Since I only had 4 days in Tokyo, and little money left for traveling, I had a challenge – how do you stay in Tokyo on a budget. After months of living a simple life – I think I was up to the challenge. The first big accomplishment was finding a reasonably priced hotel amongst the sea of business travelers on company expense budgets. I was lucky enough to find Sawonoya Ryokan – an oasis surrounded by the old neighborhoods of Tokyo. For $40 a night I stayed in a small room, slept on a straw mat on the floor – but had plenty of comforts such as television, tea, free internet, and a shared Japanese bath. In addition, they served breakfast in their lobby area – western style for $4 and an authentic Japanese breakfast for the same price.
If you are on a budget, then the subway is a must. After spending a day lost in the subway, I became much more at ease with the Tokyo subway for the remaining 3 days. All of a sudden, it all made sense, as I looked around I even noticed English signs that seemed to escape me the first day in my confusion and panic. The subway rides range from $1.60 to $3.00 depending on the distance you are traveling. This is a bargain compared to the one cab-ride that I took which lasted about 20 minutes and cost $25. However, I found that my favorite way to get around was on foot. It is really the way to see neighborhoods and culture and Tokyo.
Photo: Man feeding birds in Ueno Park
Most days I chose one or two neighborhoods to explore. I would take the subway to one and then walk all day around it or into others and then subway home. My walking took me to many wonderful places where I was able to explore at my pace. I learned that if you want to experience ‘old Tokyo’ – then you need to spend time in Ueno and Asakusa. I spent a whole day walking through these neighborhoods to simply watch and understand Japanese life. I started off walking around the neighborhood, the little back alleys sprinkled with bikes and green plants. The first thing that struck me is that there were many bikes in Tokyo – however none of them appeared to be locked up. I knew that Tokyo was safe – but I couldn’t fathom leaving bikes outside not locked up…that seemed ludicrous. I thought for a moment that I had walked into this safe haven utopia! However, after day two and a little closer inspection of the bikes, I realized that they had a wheel lock built in – no separate piece – it was already attached to the wheel and then went through the back spoke. Granted – the locks still weren’t prohibiting anyone from picking up the bike and carrying it away…indicating that Tokyo is safer than most large cities. In addition, I found it funny that everyone rode their bikes on the sidewalks amongst the pedestrians. As a pedestrian, you always had to be on your toes. No one seemed upset or mildly concerned about the bikes intermixed with the pedestrians on foot. It’s not like the sidewalks were abandoned, quite the opposite – however somehow the bikes and people intermixed successfully – a site you really wouldn’t be able to see in much of the world…certainly not in the US!
I wandered into temples in the various neighborhoods – the uniqueness of the temples called me inside. I watched people as they went through their rituals that all seemed extremely foreign to me. I didn’t really understand much of it, but there was definitely a process that was to be followed. I later learned that before entering a temple, there was always a water ‘trough’ with long handled ladles hanging above it. These ladles were used for ‘cleansing’ yourself before entering the temple. Once you enter the shrine, you are to throw money in the offering box, ring the gong, pray, clap your hands twice, bow, and then back away from the shrine. Of course – since I learned about these rituals after the fact – I’m positive that I will go to Japanese hell (banished to karaoke bars) for not doing these things! Hopefully the Japanese Buddhists or Shinto’s will give me a pardon. Many temples were surrounded by cemeteries. I love how cemeteries vary by country and religion, and I had never seen a cemetery like the Japanese ones. There were gravesites all closely placed together, and they were kept up very well. The gravesites were normally surrounded by flowers, and a bunch of tall, flat, narrow sticks with Japanese writing on them. Each gravesite had about 5 to 10 sticks behind it sticking up tall into the air – as if they were reaching for the sky. They honestly reminded me of giant popsicle sticks. From what I later learned – the giant sticks were Buddhist name markers, yet I still never really understood the significance of them.
Next I came to a huge park filled with people, fountains, fall colors, musicians, and lots of birds.
I found vantage points and simply sat and people watched for a few hours throughout the park – photographing some of the locals and many of the birds. Shinobazu Lake in Ueno Park was full of old men feeding birds – which made it feel like a bird sanctuary. The lake was surrounded by the modern buildings of Ueno, giving the whole place a Central Park feel to me. I then went to a market area in Ueno – one of the last authentic goods markets in Tokyo, Ameyoko Market. It was a post WWII black market that had survived the influx of post WWII department stores – this market survived on old style bartering and selling to locals. When I think of Asia – I think of markets. I loved Ameyoko market – it was my first real glimpse of Asia in this very non-Asian feeling city. It was filled with people hawking fresh fish, clothing, spices, and individually shrink wrapped shoes and boots. I was baffled by why the shoes were shrink wrapped (each one separately), but was never able to communicate my question as to “why?”