Tokyo: Shogun Bookends

August 23

The typhoon moved north and caused floods in Hokkaido. Meanwhile in the Tokyo area we were treated to mostly clear skies with a forecast of intermittent rain that turned out to be absolutely correct.

Our deferred day trip into Tokyo started by waiting out a cloudburst under a Sakura bus shelter. We paid the small premium required to take the Skyliner to Nippori Station so that we could explore the unique low rise neighbourhood of Yanaka. Yanaka is well known for its cemetery, which is open to the public so long as the rules on the bilingual signs are followed. (My favourite was that no playing catch is allowed. I was so fixated on that rule I didn't notice the no photography rule, but fortunately didn't break that one since others in my group read all seven rules.)

The suggested walk in Monocle's Tokyo city guide provided a direct route through the cemetery, but once I learned that Japan's last shogun was buried there, I couldn't resist deviating from the course to see it. It's not a must see for all visitors since spotting the mon (family crests) on the gravestones and soaking up the atmosphere of the cemetery would be enough for most. After a somewhat lengthy detour we returned to the planned route and enjoyed the narrow streets and occasional wooden building that seemed to date from the Edo Period, as unlikely as it seems that any would have survived the fires and earthquakes since then.

The short car-free Yanaka Ginza shopping path smacked a little bit of a tourist trap, but prices compared very favourably to the airport gift shops, so if you are ever in the area and see something you like, don't hesitate. Our favourite shop on this street was Kanekichien (金吉園), a green tea shop with an ample product mix of tastefully chosen souvenirs. It's about half way down and easy to locate on the corner of a narrow alley.
We used Monocle's suggested walk to find the Kikumi Senbei shop known since 1875 for its square rice crackers. Samples are quite cheap (¥65), and a bag of them would make a nice gift if you are staying with friends or family in Japan. We stopped at the Oshimaya (大島屋) soba shop on the nearest corner to the senbei shop. Make sure you look up as it is located on the second floor with parking underneath. The atmosphere inside is quite nice, as it looks recently renovated and has a small koi pond. English menus are available and vegetable tempura is available as a ¥300 side with any noodle purchase. The noodles themselves are nothing special compared to the fresh made ones at Boshuya in Sakura (see Local Tour entry), but we fed our party of five awfully cheap for Tokyo. Incidentally, it started raining almost as soon as we sat down for lunch and ended before we were done. It was the last rainfall of the day and we had avoided both by coincidence.

Back on the Monocle tour, we went to the tiny but fantastic paper shop, Isetatsu Paper (f. 1864) which also sells furoshiki (carrying cloths) and store-branded handkerchiefs. My wife has received gifts from this store before, adding to the sense that we were in a place for Tokyo shoppers "in the know." We got lost a bit trying to find Tabi Bagel, but it wasn't really due to any poor navigation on our part. It turns out that the place closed a few months ago and the Hebidori (Snake Street) mentioned on the itinerary wasn't drawn on the Monocle map. Fortunately, this turned into a happy accident of discovery as we followed the zigzag street back to more familiar territory and saw a cool architect-designed house that appeared to be clad in corrugated aluminum siding.
Hebidori House
We were quite tired at this point and ignored the remaining part of the suggested route to head back to the station. Along the way we passed a nice looking temple with an area honouring Oban, one of the three famed Edo beauties who once lived and worked in the area, and we got to see the line up for Himitsudo, a cosy sweets shop.

After Yanaka we still had time and unlimited train travel thanks to the Shitamachi Day Ticket, so we headed to Ueno for some shopping and history. While three members of our group headed straight to the famed Marui Department Store, my youngest and I walked through Ueno Park to see the Toshogu Shrine. The way it had been described to me, I was expecting a pale imitation of the main Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, but this smaller version was in great shape and featured elaborate wood carvings similar to the ones for which Nikko is famous. I also enjoyed walking the path of lanterns which I correctly surmised were donated by the daimyo who needed to stay in the good graces of the shogunate back then.
Ueno Toshogu Shrine
Having completed the circle of visiting memorial sites of the first and last Tokugawa shogun, it was time to head back to the busy Ueno shopping district to see if we could find anything. Marui was used more as a rest stop before heading into the (perhaps) infamous backstreet shopping arcade. Once one of the main post-war black markets in Tokyo, this area maintains a reputation for offering shoppers a mix of bargains, exclusives, and even the occasional item that "fell" off the back of the delivery truck. I once got a great deal on a pair of running shoes here and surprised sales people and friends by throwing the pair I showed up with in the garbage after completing the purchase. Even though I didn't need shoes on this day, I had high hopes of finding a deal for at least one family member.

Turns out Ueno has changed a bit since the last time I've been through. In short, the backstreets are going upscale. There was an exclusive denim store selling jeans for the price of a wardrobe, and it seemed like every shoe store had been absorbed by the ABC chain. So, while we got to experience the feeling of walking through a shady market, we left empty-handed.

Having lost a day of travel to the typhoon, we made the somewhat foolhardy (or masochistic) decision to push on to Akihabara to show my mom the loud, lit up version of Tokyo she'd seen in the movies. Our travel worn legs made the walk seem a little farther than I remembered, and faulty memories led us off course before we realized that it was the new Yodabashi Camera on the other side of the station that we were looking for. Once we arrived, our children were in their glory in the toy section while the adults glanced around in vain for a bench. Thankfully there was a restaurant level at the top of the store with an inexpensive kaitenzushi, so we were able to rest and eat before catching a late Skyliner back to Sakura.

We were worn out but satisfied, having squeezed out a day and a half worth of experiences out of our Tokyo Day Trip. Who travels to relax anyway?

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