30 Hours in Tokyo

It’s a glorious day outside as I speed along on the Tokaido Shinkansen to Hakone. The sun is shining on the land of the rising sun today. Last night, not so much.

I’m on my way to the “Culture Day” festival that happens to be today, November 3rd. Oh, and I just saw Mt. Fuji race by in the distance between the blur of high rise office monoliths and endless rice paddies.

Navigating the trains from Narita City, where I stayed last night, is becoming second nature for me. The local JR train into Tokyo Station is just over an hour, with multiple stops to let on black-uniformed school kids and blue-suited business men.

The first time I stayed at Kirinoya Ryokan in Narita was 30 years ago and I’ve been back at least another four times since. A family run minshuku for over 120 years, it is the epitome of old traditional Edo Japan. Tatami floored rooms, rice paper sliding doors, weathered wood and traditonal baths. My bill was only ¥3750 ($31) -- AND they chauffeured me to and fro. Nice place, nicer people. I will be signing their guest book once again in the future I’m sure.

Dinner at a fresh eel restaurant I had seen a year ago on the winding road up from the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in the old town was just what I was craving for. The grilled unagi was divine and went down deliciously, though I was almost sleep eating -- middle of the night back home, you know.

And this 30-hour layover on my way to Vietnam is just enough to whet the appetite and remind me of why I fell in love with this land almost 35 years ago.The 30-minute bullet train ride is the perfect vantage point to take it all in all over again. A flood of memories race by of the many times I have been a welcomed guest here.

From Otawara Station it’s a quick transfer to the local Hakone Tozan Railway to begin a slow, winding climb into the mountains. I’m pleasantly pleased and surprised -- I had no idea of the beauty. There are vestiges of Fall foliage painting a vibrant palette on the peaks and valleys en route – a cornucopia of color.

The town is situated along the Hayakawa River, wending its way over bridges and up and down the valley, hugging the rocky shores. And that’s exactly the course the parade has taken -- a several hour meandering through the twists and turns of this popular hot springs town.Traditionally clad geisha, war lords, Daimyos samurai warriors and princesses recreate an era gone by in a streaming procession past hordes of eager spectators. After a couple stops along the way for festival food offerings of yakatori, octopus balls and mongi sweet cakes its back to the station for the decent down the mountain.

It’s still early so I have more than enough time after riding the local to Odawara, Shinkansen back to Tokyo Station, and the JR Yamamoto Line to Kanda, where I transfer downstairs to the Ginza Subway six stops to my destination, a must go-to every time I’m here -- Asakusa.

I love the approach to Asakusa Kanon Temple -- an avenue of mini shops selling trinkets, souvenirs, sweets and all things Japan. The crowds are enormous, more than I’ve ever experienced. No doubt Culture Day is being celebrated here also.

And before I know it a parade breaks out near the enormous temple. The steady beat of drums accompany a flock of people-sized swans dancing with choreographed precision. I was able to squirm my way through the masses to a vantage point close enough to capture the procession as it migrated towards the 1000 year-old building.

Antique searching is always one of the main reasons I like coming here. Asakusa has retained its old town ambiance with much of its history still intact unlike the ultra modern rest of Tokyo. There are a few favorite little shops I hit that I scour in hopes of bringing home an addition to the collection.

I haven’t eaten much today since I got such a early start, so a quick bite is a must prior to heading to Haneda for my 1:30 a.m. flight. Some grilled mackerel, miso, pickled-cucumber and a Kirin hits the spot.

I’m pretty well worn out with all the leg-walking and jet-lagging, but I still have 6 or 7 hours. But, I’m really just too tired and don’t know what else I could muster up enough energy to do. So, I’m off to Haneda Airport via the circuitous train, subway and monorail route.

Settling into a guest lounge now to wait out my departure is dragging by and I’m wishing I had taken full advantage of my brief Nihon foray. Who knows when my path will come this way again. 

And once again I am immensely impressed with this place – their sense of the aesthetic, fastidiousness for cleanliness, exacting efficiency, and propensity for politeness. There’s no place like it anywhere I’ve been around the world. And the contrast will be dramatically illustrated the moment I land at my next destination – Saigon, Vietnam.

Simply put, I simply can’t wait to come back – already.