Experiencing Ueno

Finding Hatchbori

Disovering Kyoto

Day 7: April 4, 2012 Wednesday

Melodrama aside, I was actually sad leaving Kyoto…and exhausted. As we neared Tokyo, we caught sight of Mt. Fuji – separated by a glass on a moving bullet train!

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji – through the looking glass

The train pulled into Tokyo Station at 5pm. Back on familiar ground. We were back on familiar ground. How quickly the surroundings become comforting. We took the Keiyo line, switched to the Hibiya line and reached our next stop, Naka-okachimachi station. Taking the subway was no longer a scramble of coins and map. We were well-prepared.

What’s more, instead of blindly groping for our hotel, I stopped and asked two “salary-men” aka workers. We quickly found Hotel Villa Fontaine Ueno 10 minutes away from the stop. We dropped off our luggages and took the train to Ueno Station (not quite as close by as one thinks from our hotel). The night started to set in.

We were set to hit Ameyoko アメ横 an open air bazaar, Yamashiroya ヤマしろや a vinyl toy store and for dinner. Once at Ameyoko, we were greeted with the foreign sounds of pachinko machines and the bright lights accompanying it. It was truly fascinating. We were going to linger, but since Yamashiroya was closing soon, we decided to find the store first and walk the streets of Ameyoko later. We found Yamashiroya with the help of two Japanese ladies and immediately went hunting. This store is 7 floors of manga/anime haven. After holding back from when we first came, we got our first two figurines: Hatake Kakashi (Naruto ナルト) and transformed Kurosaki Ichigo (Bleach).  The array of figurines fed our eyes but not our stomach.

Streets of Ameyoko

Streets of Ameyoko

So we went searching for food in Ameyoko, a Malaysian Petaling Street of sorts. Seeing that the roadside stalls didn’t have menus, aka pictures to point to, we had to forgo it (even though the food and conversations looked mighty lively). Instead, we settled on a yakisoba-okonomiyaki-takoyaki-beer-serving store. Dinner served its purpose, but was not fulfilling.

By 8:30/9:00 pm, most goods-selling-stores were starting to close up for the night. Only the food stalls were left. We stopped at a dumpling place, and was pleasantly surprised when the lady started speaking to me in Mandarin. Oh! 同志! Comrade! We had some steamed buns, and proceeded to a bubble tea shop (also owned by a Chinese!) For once, my Mandarin got us somewhere!

As we strolled around the neighborhood, and saw the abundance of pachinko arcades, hubs decided to try his luck on one of the machines. 1000¥ lighter, I told him he is not going anywhere at all. He tried to convince me otherwise, saying that, “I’ve got it! The next one is a sure win.” I left. He finally did too.

In front of a pachinko arcade

The pachinko arcade, after we cut our loses

We then happen upon a store called Yodobashi ヨドバシカメウ, an electronic store that has an entire floor just dedicated to vinyl figurines. Damn if we didn’t see this first! This store is way cheaper than Yamashiroya, and had more things that we were looking for. (Lesson learned! Prices are not the same across the board) However, they had run out of Naruto and Sasuke, but told me they have another store in Akihabara, which may have more. Disappointed, yet hopefully, I picked up some Ao no Exorcist 青の祓魔師 gashapon mini figurines while hubs (after pouring hours into deciding which figurine he wanted) settled on a Gundam Bandai model kit.

Truly sate, we headed back to the hotel to rest up for the next day’s adventures.

Day 8: April 5, 2012 Thursday

Ueno Koen: Hanami

Ueno Koen: Hanami

That morning, we headed to Ueno Park to enjoy the blooming of the white cherry blossoms/sakuras (the pinks have yet to share their beauty). Hanami 花見 as the Japanese fondly call it. The locals and tourists alike were out in throngs, ushering in spring with the blooming of these national beauties. Even the salarymen had their bentos and mats ready for the day. (Do these people work?!)

In front of Kiyomizu Kannondo

In front of Kiyomizu Kannondo

Ueno Park (Ueno Koen 上野公園), as one of the country’s first public parks, was built in 1873 on lands formerly belonging to the temple of Kan’ei-ji (Tōeizan Kan’ei-ji Endon-in 東叡山寛永寺円頓院). It is home to a number of major museums, zoo and is well-celebrated in spring for its cherry blossoms.

