Oriental Outings – Section 1

I seem to have been moving out and about from Hong Kong quite a lot recently and that’s because I have been moving out and about from Hong Kong a lot recently. The next few entries will cover my escapades in Tokyo.

I only had three days in which to explore Tokyo. I’ve decided to split my blog entries about Tokyo into three, one for each day (I’m some kind of genius, I know). Let’s start chronologically with my trip from Narita International airport to the hostel and continue from there.

The initial exit from the airport was efficient and without hiccup (apart from the customs man not believing I didn’t have any checked baggage for a three day stay). It truly is not very clear how to get from the airport to Tokyo City. There seems to be endless options and, had I not done research before hand, I would have been cripplingly confused.

Basically the easiest way is to take a train but there are various kinds. There are local services, express services, services run by different operators whose tickets are not transferable and finally there are heinously complex maps which are supposed to aid you in working out how the blooming heck you get to where you are supposed to go. Tokyo’s train system is ridiculously complicated. If you’re going to Tokyo, sit down and work it out before you get here because trying to do it on the fly is almost impossible. Basically, there are several different companies all operating services which may, or may not, go to the same destinations. If you buy a ticket with one company and then accidentally use another company’s line instead, you need another ticket. I’ve never encountered anything like it before. I managed to glean the following, limited insight:

  • There are at least three different companies; Toei, Tokyo Metro and JR (there are more private ones but three was all I could keep up with).
  • Toei & Tokyo Metro station names for the same station can be different.
  • You can not use a Toei ticket for Metro lines.
  • Tokyo Metro seems to have more lines and destinations than JR or Toei.
  • I remain 90% confused.

I took the Narita Sky Access Line express train. This delivered me to Higashi-nihombashi station (A15) on the Toei Asakusa line. From there I transferred to the Toei Shinjuku line and hot footed it to Akebonobashi station (S03). It took around an hour and forty minutes from door to door and set me back around 1400 yen. Luckily, my hostel was ridiculously close to the station exit at Akebonobashi because I couldn’t have coped with any other navigational stress. I stayed at the Ace Inn Shinjuku hostel.

Ace Inn Shinjuku is two minutes from Akebonobashi exit A3 and is a good hostel. There were plenty of computers to use, the wi-fi had pretty comprehensive coverage, it was clean, towels were provided for free, showers were hot (at the cost of 100 yen/ten minutes) and there was free tea/coffee. The 9th floor was a recreation area with plenty of sofas, a small kitchen and a TV. The sofas were incredibly tired looking and riddled with holes and patches of worn through material but they functioned.

I had booked a basic dorm bed but, on arrival, was informed of my upgrade to the ‘pod’ dorms at no extra cost. Great but not if you’re claustrophobic. It felt like sleeping in a coffin and I wasn’t too keen on that. Also, there was no power outlet anywhere in my pod.  There are lots of sockets on the 9th floor but you have to either stay on the 9th floor the entire time you need electricity or leave your stuff unattended (that’s a high theft risk right there). The pods are incredibly novel and very Japanese so, in that sense, they’re fun. I would have preferred a normal bed but at least I had a bed. Here’s s snap of the dorm and my own personal coffin:

coffin dorm
Individual coffin

Ace Inn Shinjuku is also close to local amenities. There’s Family Mart, 7-11, Lawsons’, tempura places, curry places, sushi places, coffee houses and just generally good access to the rest of the City. There are also a few sights within comfortable walking distance e.g. Shinjuku Gyoen (actually, I walked to most places). I would recommend it as a hostel worth staying in.

Day one in Tokyo dawned with a plan. A plan to see two museums and a temple in one day.

I started off by heading to the Tokyo National Museum. I took the underground to Toei Ueno-okachimachi station (E09) and enjoyed a scenic walk through Ueno park to get to the museum. Cherry blossom season happens at the end of March in Japan so I was a little too early. I was still lucky enough to see a couple of early flowering cherry blossom trees in the park. They were attracting a lot of attention but here’s the best snap of one that I could get

Cherry blossom

There are a few temples and sights that you can stop and look at in the park but, as I was on a pretty tight time schedule, I pressed on through to my first destination: Tokyo National Museum.

The museum is spread across a few different buildings but they’re not all open all of the time. If there’s something very specific you want to see check you can see it before you go. Admission to the permanent exhibit is 600 yen so won’t break the bank. You can see a really good range of items in the museum. When I visited I saw the permanent exhibition of Japanese items in the Honkan building,  Asian items in the Toyokan building and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in the building of the same name.

