14 June 2012

Japan Day 5: Asakusa and Ueno

Our first foray into "real" Tokyo! Yesterday, we asked a very helpful guy at Guest Relations about how to get to Asakusa. He wrote out subway directions for us and gave us a super helpful English map/guide pointing picture leaflet. He gave us two possible routes; we chose to take the longer, cheaper and easier route.

Failing to close the blackout kaataans, we were up at 4:30am again. We booted up slowly and blogged the activities of the previous day. We have it down to a science now. T uploads the photos and tags them all on the computer whilst I write the posts in Notes on my phone. When we are big done, we go over to the Lounge and sit outside on a couch which must be just for this purpose (remember that we discovered we are not actually allowed in the lounge). There we have amazingly fast wifi and upload the photos to Flickr while adding photos directly to the blog from iPhoto. [Sorry, you probably didn't care about that, but we will when we travel next time, so we don't have to remember how we did this so cleverly.]

Time to start the day's adventure! The train station/subway station is right in Ikspiari, which opened at 10. After a makeshift breakfast of tea and granola bars from home, we went to the food court and grocery store in search of some real food. Finding he food court not open yet, we settled on take away food from the grocery store: 2 onigiri and a box of inarizushi (not pictured).

Breakfast gobbled, we walked up to the eki (station) area.  Purchasing our subway/metro/train tickets looked like it was going to be quite the experience with the bank of automated kip-pu (ticket) machines.   There is a handy English button, but the machines all assume you already have a reusable card.  We watched some Japanese adding money to their cards and decided to go to the booth to ask for help.  A transit employee found us looking confused and walked is through using the one machine that gives you a new card.   [Good idea to stay here at Dizunee Randuruu, where everyone speaks some English!].

Kard-os in hand, we headed into the station and easily found our way to our train. Everything is superbly labelled a zillion times in 3 languages (Japanese hiragana, English and Chinese).  And by superbly labelled, I mean the signs are everywhere so you just follow your route colour and there are markers nearly every 3 yards or so! Also convenient are the plethora of vending machines selling ¥100-¥200 drinks of all varieties - even biru (beer)! We saw a particularly cool one that consisted of a 32" flat, touch screen and played short adverts. 

Example awesome signage:


Example crazy vending machine, from which you can buy "book cans" containing candy:


The train itself was pretty awesome as well. We got on here at Maihama eki (station) which is part of the JR (Japanese Rail) network. So the train we got on is probably equivalent to the MARC or VRE at home. Not having been on one of those, I can't really compare, but I'd assume hey don't have tri-lingual announcements and LCD screens above all the doors showing a variety of ads, maps and other useful information. ICN: Each train car here has a "priority seating" section of 8 seats for the elderly, disabled, pregnant or passengers with small children. In this area, there are signs and different coloured handholds reminding you to silence your mobile devices while nearby. In fact, there are generally posted signs asking people to hold off on phone calls while on the subway.

We changed trains at Tokyo Eki and again at Ueno Eki. Both transitions were fairly easy with all the signage. Once at our final destination of Asakusa, we followed signs to the Shrine Exit. We emerged into a covered sort of outdoor marketplace and made our way towards where we thought the shrine might be. I had read online about this area being a touristy and religious place at the same time. We hadn't brought any maps or guidebooks other than our metro map, so we picked our way based on my recollection of photos I'd seen online.

Soon enough, we saw the crowds getting thicker and the tell tale touristy shrine area shops, similar to what I'd seen in China (only way cleaner and more organized and far less smelly). We found the Kaminarimon Gate and took some photos. Walking towards the main Hondo (temple), we stopped at a mochi stand where a Chinese couple was trying to decide which we're sweet and which we're savory.  Eavesdropping, I translated for T so he could make our selection. We settled on green tea flavored mochi filled with red bean paste and covered in peanut dust. Oishii rating: !! Good, and clearly very fresh, but not really awesome. By this time it was getting quite warm and having prepared for colder weather, I was wearing my new Japanese leggings under jeans. ICN: there is great concern about skin cancer here it seems. All lotions have at least 50SPF and many of the clothes have UPF also. The leggings I bought have stirrups and are cooling, UV protective and circulation promoting. All the girls here wear them; under dresses, shorts, skirts, everything. We found a bathroom and I decided to change into shorts I'd packed.

Before going in, we were stopped by a group of maybe 5th or 6th grade students who asked to speak with us. They were practicing their English and had a bunch of questions to ask us. At the end, they asked to take a photo and we did too. I signed their paper and they gave us some little drawings they'd done. A very fun experience! I changed in the bathroom which offered a variety of toilets from porcelain holes in the ground to western style commodes in little pod like stalls with semi-circular sliding doors. Though this is obviously a very public place, the bathrooms were amazingly clean and not bad smelling! Feeling much more comfortable in my leggings and shorts outfit, we headed for the Main Hall (Hondo) which is dedicated to the buddhistava Kannon.