A sea of white sakura

A sea of white sakura

It is said to be situated in the “unlucky direction” northeast of Edo Castle. Most of the original temples were destroyed in 1868 during the Boshin War, where the Tokugawa shogunate was defeated by those seeking to restore the Imperial rule. Today, only the five-storey pagoda (1639), Kiyomizu Kannondo (or Shimizudo) and the main gate remain.

The rare glimpse of pinks

The rare glimpse of pinks

The park is now home to some 8,800 trees including Ginko biloba, an assortment of cherry trees and cherry blossoms.

What a glorious sight to behold, with the flowers in bloom! (If only this happened in Kyoto!)

Our first shot together throughout the trip

Our first shot together throughout the trip

The festivities were only marred by rudely shouting and overly eager Mainland Chinese tourists, pushing their way through lines and “discussing” their marital problems out in public. Nothing like airing dirty laundry.

Asakusa rickshaw pullers

Asakusa rickshaw pullers

From there, we took the Ginza line to Asakusa 浅草 (G19). Ascending into the streets, we were greeted by traditional rickshaw pullers and hubs (the constant sucker) wanted to ride one. I reasoned that we had much to do for the day, since rain was forecasted for Friday. He sulkily agreed as we walked towards Sensou-ji or Kannon Temple. We immediately entered Kaminarimon 雷門 (Thunder Gate), the renown face and front gate of Sensou-ji and Asakusa.

Sensou-ji Kaminarimon exterior

Sensou-ji Kaminarimon exterior

Kaminarimon

Sensou-ji Kaminarimon interior

We learned this little known fact from our rickshaw puller (on Friday, after hubs convinced me to “take a load off”): In the olden days, when Edo (the old name of Tokyo) was taking over Kyoto as the capital, many people walked from the former capital into Edo and the first city they stopped at was Asakusa. Most of these travelers reached Asakusa with broken geta (木屐/下駄, traditional Japanese footwear resembling clogs and flip-flops). That’s why Asakusa has an abundance of shoe shops.

Sensouji (Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji 金龍山浅草寺) is an ancient Buddhist temple, and Tokyo’s oldest (built in 645) and most significant temple. The temple is dedicated to Kannon, known to the Chinese as Kuan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy.

This temple was so important, that during WWII, when much of the country’s steel were melted down for the war, the temple’s bell (which is rung every two hours to signify the passing of time) was sparred the melting pot.

Nakamise dori

Nakamise dori

Pass the Kaminarimon, we were greeted by the hustle and bustle of Nakamise dori 仲見世通り. The street is 250 meters in length and has about 89 shops. These shops sell a range of souvenirs, knick-knacks, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), food stuff and most importantly, senbei 煎餅 rice crackers.

Rice Crackers

Rice Crackers

The rice crackers are baked or grilled, done traditionally over charcoal, which they do upkeep. Sweet senbei (甘味煎餅) came to Japan during the Tang Dynasty (737 AD), but the Chinese biscuits have slowly evolved to become more like wraps and pancakes (similar to okonomiyaki) than the hard, bite-size crackers of Japan.

Sensouji-Houzoumon

Houzoumon

After the bombardment of senses on Nakamise dori, we reached Houzoumon (宝蔵門 Treasure House Gate), which leads to the inner complex of the temple that houses the scriptures of the temple (hence the apt name). There was a surprising large crowd of people, locals and tourist included, on a working weekday like this.

Inside Sensouji

Inside Sensou-ji

On the left of the temple stands a five-story pagoda.

The five-story pagoda @ Sensou-ji

The five-story pagoda @ Sensou-ji (top of Sky Tree antenna visible)

We then walked around the neighborhood and stopped for ice cream, where two long benches were set up outside the store for customers. Not only were we enjoying the ice cream (I had golden kiwi while hubs had melon), we were taking in the view of the area and its people. It was a beautiful day and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect.

I scream for ice cream!!

I scream for ice cream!!

Rested, and with time to spare, we chugged along to Akihabara, also known as Electric and Otaku Town, on the Hibiya Line (H15).

Asakusa Station on the Ginza line

Asakusa Station on the Ginza line

Akihabara (秋葉原 Field of Autumn Leaves) is a major shopping area for electronics, computers, anime, manga and otaku goods. Most of these stores are found on Chuo dori.

