Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Day 3: Ikebukuro, Asakusa, New Year's Eve 2009

JR Rail Pass
Today is the last day of the year, the 31st of Dec 2008. We first went to Ueno station in the morning to get our JR Passes. Apparently, only foreigners are allowed to purchase this pass. It is actually quite powerful. Unlimited rides on JR operated trains and certain Shinkansen lines (minus the Nozomi line) for either 7 or 14 days, or a whole month. We bought the pass for whole of Japan (28300 yen). You can get this pass at any JR station information counter, but you have to order online ahead, and bring your passport with you. We're going from Tokyo to Kyoto, Hakone and back. So this works out to be a lot cheaper than if we buy the tickets separate. All the Japanese we encountered on this trip, including Atsunobu and Koki were terribly impressed with this magic card. The JR Pass is probably the best pass in the universe.

Meeting Mieko at Ikebukuro
After settling the tickets, Charlene and I took the Yamanote line and went to meet an old friend of her's from Susan Garnsey's lab - Mieko Ueno. We met up in Ikebukuro for lunch and coffee. We had hot pot - cod fish, meat balls, and a kimchi and pork. It was a great time to catch up with a friend, we had fun talking and finding out what was going on in each others' lives. Ikebukuro is between Ueno Station and Shinjuku, and it is also a center for shopping and business. Anyway, after coffee we headed back to Ueno to meet up with the rest again.

The Walk to Asakusa
Charlene and I came here before as well. But it was again nice to come back to a familiar place. Asakusa is the area where the Kaminarimon is as well as Sensoji Temple. Koki brought us around here the last time. He also told us the story about the lightning and thunder gods I think...behind the Kaminarimon, and also the goddess of mercy statue behind the Sensoji Temple. But I forget exactly what it is. My memory is not the best in the universe. This time, we spent half a day there, and discovered some new things. We walked from Ueno station to Kaminarimon (30min).

Because it is New Year's Eve, there was an extra amount of crowd around the Kaminarimon/Sensoji Temple area. The shops in front of the temple were all open in their full glory. We were so distracted by the little tidbits from on the way, and also the area before Sensoji Temple - tempura, Mr Donut, Japanese pickles, red bean snacks of all kinds, hot sweet sake, rice crackers, little trinkets. We saw Ryokan Shigetsu again around the area. It is still there and doing well. We were glad about that, and happy to see it. And just when we made it to the Sensoji Temple, we discovered that the New Year scene involves also a night market around the temple. There was stewed radishes (oden), yakitori, grilled clams, fish, caramelized fruit, hot sake. So many things to eat. We hung around the Temple area, beautiful crescent moon. And as we were going back, we had more beef stew and hot sake.

After walking around the most awesome temple in the universe and the most crazy night market in the universe, we caught the train on the Yamanote line, the most amazing line in the universe, and arrived back at Ueno house, and watched the Red/White show usher in the New Year. This show, called Kohaku Uta Gassen in Japanese, is always showed at the end of the year as part of the celebration, and traditional Japanese families watch it as it showcases the best music of the year. So in most senses, it is the best music variety show in the universe. At midnight the Temples all over Japan start ringing their bells (108 times, representing the number of human sins and desires), and the people rushing to make their wishes at the temples. In Japan, it seems, New Year is celebrated first with a family dinner, then going to the temple to observe the bell ringing, and praying for blessings for the New Year. A huge crowd. Police had to hold them back for order. They are the most policing policemen in the universe.

Have the happiest new year in the universe!

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