Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Touring Tokyo with the Mini Geezer

Recently, I added two countries to the countries I have visited. My daughter, Chrissy, and I took a girls trip to Tokyo, Japan, with a long layover in Beijing, China. For this trip, I let her do the planning. I figured this would be her time to stretch her legs for a trip to a country she has been enamored with since childhood. This would be her Geezer-in-Training opportunity. She showed me that she didn't need no stinking training, though. She's just a mini-Geezer. She put together an awesome trip with no real assistance from me! Made me proud. She found us reasonably priced air fare, a relatively nice apartment for our week in Tokyo, learned a few phrases in Japanese, and researched the easiest ways to get around. While there were a few times we walked in circles and I had to prompt her to ask for directions, she did a much better job navigating in a new country than I have ever done. Every time we were walking in circles, those circles were in the general vicinity of where we needed to be, if only we would look right, left, up, etc.

My trip began with a flight to Seattle, where I spent a few days catching up with her before we left for the Far East.  Mt. Rainier welcomed me as we approached Sea-Tac airport.

Chrissy met me at the airport and took me back to her new apartment with an awesome view of Tacoma, Commencement Bay, and Mt. Rainier (when it's clear).  After a couple of days, we headed across the International Date Line and into tomorrow!

We arrived in Tokyo just after midnight, and since the trains and busses had stopped running, we had to take a taxi to our apartment in Shinjuku, a neighborhood of Tokyo.  She had chosen a traditional Japanese apartment with the mats on the floor.  There were a few minor issues with the apartment, but overall it was good, though it could have been just awesome.  I did have a little trouble with the traditional bedding.  At my age, I need more padding than that.  Chrissy didn't have any problems with it, though, so that part's on me.  She made sure I had plenty of ibuprofen, though!

Our first day was spent just getting our bearings.  We got our train pass for the week and looked around the neighborhood a little bit. I had some delicious duck soup with udon noodles for breakfast, and Chrissy had something with vegetables.  A few initial observations: Tokyo reminded me of New York City, with many high rise apartments along with business skyscrapers.  The sidewalks in Tokyo tend to be wider than I remember them being in New York City.  There are also very few benches or places to sit, even in parks.  I'm convinced that the reason many people carry suitcases around with them isn't just to make carrying their purchases or other items easier, but also to give them portable places to sit!

Also, when going to the bathroom, you must check the door.  Not all bathrooms are created equally.  Squat toilets are very popular over there!  I just couldn't --

Some are pretty high tech, though, with heated seats that start heating when you sit and bidets with multiple options.

On the second day, after we got our train passes and I stopped marveling over the toilets, Chrissy took us out to the SkyTree, also known as Tokyo Tower.  Our cab driver had pointed Tokyo Tower out to us on the way to our apartment from the airport.  It was the high tower lit up off in the distance.  Chrissy got us there with ease.  Tokyo is the largest city in the world, more than twice the size of New York City.  It's on the water, and there are lots of georgeous bridges.  The SkyTree is treated much like the Empire State Building with 360-degree views of the city from elevations intended to allow you to see far and wide.  It was mostly clear the day we went, so views were nice.  You could see Mt. Fuji in the distance, and some of the traditional architect interspersed with the modern skyscrapers.

At 350 meters, there is also a glass floor where you can look straight down into the city below you!

After visiting the SkyTree and enjoying the view from 450 meters (over 1476 feet), Chrissy parked me at a table and went shopping in the massive mall.  It turns out, Tokyo puts these massive shopping complexes in many of their larger train stations.  That worked just fine for Chrissy.  She does like to shop!  And, with the dollar being strong and there being lots of sales on for the New Year, she found some excellent deals!

After the SkyTree, we headed out to our first temple, Senso-ji Temple.  This is the oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo.  From the moment you reach the area, its stature impresses.  The entrance is the dominating structure of Kaminarimon, or "Thunder Gate".

Once inside the temple grounds, you follow the street, Nakamise-dori to the temple.  Nakamise-dori is 250 meters long and lined with approximately 89 shops.  Here, you can get everything from street foods to kimonos and everything in between.  It is festively decorated with lanterns, dragon kites, and various other banners.

After trekking down Nakamise-dori, you come to an inner gate, Hozomon, or "Treasure House Gate".  It's pretty imposing, as well, and is the entryway to the inner temple grounds.

Once inside the temple grounds, there are little shacks on either side of the street where the believers shake their paper fortunes out of little drawers and boxes.  They tie these fortunes on posts outside of the shacks.  Once actually at the temple, there is a law wall around a small pool into which people throw coins. 

After the temple, we took a rickshaw tour around the area.  We saw the traditional, Edo, portion of town.  We heard a geisha practicing her shamisen as we were parked outside the geisha house.  And, we saw "bar alley".  After the rickshaw tour, we picked up some sweets and had tempura for dinner.

