Saturday, 8 October 2011

Japan! Take Two: Tokyo - Around Asakusa

Finally, a post about our summer vacation in Japan! I can't believe we're so far behind with the blog - I'm suitably ashamed!

So - Japan: take two. Well, we went to Japan for 5 days in September 2010 for Chuseok (Korea's harvest festival-type holiday) and we fell in love with it!. That time we went to the most southerly Japanese mainland island, Kyushu, and visited various places there including Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Beppu and the active volcano Mount Aso. We discovered that the food was delicious and made with passion, the countryside was beautiful and the Japanese people were friendly and helpful - even the driving was careful and polite, a nice change from the standards on the roads here in Korea. We'd vowed that we would return as soon as we could to see more of this strange and beautiful land and to take in the craziness that is Tokyo. 

The beautiful wooden castle at Kumamoto. One of the places we visited on our first trip to Japan back in 2010.

In the second week of August, as soon as Rowan got back from his 2 week bonus vacation back home in England, we headed out to Tokyo for a week of tasty treats and temple spotting in Tokyo and Kyoto. We only took a week for our summer vacation this time (usually we get 2 weeks) as we didn't have enough time before the new semester started due to Rowan's 2 weeks in the UK. Besides, we are definitely not rich enough to spend 2 weeks in Japan, much as we'd love to! So poor old Rowan arrived back in Hanam on Saturday 6 August after a long flight from England via Amsterdam and had to pretty much immediately drop one set of bags and grab another to go back to Incheon airport again. We stayed in our usual favourite motel in Incheon, the Orange Motel so that we were ready in position for our morning flight to Tokyo. 

The flight to Tokyo was fine apart from some annoying problems as we were boarding. Unbeknownst to us, the plane was scheduled to carry on to Hawaii after it stopped at Japan making it a USA bound flight. That meant that we were not allowed to bring any liquids onto the plane even though we'd just bought (horribly overpriced) drinks in the departure lounge - Rowan was not at all amused! Korean customer service sucked as usual and consisted of laughing in our faces and not answering our questions - not helpful. Luckily for us the American chief steward had a better way of handling things and we ended up getting a free 2 litre bottle of bucks fizz and another of water - gotta love that American attitude to customer service! 

Well, quite!

We arrived in Narita airport and went through the usual fingerprinting and photographing that greets tourists in Japan now. Then we caught the train to Tokyo proper which is an incredible 41 miles away from the airport. When we arrived at our hostel in Asakusa in Tokyo's old town, it was late afternoon and raining. Luckily, our hostel was clean and tidy and had huge amounts of information up on the walls to help visitors make the most of their time. We stayed at one of the Khaosan chain hostels in Tokyo as we'd been really impressed by the Khaosan hostel we'd stayed at in Fukuoka and it didn't disappoint. The private twin room was tiny and had bunk beds but was immaculately clean and pretty cheap compared to most places in Tokyo.  

Handy guides on the wall for Khaosan guests to take. They included info on the best way to get to key tourist sights and quick guides with useful Japanese phrases for picking up men or women depending on your preference!

The confusing multi coloured spaghetti of Tokyo's many subway lines.

Instructive signs on the communal toilet in the hostel!

Well meaning though poorly spelt poster reminding people to limit their power usage as this was just 5 months or so after the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and seriously damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant causing power shortages and blackouts. 

Once we'd dumped our bags and got our free drink coupons (nice deal from the hostel!), we decided to take a stroll around Asakusa to try to get our bearings. Asakusa is a nice old fashioned district that still retains the atmosphere of a Tokyo of a bygone era. It used to be Tokyo's main entertainment and pleasure district from the 1600s to the early 1900s and had a large red light district and many kabuki theatres. Unfortunately, large parts of Asakusa were destroyed during the bombing raids of World War Two and though some parts of the district were rebiuilt it never regained its former popularity as a pleasure district. Still, it made for a nice stroll and it is an easy area to just explore on foot. Asakusa contains Tokyo's most popular temple, Sensoji, some nice shopping streets and other smaller shrines and temples. As we wandered about the rain even stopped!

The crossing sign man is dressed in a rather old fashioned style in Japan - nice hat!

Young baseball team cycling around Asakusa. Seems baseball is big in Japan too.

Cool looking bus in Asakusa.

Downtown Asakusa. The man in front with the bandanna is wearing weird kangaroo-like rubber shoes with cloven toes to help him with his job - pulling around a pedicab. We saw these guys everywhere.

This is Kaminarimon, the first of two large entrance gates to the Sensoji Temple. The name means "Thunder Gate".

Kimono spotting in the rain!

A terrifyingly bad umbrella - arrrgghhh it's so sickeningly cute!

This is the Nakamise-dori shopping street which stretches from the Kaminarimon gate to the Sensoji temple. There were lots of stalls selling mostly tourist trinkets and snacks.

This is the inner gate leading to the temple. This gate is called Hōzōmon which means "Treasure-House Gate".

The tall pointy building is the pagoda of Sensōji.

Sensoji is a Buddhist temple and was originally built in the 7th century. These buildings are all reconstructions though as the area was heavily bombed during the second world war.

Inside the temple grounds we noticed a strange phenomena that we would see again and again at  Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across Japan. This was the traditional practice of buying and consulting "omikuji".  "Omikuji " literally means "sacred lottery" and they are random fortunes written on strips of paper that predict good or bad luck for the buyer. They offer one from a possible range of blessings from "great blessing" to "half blessing" to "great curse". Some then go on to list the buyer's fortune concerning  love, health, travel etc. There are different ways of receiving "omikuji" including the old fashioned method of simply drawing the slip of paper from a box to the more high tech way of purchasing them form a red vending machine. The method at Senso-ji shrine was a little different. 

At the Sensoji shrine, people paid a 100 yen donation then shook a metal box like this one. The box was full of numbered wooden sticks and after some shaking one stick would fall out of a small hole.

Next, the buyer checked the number on the stick  and took a paper fortune from the corresponding numbered drawer.

Tying the "omikuji" to a pine tree or a wire is supposed to make good luck come true and avert bad fortune.

After looking at the temple we went on the hunt for some dinner. It took us forever to find somewhere but eventually we settled on a little place where we had some tasty gyoza dumplings.  

A coin operated machine where you could choose, order and pay for a bowl of ramen. We passed this place on our first night in Tokyo but we didn't give it a go until some point later during our stay.

A sign for yet another ramen shop in Asakusa. 

A weird food substitute (I think) that we saw for sale in a convenience store in Asakusa.

A Pachinko parlour in downtown Asakusa. We saw loads of these all over Tokyo.

Inside the Pachinko parlour. Pachinko is a Japanese game that looks like a vertical pinball machine but has no flippers. It's used for gambling like slot machines in the West and the aim is to capture as many small metal balls as possible. They can be exchanged for prizes or money.

After eating, we headed back to the hostel. Being tired and, in Rowan's case probably a bit jet-lagged still, we decided to have an early night and went to bed. So ended our first day in Tokyo. Click here for the next post about our adventures in Japan which will include an account of our visit to the controversial Yasukuni-jinja shrine, pictures of Rowan's new bird and our hunt for Tokyo's girl geeks in Otome Road.

1 comment:

  1. sounds fascinating - can't wait for the next instalment!!xxlaura