Hello to the angels.
This had never been in any of my to-do lists at all – and it was certainly something I had never even dared to dream of. The announcement came, but it was a kind of news not so easily digested. Various things first had to be put into motion, and quickly, too – but with it came the frustrations of attempting to file visa applications on a perpetually down government website, and the headaches of trying to secure plane tickets on ideal departure dates during a peak travelling period. Then there were dramatic changes simultaneously going on at work; it proved to be a terrible distraction that further drove my stress levels up the wall.
It took quite a while, but as the dates drew closer, I finally came to the realisation that yes: I was going to go to the United States (and Japan)! The numbers: twelve days, eight planes, five airports, two countries. (I lost count of the number of air sickness bags used, though.) It was all one incredible experience, and for that I am truly blessed.
Tokyo, 8-14 April 2010
The intended destination was actually Maui, Hawaii – but when a transit in Japan was made inevitable, it seemed too much of a waste to not take full advantage of that. Amid other troubles, I eventually bit the bullet and put in a room reservation for a five-night stay at a three-star hotel in one of Tokyo’s busiest business districts.
There was no turning back after that.
In time, I came to know that the reason for the scarce availability of flight tickets and affordable hotel accommodation was attributed to the blooming sakura, or cherry blossoms; tourists would flock to Japan especially in April for hanami (flower viewing). It was no trivial business indeed; there were even daily sakura forecasts and announcements provided by the weather bureau, as the development of the flowers was carefully watched during this season (the blossoms apparently last for only a week or two).
Armed with a rechargeable prepaid Suica (the equivalent of Malaysia’s Touch N’ Go card) and plenty of maps and printouts from research done prior to the trip, we easily got onto a train on the green Yamanote train line (which connects to Tokyo’s major city centres) and soon found ourselves in Shinjuku Gyoen on a sunny Saturday morning. Here, locals and tourists came out in full force to admire the beautiful flowers in hues of mostly pink and white – there were elderly people having modest bento box lunches on benches under the cool shade; families with adorable kids in tow happily setting out the contents of their picnic baskets; youths flashing big smiles and eliciting hearty laughs while basking under the blue skies.
Now, I must admit that I am hardly a fan of flowers, but this was no less still a sight to behold. The trees were leafless and devoid of greens, though the flowers bloomed gloriously and seemingly in great abundance; at times stray petals would circle in the gentle breeze, before joining the sea of its fallen comrades on the ground.
The timing of this trip turned out just right: we were not too early, neither were we too late, for hanami. (In fact, when we were back in Tokyo on transit on our way home from Maui almost a week later, the cherry blossoms were no more.)
After the trip to Shinjuku Gyoen, we stopped by at Shibuya to witness the famed Shibuya crossing. (It is one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world – traffic is stopped in all directions, thus allowing pedestrians to move through the intersection.)
The next day, we embarked on a trip to see the majestic Mount Fuji. The weather proved uncooperative – we were only afforded a partial view of the mountain (great white puffy clouds were stubbornly stuck to its peak that day). The fifth station was as close as we could get to the peak, and it soon turned out to be practically the only location that enabled us to snap decent pictures of the mountain.
After a rather colourful bento box lunch, we went onboard a 20-minute cruise at Lake Ashi, which took us to the base of the ropeway that would bring us up Mount Komagatake. Unfortunately, further attempts at getting postcard-picture-perfect shots of Mount Fuji proved futile – we saw not an inch of the mountain from these two subsequent stopovers due to cloudy weather.
Well, beggars cannot be choosers, I suppose.
We also signed up for a day tour to Nikko, about two to three hours’ drive from Tokyo. Located in Tochigi, north of Japan, Nikko is famous for its cultural world heritage, with its many historial sites and ancient temples. It was also here that we saw the famous three wise monkeys – hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil – a traditional symbol in Chinese and Japanese culture.
Anyway, it was a very, very wet day, raining from morning until evening: umbrellas became our constant companions, and we were not at all prepared for the sudden drop in temperature – apparently, it was at its lowest at seven degrees celcius. Everyone was feeling too wretched and miserable to fully take in the sights and sounds in Nikko.
Basically, we nearly froze to death there. Hah.
Well. The many carvings on the temple walls and pillars were extremely meticulous and had been painstakingly well-maintained throughout the years, but it was next to impossible to fully admire them in this chilly weather! (Dragons were regularly featured in the carvings, but I find that I prefer the looks of dragons from the west; or more specifically, those of the fantasy genre.)
After our visit to the Nikko Toshugu Shrine, our plans for more picture-taking at Lake Chuzenji and the Kegonnotaki Waterfalls were pretty much ruined – there was plenty of rain everywhere, mist in the air, snow on the ground. And no lake or mountain or waterfall in sight.
Our last full day in Tokyo saw us hopping on and off trains in the city, visiting various places like Ginza (an upscale area with plenty of department stores and expensive boutiques) and Akihabara (a large shopping area for electronics).
Throughout our stay in Tokyo, we hardly did any shopping – prices of goods on sale there were simply astronomical.
A pleasant surprise came during our final morning in Tokyo – we were shown to a window seat during breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant on the 39th floor, which afforded us an amazingly clear view of the snow-capped Mount Fuji. There I was, munching on my cornflakes grumpily, and wishing I could zip right back to the fifth station to get what would most undoubtedly be a brilliant picture of the mountain. (Yes, I think I now have a love-hate relationship with Mount Fuji.)
That evening, we left for Maui.
1) I love how there are plenty of generous, wide open spaces available in the city itself – the lovely parks and green gardens are clean and easily accessible, located at most a mere train station away. And the Japanese do make use of them (I suppose the mild weather there makes it even more convenient for them to do so).
2) Cleanliness seems to be of utmost priority for the Japanese. It is a trait that is firmly entrenched in them, possibly from a very young age. I noticed that there is no need at all for them to place a garbage bin at each and every corner (a big contrast to Malaysia, and yet we are worse when it comes to maintaining cleanliness at public places). At the sprawling Shinjuku Gyoen, we saw a guy tearing across the park, chasing after his runaway plastic bag, which had gleefully taken flight due to stray wind.
3) I cannot explain how amazingly hassle-free public transportation is in Japan. Train stations are situated in prime locations; ticketing machines are easy to handle; there is ample signage to lead you to the right platforms, trains and stations.
4) The language is er, cute. So are the girls. It is like going to Sushi King every day – salespeople greet you warmly, rewarding you with brilliant toothpaste-commercial smiles. Except that I do not know what they are saying, exactly. (Shom, I think you will have to enlighten us on this one.) Most of the time, we were caught in a chicken-and-duck-talk situation – but we got by with simple English and desperate, frantic finger-pointing (on our part), and plenty of understanding nods and limited English and Mandarin (from the Japanese).
5) I am left in constant awe of their clever use of technology and innovation. The simplest things (such as warm toilet seats – very essential during cold weather) to the slightly more complicated (jaw-dropping multi-level elevated highways soaring near and as high as a multi-storey building) are easily made possible. Narrow spaces and limited landspace are all put to good use without having to sacrifice on convenience and comfort. And the Japanese managed to achieved all this without having to be masters of the English language.
More pictures available on Flickr.
Next: Maui, 14-20 April 2010