Tokyo, Japan: Three hand(s)ful of people

imageBest sushi ever. Tsukiji, Tokyo

 

17-18.04: Plan, Do, Err, Get lost, Check and Act (Deming cycle – Tokyo style)

I had thought that going to Tokyo would feel like going ‘home’. I mean, I was certain at that point that I would move to Japan and Tokyo would then be the most¬†logical place to live. It worked out a bit differently though. As you know from my previous blog, my time was restricted to 1.5 days. Tokyo is huge so this sightseeing expedition had to be planned meticulously and run as a military operation. So I sat myself down in my Command Control Center, the local gyoza restaurant (yummy) around the corner of the hostel and worked out the strategy.

I hit the road as soon as possible. Well, not the road but the metro. Things got complicated in a heart beat. Tokyo appeared to have two rail operators offering 10 odd packages, some blended products, and tickets were deer, as everything in Japan. So I saw, thought and bought… the wrong ticket. My first mistake was surmountable; I had taken a train with my metro-only pass so had to pay a top-up. No big deal. The second mistake was more awkward; I had managed to get into an area where I should not have been able to get. The railway officer insisted on ‘fraud’ and wanted to charge a hefty fine. I was utterly indignant, and it may be possible that had come across because the officer got increasingly aggravated. A Japanese lady helped to lull the situation and got me out without a fine after a long debate. My mood had dropped to rock bottom but I reckoned it couldn’t get worse. yeah right.. the next hurdle was imminent ūüôĀ

This time the hurdle had a name, ‘Shinjuku Station’. It was Big & Busy and I had been warned in advance. I thought I was used to vibrant cities being a resident of Dubai but, wow, how many people can fit on 1 square meter! In Tokyo not a handful but three hands full. It felt as if all 38 million inhabitants had assembled in Shinjuku. Crowds don’t bother me normally but this was intense. Things got worse when I got lost. Yes, I, Ms. Linda van Dijk, had lost my way INSIDE a metro station! It took 2 hours to find my way out of this ‘village’ 100 meters below the ground. Damn absence of English signage and -speakers. My forehead was covered in clammy sweat when I finally saw daylight. The funny thing is that I must have passed a hundred exit signs in Japanese. If you ever visit Shinjuku -or other place in Japan- look for this: ŚáļŚŹ£.

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Fortunately, my good planning paid off afterwards and I saw many highlights within no time and no major trouble.

Shibuya crossing (the picture that everyone knows)

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Tokyo Sky Tree

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Imperial Palace East Garden

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No major trouble excluded one great idea going south. I had planned to see the Tsukiji fish market which trades 2000 tonnes of seafood is daily (yes really!) on my last morning. The place is renowned for its food stalls so of course I had to sample it. I felt wretched to move on to Russia and adjust to a new culinary standard, which I feared by no means at par with the Japanese),¬†I suspected for example that supper¬†in the plane would be -at best-¬†a tasteless sandwich. That depressing thought made me¬†think and I got the best idea ‘ever’;¬†I bought a few extra pieces of tuna sushi of the finest grade, had it packed on ice, carefully placed in my day pack and bought a mini bottle of sake at the airport. This was plan: when the flight attendant¬†would ask me if I wanted their crappy meal I would reply ‘thank you but no thank you (hell no!!)’ and demonstratively take out my mini sake and sushi. How is that for a ‘last supper’. It went fine until the last step; ¬†she came, I said ‘no’, put the sake on the tray and the sushi box out and opened it… to see that the tuna had turned dark brown. For those unaccustomed to¬†sushi, that is a BAD sign, a VERY VERY BAD sign. Damn, inedible! So I had not only flushed 25 euro down the drain but I also ended up supper-less. That is because of course I didn’t want to go back to¬†the hostess to beg for the crappy sandwich…. Grrr….

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Kyoto (Honshu), Japan: resetting the benchmark

15-18.04 Kyoto: the new standard for comparison.

So who knows Kyoto? I didn’t, really. The name only rang a bell because of¬†the ‘Kyoto Protocol’, the global treaty for reduction of greenhouse gas, signed in 1997. It is a key milestone for the world, although the treaty didn’t get in force until many years later¬†and ongoing outflanking movements by specific¬†countries.

I now understand why Kyoto was chosen as location for the ceremony. I know I have been excited about several places that I visited on my tour but Kyoto forced me to normalise all scores given so far. The city is arresting in the purest sense of the word; it is striking, dramatic, imposing, spectacular, dazzling, sensational, astonishing, etc. Good luck to the RotW (Rest of the World) to beat this new benchmark!

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Kyoto is surrounded by what I call ‘hills-around-the-corner’; they are there but seem to only catch the¬†eye when they can perfect the picture of for example a temple or another wonderful artifact.

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The city is green, greener, greenest. I can’t remember having seen so many different shades of green. (Ofcourse I initially typed ‘grey’ but continuing that storyline would¬†have resulted in a very, very different ending of the blog¬†ūüėČ ).¬†But¬†let me end this section happy too: I hit the jackpot for timing as it was peak blossom season in Kyoto.

imageimage(Bottom picture is the blossom-by-night during the enlighted caste event)

Kyoto is abound with shrines and temples. And strangely enough it just didn’t get boring to dwell from one to the other, which has been the normal pattern so far. ¬†Maybe the city’s distracted me by its great food and heavenly shopping – I didn’t know that¬†Kyoto was a ‘shopping walhallah’. Unfortunately, since I had become an expert in physically sitting-on-my-bag-to-get-the-darned-thing-zipped-up, I had to mentally cuff my hands in a few shops. OK, I splashed out on two handmade fans but these are my special national memento. Quick explanation here; I buy¬†one rarity in each country of my tour, and I I collected until now a canvas of my best Everest picture, a religious painting from Cambodia, the idea to create a 3D artwork with Vietnamese rice and Chinese hand painted chop sticks.