Akihabara

Akihabara @ Chuo dori

We visited Eshikusu エシクス, which had ultra cheap figurines and got a Revoltech Edward Alrich (Fullmetal Alchemist) figurine and a Naruto figurine, right off the Akihibara station on the right. Then we stopped at Yodobashi-Akiba and swept up the Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke figurines (Naruto) and some Ao no Exorcist half age blind boxes. What a thrill! But how do we pack?! Buy first, worry later.

Finally, we stopped at Akihabara UDX, a multi-floor complex with restaurants and the Tokyo Anime Center. Unfortunately for us, the Tokyo Anime Center was under renovation, but the restaurants were running. We stopped at the Ramen Kouryuu Akiharabaten ラーメン康竜 秋葉原店 and had a fulfilling dinner. We had the option to pick the thickness and consistency of our noodles, the oiliness of the soup, and different ingredients we wanted in our bowl. What’s not to love?! Noodles were chewy. Soup was the right amount of oil and salt. Egg, as usual, perfect. Even the pork was succulent and tender.

Eating again…ramen

Eating again…ramen @ the UDX

Stuffed to the gills, we made our way to Tokyo Tower 東京タワー (again). We took the JR Yamanote Line, switched trains at Daimon station to the Oedo Line and finally stopped at Akabanabashi Station (E21). Finally! The Tower in clear skies. Coming here, reminds me of the drama series of the same name, Tokyo Tower, by Matsumoto Jun (my sister’s Japanese hottie). Entrance fee to the main observation deck of this communications and observation tower was 820¥.

Tokyo Tower from the base

Tokyo Tower from the base

Standing at 333m in height and coming in at 4000 tons, the Tower was built in 1958 and became the world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower. (The Eiffel Tower in Paris in 320m in height and 7000 tons). The main observatory deck commands a 360º view of the entire Kanto Region surrounding Tokyo and stands at 150m (490 ft).

Bedazzled mini Tokyo Tower in the Tower

Bedazzled mini Tokyo Tower in the Tower

Since it was a Thursday night, Club333 (aptly named for its height) in the Tower had a live performance staged. We bought some souvenirs from the Tower, including some Hello Kitty charms/phone danglers. As hubs put it, “Those people who made Hello Kitty ought be shot for making these things so damn cute!” Even he couldn’t resist them, what more me! Suckers or not, we fell for the hype.

As the night drew to an end, we decided to make one last stop and headed for the famed Rainbow Bridge レインボーブリッジ in Odaiba. The 798m (2618 ft) long Bridge is a suspension bridge crossing Tokyo Bay into Odaiba, a reclaimed land.

Rainbow Bridge without the rainbow

Rainbow Bridge without the rainbow

We took the Oedo Line to Shiodome (E19) and changed lines to the Yurikamome train, and stopped at Shibaura-futou (U05). There is a pedestrian walkway on the bridge (summer 9am-9pm), but upon seeing the height and the wheezing cars, I surrendered, shakily. I told hubs he can go ahead without me, but he passed on it. We didn’t see much of a rainbow on the bridge. In fact, there wasn’t a rainbow at all. (The lights on the bridge draw on solar energy to illuminate during the night) Tough luck, huh?

Limp from our trek, who hauled our goodies back to the hotel to begin the resting and packing process…which lasted into the wee hours of morning. Thank goodness for the stash-away bag that I brought in my carry-on luggage.

Feels like Christmas…only better

Feels like Christmas…only better

Day 9: April 5, 2012 Friday

It was supposed to rain. It was. And we even borrowed bigger umbrellas from the hotel. The sun was out, with not a cloud in the sky. So we hauled two brollies around like idiots the entire day. Not that we were really complaining.

First stop, the Tokyo Imperial Palace. After months of trying to get on the tour online, it finally became a reality. We took the Hibiya Line from our hotel, changed to the Chiyoda Line in Hibiya Station (H07), and took it North to Nijubashimae (C10). From there, it was supposed to be a 10-minute walk to the Palace, but felt like I had run a marathon after we frantically ran to Kikyo-mon, where the tour began. We made it by sheer luck.

Fujimi-yagura, the watch tower of Edo Castle

Fujimi-yagura, the watch tower of Edo Castle

The Palace is located on the site of the former residential palace of the Tokugawa Shoguns. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Emperor Meiji moved the Imperial capital from Kyoto to the current location. The Palace ground spans approximately 1,150,000 square meters and is surround by moat and rampart with eight gates.

