Panoramic view of Tokyo from Tokyo Skytree (Wikipedia)
In retrospect, I’m really glad I decided to purchase a Japan rail pass. That document, which is sold only to foreign tourists on temporary visits to the country, offers nearly unlimited travel on the country’s spectacularly efficient train network. The pass encouraged me to explore and travel in a way I never would have had I been forced to pay each fare required to ride the fast trains to Hiroshima or Tokyo. And with it in my possession, almost nothing separated the thought – “You know, I could take the Shinkansen to Tokyo and back some day” – from the execution of the action.
And so on Friday March 3rd, two days before Tyler’s race, I left the quiet lakeside town of Otsu to make the 1000-Km round-trip to the sprawling capital city, and center of the largest metropolitan area in the world.
The day before, Thursday, had been the first day that I would have described as routine. I had run in the morning, and then visited Tyler at his hotel to take advantage of its lavish breakfast buffet (he had an extra meal ticket) and all-you-can-use Internet service. I think having a normal, uneventful day encouraged me to go ahead with what had been an extremely vague plan of going to Tokyo “at some point.” As I thought about what that meant, and looked more carefully at the train schedules, this is what I came up with:
I was still waking up very early every morning, so it would be no hardship to rise, eat breakfast, and leave the apartment in time to reach the Otsu station for the 5:58 AM train to Kyoto. That train would deposit me at the Kyoto station with more than enough time to board the first “Hidari” Shinkansen to Tokyo, leaving Kyoto at 6:23 a.m. Although not the fastest of the Shinkansen and even with several intermediate stops, the Hidari would still make the 513 Km trip in less than three hours, averaging 186 Km/hour (116 mph). That would bring me to Tokyo station at 9:10 a.m., and, assuming I caught the 3:30 train back to Kyoto, give me six hours to explore. Six hours in Tokyo! It sounded crazy, but on the other hand, why not?
And everything went smoothly. The 5:58 train arrived at precisely 5:58 (an occurrence I had started to take for granted). At the Kyoto station, there were quite a few early commuters, but the platforms were much emptier than at any other time I had been there. When the Hidari arrived, I boarded the train and strategically took a seat on the left side of the train. The weather was expected to be warm and clear, and that meant there should be good views of Mt. Fuji to the West as we sped through the Hakone region on the approach to the Tokyo metropolitan area. Unlike my previous two trips on the bullet trains, no one sat next to me, so I was able to relax, do some writing (I had brought my laptop), and stare out of the window at the landscape flying by.
And sure enough, at around 8:00 a.m., the famous mountain came into view, majestic against the blue sky. I was somewhat self-conscious as I pulled out my phone to take pictures, but I needn’t have worried. Apparently, even Japanese people who make the trip on a regular basis cannot resist taking pictures of the mountain known as “Fujisan”
(富士山), and I was only one of many using my camera.
The noble mountain, from the train.
As for the landscape, the train passed through what seemed like a continuous series of coastal cities, and I was struck by the fact that there were few gaps and little empty countryside in the hundreds of miles of our route. On the other hand, there were almost always mountains visible to the North, and those looked rugged and remote. I read somewhere that the vast majority of Japan’s population lives along the Eastern coast of its biggest island, Honshu. In the big cities, there were big modern buildings and towers, but for much of the trip there were just vast expanses of two-story houses as far as the eye could see.
The day before, Tyler had commented that I seemed to be psyching myself out about Tokyo – thinking about it as a huge, intimidating metropolis – and I think he was right about my state of mind. I was braced for a noisy and crowded place, something like being in Times Square, if Times Square extended over a land area of 845 square miles.
Tokyo station lived up to that image, to a certain extent. When I got off the train, there were a great number of people rushing to and fro, as you would expect at 9:15 on a weekday morning. And it took me a good ten minutes and what seemed like half a mile of walking even to find my way out of the station and emerge into the open air. But once out of the station, I was surprised to find myself walking along broad and pleasant streets, with little of the hustle and bustle I had expected. I’m sure there are crowded and noisy districts of Tokyo, but this was not bad. After only a couple of blocks of pleasant walking on this fine morning, I reached the promenade that surrounds the Imperial Palace.
Unfortunately, because of my lack of research, it was only then that I discovered that the gardens and grounds are not open on Fridays, so I had to be content with walking along the perimeter of the park, gazing across a moat that separated me from the sights within the compound.
When I say compound, I’m talking about an area of several square kilometers. While it was hard to take in much from the promenade, it was still impressive, with its moat guarded by gatehouses every 600m, or so.
The sidewalks around the compound are also an extremely popular spot for urban runners. The wide promenade that surrounds the Palace grounds makes a 5.3Km loop, so it is a very popular place for runners to meet, especially during lunch hour.
I walked for a while, ending up at the Japanese National Museum of Modern Art, and that seemed interesting, so I paid a very reasonable admission fee, and spent an hour or so looking at the collection and exhibitions. After this cultural interlude, I returned to the promenade, found a quiet place under the trees, and ate the lunch I had brought, while people-gazing at the many runners out for their lunchtime exercise.
