October 2014


Discovering Tokyo and Kyoto
October 2014




The vibrance of Akihabara in Tokyo

Words and photography Lucy Daltroff


The frantic energy everywhere was my first impression of Tokyo. The busy expressways, the high rises and the rush of commuters, cars, and shops.Yet as I became part of the metropolis, I realised how the orderly organisation and respect of other people's space compared favourably to other capitals. For instance, each door of the train had its own neat queue, and this is how the busiest of cities functions so well.

It was not always like this. In the late 12th Century, Tokyo was just a small fishing village named Edo. It grew considerably in the 17th Century when it became the centre of the nationwide military government. The hub of the city as it is today is based on designs of 1900, although two 20th Century disasters set things back; the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and World War II.


Today, Shibuya is one of Tokyo's most colourful and busy districts with over a dozen major department stores as well as trendy smaller shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Leaving by the Hachikō exit of the station leads onto the famous, five-way "scramble crossing" well known all over the world through films and adverts. When the traffic lights turn red, hundreds of pedestrians cross the road at the same time, so that it almost feels like being picked up by the crest of a huge wave.


The clothes shops all over the city are varied and the displays are quite stunning, but they cater mainly for tiny sizes. So instead, I was mesmerised by the futuristic gadgets on offer and the delicate Japanese arts and crafts.


Of course food is one of the great pleasures of Tokyo. There are no limits in the city, where Noodle bars jostle with all different nationalities of foods, and where traditional Sushi outlets play a starring role. The word "Sake" means "alcohol" in Japanese, so if you're after what is known as "Sake" in the West, you need to order Nihonshu.

Food aficionados will enjoy  rising early to witness the fantastic Tsukiji Fish Market, which is like a stock exchange for fish, handling more seafood than any other outlet in the world
Most of the hotels and traditional ryokans (typical Japanese Inns) offer the choice of local or western breakfasts. For me there was no hesitation, Japanese breakfasts won every time. These consist of Miso soup, fish, tofu, steamed rice and Nori-dried seaweed-which it is customary to dip in soy sauce and roll rice with it. All of this is accompanied by Tsukemono (preserved vegetables) and washed down with green tea.


Food aficionados will enjoy rising early to witness the fantastic Tsukiji Fish Market, which is like a stock exchange for fish, handling more seafood than any other outlet in the world. Tourists are not actively encouraged, as fast trucks zoom everywhere and the pace is frenetic. Seeing such amazing amounts of sea produce in all its raw forms is an unforgettable experience. As an added attraction those arriving by five in the morning can see the live tuna auctions, but numbers are restricted and it is necessary to book.


Initially the efficient Tokyo subway system seems complicated, as each line is run by a different company, but once that is understood there are always people willing to help-and improve their language skills at the same time, but it is helpful before setting off to ask someone to write your destination down in Japanese. The J R Yamanote line (green) loops in a circle around the city so is a useful one to know. Main line railways stations are also great places for food. It's good to pick up an exciting Bento box before catching the bullet train.


A highpoint for any trip to Tokyo is witnessing the ceremony and ritual around the ancient martial art of Sumo wrestling. It began 1,500 years ago as a religious ceremony and is now a spectator sport. There are six Honbashos a year, each lasting two weeks. Sitting on the floor in your own box eating the traditional food that is delivered complete with tea, and watching these enormous men perform their often delicate manoeuvres, is a totally unforgettable experience. Especially if, like me, you end the day travelling back to your hotel with some of the younger Sumos sharing your train carriage!

Kyoto's grandeur is evident everywhere— in its 1,600 temples, its teahouses, hidden gardens, shrines and geisha girls

In contrast Kyoto is a much more sedate metropolis. This former imperial capital of Japan was never bombed during the war and is one of the best preserved cities in Japan.Its grandeur is evident everywhere- in its 1,600 temples, its teahouses, hidden gardens, shrines and geisha girls. The bicycle lanes are on the pavement and many of the modern shops still seem to exude both Zen spirituality and Shintoism.


Kinkaku-ji is one of the most famous temples. It was built as an expression of the Buddhist Pure Land (paradise) and the gardens around it are of the Muromachi period, 1337 to 1573, considered to be a classical age of Japanese garden design. To crown it all, I was told that my admission ticket would bring good luck and protect my home.


There are opportunities to attend a traditional Zen ritual ancient tea ceremony. Powdered green tea (matcha) is ceremonially prepared by adding hot water and mixing it with a bamboo whisk. Then it is served to a small group of guests in a special Japanese tea room. I learnt that the tea professional was also an expert in calligraphy, flower arranging and ceramics. The ceremony was fascinating but the tea very bitter!


Later I visited Hanami-koji, the street in front of Gion Corner, and was lucky enough to see a Geisha girl, in full costume walking elegantly in front of me. When she turned to cross the street I got a glimpse of her white, heavily powdered face. There are probably only about 300 now operating in the city, so a street sighting of a Geisha girl is a much appreciated highlight of any visit to Kyoto.

 

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    Getting ready to Cross the Shibuya crossing

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    Sushi; good to look at and to eat

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    Japanese Wedding in Tokyo

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    Fishmarket in Tokyo

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    Bullet Train in Tokyo

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    The ancient martial art of Sumo wrestling

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    Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto

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    Gion in Kyoto

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    Green Tea— Powdered green tea (matcha) is ceremonially prepared by adding hot water and mixing it with a bamboo whisk

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    Geisha girls

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    Autumn leaves in Kyoto

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