As I had mentioned in my previous post, Tokyo has a particularly strong focus on its shopping districts as its main attractions. This is a city that’s good at hawking its wares — perhaps too good. In this last post on our trip, I’ll talk about these shopping districts and their effect on the overall experience, as well as our last leg of our trip to the resort town of Fujikawaguchiko. It’s a mixed bag with some highs and lows, along some lessons and reflections at the end.
The Money Holes
Just like a box of chocolates, Tokyo’s big shopping strips all have their own flavours to set themselves apart.
Harajuku is geared towards a younger crowd and is the most interesting of the non-nerd related shopping districts. The big labels can be found all over the main streets, but there’s also a lot of independent boutiques in the side alleys. Though mostly wasted on us, these smaller boutiques are an alternative to the ubiquitous H&M’s and Uniqlo’s.
The signature snack of Harajuku – the crepe – did not blow us away. As pretty as they are, they’re mostly filled with whipped cream. My advice is to look for options with ice cream or savoury filling instead.
Purikura (photo sticker booths) is serious fucking business in Harajuku. There are multiple locations here, each with dozens of some pretty high-tech photo booths. There are large make-up stations and change rooms to get ready. Each fast-paced photo session will take you through multiple poses and angles in quick succession, and you have to be on top of your game to decorate your ridiculous creations in time. Like an over-processed cosplay photo, these machines will make short work of your skin tones and pores. This is vanity to a hilarious extreme. If self-image is an issues amongst Japanese girls, these things really don’t help with that.
By the way, guy are not allowed in these places unless accompanied by girls. I wish I hadn’t noticed the warning, because I felt like a peeping tom every second the wife was in the washroom. Not sure if this is the case for every Purikura joint in the city, but on Takeshita street in Harajuku, this ain’t no place for solo dudes to be goofin’ around.
Shibuya is the biggest and the messiest of the bunch. Its famous intersection is certainly impressive for its pedestrian volume, but it is also the most obvious example of the questionable urban planning in this part of the city. Real estate must be extremely expensive here because the stores are stacked sky-high. Myriads of small shop signs fight for your attention with some larger department stores crammed in-between. You really have to crane your neck to take in everything around you.
Ginza is the home to the glitzy flagship stores in the city with a lot of foreign brands. The streets are straight and the stores are spacious and look great at night. There was also Ikebukuro, where we went hunting for Pokemon toys at the Pokemon Mega Center.
There were times during the trip when I became frustrated at these shopping districts. Even though most of these spots are supposedly must-see Tokyo sights, in truth there’s just too many of these in Tokyo to stomach. Despite the slightly different flavours in each of these shopping districts, they all blur together before long. Also complicating matters was weather, which was humid and occasionally wet, further dampening the mood after a long day of city-crawling.
This experience also left me somewhat philosophical about modernity in general. Tokyo is buried neck-deep in consumerism, but this really is not too different from life in most cities around the world. Like the rows of middle-aged men parked in front of pachinko machines in parlours around the city, we trade our time for money, only to throw it away for fleeting superficial satisfaction. The only exceptional thing about Tokyo is the scale, and in the midst of the tangles of wires and roads, there was something rather dystopian about the seas of people flowing in and out of the concrete blocks.
Escape to the Mountain
I was in this pensive mood when we took the bus to the resort town of Fujikawaguchiko. Thankfully, the mood brightened quickly once the on-and-off rain had finally gave way to a pleasant overcast day. The bus took us away from the bustle of the city and into highways that weaved through densely forested hills. On the way we managed to catch a couple of glimpses of Mount Fuji, but clouds were still stubbornly thick and the peaked remained hidden for the rest of the day.
Fujikawaguchiko is small town through and through. Many local businesses were closed on the Sunday, and the streets are remarkably quiet. We checked in at the ryokan Konansou — a traditional Japanese onsen inn.
Being the disgusting weeaboos that we are, we went with the Japanese style room with tatami mats and futon. We changed into the provided yutakas (which was a bit of a challenge) and got comfy with the good view of Kawaguchi lake outside our window.
A full-course meal was served inside the room, ranging from dainty appetisers, to fresh sashimi, to miniature tabletop hot plate cooking. Each course was served by a wonderfully friendly host, and the dishes were almost too pretty to eat. There was nothing left wanting in either the food or the service at Konansou.
We spent most our time taking advantage of the onsen baths. In addition to the tub on the balcony filled with running onsen water, we also tried the larger private onsen available by reservation in the inn. While taking baths repeatedly might not seem like the most interesting activity on paper, it was thoroughly relaxing. After a frantic week of walking about in the city, the onsen did wonders on our sore limbs.
After a good night’s sleep we woke up to the brightest morning yet in our time in Japan. On the rooftop foot onsen, we were greeted with the full sight of Mount Fuji at long last. It was an handsome sight enhanced by of a lot of anticipation. While the silhouette of the mountain is familiar enough to the photos I’ve seen, its sheer scale and the way it dominates the the horizon was something that one cannot prepare for — a truly awe-inspiring sight.
The view from the rooftop was breathtaking, and I got the pictures that I had been hoping for the entire trip. The fresh morning air of the countryside was also invigorating. Suddenly, all the crappy weather we’ve endured during the trip was vindicated, marking the perfect end to the trip.
We spent five full days in Japan. I imagine this is on the shorter end of the spectrum, but in truth the trip felt long at times. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, and there are no shortage of sights to see. We spent four full days in the city and could have easily spent four more. However, while you can find virtually anything you want to buy in Tokyo, the sheer density is draining. While it’s not completely devoid of greenery and open spaces, they are in precious short supply.
The sheer amount of domestic and foreign tourists turns everything into a money hole, be it shrines, arcades, or the innumerable mega shopping districts. There’s a wide gap between the tourist of the city and normal life in the city that is difficult to cross without careful planning or a local guide.
If you plan to visit Japan, it would be a mistake to only go to Tokyo. I may have said great things about Fujikawaguchiko, but in truth any smaller town (preferably with a ryokan) would fit the bill. As much as Japan is known for its modern cities, take the time to venture to somewhere quieter and greener. It would bring some balance to your trip and greatly enhance your overall experience.
As for us, we’re already planning our next trip to Japan, with Osaka, Kyoto and Nara currently in our sights. Even though there were some misses and regrets along the way, our overall experience was still overwhelmingly positive. In our five days in this country we’ve had some of the best food in our lives, seen some unforgettable sights. And with the lessons learned from our time in Tokyo, I’m excited about the second round.