China and Japan
In the summer of 2009, I decided to go to view the solar eclipse to be seen at Shanghai, which would be the longest one in over 15 years. I decided it would also be a good idea to see Tokyo while I was in the area, so for late July 2009, that's what I did.
The plan was to go to Shanghai first, and the Tokyo after eclipse day. But there was a major problem: July is in rainy season, and cloud cover is common. So at the very least, I would get to see Asia.
The first stop was the Longhua Temple area, and to get there was a cut through the Martyrs Memorial, which was once the site of a Japanese internment camp. Very somber place, as one might expect.
Longhua Pagoda, just across the street from the back entrance of the Martyrs Memorial, is a cool-looking building; built in 977AD, it is over a thousand years old. Visitors are not allowed inside, but it's a neat little area.
From the hotel room, which was way up off of Jufeng Road in a very residential area, this is the view of the downtown skyline. You can clearly see the Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai Financial Center through the haze.
Because the weather looked awful for Shanghai, I decided to try my luck with the weather in nearby Hangzhou, a 90-minute train ride from Shanghai. It was just as hot and muggy there, and the weather prospects ended up being no better. The statue of Buddha is one of the city's bigger attractions, located on Qinghefang Old Street.
The hotel - a Holiday inn, of which there are many in China - was in a fairly central part of the city, so I took this picture out the window to give an idea of what the city looks like. Manchester United was scheduled to play here the next week, so the city was covered with red United posters and the visages of Rooney, Giggs, and Scholes. I believe United won 8-0.
The main attraction of Hangzhou is West Lake, which is indeed very large and very nice, but to be honest I didn't see what the fuss was all about. There were nice views of Lingyin Temple nestled among the trees on the south shore of the lake, but aside from that I wasn't all that impressed. At least being on th elake gave some relief from the heat and humidity, which was just horrible.
Here are some other assorted shots from around Hangzhou, including the ride back to Shanghai, which we did on th emorning of the eclipse, which was rained out all over China.
Back in Shanghai, it was the end of the final day now, so I got some shots around the Jing'an temple, which is an old-style temple that has survived the modernization going on all around it. Right outside of the West Nanjing Rd train station, it's easy to find and really sticks out.
Leaving Shanghai - which I was more than happy to do - involves taking the MagLev train for the 30km ride to Pudong International Airport. It is one of the few (if not the only) MagLev trains in commercial use in the world, has no wheels, and is amazing. It is the future of ground-based travel.
The top speed is an amazing 431 km/h, which works out to about 255mph. The cars on the highway visible near the tracks appear to be stationary even though they're going 65mph. It's amazingly smooth and makes getting to the airport a breeze. Which, when you're ready to get the hell out of China, is awesome.
Arriving in Japan very late at night, not aided by the fact that Narita International Airport is an hour train ride from Tokyo proper, there was no way to know what our neighborhood looked like until the next morning. This is the main intersection near the hotel, in the Shiba Park area. The Daimon subway station is only another block away. Note the traffic moving on the left, as the Japanese drive the same way the British do.
Very near the hotel is the Zojo-Ji temple, a major Buddhist shrine. This is a shot of the front of the temple outside the main gate.
The next several images are all taken from around the Temple grounds.
The temple itself is gorgeous, and the atmosphere here is very peaceful, exactly the effect they aspire to create. Several ravens live around the grounds, and they're quite vocal - but they are just about the only noise you hear while walking around. It's a very compelling place.
The tower you see in the background is the Tokyo TV Tower, currently the tallest structure in Japan. There are skyscrapers under construction that will soon eclipse that title, but in the meantime it should be noted that the Tower is about 27 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Some more shots from the Zojo-Ji grounds:
This is the inside of the main gate to the temple grounds. At left is a tree that was planted during the visit of Ulysses S. Grant, who stopped here on the trip he took around the world after leaving the White House in 1877. Grant is not the only president to visit the temple grounds and plant a tree; George H.W. Bush planted one not far from here when he visited in the early 1990s.
Not far from the temple is the Shiba Daimon neighborhood, which is a medium-traffic area not unlike the Upper East Side of New York during a weekday afternoon; in other words, busy but not overwhelming. Lots of restaurants - including a GREAT sushi place - and bars, of which one served only Belgian beers, and another one that was modeled after a Scottish pub. The Japanese like to drink beer, it didn't take long for us to figure that one out. And I can't blame them: the beer in Japan was excellent, as was the cold sake.
For a busier neighborhood, I got this shot of an intersection in the Shinjuku area, which is the home of one of Tokyo's main train stations. The largest bookstore featuring english-printed books is in this area, along with one of Japan's most opulent deprtment stores, Isetan, which I guess isn't necessarily a single department store but a collection of multiple high-end boutiques. It made Bergdorf-Goodman look common.
You've heard that the Japanese love baseball. And if you haven't, you clearly don't pay attention to that sort of thing. The billboard shown here features the two most popular players in Japan, both of whom play in the USA: Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. This Mizuno ad is just one of many that I saw in Tokyo, with Ichiro-san and Matsui-san clearly the top stars of baseball in the country. Sumo is huge here (no pun), and the visit coincided with the tournament in Osaka, so it was on TV all day long. Baseball itself was in all-star weekend, so the TVs all featured American games, which brings me to one of my favorite nuances of being in Japan: while getting ready on saturday morning, I turned on the TV at 930a Tokyo time to find the Orioles and Red Sox game on TV - LIVE, as it was a friday night game at Fenway. No delay of any kind. And instead of commercials between innings, the announcers would discuss the plays, or they'd put in a newsbrief. All the on-screen graphics were in katakana, the Japanese alphabet-based writing for foreign words. Later in the day I saw a tape-delayed recast of the Yankees game, and that night the all-star game was on. Very, very cool.
