Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Journey to the East - Part 2

Mount Fuji Trekking (9)

Written by Jayne Aw
Day 5 – Tokyo Sightseeing 1
We left Gotemba in the morning and proceeded to Tokyo by train. The journey took about 3 hours going through the suburbs and finally into the metropolitan district.
Rail transport is a major means of passenger transport in Japan, especially for high speed travel between major cities and for commuter transport within the metropolitan areas. I think Japan has one of the most complex rail systems in the world, with routes branching out like a spider web where one could easily get lost in a wrong move. There are 27,268 km of rail crisscrossing the country, with 70% controlled by JR (Japan Railways) and the rest by private enterprises.

Japanese trains are among the most punctual in the world. When train is delayed, the conductor makes an announcement apologizing for the delay and a “delay certificate” will be provided to the passengers as a proof.
Jayne Aw posing next to a train in Tokyo
We stopped at the Ikebukuro Station and walked a short distance to Sakura Hotel where we would stay for the next 3 nights. This is a budget hotel with dormitories that can accommodate up to 6 to 8 persons. Since there were only 4 ladies, we had to share room with 2 other female travelers.

After checking into Sakura Hotel, at the request by ChooTS, who is a bonsai enthusiast, Captain Fujisan took us to the Bonsai Village which covers approximately 33 hectares in the north side of Omiya Park in Tokyo, and also visited the recently opened Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.

Japanese bonsai trees are indigenous to Japan and could be seen in many gardens, temples and homes. Cultivation of bonsai trees first began around 1200 AD during the Kamakura period by way of Zen Buddhism from China. Over the years, the Japanese refined the art of cultivating bonsai trees to an unprecedented level and view them as a blend of Eastern philosophy and the expression of nature, spirit and mankind.

Kawagoe (川越), is a city located in Saitama Prefecture, Japan, which is about a 30-minute train ride from Ikebukuro Station. A former castle town with nostalgic atmosphere of the early Showa period, Kawagoe is affectionately called Little Edo, the ancient name for Tokyo.

The center of Kawagoe is filled with a well-preserved collection of century-old kura, or warehouses, that still double as stores, workshops and homes. The cluster of kura around an old wooden clock tower and a jumble of old buildings exude the feel of an ancient town with a charm missing in many metropolitan cities. Captain Fujisan mentioned that the late John Lennon had graciously given his piano to the people of Kawagoe which is now placed inside the wooden clock tower.
Taking a respite from the hassle and bustle of Tokyo city life, we slowdown our pace and took a stroll along the main street that is flanked with a dozen stores selling old-fashioned sweets and snacks to reminisce the old charm of Kawagoe……….

Due to the crowded condition of the trains especially during peak hours, the railway companies have provided a designated “Women Only” compartment during rush hours and late night for the female passengers as a means to prevent groping. Typically the victim is female and the perpetrator male.

While taking the train from Kawagoe back to Tokyo, our fellow male trekkers accidentally wandered into the “Women Only” compartment and deliriously happy to remain there as our “Ji Mui“ (sisters) till the next stop at Shinjuku Station.

WongFK, ChooTS, PKChan and Weng

Shinjuku (新宿) is a central ward of Tokyo. The area surrounding Shinjuku Station is a huge business, commercial, and entertainment center located atop the world's busiest railway station complex.

Kagurazaka remains as one of Tokyo's last hanamachi (geisha districts), while Kabukicho as Japan's largest red light district features countless restaurants, bars, pachinko parlors, love hotels and a wide variety of red light establishments. It was indeed an eye-opener for us.

Day 6 – Tokyo Sightseeing 2

Today we had to catch the earliest train at 5am to Tsukiji Market to witness the auction of tuna fish. Everyone needed to walk at full speed in order to reach the market on time for the auction. Captain Fujisan was nevertheless walking at his usual pace, but for most of us, every 10 steps or so, we had to run to catch up with him. The muscle pain from previous trekking was slowly taking its toll on some trekkers. Fat Wong was walking like a duck, one that is too old to be displayed at Shinjuku, while others had problem squatting down for a photo pose.

Something just happened at the wrong time; PK Chan had gone missing at the train station. Everyone was panic and wondered where he had gone to. Perhaps he was too engrossed with the types of exotic merchandise that he could trade at the vending machines. Fortunately he managed to find his way back to us after a frantic search by some of the guys, or else he would have to spend his day sleeping at the hotel.

