February 23rd to 26th 2018
Kas had managed to get a place in the Tokyo marathon but none of her normal running buddies did, so I went with her. I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like, but in the end is was a lot more familiar than I was expecting.
Tokyo Big Sight
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
OK, so this was a fairly long day by most people’s standards, mainly because by most people’s standards it was actually two days, however there was no bed involved in the middle, and therefore in my mind it was just one very, very long day.
It began at home in Milton Keynes, but not very much of it was spent there as we were out of the house before daylight on our way down to Heathrow. As is normally the case with early starts, we stopped on the way out of town to grab a takeaway coffee.
We were early enough that the traffic on the M1 and M25 was tolerable, and we were into the car park at Heathrow in under 90 minutes from home. I now see that as a very reasonable amount of time. It used to take a lot less than that but nowadays it’s quite rare in my experience.
We were bound for Heathrow Terminal 5, the home of most BA flights from the airport. We had a direct flight into Tokyo’s older but now somewhat jazzed-up airport of Haneda on one of Mr Boeing’s very finest 777 aircraft. The flight promised to be mindlessly tedious though, in the way that 13 hour overnight flights are. It was only lunchtime, but it’s one of those flights that crosses a sufficiently large number of time zones that you can’t really figure out what time (or even what day) it is until the day you come home again.
While we were flying eastwards in daylight we managed to eat our way through some lunch and take a couple of not-too-bad photos of bits of northern Europe drifting by beneath us. I quite like the one of the Gulf of Riga that I’ve included here. Unfortunately, I also decided that a good way for me to get some sleep on the plane would be to drink a lot. It didn’t work. All that happened was that I got a monster hangover while we were only halfway across Russia and it took me until lunchtime to get rid of it.
So in the middle of probably the worst bit of my hangover we landed at Haneda at what was, for Japan, quite early in the morning – before-the-start-of-work kind of early. It was a first experience of Japan for us both, and I’m not sure either of us was really sure what to expect. I guess we sort of expected, in true stereotypical fashion, that getting through the airport would be smooth and ruthlessly efficient. It was. Or at least, it was until we missed a sign and descended a staircase into the wrong bit of the bus station, which meant we had to climb back up and down again to cross a road.
Haneda is serviced by a really rather excellent idea of a bus which runs directly to a group of large hotels in the Shinjuku area, which is where we were staying. We bought our tickets and got directed to the correct bus stop by a nice lady in the arrivals hall, and then queued up for all of 10 mins before our “Limousine Bus” arrived. The bus itself didn’t have any luxury features that might make you think it was a limousine, but after brief stops at each terminal building it then proceeded directly through the Tokyo morning traffic to Shinjuku Station, a bus terminal, and a handful of nearby hotels (of which ours was the final stop). It took about an hour, I guess, but it was brainless and easy and not very expensive.
Our hotel was expecting us to arrive, which is always handy, but wasn’t expecting us to arrive quite so early. It was only 9am after all. Our booked room wouldn’t be available until 3pm, but they said if we didn’t mind upgrading our room (to a category where they’d got some available ones) then they could let us have a room at 10:30 (ish). We decided to go for it, partly because “holiday rules apply” and partly because we had other things to get done during the day, some of which required rearrangement of the content of the bags we were carrying. This left us with just over an hour to kill and a need for some breakfast, so we made our first (of many) visits to the Starbucks over the road. They had a familiar selection of coffee based beverages and some quite unfamiliar looking cakes and pastries. The chocolate chip scones were nice.
While we were in there we noticed a few other Europeans who were obviously there for the same reason that Kas was, and we took the opportunity to ask one couple how easy it was to get to the expo site. We needed to go there to get Kas’s number and she wanted to do it on the Friday so that we could have a full day of tourist activity on Saturday. It turned out to be quite easy from a logical perspective (one metro and one overground) but a little time consuming.
That’s all by-the-by though. First of all we had to go check into our hotel room. Our room was of the “superior” category, whatever that means, and was on the 19th floor, about halfway up, and had a nice view out in the general direction of where the marathon would be starting. All very nice apart from the push-back wood-and-paper screen thing that separated the sleeping area from the bathroom. It was possible to push the screen back whilst in the sleeping area such that you could see someone in the shower or bath (but probably not someone on the toilet). Weird. But enough of that. The room was big enough, clean, warm and had comfortable looking beds which we were both looking forward to trying out later in the day.
