Day 85-86: What Lies Beyond
Tokyo has a lot to see, but Japan, with its thin shape and fast trains, is as much about the day trips, the little locales one or two hours away from the bulging metropolises, the little temple towns tucked away behind miles of steel track and Shinkansens. Well, over the past two days, I got to see two different areas about 1-1.5 hours outside of Tokyo’s Asakusabashi station, where my hostel is tightly situated. Yesterday was Yokohama, Tokyo’s sister city. Today was Kamakura, a city farther out the same direction as Yokohama. Both gave me a different perspective on Japan, the old and the new, as it were.
It is unfair to call Yokohama a ‘little locale… away from the bulging metropolises’ since it is a city of about 3 million people, making it the 2nd largest city in Japan. I’m not sure how a major country like Japan can have its two largest cities within forty five minutes of each other, but it works. From Yokohama, you cannot see Tokyo at all. It is a nice city on its own, a city of culture and a massive urban experiment. The drive from Tokyo to Yokohama took me through many different tunnels, all brightly lit with massive lanes, and highways that criss-crossed up and down over the Japan coast. We also passed the Port of Tokyo, which was about thirty times cleaner and more organized (at least from afar), than the Port(s) that lines the New Jersey Turnpike. Finally, we reached Yokohama, and in particular my dad’s old work colleague’s section of Yokohama, home of the experiment.
The great experiment is really what I’m calling a new part of Yokohama, built on reclaimed land. It is structured and organized to be a self-contained city within a city, with tall modern housing buildings across from office buildings whose bottom floors are mainly malls. Everything is in this little area, the place to work, the place to sleep, the place to eat and the place to shop. My dad’s colleague’s only real complaint was that there was no place to play, as he had a young daughter and there are few parks or play areas in this little district of Yokohama.
We parked his car at the apartment garage and then set off to the heart of the experimental district, to Queen East, a large office building and mall. The mall part rises about five stories from well underground to a long escalator above it, with restaurants and shops at every level. My dad’s colleague and I found a nice little Kaiten Zushi restaurant –the sushi restaurants where they go around in conveyor belts. I was a little unsure what was going on when I saw approximately no one take sushi from the belt, but he told me that in many of these kaiten restaurants the ones on the belt are essentially for show, and the customer tells the sushi chef which one they want. We had a bunch of sushi, all tasting far better than anything I’ve had in the US. My favorites were probably the Unagi (eel) and Sea Urchin. I have a favorite sushi place in New Jersey, but Sushi Palace mainly serves rolls. After eating at these sushi places in Japan, it seems like a farce to go back (though I know I will).
After lunch we went for a walk around the waterfront of The Great Experiment (the area has a name, but I’m not quite sure what it is), which gives a side view of the real Yokohama afar. Walking around this area it seemed to be like any posh waterfront area in the US, or more recently, Australia. Instead of walking to the other end of the city, the normal end, we decided to take the ‘Sea Bass’ speedboat that runs through three of the most popular areas in the city. From the water, I got a good view of Yokohama. The ‘Great Experiment’ area is really nice, even with its own mini Amusement Park with giant Ferris Wheel and decent sized Roller Coaster. We then sailed past a few ship docks and then a giant pier, where the boat stopped for the first time. In true Japan style, this pier had a long, glistening glass building that took up most of it. On the roof of this behemoth of a building was a park. Not a rooftop garden. A park. A long, grass covered park that even had slight hills.
After we went back around that pier, the boat continued further down the coast of Yokohama into the Central area of the city. When we get off, we entered into I guess the original downtown Yokohama (much of what we had passed was reclaimed over the last 50 years). Another large park was right off of the pier, which my dad’s colleague pointed out as being one of the advantages of living more centrally in Yokohama. We spent the next two hours or so just walking around Yokohama Central. We walked through one of the oldest hotels in all of Japan, then through Japan’s largest Chinatown, which was so dense and packed, with lines queueing up in front of every stall despite it being well past conventional lunch time. We walked through the well designed government buildings, and even a quick trip inside the Cup Noodles museum, which was almost humorously full and busy. Finally, we returned back to the Queen East and to his apartment high inside one of The Great Experiment towers.
His apartment building is designed like one of those hotels where all of the rooms are on the walls of the hotel, with a large open atrium in the middle. I was a little surprised that there was no roof, since rain water would be quite annoying, but hard to argue with how beautiful it was. We then met his wife and daughter. The daughter was quite shy, even after telling her mom that she was excited to practice her English with me. We were in the apartment for a bit, where I played a board game with her, which got her to open up a little. In her defense, she was four, and I was exactly the same around strangers when I was four too.
We left from there to dinner at a Japanese Korean-BBQ place, which I was told is the term used for those types of restaurants. Despite me having gone to a lot of them in Osaka, I told them I hadn’t been as to not create any doubt in their mind whether they chose a good place to take me. We settled and I laid back, letting him do the ordering and the cooking, and while I would like to think I did an adequate job when I went on my own, I quickly realized how much better someone who knows what they’re doing is. The first course was tongue, roast (which I called ‘normal meat’, much to the delight of my dad’s colleague and his wife) and intestine. The next round was pork, more intestine, and little bowls of different innards, like stomach, heart, and two others. All were quite good, and cooked better than I ever had. In my defense, it cooks better when you put more meats on the grill at once, which was hard to do when I was alone.
