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Tokyo Journal

Not long ago we were fortunate to visit one of the most exciting cities one can find. Its cuisine and fashion are world famous. Its religious buildings are awe-inspiring. A world class capital, it is sited on an important river where nearby a Philippe Starck-designed headquarters building draws fans. Its Le Corbuser-designed museum features some of the finest Impressionist paintings in the world. Its citizens love to spend Sundays in its large parks, strolling through gardens surrounded by water lily ponds while fashionistas parade on fashionable boulevards and spend spend spend in the best luxury brand boutiques. It has an efficient subway system, linked to railroad stations with sleek high speed trains that glide through fields and towns from city to city. It has its own Disneyland theme park. And one of its most popular tourist sites is this highly recognizable tower.

Where were we? If you guessed Tokyo, you're right. We spent a week there to savor the sights and smells and energy of one of the most exciting, interesting and inspiring cities in the world. As expected, it was a visit filled with sushi, soba and subways. And lots and lots of temples and textiles.

Tokyo Tower - Tokyo Tower looks so similar to Paris' Eiffel Tower you might think you are in the French Capital!

Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine - Our hotel was above the 42nd floor of an office building in Shinjuku, the modern skyscraper part of the city. Below us we could see Yoyogi park, after breakfast we head for the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. The park is an oasis of calm in the fast paced city and the shrine was a great re-introduction to Japanese architecture.

The Kite Museum - We wanted to explore some new places we hadn't seen on our last trip so we headed to the Kite Museum. The subway stop was in Tokyo Station, and the Kite Museum was nearby, but it took us 45 minutes of wandering around a 4 block radius to find it. Where was our Koban (neighborhood guide) when we needed him? I had imagined it would be housed in a sleek, minimal space, but instead it turned out to be tucked in a tiny building up on the fourth floor. While it looked like a store, selling everything kites, these were handmade works of art and not for sale. The wide variety of unique designs included dramatic or humorous faces and a few charming patterns. It was a treat to see such an interesting collection.

Let's go Fishing! - Almost every visitor to Tokyo has this destination on their to-do list: the Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest of its type in the world, and it's serious about fresh fish. The auction opens to jet lagged tourists who can't sleep at 4am and the outer market is open at 9am. While I couldn't make it to the auction, I got to the market at 7am, not realizing that the early wholesale section is actually closed to folks like me until the vendors finish their business. For more than an hour I wandered through the aisles, gingerly trying not to get in the way, and snapping photos of every kind of underwater creature one can buy. The vendors and sellers were exceedingly polite, not asking me to leave, even as I squeezed in between their carts and boxes. I have to admit, I couldn't understand why I was the only person not buying or selling fish. Eventually, a market guard tracked me down and apologetically advised me that it was too early to visit that area of the market, and could I come back at the appropriate time. It was I then that had to apologize, which I did, profusely. 'Sumimasen', I said, bowing, and he again apologized to me, and bowed respectfully. Here, an expert is cutting apart a very valuable sushi ingredient.

Time out for Soba - We visited Ueno Park on a Sunday, with the rest of Tokyo's citizens. For a lunch stop we found that just outside of the park were streets full of casual soba and sushi restaurants. A restaurant would never serve both, as each are specialized items that require skill in their execution. Our favorite lunch was soba noodles. Served hot or cold, with tempura or raw fish, it was always a delicious treat. And almost every restaurant has menus with pictures or the plastic dishes outside, so we could order with confidence.

The Pulse of the City - We spent a great day visiting Ueno Park along with Tokyo's citizens, and seeing so much diverse art and architecture. We wandered toward the exit under a promenade of cherry trees, and past its beautiful lake filled with lotus flowers. Existing the park, we were jolted back into to the crazy energetic reality that is Tokyo.

Tokyo's Subway - Tokyo is a huge city and covers many square miles. The most efficient way to travel from point A to point B is on one of its many subway lines. Yes, the subways are packed during rush hour, but look how politely people line up for the next train to arrive.

Ueno Park - We had a great day visiting Ueno Park and seeing so much diverse art and architecture. We wandered toward the exit and passed a beautiful lake filled with lotus flowers and surrounded by the city's skyscrapers. The view reminded us of New York City's Central Park.

Samuri at the National Museum - Ueno Park is home to the National Museum and you could spend days there exploring its collections of traditional Japanes arts. We headed for the textile section. Their kimonos were the best of the best, with intricate dyeing and embroidery techniques reserved for the aristocracy or royal family. We also loved the samuri uniforms. These were outfits for the soldiers protecting the feudal lords. Quite stunning!

