After five days in the Kansai region, it was time to go ride the shinkansen back out east to the Kanto plains. As I mentioned in the previous post, we were a little worn out from the extreme hiking in Kyoto. Tokyo would be last place we would drag out suitcases to, which have gotten progressively heavier as the days went on and receipts piled up. But before that, it was time to pay a brief visit to the port city of Yokohama.
Our stop in Yokohama began with a heavy downpour at first, and it was bad enough to seriously consider postponing the visit. Thankfully, when we arrived at the Gundam Factory Yokohama, the clouds gave way just in time for some picture-perfect blue skies. This is the site of the moving life-size Gundam statue, which runs a performance routine every half-hour. The statue is secured to its service hanger with a large robust clamp, which also enabled the statue’s movements.
Although this gundam’s movements were a lot slower than depictions in anime, its immense size made each movement instantly impressive. This was also helped by the smoke effects and the sound effects that complimented the performance.
Speaking of the performance: we stuck around for two of them, and each one was different. There was a story thread connecting them; from what my limited Japanese could piece together, this gundam is not the original RX-78-2, but rather a reconstruction. The first routine depicted the test pilot going through an activation sequence. The second routine depicted the test pilot communicating with the onboard AI of the gundam, which is somehow imprinted with the consciousness of Amuro Ray (the protagonist of the original Mobile Suit Gundam). The test pilot even asked this AI Amuro why he sacrificed himself at the Char’s Counterattack, when he managed to push Axis off of a collision course with Earth.
Besides the statue itself, there’s also an exhibition documenting the creation and inner workings of the statue, a themed restaurant, and a large gift shop. It’s a real shame that this attraction is currently slated to shut down at the end of March 2023, because the pandemic border restrictions severely limited the opportunity for foreign visitors to take in this gem.
We swung by the very tourist-orientated Chinatown, which is decorated to the gills with the trapping of Japan’s big neighbour. I especially liked the strange Japanese takes on Chinese food, like ebi chili, a stir-fried prawns dish smothered with a mildly spicy ketchup-based sauce, and the char siu melon bread, a mash-up of sweet and savory that I’m pretty sure did not come from the mainland.
One of the great things about Yokohama is how densely packed the attractions are on its waterfront. In addition to the aforementioned Chinatown and Gundam Factory, the waterfront is also home to Yokohama Cosmoworld, an aging urban theme park with a nostalgic appeal. The arcade inside has seen better days, but it also has some truly bizarre retro games that you wouldn’t find at a more up-to-date arcade. The colossal Ferris wheel there offers some great views of the bay, including the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the beefy skyscraper that was once Japan’s tallest building (now soon to be demoted to the third tallest).
Right across the street from Cosmoworld is the Cup Noodle Museum, which is a one-half blatant self brand-promotion, and one-half surprisingly inspirational rags-to-riches story of a man inventing instant noodles in a shack, then figuring out how to put it in a cup (there’s more to it than that, I assure you). We even made our own Cup Noodle with hand-drawn pictures on the cup, along with soup and toppings of our choosing. I had put this on the itinerary as a time-filler, but it ended up being a very memorable experience.
Our luck with weather finally ran out on our visit to the onsen resort town of Hakone, because the forecast had called for rain for most of the day there. We were able to squeeze in a dip in the open-air onsen at Hakone Yuryo and a visit to the Hakone Open-Air Museum before the weather soured. The rain and winds were a lot worse than I had anticipate for, which posed a big logistical problem.
To give you the simplified overview of the geography in Hakone: there is an active volcano (more on this later) in the centre of the region. To the east lies the train station, and to the west is our hotel. The simplest and most scenic way to get to our hotel is via a ropeway that goes right over the volcanic region, but this ropeway was shut down due to high winds. I did not prepare a backup plan in case the ropeway got suspended, and Google maps was not very helpful in navigating the local bus routes. Eventually we found a tourist information office and were guided to a bus route that goes around the volcano, but all in all it was about two hours of being lost, waiting, and being rained on. Morale was low, to put it mildly.
But the beauty of an onsen resort is that all one really needs to have a good time is a good place to stay, and the hotel Hanaori really saved the day. Despite being on the budget side of the spectrum, our experience there was overwhelmingly positive. Both the private and public onsens are clean and spacious, with the latter available to book for only 3000 yen. Dinner and breakfast were buffet style, which wasn’t as fancy as the full-course kaiseki in our previous ryokan experiences, but the quality of the food left nothing wanting. It was a bit of a shame that the stormy weather got in the way of what would’ve been a brilliant view of Lake Ashi, but Hanaori did a miraculous job on reversing the sour mood, and by the time we checked out the next morning we were fully recharged and ready to go.
The weather had improved significantly by this time, so we could take the ropeway back toward the train station. We made a pit stop in Owakudani, the area around the volcanic crater left behind by an eruption of Mt. Hakone 3000 years ago. Volcanic activity is still simmering here in quite a literal way — steaming hot springs constantly spew out odours of sulfur, making the entire area smell like farts. A popular tourist treat here are eggs boiled in those sulfuric hot springs, which are said to prolong one’s life by seven years. They both taste and look like ordinary hard boiled eggs on the inside, but the black colour and swirling patterns of the shells make them look like spawns of the devil.
