I spent my last day in Japan traipsing around tourist spots I went to on my very first Tokyo trip way, way back in 2000. I just thought I’d check if things were any different from eleven years ago, even if Boom warned me that it was still touristy and packed as hell. After a quick stop at Keisei Skyliner’s Ueno Station to get train tickets for my early flight back, we rode the cheap and cheerful Megurin Minibus, which takes you around Taito-ku for the princely sum of JPY 100.
Asakusa didn’t change much, except for the monstrosity that is the Tokyo Sky Tree, which dominated the skyline for miles. The building is projected to extend to the golden number Musashi — mu means six, san means three, and shi means four, which totals to 634 metres above sea level. The Sky Tree will be the tallest TV tower in the world, carrying Japan’s extensive array of HDTV channels which will be permanently replacing analog broadcasts by the middle of 2011.
Asakusa itself was more or less the same as it was ten years ago — packed with foreigners, overpriced souvenirs, and the wonderful smell of baking buns stuffed with an or sweet bean paste. Called ningyo-yaki or doll pastries, these buns are actually identical to the ubiquitous taiyaki or fish-shaped pastries in all but shape, and is a specialty of the Asakusa area. I personally dislike an, but for some reason I can eat Asakusa ningyo-yaki just fine. Perhaps it is because the an is delicious and not too sweet, or perhaps the vibe in Asakusa makes them taste nicer than usual, or perhaps it is because the uncle who sold us the bag of twelve tossed in an extra piece — I’m not entirely sure.
The souvenir shopping on Nakamise Doori is a mixed bag of fabulous finds and horrid kitschy stuff that only tourists would fall for. Alongside stores that sold folding hand fans and obi (kimono belts) fit for the prettiest of maiko-san, were shops that sold the tacky bathrobe-like yukata made of cheap satin that some foreigners obviously thought was what an actual kimono looked like (and nothing can be further from the truth). If you really want to score a genuine yukata or kimono, here’s a tip: get off Nakamise Doori and start exploring the side streets — the genuine article can be found there, guaranteed.
When we finally reached the temple there was a huge line of high school students and their parents, hoping for one last push before the start of entrance exam season. Sensoji Temple is legendary for its supposed ability to help devotees pass college entrance exams, so it was understandable that hapless high school students and their overeager parents were packing the place to the rafters. Boom and I just went to get some o-mikuji fortunes from the shaker box, laugh at some of the fortunes we got, and made our way to the ferry station that would take us over the Sumida River over to Odaiba.
Officially known as the Suijou Bus, the ferry departs from Asakusa and will take you to either the Imperial Gardens or to Odaiba. It’s very popular with tourists as it gives you a view of both banks of the Sumida River in a way that neither tour buses nor public transport can provide. It’s pretty relaxing and educational — as the ferry always has a tour guide on board (Japanese-only, unfortunately). It was also pretty amusing for Boom and I in particular, as we spotted two different cosplay groups holding photoshoots along the banks of the river (for the curious, it was for Prince of Tennis and for Vocaloid).
Once in Odaiba, it was a cold and windy walk from the ferry station along Odaiba beach to Palette Town and Venus Fort — the two giant entertainment and shopping complexes that made Odaiba a popular place with tourists and locals alike. We only stayed a couple of minutes to buy stuff at Ghibli/Nibariki’s Acorn Republic (protip: they have a Nekobus that adults can ride — unfortunately it has fallen into some disrepair and is not as nice as the Nekobus in Ghibli Museum). After that, it was off on the conveniently located Rinkai line back to Central Tokyo, for some last-minute to-dos in Shinjuku before heading for home.