We now come to day 4. I wanted to see Tokyo and was wondering the best way to see it. Walking...hmmm...can't cover everything. Metro? Don't want to see the underground! Bus? You got to be kidding me! And then it struck me...why not cycle around Tokyo! I got together with a bunch of other people who were visiting and we were good to go.
I was the only naive cyclist in the group of 5 and also the youngest. One of the cyclists had around a decade of experience and is now the Global Director for Logistics in x company, another is the Director of an international distance learning university. They were all also hardcore cycling enthusiasts. One of them had actually come to India and done the Char Dham yatra on a bicycle! I on the other hand have not cycled for years but what the heck, what's life without adventure! Oh another has actually been to Ongole in Andhra Pradesh (his friend is a minister in the church over there).
Got up early in the morning and headed to our meeting point (a bicycle rental place). Took me some time to choose a bicycle. I was finally handed a shiny 8-gear professional bike. 8 gears! I have only ridden a cycle with no gears. We first took off for Sumiyoshi Jinja Shrine in Osaka. There is not much English information available for this shrine, but it's basically an old fishing village with the shrine dedicated to the sea god.
Around an hour after starting out (around 10am), I think to myself, how do I record this entire brilliant cycling tour experience through quaint little Japanese lanes, Japanese houses, through bridges and across rivers, a Tokyo that you would never otherwise see. And then it struck me, why Google MyTracks! So I take out my Nexus One and start recording my tracks...the first time I have ever used this nifty little software, more on that later. The cycling was a bit scary when there were no cycling paths and you had to cycle on the road with other traffic but got the hang of it as we went on.
Our next stop was Tsukiji fish market. The Tsukiji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. On any given week day, the market does business worth 20 million dollars. The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar, and from tiny sardines to 300kg tuna and controversial whale species. A sight here was that most of the seafood we saw for sale was alive from fish to turtles to octopuses to species I could not identify. It was sad to see that their life would end in a couple of hours.
We then cycled over numerous bridges (the names of which I cannot remember) and while seeing a couple of other Buddhist shrines (again cannot remember the names), landed up at Tokyo Bay. There were some tough slopes during this stretch which left me huffing and puffing. Also, there was this one particular shrine where it is considered lucky to climb it through a flight of around 100 steep steps. We all did this and it was exhausting. But once you climb up, between the skyscrapers, you come across this shrine and a serene pond with fish and it is so peaceful. It's like all the traffic has vanished. We cycled on and finally settled down by a small stretch of beach and where I finally got the chance to savor authentic Japanese cuisine. I had some vegetarian Tempura with rice. The taste was brilliant and I can now finally say that I have had a taste of Japanese food culture.
We then took a boat (it's now around 12:15am), and then cycled on to Zojyo-ji Temple and Tokyo Tower. The temple is very important as six of the fifteen Tokugawa shoguns are buried at Zōjō-ji. We went inside and were lucky enough to see a Buddhist ceremony in place (something like the aarti we have in our temples). The head priest was conducting it and so there were drums and chanting and bells and candles and the whole place was alive.
We then moved on to see the Imperial Palace. Once again we were lucky enough to arrive in time to see the changing of the guard at the palace. We finally headed back.
After the tour, I can say, if a city's infrastructure supports it, one should see the city by cycle. We saw numerous shrines, visited numerous parks, saw the headquarters of different companies, all in 6 hours. Essentially, we covered all of South Tokyo and saw people living their daily lives. At one stop, I remember a Japanese couple who were on a picnic giving us this seed which is supposed to very healthy and said to cure arthritis...can't remember the name. Also remember having this traditional Japanese dessert at another stop made of cherry, leaves and something...can't remember the name (which is why it is important to write down stuff the very same day you experience it). Google MyTracks enabled me to track the entire route and export on to Google Maps and Google Earth.
To see the route we took on Google Maps, visit http://maps.google.com/
maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0& msid=205123701233007352267. 00049af88c3aefb11436b&ll=35. 670894,139.768753&spn=0. 020047,0.045447&z=15
If you have the necessary plug-in, just click 'Satellite' and you can see the route on Google Earth. The Google Earth would make more sense as Map shows everything in Japanese so you really can't understand where we sent so might as well see it on Earth and look at the sights. MyTracks also provided us with other details such as elevation, gradients etc...give it a shot. I used it for the first time and now love it.
In the evening I was supposed to go on a helicopter cruise around Tokyo...the helipad is really far away. It took me an hour to reach there by metro, then to wait another hour as weather was not too good, only to have the flight canceled. I rode back to my hotel room to finally have the 50 kilometre cycling marathon after effects kick in on the body. So finally settled for a warm bath in the tub, while sipping some Strabucks and listening to some awesome Japanese music on the 13inch TV in the bathroom. Pretty relaxing.
