After being greeted by a 7.2 earthquake the night before, I woke up to find that the city continued business as if nothing happened. Seeing this indifference, I realized that Japan has dealt with earthquakes for the thousands of years they have been a civilization, and have reinforced their architecture specifically to resist it. With its modern-day fortification, especially an earthquake of this magnitude, is hardly anything to raise an eyebrow at. What the city was concerned about was Typhoon Wipha, which has ripped across the country throughout October. This was the tail end of the storm, and while the howling winds the night before have ceased, the rain did not. The heavy storm was a mixed blessing: it gave the city a distinct foggy atmosphere, but also made walking an uncomfortable experience. This gave the tour a distinct feel it would have never had in sunny weather, the same of which can be said vice-versa.
I was able to find breakfast without a problem: I went to the local 7-11 store and purchased a meat loaf meal and a bottle of orange juice. I knew beforehand the prevalence of convenience stores across Japan, and how efficient they are for budget traveling. The real problem came when I was unable to find a place to eat: there was no place to sit outside in the rain, the Grand Prince Hotel (where my tour was meeting) forbade eating in the lobbies, and eating while walking was out of the question (it’s impolite to do this in Japanese culture). Combined with the uncertainty of the exact lobby where the tour was to meet, I ran around the shopping district in a state of panic. I walked down the modern Shinagawa street, past the rows of pachinko slots, and found myself in the leering presence of a dark Shinto shrine. Staring down from its stone perch, cloaked in mist and rain, it stood proudly amongst the concrete towers surrounding it. I later found out that this shrine, named Kōzan-ji, was built when Tokyo Bay’s coastline extended to where it stands now. It was dedicated to the safety of boats and sailors within the harbor. Not knowing this at the time, I was frozen in awe by its ominous aura, which left an impression that would last throughout my stay in Tokyo.
Returning to the Grand Prince Hotel, I continued to flounder about, searching for my tour and asking about to no avail. Groups came and went, while the minutes continued to roll by; I feared that I would miss my tour, if I hadn’t already. It was eight o’clock sharp, my meeting time, when I finally found my tour guide: a meek, middle-aged woman holding a sign with my name on it. A wave of relief overcame me as I walked onto the bus; imagine how different this day would have been had I missed my tour. Considering the bus needed to pick up tourists from other hotels before the actual tour began, I realized that now would be the best time to eat my breakfast. I went up to the bus driver and asked if it was acceptable to eat on the bus. In spite of the language barrier making conversation difficult, I was able to get the message across when the bus driver made a hand motion mimicking eating with chopsticks. It was this moment that made me discover the importance of body language when traveling overseas, when verbal communication isn’t possible. This knowledge would be put to great use the following day.
As the bus went from hotel to hotel, I became disoriented by the labyrinthine streets of Tokyo: streets meandered across an uneven landscape with no clear pattern, parts of the city looked identical to one another, and meaningful landmarks were diluted in a sea of visual noise. Even with my filmographic memory, I wasn’t able to mentally retrace my steps as easily as in other places I’ve traveled to. While learning to use the train system made traversing the city much more feasible, with its simple navigational system and ease of use, the streets remained as confusing as ever. After a bus transfer, our group arrived at its first destination: the Tokyo Tower. Molded after the Eiffel Tower, its red color and significant height of 333 meters gave it a distinct cultural identity from its inspiration. From within, it was decorated to fit the Halloween season, with cackling props, spooky sets, and cheery jack-o’-lantern hearts. From the top of the tower, we were in a vantage point where points of interest such as Tokyo Disneyland and Mt. Fuji would have been visible… on a clear day. Because the rain continued to pour, the city was still covered in mist, severely limiting our visibility. However, the weather gave the city a noir-esque feel that enhanced what we were able to see, including Zōjō-ji, Azabu-Jūban, Reiyūkai, and the Rainbow Bridge as it vanished into the horizon.
After coming back down the tower to the exit, the tour guide allowed the group time to visit the gift shops before coming to the exit and boarding the bus. However, I failed to understand that the exit was actually on the other side from the entrance, and waited at the front until the meetup time. I realized the mistake I have made, and rushed back upstairs to where the actual exit was. I made it back on the bus in the nick of time, and gave my sincerest apologies to the tour guide as the vehicle departed for Meiji Shrine. I was unaware of the enlightenment I would undergo.
Photo Credit: Own Work-Taro Tokyo