Warning: LOTS of photos!
What a wonderful week we’ve had!
The week started off with a visit for me to a “mega store” – think Target, but instead of one floor the store takes up seven, starting with a huge grocery store on the ground floor, and finishing with several restaurants on the top. The store literally sold everything – you could buy what you need for dinner, pick up some socks and underwear, get your hair cut, and plan your own funeral before choosing a restaurant for lunch. Our daughter-in-law bought some new socks and pants for the kids, and some school lunch supplies, and then we enjoyed a tempura lunch on the top floor as we chatted and looked out over the city at Shinjuku’s skyscrapers in the distance.
Monday was the beginning of spring break throughout Japan, and Brett and I met our grandson at a large park close to our house in the afternoon and watched him at the skatepark for a while and then brought him home with us for dinner and a sleepover. Tokyo can seem at times to be nothing but a sea of concrete, but there are all sorts of wonderful parks, both large and small, throughout the city with all sorts of activities and attractions. Setagaya park, just a 15 minute walk from our apartment, has several sculptures, walking, jogging and cycling paths, a full-size steam engine and rail car to explore, a playground, a miniature train ride through the park, and another (very popular) play area created completely from recycled materials.
On Tuesday afternoon Brett and I went out to visit the Imperial Palace and the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. We strolled through the East Garden of the Palace to view the cherry blossoms, and walked from there to Nijubashi, the double bridges that lead up to the palace. Visitors are only allowed to visit inside the palace grounds as part of a reserved guided tour, or on December 23 (the Emperor’s birthday) or January 2 (New Year’s). On the last two dates visitors are handed a small paper flag when they enter to wave as “banzai” is shouted three times when the Emperor and his family appear (we got to do this two different times when we were stationed here). The palace grounds are quite large though, so the distance between the garden and the bridges required quite a bit of walking. We have a real appreciation now for the distance our son walks each year for his Imperial Challenge fundraiser.
Afterward seeing what we could at the Palace, we walked across the street to view the Dai Ichi building, which served as General MacArthur’s headquarters during the U.S. occupation of Japan following WWII. The building was considered huge at the time, but these days it’s dwarfed by the skyscrapers that surround it and tower over the building. We then took a short train ride over to see the Yasukuni shrine and the Budokan. We were feeling very tired and hungry at this point though, so only viewed the outer walkway and small memorials outside of the main shrine complex before deciding to come back to see the main shrine on another day. Yasukuni is the memorial shrine for war dead who served the Emperor during wars from 1867–1951, and fourteen Class A war criminals, including those like General Tojo, are enshrined there, which has caused controversy from time to time. The shrine also has a museum that is a must see, so Brett and I are looking forward to returning when we’re not so tired and have time to take it all in.
The highlight of the day though was meeting author Susan Spann, who helped us when we couldn’t figure out which exit to use after we arrived at Ōtemachi station. She has written a series of novels set in the Edo period of Japan (1603-1868) that feature a samurai (who is a shinobi 忍び – similar to a ninja. It’s my Japanese word of the week; I only knew about ninja). He works with a Portuguese Jesuit priest to solve murders. Susan is currently writing a book, Climb, about her experiences climbing mountains throughout Japan. I am reading the first in her series now, Claws of the Cat, and am having trouble putting it down – I’m already looking forward to the rest of the series. Another happy offshoot from our conversation with Susan is that Brett is going to begin taking Japanese calligraphy (shodō) lessons this week! Susan told us about her experiences and recommended an instructor, so when we came home he contacted the school and signed up. He’ll do five lessons and be able to take his first examination before we leave Japan. If he enjoys it, there are shodō classes available in Portland and he can continue through the summer before we leave for England.
We had pizza and birthday cake with our grandson on Thursday for lunch before heading out on the long ride to Narita to meet Meiling and K. Their flight arrived on time, we got them their round-trip tickets to and from Narita and made the long ride back home, went out for a quick bowl of ramen, and then they promptly collapsed as they’d been awake for nearly 36 hours! They’ve been having a grand time since though and have gotten around on their own to visit Akihabara (anime and geek stuff) and Shibuya, view cherry blossoms, and went out for a wagyu beef dinner on Saturday. Yesterday our whole family (well, minus WenYu and YaYu) got together for the fabulous Sunday brunch at the New Sanno Hotel, and then afterwards we went with Meiling and K to the Meiji Shrine followed by a walk down Takeshita Dori in Harajuku to check out the 100¥ store and eat crepes. This morning we’re going with them to Asakusa to visit Sensōji temple, and then they’ll continue on their own to Ueno Park because we have to get back for our first day of picking up the grandchildren from their respective schools. Meiling and K will attend an immersive art experience tomorrow and then will fly back to the U.S. on Wednesday.
Early Friday morning Brett and I left with our son and family for an overnight birthday/anniversary getaway in Odawara, located on the coast just southwest of Tokyo. We spent the morning touring Odawara Castle, the 7th largest castle in Japan. It was originally constructed during the Edo Period (1603-1868), but was severely damaged during the Great Earthquake of 1923, with the remainder destroyed during WWII. It was rebuilt following the war using the original plans and now holds exhibits of items discovered during archeological digs on the castle grounds, and visitors can also climb to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding area. There is also a wonderful exhibit of samurai armor that we enjoyed.
After spending time at the castle we headed up to the posh Hilton Odawara Beach Resort which sits on top of a hill overlooking Sagami Bay and Odawara. Our room had two parts, a regular bedroom for Brett and me, and a tatami room where M & M and the kids slept. Along with two restaurants, the hotel and grounds also have every amenity you could think of: swimming pools, spa, a bowling alley, karaoke room, a huge game arcade, miniature golf, shopping, hiking paths, etc. All six of us bowled a game on Friday evening, and then on Saturday morning our son’s family went swimming and played miniature golf, Brett went on a hike, and I relaxed and did some reading. Saturday was Brett’s and my 40th anniversary, and M & M presented us with a bottle of wine and a coupon to enjoy the hotel’s fabulous afternoon dessert buffet. We learned a valuable cultural lesson too: Japanese women will take you out if you get between them and their dessert buffet experience! They were almost aggressive and definitely very assertive when it came to getting their sweets. When we told our DIL how surprised we were by what we had observed, she laughed and said, “now you’ve seen the real Japan.”
Today marks the halfway point of our Japan stay – we have another six weeks to go before it’s time to head back to the U.S. for the summer. We have another busy week coming up as we put on our grandparent hats and pick up the grands every from school so our DIL can begin her new job. Other than today’s visit to Asakusa, Brett and I plan to stick close to our neighborhood this week. We discovered there’s a Muji store just a couple of blocks away so we’re going to check that out. On Saturday we’re going to Tokyo Disneyland for the day, a surprise trip for our grandson for his birthday. We’re looking forward to that outing, and to again see what’s the same and what’s different with Disneyland over here.
Finally, this week has been all about the cherry blossoms:
I’ll be taking one more week off and then will be back to more regular blogging. Thank you for sticking with me – I hope you’re enjoying some beautiful spring weather these days!