Crashed on the bed only to wake up next morning at 12:00.
Sunday, January 30
Not the best planned day. The cycling after effects made me get up at 12:00...and needed to rush in to see my 2 sights for the day. Google Maps failed me this time around. I had to go to see one of Tokyo's most famous shrines. As always, I took the train route Google maps recommended. What Google Maps didn't know and didn't tell me was that the train it gave me was a non-stop express train to Hanneda Airport (or was it Narita?). I realised the same when it skipped the next two stations and it was a good 45 minutes before the next stop came in an area unknown to me. Got down and wasted around 1/2hr trying to figure out how to get to where I want to. Finally decided to go back (another 45mins) and catch the train from the start.
It was pretty late by the time I reached Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon). The good news is that because I had delayed, I had reached there post sun set (the sun sets at 5:00pm approx here) and the temple looked beautiful. This is the oldest temple in Tokyo and according to legend, a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon was found in the Sumida River in 628 by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari. The chief of their village, Hajino Nakamoto, recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple in Asakusa, so that the villagers could worship the Kannon.
The temple also is accessed by going through a narrow street which sells all sorts of Japanese knick knacks. If you are ever visiting Tokyo and need to buy souvenirs and Japanese cultural items, this is the street to come to.
The next step was the Tokyo National Museum but skipped that as I had re-scheduled my helicopter cruise (which got canceled again!). Spent the evening in Roppongi Hills seeing all the shops. I love the boots people wear in Tokyo. If you are a woman, you need to purchase a pair of shoes from here.
Monday, January 31
The day I visit the Kingdom of Dreams & Magic...Disneyland Tokyo! The last time I went to Disneyland was way back in 1999 (Disneyland Orlando). Of course there is definite excitement going to the magical kingdom but I highly recommend visiting a Disneyland once as an adult. I chose to visit on a weekday as I thought the crowd would be less but it was still pretty full with lines to the popular attractions being as high as 60 minutes. I managed to cover every single ride and most attractions in the park and these are the ones I recommend:
Also, if you are a vegetarian, then Disneyland in Tokyo is the place to be! Plenty of vegetarian food. Now a little secret unknown to many...Disneyland Tokyo has special popcorn flavours that you will get only in certain areas of the park...for example, 'Honey Popcorn' is only available near the Pooh's Hunny Hunt attraction and nowhere else in the entire park. Disney does not advertise this but that's the case. They should make it sort of a treasure hunt, can be a good marketing tactic to botch up popcorn sales among kids. Each stall anyways had a unique popcorn mug based on the theme...sell it to kids proactively...can you collect them all? Should work.
So anyways, I took up the challenge to have all the popcorn flavours I could find and have the following flavours:
Soy Sauce and butter popcorn
I skipped having the traditional salt popcorn and cheese popcorn,
I also found a restaurant that sells only crepes in the park (and you know how I love crepes). So, I had a crepe (can't remember the flavour, it was chocolate with another unique flavour). I wanted to come back in the evening to try the mango crepe, but by evening, the place had closed. So I settles for this restaurant that made waffles in the shape of Mickey Mouse topped with strawberry and caramel sauce and cream. Best waffles ever!
Oh and in the evening I saw the Disneyland parade, the Cindrella castle gets decked up, and all of Disney's characters come to life in a parade. I distinctly remember I had missed this back in 1999 so it was lovely to complete that piece of the Disney place.
After a day living away from reality, I thought I would make a last ditch attempt at the helipad and behold, they were operating! So at around 7:30pm, I took a helicopter cruise around Tokyo. This is the first time I have ever traveled in a helicopter. While noisy and a shaky, the view is so great. The helicopter flew real low which enabled me to see every detail. It flies just a couple of 100 metres above the sky Tokyo skyline. It first flew us over Disneyland, then Rainbow Bridge, followed by Tokyo tower and Roppongi. We went over the Ginza district, the stadium and the Tokyo SkyTree. Though still under construction, when completed, the Tokyo Sky Tree will be the tallest tower in the world beating Canton Tower, the tallest structure on an island beating Taipei 101 and the second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa. Oh and we could also see the Imperial Palace (though we flew higher around this area). By the way, got a beautiful view of Mount Fuji from my office window on the first day at work, so kind of seen that.
Finally landed back and I made my way back to my hotel. It's now 1:30am and I need to to get up early for my flight and then reach Hyderabad and report back to work. Oh while coming, I saw the Social Network and Wall Street Money Never Sleeps. Enjoyed both movies...give them a watch.
Overall, a great trip indeed. Some new experiences, some new discoveries. The most important I would say is that to truly see a city and feel it's pulse, once must see it by cycle. First time I did it and I love it. I look to return back to Japan to cover a host of other things I want to do. Never imagined that Japan would offer so much.
Till we meet again!