Dan in Japan: Day 4

It’s new year’s eve. As it is a Sunday, I don’t set an alarm and I wake up a little later than usual. I spend the morning arranging my onward flights to Bali and Australia, since I have only just realised that I need to make sure I have a ticket. Such has been the slapdash nature of arranging my departure from Korea that I have left it this late. And I was going to be so organised, as well…

When I depart the flat it is almost 2 pm. I realise that I only have a few hours of daylight left, and my plan is to go up to Ueno and Sensoji temple, which are two areas that Vicki highlighted for me on the map. They lie north of Ginza, and luckily there is only one change on the metro and then a straight trip all the way up.

Sensoji temple is at the end of the line. I initially intend to go straight there and skip Ueno Park, but after looking at the map I see that this is the stop for the Imperial Palace. I have heard that it isn’t possible to go into the Palace, but I might be able to see it. As the subway approaches Ueno station I decide to jump off and take a look at the park.

At first it is nice. There are some shrines dotted around, and there is a lake off to the left with a pretty pagoda in the middle of it. A hoard of people are trotting down the path but it looks far away, and conscious of the time I decide to keep walking.

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On the left I come to the Ueno Toshogu Peony Garden. A pathway leads down past shrines and pagodas and it looks very nice. When I get to the end of the path I see a woman taking a picture of a plaque. I give it a glance and move along. On the return I stop to read it and discover that here in the garden is an eternal flame that came from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. Inside a stone block the flame flickers. Having read the story I find it quite eerie and suddenly the garden takes on a reverential significance.

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Back out of the garden and on towards a large building that appears in the distance. It turns out to be the National Museum of Tokyo. It is closed, with it being a holiday, and by now it is getting darker and colder, so I decide to keep moving on. I Google Maps across the railway lines and down towards Sensoji. This district is across the river from Tokyo Sky Tree, which rises up above the residential streets.

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As with Zozoji, I haven’t really read much about Sensoji Temple, but when I get there I am impressed by the buildings. They are a vibrant red and gold, and there are large lanterns hanging in the gates. As I round the first building I see the crowds and realise I have come into the temple from a side entrance. Here at the temple people are tossing coins into a trough, presumably for luck, and adding burning incense sticks to large cauldrons. Curiously, the people are waving the smoke from the incense towards themselves and wafting it over themselves; presumably ingesting the incense brings some significance to the receiver.

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All around the site are hundreds of tourists and locals performing rituals. People are participating in ceremonies for getting luck by ratting sticks inside boxes – for what purpose I am unsure. There is another large gate and scores of people are taking selfies and pictures of each other. Facing the street is a long street filled with lanterns and shops and restaurants, and as the sun goes down it makes for an interesting sight. I take a wander along the street and get some selfies. The sky breaks out into a gorgeous purple hue, so I capture the moment and note that sun is setting on my 2017.

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I head back out of the site the way that I came in. The street leads me past some market stands and restaurants, and then I find myself on a wide city street. By now the temperature has dropped and the wind is cold. It is only 5 pm and I have seen the two sites I have planned for today. It’s new year’s eve, and I have read that the celebrations are not that grand in Tokyo usually as the new year is a fairly quiet time for the Japanese; there are not the large fireworks displays of other cities around the world, but countdowns have become more popular in recent years. I read yesterday there is a countdown at Tokyo Tower and I thought about going to that as it is fairly close to the flat. Since I don’t have much to do for a few hours and it is cold, I stop in at a Starbucks and get a coffee to warm up. I get on the Wi-Fi and look for information about the countdown at Tokyo Tower, only to find that this year there will not be a countdown and that the park will close at 11 pm.

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Hmmm. Now I’m not sure what to do. I have read about the countdown at Shibuya crossing as well, but I’m not sure if it would be a good idea. I mean, all those people, and getting a train back would be a nightmare. At least I could walk back to the flat from Tokyo Tower. All the other options I read about online involve clubs and parties and I don’t really fancy any of those. In most Starbucks I have found that they don’t really do comfy chairs – there are lots of tall, wide tables that people sit on, or there are low tables with stools, but in this branch I have snagged a comfortable chair and it’s nice and warm and I spend a good while sitting and contemplating what to do. Can I be bothered to go to Shibuya? I’m not sure. Could I be happy just going back to the flat and chilling out with some TV and a beer? Possibly. Even though I might never get the chance to experience a new year in Tokyo ever again, I’m kind of tired. I don’t really want to be walking around Shibuya for a few hours in the cold without a place to sit down. What else am I gonna do there?

I spend three hours in the Starbucks thinking it over. It’s 8 pm when I decide that I’ll just do it. I’ll head over there and maybe find a bar or another coffee shop. If needs be I can walk around, I guess. And the walk back to the flat looks doable, if a little long – Google Maps says it is around 3 kilometres and will take around 45 minutes. I get up and head down to the subway station and get onto the train. Luckily, Shibuya is on the same line, and as this station is the last on the line there are plenty of seats and I can sit down for the whole journey. It takes about 40 minutes, and I’m kind of tired and spend a few minutes yawning and resting my eyes.

