On Nick and Dee’s second day we met up at lunchtime for a bus trip. For me it was only 7 stops along the Tozai line to Otemachi Station, which is in the same underground complex as what is known as Tokyo Station, underneath the old early 20th century Marunouchi Station building.
Marunouchi means “within the enclosure” and this district was originally inside the castle’s outermost moats. It was therefore a very prestigious place to live or own a business, and that carries through to today where this is the most prestigious business district of Tokyo.
The railway station underground is massive – it’s a good 10 minute walk from Otemachi Station to Marunouchi. It is not just subway trains, but this is the terminal for the bullet trains – shinkansen – coming into central Tokyo. At rush hour the place is absolutely heaving.
The bus tours run by a company Hatobus operate from outside the main station entrance, most of the offices and waiting rooms are under the railway arches of one of the overground lines. Nick and Dee wanted to do a hop-on hop-off bus but Hatobus didn’t offer this – they happily referred us to another company not far away that would – but we decided a straightforward one-hour bus tour would actually be less complicated and we could go back to any interesting places later in the afternoon.
We were too late for the 13:30 service (setting off in 3 minutes!) so we signed up for the 14:00 tour and had a drink while we waited. Our bus was a yellow double-decker open-topped bus. Even though it was 30th October, it was a warm, sunny day and I hadn’t brought my coat.
We got on board and most of the other passengers were Japanese from outside Tokyo, with the exception of two older guys from England – one of whom was actually South African, who had come for the Rugby World Cup and to their immense delight, both their teams had reached the final.
We knew the tour was in Japanese but we would be given devices that would provide information in English at certain GPS locations. These turned out to just be mobile phones. Unfortunately the volume was turned down and I never worked out how to get it up again, but Nick and Dee assured me that the spoken text was just the same as the written text that appeared on the screen.
The tour guide sat at the front of the bus, speaking only Japanese. From the phone we gathered some interesting tidbits, such as the building where the Americans had kept their headquarters after the end of the second World War, and the police headquarters (equivalent of Scotland Yard) and the Parliament building (known as the White Palace).
We skirted the southern side of the Imperial Palace gardens then went south into Toranomon Hills towards the Tokyo Tower. This was the original communication tower providing radio and TV services across Tokyo before Skytree was built. Unlike Skytree it didn’t have any aviation lights, which is why it was painted white and International Orange, so it could be easily seen by low-flying aircraft. All cranes in Tokyo (including the ones occasionally seen on top of buildings) have the same colour scheme.
From there, the bus headed onto the freeway (we were warned not to stand up as the bus was only just low enough to fit under the gate – in the event there was plenty of headroom – but we were also warned to hold on to our hats). This took us alongside Tokyo Bay and the waterfront area where many business districts stood on reclaimed land. We went over one of the waterways on the Rainbow Bridge, a beautiful long bridge, towards the Kachidoki area where I teach on Saturdays.
I learned that the Kachidoki Bridge (over the Sumida river) is actually a drawbridge that can open for river traffic. However because the roadway is so busy, and there has not been much river traffic in so many years, the last time it was opened was 1970. It is currently covered up for maintenance work.
We then went through the Ginza area and past the Kabuki theatre I had already seen, and then we were back in the mid-town area around the Imperial Palace (I had never realised Ginza was that close!). As we came back towards the station, the tour guide suddenly burst into song – some of the other Japanese tourists started clapping along or even singing also so it must have been a traditional Japanese song, maybe a famous song about Tokyo?
After getting off the bus we went to a tourist information centre where Nick and Dee explored the possibility of a guided river tour. Unfortunately none of the river services seemed to have a tour-guide option. Instead we headed to the Imperial Palace Gardens.
One of the pavements alongside the moat had been sealed off and was just reopened as we were crossing the road. As we went down we came across the unusual sight of a frogman in the moat, with a crane, a platform full of sand and a couple of other men. We could hear the frogman’s breathing and water bubbling around him as for some reason he was mic’ed up and a loudspeaker was broadcasting the sound.
Our best guess was that they were repairing or reinforcing the moat by putting more material in it. But we really had no idea, and especially no idea why the frogman noises needed to be so loud!
We walked down the the ceremonial entrance to the Imperial palace. There are other, less formal entrances and exits which are used day to day, but the Main Gate is the one used for important national ceremonies (and ambassadorial visits).
We arrived to see a policeman having a stern word with a group of seemingly Latin American tourists trying to take a group photograph with a banner. The policeman was talking softly, but he carried a big stick. Across the bridge were two palace guards at their guard posts, standing stock still, looking straight ahead like palace guards the world over. It was the guy with the very noisy strimmer between them who was catching everyone else’s attention. Eventually the Palace Gates opened a little and strimmer guy disappeared inside. Then the two guards did a strange changing-of-the-guard type manoeuver where they seemed to just swap sides.
Apparently the gate is open to the public on January 2nd when the Imperial Family make an appearance for New Year, so I might return, though it is likely to be very busy.
We wandered up to the East Gardens entrance I had visited in August, only to find it was closed. Winter closing time was an hour and a half earlier, and we spent too long at the Main Gate (and probably watching the frogman). Instead we found an Irish pub that served food in the shopping arcade under the Imperial Palace Hotel across the road, and sat chatting and supping drinks for an hour or two.
Then we went to Roppongi. This is known as one of the liveliest, wildest, most interesting nightlife centres in Tokyo. It was particularly lively the night before Halloween, and people in various costumes were walking around. The main street had a freeway running above it, and at one point we saw a group of go-karts piloted by various tigers, polar bears and fairies waiting at the traffic lights, then speeding off when they went green. Nick and Dee immediately decided they were going to do that tomorrow.
We wandered around looking for somewhere appropriate to stop and eat or have a drink. I was trying to find them something authentically Japanese so rather than just the touristy street-level stuff I was looking at the signs on the buildings for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th floor businesses. I vetoed an English-style Fish and Chips shop.
We found somewhere promising and went up the stairs only to be told “no tables.” But there was another restaurant on the 4th floor and after nosing around a little I found the lift. We went up and found pretty much what I was looking for.
It was a cozy little restaurant, it had some music playing, there were free tables. The tables had hotplates in the centre – one of the other parties there were cooking some vegetables in a bowl of boiling water. They brought menus which had enough English in them to get a vague idea of what they were serving.
Of course I played it safe by going for the fried chicken (Japanese style though), but Nick saw pufferfish on the menu (the notorious fish that can poison you if not prepared exactly right) and ordered that. And some fries. The fish arrived deep fried. So we ended up having fish and chips after all.