Following our jaunt to Tsukiji Fish Market, we killed several hours wandering around the streets of Tokyo, trying to get a feel for the city. Almost immediately after leaving the fish market, we stumbled upon a set of bustling alleyways filled with stalls and shops selling many of the same goods that had been available at Tsukiji. Although the scope wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring as Tsukiji, the atmosphere was just as vibrant, but without the sense of urgency and we felt far more comfortable to revel in the sights without worrying we were under foot. Tony and I both remarked that one of the wonderful things about Tokyo is that despite its cosmopolitan veneer, it’s so cool to see that it has such a healthy market & “street” culture, even if you have to delve slightly into the serpentine alleyways to find it.
We wended our way through the alleys and unmarked streets, generally veering towards Tokyo Station, though in reality we spent most of the time vaguely lost. We didn’t really have anywhere to be, so although we initially felt flashes of panic as we realized that we had no idea where we were whatsoever, eventually we just began to embrace that this is inevitable when 90% of streets are unnamed and you are navigating off of free tourist maps. That being said, when you inevitably find yourself lost (largely because you will be incapable of locating yourself accurately on a map), the people of Tokyo are generally more than happy to help, often without any prompting on your part! We have found time and again that if you stand somewhere long enough with a map in hand and a furrowed brow, someone will attempt to come to your rescue.
Although our plan was to locate the Tokyo branch of the Japan National Tourism Office’s Tourist Information Center, by noon we had already been out exploring for nearly 7 hours and jetlag was beginning to catch up with us. Also, we SEVERELY underestimated just how horrifically humid it would be. Our friend L’Ell warned us that August is the worst time to visit Japan, so we will just get this over with now: L’Ell, you were 100% right and we apologize for not giving your warning more credence! We thought Nashville was bad, but Japan definitely proves that humidity trumps heat every time (not that it hasn’t also been quite hot at times too!). With the weather and our internal clocks against us, we were beginning to wilt, however, we really wanted to persevere as best we could. We knew if we succumbed to our desire to nap in the middle of the day, it would only prolong the disturbances in our sleep patterns. That said, we realized that it would be foolish to needlessly push ourselves to see and do things if the end result was simply that we would be miserable and cranky.
We decided to deviate from our initial plan and make our way back to the hostel, but squeeze in a little sightseeing along the way so that we could make the most of our limited time in Tokyo. Rather than simply hopping on the Metro and riding the train back to Asakusa, we opted to take the subway to Hamarikyu-teinen, a traditional Japanese garden that lies along the banks of the Sumida-Gawa river. From there, we could catch a boat taxi and sail back to our hostel in style! It was patently clear that this was a much cooler way to return to our beds, and certainly had a fainter aroma of defeat to it.
Tony and I have always really enjoyed the aesthetics of Japanese gardens, as well as the serenity they seem to exude. One of our first dates was at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in Nashville, TN, which happens to have a lovely little Japanese garden and a bamboo grove. We liked the place so well that we decided to get married there several years later! So we thought we knew Japanese gardens pretty well, but Hama-rikyu teinen was like nothing I had ever experienced before. When I think of gardens, I tend to think of fairly smaller, more intimate affairs. Hamarikyu was more like a park, in my mind because it was so sprawling and spacious.
We strolled through the garden, stopping along the way to admire the large pond with its beautiful bridges. We also grabbed a small snack lunch (ice cream bar and shrimp chips… Not at all healthy, but it was cheap!), and while we were eating, we spied on a young couple having what we assume were engagement photos taken. We marveled at their traditional outfits and wondered how the bride-to-be managed to stay upright under the cocoon of fabric that was draped over her small frame, not only because of the sheer weight of her kimono, but also due to the insane heat. [As an aside: since this moment, we have had our minds blown on numerous occasions by the outfits the Japanese wear: we will be sweating so much in shorts and t-shirts that we are drenched, and they will be traipsing by wearing black stirrup pants under their shorts, arm-warmers, scarves & light jackets. How are people not collapsing from heat stroke ALL THE TIME?!?]
Hamarikyu was so calm and peaceful, and perhaps because it is one of the few gardens you need to pay to visit in Tokyo (300Y), it was nearly deserted. If you find yourself wanting to escape from 21st century Tokyo, this is a wonderful green space where you can decompress and experience a little bit of what the locals did during Edo-era Japan. If it had not been so sticky, or if we had not been so tired, Hamarikyu is a place we could easily have spent a few hours enjoying. Alas, it was hot and we were tired, so we only saw a fraction of the garden before we made our way to the water bus station. Normally this kind of thing would drive me crazy (I’m the kind of person who likes to feel I got my money’s worth, so if I’ve paid to see a place, I want to see the WHOLE place), but I am really trying to use this trip as an opportunity to appreciate and cherish the experiences I do have, rather than lament the ones I did not.
The tickets for the Sumida-Gawa cruise were a pricey 700Y per person, substantially more than subway fare, but given how much this Sumida-Gawa tour had been touted by all the guidebooks (seriously, our Frommers guide went so far as to claim that Hamarikyu is only worth a visit because you can catch the water bus here!) we had referenced, we were sure it would be worth the extra money.
In the end, although the boat ride was certainly pleasant, we have to admit that we don’t really understand the effusive praise it has received. As a way of lazily getting from the Ginza area of Tokyo to the Asakusa area, it was perfectly lovely and suited our purposes perfectly… but as a tour, it was seriously lacking. One of the main claims of the tour was that it features and highlights 12 major Tokyo bridges. We could probably have overlooked the fact that most of Tokyo’s bridges are just not visually interesting (nor is the scenery along the banks of the river, for that matter) if the audio narration at least had some interesting anecdotes to share. However, for most of the bridges, the sum total of all the information we received about them was their names. And that wasn’t even always the case, as we passed under several bridges without even receiving that information! The two bridges that we did get a little bit of backstory about were “interesting” because one of them was built in 1993 to bridge the two side of the river (which, correct me if I am wrong, but I am pretty sure that is the function of EVERY bridge, given that it’s in the name and all) and the other one was famous not for its own merits, but because of a fireworks display that happens on it once per year. So given that this was the caliber of the trivia we were receiving, maybe it is for the best that most of the boat ride occurred in silence…
I know my review of the cruise is far from glowing and a little acerbic, but I don’t want to wrongfully give the impression that the Sumida-Gawa is a blight on Tokyo or anything like that. It was genuinely soothing and it was nice to just sit and be shuttled directly to the area of town we needed to reach without having to worry about transferring trains or anything like that. However, just like our jaunt to the fish market, expectations are key, and so if you go into this cruise thinking it will be like a bateau mouche tour of the Seine in Paris, you will be disappointed because it is not nearly so fun or so pretty. Chalk it up to another one of those things we’re glad we did, but no need to do more than once.
On our last legs, we managed to make it from the water bus dock back to our hostel & enjoyed a 90-minute refresher nap. In our next post, we’ll finally wrap up our epic first day in Tokyo by telling you the story of our first proper meal, which really hammered home to us that we were miles from home. Stay tuned!