Ometosando - Just outside Yoyogi Park is Ometosando shopping street, the Madison Avenue of Tokyo. The most exclusive stores are here, with some of the most exciting architecture of the city. This is the Mosaic Building, by Jun Mitsui and Associates.

Tsukiji Fish Market - Almost every visitor to Tokyo has this destination on their to-do list: the Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest of its type in the world, and it's serious about fresh fish. The auction opens to jet lagged tourists who can't sleep at 4am and the outer market is open at 9am. While I couldn't make it to the auction, I got to the market at 7am, not realizing that the early wholesale section is actually closed to folks like me until the vendors finish their business. For more than an hour I wandered through the aisles, gingerly trying not to get in the way, and snapping photos of every kind of underwater creature one can buy. The vendors and sellers were exceedingly polite, not asking me to leave, even as I squeezed in between their carts and boxes. I have to admit, I couldn't understand why I was the only person not buying or selling fish. Eventually, a market guard tracked me down and apologetically advised me that it was too early to visit that area of the market, and could I come back at the appropriate time. It was I then that had to apologize, which I did, profusely. 'Sumimasen', I said, bowing, and he again apologized to me, and bowed respectfully. I saw this sign a few days later on another visit ... Now I know!

Asakusa - On our first day we visited Asakusa, in the downtown (Shitamachi) oldest part of the city, which is a stark contrast to our modern Shinjuku neighborhood. We took the subway, quickly learning how the system works, but also discover how big Tokyo really is, and how long it takes to get from point A to B. Asakusa is home to the popular Senso-ji temple, first constructed 1,000 years ago. We had lunch there, and like most restaurants, there was a display of the menu offerings, making ordering easy. The area is also home to many small shops selling traditional items. Late in the afternoon, the small stores and restaurants close, and we dragged ourselves back to the hotel on the subway.

Saturday in the Park with Art - Saturday is a good day to visit the major art museums, which are all located in Tokyo's Ueno Park, in the northeast part of the city. Surrounded by skyscrapers and home to a large water lily pond, Ueno almost could double as New York's Central Park. There are lots of activities for families, and we joined the crowds as they headed for some fun. Here are Tokyo's families entering the park. Parasols are very popular with the ladies and are an important fashion statement as well as provide protection from the sun.

Asakusa - On our first day we headed for Asakusa, in the downtown (Shitamachi) oldest part of the city, which is a stark contrast to our modern Shinjuku neighborhood. We take the subway, quickly learning how the system works, but also discover how big Tokyo really is, and how long it takes to get from point A to B. Asakusa is home to the popular Senso-ji temple, first constructed 1,000 years ago. As with many temples, it has been destroyed (often by fires) and reconstructed several times. We have lunch in a small restaurant and visit the shrine, along with many of Tokyo's citizens. Shrines and temples are extremely popular among the Japanese, and they comprise the vast majority of visitors as they pay respect to their religious deities.

Shinjuku - While Tokyo has some older neighborhoods, much of it was rebuilt after WWII and later. We stayed in Shinjuku, which is one of the newer areas and is filled with office buildings. From the 42nd floor we had a bird's eye view of the skyscrapers around us, including Tokyo's City Hall, to the right, designed by Kenzo Tange in 1990. Later in the morning, the streets were filled with "salary men", office workers who commute long hours into the city.

Le Corbusier's Museum of Western Art - Ueno Park is home to many museums, including the Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Courbusier in 1958. It had a great collection of impressionist paintings, all of which were new to us. But what was most interesting was the architecture. While most modern museums feel light and airy, this one had an industrial vibe of dark, low-ceilinged rooms with black linoleum floors contrasted with other spaces featuring huge windows looking out into its beautiful garden.

Box Lunches To Go - In the busy train stations it's easy to find take away food for the journey. We took the high speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Kyoto, which leaves every 10 minutes or so and makes the 320 mile trip in about 2 hour 20 minutes. With one stop in Nagoya, it reaches speeds of 180 mph. The cost: $125. each way. The Japanese have perfected high speed travel and it makes the U.S. look like we are still in the dark ages with our Amtrak. At the station we bought the ubiquitous box lunch and exactly on time, the train left.

A Taxi Ride - We wanted to explore some neighborhoods that were new to us, and on a map did not look that far. We started off, asking the way. A man pointed us in the right direction, but looked alarmed when we told him we wanted to walk. We laughed and said we were from NYC, and we love to walk. We should have followed his advice to take a taxi. We hiked up and down hills, through tiny streets, looking for the hip Daikayama neighborhood. It was quite a trek, and we finally gave in and got a taxi. We showed the driver the address, and he looked mystified, driving in the general direction. But even with the help of his GPS he had no idea where the actual shop was that we wanted to see. Another Koban (neighborhood guide) needed. The taxi is $7.00 for the first pull on the meter. We didn't take many cabs, but in this case, it was worth it. The pristine cabs have lace seat covers and the doors automatically open for you. Oh, and no tipping required.

