I love traveling to cities. I grew up in suburbia. Ventured out to the rural, no man’s land. Took day trips to the city. While some feel suffocated or become overwhelmed when encountering the city life, it revives me. I love the feeling of visiting a big city. Even one as foreign as Tokyo.
For one, the transportation is excellent. Despite the mind-boggling maps at first glance.
It’s simple. You normally purchase a Suica (or Pasmo, apparently they can be used interchangeably) card (for the large lines only, the smaller ones require their own tickets) which you load on your desired fare and “adjust” your card total when you arrive at your destination. You swipe in to ride and you swipe out to exit. Pretty simple.
There’s an odd obsession that some people have with trains. Some may have heard the term otaku, which can be (very) loosely translated to “nerd”. The true definition of otaku can literally be saved for another post on another day, but one thing for sure, there are number of different types of otaku. One, that seems to have become an “affectionate term“, is the densha otaku (densha being Japanese for train).
[Jocelyn has become a densha otaku!]
These otaku love their trains. They’ve researched them to pieces, know them inside and out, and enjoy documenting their arrivals and departures. Some even make plans to attend a train’s “funeral“, or the last ride the train will have before it’s taken to the train graveyard. I’ve seen a few densha otaku braving the cold Yamanashi weather with their cameras. While some may roll their eyes at the thought of being so preoccupied with trains, Tofugu brings up an excellent point that these densha otaku are just appreciating the true wonder that is the Japanese train system. It’s complex, super efficient and probably beats out any other large city in how clean and beautiful they are (inside and out).
The ride to Tokyo (Harajuku) was wonderful. The first leg of the journey was traveling through the more rural parts surrounding Tokyo. The train was older, with the actual conductor announcing the current and future stops (instead of a prerecorded voice). Mountains were still surrounded us and occasionally you saw a graveyard snaking up the sides of one.
Switch to another train and all of a sudden you’re not in Kansas anymore. Large buildings replace the old houses. The train now has video screens at all of the doors. Switching between Japanese and English, it tell you what the next stop is, what side the doors will open, when you will arrive at the next stop, and what all following stops are for the rest of the trip. There’s (often times) one right next to it playing commercials.
It gets busier too. Granted, I wasn’t riding during rush hour times (going to work, returning from work); it was a Saturday though. Many were off of school or work and chose to enjoy the day in central Tokyo.
We got off at Harajuku, right before Shibuya (those might know Shibuya by the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who waited for his master even though he died before he could return home from work). It was busy, there were a lot of young people. Of course! Harajuku is one of the best shopping districts in Japan, if there weren’t young people flocking the streets, we’d have a problem.
[Oh my gosh, so busy]
I didn’t buy anything. I think I was still in awe of it all. I was in friggin’ Harajuku. Like, the place Gwen Stefani sings about all the time. Didn’t she name her one of her clothing lines after this place?
You’d have a more girly-girl store right next to a dark, goth-like shop. Music coming from all corners. People with signs (and often times dressed in fashion you’d only expect in Harajuku), others calling out to the crowd to walk into their store. A few people trying to hand you flyers. Before I knew it, we were on the other side of Takeshita Street and looking at the more department store-type of shopping areas. We browsed, but nothing much more.
Back allies are fun. Unless their dark and wet-looking. Then I don’t like them.
But the ones in Harajuku I do like.
Small little cafés line the streets, one on top of the other. We went to one with a theme of stationary. You sit down, order and then browse. I personally think all restaurants should be this way. It makes the wait for food so much better.
We even got to be kids again and draw on our placemats.
After eating and feeling reenergized (because Harajuku can tire you out at first glance) we shop-hopped. At one point waiting in line for about 30 minutes for a popular shop. While it was out of the ordinary to wait for a store, it might make some sense. Could it be because of the work ethic that the Japanese people have? Since it was Saturday, this was the only day many people could shop, making this place busy as heck? My friends kept telling me it was because it was a foreign store (it sold items from Copenhagen) and everyone loves going to places like that (the Garrett Popcorn store, the same as the one in Chicago, had a long line as well). It may seem odd at first glance, but it made things bit easier. No pushing, no trampling. No one dead. Maybe we can learn a thing or two about this system of waiting instead of nearly decapitating each other for material items.
Not too far from Harajuku station is the Meiji Shrine.
[Holy moley, weird to see all of those trees so close to a city like that!]
Established in 1920 a few years after the death of Emperor Meiji and his wife (Empress Shoken), people across Japan gathered a large number of trees, planted them in the surrounding area of the shrine and, behold! The Meiji Shrine came to be. [source]
I wish I had the time (and energy) to research and write about Shinto (the ancient, Japanese religion) and what each part of shrines mean, but that would be like writing a dissertation. Maybe at the end of this program I’ll become a semi-pro, expert on Shinto shrines? Probably not, but hopefully I’ll learn as I go. But for now, I’ll just mention my observations.
After passing under the tori gate and taking a few pictures of the kazaridaru, or sake offerings (see my Tumblr post here for some cool information on kazaridaru) we approached the main shrine area. Before entering, it’s customary to purify your hands and mouth with water.
Now, I’ve heard about this before and was just a bit terrified. I knew there was a process but I didn’t remember how it went. Will I look like a silly foreigner (lies, I already did)? Will I upset someone?
Luckily, they had directions in English.
There was traditional Japanese wedding taking place that day! I didn’t get a good look at the main wedding party, but got a few glimpses of those glorious kimono we’ve all heard of before. Let me tell you, until you see a real one in person, you don’t understand how pretty they are.
At the Meiji Shrine, my friends and I approached the offering hall to pray. Return of the nerves. I knew there was a process and there was something involving the throwing of money, but of course I didn’t remember.
Again, English directions.
Here’s the deal, you throw 50 yen (the coin with a hole in the middle) into the large box-like structure with bars on the top, bow twice, say your prayer, clap twice and bow again. Not too complicated? I think I did it right. One of my friends of a picture of me doing it, I probably looked silly.
On the way out, we passed people purchasing ema, or wooden tablet in which you write your wishes on. Click on ema above and you’ll be directed to my Tumblr and I’ll explain the significance of them at Japanese shrines.
Right before we left, I made sure to purchase some charms, or omamori. Most of them help against ‘misfortunes’ and have different meanings depending on the one you purchase. We’ve got your basic good fortune (the red one I purchased for myself- I was told that it would cover me across the board), one for happiness (the yellow one in the photo) and others (for finding a partner, finding a job, passing classes/tests, having children/giving birth safely). I was told that they only last a year, so people often times return to shrines to purchase new ones. They make good key chain charms, backpack charms, etc. They also make excellent gifts.
The return home was tiring. So much seen, so much more ahead. Had good conversations with some old friends. Hope to do it again real soon.
As a parting note, I cannot seem to get over the fact of how much history is blended in within the metropolitan area of Tokyo. It makes Tokyo so much more amazing to me. On one side of the street you’ll have skyscrapers that seem to be miles high and on the opposite is a shrine, nearly 100 years old.
You see it in the smaller towns too. Walking the streets of Tsuru-shi, you’ll pass by the popular convenience stores (konbini) and suddenly come across a tiny, old looking shrine, hidden in the trees. I don’t see much of that where I come from.
I loved Tokyo, can’t wait to go back. I do love my Tsuru-shi though. It’s already home.
Much love always,
Train Map Photo: here
Meiji Shrine Overhead Photo: here