Although I had searched the Internet for ideas about how to spend a day in Tokyo, almost all the suggested itineraries had seemed too ambitious for me, and had featured trips to shopping districts, such as Ginza. Since I had limited time and little interest shopping, I decided to spend the rest of my time on the one place I definitely wanted to see — Ueno Park, about 5-6 Km North of the Tokyo station. So after I finished lunch, I headed back to the station for the ten-minute trip to the park.
I think I chose my destination well. Ueno Park and the Ueno Park Zoo were great places to hang out on a warm, late winter day. By now it was past noon, and the weather was fine — maybe the nicest day of the spring so far. As a consequence, the Zoo was overrun by adorable groups of Japanese schoolchildren in their uniforms and identical white hats. There is something really delightful about seeing 15-20 second-graders, all (apparently) well-behaved under the supervision of their teachers, many of them holding hands. The sight of them made me happy, and I completely forgot that I was still in a very big city.
I wandered about in the Zoo for a couple of hours, including ten minutes watching the giant pandas.
Li Li, the giant panda, heading over for a lunch of freshly cut bamboo.
There were other animals worth seeing: many varieties of monkeys, Asian elephants, a tiger, a polar bear, a Hokkaido black bear, Andean Condors, gorilla, and many exotic birds. As the afternoon wore on, I realized I should be going. Ueno Park has many museums in the area, but with time running short, I knew I would not be able to explore them. Instead, my last stop was the “Neko Maru Café” (Neko = cat, Maru = circle or perfect, so Neko Maru = “Cat circle” or “Perfect cat?”) that Tyler and I had read about a few days earlier. From what we had gathered, “cat cafes” were a phenomenon in Tokyo, but we still didn’t know exactly what they were. It seemed they were cafés with lots of cats. Were the cats roaming the café? Were you allowed/encouraged to interact with the cats. Tyler had insisted I find out.
It was supposed to be very close to the Ueno station, but it took me a long time to find the place. The temporary SIM card in my phone had expired and so I had no Internet or access to Google Maps. I might not have found it at all, but I happened to see a billboard and recognized the Japanese character for “Cat.” From there, I was able to sound out the rest of the name. But something seemed strange: it seemed to suggest that the cafe was on the 8th floor of a plain apartment-style building. That didn’t seem right; who puts their cafe on the 8th floor? So I asked a nearby policeman, who merely pointed to the sign and said “Hatchi-kai” (8th floor). So I shrugged, entered the building, and took the tiny elevator to the 8th floor.
The cat cafe was not what I expected. It was a tiny, tiny apartment accessed via a small vestibule where one left one’s shoes and cleaned one’s hands with sanitizer. On entering, a woman handed me a slip of paper with my time of entry, and told you me was 700 yen (about $6.50) for the first half hour, and then some other amounts for more. Inside the apartment were 25 cats. I was given a “program” showing pictures of each of the cats and their names, and…. that was it. There was no food or drinks (for people), and nothing much going on. The idea was to just hang out with the cats, pet them (or not), watch them interact with each other, and basically take a break from the frenetic pace of modern Tokyo.
It seemed really weird to me. I left before my 30 minutes was up, and felt relief to be back on the street again. I don’t know, I guess I’m glad I had the experience, but if I were running a cat café , I think I’d at least offer tea, and give the humans a place to sit.
The cats of “Neko Maru Cafe” — The “Shop Manager” is a nice touch.
I’d like to say a few words (in English) about my Japanese. I don’t want to leave the impression that I was somehow fluent – far from it. But I did realize on this trip that I had become quite comfortable, almost unconscious, in my ability to ask basic questions and understand enough of the answers to figure out what to do next. I had gotten to the point that I didn’t hesitate to approach someone with a question, and I no longer had to rehearse what I was going to say in my head before saying it out loud. On the other hand these were really basic questions. But it was a relief to know that I could go into a restaurant and order something vegetarian, or ask where the bathrooms were, or find out when the next train to Kyoto was expected to depart, and from which track, or ask how much something cost — and expect to be understood.
Assisted by a helpful official at Tokyo station who directed me to the right train, I boarded the return Shinkansen at about 3:30 in the afternoon. My legs were quite tired from all the walking and standing, and so I was happy to get a seat by the window and pull out my iPad to settle down and read. On the return trip, the peak of Mt. Fuji was shrouded in clouds, so the views weren’t quite as spectacular. Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant and comfortable trip. I arrived in Kyoto at 6:20 or so, having seen a nice sunset from the train. I hung around the station for a bit, checking out places to eat, but eventually decided to head home to Otsu and make myself dinner at the apartment.
I couldn’t remember what I had left in the apartment for dinner, and I was hungry, so I hedged my bets by purchasing a bag of rice crackers at a 7-11 at Otsu Station. (Yes, they have 7-11’s in Japan.) I walked the half mile or so back to the apartment munching on the crackers, and walked in the door at about 7:40 p.m., 14 hours after leaving that morning.
I was in bed by 9:30 and slept well that night.