Back to Japan – Day 6 (Tokyo)

It’s time to shop till you drop! We woke up at an unearthly hour so we could get ready to leave by 8am. Breakfast hadn’t seen many changes since 2015 and it was nice to see that some things in life stay the same so you feel like you’re picking up right where you left off. Much blueberry jam later, we found ourselves on the bus with our new guide, Mr. Masa who’d be looking after us in Tokyo.

Our first stop was the National Diet Building. Despite it’s deceptive name, this building has nothing to do with nutrition and healthy eating habits.  This “diet” is the less commonly used meaning of the word which actually refers to a legislative assembly. Our hotel, being located near the political centre of the city, is only a short distance from the National Diet Building and the Imperial Palace. So why we had to get up so early was a mystery. It turned out, that tours of the National Diet Building are conducted at 9am sharp, so to ensure that we didn’t miss the tour, we decided to go there early and wait. Except you don’t go early to the National Diet Building. You go there very much on time. Or else you roam around elsewhere and come back exactly on time. I like this very Japanese punctuality and wish I could import this back to my office where no one has any sense of timing. So with that, we had some fifteen minutes to kill, so we went on a short trip around the city, mainly around the Imperial Palace. When we were in Kyoto, we had chanced upon the Imperial Palace there which is still considered the ‘actual’ residence of the Emperor in Japan’s historical capital while the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is considered his temporary residence. It’s pretty fabulous for a temporary home, being built on the site of the Edo Castle, founded by our very own traitorous yet eternally repentant Iyeyasu.

After our quick tour around the palace, admiring the moat and much people watching (there isn’t really anything which is as much fun as watching people and coming up with epic sagas in your head), we returned to the National Diet Building and were all set for our tour. But first – a security check. The first hall we entered is a museum of sorts with all sorts of information about the history of the place along with some historical artifacts. While none of the displays had any information in English, we had a willing translator in せんせい who showed us the piece of granite that had been preserved after the building had been hit with a lightning strike along with a number of fancy voting mechanisms to preserve anonymity.

We were then permitted to enter the actual working halls of the building with instructions in Japanese that I understood very clearly – Two lines. No pictures. Silence. People at work! ^^ As soon as we entered, we were faced with a flight of stairs (oh no, ma…I promise I did not know this was coming), followed by another flight of stairs, and then another and then another. By the time we reached the top, a lot of us were out of breath (ma seemed very fit at this point, considering her age) which just goes to show what kind of horribly unhealthy lifestyle we all subscribe to. We were ushered into the public balcony overlooking the main hall where, as the name suggests, members of the public can sit to watch the legislative proceedings which are held in the presence of the Prime Minister and Emperor, should he choose to attend. As we sat down to simultaneously catch our breath and peer over the railing for a look at not just the main hall but also the narrow balcony for journalists, lined with tiny stools and camera stands perched in front of them, a recording started to play which began to explain the various aspects of the Diet Building from the various boxes on the balcony (there’s a separate one for foreign delegates and another separate one for the Emperor’s family too) to the various positions on the floor (where the scribes sit and where the speaker stands).

The result of a design competition, and 17 years of construction, the National Diet building is rather beautiful and you can tell that the building is in use, not just some symbolic monument where no work gets done. There were a number of things that were absolutely fascinating about the place. For one, the fact that there is no air conditioning. I can’t imagine getting in the middle of a heated debate trying to pass a bill without solid air conditioning to cool flaring tempers. The second is that the building is made of materials sourced entirely from Japan, except for 3 things – the stained glass ceiling in the Central Hall, the door locks (who knows why?) and the pneumatic tube system for sending mail within the building (very Lost style). We passed the Emperor’s room with its elaborate hangings and the Emperor’s family room into the Central Hall. The Central Hall is very beautiful, with its raised stained glass ceiling and corner pillars all covered with paintings of the fours seasons of Japan. As we stood there marvelling at the ceiling and cherry blossom mural, we were told that we could use the elevator to go back down if we wanted. I feel like we needed it more on the way up than down, but we weren’t going to pass up any opportunity for ma to rest, so me, ma, our guide and the security made our way down past the antiquated vacuum tube mail openings in the wall  and into the courtyard where beautiful orange Koi swam in a pool.