I read that last year was the first countdown at the Shibuya crossing, and as it was a success it has been extended to this year too. The streets around the station will be pedestrianised to allow for people to gather, and as I exit the station at 9.30 pm the barricades are going up. I wander around the streets looking for a place to pass a few hours. The crossing isn’t too full, and there are many revellers wandering the streets drink beers or chuhai drinks (pre-mixed cocktails in cans). I think about getting a drink from a convenience store and planting myself down on a bench and getting a good view, but I know I’d need the loo and it would be cold.

I wander the streets behind the crossing, getting a little further away. These are the wide shopping streets I passed along a couple of days ago. At one crossroads a large crowd has gathered. It seems they are looking at a group of foreigners in a karaoke room who are gyrating and waving from a second floor window. I pass by and walk some other streets, and then I come to a narrow road that goes off to the left. A huddle of smokers are standing around on the corner, and behind them is an interesting-looking cafe/bar. I peer through the windows and there are a couple of tables available, so I go inside and get a coffee. The chair is comfortable and it’s not too crowded, and I’m not too far from the crossing so I decide to stay until around 11.15 and then get back to the crossing. I have a creme brulee and my coffee (decaffeinated, since I had two at Starbucks earlier) and then a beer.

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I leave at around 11.30 pm. The streets are now heaving. It’s a constant stream of people walking along and drinking and wearing Coca-Cola countdown hats that have been passed out. People are drunk and yelling and generally revelling. I’m following Google Maps back to the crossing, but when I get to a turn I need to take I find that the street has been barricaded. I can see the crossing but not the screens erected on the front of the 109 Department Store building. Groups of police guards are trying to stop people from going down the pavement next to the road but people just ignore them and push past.
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I get a spot at the barricade. I’m next to a lamppost and a barrier than runs alongside the pavement. It’s a good place to lean, so I plant myself there. There’s a small space between the post and the barrier, and several people try to squeeze past. It’s getting closer to the countdown and the guards are stopping more and more people. A large crowd gathers behind me. As I turn around the street has filled and the crowd of people stretches far back behind me, with more and more people streaming in behind. It’s loud and it’s raucous and it’s starting to get a little manic; people are pushing and shoving and the crowd shifts and heaves left and right and back and forward. There are some screams as people stumble, and suddenly I have visions of people falling and being trampled.

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As we get closer to midnight it gets more manic. The pushing continues and the noise is tremendous. I’m safely planted next to the lamppost and because of my height I’m able to get some pics over the crowd. I’m facing the crossing, but a minute before midnight a large cheer goes up behind me and as I turn I see a screen on a building that is counting down the seconds. I get my phone out and film the countdown and as we get to midnight a huge cheer goes up and people celebrate. It’s quite an electric moment, and I’m all of a sudden happy that I did decide to come here in the end.

For a few minutes the crowd gets pushy and manic again as people try to exit and make their way out of the crowd. Suddenly the police guards take away the barriers and the crowd heaves forward. I find myself pushed back into the lamppost and people try to get over the barriers, but after a short while the crowd thins as they are able to get into the street that was barricaded. Once it thins enough I take a walk along the street and take in the atmosphere.

Time to open Google Maps and find the way home. It gives me an estimate of an hour to get there. Oh well – I’d rather that than trying to cram onto a train. I remember a couple of streets and make my way along the route. When I get to a crossroads I check the map again and find that the lag has occurred and I have lost my way again. However, I have come to a park and I see an avenue of trees that have been strung with blue lights so I cross over and approach. I start to hear music, and at the end of the avenue is a DJ booth and people are dancing. This could be fun to see, so I walk along the street. There’s a little party going on, so I stand at the back of the crowd and bob along a little. People are dancing and singing and it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s a happy accident, and I stay for a while to enjoy the music and the atmosphere.

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Once I decide to leave I head back along the avenue. As I reach into my pocket for my phone, I can’t find my BeatsX headphones. I was wearing them on the walk and I stuffed them into my coat pocket. In the crowd I seem to have dropped them. I only got them a couple of months ago, and I do like them. I wonder whether I should go back and see if I can find them or just move on. I mean, what chance do I have of finding them in the dark and under the feet of the people dancing? I think about it for a few seconds and I decide to got back and look for them. I look around on the ground but of course it is dark and I cannot find them. Just as I decide to give up, two girls approach me and ask my name. I’m suspicious of them, so I give them my middle name, which I usually do in these types of situations. Oh, they say. We were looking for a guy called Daniel who lost his headphones. Well, that’s me, I say. That’s what I was doing here. I guess they tried to connect the headphones to a phone and saw my name. I sheepishly tell them that I gave them my middle name and feel foolish. They pass me back my headphones and wish me a happy new year and I wish them one back.

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I have to find my way back to the flat now. It’s almost 1 am and it’s cold. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to get a taxi, but several go past without fares. I consider flagging one own but I don’t. I guess the walk would be good for me. I follow the map, making one wrong turn due to a lag and finding myself walking along a sketchy-looking highway and underpass. Luckily the route is quite flat and despite the cold I make good progress. I didn’t have much to eat, so I stop in a convenience store for some snacks.

It’s 2 am when I get back. I’ve already done 7,000 steps on the walk back, so I guess I can be a little lazier tomorrow. Despite the walk and the excitement I’m not too tired, so I stay up for a while and it’s 3 am by the time I hit the sack, happy for having had a good night in Tokyo on new year’s eve and glad that I had an interesting experience in the end.

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