Before that we had the adventure of getting to the expo site in front of us. This involved getting the Toei Ōedo Line from Tochōmae to Shiodome and then the Yurikamome on to Kokusai-tenjijō-seimon. The only annoying part really was the fact that you had to buy a separate ticket as the two lines are operated by different companies. The Yurikamome is quite entertaining, as it’s an above ground line that’s essentially rubber-tyred vehicles running on concrete guideways. It’s driverless too and it goes over the fairly large and impressive Rainbow Bridge.
The expo was at the Tokyo Big Sight and it was fairly busy by the time we arrived. Unlike some other marathon expos Kas has been to, this one had most of the gory parts happening in a closed area that couldn’t be accessed by non-runners. I’m not really one for browsing round such things anyway, so while Kas had a good old expoing session I went out for a bit of a walk and a few geocaches. Well, Japan was a new country for me both in physical and geocaching terms, and Kas was kind enough to give me a good two hours of free time in an area that had quite a few caches nearby. The walk around here was also my first experience of being out on the street, I guess. This area was all perfectly easy to understand from the perspective of a European with no knowledge of Kanji (nor of Hirigana and Katakana). Everything is written in multiple languages on all the road signs, much like they are in Singapore, including some very Latin looking script. Anyway, I had my GPS, so at least I’d always know where I was even if I didn’t know where I was going.
My walk took me down onto what I think it as artificial island with a ferry terminal on the end. Well, I know it was an artificial island. I’m speculating about the ferry terminal part. Natural islands don’t have shorelines that are perfectly straight. Anyway, I digress. The walk down this part was not really one of Tokyo’s tourist highlights, but it did yield a handful of caches in quick order in a location that was fairly free of other people. By this time also the sun had come out and I was wondering why I was wearing quite so many clothes.
Once I’d finished the ferry terminal I walked down the artificial island that has the Tokyo Big Sight on it. There were a handful more down the side of this one, although a couple of them seemed to be missing.
This took me up to my assigned meeting time with the boss, and we duly met up and made our way back to the hotel via the par-two train system again. By the time we got back it was very nearly dark, which means we’d been out of bed for about 30 hours, but we still needed to sort out some dinner for the evening. We got all showered and cleaned up and went for a look at the various hotel restaurants, assuming that they’d be horrendously over-priced, which they duly were. This lead us to take a stroll up the street and discover an interesting feature of the Shinjuku area, namely that there’s a layout of streets at the top that cars and buses go on, and then there’s a layout of underground tunnels, subways and shopping malls (with restaurants) that are completely hidden from street. We walked into one random shopping mall and were greeted by a number of different restaurants offering a variety of different cuisines and all at somewhat lower prices than the hotel. They gave us reassurance that we’d be able to eat reasonably well throughout this trip without getting fleeced.
We chose a Thai restaurant and treated ourselves to a one-course quick meal, which was very nice indeed, before retiring to the hotel for a large quantity of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Before that we managed to raise the energy to take a few photos of lit-up skyscrapers out of the hotel window.
By the time we made it to bed we’d probably not seen a bed for 32-33 hours. I call that a long day. But definitely only one day.
Day 2 of our jaunt to Tokyo, or possibly Day 3 if you count the day we travelled over (which I don’t).
On the plan today we’d got a bit of tourism. We wanted to go see a few things while we were here but obviously Kas wasn’t over-keen on masses of walking, given that she’d be having to run 26.2 miles the following day.
We started off our day by grabbing some breakfast in a nearby Starbucks while we agreed some sort of a plan.
Our first choice location was the rather large Tokyo Skytree, which is apparently the second tallest inhabited structure on the planet. You can’t quite get all the way up it, but you can get to a rather dizzying 450m above street level.
