AM: On our overnight flight from Auckland we woke to a superb sunrise and shortly afterwards the Land of the Rising Sun appeared, in particular the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo and Yokohama which seemed to go forever. Dropping our bags at Shiba Park Hotel in central Tokyo, we shed clothes more suited for the 10 degrees C. we had left in New Zealand and dressed for the gorgeous warm humid day that greeted us for the first day of our Japanese adventure.
It wasn’t long before we found our first Buddhist temple, Zojo-ji Temple, near the hotel. The imposing main gate of the temple dates back to 1622 and inside its grounds is a huge cedar tree planted by Thomas Jefferson in 1879, which I found astounding considering the turmoil that Japanese and American relations have been through over the years. Further on is the mausoleum of six of the 15 Tokugawa Shoguns, the rulers of Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It was evident that this was a revered and sacred place.
Not far away is the 333-metre Tokyo Tower, built in 1957 and a similar height and shape to the Eiffel tower but painted white and international orange. Originally just a communications tower, it has also become a major tourist attraction. We debated whether to go just to the main observatory deck at the 150m level or to the smaller special observatory at the top. Luckily, the top platform was worth it. The day was clear and we could see forever. The audio guide we took with us as part of the tour was excellent and gave us great information about the various landmarks.
PM: While we were up the tower my husband spied a swimming pool, which the audio guide referred to as public baths. We found our way there later in the day and found that for NZ$7 you can swim for two hours. When we went in search of dinner for our first night in Japan we found all the Japanese places in the area were full and we learned later that they often have to be pre-booked. In the end we found an excellent Korean restaurant called Karakuniya which was amazingly cheap and delicious.
AM: We were up bright and early on another sunny day to catch our tour bus for a trip to Mount Fuji, 130km to the southwest. It was Sunday and the traffic was heavy. We glided along the flat plains for quite some time until suddenly we were in the mountains going through tunnels and over viaducts. The road infrastructure in the area is impressive.
We wound our way upwards along avenues of various trees and past several hiking stations, catching little glimpses of Mount Fuji until finally we saw all of the sacred mountain in its full splendour. It is a beautiful mountain and no wonder it is one of the world’s most visited: in the two and half months a year that it is open to visitors it attracts around 300,000 people. We saw many people going trekking, including several with what looked like brand-new boots. The climb from the 2400m mark (the fifth station) to the top of the mountain takes five to seven hours, and to stay overnight in a hut with two meals costs 700 yen, around NZ$9.
After taking our pictures we were off down the mountain for an authentic Japanese lunch that was beautifully presented on a tray with an array of tasty nibbles, a little pot of rice with a warmer under it and another warmer pot of broth with tofu and greens. Totally delicious. Off again we went to the Hakone Ropeway (gondola) which runs to the sulphur area which is famous for black eggs. Legend has it that eating one of these eggs will add seven years to your life, eating two will add another seven, but eating three will only give you indigestion. I tried one and my partner tried two. They tasted just like eggs.
Back on the bus we headed to Lake Hakone where we boarded a “pirate-style” sailing ship to take us across the lake. The views of Mount Fuji are the major drawcard of this trip, which is also relaxing. Afterwards the bus took us along winding mountain roads to the Atami railway station in the next valley.
After full instructions from our guide about travelling on a bullet train, we made our way up the steps to the station platform and suddenly one of the most sensational events of the day happened: a bullet train went through! It was a sensory moment to behold. There was no warning, just a rush of air and noise as the train sped past on one of the middle tracks of the four parallel tracks. Travelling at around 320 kph, the train made quite an impression on us.
Our bullet train soon arrived and we were transported smoothly back to Tokyo and the 40-minute journey flew by. On arrival we got a hint of what Tokyo Central must be like at peak time. We had heard the stories about men with black gloves pushing people into the carriages and while it was 7pm on a Sunday night it was still extremely busy. We were totally disoriented when we came out of the railway station and after a couple of attempts to find our way to our hotel on foot we resorted to a taxi, a sensible move after our long and interesting day. We ended it by finding a Japanese restaurant (without booking) and enjoyed a delicious meal. Happy travellers.