On my first day in Tokyo, I was exhausted. We’d just ridden the night bus for 6 hours – starting at 11 pm and ending at 5:30ish am – and despite a neck pillow and an eye mask (okay, a scarf I’d used as a headband, but whatever) I got no sleep at all. At all. But I kept trying, which made it basically THE most boring 6 hours of my life.

We got into Shinjuku Station and we both wanted to clean up a little – and I wanted to put my contacts back in – but it took some wandering before we managed to find the bathroom. Shinjuku Station is big, with many floors, and not so many bathroom options.

Despite the hour, there were plenty of people in the station, all hurrying on their way. I really really hope I never have a job that requires me to be in business attire at 5 am. *crosses fingers*

We bought very reasonably priced all day tickets for the Tokyo Metro – about 710Y, but the Metro goes everywhere, and single rides are all at least 150Y, more if you transfer lines, and we knew we were wandering. (I think we got our moneys worth very nearly just from going to our hostel, back into the city, and then back out to the hostel at night. It was a little bit … distant.)

We had a little hitch at the beginning – the girl I was traveling with had accidentally booked the hostel for the wrong days – a couple days early – but the receptionist found her a room. She also let us leave our bags in the back room until we could check in. By this time it was about 7:30 am, and we set off back towards the city. The Metro was a lot more crowded – with my friend’s heavy suitcase, it’s a very good thing that we got into Shinjuku before rush hour. That would have been impossible.

The first thing we tried to see was the Imperial East Garden, but it turns out that that’s closed on Mondays. Oops. But we did see a cute little square with a funny sculpture that looked sort of like a clamshell and sort of like a white, hollow Pac-Man. (Mostly like Pac-Man.) It had a large, shallow pool with some fountains that weren’t really fountaining, and cute bridges. So we set off for Kitanomaru-Koen. It’s a lovely strolling park, which is to say it has nice paths and not a lot in the way of flowers. There’s a cute little waterfall, and a lake that had koi and turtles. It’s supposed to be famous, but it wasn’t really that special. Maybe if there had been more flowers? It was mostly all just green.

After the Koen, we went to Yasukuni Shrine. This is one of those Extremely Controversial places in Japanese History, but you really couldn’t tell. (It’s controversial because it “enshrines” the spirits of all Japanese who have died fighting for the Emperor during and since the Meiji Restoration. By definition, that includes the people who fought in WWII, and so the special list of honored dead includes a number of people who are war criminals. Many Japanese – and Koreans and Chinese and others – feel that for the Prime Minister to visit and worship at this shrine is to endorse the actions of the Class A war criminals who are enshrined there. No Emperor has visited the shrine since 1978, starting with Emperor Hirohito, but a lot of politicians, including one of the recent PMs, do and have on a regular basis. The current PM has not visited the shrine since taking office, at least according to Wikipedia, Font From Which All Knowledge Flows.)

Anyway, I went. It’s beautiful, of course. At the front is an enormous torii gate made of metal, spanning a broad walkway that leads to the central shrine compound. There’s a tall bronze statue of some warrior figure – either it didn’t have a plaque with an English translation, or I didn’t get a photo of it – as well as pools, fountains, giant lion-dog sculptures, and of course, the shrine itself.

As with many shrines, you can’t really get inside the buildings much, but there were plenty of places to bow your head and clap your hands and offer incense and money. There was also a museum.

Apparently the museum is very revisionist, focusing on the bravery of Japanese soldiers during (mostly) WWII and the glory of sacrifice while ignoring problems like comfort women and war crimes. It also claims that the Pacific War was an act of self-defence on the part of Japan. However, either this stuff wasn’t translated into English, or I missed a bunch of plaques, because I didn’t read any of that. (I did, however, know that the Shrine/Museum took that stance on Japanese history, and that the government has publicly stated that the Shrine and Museum’s view of history is not the official Japanese stance.) Also, there was a section that you had to pay for, and we skipped that. The offensive stuff might have been there.

After the Shrine and the Koen, we decided we were a) done with cultural stuff for the day and b) hungry. So we went to Harajuku to eat lunch and shop for the afternoon. Harajuku is a famous part of Tokyo, in particular famous for counter-culture girls who dress up outlandishly and don’t mind if you take pictures of them. However, these girls primarily appear on the weekends, with their intricate face paint, and gather at a park. It was Monday, so we didn’t see any of them. But the area also has a bunch of cheap(er) shopping, so there were a lot of young people. We saw a couple dedicated goth girls, and another couple dedicated Lolitas, but most of the people in Harajuku looked very normal. (Lolita fashion hasn’t quite taken off in America, but it has nothing to do with the novel or even much at all to do with being sexy. It seems mostly to involve looking like a very expensive Victorian doll.) I even found a couple things that I wanted to buy, and that weren’t too expensive. (This is very difficult in Japan. Clothing very rarely includes room for either breasts or hips, because most Japanese girls don’t have much of either.)

It can be very frustrating to shop here. Both of my closest friends here are tiny people. One (the girl who I went to Tokyo with) is constantly complaining that she’s “so fat” and has gained so much weight since she got to Japan, but when she left Canada she was something like a size 1. She might be all of size 3 now. It’s very annoying, but I think I’ve finally convinced her that until she’s at least a size 8, she doesn’t get to bitch, at least not around me. My other friend here eats McDonald’s food nearly daily and is also freakishly thin, again, something like a size 2 or 3. They can actually buy clothes from normal stores in Japan, whereas I have to do a lot more searching.

Also a lot of the clothing I see here is ugly, but that’s a problem I have everywhere.

