Tokyo’s Skyscrapers

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SGMT Japan Tokyo Skyline 03


If plans for the Sky Mile Tower in Tokyo are approved, it will become the tallest building in the world, with a height that will be twice that of the current champion, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. At a proposed height of 1600 meters — 1 mile, hence the name — it will be taller than even the Jeddah Tower, which is on course to be the world’s tallest once ongoing construction is completed. The Sky Mile Tower complex will be built in Tokyo Bay and will include such cool stuff as hexagon-shaped wave-breakers that will double as freshwater reservoirs and urban farming plots.
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Sky Mile Tower - Tokyo, Japan

The proposed Sky Mile Tower | Image by TJ | CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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Lake Kawaguchi: Fuji and Fall

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SGMT Japan Lake Kawaguchi Momiji Kairo 05 Logs and autumn leaves

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The appreciation of fall foliage is serious business in Japan. Just as with cherry blossoms, there is an entire industry devoted to predicting when the leaves would start to turn where. In my case, I was going to be in Tokyo on the second week of November — not exactly peak koyo season in Tokyo yet — so I figured my best bet would be a day trip to Lake Kawaguchi and its famous maple corridor, Momiji Kairo.

Lake Kawaguchi — sometimes called Lake Kawaguchiko, or just Kawaguchiko, since the -ko already indicates that it is a lake — is one of five lakes at the northern base of Mount Fuji. (That area, in fact, is called the Fuji Five Lakes region or Fujigoko and is part of the Yamanashi Prefecture of Japan.) Among the five lakes, Kawaguchiko is the easiest to access by public transportation and is therefore the one that is the most visited.
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SGMT Japan Lake Kawaguchi 01

A bit of sepia before the color overload later

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How to get to/around Lake Kawaguchi

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From Tokyo, you can get to Kawaguchiko by bus or train, but the latter option is more complicated and — if I remember my research correctly — not cheaper even with a JR Pass. Take the bus.

  • From Shinjuku Station: Take a Fujikyu or Keio Bus from the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal (opposite Yodobashi Camera near the West Exit of Shinjuku Station) to Kawaguchiko Station (2 hours/1750 yen).
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  • From Tokyo Station: Take a Fujikyu or JR Kanto Bus from Tokyo Station (Yaesu South Exit) to Kawaguchiko Station.
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From Kawaguchiko Station, take the retro bus around Lake Kawaguchi.

  • A 2-day pass costs 1200 yen. (There is no one-day pass, unfortunately.)
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  • A one-time journey from Kawaguchiko to Itchiku Kubota stop is only 380 yen.
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  • Momiji Kairo is a 1-minute walk from the Itchiku Kubota Museum stop.
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Fuji-san! Fuji-san!

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Being at the base of Mount Fuji, Lake Kawaguchi is, of course, one of the best places in Japan from which to view its most famous mountain. That said, there are no guarantees: Fuji-san is famous for being a tease. I know quite a few people who have intentionally sought out Mount Fuji but had to leave Japan sans a sighting. Clouds are known to surround not just the summit but the bulk of the mountain itself and indeed, when I arrived in Kawaguchiko, I didn’t even know in which direction to look for Mount Fuji. I got off the retro bus, walked to the lake, and didn’t even realize there was a mountain — much less the mountain — almost directly across me. It was an overcast day; I had zero expectations of seeing Mount Fuji.

After about an hour of snapping maple leaves, though, a fellow tourist came up to me, speaking in Thai. Upon realizing I wasn’t, after all, a fellow Thai, he switched languages. “Have you seen Mount Fuji?”

I thought he was going to ask for directions so I said, “No, I’m sorry. It’s cloudy, I don’t think –”

“No, no,” he said. “Look!” He pointed.

And there it was: Mount Fuji, just above the roof of one of the buildings of the Itchiku Kubota Museum. Clouds still hovered over its summit but it was there — I just hadn’t bothered to look up. I guess that’s the problem with setting low expectations: sometimes you don’t bother trying hard enough, even though it would have just been so easy.