Anyway, to get there from our hotel we took the subway tunnels to join the Toei Ōed Line underneath the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and caught a train to Kuramae Station. From here we needed to change for the
Toei Asakusa Line, which looks very easy on the tube map but in practice is a little more difficult. There are, in fact, two completely separate stations with a 350m walk down the street in between them. It must have been the first place in Tokyo we’d been to where there wasn’t a network of underground tunnels. Anyway, we found it eventually and caught another train to Oshiage Station, which according to wikipedia is “adjacent to the Tokyo Skytree Complex”. That’s a euphemistic way of saying that the station is at the bottom level of a seemingly 50-floor shopping centre that you have to walk through to get to the Skytree at the top. I exaggerate somewhat, but it did take a while. No doubt if you’re well versed in such things you can find a way of walking round the outside and straight into the tower.
The first rather excellent thing we noticed about the Skytree was that they have a separate entrance for foreigners. It probably costs more than being a local, but it means you get to jump the big queue and just queue up behind however many other non-Japanese were trying to get in. In our case that was about 15 people only, whereas the locals entrance was stacked up miles out of the door and around the corner. I’m all in favour of a bit of Tommy-Tourist bonus when you’re on a tight timescale, even if it does cost a bit extra. We were in the lifts inside 10 minutes of entering the building.
The lifts didn’t seem like lifts at all. There was a vague sensation of travelling upwards but nothing like what you expect for a lift that takes you up 350 metres in a minute. First stop on the lift is the platform at 350m, which is one that everyone has to go to, It was kind of busy when we got there so we proceeded pretty much straight away up to the second lift and the 450m platform, which was a little quieter and also quite a lot lighter. The floor on this level is a lighter colour. There’s a gently sloping walkway around on this platform which brings you out at a point a couple of floors above where you exit the lift. Most confusing if you’re not expecting it. In between those floors, and walking around the platform, you get some impressive views in all directions around the city, and also a quick gallery of various bits of Anime artwork.
We should also have been able to see Mount Fuji from this height, but as with the whole of the weekend, the atmospheric conditions meant there was too much haziness to see even across the city of Tokyo, never mind as far as Fuji.
After we’d had our fill of high altitude we sat at the bottom (outside) and had a drink whilst watching people muck about on an outdoor ice rink. It was still quite cold, despite (or because of) the sunshine. While we were sitting down we discussed some route planning for our afternoon. We wanted to go over to the Sensō-ji, which appeared to be about a mile away on foot. Having come up on the train and been standing more or less still all morning we agreed that it would be good to stretch our legs for a while rather than getting on trains. Anyway, the nearest station to Sensō-ji seemed to be half a mile away, so we were going to have to do some walking anyway.
On our way over there we grabbed a handful of geocaches and took a few arty photos of things we were passing. We stumbled across a little oasis of calm at the Ushijima Shrine and then crossed the river to a fairly busy riverside walkway where Kas sat for a few minutes while I was rummaging in the undergrowth looking for tupperware.
Sensō-ji wasn’t far from here. We entered the site from the (less preferred) north side and meandered our way into a bit of a crowd. Well, I suppose it was mid-afternoon on a sunny Saturday, but it was really very busy with lots of people doing various kinds of temple activity, much of which seemed to involve buying small offerings and then giving them away or setting fire to them.
There was an interesting mix of styles of dress too, with quite a few people choosing to adopt some very traditional Japanese dress when making their visit here. I’m not sure if this was genuine or just something for the tourists, of which there were plenty of others as well as ourselves.
The basic form here is that there are several traditional shrine / temple buildings all immaculately painted in red with gold decoration. We didn’t go inside because neither of us is religious nor do we understand the particular habits of this religion, so it would seem a bit of an insult. However, there was lots of activity going on outside which meant that a trip inside didn’t seem necessary.
From the temple there’s a long walkway heading south which is flanked by rows of tat stalls selling souvenirs of varying degrees of rubbishness, at the end of which is a formal gate which was also home to a geocache. That one took a little while to find, especially given that it was really busy.
Once past that gate, one was essentially back out into the open again, and all that remained was for us to find a metro station to get home. This was harder than it seemed, but eventually we found the right entrance for Asakusa Station. Before climbing aboard, we took the opportunity to stop for half an hour to grab a sandwich and a drink. It was only mid-afternoon and we were ready for a bit of a rest, plus Kas had expressed a desire from here for not doing much more walking, and going back to the hotel.
The sandwiches were nice and then we picked our way back home by more or less retracing our morning journey back to Tochōmae Station.