National Diet Building

We couldn’t linger there for long and had to make our way back to the bus through the gardens where each prefecture has donated a tree. Coming from a country where provincial biases run high, I felt that this symbolic gesture spoke volumes- that every prefecture would be represented at the highest forms of government and would be sure to enjoy equal rights.

We were scheduled to go to Takeshita Street in Harajuku next, but took a short detour for a trip up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for some views of the city, after a trip up a rather long flight of stairs. The last time we’d been here the sky had been enveloped with haze and we hadn’t been able to see much so we were hoping for better luck this time around, especially for the chance to spot the elusive Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately for us, by the time we reached the top after our elevator ride where we were packed in like sardines, we came across a rather large, rather interesting souvenir store filled with models so we didn’t really spend any time looking out the window! Oops. I ended up with another commemorative coin and a model haul, again not waiting to reach a tax free store just in case I wouldn’t be able to find those models.


Heading up to the Metropolitan Government Building

On the way down we were distracted by lots of fresh cherries being sold and the prospect of having fruit that’s in season was too good to pass up, so armed with two boxes of sweet red cherries we were ready to head back on to the bus. Only not quite… Z had been held up because he was busy trying on a cherry… hat/headwrap and ended up quite the poster child for cherry cola (since he was wearing the Coke T-shirt he’d picked up last time we were in Japan).


Notice the lovely lady laughing in the background…

It was a welcome detour before heading to Takeshita street. Unlike our last trip, this time we started from the Starbucks end of the street and were lucky that the weather held up so we didn’t feel too exhausted by the time we got to the other end. I was determined that ma do some fun shopping, and where better than Takeshita to do just that?


Let’s go!

From Pet Paradise where we were sadly unable to find anything to suit Aegi’s hifi tastes, past mouth wateringly good crepe stores, we wandered through the street and eventually picked up an amazing handbag for ma, a shirt (which I got her to try on win and Korean cosmetics! We even came across a cat plus owl cafe, where we couldn’t go because again… there were too many stairs to go down and climb up for ma, which means I get to keep this on my wishlist for next time!


A complete Harry Potter experience a la Crookshanks and Hedwig ^^

And then we came across my weakness… cotton candy! With no halal questions to be asked of cotton candy, we marched straight in and ordered the smallest size which they made in front of us, a rainbow of colours that reminded me of our cotton candy adventure at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom festival last year. The smallest though, turned out to be humongous and not quite as melt-in-your-mouth as we’d expected. All our candy floss excitement was short-lived however when we took a turn down the final alley of the street where I had picked up some amazing magnets two years ago. I only remembered the magnets and conveniently forgot the overhead sprinklers which shower you with mist to keep you cool on a hot summer’s day. Our cotton candy died a slow melting death – from a fluffy rainbow to a highly unattractive motley goo which we had to hide in a plastic bag to avoid all the raised eyebrows.


Focus not just on the candy floss, but on how you get a water bottle in your jeans pocket!

We were originally supposed to go to the Isetan department store, but after this short and sweet shopping spree we just skipped on ahead to lunch instead. And what a lunch it was. The restaurant, Moti Roppongi, was as posh as its entrance was unassuming and an absolutely mouthwatering Indian buffet awaited us. I ditched all false sense of propriety and dug into the biryani and raita, the way biryani and raita is meant to be eaten – with your hands – and not with fancy spoons and forks which kill off all the flavour and the fun.

Lunch was a fun affair. While Z sat with the guys enjoying his mango lassi, ma and I were joined by sensei’s friend with whom we had a long discussion about all things mango – from the varieties, to the season, to how you go about eating a chaunsa. And all our mango conversation continued with a dessert to complement it – mango ice-cream. We all lingered at the restaurant, for a combination of reasons really. Some of us were in the middle of an engrossing conversation with the restaurant owner who’d been running the place for over 30 years. Some of us were just happy to have had a great meal and wanted to keep the chit-chat going. Some of us were waiting for a chance to pray in the area that the restaurant had kindly set up on our request. And all of us were waiting in line to use the lone restroom.

We had to come down eventually though and as we waited next to the bakery full of bakery goodness as only Korean and Japanese bakeries can be, we spotted the famous Super Mario Go Karts on the road! Note to self – must get IDL and must use DL that I already have sigh


Super Mario and Luigi off to save the princess!