The Honkan houses items important to Japan. There is a wide range to these items. There is art, scrolls of text, sculptures, ceramics, archaeological items, armour, weapons….oh heck, just all sorts. There really is a lot to take in and see. Here’s a little picture of the outside setting:

Tokyo national Museum

I am a tour person. I like a guide, be it an audio one or a an actual person. Unfortunately, only the special exhibitions have audio guides to accompany the pieces. This means that, for the permanent exhibition, you rely solely on the English descriptions on signage. The introductory panel to each section e.g. ‘Emergence of art in Japan’ has a pretty good blurb in English but some of the individual items have rather poor English descriptions accompanying them. There is the odd important piece that has an extra section in English describing the significance but, for the most part, signage is sparse. This can make the experience feel a little fruitless as you’re not entirely sure what it is you’re appreciating. You can still look and enjoy the beauty of the object but you don’t really understand them any better. I particularly liked this little guy. He charmed my socks off:

Heart faced doru

There was a good selection of Samurai items. I found the most interesting armour to be this set mainly because the helmet is, well, odd.

Samurai armour

Samurai traditionally carried two swords, one long and one short. Sword blades were kept separately from their casings and handles. The casings were typically ornate and decorative whereas the blade was functional part and needed tending to more regularly hence storing them separately. Here’s a picture of a long and short sword casing and handle. They’re very beautiful to look at but incredibly deadly when the blade is set in them.

Samurai short and long sword casings

Not all Samurai battles were fought with swords. There were plenty of bows, arrows, spears and halberd types of destruction going on too. Samurai traditionally rode horses but, if I’m honest, their saddles did not look comfortable to me:

Samurai saddle and stirrups

The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures contains artifacts donated to the Imperial Household by the Horyuji Temple. The stand out items for me in this gallery were the Kanjo-ban and dragon motif mirror.

The kanjo-ban is a metalwork banner which was used as part of the Kanjo ceremony. The Kanjo-ban found in the gallery of Horyuji Treasures dates from the 8th (ish) century so the original piece has lost quite a great deal of its original lustre. It is still a marvel to behold though.

Original Kanjo-ban

The quality of the work on the item cannot be disputed because it’s lasted this long but its’ beauty can. The original Kanjo-ban is no longer a shimmering spectacle. In order to appreciate the beauty that way, you must look at the replica on display. It is stunning:

kanjo-ban replica

Upstairs in the gallery, there were lots of metal work exhibits. My favourite was definitely a dragon motif mirror I spotted. It really is beautifully decorated and I can imagine it was a true treasure for whoever owned it:

Dragon motif

Outside the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures you can find the Black Gate. This is one of the most representative examples of entrance gates remaining in Tokyo. It looks rather beautiful flanked by the trees as you can see:

the black gate

The Toyokan building houses artifacts from all over Asia. You can find items from China, India and Cambodia amongst other places too. The Toyokan building was by far my favourite area of the museum. It had a good variety of items and was more interesting to look round than the other buildings. English signage still suffered the same ‘hit and miss’ issues but, overall, the Toyokan seemed to contain more self-explanatory items than other exhibits.

A few of my key picks were a pair of jade pigs  from China. I’d seen examples of these before at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan, where photographs are not allowed so I never explained them. Now I have a photo, I can explain. In Chinese culture, the dead were buried with jade in many forms (burial masks and all sorts). Pigs are fortuitous creatures to the Chinese and jade pigs were often placed into the deceased’s hands before burial. This was done in order to encourage rebirth into riches.  You can liken it to a Western phrase ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’. The Chinese equivalent would be ‘born with a jade pig in their hand’. Here are the pigs:

jade pigs

The other thing I enjoyed doing was comparing the faces of Buddha from around the world. I found it amusing that the face of Buddha changed according to the facial trends of that particular part of the world. Here are my two best examples. There is a Chinese Buddha and an Indian Buddha. See if you can spot which is which.

Chinese Buddha headsIndian Buddha head

I’ll tell you the Chinese Buddha is the top and the Indian the bottom. Interesting, no?

There was an additional section in the museum about good luck and how different cultures try and welcome and interpret fortunes and luck. I had a go at rolling knuckle bones, dream interpretation and finally learned about what different cultures deem to be lucky or fortuitous symbols and creatures.

