I might be a bit spoiled for good coffee in New Zealand, so I’m often left disappointed when I’m desperate for a good brew abroad. The coffee in Tokyo hadn’t thrilled me so far, but that didn’t stop me parking up in a cafe in Shibuya on my last day in Tokyo to have breakfast. My legs were still a bit achy from being on my feet for 14hrs the day before, but that wasn’t going to stop me from another day of traipsing the streets of one of the World’s largest cities. Just down the road from the cafe was the infamous Shibuya crossing, the World’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Rush hour had passed but there was still plenty of activity with people regularly piling out of the train station and jostling across every time the traffic halted. It drew quite a crowd of onlookers, and I joined them initially before wandering around to look at the Shiba Inu artwork on the station wall and the dog statue in the square. I’m not entirely sure what the significance of the dog statue was but it seemed to be rather revered.
When it was time to cross myself, I got swallowed up by the masses that crossed with me but what I couldn’t believe was the amount of people that would stop in the middle of the crossing to get their photograph taken. And it wasn’t tourists. It appeared to be locals on proper photo shoots. I’m not sure if they were modelling clothes or something else but it was intriguing and astounding in equal measure. The people were never fully finished crossing when the traffic lights turned green again so the vehicles would just start to push through the stragglers. It almost seemed like a well-orchestrated dance move that everyone was unwittingly taking part in. I guided myself on a walking tour of the Shibuya streets. I could just imagine what this place would be like at night all lit up, but the businesses didn’t really interest me during the day time. There were signs confronting me everywhere I went though, and after to-ing and fro-ing through the neighbourhood I eventually found myself back at the junction.
It was a short train ride to Harajuku station to visit Meiji Jingu. Once out of the station, I headed into the expansive park and was swiftly greeted by a gigantic torii gate. It was a lovely tree lined walk from there past beautifully decorated saki barrels and more torii gates to the shrine itself which was a hive of activity. Locals and tourists alike mingled together as people gave thanks and prayer either within the halls of the shrine itself or on the prayer walls outside. Without fully understanding the culture, it could be easy to get ‘shrined-out’ in Japan – the amount of shrines around the country is incredible, and I made a point of limiting my visits to them so as not to get complacent or bored with them. But here, I did get a little caught up with the vibe of the place and it was quite humbling as I found myself becoming introspective and silently taking stock of where I was. I even bought a wooden prayer piece to hang by the prayer tree with my wish for my friends and family.
There was so much to look at on site, with little interesting pieces of detail on the buildings themselves and strung round the trees. At one point a stir went through the gathered crowd and what looked like a wedding party appeared: a group of people in traditional dress accompanying what I think was a bride. They garnered quite an audience because of their garb and I felt quite sorry for them as loads of strangers rudely started taking their picture without even stopping to think whether it was appropriate or not. I watched them pass, the gathered audience dispersing shortly after and I headed out the side entrance of Meiji Jingu to walk the quieter path through the trees back to the entrance.
Almost directly opposite was a broad tree-lined dual carriageway that cut deep into the city again, leading me back to suburbia. Just one block down there was a mall with a striking mirrored frontage, escalators leading up into it from where I wound my way up to the Starbucks on the roof to take a look from the rooftop terrace. Although it’s probably more polite to purchase something while you are there, it is actually possible to just go up and visit the terrace without spending money, and from there I could see down to the hustle and bustle below. It wasn’t as dramatic as the traffic and people of Shibuya Crossing but it was still a nice perspective of the streets immediately around.
Another part-block down the road I found myself at Cat Street, a quaint street full of boutique shops and eateries. It was a mix of architecturally eclectic buildings and unlike anywhere else in the city, there was a gorgeous historic-looking brick building. I felt a little self-conscious in my clothes wandering through there, and having planned on eating here, I couldn’t find anywhere that looked like it had space or was affordable. I spied some funky street art on the wall as I walked and before I knew it I was at the far end of the street. I could see on Google Maps I was within walking distance of Shibuya Crossing having almost completed a large circle, and I was once again very grateful to have organised a pocket wifi unit to allow me to access the Internet on the move. It had been essential to me navigating my way through this immense metropolis. I happened upon a lovely place to have lunch as I continued and devoured a huge meal and plenty of drinks to balance out the amount of walking I was doing.
I’d read about a rooftop area above Shibuya Crossing which I was keen to get up to but found it a little confusing to work out how to get there. Eventually I worked out that I had to go into the department store type building directly opposite the main station entrance then head up to the food court. Even there the sign wasn’t immediately obvious but at the far side of a burger joint, a heavy door led outside to a metal staircase that led up to the roof. A machine released a token on paying the entrance fee, and then I was able to pass through the barrier and look down on the busy crossing below. It would no doubt be more impressive at night time but I also suspect the viewing area would very busy at night also. As it was, I just had to share it with 2 couples and we took our turns to stand in the prime spot and watch the dance of traffic and humans.