As we waited for the bus to round the corner, I learnt an interesting factoid. It was something I’d been dying to figure out since Korea and せんせい was the one who enlightened me. I now knew why electricity poles in Japan and Korea were covered with spiky yellow covers – to prevent easy suicides by people climbing up the pole. So this scenario had never entered my mind and せんせい found it interesting that I had never thought such a thing could happen. It’s hard imagining anyone would choose public electrocution as a way to go.

Our last stop before dinner was the vibrant Shibuya with its crossing and Hachiko and all things shop-able from Loft and Tokyu Hands. Having already done it all last time we were in Shibuya, this time I just wanted to enjoy the feeling of being in Shibuya. It was high time ma got some rest, so we decided to skip the crossing and headed straight to Tokyu Hands which conveniently has a coffee shop located on the topmost floor which also houses the most interesting things they have to offer.


Is that really a building or just a staircase to the roof? ^^

Whenever I enter Tokyu Hands, I tend to forget that there’s a world outside the huge variety of miniature models with all their delicate intricacies. A modeller’s paradise and a hobbyist heaven, where you can find really any supply you can dream of unlike back home where finding something as simple as modpodge is like finding a needle in a haystack that you have pay an exorbitant amount for. This time around I discovered that Tokyu Hands also stocks Billy dollhouses and I finally found the last item on my wishlist – the architectural paper model series. We picked up gifts for our kitties Aegi and Haya and then spent time with sensei’s friend who’d been out of the country for so long she hadn’t visited Shibuya in years.

We took a leisurely walk back to our rendezvous point and began to debate whether we should skip dinner and just go back to the hotel for some much needed rest. Catching a taxi back to the hotel wasn’t a problem, but we realized that we’d left all our things on the bus. せんせい promised us that dinner would be a quick affair, since it was only going to be soba noodles, and after much consideration and reconsideration, we finally decided we’d head to dinner with the rest of the group.

Dinner would turn out to be a comedy of errors. Our initial excitement at seeing the noodles and the soup was short lived. It pretty much died after the first bite when we discovered that dinner was actually cold noodles- potentially made for senior citizens suffering from high blood pressure problems because the noodles contained not a single trace of salt or any other kind of seasoning that would have made them at least partially palatable despite their high frosty index. It’s safe to say that most of us gave up after the first bite. There were a few half-hearted attempts to have a second bite, but even sensei’s friend acknowledged that if she hadn’t been used to this kind of food she’s also have found it difficult to eat. At last the menus came out and while some people resorted to ordering the vegetable tempura hoping for some warm fried goodness, we roamed the narrow street outside, now dark and empty save the light from a few stores that were getting ready to call it a day.

While walking to the restaurant we had come across a beautiful little flower shop, which is to where we now retraced our steps. Inside the cold shop was a collection of gorgeous flowers, tended to by an old couple who were more than happy to let us take pictures though おばあさん didn’t want to appear in any of them. We stood there, as night fell around us, surrounded by colour, and there we had a lovely conversation in our limited Japanese with the couple. They were interested in knowing where we were from, how long we’d be staying, what the weather was like back home and if we had all these flowers there too. While the ‘real’ back home has soil so fertile that mum always jokes that just spitting on the road is enough for life to blossom and the smell of flowers being sold at random stalls on a dusty roadside is so lovely it makes you dizzy, back home in the UAE is not the same, with flowers mostly imported and roses that look beautiful but have no smell.  おじいさん began to show us different flowers and explained where they were used. For the first time I saw flowers that are used for creating natural dyes used in makeup.



We said our goodbyes and made our way back to the restaurant, admiring the beautiful storefronts and loudly wondering what Stitch (from Lilo and Stitch) was doing in a store across the street. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were ready for our 7/11 bought dinner of bread, jam and bananas and ready to pack for Fuji the next day. We tried talking ma out of it, but she maintained that she hadn’t come all the way to Japan only to miss the iconic Fuji. And so we reached a compromise – that we would skip the caves and the walk through the Suicide Forest. Deal sealed we finished off our packing and called it a night. It was going to be a long drive to Fuji.

Missed Day 5 in Nara

Check out Day 7 in Fuji!

Journey to Japan- Day 6 Part 1

Had an early breakfast after a perfect night’s sleep and got ready to head to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. We walked past the Yoyogi National Stadium to get there and were finally met by a towering gate of wood- not orange like the other shrines.