I left Kas here so that she could walk through the underpasses back to the hotel while I went for a bit of a walk to find a few of the geocaches in Shinjuku, with varying degrees of success.
By the time I got back to the hotel it had gone dark, so we made a quick turnaround and then headed out for some dinner. We got about half a block along the road towards Shinjuku Station before spotting a pizza/pasta restaurant at street level. We ordered a simple pasta dish each and then had our first experience of being told we absolutely couldn’t leave a tip, and after that it was time for an early night, because Kas had got some running jaunt to be getting on with in the morning.
Our third day in Tokyo, and the day that we were going to spend apart from each other, as Kas went off to run the marathon and I had a somewhat less taxing walk with a bit of geocaching planned.
Kas got up and set off quite early, and I decided to get moving fairly early too, if only to avoid getting pinned into Shinjuku until the runners had all left. The start of the marathon was literally a couple of hundred metres from our hotel and they’d been closing off various bits of road to traffic since well before daybreak.
I didn’t bother with breakfast anywhere, as I wasn’t really hungry. I sort of just wanted to go out and see how many caches I could find in Tokyo in the amount of time it took Kas to do the running. I’d got maybe 35-40 on the radar.
I began my walk by skirting around the north end of Shinjuku Station and after a quick find I began to get hit by the day’s first problem – poor GPS signal. Fair enough, there’s a lot of tall buildings around this area, so there’s not really a very clear sight of many satellites, but still, huh ? At the first cache I tried I gave up with the GPS when I was a good 50 metres away and just used the map and hint. At the second one I tried I wasn’t so lucky – I couldn’t get the GPS to settle at all and the hint didn’t give much clue as to where I should go. Likewise the third.
At the fourth I was supposed to be getting some information from a piece of street furniture, I think, but I couldn’t make sense of it and couldn’t get an answer. So that was a waste, and by this time I was starting to get a bit irritated by the whole idea. I really should learn to set lower expectations when I’m caching in towns and cities. It’s always hard work.
Anyway, I eventually found one and then picked my way down to the Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden, where I found another whilst waiting at the gate for it to open.
The next half hour was spent rather in frustration as I tried to follow my way around a multi-cache but kept getting lost as the information trail just seemed to disappear about three-quarters of the way in. I tried three times before giving up. The gardens were pretty though.
And from here, then began the second major problem of the day – missing caches. Now I know that urban ones can be hard to find, but the particular problem here seemed to be that at least a third of the caches on my radar were known not to be present (from multiple DNF logs and/or disablement) and a third more had at least a couple of DNFs or were in areas with tall buildings. A consistent lack of useful hints wasn’t helping either.
By now it was getting on towards lunchtime (or at least it was lunchtime if you hadn’t had breakfast) so I decided I’d park my butt for a while and contemplate what was going on. I stopped at a small outlet belonging to a local coffee chain and had myself a sandwich and a latte flavoured with honey, which was nicer than it sounds. I was alongside the main road running through Yotsuya, alongside Yotsuya-sanchōme Station, I think. To be honest, if I hadn’t been trying to fill time before meeting Kas I’d have given up and gone home. I wasn’t really enjoying the caching very much and the walk along here was the part where I felt the most uncomfortable all weekend. Not unsafe, but I definitely felt like stood out a bit.
I progressed my way through a couple more suburbs in the general direction of the Imperial Palace and found myself at Kudanzaka Park, where I found another couple of caches that I couldn’t find, as it were. One was inaccessible due to building works (but wasn’t disabled) and one I just couldn’t find.
I was now really despairing at the state of caches in the city and time was starting to march on, so I started to progress my way through the Imperial Palace grounds, initially failing to find a cache again at the Nippon Budokan, and then entering the proper “palace” bit. I had to get to the far side of the palace from where I was to get to where I’d agreed to meet Kas, and even this proved frustrating as I didn’t have a map of where all the paths went and I ended up going a bit around the houses (or the gardens, to be accurate).
I eventually came out onto a main road where I just had to walk a mile or so to meet Kas. There were plenty of caches on the way but I felt I was out of time, so I left all of them apart from a wherigo that I was walking right past. I did start to wonder about how come the grass everywhere seems to die back and turn beige-coloured in the winter.
