Ueno and Shinjuku

Our last day in Tokyo! After walking up and down the city for about five days, two and a half hours sitting down tomorrow in the shinkansen sound pretty good right now!

We decided to start the day with a good dose of culture and hopped on the Yamanote line to go to Ueno, on the north side of Tokyo. It was sunny and clear today but every once in a while freezing winds would sweep through.

We walked across the park square, surrounded by more schoolkids than tourists, looking at the odd red tree in an otherwise very green landscape. An old man appeared out of thin air, handed me a map of the park, and vanished as musteriously as he arrived -if this is going to embark me on a vision quest I think I haven’t the time! (But a very kind gesture).
Our goal was to go to the Tokyo National Museum, the Louvre of Japan, which occupies four or five buildings inside a compound. I had been here on my last visit, but I was so exhausted by then that I only took a very cursory tour of the main exhibit and saw nothing else. This time we checked out the whole collection in the Honkan, the main building, a big stone construction with a Western-looking façade but Japanese-style roof tiles. 

On the first floor they have sections focused on themes as well as historical timeframes, so there’s a room for katana blades, another for samurai armour, kimonos, wall scrolls… Plus an interesting gift shop where Hokusai’s famous wave has been printed on all sorts of things!

We took a quick peek at the Hyokeikan, Asian gallery, a different building that houses Chinese, Korean, India and Egypt (am I alone in finding the last one surprising?), and also at the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, a cube-shaped building with an arbitrary collection of Buddhist statues, wooden masks and other historical artifacts. The museum in general is a very interesting visit and the historical, cultural and artistic wealth it contains is inarguable, but to me it’s missing the wow factor of something like the Victory of Samothrace, or an architectural set piece like the glass-domed court of the British Museum. As I contemplated a rotary phone on a table in a corner I thought the museum was showing its age.

By the time we came out of the museum it was almost lunchtime (well, for us; it was definitely already lunchtime for everyone else around us) so we made our way back downtown, quickly stopping at Akihabara for a quick dip into a geek store to buy our last Tokyo omiyage. It was more lively than the last time I came, with even more jingles and ads and announcements over speakers, and girls dressed as maids giving out flyers for I dare not guess what.

We headed to Shibuya for lunch. I had found a tonkatsu place on TripAdvisor that looked promising, Tokyo Maisen Shibuya, which was inside a mall right next to the station. Sounds easy enough, right? My best guess was to take the south exit, which turned out to be a wormhole that made us walk for like a million blocks before letting us disembark in a totally different part of town. We had to make our way back to central Shibuya -I think we crossed into a different timezone- to find the mall which, of course, turned out to have a walkway with direct access to the train station. We then took the escalators to go to our restaurant on the sixth floor, only to find the escalators only went to the fourth floor, so we had to cross the mall to find elevators… A trek, but in the end the katsu was soooo worth it. The breading was super crispy and the meat was juicy and tender. It’s a bit expensive but the quality is proportional. Plus, as a bonus, the Hokarie mall is pretty nice!

After lunch, we made our way down to gawk at Shibuya Crossing, with its thousands of people crossing the road at the same time. To my disappointment, the giant TV-screen building once again did not show dinosaurs, like in Lost in Translation, but all the same I found it energizing to be surrounded by so many people and images and sound and bustle. At 16:20 the sun was already beginning to set and a golden light brushed the top of the buildings.

Spurred by the sunset, we then hurried back to the train to go to Shinjuku, more specifically to the Park Hyatt to toast our goodbye to Tokyo. This time I knew where I was going -having Google Maps helps- so I didn’t get lost three times like before. It’s a good 10-15 min walk from Shinjuku Station, and you have to know where it is because there are no indications anywhere near or on the building pointing to the hotel’s name, but we still made to the New York Bar on the 52nd floor it a few minutes before they opened, at 17:00. And a good thing, too, because it got full with other tourists shortly after we settled. By contrast, when I came in March I was one of only a few people here.

To my delight, the waitress showed us to the exact same table by the window where I sat three years ago. Not that you can tell, but I looked at the picture I took on my phone and the view lined up perfectly.

The view is breathtaking, and the bar’s elegant design, sober jazz music and soft lightning make for a very atmospheric experience. We spent an hour and a half nursing our drinks and just taking in the vast cityscape before us. City lights as far as the eye can see, in every direction. Some people say that all big cities look the same, but I haven’t seen anything quite like this elsewhere.

On the way back, we joined the throngs of salarymen and women who walked to Shinjuku Station, just in time for the rush hour. On the way we caught a glimpse of the crazy side of Shinjuku, a street with bars and karaoke clubs and restaurants and deafening pachinko parlours!

I can’t think of a better way to bid farewell to Tokyo! How should we say hello to Kyoto tomorrow?

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