Tunnel of Light

About four hours before the end of 2019 we decided where we would go for our midnight celebrations. The two contenders were Shibuya, where there would be no fireworks but a lot of people out on the street (specifically the famous “Scramble Crossing”), and Hakkejima Sea Paradise, which was to the south of Yokohama and about a 2 hour train journey away, where fireworks were promised.

I checked that trains would be running all night – not just the Tokyo subway but the trains between Yokohama and Tokyo and local trains around Yokohama too. I was in favour of Shibuya, but Janna really wanted fireworks, and in the age-old way of deciding these things, we both put forward our arguments, we considered each others’ points of view, and then did what Janna wanted.

While it was not at all cold by Russia standards it was pretty chilly for Japan so we wrapped up in our warmest clothes and made our way to the train station for the first leg of our journey. Things were a little confusing when we reached Tokyo station as there were many trains stopping at the platform we needed for destinations other than where we were headed – variations of the Keikyu line, and we really needed a “limited express” service because there were some 70 stops on the local service!

However with all my experience dealing with metro lines around the world and in Tokyo in particular, I was able to suss out the right train to get on without having to ask at the desk. And after leaving the central Tokyo area, it began skipping stations with abandon and we arrived at our connection with the “Seaside Line” more or less within the expected timeframe.

Confusingly, the Seaside Line left from a different station – we had to leave the Keikyu station and go up several levels, as it turned out the Seaside Line is an overhead monorail service. The station was filling up quite a lot for this time of night which gave me heart that we were headed to the right place and that there would be plenty of other people there.

I still wasn’t sure exactly what the deal was. Hakkejima Sea Paradise is basically an aquarium, as far as I could gather, with dolphin shows and fairground rides, on a little island almost as far south from central Yokohama as Yokohama is from Tokyo. I didn’t know if we would have to pay to enter – the website said the facilities were open all night, but that is still a bit ambiguous.

I’m sure in the daytime the views from the Seaside Line are beautiful bayside and island panoramas, but at night all we could see were a few lights reflecting on many stretches of water far below us. The stop we needed didn’t seem particularly special, it was just all the other people getting off at the same place that gave away the fact this was one of the “go to” destinations of New Years Eve. There were a couple of festive decorations outside the station – a large illuminated polar bear and some brightly lit trees – but again we didn’t really know where we were supposed to go next and simply followed the crowd.

This strategy paid off as we approached a large welcoming signpost (in English as well as Japanese) welcoming us to Sea Paradise! Beyond this, the closest, most brightly lit and welcoming area was centrepieced by an old-fashioned merry-go-round, with horses, which family groups and other enterprising young people were enjoying.

Circled around this were some one-story buildings including toilet facilities, storage lockers, and several snack-bar type stalls, of which only two were open – one selling crepes and one selling various Japanese hot snacks. As we had been anxious to get here in good time (and, as it turned out had done so), we had neglected to eat dinner and as a result were very hungry. But the snack-bar sold fried chicken (or something that looked very like it might be fried chicken) and potato fries so we decided we had better eat while we had the opportunity. It was also getting colder as we approached the last hour of the year and the thought of some warm food was hugely appealing.

Fortunately the chicken was indeed chicken, though prepared in the Japanese style rather than the western style, but still nice enough. I had gone for “Shaka Shaka Fries” which meant flavoured salt was added – I picked barbecue flavour and found this much tastier than the garlic salt flavour I had had with a similar meal in Ohara a few months earlier. A few sizeable dollops of tomato ketchup completed the meal which in the circumstances, we both enjoyed very much!

With plenty of time in hand we decided to explore the surroundings a bit more. We passed a rocking pirate-ship ride with the usual screams of belly-churning panic, and then walked through a beautiful tunnel of light – just fairy lights wrapped round a scaffold but effective nonetheless. We then came to the main resort plaza – one building consisting of mostly shops and restaurants, and opposite it, the various aquarium and dolphinarium attractions. There were more food shops here but we didn’t kick ourselves too much as the queues were even more exorbitant than the prices. What we did appreciate very much was the shops that were properly “indoor” – with doors that closed and internal heating that revived chilled bodies. We spent a long time looking at all sorts of sea-animal themed tat. (In fairness some of the toy animals were quite imaginative – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cuddly stuffed horseshoe crab before).

We edged our way along the building and took note of where the majority of the crowds were positioning themselves for a good view of the fireworks. We literally had no idea in which direction we were supposed to be looking. Over time the crowds were building up significantly too. It numbered in the tens of thousands, easily. We decided rather than pick a spot and wait in the cold for an uncertain view, we’d just stay inside as long as we could and hope we could find somewhere to stand at the last minute.

We did ok in the end. It helped that we’re quite tall, and Japanese people are generally quite small, so we could have two or three rows in front of us without restricting our view at all (at least until they start holding their phones up in the air!). We found a balcony spot with a good view of the aquarium roof, where they had been doing a minute-by-minute countdown starting at 30, and it seemed like no time at all before it started counting down the final minute.

When it hit 10 seconds, the whole crowd started counting down – Ju… Kyu… Hachi… Nana… Roku… Go… Yon… San… Ni… Ichi…

And that was it. 2019, the 2010s, were gone.

There was a cheer, of course, and then what seemed like an awkward second – probably the time it takes for a projectile to travel from the ground to an appropriate height in the sky – and then BOOM! the sky exploded in lights and colours. We were facing the right direction, there was one building in our sightline that obscured one or two of the low-field displays but in general we had a perfect view of the whole show, which was accompanied by music blasting out on the loudspeakers.

Janna has seen many displays (in Russia they need very little excuse to set off fireworks) but she assured me this was one of the finest she had seen.

I think it was about an 8-minute show and had one or two things I hadn’t seen before – they managed to fire off a couple of heart-shaped displays and a smiley face, but afterwards began the inevitable shuffle towards the exit as everyone tried to go home at exactly the same time. In fairness a few probably stayed to enjoy the aquarium shows, and the fairground rides were still popular as we plodded past them. Not for the first time Janna was thankful I had decided to furnish her with a travel card as we saw the queue for the ticket machine at the station. We even managed to get seats on the second train to leave (the first was already at the station as we came up the escalator). Compared to our long, slow escape from the Sparrow Hills display in Moscow a few years earlier, this was quick.

Of course that was only the start of our journey home, we had a long ride back to Tokyo – the thought of staying up to watch the rising sun held no appeal whatsoever – and plans to make for the rest of our holiday.

NOTE: I apologise for the absence of photographs. I had taken some but I have used up my allocation of space on WordPress and don’t want to begin mutilating previous entries to free up space. Hopefully I can paint you some beautiful images with words instead.

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