Even though we have spent a significant amount of time in Tokyo on both of our previous trips, we still allocated five whole days to venture around, this time with a more relaxed pace to shop and eat. In reality, even those five were jam packed, because there’s so just much to see and do. Even on the morning of the day we were flying back, we were running up and down Kappabashi to pick up some kitchen tools that we didn’t have to grab earlier. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of visiting Tokyo, even if it’s my tenth time.
Of course, we did more than just shop and eat all day in Tokyo. We went on a guided bar-hopping tour in Shinjuku organized by Magical Tour, which took us through the colourful red-light district of Kabukicho. There were three groups of guests including us, and all three groups had been to Japan before. Not only that, given the timing of the visit soon after Japan’s re-opening, it was immediately obvious that this these were some hardened weebs. Our tour guide Sho was a consummate professional, but some of the trivia he tossed out about Japan fell flat on this group that clearly had done a little too much homework during the pandemic. At times the conversion got really out of topic, including a lengthy tangent about the differences between American and European health care systems. which was a strange subject to discuss across the world.
Still, it was a very enjoyable experience. Even though Japan is infamously safe, we were definitely in the heart of the red light district. It is well-known for some sketchy bar scams where unwitting guests would be pulled into a bar and be charged an exorbitant seating fee, and I have played too many Yakuza games to not be at least a little worried. Oh, and we definitely saw an escort girl showing off her goods on the street. This is why a guided tour was the perfect solution. The stops consisted of a cozy yakitori izakaya, a retro Showa-era themed bar, and a standing sake bar serving up fancy hooch. It was a great night of chatting with the tour guides and other guests (even if the conversations got sidetracked at times), and it was a much-appreciated change of pace.
There was also teamLab Planets, another art exhibition on display in Odaiba. Like the Borderless exhibit which came before it, this is another projection-heavy sensory overload extravaganza. There’s a room with a soft & jiggly floor which requires visitors to crawl through on all fours. There’s another room filled with knee-deep water, shimmering with projections of colourful fish on the surface. There’s even an upside-down garden with hundreds of live flowers dangling from the rooftops. I’m still not completely sold on the artist merit of all this, but it was a jungle gym for grown-ups where they can frolic around like children, which is always a lot of fun.
The last attraction of note to mention was Shibuya Sky. This is the open-air observation deck on top of Shibuya Scramble Square, the new confusingly-named skyscraper in the area adjacent to the the crossing itself. This observation spans the entire top floor and roof top, so there’s a huge area to wander around.
While we’ve been to other high observation decks in Tokyo, the open-air nature of this one really sets it apart. From the wind on my face to the clear views without the obstruction of glass, it was just a completely different experience. One can get a very clear view of the scramble crossing, the newly built Miyashita park, as well as the rest of Tokyo’s most active urban centres from here. During the day, even Mt. Fuji would be visible in clear weather. It was easily worth the 2000 yen admission price.
As I had mentioned previously, anti-covid measures were still very much a part of everyday life in November 2022. My personal feelings towards the practice really went through an evolution over the course of the two weeks.
Prior to landing in Japan, I considered masking a minor inconvenience, one I’m glad to put up with for the sake of the trip. Having contracted covid at least twice during the mask-wearing era in Canada, I was skeptical of its efficacy, but I figured that following the local customs would be the right thing to do.
Once we were actually there, frustrations quickly began to mount. Be it dragging around luggage or hiking across cities, travelling is often a strenuous activity, and the mask became a snowballing discomfort that made the face moist, the breaths heavier, and the glasses foggy. This was slightly alleviated by the discovery of some better disposable masks that minimize contact with the mouth, but it was still uncomfortable.
Many western visitors forgoed mask-wearing altogether, which made them stick out like sore thumbs. As the days went on, the feeling of wanting to conform to the local norms morphed into an expectation of shared suffering — it sounds overly dramatic, but I expected other people to perform the same task as I was, because they had to suffer as I did. When I saw people not wearing masks, I would think “what made you so fucking special?” Protection from covid itself became a distant afterthought.
However, my feelings about it changed yet again once confronted by the sheer ocean of humanity in Tokyo. When I saw its shifting tides flow through the streets and underground stations, I had to concede that even a small reduction of transmission from mask-wearing would do a lot of good for public health as a whole. The belief was reinforced when I returned to North America, where the cacophony of flu and covid could be heard just about everywhere. Pharmacies were running out of cold and fever medicine, and hospitals were struggling to deal with an influx of sick children. I found myself wishing the mask-wearing habit returned this time of year, and I even reached for the ol’ face-diaper a few times.
However, I still think the clear plastic barriers are beyond silly. Over the course of the trip I came across some truly confounding examples, like the plastic sheet dividing two halves of the same Taiko no Tatsujin arcade machine, as well as an irremovable barrier dividing the two halves of the same table in a crowded restaurant. It just seemed like long-outdated safety theatre that had no reason to exist in the year 2022, yet much like mask-wearing, there appeared to be no end in sight.
Covid stuff aside, this visit has made me appreciate the joy of just wandering without being under the gun to check off a list of sightseeing spots. Despite all of the splendors of Kyoto, I vividly remember feeling a sense of relief about not finally not having to be anywhere specific on the Sunday after we arrived in Tokyo.
Now that we’ve experienced Japan in both the cherry blossom season and the autumn foliage season, I wouldn’t mind cutting back further on the sightseeing and indulging in more loosely-aimed wandering. It’s not that I think we’ve seen everything worth seeing in the country, but it has become pretty clear that we’ll be coming back pretty regularly in the future. Given that assumption, I would love to turn off Google Maps for a few hours at a time and just goof around more.