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Thursday we left Perth, heading back to Canada. Our flight had two stops – an hour and a half in Kuala Lumpur and almost twelve hours in Tokyo. Not ones to waste a day hanging around an airport, we opted to visit the city. We had read about how beautiful the Shinjuku Gardens were in the Spring so we decided to check it out.
Narita Airport, however, is an hour and a half by train from Tokyo, something we did not know. But we had enough time so we took the Narita Express to Shinjuku Station. A return ticket usually costs around 6000 yen but they were having a promotion for tourists, so if you had a foreign passport, you could pick up a return ticket for 4000 yen. (around US$35 or CDN$46.50). Tickets are reserved seating only and for a specified train. Our return tickets were open ended and good for fourteen days but we had to exchange them for specific return tickets before we could go back.
The train ride itself is a fun experience. You get to see a lot of the countryside and the city along the way. We passed through several miles of forest, then through a lot of suburban Tokyo – houses and apartments, businesses and pagodas. We also passed through some farmland – rice paddies which lay barren this early in the Spring.
As we got closer to downtown, the buildings changed from single family dwellings to large apartments. We were struck by the penchant for brick in these buildings. Brick is a very popular building medium in Japan.
At Tokyo’s main train station, different cars were uncoupled and sent in different directions. Our car, number 7, went on to Shinjuku. On the way we passed through Shibuya Station and district. One busy intersection has been called the Times Square of Tokyo and we passed right by it. But if you blink, you’ll miss it.
We were there on March 25th so it was just getting into Spring. When our plane landed at 7:30 AM it was just two degrees C outside. The high of the day was fourteen. We thought it might be chilly but by the time we got to Shinjuku the sun was out and it was a beautiful day.
We had picked up a guide and map at the airport and after getting our return tickets, we walked a few blocks to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. This beautiful park in the middle of the city covers 58.3 hectares or 144 acres. It dates from 1772 and took its current shape in 1906. Destroyed by Allied bombers during the war, it was rebuilt afterwards.
There is an admission of 200 yen to get in (US$1.77, CDN$2.33). And there is no alcohol allowed in the park. You have to submit to a security check before entering. But those are formalities. The park is stunning and worth the admission.
Because it was so early in the Spring, only a few of the 1500 cherry trees were in full bloom. But that was enough to get vast crowds of people out to enjoy the day. Cherry blossoms are a rite of Spring in Japan and everyone is keen to see them. And Japan is a nation of shutterbugs. Cameras were everywhere.
We wandered through the park and came to a map that explained the layout. There are different styles of garden throughout and we decided to check out the Japanese Garden. It featured many sculpted trees as well as a lake with koi and a tea house on the far side.
A good number of artists were out drawing and painting. Some sketching in black and white and some painting in colour.
After the Japanese Garden we walked along a lake and spotted some more trees in full bloom. One of the things that struck me was the age of the trees. The cherry trees were large and had intriguingly shaped trunks and branches, usually covered with a dark moss. Often the branches would dip right to the ground. We saw one branch hovering just over the water of the lake.
We hiked a bit further and saw a large group of bare trees. This was the Avenue of the Plane Trees. The foliage appears later in the year and the trees are quite stark in their leafless state. They are related to a type of North American sycamore.
Between two double rows of plane tree lie a French formal garden lined with rose bushes. They were just coming into bud.
We walked around the French garden and looked over the vast English landscape garden, mostly a huge open field. The grass was brown at this time of year, but later turns into a lush green. It is truly huge – larger than a soccer field, surrounded by trees along its borders.
As we walked back along the path, we noticed a large conservatory, so we headed over there. Inside we found a good collection of tropical plants including many orchids. The conservatory doesn’t compare in size or scope to the ones we saw in Singapore, but it was an enjoyable visit all the same.
Leaving the conservatory we came across two huge cherry trees in full bloom. There was a large crowd surrounding the trees, cameras out. We took some pictures ourselves, of course.
The city in the background had some iconic structures including the interestingly shaped Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower. This 50 story building houses three educational institutes and is the second tallest educational building in the world. When it was planned, a competition was held to find an architect with the stipulation that the building could not be rectangular. It won the Skyscraper of the Year award in 2008.
After leaving the park, we spotted a rickshaw. We discovered later that the giant Takashimaya Times Square Department Store adjacent to the park and the railway station was offering free rickshaw rides that day to customers spending 10,000 yen or more. (About US$88 or CDN$116).
We dropped by the store to have lunch at one of the many restaurants there. The top three floors of the fourteen story building are all restaurants with varied menus. We opted for a Japanese restaurant and had a delicious tempura meal.
Afterwards we shopped around a while. The store is comparable to Nordstrom – on the upscale side of things. We checked out the 10th and 11th floor which featured crafts and things as we were shopping for a souvenir for our son who loves Japanese culture.
Among the departments we found a fabric department that included costumes (for cosplay according to our son), a section where traditional Japanese clothing was hand made to order, a school uniform boutique (all Japanese school children wear uniforms), a bakery and deli foods section, a variety of craft and souvenir shops and one that sold very elaborate and expensive samurai shrines featuring hand-made dolls in detailed costumes.
A clerk gave me a brochure in English explaining that these were Tokyo seasonal festival dolls, called Edo Sekku Ningyo, a tradition going back to the 18th century. The feudal government of the mid-1700s limited the size and luxuriousness of the dolls. This forced artisans to come up with creative ways to create their wares with an austere elegance that continues to this day. But today, some of these run into the hundreds of thousands of yen (or thousands of dollars).
There are two festivals where these dolls are much prized, the Girls Festival of March 3rd and the Boys Festival of May 5th. The store has an online catalogue and I’ve linked the page through Google Translate so it is in English. Worth a browse.
We browsed some more and found something for our son. We had spent over 10,000 yen including lunch, but time was short so we could not take advantage of the free rickshaw ride. We hopped the Narita Express and headed back to the airport, a very enjoyable morning and afternoon in Tokyo.
If we have another layover on our return to Australia in July, we will take in the Shibuya district, and maybe the downtown area of Shinjuku. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building features twin towers with free public observation floors on the 45th floor, definitely something worth checking out. Tokyo is a fabulous city and we would love to visit it again.
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