I walked back towards the direction of the lake, now keeping an eye on the snow-capped cone. In the middle of taking more shots of the fall foliage, I realized there was now only a thin cloud covering the summit of Mount Fuji…and that it was slowly moving away…and then…

“Fuji-san! Fuji-san!” I wanted to shout, only I wasn’t brave enough. (I was alone.) It didn’t matter. Barely a second after I caught my first glimpse of the summit, a group of Japanese tourists shouted it out for me. “Fuji-san!”
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SGMT Japan Lake Kawaguchi Momiji Kairo 13 Mount Fuji framed by leaves

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The Meiji Shrine

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Rurouni KenshinOne of my favorite TV shows of all time is Samurai X, the English-language version of the beloved Japanese anime series Rurouni Kenshin. It takes place in the early Meiji era and follows the story of Kenshin Himura, a feared wartime assassin who tries to make up for the murders he once committed by traveling around the Japanese countryside and giving help to anyone who needed it. People who try to do the right thing all the time are always infinitely more interesting to me — self-absorbed people are so boring, self-gratification so ordinary — and Kenshin was the perfect embodiment of that ideal. He was someone who inwardly wrestled with darkness but always strived for goodness and peace and light, not just for himself but for the people around him, and he was also selfless enough to voluntarily relinquish his hard-won peace when required, such as when a powerful fellow assassin tried to bring down the Meiji government.

Which isn’t to say that all this passed through my mind as I strolled through the forest and grounds of the Meiji Shrine, or Meiji Jingu, in Tokyo last year. In fact, I only belatedly discovered its tenuous Samurai X connection when I tried to remember why the name “Meiji” rang vague bells in my mind. I mean, I’ve heard of the Meiji era, obviously, but I had a feeling there was something more……… So that’s what it was.

The Meiji shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. It’s a haven of green and silence in the middle of bustling Tokyo, and even though it attracts visitors from all over, it is still undoubtedly a shrine first and foremost.
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SGMT Japan Tokyo Meiji Shrine 00 front tori

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This imposing, elegant torii (gate) is just a few meters away from the JR Harajuku Station.

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Tokyo Notes: Cherry Blossoms and Fall Foliage

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Some of the best cherry blossoms and fall foliage viewing spots in Tokyo. Includes each place’s most picturesque features and short instructions for how to get there (especially for JR Pass holders).
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Sakura, Chidorigafuchi moat, Tokyo Imperial Palace (public domain)

SGMT Japan Lake Kawaguchiko Momiji Kairo 04

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There’s something about the Japanese culture of appreciation for flowers and leaves. I was in Tokyo last November to view the fall colors, and when I went to the Momiji Kairo (Maple Corridor, or the “Walkway of Red Leaves”) near Lake Kawaguchi, most of the people there with me weren’t foreign tourists but the Japanese themselves. And you could tell it wasn’t just for something to post on Instagram — many had no cameras in hand. A spry white-haired lady was there with her granddaughter. There were elderly couples. Families. Many of them walked slowly, taking their time. Appreciating without feeling the need to keep. It reminded me of a poem we learned in freshman year of high school (hi Mrs. Aranduque!) — if, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his Rhodora, beauty is its own excuse for being, then the appreciation of beauty ought also, by itself, to be enough.
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SGMT Japan Lake Kawaguchiko Momiji Kairo 02 Grandma

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Momiji Kairo is in the Kawaguchiko district, 2 hours away from Tokyo (directions at the end of this post). However, there are spots within Tokyo itself that are perfect for viewing both the cherry blossoms and the fall colors.
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Rikugien Garden

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Known for:

  • Japanese landscape garden considered Tokyo’s most beautiful
  • Weeping cherry trees near the main gate that typically bloom from late March to early April
  • Autumn colors particularly beautiful around the stream that runs by the Tsutsuji no Chaya teahouse, around the Togetsukyo Bride and from the Fujishirotoge viewpoint

How to get to Rikugien Garden:

  • Take the JR Yamanote line to Komagome Station — 5-10 minute walk south leads you to main entrance gate

Hotels near Rikugien Garden

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Not all those who wander in Tokyo are lost in Tokyo

Except me. I was DEFINITELY lost.
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SGMT Japan Tokyo Street Scene 01

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When Tolkien wrote his now-ubiquitous, often-misappropriated line, he probably wasn’t thinking about girls who get lost three times in less than 24 hours in Tokyo, e.g., me.

It got to the point that when I told my mum I wish they had come with me — I was traveling alone — she said, “What, so we could get lost too?” (Thanks mum.) 😛

It’s not that I’m entirely stupid. (Or I hope not.) It’s just that the directions from my Airbnb host said I was supposed to use the South Exit of Shinjuku Station, which, it turns out, is the busiest train station in the world and has a million different exits. And for some reason, I get out of the Narita Express and the only things I could see are: (1) directions to the New South and Southern Terraces exits, and (2) a whole lot of scaffolding. There is no sign — that I could see — to a South Exit anywhere.

