Tokyo, Saturday 22-Oct

It may sound like we've already been to a lot of temples and shrines, but we took quick peeks at more of them today. But first was a visit to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, both the grounds and its greenhouse.

As usual, we started the day on transport to get to our first destination, which leads me to another sidebar on the subway system.

Tokyo subway system

I've mentioned that the system is huge, but there's no way to convey just how large it is to someone used to the Seattle or Los Angeles rail systems. It even feels more complex than D.C. Metro or the London Tube. Not only do you have a lot of lines, but you have several different companies, all with different stations. Fortunately, you don't have to have multiple cards; we've been on five different transit companies so far, and our card has worked on all of them.

For the most part, we've been at pretty simple stations where one or two lines run through. If you need to transfer to a different company's line, there's often a tunnel connecting the stations so you don't have to go outside. On this day, however, we went into Shinjuku station, the second largest and busiest station in the world. About a dozen train lines go through it; that's lines, so figure a couple tracks per line.

Seattle's light rail has been transitioning from two to three cars on its trains, and the platforms can only hold four cars. Here, we've seen trains with upwards of 16 cars. The seating layout is also optimized for density; seats are along the windows, rather than in rows, so standing room is maximized. For most of the lines we've been on, the trains run at least every 15 minutes, if not every 5. If you think about it, that's a lot of capacity, and it gets used. We've been on some trains where people are somewhat packed about as densely as you'd want to get on US trains, but during peak rush hour, they pack even more densely.

With all those people going in and out of the stations, paying fares needs to be quick. People use tap cards like most other places, but these are different. Once the card is near the reader (which is a huge flag area angled towards you, so easy to hit) you hear the beep nearly instantaneously. No slowing down as you walk through. The fare readers don't have gates, so people can tailgate each other very closely, and the fare readers keep up. Although, I did see one person have a problem with her card (presumably not enough money on it) so the gates flipped out and blocked her.

Fares are computed by distance traveled, which means you also have to tap out. Most of the fare gates are bidirectional, and once someone taps in one direction, the arrow on the other side turns into a “Do not enter” symbol.

Many stations have doors in front of the trains themselves. Of those, most of them are about chest high, although at Shinjuku station, I saw some which were full-height.

We've heard several different kinds of chimes which warn that the doors are about to close. One train had a very harsh buzzer, which gets your attention, but also gets old after a couple stops. Some trains have long, complex chimes, sort of like short songs (at one station was a sign saying, “Doors close soon after the melody ends” and yes, we had a good chuckle over that). The JR trains at Shinjuku had individual chimes, which makes sense, since that way you aren't hearing the same chime from all around you.

The stations have names, but they also have line/number designations (the stop near us, Kuramae on the Toei Odeo line, is E-11. It would be easier to navigate the subway if the transit routing apps used them, but alas, they use station names.

Speaking of transit routing apps, I mentioned Google Maps; that one works well because for a lot of the stations it can tell you which platform you need. Citymapper tells you which section of the train is best and sometimes which exit you should take. Speaking of which, exits are numbered (we use A5 for Kuramae Station) and there are a lot of maps on the walls and lists of popular destinations with best exits to use.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

The Shinjuku Gyoen Garden is yet another large garden, roughly as large as Ueno Park. We bought tickets at the kiosk then went inside. Finding that the maps were all in Japanese, we noticed a sign which said to ask for an English map. We started to approach the nearest window, and as we reached it, we saw the woman was already holding a map out for us.

Map in hand, we formed a plan. First stop was the Japanese traditional garden, which, like Hamarikyu, is nowhere near as dense as Japanese gardens you see in the US. There was a lot of water, several bridges, and well-placed trees and shrubs, all lending to an air of relaxation.

Next to one of the ponds is the Taiwan Pavilon done in a traditional Chinese style. You could walk inside of parts of it, but the rest seems to be undergoing renovation.

We walked by a field of cherry trees, and were not surprised at the lack of blossoms. There were a couple trees, however, which had a smattering of blossoms, and there was a small crowd of people admiring them and taking photos. Throughout the rest of the garden, we saw a few other trees in bloom, and each one had several people taking pictures of the flowers.

The chrysanthemums weren't on display until next month. They're keeping them in greenhouses which have glass ceilings but walls made of bamboo mats.

Several times we saw people who were sitting down, sketching the scene in front of them. Some with easels, some without.

Next up was the French formal garden, which is anchored by a couple huge rose beds. Plenty of tourists there, and signage on the bushes was quite good.

Not far from there was the English Landscape Garden, a huge expanse of lawn surrounded by trees. It was extremely popular with people since it was about lunchtime. We even saw some costumed people practicing acrobat moves.

Our last stop in the garden was the greenhouse, which is housed in a building which is very striking. They had quite a variety there, and it was interesting that, while it was more humid than outside, it wasn't extremely so (either that, or the contrast wasn't as high as it would be in Seattle). I was so struck by the architecture, I had to remember to look at the plants, too.

Yanaka

We were ready for lunch, so we hopped on the subway towards the Yanaka neighborhood. We saw a soba place listed on the walking tour we were going to take, so headed that way, getting a preview of the walk as we went along. I ordered a cold dipping soba, while Melody had a hot soba with duck. Both were great.

We figured out a route to Tennoji Temple, the first stop on the walk, going through, in reverse, the beginning of the walk. Being purists, though, we started the walking tour from square one.

While we quickly poked our head into the Tennoji Temple, the next step on the tour was to stroll through Yanaka Cemetery (which we had done just a few minutes before). It's huge, with more than 7,000 tombstones, including one for Soseki Natsume, a Meiji Era novelist and longtime resident of Yanaka. His photo is on the ¥1,000 note.

Before too long, we reached Yanaka Ginza (or reached it again, since we had passed through it on the way to lunch). In a way it's similar to other shopping streets we've seen (such as Nakamise Dori, the Tsukiji public market, or Ameya Yokocho), but this one felt as if it had more local people going for everyday things. A couple of the specialty shops we saw were one which sold a large variety of senbei, and another which specialized in paper goods. There was also a sento (public bath).

It was at this point that the next item on the tour was a clock museum. We decided we weren't going to go in, but wanted to take a look at the outside. We ended up going past the street, doubled back, and walked into what seemed to be a private home. Walking further, it still felt like that. Only after having walked in for quite a ways did we see the museum entrance. Satisfied, we proceeded with the tour.

The last item on the tour was Nezu Shrine. It was built by the fifth Tokugawa shogun; we had seen the temples for the first and third Tokugawa shoguns at Nikko. The most striking part of this shrine is the seemingly endless tunnel made of bright orange torii.

We decided to call it a day, so went back to relax in our room for a bit. We made a quick trip to the grocery store to get breakfast things as well as items for dinner.

I previously mentioned safety officers around construction zones. On the way to the store, there was a group of workers power cleaning the sidewalk, and there must have been at least a half dozen officers with lit vests (it was dark by that time) and light wands, making sure people crossed the street to go around the workers.