Rolling the knuckle bones went well for me; Each bone had four sides and each side represented an animal. The combination of animal and frequency determined your fortune. My fortune was “All your dreams will come true. There will be no hurdle”. Well hoorah!

I also stamped a sheet with five lucky symbols from five different cultures. I figured I may as well collect as much luck as I could whilst I was there (I’m greedy like that).

All in all, I enjoyed my time at Tokyo National Museum From there, I took a walk to Temple Sonso-ji.

The temple is the oldest in Tokyo and is certainly striking in size and appearance. It is surrounded by many other buildings and smaller shrines to many different Gods. Here’s a little snap of the smaller shines and associated donation boxes. You donate to the God whose favour you require most at the time:

Sensoji temple donations

The main gate into the temple grounds is massive. I mean, properly massive. Look!

sensoji main gate

Actually, it wasn’t just the main gate that was massive. The buildings in general all felt oversized. There was a pagoda amongst the structures in the grounds which was unfortunately closed to visitors the day I was there. I bet the view down onto the grounds from the pagoda would have been amazing. As it was, I had to make do with ground level viewing of the temple which, to be honest, isn’t shoddy.


The temple has a very long line of shops set in front of the main gate where you can shop for anything from sweet treats to souvenirs. It’s busy and great fun to walk down.

The last stop of my day was the Edo Tokyo museum. From the outside, I think it looks a bit like the AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars. What do you reckon?

Edo Tokyo MuseumThe Edo Tokyo museum covers a vast period of time in Tokyo’s history. It addresses major developments from the 1600s to the present. The museum is packed with artifacts, miniatures and reconstructions of everything from entertainment to living conditions. There’s a few full sized reconstructions too. One of them is an accurate replica of the first bridge built in Tokyo. You can even still see the bridge at the Imperial Palace.

The museum offers multi-lingual, free, tours daily between 10am and 4pm. I took such a tour and was fortunate to get a very knowledgeable and passionate guide. It really did make the experience much more enjoyable for me. He explained social ranking systems, building developments and generally imparted anecdotes which I would never have gleaned from the signage.

As I had such a wonderful guide, I really didn’t pay much attention to signage. When I did, it seemed to provide good explanations in English of what the exhibit was. One of my favourite miniatures was this one of a recreated Samauri lord’s home. This home would house the Samurai lord and his guards. The Samurai Lord’s wife and children were not permitted to join him in this fabulous home, they were made to remain in the lord’s territory whilst he was was made to dwell in the City to be close to the Shogun and able to carry out his bidding.

Samurai Lord's House

In these homes, many of the floors would be tiered. This was to ensure that none of the guards or lesser household members were ever walking at an equal or higher level than the Lord, physically speaking. This was the tradition of the day in Tokyo. The Lord always occupied a higher position, physically and socially, than any of his servants no matter where he was within his home.

All structures in Edo were wooden for a very long time. This resulted in many fires and building collapses during earthquakes. Even their water system had wooden pipes! Here’s a snap of the excavated wooden pipe system.

wooden water system

There were lots of displays about life in Tokyo as it evolved. One of my favourite things was the explanation of printing and how that, essentially, resulted in the first comic books on record (yes, yes, nerd in the house). The example I took a photo of below shows just how many different boards are required in order to produce just a single, colour print. Each block had a different section of the finished image carved into it and would be carefully painted prior to being expertly placed on the previous print. You can see just how many are required below:


Another aspect of life in evolving Tokyo was the Kabuki theatre. The theatre shows were acted entirely by men and boys. The idea behind this was to prevent any inter cast fraternisation so that all the performers would focus entirely on their work. What happened instead was that the all male cast were regularly accosted by the females of the audience rather than fellow female cast members. Just goes to show actors are always considered attractive, even when they’re dressed as girls.

The make up and fashion seen in Kabuki often filtered down into every day life as what people saw on stage, they wanted to wear in the streets. Kabuki did more than just entertain, it set trends. There are two Kabuki set ups in the Edo Tokyo museum. They have a full sized theatre reconstruction (which is so massive that I couldn’t get it in a picture) and a full sized stage reconstruction that you can see below.

Kabuki theatre

The Edo Tokyo museum was by far my favourite attraction of the day. I would highly recommend going to the Edo-Tokyo museum and taking the free guided tour. It truly was brilliant and I feel as though I learned an awful lot which served me well during other sightseeing trips during my stay.


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