Yoyogi National Stadium


Torii leading to the shrine

That made the temple, or Shinto shrine rather, more at home with the surrounding forest. And like most of the other places we’d been, I couldn’t tell what I enjoyed more- the walk to the temple or the temple itself. The thick canopy of trees above us was alive with the sound of cicadas and it was only later that I found out that the forest was actually man-made- each tree having been donated.


Thick canopy of trees

On the way to the shrine, there are stacks of barrels of sake on the right and kegs of wine on the left – all donations to the shrine. The colourful barrels of sake make for a great picture and so you’ll find most tourists milling in the area. That’s where I spotted a Korean couple arguing about how to have their picture taken best. I missed my parents a lot at that point.


Donations of sake by local breweries

We kept walking, past the poetry of the Emperor and Empress to whom this shrine has been dedicated before entering the last last torii to the shrine. The Emperor and Empress, we were told, were expected then, and even today, to give their orders in the form of poetry – something amazing yet slightly impractical. I wonder if practicality is a stifled form of art. It was at the last torii that I met the Korean couple again who asked me to take their picture at the entrance to the shrine ^^


Poetry in the middle of the forest

The shrine itself is a beautiful wooden structure – beautiful in its simplicity, magnificent in its size and flanked by perfectly symmetrical trees. The temple, like most other structures in Japan was burnt down in WWII and the buildings were rebuilt in 1958. While it’s okay to take pictures of the structure itself, picture taking is not allowed inside the shrine where people pray. It helps people remember the real purpose of the building- not a tourist attraction, but a place of worship. In the courtyard, there are two places where prayers can be written. I found it very interesting that people need to pay to be able to write their prayers, whether on wooden tablets or on paper, the cheaper alternative. What was even more interesting is the idea that prayers are prioritized according to a person’s financial status and contribution. I think there’s more man than god in that tradition.


Meiji-Jingu Shrine

We left the shrine and walked down to Takeshita Street (Takeshita Dori)- the birthplace of pop culture. It seems like such a contradiction that two places that are such polar opposites would be situated so close to each other. The street is impossible to miss – a shock of colours and a mass of people.


Takeshita Dori

Right at the entrance to the street there are some shops in front of which there is an overhead water spray – something I made full use of to cool me down before heading on down the street. We had been warned that we would be bound to come across some class of, as my sensei succinctly put it, “weirdos”, but luckily enough we found none, only throngs of teenagers having a good time. There are all sorts of shops you can find here, from a huge Daiso to a three storey shop dedicated entirely to cosplay outifts for dogs and of course stores for the rebellious goth-wannabe where labels on stands ask you politely to F off (I’m not sure how that helps with sales 😛 ) If you’re looking for something very Japanese here, then you’re out of luck. This place is filled with lots of merchandise with NY labels and graffiti screaming “God Bless America”. If things like this aren’t really your style, I’d still recommend taking a walk down the street just to experience the dramatic cultural shift between the crowd you’d find at the temple and the youth of today. There are also plenty of places to grab a bite from, ranging from crepes to ice-cream to candy to all things yummy. I couldn’t sample anything as usual so after a fun walk in the killer heat, I stopped at Starbucks at the end of the street to soak in some much needed air conditioning.


Lots of graffiti to enjoy

The next stop was… a Shabu Shabu lunch. I actually really like the idea of being able to cook your own meat at the table (it saves you from the hassle of struggling to define well-done, a little more than well-done and burnt to a crisp) so this is something I was really looking forward to. The restaurant was down a, for lack of better word, shady alley quite close to the famous Shibuya crossing, also known as the Shibuya Scramble. When we got seated, all the tables were already prepared with their own little stoves with pots of boiling broth. We then got a plate of vegetables, another plate filled with thin strips of beef and some seasoning like chilies and garlic. Not being very fussy, we threw everything in, except the meat, which is supposed to be put in individually, cooked as much as you like then eaten by dipping into another bowl of sauce.


Shabu Shabu anyone?

The Shabu Shabu was a stunning success, all plates were completely wiped clean and in the words of one of our friends this was the first day he had eaten like a human. Bellies full, we were taken then to perhaps the most special part of the trip – The Tea Ceremony at Urasenke.

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 2