So then I have this brilliant brainwave: maybe there is no South Exit anymore! Maybe it is currently under reconstruction (hence the scaffolding). Or maybe it has now been replaced by the New South exit (which…come on…that does make a bit of sense, doesn’t it?). And even if there is still a South Exit somewhere, it has to be in the same direction as the New South exit and the Southern Terraces exit, right? Given that they’re all, you know, in the south?

Um, apparently, no.

I find that out the hard way, after more than an hour of pacing the scaffolding-littered walkway between the NEX platform turnstiles, the New South Exit and the Southern Terraces Exit. In Takashimaya, I consult an area map but I don’t see the South Exit. I text my Airbnb host. He doesn’t reply. Finally, I decide to just get out of the buildings and into the street to see if any of the landmarks look like the ones in my host’s directions.

It’s a solid idea, if I may say so myself, except that it’s raining. I go ahead anyway. Eventually, drenched, I find the South Exit and discover it is across an entire road from the New South and Southern Terraces exits. Apparently I had gotten off the train on the same side of the road as the latter exits, and to find the South Exit, I should have gone the opposite way. I should have gone northHuh.
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Tokyo Train-ing: The JR Pass and the Narita Express

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SGMT Japan Narita Airport Terminal 2 01

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There are various ways to get to central Tokyo from Narita Airport. If you have a JR Pass, you can use the Narita Express — free.

Should you get a JR Pass?

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There are so many articles in the internet devoted to this topic, but to make it simple, if you’re going on at least two long-distance train trips within Japan, you should strongly consider getting a JR Pass because it covers the Shinkansen (bullet trains). In my case, I was going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, so I went for it.

The JR (Japan Rail) Pass allows you to travel for free on nearly all trains on the JR train network, as well as on JR buses, and some ferries and monorails (see HERE for complete list). As mentioned above, it is also valid on the Shinkansen, the super fast bullet trains that connect major cities in Japan. With a bit of planning, it’s possible to use only the JR Pass to get around — personally, within Tokyo, I didn’t have to get on (and spend for) any other means of local transport. That said, there might be attractions on your itinerary that the JR Pass network doesn’t quite reach. (For example, on a day trip to Lake Kawaguchiko, I paid for the bus from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko Station, as well as for the bus that goes around the Lake Kawaguchiko area.) Or there might be places where choosing a non-JR mode of transpo just makes more sense — Kyoto, for example, has an excellent bus network that is not covered by the JR Pass. You’ll have to take a look at your itinerary, check if you can use the JR Pass to get to where you want to go, and make a decision based on that.

The JR Pass is quite expensive. Including postage fees, it cost me USD245 (PHP 11,858) and was definitely my biggest expense on the trip. However, without the JR Pass, here’s what some of my train rides would have cost:

  • Tokyo – Kyoto (Shinkansen Hikari) = JPY 13,800 = PHP 5,710 = PHP 11,420 v/v
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  • Kyoto – Nara = JPY 710 = PHP 293 = PHP 586 v/v
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  • Narita Airport T2 – Tokyo = JPY 1,320 = PHP 546 = PHP 1,092 v/v

That’s already PHP 13,098 — and doesn’t include yet all the JR trains/buses I took within Tokyo and Kyoto — so the Pass was worth it for me.

To help you decide if it will be worth it for you, list down the train trips you plan on taking while in Japan, then check the price of each trip HERE. (Bookmark the link — Hyperdia.com will be your best friend in Japan.)
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Inauspicious beginnings and the importance of being kind

To yourself.
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SGMT Japan Kyoto Gion 01

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Tokyo and I didn’t hit it off right away.

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Before I was 24 hours in the city, I had managed to get lost three times. And I wasn’t even mildly lost — I was tired-and-hungry, all-alone, dragging-baggage-in-the-rain, going-back-and-forth-a-dozen-times lost. Thrice.

The bad luck actually started even before I left Cebu. Over the past few months, changes both structural and procedural had been gradually implemented in the Mactan Cebu International Airport, and one change I’d noticed on my last arrival was that Filipinos no longer had to fill up Arrival Cards.

On the day I was to depart for Tokyo, after final luggage check, I looked around and found myself in an unfamiliar “Passport Control” section with several booths manned by Immigration officers. For some reason, I didn’t see anybody filling up or even holding a Departure Card, which you would normally accomplish before going through Immigration. And so — blame it on the fact that I’d had no breakfast, or the paltry two hours of sleep I’d had the night before, or the new airport layout, or maybe I was just being stupid — I thought, hmmmm, maybe we no longer have to fill up Departure Cards too. Nice!

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