Floor by floor I headed downstairs through the department store, briefly mulling over the Japanese fashions, the weird mannequins and pop-culture shops. On the ground floor I popped out in a Hello Kitty store and couldn’t help but purchase a small kimono-wearing plushie. I don’t usually buy much more than fridge magnets when I go abroad, but Japan has such quirky and World-famous pop-cultures that it was really difficult not to buy a few extra souvenirs. I’d already bought a Totoro plushie at the Ghibli Museum, so even though I was 36 at the time, I bought it a friend. I’m still waiting to reach the age where I outgrow buying soft toys. I burst back out into the sunlight, purchase in hand and crossed the Shibuya Crossing yet again to head back into the large and bustling train station.
I cut across the city to Roppongi to visit the Tokyo City View and Sky Deck. There is no shortage of observatories in the city, and as I couldn’t visit them all, I decided that I’d rather have a view of the Eiffel-Tower-like Tokyo Tower rather than actually go up, and its distinctive orange colour made it an awesome building to witness on the skyline. I had arrived at the City View a little before 3pm and it was a gorgeous sunny afternoon. This particular observation tower has an inside viewing area with floor to ceiling glass windows, and an outdoor viewing area on the helipad on the roof. I’d highly recommend getting the ticket for both. I took my time enjoying the view from the comfort of indoors. I really loved the view from here and far preferred it to that from the Tokyo Skytree. The view south-west was hazy and I squinted my eyes in an effort to make out the distant peak of Mt Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain.
By the time I’d done the full circumference of the building inside, I found myself at a cool little self-service coffee station. Little pods of filter coffee of varying strengths, tastes and origins sat within gumball-type machines which could be purchased with a coin. Then you could watch the machine filter it through into your cup. It was a novelty that I took full advantage of, despite normally only having 1 coffee a day and having already had a disappointing one at breakfast. This turned out to be the best coffee I had in Japan, and I parked up at a bench with a window view of Mt Fuji to enjoy it. Afterwards I did another full circuit of the viewing area before cutting into the middle of the tower to reach the escalator up to the roof.
The rooftop is completely exposed and as such you have to lock all your belongings away in lockers, taking only the bare minimum with you and only what you can wear or attach to yourself. When I stepped outside onto the platform and realised the angle of the sun was getting low, and the shadows were stretching out, I quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted to stay here till sunset. I didn’t care about going anywhere else that evening, I didn’t care that this meant spending multiple hours here, and I didn’t care that this was to be the last of my daytime sight seeing. This was the place to be. As the sun continued to lower I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji which was now much clearer on the horizon. A wisp of cloud hung around its midriff just like I’d seen from Kawaguchiko a few days prior.
As the sun lowered, the sky turned from blue to peach then yellow. The shadows grew ever longer until the sun finally dropped below the line of cloud that sat above the hills on the horizon. The peach returned in the sky and then it deepened to purple as the sun sunk further to the west. I couldn’t stand still, there was so much to look at in every direction as the colour palette changed and the moon crept higher and the city lights blinked on below me. Mt Fuji dominated the horizon to the south-west, remaining visible as a silhouette for a long time. As the colours faded to black, the Tokyo Tower showed its true colours. It simply glowed orange, a beautiful beacon on the city skyline and I couldn’t get enough of it, photographing it repetitively from every possible angle and frame. I spent about 2hrs on the roof before I could tear myself away and head back down.
I had one last experience to have in Tokyo before leaving it behind the next morning, and that was to experience Shibuya at night. I retraced my steps on the metro system to the huge Shibuya station and as I crossed the pedestrian bridge within the station which has a large window looking out onto the crossing itself, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The square below was absolutely mobbed. By now 7pm I was amidst the commuters heading home at rush hour, ever watched by the throngs of tourists that had descended on the place. It was standing room only and once outside myself, I struggled to move through the crowds, eager like everyone else to get a vantage point of what turned out to be utter madness when the pedestrian lights turned green. The people moved in giant waves, and with four points to the crossing it seemed inevitable that people would get swept in the wrong direction, but somehow it just worked. I finally was able to hop up onto a low wall to watch the chaos enfold in front of me.
Once in the maze of bright lights of Shibuya I was again struck by the constant noise and brightness of the night here. The sensory stimulation was insane and I was torn between following my stomach and wanting to just watch the city life play out in front of me. I found a cute little place to have delicious ramen, one of my favourite Japanese dishes, and one which was readily available throughout the country, and once satiated I headed back out onto the streets once more. I played a bit more in one of the many arcade halls that litter the city, feeling joyful and stress free like a little kid. Eventually it all just got a bit too much, and nearly 12hrs after I’d left the hotel that morning, and once more with pained swollen feet and legs, it was time to limp my way back to my bed. I could easily justify many return trips to Tokyo to see more but I was satisfied with my attempt to do the city justice on my first visit. But all good things come to an end, and as there is so much more to Japan than its biggest city, it was time to move on.