KC dispensing drink from a vending machine

Talking about the vending machine, Japan has the highest number per capital with about one machine for every 23 people. The high population density, high cost of labour, limited space, low rate of vandalism and crime provide a feasible environment for vending machines which are normally stocked with drinks, snacks, ice creams and more. Even at the summit of Fujisan, climbers could find vending machines installed for their convenience.

Tsukiji Market, located in Tsukiji in central Tokyo, is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. The market opens at 3.00 am with the arrival of the products by ship, truck and plane from all over the world. The auctions start around 5.20 am and usually end around 7.00 am. Thereafter, the transacted tuna would be loaded onto the forklifts to be shipped to the next destination or moved to the many shops inside the market..

Alas, we were late for the auction. It was over when we reached the market. To make up for it, PK bought a box of raw tuna meat for us to savor the freshness of sashimi right from the spot. I did try a piece but was struggling to finish it.
Captain Fujisan took us to a famous ramen stall outside the market. Alongside, there are two other very famous sushi stalls that were packed with customers. One would need to wait for hours to get a seat. Though we would like to try out but in view of the limited time, we settled for ramen.

While eating the ramen, I realized that was my 5th bowl of ramen over 5 days in Japan. Gosh, that was more than I could chew. So for the rest of the remaining days, Pie Ling and I would put up our Ultraman hand sign for ramen and pork.

We spent the rest of the morning visiting the Great Buddha and Hase Kannon Temple. Great Buddha of Kamakura is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha, which stands on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple. Standing at a height of 13.35 meters, it is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan.

The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall. However, the temple buildings were destroyed multiple times by typhoons and a tidal wave in the 14th and 15th centuries. So, since 1495, the Buddha has been standing in the open air.

From the Great Buddha we walked a short distance to the Hase Kannon Temple which is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy “Kuan Yin”. It sits atop a hill with a great view of the surrounding area. Inside the main building is a 30 feet high wooden statue of an eleven headed goddess.

By noon time, we proceeded to Yokohama Chinatown (横浜中華街), which is the largest Chinatown in Japan and also one of the largest in the world. Besides Yokohama Chinatown, two other Chinatowns are located in Kobe and Nagasaki respectively. Yokohama Chinatown is surrounded by four main gates: Enpei-mon gate, Seiyo-mon Gate, Zenrin-mon Gate, and Choyo-mon Gate. In total, there are ten gates which were built based on the Chinese horoscopes.

Walking around the streets, one could feel the vibrant and warm atmosphere of a typical Chinatown that is flanked with hundreds of restaurants offering a wide variety of Chinese cuisines such as Cantonese, Beijing, Shanghai, and Sichuan. One might have to wait in a line to enter a popular restaurant. Of course we took the opportunity to savor some of the local specialties.

Tokyo Tower, standing at 332m as the second tallest structure in Japan, is a communications and observation tower located in Shiba Park. The structure was built in 1958 as an Eiffel Tower-inspired lattice tower that is painted white and orange to comply with air safety regulations. It currently functions as a radio and television broadcasting antenna, and also as a tourist attraction. But I thought our very own KL Tower looks better in shape and structure. We didn’t go up to the top as there was a long queue of visitors on a Saturday afternoon.

From Tokyo Tower, we went to Akihabara (秋葉原) ("Field of Autumn Leaves") which is known as Akihabara Electric Town, ,located less than five minutes by rail from Tokyo Station. It is a major shopping area for electronic and computer items including new and used. Most items sold here proudly display the “Made in Japan” sign in gaining customer confidence as opposed to made in other countries. However, as most of the items sold here are limited to local warranty, it doesn’t make sense for oversea tourists to purchase from here unless warranty is not a priority, coupled with price advantage. Akihabara gained some fame through being home to one of the first stores devoted to personal robots and robotics.

Akihabara Electric Town

When darkness fell and neon lights reined over the city skyline, we made our way to Ueno (上野) which is home to some of Tokyo's finest cultural sites, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, and the National Science Museum, as well as a major public concert hall.
Ueno is a working class area packed with shopping bazaars and stalls selling almost anything you can imagine. It runs from the south of Ueno Station along the inside of the JR Yamanote line tracks to Okachimachi Station. It is a good place for souvenirs hunting and bargaining, where friendly vendors are trying to out-sell each other.

To be continued ... (part 3 of 3)

Click here for Part 1.

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Written by Jayne Aw

Posted by KC

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