March 18, 2018
March 31, 2018
The first time I was in Tokyo was 10 years ago. What I remember most vividly was the cultural shock I had and how little I ate for the time we were there (I don’t really like Japanese food and it was hardly possible to find anything else to eat). So when we now spent the last 2 weeks of our long trip in Japan, in order to see the cherry blossoms, I expected more or less the same as 10 years ago: to feel very strongly alienated in the Japanese culture, and to eat very little.
All that was turned on its head though. Tokyo has changed a lot in the past 10 years, and so have I, I suppose. Tokyo has become a lot more international than I remember it – it’s now possible to get food from any corner of the world here. There seem to be a lot of foreigners living in Tokyo. Japanese people often talked to us in Japanese expecting us to understand – I guess because of the many non-Japanese living in Tokyo now, who have learned the local language. The cultural differences are still there, but seem a lot less significant now.
Tokyo is still as lively, crowded and lit up at night as I remember it. Since the last time I was in Japan, I’ve visited quite a few big, loud, crazy Asian capitals, but Tokyo is just in a class of its own.
Measured by the population in its urban area, Tokyo is the biggest city in the world. That size becomes clear once you go up on one of its very tall buildings with an observation deck, and you see the city stretching on and on below you, with no end in sight. It’s very impressive, and for me really hard to imagine how such a huge city can function as well as Tokyo does. If anything is proof of how far engineering and civilization have come, then Tokyo must be that proof.
Tokyo does a great job of combining its concrete jungle with beautiful green parks, its skyscrapers with old and rickety buildings, and the most modern technology in the world with thousand-year-old traditions.
The hope to see the famous Japanese cherry trees in bloom was the reason we actually decided to come to Japan again. When we bought our plane tickets to come to Tokyo, we weren’t yet sure whether the cherry trees would bloom in time, and we already had our tickets to fly back home from Hong Kong on March 31st. But the forecast for the cherry blossoms predicted they would open up in the last week of March, so we decided to take that chance and travel to Japan.
Luckily for us, the cherry trees blossomed even a bit earlier than predicted, and we got to see them in full bloom in Tokyo. Before you’ve been to Japan during cherry blossom season, it’s impossible to imagine the beauty and abundance of the cherry blossoms, and the people’s appreciation and enjoyment of them. There are several places in Tokyo where you can look at the cherry trees in bloom – and, helpfully, Google Maps these days marks these spots on the map. We went to several of these places, and there were always hundreds, if not thousands of locals there enjoying the flowers. I loved the cherry blossoms themselves, but what really adds to the whole experience is how much the Japanese appreciate them and how the cherry blossom season turns into a national holiday.
The art scene in Tokyo was yet another pleasant surprise for me. There are numerous museums, dedicated to art from Japan and from all over the world, from art that’s a few millennia old, to art created a few months ago, from the traditional Japanese art forms, to the newest ones. Some museums and galleries have permanent collections, others host only temporary exhibitions. The locals are queuing for entry to all of them.
The Mori Art Museum was hosting a temporary Leandro Erlich exhibition. I had never seen one of his exhibitions before and I was delighted at the creativity and ingenuity shown in his work. So much so, that I convinced Daniel to go too (when I went he had preferred to do something else), and even he liked it, which says a lot!
In the Tokyo National Museum, I only had time to see the permanent collection, but it is beautiful, well documented, and artfully presented.
The Open Air Museum in Hakone (which is technically outside of Tokyo, but I’m adding it here to this art section) doesn’t really feel like a museum, as most of the displayed works of art are sculptures spread around its big and beautiful gardens. So a visit to this museum is more like a walk in a perfectly maintained park, stopping every now and then to admire a work of art. The museum also has a pavilion dedicated to Picasso and an indoor collection of 20th century sculptures.
Since Mount Fuji is such an important symbol of Japan and since it’s close to Tokyo, we decided to rent a car for 3 days and drive through the Japanese countryside around it. Because its upper half was still covered in snow and ice, it was not possible to hike up the mountain, but we still got to enjoy beautiful views of it, especially on the first day.
During this part of our trip to Japan, we got to experience the more traditional Japanese way of life, away from the modernity of Tokyo and the many international influences there. We took the opportunity to sleep in a traditional Japanese ryokan on tatami mats, to go to an onsen (pools build on top of hot springs, sort of like a spa in Europe, but with completely separate areas for men and women, and everyone has to go into the spa area naked), and to eat in Japanese restaurants where they had no English menus (so the best they could do was to point at some food photos on the walls to “explain” to us what we could order).
Tokyo was the last stop on our long trip. It’s hard to believe that our 6 months of travelling are already over. It’s also hard to believe how much we’ve seen and experienced during this time. Although we talked a lot about the next time we’ll do such a trip again, realistically I don’t think it will happen soon. Although, half a year before starting this trip, we also didn’t yet have any concrete plans of making such a trip. Life surprises you sometimes in the best ways… Now it’s time for us to go back home, catch up with friends and family, and resettle into our life in Zurich. We plan to have a glass of champagne on the flight back, and toast to the incredible past 6 months and to whatever adventures will come after.