After we finished dinner I headed to the train station deep in the basement of Queen East (the last part of ‘The Great Experiment’ which I guess does allow people easy access to leave it. I first took the subway to Yokohama station, then the train from there to Tokyo Station, and then the local JR train to the hostel. All those trips took about 40 minutes, another showcase of the breathtaking efficiency of the Japan Rail system.
My next day was a little quieter, as instead of going from Japan’s largest city to its 2nd largest, I ventured out in the same direction as Yokohama, but a little further out, to Kamakura. My dad’s colleague told me about Kamakura as an option if the weather was bad, as I had planned to go to Mt. Fuji, or at least get close enough to get a nice picture. Since the forecast was a little dicey, I decided to put off Mt. Fuji and do Kamakura instead. From the quick overnight research I did, Kamakura seemed to be a larger version of Nara, an Old-Japan city, full of temples and shrines.
Kamakura was about an hour and fifiteen from Tokyo Station, making this my first long-distance trip on a train that isn’t a Shinkansen bullet train. Still, the long distance JR trains are extremely reliable and comfortable. The hum along smoothly without ever having to stop ‘because of traffic ahead’, the omnipresent nuisance of American train travel. The trip to Kamakura allowed me to do a little more planning of my trip. The forecasts showed the potential for rain in the afternoon, so I wanted to get everything done first.
Kamakura has a ton of temples and shrines, so it was quite an assignment to limit it to the ones worth seeing. In the end, after doing my research on the JR WiFi available on their trains, I settled on the Hasedera Temple, the Great Buddha, the Shrine of Tsurugaoka, and the Kenchoji Temple. These four are not only, at least to me, the four best sites but are also easily reachable from each other. Unlike Nara, Kamakura is not a small walkable city, but a large one that happens to have a bunch of sites to see inside.
The first site was the Hasedera Temple, at the end of a busy lane deep inside Kamakura. Once you enter the Hasedera Temple grounds you escape the business of the lane and enter into a scenic garden area with the temple partially hidden by trees. It really is a beautiful setting, unimaginable when you consider just how cramped the city seems outside. This was a little paradise. The temple itself was large but a bit hollow. The real treat was the gardens around it, the little ponds, and the rows of stone people representing the dead.
From there, I had to walk about ten minutes back in the real world (the busy streets – I can’t describe just how cramped and un-Japanese the streets of Kamakura are) to get to the Shrine of Tsurugaoka (there’s a second name that’s even harder to spell). The shrine is in an ever more open area, housed behind a ornate wooden gate and side pagodas and up a steep bank of steps. The steps looked a bit daunting, but after seeing older Japanese men and women climb up I really had no other choice. The temple from the top had all of the things most of the shrines in Japan do, like the smoke that people wave on them to wash away their faults and bless them with good luck, the little area where you toss a 10 yen coin and pray before you enter inside. Most of these temples and shrines are a little barren inside, with some nice paintings on the roof.
After I left that I went to the Great Buddha, which is as it sounds, a ‘Great’ large Buddha statue, that had I would estimate 200 people around it, most of them not tourists. The ‘Great Buddha’ area also had a little idyllic pond next to it, and that was a good hideout from the mob at the Buddha itself. Strangely, they keep the immediate area next to the Buddha empty, which did nothing more than make my head-on picture of it less cluttered without any people.
The Kenchoji temple was next, but it was a little disappointing compared to the others. It was also getting a little cloudy, so my pictures were a bit off and I was trying to hurry through the last stop before heading back inside the train and back to Tokyo. I was able to get in right as the rain started to come down hard. I made it back to Tokyo and that rain had changed to a constant mist, which is more annoying in a way. At least it let me walk around.
I had a place in mind for dinner, another Katien Zushi place, this time in Asakusa, a northern district of Tokyo. In the rain, I ventured down every nook and cranny looking for this place, called Maguro-Bito, but couldn’t find it. Tripadvisor had reviews of the place as recently as May 13th. Of course, there is the fatal flaw with the site, you can review a place at any point. Hell, when I get back I want to go review everything I’ve seen throughout this trip. I have a recommendation for the people that run the site. They should make reviewers say when the visited that place.
Anyway, I finally gave up and returned to Ueno, which I know has another Gaiten Sushi place near Ueno station. This one is known for having all of its sushi 126 yen, which is a great deal. It doesn’t have any specialty sushi, but was still just way better than the sushi we get in the US. After, I walked around Ginza during the light mist that was subsiding, checking out the various bars that were still full near 10:00. Japanese work late (the trains are still full of suits around this time), but they party late as well, as most of the bars were full of suits at that time of the day on a Monday evening. I finally returned to my hotel around 11:30 ready to go to sleep after a long, long day, with an exciting one to come tomorrow as I get to spend a day with my long-lost friend.