The Mingei Museum - The Mingei Mueseum has a collection of folk art treasures like kimonos, baskets and ceramics. Unlike the elegant kimonos we would see in the National Museum later in the week, Mingei folk art is all about the beauty of hand crafted items. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed, but I have lots of books about Mingei treasures and look at them frequently for inspiration. It was a treat to see the actual pieces on display. The building was old, so no shoes were allowed. The beautiful wood (probably cypress) floors had a patina made by thousands of visitors in stocking or slippered feet. The items were exquisite in their simplicity and included some Ainu textiles similar to those we would later see at the National Museum.

The Gallery of Horiyu-ji Treasures - Our favorite museum is the one that houses the Horiyu-ji Treasures. Design in 1999 by Yoshio Tanaguichi, this modernist structure is sublime, and is a perfect contrast to the traditional temple and National Museum next door. The reflecting pool, the signage, the detailing of stairs and the simple but extremely elegant research room. We didn't want to leave. Oh, and they have a collection of 300 objects from the 7th-8th century including a room full of buddha statues, each unique, displayed in a manner that makes you pause.

At the Meiji Shrine - At every shrine you see these small wooden pieces to write your wishes or thoughts and leave as an offering. Everyone participates.

Taking the Bus - One day we set out for the Meguro neighborhood, taking a subway ride, and then transferring to a bus. Most bus drivers, subway station masters and policemen speak no english, but we just show them a map and with a few hand gestures we figure out if we're going in the right direction. I would always use some of my 15 word Japanese vocabulary on them, like 'Excuse me', 'Thank you', How much is it', and of course they would launch into a whole explanation in Japanese with the information they thought we needed. I didn't understand a thing, but they were so nice and helpful, you just have to smile and say "Arigato gozai mas" "Thank you very much"! Many younger people speak some English, (far better than my Japanese) and especially in stores and restaurants we had few, if any, issues.

Around the Fish Market - Close by the Tsujiki fish market are small shops selling dishes and knives that chefs and others might need to buy. Bowls have beautiful hand drawn patterns and it's hard to resist purchasing them. The knives are the sharpest one can find, all the better to cut your fish into sushi size pieces.

The Shinkansen - When it was time to leave Tokyo and head to Kyoto we took the high speed Shinkansen train. It leaves every 10 minutes or so and makes the 320 mile trip in about 2 hour 20 minutes. With one stop in Nagoya, it reaches speeds of 180 mph. The cost: $125. each way. The Japanese have perfected high speed travel and it makes the U.S. look like we are still in the dark ages with our Amtrak train system. At the station we bought the ubiquitous box lunch and exactly on time, the train left. It glided through the countryside, passing houses packed in between rice paddies and the close-in foothills. You could see how a country of 128 million lives in such a small area. They use every square inch of their land.

Morning in Tokyo / Yoyogi Park - On our first morning in Tokyo, we headed for the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. The park is an oasis of calm in the fast paced city and the more natural vistas are a contrast to the more manicured temple gardens we would see later in the trip.

Another Side of Ometosando - Ometosando may be the most exclusive shopping street in town, but the small streets that cross it are typically Tokyo: a crazy maze of wires, signs and storefronts. After World War II there was no overall planning, and buildings sprung up as fast as possible. Telephone poles and wires, in particular, are a common sight.

The. Best. Sushi. Ever. - We spent a morning around Ginza, and we wanted one sushi meal at the source for fresh fish. Ginza is located near the present Imperial Palace (not open to the public) and Japan's leading corporations are headquartered there. It looks and feels like New York, with fancy restaurants and the best department stores. But within walking distance is the Tsukiji fish market, with all its bedlam of tiny shops and sushi restaurants. So for lunch, we headed for the market. You don't need a guide book for a recommendation. Every place had sushi signage and was filled with locals. We found a spot to try, sat down and ordered our favorite items. An egg custard and miso soup were served first, and then came the best sushi ever. It was sublime. Of course, that fish had only to go 100 yds from the market to the restaurant, so it should be fresh. We love our neighborhood sushi restaurant in NYC, but after this one meal, it took us a month before we could go back to our place. We're no sushi connoisseurs, but for us, Tsukiji sushi is the best.

