Still in awe here. Started today by getting a SIM card, which was quick and painless. Then we went to Shinjuku, which is one of the main tourist areas. Shinjuku station is enormous. It’s like penn station and grand central station and kings cross all had a baby that was also shiny and immaculate and filled with shops and orderly people. We wandered through the maze of the station to eventually find the basement, where the yuzu-shio ramen at Afuri was delicious. It was light and fragrant with tender noodles (a big portion, too) and a flavorful egg. You pay at a machine, where you choose what you want and get a ticket to hand to the waiter. The best part was the bib they give you, which saved me from about a half-dozen spots on my shirt. I like ramen even more because of the experience: the whole point is to sit quietly and singularly focus on the bowl of perfection in front of you. I think I succeeded in doing that.
After lunch, we walked to the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which was amazing. Such a beautiful park, so filled with meaning and calm. We saw a ceremony happening in the main shrine. We almost didn’t go into the gardens because you have to pay ¥500 and Jake was getting tired but I’m so glad we decided to, because they were beautiful and serene. Mandarin ducks, colorful leaves, and green everywhere. The shrine, as with much of Tokyo, was rebuilt after the war, but the garden dates from the 17th c. It’s hard to believe that just 20 minutes from the busiest train station in the world (Shinjuku, with 3.5 million daily passengers) is a huge forest with gardens and a lake you can sit by with almost no one else around, with just the sounds of the birds and ducks and occasionally the faint rumble of a train, which of course makes it even better. It makes it almost second nature to just stand still and contemplate.
Harajuku felt like any shopping district in the world but definitely with some local feel mixed in. The Shibuya crossing (the busiest pedestrian intersection) was just what I imagined it to be, but somehow didn’t feel hectic. We found a good vantage point from the second floor of the station and watched the crowds, in a hurry but somehow slowed down too. We also found a mural by Taro Okamoto, Myth of Tomorrow, depicting the bomb over Hiroshima, although the view was kind of obstructed by pillars in the station.
One of the things I like most about Japan so far is the pace. It feels very measured, even stoic. For the biggest city in the world (38 million in the metro area), Tokyo feels very manageable, much more so than I expected. Especially considering I don’t speak the language and so most signs mean nothing to me, despite my best efforts. There’s enough English to get around, though, and it’s been easy to navigate, even before I pull out Google Maps. I will take some better photos of the trains to post. It’s cool, also, to just look at a place and choose to go in without fully knowing what’s in store. I hope we do that as much as possible.
We tried to go to Kyourakutei soba for dinner, but when we finally found it in a residential area, it was closed for the day unexpectedly. No matter, we got back on the train (so many different lines, so exciting each time) and headed to another soba place, Kanda Matsuya, where we stumbled through the particulars of eating and drinking. We poured sake for each other (although Jake was a bit slow, we’ll have to work on that) and agonized over what the little dish with miso paste was for, or whether we could dip the daikon in the broth. The cold soba and the tempura and broth were all delicious, and by the time we finished the broth at the end, we were satisfied.
Then, we got to experience the most amazing thing on our way to the Kinrokuen Gardens, which open in the evening, all lit up with fall colors: rush hour in Tokyo. Crushed in like sardines, it felt almost like a clown car. People just kept coming in and somehow there was room. It was exhilarating and curious at the same time. Everyone else was completely unfazed. We thought we were done, but after transferring we got to go through it all over again, this time as the pushers. Such fun! It all felt very authentic. As Jake said, “even the pushing in Tokyo feels polite.”
The gardens are amazing. I’m running out of superlatives and it’s only my first full day here. The gardens are lit up beautifully, set around a lake with a landscaped island in the middle. The paths are crowded but manageable, and somehow it’s even nicer that all of us are enjoying this green space at night. It’s pretty special. The colors of the trees, the reds and yellows and greens, contrast with the darkness of the night and reflect off the lake. It’s mesmerizing. We walked for close to 45 minutes around the gardens, and I could have sat there for a long time quite happily.
Jake says this was a “full first day.” I told him he doesn’t know what a full day is, but maybe if he’s lucky, he’ll find out. I thought today was pretty leisurely, but we did do a lot. I certainly got my bearings.
Most of all, I can’t wait to ride the Shinkansen.