Fujimi-yagura

Fujimi-yagura

The tour covered a few buildings, namely Fujimi-yagura, the Imperial Household Agency building, Fujimi-tamon Defense house and Hasuikebori, Kyuden Totei Plaza, Seimon-tetsubashi Bridge (Nijubashi) and Fushimi-yagura Keep.

The fondly named Nijubashi (Seimon-tetsubashi Bridge)

The fondly named Nijubashi (Seimon-tetsubashi Bridge)

Yamashita dori

Yamashita dori

Near the Ninomaru Ground

Near the Ninomaru Ground

Fujimi-yagura was once a watch tower and the oldest surviving building of the Edo Castle.  The tour lasted almost 2 hours and during this 2.2km walk, I felt like those old people in the tour: in need of a mo-ped and a shady area to rest.

Nijubashi from the outside

Nijubashi from the outside

Old and new: The Imperial Palace in Chiyoda-ku

The Imperial Palace in Chiyoda-ku. For once I’m tall…as tall as the buildings!

After the tour (conducted fully in Japanese), we ambled around the pebbled grounds (while I picked some for souvenir). We really had nothing better to do. We finished what we had to do/see the day before as we thought it was going to be another wash-out day with the weather.

So, we returned to Ueno at atré mall for lunch. Lunch was an array of fried cakes and a bento box, which we took to the park (Ueno Koen) to enjoy and take in the sakuras once last time. We shared one bento box to leave room for dessert at a shop we spotted while scavenging for lunch. Little did we know, we were entering a famous dessert place in Ueno: Mahashi まはしserving Anmitsuあんみつ, a traditional Japanese dessert.

Macha Anmitsu

Macha Anmitsu

Anmitsu is usually served with sweet bean paste (anko), jelly (agar), boiled beans, a variety of fruits and ice cream. I had macha anmitsu 抹茶あんみつ (anmitsu with green tea ice cream) for 580¥, while hubs had Shiratama Kurian 白玉クリあん(rice flour dumplings) for 650¥. We got in just in time as the little place started getting packed. The locals really didn’t mind the wait (caused by the waitresses milking cows and growing the beans and fruits).

Shiratama Kurian

Shiratama Kurian

Before leaving the mall, which is connected to Ueno Station, we took note that there was a bakery (yes more food- we can’t help ourselves!), Andersen, there and we could pack breakfast for our early trip to the airport. We will get that later on our way back to the hotel.

Hubs, bent on getting his rickshaw ride in Asakusa, finally convinced me to return for the ride. It was just as well, we met a really nice guy and he told us much about Asakusa (hence the shoe and bell story). It was an experience, but for a pretty penny (30,000¥ for 10 minutes). If this was the last thing we were going to do in Japan as a tourist, so be it! Of course, he had to stop as at the newly erected Sky Tree, soon to take over Tokyo Tower (but was only opened to the public in May 2012) as a communication tower and tourist attraction.

On the rickshaw with the view of the Sky Tree and Asahi Breweries

On the rickshaw with the view of the Sky Tree and Asahi Breweries

Our final scene: Sky Tree and Asahi Building

Our final scene: Sky Tree and Asahi Building

The day and our visit came to an end, as we decided we were going to return to the hotel to unwind for the rest of the evening and finish packing. The evening passed quite uneventful afterwards; dinner in the room, watching local programming and catching some hilarious stunts and cute dogs, followed by the stuffing of our bags.

What an exhilarating time we had! The people, the places, the culture and the food were all new and all good. This is one place that we will remember and return again, if given the opportunity!

The final resting place of all the things we bought (99% in this cupboard)

The final resting place of all the things we bought: minus the Gundam, which is still being built. (Top L-R: Naruto collection, Edward Elrich from FMA, Ichigo of Bleach, Ao no Exorcist figurines atop my Cocomando (tokidoki, not bought from Japan). Bottom L-R: Chirimen usagi, Hello Kitty collection, Kokeshi dolls)

Goodbye, Japan. Thank you fore everything and your care! Sayonara Nippon! Iroiro arigatou gozaimashita. O sewa ni narimashita.  さよなら日本!色々ありがとう御座いました。お世話になりました。

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