The Gallery of Horiyu-ji Treasures - Our favorite museum is the one that houses the Horiyu-ji Treasures. Design in 1999 by Yoshio Tanaguichi, this modernist structure is sublime, and is a perfect contrast to the traditional temple and National Museum next door. The reflecting pool, the signage, the detailing of stairs and the simple but extremely elegant research room. We didn't want to leave. Oh, and they have a collection of 300 objects from the 7th-8th century including a room full of buddha statues, each unique, displayed in a manner that makes you pause. This is the view from the entry hall to the reflecting pool outside.

Senso-ji Temple at Asakusa - On our first day in Tokyo we visited Asakusa, in the downtown (Shitamachi) oldest part of the city, which is a stark contrast to our modern shinjuku neighborhood. We take the subway, quickly learning how the system works, but also discover how big Tokyo really is, and how long it takes to get from point A to B. Asakusa is home to the popular Senso-ji Temple, first constructed 1,000 years ago. As with many temples, it has been destroyed (often by fires) and reconstructed several times. We have lunch in a small restaurant and visit the shrine, along with many of Tokyo's citizens. Shrines and temples are extremely popular among the Japanese, and they comprise the vast majority of visitors as they pay respect to their religious deities.

On the Tokyo-Kyoto Shinkansen - We took the high speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Kyoto, which leaves every 10 minutes or so and makes the 320 mile trip in about 2 hour 20 minutes. With one stop in Nagoya, it reaches speeds of 180 mph. The cost: $125. each way. The Japanese have perfected high speed travel and it makes the U.S. look like we are still in the dark ages with our Amtrak system. At the station we bought the ubiquitous box lunch and exactly on time, the train left. It glided through the countryside, passing houses packed in between rice paddies and the close-in foothills. You can see how a country of 128 million lives in such a small area. They use every square inch of their land. The second class seats are not the most comfortable, but there's Mt Fuji (on a poster)!

At the Soba Restaurant - Our favorite lunch was soba noodles. Served hot or cold, with or without tempura, it was always a nice experience in these small specialty restaurants. And almost every restaurant has menus with pictures or the plastic dishes outside, so we always could order with confidence. An interesting feature was the basket next to each chair that was for making sure you didn't expose your bag or purse on the dirty floor. Another thoughtful gesture, even in the smallest places, and consistent with their attitudes toward cleanliness.

Morning in Tokyo - We woke up the first morning in a fog, literally. Our hotel is above the 42nd floor of an office building in Shinjuku, the modern skyscraper part of the city. Below us we can see the city's indescribable mix of small houses and skyscrapers crammed between freeways and cemeteries. After WWII Tokyo was rebuilt almost immediately, without a grand plan, so the small streets form a crazy quilt of complexity. In fact, many of the streets are unnamed or so unorganized and the address numbering system makes so little sense that every few blocks you find a Koban, or policeman trained to help you find your destination on a very detailed map.

Tsukiji: Not for the Squeamish or Vegetarians! - Almost every visitor to Tokyo has this destination on their to-do list: the Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest of its type in the world, and it's serious about fresh seafood. The auction opens to jet lagged tourists who can't sleep at 4am and the outer market is open at 9am. So here is what you can buy, if you have a restaurant or fish store: the freshest ocean living creatures imaginable, and everything from the smallest baby sardines(?) to the thousand pound tuna. I love any kind of market, and this one doesn't disappoint. The colors, the shapes and textures are inspiring. The tis and seafood is so fresh, it makes you want to head to the sushi restaurant next door for breakfast...

Meiji Shrine Offerings - At the Meiji Shrine we saw an offering and expression of reverence to the late Emperor and Empress. Offerings are an important part of the Japanese culture and there are many ways to extend respect and ask for success for one's self or business. In this case, it was barrels of sake placed along the long promenade to the shrine.

Le Corbusier's Museum of Western Art - One day we visited a few of Tokyo's major art museums, which are located in Ueno Park in the northeast part of the city. Surrounded by skyscrapers and home to a large pond, Ueno almost could double as New York's Central Park. There are lots of activities for families, and we joined the crowds as they head for some fun. Our first stop is the Museum of Western Art, housed in a Le Courbusier structure built in 1958. It had a great collection of impressionist paintings, all of which were new to us.

Hama Rikyu Garden - After our sushi lunch we walked through a bustling market, which was a reminder of all the other visits we had during the past days to similar colorful venues. Nearby is the Hama Rikyu Garden, our last chance to see another tea house and ancient trees. Created in 1700 by a prominent shogun, the US President Grant was entertained here by the Emperor Meiji. The park is the perfect complement to Tokyo's modern skyline and the relationship of the traditional and modern vistas seem to symbolize Japan itself.

Japan gave us everything we asked for in terms of a great vacation. We loved all the sights, the contrast of old and new, chaos and calm, the food and most of all, the kindness of its people. Before we left for New York, we were already planning our next visit.