Having read about the procedures online, we cleansed our hands with the special water from the special water fountain with special water ladles. Then, we got smoked by the giant incense burner and tried to cleanse our insides in hopes of good health. Finally we went into the Hondo and prayed "dozo yoroshku" (nice to meet you, please be kind to me) and made our monetary offering. We also bought a fortune which turned out to be #89: The Best Fortune! We read it carefully (took a photo) and tied it to the wishing rod to make it come true. [Glad I read all those random Japanese tourists' blog posts at home, so we knew what to do!]

Prayers done and fortune received, we walked around the area for a bit longer, taking photos of the 5 story pagoder and getting a few interesting shots of traditional shrine with Tokyo sky tree in the background.

On our way back to the Eki, we enjoyed a delicious red bean popsicle and were amazed at how many Chinese tourists were around. We took the subway back to Ueno Koen (Ueno Park), which is something like the National Mall/Central Park in NYC. It is a giant place with gardens, a giant lotus covered pond, smaller shrines and museums. We found a map and walked around. We visited a few more shrines where we prayed for more gods to be kind to us and I got a mobile charm to ward off evil spirits. We did a lot of hand and body cleansing, so we should be set in the good health department for a while I'd say.

Outside the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (we think this was the Cultural Center) we sat at a little outdoor cafe and had a snack; a pig bao for T and a panda pan (bread) for me. Oishii ratings: !! for both. Pretty good, but nothing special except the kawaii (cute) factor.

Legs and feet slightly rested, we went in search of the pond. We found another temple to the goddess of knowledge and prayed to her. Feeling like we'd done enough praying and such, we headed back in the direction of the subway eki (station) and found ourselves in a network of outdoor shops, again mostly covered.

All sorts of things were for sale here; from fresh fish, roe and octopi to cosmetics (in small, proper drugstore type places) to knock off ghetto-fab garb sold in little stalls blaring America hiphop. Rounding the final corner at-e watashtachi no eki wa (to our station), we came upon a giant bank of coin bubble toy machines!

Using all our change, we bought some goodies including a tiny robot thing for T, which made him very happy. Inside the station, we were following our grey Hibiya-sen (Hibiya line) route signs, when we spotted the entrance to a 9 level mall/department store. Of course we had to go in!

 It was already nearing 4pm, so we'd been up for almost 12 hours already, but the draw of a 9 level store was too great. It turned out to be worth it though! I found a hosiery department having a sale on uv leggings and socks for wearing with flats (why don't we have these in the States?). I bought 2 of each, and one pair of socks has individual toes!! Next level up, we found stationery heaven! We spent probably 2 hours here poring over every tiny, amazing little doodad and doojig. I took over the camera and started taking a zillion photos because I couldn't buy everything...

The next 3 floors were menswear. Noting about a 300% price increase from the womenswear offerings, we started a search for a bo-shi (hat) for T. By the time we found a suitable one, it was past 6pm, and both of is we're starting to drag a little. We thought about getting dinner on the 9th floor, but finding all the eateries were sit down places where we might have to actually order properly, we decided to just visit the bathrooms instead.

I was astonished to find the bathroom had a magic water dispenser in the stall to more thoroughly sanitize the seat. The toilet itself was a washlet with heated seat and myriad spraying options. The sinks had auto foam soap and water faucets and had the Dyson style water blaster drying device built in to the front! Either this was a very upscale mall, or the Japanese are really just totally beyond us in terms of bathroom-ing awesomeness. Probably both.

The ride back to Maihama eki was uneventful and we were both starting to feel the effects of being up and walking all day. Back at Ikspiari, we had dinner at our now favourite food court. I tried to order noodle soup, but got cold noodles covered in cold broth with cabbage purée instead. Not as bad as it sounds actually. Oishii rating: !!. T ordered some stir fry noodle dish that included tiny bits of sea creatures and tentacles in addition to cabbage and lettuce. Oishii rating: !!.

Before finally heading home, we stopped at the grocery for onigiri for tomorrow's breakfast, tea (we are very much enamoured of the hit water dispenser in our room), and some black pepper rice crackers. Back in the room, we found a squirrel towelgami waiting for us. We were also very happy to discover that upon checking our credit card bill via iPhone app, the room charge has disappeared! Feeling the gods had enjoyed our awkward prayers, we finally couldn't resist the bed at 8:45.  Here's a parting photo of all our loot from the day:

No comments: