This was not part of my original itinerary. Initially, I just had a layover scheduled here during the course of my final flight home in December, but I extended my stay for a few days, because: Tokyo. I've heard so much about this city, I just had to see and experience it for myself since the opportunity had presented itself.
I had an exhausting flight from Hanoi to Tokyo that departed just after midnight and arrived around 7 AM in the morning. I suck at sleeping on planes so I was dragging my feet in a daze through the Tokyo airport. The only upside was that a new friend happened to be on the same flight, but we parted ways in the airport because she was flying all the way back to the States.
I was too tired to function so I ended up in a capsule hotel called 9 Hours that was attached to the airport. The capsules were just as cool and compact as I had expected, but turned out to be far more expensive. It was like $20 bucks for just three hours. After some semi-lucid sleep, I collected my bags, bought some subway tickets, got some yen from an ATM, ate an overpriced lunch and then headed from the airport to my hostel.
Tokyo is huge and overwhelming and has a ton of different neighborhoods. I had booked only one night in a cheap hostel near the Akobonobashi station in Shinjuku. I was the only girl in a fully booked room full of 10 beds and nine other dudes. There were stains (possibly blood or some other bodily fluid) on the floor and my bed was in the middle of the room, nowhere near an outlet. The room smelled like stinky boys and the bathroom was even worse. This is why I usually book female dorms when traveling: the smell(s).
The silver lining of this place, though, was that they had great internet. So I was able to plan out the rest of my days here, as well as book another hostel in the Asakusa area on the recommendation of a friend form college. That night I went to bed relatively early and got up super early around 5:30 AM, excited for my first full day in this crazy city.
I took a couple different lines on the metro subway to get to Hiro-o station and tried to find a temple that supposedly hosted foreigner-friendly morning zen meditation sessions. The directions on their website were not great and I wandered for a while and found a traditional-looking temple-ish place and lingered outside. An elderly Japanese lady noticed me lingering outside and invited me inside, but neither she, nor the other handful of people there, spoke any English and I knew I wasn't in the right place. She fumbled through a pile of brochures in just about every other language but English, so I still don't know where I was. I bowed graciously and said "Arrigato" and left as politely as I could.
I remembered seeing a tree that obscured part of the temple in the picture online so I started searching for trees, thinking it would lead me to the temple, but instead I ended up at Arisugawa-No-Miya Memorial Park. It was a big and beautifully landscaped area complete with a pond, bridges, trails, trees and tons of sitting areas. I decided to just sit here and meditate instead since I gave up on finding the temple after at least an hour of wandering around. The chill in the air was refreshing and definitely felt like December, but the fiery foliage made it feel like the beginning of fall. After about an hour of mediation, I walked around the park watching other people walking their dogs, feeding pigeons, chatting in pairs or getting in a quick morning workout.
I was impressed with and enjoyed the Tokyo Metro subway system. Despite being the world's busiest railway, it's one of the most organized and easiest to navigate in my experience. I even survived Shinkjuku station, the world's busiest rail station. But once I got above ground, it was a different story. Tokyo addresses are super confusing with like 3 different numbers and I really had trouble making sense of it. I only had my little samsung with limited battery life and no sim card so I couldn't completely rely on GPS so I had to supplement my navigation with old fashioned paper maps and directions.
One of the things I wanted to do most was to find a traditional zazen temple and learn about zen buddhism and meditation. It first piqued my curiosity after I heard all about how much Steve Jobs was into it when I read his biography last year. Let me tell you how many times I tried and failed to make this happen.
1. Before I arrived in Tokyo, I tried to book a temple stay in advance. I got responses from temple in Kyoto, but apparently they are pretty popular this time of year and I couldn't book two consecutive nights. And, as awesome as it would have been to take a bullet train to Kyoto, it would have been a lot of extra strain in terms of time and money so I abandoned that plan. 2. I found a few spots supposedly in Tokyo but received no response from the ones I was able to email. 3. I attempted to find Kourin-in temple for morning meditation near Hiro-o to no avail. Found the park instead. 4. Found a recommendation for the Buddhist English Academy online. . I went to Nishi Shinjuku anyways and walked around for at least an hour looking for this place, only to discover that the address was for an apartment in a residential building and that the phone number provided was not in service. 5.Took the metro all the way out to Myogadani Station for a Wednesday night Zen meditation intro class, only to find the temple non-existent. It was literally razed to the ground with the empty lot surrounded by a white tarp. Supposedly a new temple is going to be built in its place. 6. I found another local Zazen meditation experience through Voyagin.com but it turned out to be "currently unavailable" when I inquired about it.
So after wasting so much time and effort in my quest for zen, I decided it would have to wait until a later date when I could not only plan a proper trip in advance, but confirm it in advance as well.
But back to the more successful stuff that I did. I was glad I moved to Asakusa because it was a livelier and more artistic area. I booked a few successful activities via Voyagin. The first was a customized art and design tour of Tokyo with a local designer named Kota. He met me at my hostel and showed me around the city. It was such a relief to be with someone who knew where he was going and spoke Japanese! Plus he was good company as well. We started at the famous Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest in the Tokyo area. It was free to enter and explore, but teeming with vendors and tourists. Next we went to Jimbocho Street which is know for it's abundance of book stores. We spent a surprising amount of time perusing old books and scrolls in the stores, and I ended up buying a book of poetry from the 1950s for a friend back home.
Our tummies were starting to grumble, so Kota took me to a little place that had VEGAN RAMEN! It was delicious and apparently hard to find according to other friends who have visited the city, so I'm eternally grateful. The last stop was the Advertising museum, built in the basement of a mall in the shadow of Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency. I couldn't stay long because I had to head to my next appointment with a local lady to learn Japanese calligraphy. I made it to the subway station with no issues, but then I got lost several times between there and her house, with people on the street giving me terrible directions. One girl even walked me to the police station, when I thought she was walking me to the house. Anyways, I showed up 30 minutes late but still managed to get some good practice in and paint a satisfactory character for the word "wisdom." Definitely better than any souvenir I could have bought on the street.
My last day in Tokyo was a bit of a blur. After so many days surrounded by sky-high concrete I was craving some nature so I headed to Mount Takao, located less than an hour outside the city by Express train from Shinjuku. It was colder and more precipitous than I anticipated so I ended up buying a hat and gloves at the base. A sporadic mix of rain and snow fell from the clouds above. My left foot (the one injured in Bali) had been hurting for a few days so I opted to take the cable car part way up the mountain, then walk the rest of the way. There were tons of other locals around, but hardly any other obvious foreigners. There were several shrines and one large temple complex along the way.
If you reach the top on a good, clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance, but my view was thoroughly obscured by the weather. I was pretty hungry so I ordered Honshimeji Kake (soba noodles with mushrooms) and Amazake (warm fermented rice drink) for lunch at a small shop. There, I met a fellow American that was in Japan for a few days en route to visit family in Vietnam. We chatted and walked back down the mountain together and shared an affinity for steamed red bean paste buns. Drool. I really enjoyed some delicious food in Japan!
Once I got back to the city, I headed straight for one of their famous Cat Cafes. I arrived, ready to be showered with love and affection from exotic kitties, but was kind of underwhelmed. There were way more people there than I expected and the cats were only interested in you if you had food. I tried several different toys, but none of them were interested in playing. Just food. You pay by the hour at these places (there are also owl cafes and bunny cafes) and I was about to leave when I met a group of Americans. One or two were marines stationed elsewhere in Japan and the others were just visiting. They invited me to karaoke and the infamous Robot Cafe show, so I figured WTH since it was my last night.
We rented a traditional private booth at a karaoke bar to kill time before the robot show. Apparently unlimited drinks came with the rental, no doubt to supply liquid courage to shy singers. One dude was confident in his skills without an alcoholic crutch and sang a pretty legit Sinatra. The rest of us, were your typical tone-deaf karaoke-ers. This was my first time ever singing Karaoke but I've known the song I would sing for years now: Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood. If you know me, you know this is an odd song choice because I am no fan of country music; in fact I think this is the only Carrie Underwood song I know. It's just fun to mock-sing with a raspy drawl. So, check that off the bucket list. The other musical selections spanned several genres and decades including Britney Spears, TLC, Missy Elliot, Shaggy and some other more recent songs that I didn't know because I rarely listen to the radio these days.
So last but not least was the robot show, which I will attempt to describe but honestly you just have to see it to fully understand and appreciate it. It's not cheap but one of the guys offered to pay for my ticket so that was awesome. We were front row for all the crazy, loud, neon, random action. It was like a mashup of Japanese pop culture; like a live action anime featuring a variety of costumes, robots, epic battles followed by energetic dancing and singing. And some weird skit about a couple of Santa's reindeer beating the crap out of him. (Not sure which two but my money would be on Dancer and Prancer.)
It was a late night to say the least and I didn't get much sleep so my final challenge was getting myself and my luggage back to the airport for my 11ish flight back to the states. I grot a seat on a shuttle bus and everything went smoothly until I arrived in Dallas. It's so stupid that you have to recheck your bags and go through security again when you literally just came from an international flight. I narrowly arrived at my connected and then a few hours later I landed in Charlotte. My bag didn't make it onto the same flight as me, but the airport promised to fly the bag to GSP and then have it delivered to my parents house the next day. Annoying, but really not a big deal in the gran scheme of things. Traveling solo for so long has really helped me put things into perspective.