Lost in a Disneyland dream

VISITING Tokyo would never be complete if you can’t make it to Disneyland, and a day is never enough to go around the vast place with its spectacular collection of different attractions and shows in several themed lands.

A day at Tokyo Disneyland starts with the long lines that stretch from the ticket booths to forever but once you get through the entrance, it felt like being let loose in a huge room filled with goodies you don’t know which one to pick up first.

The sun was getting high as I followed the Saipan Awaodori team toward the Big Thunder Mountain and fell in line with the thousands of others who didn’t mind the scorching heat of the sun in exchange for a few minutes of roller coaster ride that takes you into the belly of the mountain through improvised mining fields.

We cruised to Tom Sawyer’s Island where I got left by the group after I went exploring Indian settlement camp and caught up with them lining up at the Splash Mountain, a ride which is every child’s dream. The experience cruising through the cool fantasy tunnel being entertained by colorful characters we only see on TV brought out the kids in us and left us wanting for more. A final plunge had me frantically hugging my two cameras for protection as we approached a waterfall but we did not get wet at all.

It was hard to keep track of all the rides that we sampled until the Space Mountain ride which tested my guts almost beyond endurance.  As you go down the basement to ride the coaster that will take you into space, cubicles are available for those who change their minds but I was not about to change my mind. Until the time we were strapped on to our seats and the coaster just whirled out of nowhere into a dark abyss lighted only with dots that resemble galaxies and constellations.

The gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, and seemingly never-ending ride elicited screams which I was surprised to discover came from my own throat but it was over soon and I alighted pale and weak-kneed from the coaster, just like almost everybody else.

Visitors are drawn to an afternoon parade of the world’s favorite cartoon characters, followed by another more spectacular show at 8 p.m. where an electrical dream lights parade will transport you into a whole new world as your favorite cartoon characters parade before you adorned with over a million colorful blinking lights.

Dinner was forgotten as a magical fireworks show lighted the skies in front of the castle. The day passed by in a fantastic blur of memories to be sorted out and preserved later. We browsed the shops and bought souvenir items before going to the arranged meeting place to go home.

Tokyo Disneyland closes at 11 p.m. every day and we trooped out the gate with everybody else, tired but happy with the enchanting experience.

I left with one big regret—the Haunted Mansion which I was so looking forward to explore was closed for renovation but there’s always a next time.

For more information about the Tokyo Disneyland, visit http://www.tokyodisneyresort.co.jp/index_e.html.

Takeshita Street: Where cool, hip, punk and everything unique blend in

TAKESHITA Street in Jarajuku, Tokyo is a hub for the city’s younger population.

There you can find McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, The Body Shop and a wide assortment of small fashion boutiques, cafés, restaurants and what-have-you.

Takeshita Street throbs with so much color and life and activity that there is barely enough room to move around.
From 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., Takashita Street is just like any other ordinary, narrow road. But after 8 a.m., the street starts to come to life. By 11 a.m., its jam-packed.

If you hate crowds and would rather not want to rub sweaty elbows with students and tourists from all parts of the world, this is not the place for you. But then, you will miss seeing the most extraordinary blend of hip-hop or punk fashion, vintage or the latest clothing trends, weird but nice- looking footwear especially those from a store named “Out of the World,” inexpensive trinkets, fancy jewelry and accessories, food, beverages and more.

Takeshita Street is home to the most unique sights especially on weekends. Individuals wearing red, green, pink or multi-colored hair and fancy costumes are a common sight.

Although the street is short, one day is barely enough to go around and browse the shops squeezed in. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring even the narrowest doors on the sides, and don’t fail to follow steep stairs that will lead you to the basements of the stores. You don’t want to miss a lot.

I spent two mornings on Takeshita Street during my week-long stay in Tokyo last month since it was just a block away from the house of Kinpachi Restaurant owner Misako-san’s where I stayed. Time was never enough. Except for buying some necessities such as a 700 yen wristwatch and some trinkets for friends, I spent more time taking photos than browsing in the shops.

I delighted in spending 400 yen on a glass of Hawaiian blue-flavored shaved ice and dug into it with gusto. I also went to a pizza joint located in the basement of a three-story store and paid 530 yen plus 10 percent tax for a pizza meal.

I would have loved to explore further but changed my mind when I saw the cellphone Misako-san gave me to use in case I get lost. It was all in Japanese, and I couldn’t understand a single letter.

One notable thing about Takeshita Street is that despite the narrow space and hordes of people flocking the road, there is not a single piece of trash or even a cigarette butt on the sidewalks or anywhere.

Planning a trip to Tokyo? Don’t miss Takeshita Street. It is located directly across from the exit of JR Harajuku Station.

Exploring Asakusa Sensoji Temple

LOCATED at the northern part of Tokyo is Sensoji Temple, an impressive Buddhist temple which is among Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temples. Built somewhere in the 7th century, the temple attracts hundreds of tourists and worshippers from all over the world each day.

Arriving from the Asakusa subway station, we made our way to the Kiminarimon, or Thunder Gate, a majestic structure which serves as the entrance to the Sensoji Temple a few meters away.

At the street sides, sturdy individuals wearing shorts and Japanese hats call out passengers to try the rickshaw rides, or carriages pulled by men and driven around the district.

Entering the Kiminarimon will lead you to the Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade. Here is a street buzzing with the never-ending click of cameras and different accents from all over the world.

Asakusa Nakamise stretched out for about 200 meters with rows and rows of stalls brimming with all sorts of goods— from snacks, bags, shoes and clothes, hobby materials, Kimono wear, tortoise shell works, coral ornaments, jewelry, accessories, folk crafts, Japanese traditional toys, Japanese lanterns, stickers, and a huge assortment of Japanese food items.

I squeezed my way around, merging with the tourists and locals, clicking my cameras and missing the chance to sample the Japanese delicacies.

From one of the stalls, a very colorful and attractive display of folding fans caught my attention and I immediately clicked my shutter. Not satisfied, I went nearer, not paying attention to the picture of a camera posted at the center of the fans.

Suddenly, the stall owner came out, uttered a string of Japanese words which I did not understand and pointed at the picture of the camera. How was I to know that picture taking was not allowed?

Just before going up to the Sensoji temple is a huge bronze incense burner where the smoke wafting from the burning incense sticks are supposed to bring good luck.

A few feet away is a fountain of water with dragons spitting out water. Sawada-san and Misako-san, our chaperones, told us to use the ladles to transfer water from the fountain and rinse both hands or mouth and spit the water for purification and cleansing rites just before going to the temple. I skipped the ritual because I couldn’t risk getting my cameras wet.

I savored it all—the sight of the five-storied pagoda standing proudly beside the main temple, the flickering candles worshippers lighted inside the temple, the chanting, clouds of smoke from the incense burner, the splashing of water from the cleansing fountain, the lively trade going on at Asakusa Nakamise shopping street, the vendors calling out customers to buy their wares, pigeons flying around, and tourists taking photos of everything and anything,

I wanted to stay until all my memory cards or batteries were exhausted but time was running out. I wanted to taste the multi-colored ice cream from one of the stalls and lick it on the way back to our assembly place but changed my mind when I saw the sign “Don’t eating the street.” Okay. The only souvenir I took home was a pack of fake cigarettes which I bought for 399 Yen, a reminder of a colorful afternoon at the Sensoji temple grounds.

Footnotes from Tokyo (part1

THE long walk through endless halls from the arrival area at Guam Airport to Gate 8 where we were scheduled to board the Continental Airlines to Narita Airport a couple of weeks ago should have been an omen of more walks and feet blisters to come.

I was with Jinky Kintaro, one of the members of the Saipan Awaodori Team that was set to perform for the Koenji Awaodori Festival and we had to transit through Guam. Everybody else in the group took the Delta Airlines flight straight from Saipan to Narita. The three-hour flight went by and we met up with the group in Narita Airport but the minute we boarded a van to go to Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, something seemed wrong.

For one, the steering wheel was at the right side of the car, like all the other cars. I was not driving anyway so why worry.

The horror began when we emerged from the airport parking space. Mayumi-san, our guide, drove effortlessly but at a speed which somebody who has lived in an island for the last five years would consider as “maddening.”

I was about to relax when suddenly, a huge truck was careening toward us, with the driver sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road.

There was no time to recite my goodbyes and I closed my eyes bracing for the crash, which did not come. I learned later that Japanese people drive on the left side of the road.

Mayumi-san sped through numerous toll gates whose bars automatically lifted each time a car passes by.

Miraculously, we reached Koenji in one piece. It felt good to be alive after a terrifying two-hour ride. Used to the slow-paced life in Palau and Saipan for half a decade, Tokyo was overwhelming.

A bustling city of buildings, skyscrapers and more buildings, cars of the latest models speeding dizzily on the wide roads, and thousands of bicycles on the  streets which is being used by thousands of the city’s population as the best option for transportation.

Tokyo at this time is blisteringly, scorching hot. I thought fans were a part of the Japanese culture, now I know it is a necessity. Everybody uses fans everywhere—while walking, sitting or eating.

At 3 p.m., we were already so hungry, the memories of the airplane food long gone. We trooped to guess where—a McDonald’s outlet in Koenji where I ordered fish fillet, French fries and a glass of coke for 590 yen. But for dinner, we went to Okada Restaurant at Takashi Ma-Daira district and gorged up on Katsudon, sesame and vegetable soup, soba or the authentic traditional Japanese noodles dipped in sauce was good.

It felt so good to flop down in the soft bed at the room Misako-san (of Kinpachi Restaurant) gave me in her condo in Harajuko Street after a long day of changing planes, cars, trains, walking miles of corridors and hallways and going through the hassles of immigration and checking in and out of the airports.

