Thursday, April 1

Paula: Exploring Tokyo by riding the subway and walking through streets and parks was the main agenda today. We had been warned that getting around Tokyo on your own could be tricky, so we stuck a Japanese business card for our hotel in our pockets and set off for the day's adventure.

After the short walk to Shinjuku station, we quickly navigated the huge train and subway center, and realized that the system is amazing. Maybe this is because we are comparing it to our experiences in Rome or St. Petersburg, but Tokyo's subways allowed us to make our way around the city without difficulty. Signs clearly indicate the ways to stations. The signs were in English as well as Japanese and even counted down the meters to each platform. Purchasing tickets was automated using machines, and with only a little help the first time we were able to purchase tickets throughout the day. The subway cars are clean and efficient - we never waited more then a few minutes and at each platform a clock indicated how much longer until the next car arrived as well as how much time elapsed between each station. The subway cars were never overcrowded even when we rode them during the rush hour. People were quiet and friendly. No one pushed or shoved. What a difference from most of our other subway experiences!

By the end of the day, we had decided that the subway experience really defined how we felt about the whole city - clean (no litter anywhere, and no smoking allowed on the street) , efficient, orderly, quiet (we never heard one car blow their horn) and well marked. Given Tokyo's size, we found this to all be amazing!

The Imperial Garden is in the heart of the city. The skyscrapers of the rest of the city are always in the background making it feel somewhat like Central Park in New York City. The grounds were beautiful manicured making for a peaceful escape. It is especially pretty right now as the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and today was an absolutely perfect spring day. The Imperial Palace is on the garden grounds but is closed to the public. The emperor and imperial family actually live in this palace which was rebuilt after World War II.

After walking through this garden and an adjacent area with neat water fountains, we decided to explore Asakusa, an area in the city along the Sumida River. Cherry blossoms lined both sides of the river and we enjoyed walking on the pedestrian street where hundreds of Japanese were picnicking along the perimeter. We saw groups of young adults, families and even businessman in suits and ties having picnics on blankets and plastic tarps placed along the sidewalk. We laughed when we saw everyone's shoes lined up neatly along the edges of the tarp.

Deeper into the Asakusa district, we discovered a variety of streets lined with shops. These shops, unlike the expensive, high-fashion shops near our hotel, are like the markets that filled Tokyo before the economic boom of the 1970s. We even found stores selling traditional sandals and kimonos. We had a wonderful tempura lunch in the area, Japanese style, eating at low tables and sitting on cushions on the flour. The waitress spoke little English but we managed to place a simple order and enjoyed the food.

In this area, we visited a small temple dedicated to a raccoon dog. This dog was made a deity of public entertainment and a guardian to protect against fire and robbery. In this temple, called Chingodo, people pray both to the raccoon dog and other Buddha statutes. The Senso-ji is a much larger temple and graced by a beautiful five-tiered Pagoda. Here we saw a steady stream of people enter the temple to toss coins and then bow, clap and pray to Kannon, a golden image of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. A large cauldron in front of the temple is used for burning incense and visitors stand among the smoke which they believe bestows health.

At the end of the day, we enjoyed coming back to the Shinjuku area of our hotel to marvel at the neon lights lining the streets packed with people. Again, we felt like we were in New York City.

Tomorrow, we plan to get up very early to attend a fish auction in the T|sukiji Fish Market. The auction, which is only 45 minutes long, begins at 5:00 AM so we hope it's worth it!
















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