Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 1)

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Breathtaking view from the Skytree

I’ve been obsessed with all things Japanese since I was about 10, and Tokyo of course was at the forefront of that obsession. I remember when I got to visit New York a few years ago, and it was a little underwhelming, because at that point I hardly cared about America – I was still spending my time watching and reading about Japan. So, even though Tokyo really is just another metropolis, it gave me many fuzzy feelings to simply walk around the concrete jungle, and to visit the areas I heard so much about. It sure made for a lovely New Year.

I will break writing about Tokyo into several posts, so that I don’t dump too much information on you in one go.

The trip started with the infamous night bus journey, the cheaper alternative to the Shinkansen (bullet trains) that cost a small fortune. Taking the train from Osaka to Tokyo gets you there in about 4 hours, but it costs around £300 for a return ticket, so that wasn’t an option for me. I booked a night bus ticket instead, which was still a bit pricey since I travelled during a peak period. It cost me around £97, which made a huge difference to a student on a budget. And during the rest of the year they are even cheaper! Back in England I travel by Megabus quite often to visit my partner in the North of England, so I’m used to a stuffy, smelly, cramped bus. Here in Japan I booked with Willer Express: the bus they provided was spacious enough, and I managed to get some sleep during the 10-hour journey. It was about 9 of us, all travelling by bus, and most of my friends found it comfortable enough to bear with, so I definitely recommend the night bus as an alternative to the bullet train.

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Tokyo Tower

Still, I was pretty delirious when I got off the bus at around 9 am, on December 31st, right at the bottom of the Tokyo Tower. We had to sit down for a coffee to let it sink in that finally, after all the anticipation, we were in Tokyo!

One of my classmates, called John, has an aunt living right in the centre of Tokyo, in Shinjuku. She was extremely kind (and brave) to let 9 young adults stay at her place for New Year while she was away visiting England, and I’m so grateful to her – hostels in Tokyo are unsurprisingly pricey! As we got there towards the afternoon, we all collapsed on the beds, the sofas, the floor… and had an indulgent nap. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and we needed energy to stay up.

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Mount Fuji over Tokyo

We managed to crawl outside before sunset, and spontaneously headed straight for the Skytree. Some statistics: the Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting and observational tower; the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest construction in the world; it is 634 m in height. It’s also a cheesy touristic destination, and although I normally avoid those, it was a surprisingly great thing to do. We got there just as the sun was setting, and discovered that the general queue for the 2000 yen tickets (£14) would take about 3 hours. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the time to come back, we decided to splurge for the fast-track tickets for 4000 yen (£28), which gave us access to the higher platform at 450 m, and I do not regret a penny of it. The view was breathtaking. We arrived at the top just in time to see the red glow of the setting sun frame mount Fuji, creating a sublime view. As the sky grew dark, I watched the various areas of Tokyo turn their lights on. I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the city. I think it was at that point, while counting the lit-up bridges (there must be over a hundred in Tokyo), and straining to see the edges of the metropolis, that I realised I already loved the city.

I would have stayed in the Skytree for longer, but, unfortunately, human beings have to eat. We regrouped with our friends and headed to the nearby part of Tokyo called Asakusa, and picked a presentable-looking restaurant called Watami. As usual, I struggled to find a vegetarian dish, and had to do with a boring margherita; but the company and the wine made up for that.

Right next to the restaurant, it turned out, was Tokyo’s most famous temple: Senso-ji, and we tried to get in at around 11 pm. However, as we got momentarily distracted by some souvenirs, the queue to enter the temple grew so long that the street normally walkable in about 15 minutes was at a complete standstill. The Japanese have various traditions based around New Year’s Eve, some of which are to ring the large bells inside the temples after midnight, and to give prayers for fortune in the coming year. We had no chance to get into Sesno-ji to do that, so an urgent scout for a smaller temple was in motion.

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The temple from the outside

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View from the inside

We were successful just in the nick of time. I couldn’t possibly remember the name of the temple now, but it was gorgeous and welcoming, even though we were practically the only foreigners there. We were given numbered pieces of paper for the queue to pray, and mine was 92. Yup, this was a small, hidden temple, on New Year’s Eve – still very busy. I feel like it was quite an honour to take part in the prayers on such an important holiday for the Japanese, even though I’m not at all spiritual. When my turn came, I had to go up to the altar, bow, make a prayer, toss a 5 yen coin in for luck, and take a careful sniff of some incense. Then we were led through a maze-like layout deeper into the temple, where we queued to ring the giant bell, the vibrations of which I could feel down to my bones. I was tipsy, surrounded by friends, taking part in a beautiful spiritual ritual, and I was very intensely happy.

The magic wore off quite fast and the exhaustion caught up with us, so some headed home while others stayed out to party. Luckily, Tokyo runs some of its metro lines all night on New Year’s Eve. Even though I more or less collapsed when I got home, it was undeniable that this was one of the best New Year’s Eves in my life.

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The large bell I got to ring!

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