Day 2

The shrill ringing of my cell phone alarm woke me up from a deep slumber. We were to go out at 7 am so I set my alarm at 6 a.m. With eyes still half-closed, I stumbled to the bathroom and woke up to the cool blast of the shower. I did not wait for the heater to work but I’ve taken my bath and changed but still, there were no other sounds of activity from Misako-san’s room or from Ronnie Boy, our videographer.

My first blooper for the day – I forgot to set my clock to Tokyo time, which is one hour ahead of Saipan time.

A few minutes later, I heard the voice of doom— we were called for breakfast. Misako-san’s mother Mama-san served bacon and vegetables, cabbage, sausage and toasted bread oozing with cheese. I mean Mama-san is a superb cook but for me whose vocabulary does not contain the word “breakfast”, it was an ordeal.

The day passed in a blur, with us picking up the kids from their apartment in Koenji and running from one subway station to another, running up and down stairs. We visited the Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade and the Sinsoji temple, but more on this next issue.

The train stations, especially the Tokyo main station was a nightmare, so busy especially during peak hours. Human bodies are like ants squirming and rushing in from all directions and pouring in and out of the trains.

Misako-san, the rest of the group and everybody in Tokyo walks so fast while I was tempted several times to sit on the pavement and cry.

Day 3

I finally had an hour in the morning off. Lugging my laptop, I hurried to a Starbucks coffee outlet a few blocks down from Misako-san’s house and ordered coffee and a slice of cake. There were a thousand sites available but I could not connect to the internet, no matter how I tried.

Asking the waiters would be useless because my Japanese is limited to four prhases –“Ohayo gozaimasu or good morning,” “domo arigato or thank you,” “konbanwa or good evening,” and the most used of all, “wakaranai” or I don’t understand.

I found a 10-minute trial internet with http://www.fon.com and was finally connected. I replied to two emails and suddenly, the trial period was up. My effort to buy more airtime was futile. It was taking so long and my battery was hovering dangerously low.

What a dark life—no internet connection, no cellphone, no nothing. No connection to my origins whatsoever.

If you’re used to the friendly hi’s and hellos of the people here, forget it in Tokyo. Everybody’s absorbed in reaching wherever they are going. Oh, better luck tomorrow, I told myself.

Later, we went up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and enjoyed a superb 360-degree panoramic view of the whole city. Tokyo is very clean, despite its millions of residents. No smoke or smog can be seen from the observatory, other cities where visibility is limited because of black smoke.

Day 4

We were in Koenji once again, waiting for the biggest Awaodori Festival to begin in the district’s major streets. The Saipan kids were joining the street dancing with the Tokyo Tensuiren group. I had a couple of hours to spare so I tried to find an internet café.

Misako-san scribbled some Japanese characters on a piece of paper and told me to show it to anybody to ask for directions. Luckily, I found one café, at the basement of a department store. With one hour to spare, I spent the first 14 minutes trying to communicate with the receptionist that I want to get connected. She spoke no English and all I understood was she was asking for my passport. Okay. It took more minutes as I keyed in personal information in a computer before she finally ushered me into a plush booth.

Finally, I got connected with some friends but suddenly, the keyboard went Japanese. I spent another 13 minutes trying to solve what key I had pressed and by the time it was okay, I had to go out because the festival was about to start. I gave her a 1,000 yen bill and pocketed the change I discovered later that I paid 780 yen or almost $10 for an hour! On Saipan I pay 50 cents to a dollar for an hour of fast connection. Talk about the high cost of Tokyo living.

Day 5

We left the house at 5 a.m. and took the trains to Tokyo Disneyland. Thousands of people were already ahead of us, but I estimated about 80 percent of the Disneyland visitors were adults. Only 20 percent were kids. (More on this later)

Day 6

Nothing scheduled for the day so Ronnie Boy and I spent the day at Shinjuku and Shibuya combing the electronics shops and other stores. I went home empty-handed. My jaws practically dropped at the sky-high prices of gadgets and camera accessories, especially those made in Japan.

Later, I went out and finally had a leisurely street photography shoot until 10 p.m. It was time to go home and pack our things.

More footnotes

Here are some helpful tips I learned the hard way to get you around Tokyo.

*Japanese time is one time.

*Study basic conversational Niponggo before you go. It helps.

*Buses and trains have priority seats for the elderly and disabled, the pregnant and those with kids. Observe it.

*Lines are observed in bus stops. We didn’t fall in line and a couple of senior citizens allowed us to board ahead. It was embarrassing.

*When you ride the escalators, stay at the left side. The right side is for people who are hurrying.

*Walk in a single file in streets and stairways. I discovered this is not some part of the culture but a necessity, with the pedestrian lanes so narrow.

*Smoke only in designated areas.

*Don’t forget your fare card because you need it to board trains and buses.

Next issue, let’s visit Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade and the Sensoji temple, one of Japan’s oldest tem