From the caching perspective it had been an appalling day. I’d been caching for the best part of 7 hours and had found an extremely disappointing 9 caches. I suppose I’d done a nice long walk through a strange city and had gone to a number of places that a non-cacher would never go to, but it didn’t suppress the overriding feeling of disappointment.
What did help was sitting in the gardens at the end of the marathon course and Kas turning up with a bit of a limp, a massive medal and a smile. It had been a decent run which had been fast enough to make a “good for age” in Chicago for 2019, so that’ll be up next.
For dinner we took a short walk at street level to the place we’d been a couple of nights previously, and this time we ended up in a Japanese speciality cafe/bar, where we were treated to a veritable feast of hand prepared foods accompanied by some very nice locally made beer. The food was generally “tapas” style, but that worked well because they served things as soon as they were ready and we shared all of the dishes between the two of us.
Our night of sleep was ever so slightly disturbed by what felt like a general shaking of the floor. It turned out that there’d been an earthquake which, had it happened 24 hours earlier, would have resulted in the cancellation of the marathon. Thankfully it happened afterwards. So we can now both describe ourselves as “earthquake survivors”, which is not something I was expecting.
A full day together in Tokyo after the previous day’s exertions.
We started with a trip to the Starbucks over the road for a relaxed breakfast, because you can’t rush into stuff the day after a marathon, and then we headed off for our first tourist job of the day. That makes it sound like there was a plan, when to be honest there was no such thing. It was a “winging it” sort of a day. The first tourist thing of the day was to take the free lifts up to the observation desk of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which was just up the road from the hotel. It took a little time to find the correct access point, but we got it eventually. This part of Tokyo definitely exists in all three dimensions and it’s very easy to find yourself on totally the wrong level for getting where you’re going. There’s more than one road level, for a start, and then a number of levels of walkways, underpasses and tunnels.
Once we found the right door I was expecting there’d be a bit of a queue, but we obviously got lucky because there really was nothing. I think we waited less than five minutes before getting in the lift. At the top you get a pretty impressive view across the city and in particular of all the tall buildings around the Shinjuku area. We spent a while up there walking around and taking photos before spending ages in one of the souvenir shops but leaving empty-handed as they wouldn’t take a credit card. Ho hum !
From here we decided to go for a bit of an exploratory walk through the suburbs to the Meiji Shrine, which proved somewhat entertaining. There were a couple of stretches where I felt a bit out of place, although I suppose they are probably fairly used to European tourists in most of Tokyo. We found a couple of caches though this section and ended up entering the park where the shrine is located from the north side.
Whilst still being rather busy, this one didn’t feel as busy as the Sensō-ji site that we’d visited on Saturday. Maybe that was partly because it was Monday and partly because it’s a lot more spread out. Wikipedia says that the site covers 70 hectares. The actual shrine forms a very small part of the site, most of which is taken up by trees of some 365 different varieties.
The shrine is apparently popular as a place to get married, and we were treated to a wedding procession through the outer courtyard while we were there.
Next we headed southwards in the general direction of Shibuya so we could go and have a gander at the famous scramble crossing, which is supposedly the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. It was very interesting to sit and watch for a few minutes from the nearby Starbucks, and quite an experience just to cross it a couple of times.
By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we figured we’d probably got one more location in us before nightfall. Sadly we’d failed to pre-plan and so were unable to go to the Imperial Palace, which is closed on Mondays, but we headed off in the general direction anyway so we could go take a look at the impressive outside of the Tokyo Station and its surrounding tall buildings. From here we wandered over to the edge of the Imperial Palace grounds and then southwards towards the Kasumigaseki Station, from which we’d ridden home the previous evening. This gave me a chance to grab a handful of geocaches that had been inaccessible the previous day when the marathon was on.
For dinner we found a small Japanese restaurant in the underground shopping centre that had more or less become our kitchen area for the trip, and then we settled in for an early night, as we’d got a flight at a ridiculously early time the following morning which meant us leaving the hotel practically before we’d gone to bed.
The flight home was uneventful apart from being a little late getting off the ground, and we spent most of the rest of that day watching bits of Russia and northern Europe drift by beneath us.
It had been an interesting and enjoyable trip and, much as expected, the kids were quite happy to see us when we got home.