We turned in fairly early on Monday – we got back to the hostel around 6 or 7pm, skipping a real dinner in favor of eating some big sweet crepes full of cheesecake and whipped cream. They were delicious, but sort of appallingly sweet, I probably don’t need one ever again. I would rather have ice cream.

The hostel was quite nice. We had individual rooms for about 3500Y (a yen is about a penny) that came with enough futons to be comfy, and air conditioning. There was TV in each room, and a small (but kind of nasty smelling) refrigerator I didn’t use. The bathrooms and showers – shared – were clean, and there was even a bath for those who wanted it. However, it was segregated by gender, and the ladies times were from 6pm to 8pm, and thus not at all convenient. (Guys got from 8pm to 10pm.)

The second day, we went back to the Imperial East Garden. Sadly, it was about as impressive as the Kitanomaru-Koen, which is to say: not really all that very. The only flowers in bloom were lotus and water lilies, but they had some massive brightly colored koi fish and a big turtle with a funny pointed head, so that was fun. I also have some pictures of a beautiful vermillion bridge that I think are probably the IEG, but I lost the brochure somewhere and can’t be positive. Tokyo had several gardens, so… Also, I think maybe I am not so fond of park style gardens as I am of botanical gardens, mostly because botanical gardens have a lot more flowers and a lot less green.

After the garden, we went to Meiji Jingu, another temple. This one isn’t controversial at all, but is very important in Japanese culture. It holds the spirits of the Meiji Emperor and his wife. The inner grounds have, near one of the temple buildings, a particularly sacred tree which is surrounded by small wooden prayer cards. They were available for purchase, and people from all over the world had written their prayers down and hung them on the tree – I saw writing in French, English, Chinese, Korean, German, Arabic and of course Japanese. At some point, I believe the cards are taken down and burned, but I’m not totally sure when or how.

In the afternoon, we went to Ikebukuro, which has two huge department stores. (We were continuing the pattern of cultural activities in the morning and shopping in the afternoon.) We went to the Seibu Department store, but they didn’t have an ATM and both of us needed one. (I spent most of my cash paying for my four nights at the hostel, as virtually nobody in Japan takes credit.) So we wandered away to find a Post Office, and on our way back we got distracted by the UniQlo. UniQlo specializes in cheap casual clothing, and only a very few of their items fit me properly – I can’t even contemplate buying pants there, as the largest size is 29 inches around. (HAH.)

Which is just a lengthy build up to saying that I got suckered into buying a yukata, in maroon with daisies on it, with a powder blue obi. It’s very cute, but it’s hard to wear without being That Gaijin – You Know, That Gaijin Who Tries Too Hard And Wants to Be Japanese. I did find an opportunity already however – it’s very common to wear yukata to summer fireworks festivals, and on the 3rd Shinminato obliged me by having an excellent fireworks festival at Kaiwomaru park. I even managed to tie the obi mostly right, though it took kind of a while and also involved finding written directions on the internet and video tutorials. (For those unfamiliar, an obi is a long belt – about 12 feet long, to be precise – that is wrapped multiple times around the waist before being tied in a fancy stiff knot. I picked the easiest bow-style knot.) Sorry, no pictures: I went alone.

So both of us bought yukata, and then went back to the department store where we tried on moderately expensive shoes and scoffed at the ridiculously priced Christian Leboutins and Manolo Blahniks. (Don’t get me wrong, that whole black-stiletto-with-scarlet-sole thing CL has going on is very sexy, but I just can’t imagine paying that much money for shoes.) I contemplated buying a pair of red heels that were on sale, and eventually went off without them. However, on Friday I went back and got them. (They’re so completely unnecessary, but I like them a lot. There is absolutely no place for me to wear them, except that I did wear them to the grocery store the other day JUST BECAUSE I am ridiculous, but I don’t care. It is this shoe except of course it is red.)

That evening, we were meeting my predecessor for dinner – it was originally going to be dinner and clubbing all night, but she ended up busy and my friend decided she was tired and did not want to go before her flight the next morning. I was sad, but didn’t really want to go on my own. My predecessor is a NYC girl, and she was fun but also … okay, she was the one to suggest meeting in Roppongi for dinner, and Roppongi is an expensive area. She anticipated restaurants with entrees at the 1000Y range, but Roppongi doesn’t exactly work that way, they’re more at the 1500-2000Y range. She suggested eating at Hard Rock Cafe, which I really didn’t want to do, and then she got sort of … passive aggressive about the restaurants. We walked around looking for one she eventually couldn’t find; she could look places up on her cell phone, and while we were looking at the menu for a Thai place she was standing behind us saying “oh, hey, this looks really good” – but she didn’t mean the place we were, she meant this Turkish place on her phone. So I just eyerolled, and asked if she would rather go back outside and find the Turkish place, but when we got there and saw the prices were the same, she was unhappy again. By that point, however, we were all starving and also we’d ordered tea so we stayed at the Turkish place. (I was amused when the waitress – who clearly understood her English complaints about the expense, came over and – in Japanese – defended the prices of the restaurant. My predecessor speaks fluent Japanese – and is, in fact, of Japanese decent, or I suppose the waitress might not have done so.) Sadly, my meal was sort of mediocre – we shared some very nice hummus, but I got a cheesy bread thing and it was only okay. Something else would probably have been better.

We talked a long time, and then suddenly it was 11 pm and our hostel closed the doors at midnight. So we dashed back to the Metro, and ended up running for it, arriving at about 5 minutes to midnight. (It turned out that they didn’t lock up until about 12:15, but we obviously didn’t know that.)

On Wednesday, I went to Kamakura and my friend left for Portugal, but this is sort of ridiculously long now and I’ll put that in another post.