Welcome to the second half of my trip to Tokyo, Japan. The first half was a great mix of cultural and historical sights. From ancient temples to traditional weddings, part 1 has a lot to offer. However, this second half of my trip is where things get good. From peaceful gardens to downright bizarre surprises, here is proof that Tokyo is an incredible city. And it's also easy to travel there from South Korea.
The day began with an early visit to Tokyo’s subtly beautiful Samurai Gardens. A large pond/lake is surrounded by various kinds of trees and stone shrines. Although it wasn’t the flowery, colorful curated kind of garden, the place was incredibly tranquil and my favorite garden in Tokyo. It’s surrounded by some of the tallest buildings in the city but still manages to give a sense of tempered peace and serenity. Luckily we got in for cheap! What’s better than a preserved ancient garden on a cool morning after the break of light from a new dawn for a dollar!
After meditating for a bit, we headed off to one of our more anticipated sites. The electric district of Akihabara. Often, Tokyo is thought of as one of the most technologically advanced places in the world. That view may be fading, but from the 80s into the 2000s, Sony’s prolific success branded Tokyo as an electronic powerhouse. Akihabara is the pinnacle of the city’s technology culture. And it’s a really neat place!
Very tall buildings tightly packed together compose this electronic madhouse. Here, you can find just about any electronic device made in the past 50 years. Seriously. Some parts look like the biggest electronic flea market on Earth. Some parts are showcase stores for major international technology companies. My mother, who plays more video games than I do, would have loved reminiscing with the many original Gameboys and outdated game consoles. What I loved most about the place was the vibrant atmosphere. You’d think that with so many old things everywhere, the place would feel musty and claustrophobic. But it’s quite the opposite case. The district is a hub for the young and touristy. There are also lots of bookstores and other places that cater to the small young population of the city.
I eventually made my way into one of the multi-leveled arcades. (Everything is multi-leveled in Tokyo. I just want to emphasize that there were many arcades within close proximity to one another that have multiple floors!) One floor was dedicated to giant crane machines. Japanese have a strange obsession with these claw games. Another floor had normal shooter and fighting arcade games. My favorite floor housed the most awesome machine in the universe! Air Hockey Table!
This table wasn’t any normal air hockey table. Oh no, it was about one and a half times larger than normal. It gave each player two puck-slapper-hand-things. It had cool sound effects. And most importantly, it put in play at least 3 pucks at once! Madness. I played with Richard. It was an intense battle of wits. He would call me a witty name before I returned with a witty slur. We furiously slapped pucks at each others scoring holes. And then, in the middle of the mayhem, the table unleashed about 3 dozen smaller pucks onto the table. It was a WTF moment if I’ve ever experienced one. I then realized why the table gave a puck-slapper-thing for each hand. Strategy was out the door. I came closer than I ever have to being an octopus. Colorful pucks dashed everywhere. Richard and I were screaming, I think. Eventually, we scored all our pucks into each other’s holes. Er. Goals? Right. I won.
After exploring the incredibly interesting Akihabara, we found ourselves lost. But then we remembered that not all who wander are lost. So we realized we weren’t lost. We just didn’t know where we were. So we shrugged our shoulders and walked into an interesting looking Japanese restaurant. The place served a kind of Japanese pancake that is prepared right in front of you.
Like so many Japanese who we met, our chef was awesome company. Turns out, the three of us are huge baseball fans. It wasn’t easy to decipher even that much. Our Japanese was not existent, and his English wasn’t very good at all. But somehow we managed to talk baseball all through our meal and for a little while after, too. It was a great night with a cool guy. When we were getting ready to leave, he gave us two of the small baseball figurines he had up on a shelf as decor. I’ll never forget that dude.
There isn’t much to say about this picture other than that there were two Gundam statues in a random park. One turned its head, had glowing red eyes, and spewed steam from its mouth. One was made of flowers.
The next day we got off to a late start. So even though we basically ran from our hostel to the palace, we still didn't manage to make it into the Imperial Gardens before it closed. It closed early on the day we decided to go. Par for the course. But we walked along some of the moat and wall that surrounds the palace complex. Even that was beautiful. I found Tokyo to be far more photo-worthy than Seoul. I love Seoul! But I feel like there are less interesting photos to take.
We were bummed about not making it into the palace, so we decided to wander around. Wandering around doesn’t naturally follow being bummed, but that’s what we did. And I’m super glad we did. We stumbled upon a second-hand book district. DISTRICT. Picture a two mile stretch of two city blocks that are lined with small second-hand bookstores. It was pretty incredible. Some of the places were dingy like you’d expect, but just as many were elegant and in-between. There were a lot of Japanese books obviously, but there were plenty of English books and books in other languages. Books on every subject. Books from recent past, and books from a loooong time ago. I love Tokyo for this reason. Everyday, we stumbled onto some completely unexpected and awesome.
Like this Thunderbirds restaurant. Do you know what Thunderbirds was? I had never heard of it before passing by the restaurant’s entrance as we were leaving the second-hand book district. Richard freaked out. His father was a fan. Apparently, Thunderbirds was a 1960s action show about a futuristic team purposed with saving people in mortal danger. It lasted for 2 seasons. … And here was a cafe completely decked-out in Thunderbirds memorabilia. There were half a dozen TVs showing clips of the show. A few of the actual puppets were encased in large glass tubes. Dozens of action figures and other toys lined the walls. The menu was filled with Thunderbirds inspired dishes. The bathroom contained as many toys as half the restaurant. The owner spared no expense in building the place. It was put together really well. Why was it in the middle of Tokyo? I still have no idea.
But sadly, we ate dinner with the Thunderbirds on our last night in Tokyo. Afterward, we went up to the observation floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It offers an expansive 360 degree view of the city for free. The city stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. It is the largest city in the world. It didn’t disappoint.
On the observation deck, there was a random machine that made beautiful, beautiful art. For just 500 yen (about 5 dollars) it took a picture of mine and Richard's faces and then spat out a small piece of plastic with our faces printed on them. For 300 more yen, we could go to a nearby counter to purchase one of several dozen figurines to which we could attach our faces. How cool is that! I love these little dudes. I loved Tokyo. You must visit.
Despite having a complete blast, there was a ton of stuff we didn't get to check out in Tokyo. One of those things was Mt. Fuji. The famous mountain was just too far outside the city to visit on a short 5 day vacation. But as a final surprise, the Japanese sky parted for us as we flew out of Haneda Airport. Although distant, we were quite pleased at being able to catch a glimpse of that picturesque peak.
If I haven't convinced you by now how worthwhile Tokyo is, I don't know what will. The place is so rich with variation, intrigue, and surprises that you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you missed any opportunity to visit. I'll be going back when I finish my contract in Korea. You could do the same.
Currently residing an hour outside of Seoul, South Korea, Sergio Cabaruvias is doing his utmost not to appear lost or confused. So far, he’s managed. After graduating with degrees in English and journalism and after working with underprivileged youth, Serg embarked from Southern California for Pyeongtaek, South Korea to gain experience as an amateur adventurer. Since arriving he has swung on vines in the jungles of Taiwan, scaled mountains in the rocky city of Busan, driven a scooter along the edge of a massive, marble gorge, and explored some of Tokyo’s seedier areas. Moving to South Korea has been the best decision of his life.