Day 1, 01JAN2017
Hello New Year! And, Hello Japan!
Our first country on this exciting adventure happens to also be the first time I’ve ever visited Japan.
Josh and I both managed to catch a bumpy, not all too solid, three hour nap onboard our Japan Airlines flight from Singapore to Tokyo Haneda International. Roughly two hours out from the airport the flight attendants woke passengers to draw our attention to the “first sunrise of the New Year” off the right hand side of the plane. Stirring from our sleep I realized the plane was now awash in an orange-pink hue and all passengers on the right hand side of the flight (we sat on the left hand side) had lifted their window screens permitting all to take in the beautiful sight. Promptly thereafter we were served breakfast. Josh attempted to sneak in another quick nap before we landed, however I opted to experience my first Japanese-style breakfast.
Different: we were served steaming hot mushroom soup, a tiny salad, and chopped tropical fruit. Different, yes, but delicious.
Within minutes of the breakfast service concluding we were landing in Tokyo. Similar to drawing the passengers’ attention to the first sunrise of the New Year, the flight attendants now drew our attention to the glorious sight on our left upon landing: Mount Fuji was completely cloud-free and stood a stark, snow-capped giant over the metropolis of Tokyo and its surrounds. The best way I can describe this vision is to compare it to Mt Rainier as one flies into Seattle, however I have never once flown into Seattle without a cloud bank, this Mt Fuji-Tokyo experience was unparalleled.
Upon arrival at 1000 local, Josh and I made our way through customs (second stamp in my brand new passport!) and then exchanged our Japan Rail (JR) Pass vouchers for the official passes. The lines at the JR exchange desk were long, however the staff were incredibly polite and helpful. After explaining to us how to utilize our passes, the agent then went above and beyond and reserved our seats for the next day’s travel (there was a sign stating due to long lines, the JR agents were only supposed to arrange same-day tickets, however, as I stated this agent in particular was incredible).
Officially tourists in a foreign nation, Josh and I then dragged our snowboard bag and our back packs to the taxi stand so we could get to our hotel as quickly as possible. We had our fingers crossed that the cute hotel in the Hibiya district would allow us to check in three hours early, however, they couldn’t. They did however store our luggage and provide us a tourist map (in English) with recommended highlights for us to pass the time.
Wrapped in our warm jackets and armed with our awesome map we set off on foot to explore. The New Year in Japan is an important holiday, and reading through the Lonely Planet Japan Guidebook, I discovered that most people spend their early part of the day visiting Shinto Shrines. Josh and I walked through the Hibiya Park one block from our hotel and were intrigued to encounter maybe a handful of people. The streets were empty, the park silent but for the teeny tiny birds flitting about the bonsai and pagodas.
Then we found the crowds. Adjacent to Hibiya Park is the Imperial Palace. The moat and black-rock walls arose from the quiet confines of Hibiya Park and immediately Josh and I were curious if we could enter. We wandered around one corner of the walled edifice and stumbled upon people massing at a gigantic wooden gate. The dark wooden gate doors were set in contrast amid brilliant white walls. Atop the gates were upside down green fish. Once we entered the fortified arena we happened upon even more crowds of people taking photos of the Palace from afar. An extremely kind elderly gentlemen offered to take our photo with the castle in the background. He then informed us that the next day, 2JAN, all Japanese and foreign visitors were invited to meet the Emperor in the Palace. Suddenly the reason why police, guards, and event personnel were setting up barricades, lines, and tents made sense. We thought perhaps the set-up was left over from a New Year’s Eve party, turns out the arena was where people could begin lining up to meet the Japanese figure head for the next day.
We perused the remainder of the public-open square: a water fountain, Samurai statue, ice cream procured from a vending machine, and a chanting procession of monks dressed in beautiful shimmery gold robes. By two o’clock we were exhausted and ready for sleep.
Only a short nap was allowed though, for we intended to meet Josh’s friend Purcy for dinner. After a short walk in the completely wrong direction to a hotel of the same brand name – but not Purcy’s – we arrived at the Royal Hotel (insert one of many names in Tokyo) and met our friend for the evening. The hotel was situated immediately above the subway station we needed to take in order to arrive at Shibuya Square.
When one thinks of Tokyo, one imagines bright lights, sky scrapers, sushi, and tons of people flocking the streets. Shibuya Square is the quintessential Tokyo. It also is the famous location where traffic lights halt cars and then let loose thousands of pedestrians to a network of cross-walks navigating straight, diagonal, and kitty-corner sidewalks. The place is crawling with movement and lights.
We holed up in a tightly quartered restaurant for dinner: soup, rice and chicken. The hot food delightfully filling however the comfort also registered in our minds that we were indeed very tired and needed proper sleep.
Josh and I then said adieu and on our own managed to navigate the subway system home to our hotel. Good night Tokyo, Happy New Year all.