seeing cherry blossoms in the spring time. But in Japan, sakura season is revered and hanami (cherry blossom viewing) has been observed for centuries. The blossoms “represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short.” (Homaru Cantu)

This is the cherry blossom tree across the street from our hotel. I took this photo from our hotel room window.

Shinobazunoike Bentendo Temple, Ueno Park

Bentendo Temple sits on a man-made island in Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. Its main object of worship, the Happi (eight-armed) Benzaiten originally comes from Hogonji Temple on Chikubu Island.

Purification fountain.

Temple and shrine etiquette: chozu

Chozu (cleansing yourself) is part of temple and shrine etiquette. “At the purification fountain near the shrine’s entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. Do not return any water from the ladle into the fountain, but dispose of it next to the fountain.”

A woman in front of the Happi (eight-armed) Benzaiten shrine.
Votive tablets.
On the way to the temple, we passed by a stall that was offering barbecued black pig products.

TeamLab Borderless

Elina and Mika at the entrance to the exhibition. Photo by Chris

Before coming out to Japan, Chris and Greg bought us all tickets to this extraordinary permanent digital art exhibition produced by teamLab at Palette Town, an entertainment and shopping precinct in a district called Odaiba, by Tokyo Port. There was a long queue to get in, even for those of us who already had tickets, but it was well worth the half-hour wait. We were blown away by the exhibition. I’ll let the following pics and videos speak for themselves.

Elina and Mika coloured in a bird and a lizard each and wrote their names on them. Their newly created works of art were then projected onto the walls and floor and became part of the exhibition. It was great for the girls to see their newly created artworks animated as part of the exhibition. Photos by Elina

The aquarium area where creatures made by children were projected onto the walls.
In this interactive exhibition, you climb on poles affixed with foot and hand holds, each glowing with a different colour. The objective is to choose one colour and move across the poles to the other side using foot and handholds in that colour only. The twist is, the colours change as you move along the poles …
Looking up.
Me taking a photo looking down at the mirrored floor underneath my feet.
It felt like this was a room from the Matrix.

Venus Fort mall in Palette Town

We went into the Venus Fort mall at Palette Town in Odaiba after attending the TeamLab exhibition. This indoor mall was built to replicate old European buildings.

Photo by Paul
Blue sky and clouds were painted on the ceiling.
A very, very fancy fountain inside the mall.
To the delight of the girls, there was a Studio Ghibli store featuring many Totoro products.
These miniature models of traditional Japanese shops were so kawaii (cute)!


We went to Takeshita street, a pedestrian shopping street in Harajuku. It’s famous for being the birthplace of kawaii (cute) culture and is supposedly the favoured hangout spot for trend-setting teenage Japanese fashionistas. We spotted only two, and no one resembling the Harajuku Girls that used to accompany singer Gwen Stefani. The street was really crowded with tourists like us, checking out the colourful shops specialising in kawaii clothes and goods. The highlight for us were some really good crepes and later happening upon a peaceful garden nearby.

The plastic-food examples of the crepes. So many yummy choices, most of them involving a lot of cream! Photo by Paul

Togo Shrine

We came across this beautiful garden and small shrine completely by accident, as we were walking in the back streets near Takeshita Street. There were lots of koi in the pond and we also spotted a grey heron who was very focussed on catching dinner.

Photo by Paul

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu) in Shibuya is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. It’s in a beautiful 70-hectare park covered with 120,000 trees planted when the shrine was established in 1915. It is an important and popular shrine in Japan because: “Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan. He was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867 at the peak of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan’s feudal era came to an end and the emperor was restored to power. During the Meiji Period, Japan modernized and westernized to join the world’s major powers by the time Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912.”

Having a bit of fun in front of one of the gates to Meiji Shrine.
Dozens of sake barrels on display on the walk to Meiji Shrine.
The purification fountain.
Reading prayers and wishes on the votive tablets.

We had arrived late in the day at Meiji Shrine and had only a few minutes before they closed the shrine and started to usher people out. It was a lovely evening walk back to the train station through the park, along a path lit by lanterns.

Tokyo subway

The Tokyo subway network is mind-boggling. The other rapid transit systems we have taken on this trip, in Singapore and Hong Kong, are super easy in comparison. Taking trains in Tokyo is an unforgettable experience. Something like 15 of the busiest 20 train stations in the world are in Tokyo, and four of the remaining five stations are in other Japanese cities. (Paul read somewhere that Gare du Nord, in Paris, is the other one.)

A map of the Tokyo subway network, which includes both underground and above-ground lines. Photo by Chris

Peak hours on Tokyo trains are CRAZY. I wish I had a picture to show you but I was squashed and using my arms to hang on for dear life. Those who don’t have anything to hang on to hold on to their smartphones and bags and just sway with the movement of the train, propped up by fellow passengers.

Elina and I got separated at one point and Greg – who was closer to her and holding little Hannah in his arms and away from the fray – asked if she was OK as she looked like she was being squeezed against the door of the train. She wasn’t, and Greg had to tell a very tall man to back off as there was a child behind him. And yes, they do have white-gloved “pushers” to pack as many people as possible in the trains. Here’s a video on YouTube. It’s quite the experience.

Mika, Elina and Paul descend the escalator towards one of the platforms. The coloured boxes tell people where to queue up.
Japan is very orderly and we didn’t see anyone get angry despite how crowded the trains were.

We travelled through the transportation network using the Pasmo card, which works on almost all the privatised train lines. You pay a deposit for the card and then top it up at any of the machines located in each station.

Elina, Greg, Mika, Chris and Hannah waiting for the train. We were all pretty knackered after a big day out and about sightseeing.
The interior of one of the trains. This was during off-peak hours, which is why they’re smiling (except for camera-shy Hannah).

Gojo Tenjinsha, Ueno Park

Gojo Tenjinsha is one of the many shrines and temples in Ueno Park and the surrounding area. We loved how they were all made of wood.

This structure was heavily laden with votive tablets.

More temple/shrine etiquette: “At the offering hall, throw a coin into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of bell or gong, use it before praying in order to get the kami’s attention.”

Our first three days in Tokyo really gave us only a taste of this frenetic city. We would spend another three days there but first, all seven of us hit the road in a minivan and headed towards Mount Fuji.