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But enough about scenery and tangibles, Kyoto was special for meeting up with two women who deserve an honorable mention.

The first is a young lady named Haruka Takeyasu, my private guide in the Zen temple, Ginkaku-ji. If you think ‘yeah, a guide, so¬†what?!?’. Well, Haruka is blind. She nevertheless explained the temple, its surroundings and its customs to the smallest detail… in perfect English. English is not so common¬†in Japan, perfect English is rare, such level for a young person is rarer and for a blind person is unique. Haruka is an English student at the local university. She guides tourists to practice her skills and wants to become a teacher and travel the world. We spent most of the day together talking about about language and pronunciation, about Japan and the world, travel and dreams. I know for sure that she will succeed and I hope I can host her in my home one day. PS: Her friend, Takamitsu, deserved a special mention too because he accompanies Haruka on her guides to make sure she is fine. ¬†That is true friendship!

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Then there was this Dutchy, Inge Bakker. We immediately connected When¬†I flung the dorm¬†door open and joyfully cried ‘GOEIEMIDDAG!!’ to the lady in the upper bed. This lady (Inge) had just finished a 14 days silent Zen yoga meditation retreat. Dead¬†tired and sleep drunk, she was flabberguested how on earth I knew¬†she was Dutch (as ‘goeiemiddag’ is ‘good afternoon’ in Dutch). The truth is that I didn’t know. I had simply blurted out in Dutch without realising it wasn’t English.¬†Hilarity all about. Inge is my champ because she took the bold action to¬†regain her life balance through intense meditation. PS: I am also in awe for her ability to be silent. I may have several¬†talents but being quiet would require some genetic re-engineering…

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All in all, the Kyoto stop-over became a¬†4 days¬†‘best ever’ experience. I would have stayed longer if I hadn’t hit the bariier of time; my mom and sister would meet me in¬†Moscow on April 28th and I needed all the time to reach in time.¬†So with great reluctance I accepted the fact that it was time to move on, but only after promissing myself and the city that I would return soon!

 

 

Hiroshima, Honshu, Japan: Blasted away by history

13-14.04 Hiroshima: how origami cranes cannot undo the aftermath of brutal nuclear force

After a quick goodbye to Mateo I boarded my second Shinkanzen, the train used for Japan’s luxurious high-speed network. Shinkanzen stirs up mixed emotions amongst the Japanese because its operator, the Japan Railway Group, discontinued all other (cheap) express lines thus monopolising Skinkanzen. True, it costs an arm and a leg but it is really fabulous; ALWAYS on time, clean, fast, etc. Our Dutch national railway company (NS) should go on a field trip to Japan; they already panic when Autumn hits and tree leaves cover our¬†tracks…

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My next stop would be Hiroshima. I didn’t really know what to expect, I mean, this city was bombed ‘back to the stone age’ at the closing of WW-II. There is so much controversy on the legitimacy of the nuclear bomb; many believe the war was already ‘over’ and the US government ‘only’ dropped it to assess its destructive power. I don’t have the full picture and irrespective whether true or false, I firmly believe that nuclear weapons should never be used [again]. Hiroshima petition attempts to convince the world of the same.

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The Hiroshima Peace Memorial ‘blew me off my socks’ unexpectedly. This ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’ is the ruin of the Exhibition Hall, located only 150 meters from the bomb’s hypocentre. It is flabbergasting that this building stood upright whilst its vicinity burned to the ground.

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Behind the dome I met some ‘bomb survivors’. They excel at telling moving stories, for example the story of Sasado Sakaki. This 2 year old girl was 1.5 km from the detonation and whilst seemingly without a single scratch she died of leukemia at age 12. She believed she would recover if only she could fold 1000 origami cranes. Some say she was 300 short but her father says she exceeded it. Her class mates folded another 1000 to cover her in her coffin. The bomb survisors taught me on the spot how to fold a crane myself. It was one that could actually fly…

Sasado’s story is immensely sad but actually ended¬†gruesomely. ¬†Covering her with the cranes was necessary because her¬†body had been subjected to scientific research, leaving only her head for the ceremony. Broke my heart!

Sasado has become a leading symbol and a heroine in Japan. Her memorial is flooded at any given time with an abundance of the most beautiful cranes. I saw many visitors reduced to tears (yes, me too… my emotions were all over the place at that point). Walking through the actual museum and through the displays of torn, burned clothes, twisted steel, pictures of burned bodies and videos of survivors was tough. I could still feel the sheer horror and pain.¬†Oofff!!

I really needed a cheer-up after such intense, emotial day. So I had some fu trying to explain to non-english speakers how to take a repeat shot on my camera ¬†result below; jump) and went to Hisroshima’s¬†highest view point to sample¬†their¬†best Sake and witness the sunset from above.

14-15.04: Miyajima: my oh my….

From the viewpoint I could already see my next stop in the distance, the island of Miyajima. Miyajima is voted a top 3 scenic spot by the Japanese and it is flocked in Summer. I can now understand why. It¬†is¬†perfect; ¬†the weather, the scenery, the hikes, the temples and shrines. I could have stayed much longer if only Kyoto wasn’t waiting for me…