The next day, I didn't feel very well.  It was the first time I've ever had the normal "traveler's malady" when traveling.  Not something that was expected in one of the most developed areas in the world.  Chrissy did an awesome job finding a pharmacy and getting some meds that helped me out.  By evening, I was back up, and we made it to our reservations at the Robot Restaurant.  We knew it was going to be a little over the top when this was the waiting area!

The show was excellent.  There were robots that were basically stages that carried drummers and other musicians around the stage.  There were dancers with dark clothing and light tubes.  There were fabulous costumes.  And, there was a story in which the water and forest inhabitants fought off the foreign invaders with more impressive robots and characters as it kept going, starting with Po and the characters from Kung Fu Panda.  It was beyond description and an awesome time!  It's a dinner theater.  They brought us our food, pulled a cord, and told us to wait 10 minutes.  Then, the box started steaming.  It was delicious!  I'm not sure what it was.  Looked like some kind of beef in rice with veggies.

Another day, another temple.  This one, the Meiji Jingu, a Shinto temple.  The temple is surrounded by a forest, which was initially planted by hand as a place for the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken to reside in.  After 90 years, it is now a natural forest with undergrowth and streams, and a lovely place.  The Emperor and Empress (the Dieties) are known for their contributions toward industrializing Japan, and every year, various breweries give offerings of straw barrels of saki.  French wine makers have consecrated a number of casks of wine in honor of the Dieties' commitment to preserving the traditional ways while modernizing and incorporating Western processes, as well.  I was never able to learn the significance of the blue and white lanterns.

Upon entering the main temple grounds, there is the building for getting fortunes.  There is an area where you can have a wooden tablet painted with your personal prayers and thanks, which will be conveyed o the Dieties by the priests in the morning ceremonies.  At the front of the temple, is the same pool where coins are tossed.

On leaving the main temple area, there is the washing fountain (Temizuya).  The washing is a sign of respect and is independent of any religion, though there is a specific order for washing.  You fill the dipper from the water running into the fountain and rinse your left hand.  Then, you rinse your right hand.  Next, you pour water into your left hand and rinse your mouth out, spitting the water into the fountain.  You rinse your left hand again, and finally, you rinse the dipper, allowing the water to run out the handle.  

After the temple, it was time for more shopping.  So, while Chrissy shopped (again finding some really awesome deals), I rested my weary bones.  This time, at McDonald's where I tested a Big Mac.  Again, it tasted like a Big Mac anywhere else (except Saudi Arabia).  The mix was a little off, with extra lettuce and not as much special sauce as normal, but it was basically a normal Big Mac.  So, the only country where the Big Mac has tasted different (so far) is Saudi Arabia.  That night, we had the fried pork at a little restaurant close to the Okubo train station (the one closest to our apartment), where we met a man who lived in Shinjuku, but had spent a few years in St. Petersburg, Florida.  We had some good conversation about Tokyo and Florida.  Chrissy got me some chop stick "trainers", and after watching me struggle for a while even with the trainers, he asked the waitress to bring me a fork.  I used the fork for a little while, but I was determined to master the use of chop sticks!

The days are running into each other, and the next morning started at Tokyo Station.  The entryway is a dome, and the exterior is lovely.  Inside is an entire mini city full of shops, restaurants, and grocery stores.  Another shopping opportunity for Chrissy and a resting opportunity for me.

After Tokyo Station, it's off to another temple.  This time, it's Gotokuji Temple, more commonly known as the maneki neko or the beckoning cat.  There are many legends about the significance of the cat and what makes it lucky, but the one endorsed by the temple says that the pet cat of the monk of the poor temple waived down some passing samurai who came in for a rest and waited out a storm.  During the storm, the monk preached to them, and they were moved, feeling that the Buddha had sent the cat to bring them to hear this monk's words.  Upon returning to their homes, the samurai donated rice fields and other lands, making the temple wealthy.  Therefore, the beckoning cat is a symbol for incoming wealth and luck.  There are real cats living inside the temple.  People purchase the porcelain cats and offer them to the temple.  They also tie their fortunes on the trees and bushes outside the main temple.