On the other side of Shinjuku, things get much busier. This is a typical street view in the area; lots of billboards, huge signs advertising karaoke houses, and restuarants describing their locations (sixth floor is not uncommon; I've never been to a place with so many restaurants on higher floors of buildings). Lots of stores, and people on the street handing out small fans (not the electric kind) with advertising on them. Perfect for the heat of the day, and a great advertising idea - and if there's one thing Japan has a LOT of, it's advertising. Escalator handrails aren't even safe from the ad man!
So what's so big about this? Well, obviously it's a welcome mat. What caught my attention is that it says 'irasshaimase' - welcome - in hiragana, which is the alphabetical writing the Japanese use for their native words (though not nouns). Since my visit, I have been totally unable to locate one of these for sale. Wade's sister is in Tokyo right now, and even she hasn't seen any of them. So if anyone knows where I can get one of these mats, please contact me!
More from the Shinjuku area. This is south of the train station, and continues to show how busy things are in this part of Tokyo.
But there is nothing busier than this: Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world. Much like Times Square or Picadilly Circus, there are millions of people crossing through here every day, and the energy level is unmistakeable. I took a shot at night to get the real feeling of it, because they say that nighttime is the busiest time for this part of the city, and I beleive it. Absolutely amazing, and unlike Times Square this is not tourists: one million people actually live within a half mile of this intersection.
The Rainbow Bridge connects Tokyo to the island of Odaiba, which sits in Tokyo harbor and is known as a futuristic vision of shopping and design. It's a gorgeous bridge, too: the rail approach from the Tokyo side of the bridge (which is in Shinagawa-ku) does a 270-degree turn as it rides up to bridge level, offering tremendous views of the harbor, Odaiba, and the Tokyo skyline itself. It's quite a ride on the Yurikamome line.
Perhaps the highlight of Odaiba - and I realize that this is debateable - is the Fuji TV Headquarters Building, a massive building with a tremendous round observation deck (see the silver ball?) and super-future architectural elements. Clearly the centerpiece of the island's buildings - of which there are many - I was taking a picture of this with my F100 which was loaded with slide film, when a gust of wind blew my D2x off its perch on my camera bag and broke the lens I had been using, along with damaging the camera's rear interface buttons. The 28-70mm lens was broken, so I could only use my zoom and wide angle lenses for the remainder of the trip.
That turned out to not be a problem from the observation deck, since I wanted wide-angle views from up there anyway. Because there are few truly tall buildings in Tokyo, you can see for a long way from up high. This is looking back across the Rainbow Bridge, and you may be able to make out the Tokyo TV Tower to its right.
A late discovery, and one of my favorite of the trip, was Yakitori Alley, located in the Ginza area. Yakitori in Japan is not the same as what we have here; in Japan, it involves someone tending skewers of whatever you're having as they roast over a small pit of hot coals. Kind of like an indoor BBQ, but not quite the same. The effect is delicious. Couple that with some cold sake, some Asahi beer, and the hot summer nights of Tokyo, and you've got a pretty darn good evening. This might be a good time to mention that I thought the food in Japan was awesome, as opposed to China, where I had a hard time finding anything edible on the menus, outside of the dumplings, which were excellent.
The Tokyo National Art Center had just closed when we arrived, and it was raining, but I took this picture anyway, just because I liked the architecture. It's a gorgeous building, but the lighting conditions don't really do it justice here - but it was the last day of the trip, so I had no choice but to shoot it as is.
To finalize this photo journal, I've decided to include some of the pictures I took of things that in Japan are qute common. First of all is the vending machines. In the USA we think of vending machines of being old, musty, and something to be avoided, except for perhaps the soda/water and candy machines that are changed regularly. In Japan, ANYTHING can be bought from a vending machine, and they're EVERYWHERE. This particular one was in our hotel, and as you can see, it is loaded with Asahi beer. Only in Japan!
Getting around Tokyo is quite simple, as the subways are very well marked in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese. Arrows indicate the direction, on the platform, of the stations coming next and the one last reached by the train. The subway map looks like a bowl of ramen, but once you get used to it, it all makes sense and you can get anywhere. I should also point out that Shanghai's subway system was also easy to use, and equally modern and clean, one of the few areas in which the Shanghaiese were on par with Tokyo.
Even the exits for the station are marked; there's no guesswork coming out of the ground, so if your Tokyo guide says that a particular museum is outside of exit A2 at Ueno, then when you get off the train at Ueno you look for the yellow sign marked A2, which will refer to a unique exit at that station. It's a very useful and efficient way to get around, combined with the subway system, that makes Tokyo easily navigable for visitors.
And finally, there are the toilets. Japanese toilets are just as technologically advanced as everything else. You may think, How could the toilet be improved? It does its thing, no? No. Read the sign and be assured that the instructions all refer to working parts and buttons to be pushed. It is quite an experience. This sign was taken at Narita airport, which we reached after being driven there by the Friendly Airport Limousine Service.
Leaving Tokyo was very sad; as thrilled as I was to leave China, I did not want to leave Japan. Not just because there is a lot I didn't see, though that is certainly true; but the politeness, the bowing (I even saw the baggage handlers bowing as our plane left the gate!), the cleanliness, the cartoon characters used for virtually any public message...it was a great place to see. I loved it, and will have to go back at some point. But that 14 hour flight is no fun. Clearly this is the kind of place for which we need to revisit the idea of supersonic transport!
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