After the quiet of the temple, it was time to go to the Shibuya.  Just outside of the train station is the intersection believed to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.  Estimates are that as many as 2,500 people cross at this intersection with each light change during rush hour.  We were a little later than rush hour, but it was certainly busy.  The crosswalks are painted in for almost any possible path you could want to cross, including diagonally.  When the light turns red for vehicle traffic, all vehicle traffic stops, and all pedestrian traffic goes.  This is a huge intersection.  In this one spot, there are 5 jumbotrons, multiple cross streets, a busy station courtyard, and lots of shops. I'm not one to get intimidated by crowds or have agoraphobia or anything like that.  But, there was a rush of adrenaline when that light changed and we waded into that sea of people to cross diagonally.  Remembering years ago when I had Chrissy take my hand in crowds to make sure she didn't get lost, I instinctively reached out for her - this time to make sure I didn't get lost.  Definitely a hopping area with lots of shops.  Once again, we parked me to rest while Chrissy went shopping..  Please don't think there is anything wrong with this.  She likes to shop, and I don't.  I needed to rest as much as possible so that I could have the stamina to see the things we saw.  I also love to people watch.  So, while she was shopping, I was people watching and resting my back and hips, not to mention my Achilles tendon, which I had just taken from the walking boot.  (Wonder how the doctor's going to react when she finds out.)

The next day, we were off to see the Mountain.  It was a clear, sunny day, so we were expecting some beautiful sights.  On the express train, it took us about 45 minutes to get out of Tokyo.  The more we got into the rural areas, the more traditional architecture we saw.  At the next to last stop before getting to Fuji Five Lakes, we were treated to an awesome view of the mountain through the train windows, and we stayed put for a little while for some good shots.

We visited one of the Fuji Sengen Shrines, celebrating the diety Princess Konohanasakuya, who is associated with Mt. Fuji.  Supposedly there is a trail head for those who are hiking to and up Mt. Fuji, but we were there in the winter, and there was snow and ice.  Trail heads couldn't be seen.  We didn't have the right shoes for traipsing through the snow to see all of the grounds of it. A lovely shrine, with the red buildings making a stark contrast to the pristine, white snow.  It was lovely.

After a few additional sites, we made our way to the Ropeway, the cable car to the best viewpoint for Mt. Fuji.  We barely made it before they closed.  In fact, I sent Chrissy on up to get our tickets instead of helping me get up the steps.  There were handrails on both sides, so I could pull myself.  We were so close that by the time I got to the cable car building, they were putting up the closed sign.  They let me in when I gasped out that my daughter was already in there with my ticket.  By the time I made it up to the cable car, I was barely breathing, and the people on the one little bench hopped up, helped me in, and plopped me on the bench to sit and learn to breathe again.  The views were magnificent.  Worth every step.

We had some regional soups for dinner at the train station before heading back to Tokyo.  Note my green trainers.  By this point, I've gotten fairly good with the chopsticks.  The soup was delectible!

On our last day in Japan, we started with the Tsukiji Nippon Fish Port Market.  Lots of neat stuff with a bunch of restaurants scattered throughout.  Some were standing and some had seats.  We chose one that had a menu and a selection of items that drove past on a conveyor belt, and you picked up what you wanted.  Horsehair crab miso soup makes for a delicious breakfast!

We were hoping to take in a sumo wrestling match, but by the time we got there, tickets were sold out.  So, we just went to another part of town we hadn't been to yet and finally found Godzilla!

After wandering a while, we headed to the airport where we met our luggage and checked in for our flight to Beijing.  A short nap on the plane, and off in Beijing.  We made it through immigration and customs without problem, with our 24-hour visa free stamps in our passports.  I had made arrangements over WeChat (the Chinese version of Facebook) for a guide to meet us at the airport.  Peter was right there when we cleared customs, and off we went to the Great Wall of China.  We were there just as they opened.

To get to the wall, it was a short walk to the shuttle bus, a ride most of the way up the hill, a nearly impossible hike up the steep part of the hill (in which we needed multiple stops so I could breathe again), a cable car ride, and a relatively short set of stairs up to the courtyard at the foot of the wall.  We had to stop a few times climbing the steps, too.  Chrissy helped me up the stairs actually onto the Great Wall.  She basically had to pull me up those YUGE steps, but we got me onto the wall.  We walked to the closest guard tower.  After that, it was time for me to go back to the courtyard and let Chrissy have the opportunity to walk however much of the wall she wanted.  As she was helping me down those monster steps, one of the workers came up to take me from Chrissy and make sure I got down into the courtyard safely.  Once I got down and caught my breath, he started pointing out various vantage points to me.

All in all, the mini-Geezer did an excellent job on this trip.  I would trust her to plan any trip for me in the future.  And, though she was frustrated with having to stop so frequently so I could breathe, she got that built into our routine, and she searched out places for some short sits so I could catch my breath.  If she hadn't been there looking out for me, allowing me to lean on her when we couldn't find a place to sit, and encouraging me to take my time getting my breath back so I could finish up, I probably wouldn't have made it up to the wall.  Wouldn't have made some of the hikes we took, either.  Excellent trip with an excellent kid.  Love you, Chrissy!  Next time, let's do someplace warm, though!

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