May 31, 2011

Cherry Blossom Time in Tokyo

We were in Saipan when the big earthquake hit Japan, which was followed by the devastating tsunami and the nuclear incident. We were already booked to Tokyo and considered changing our itinerary but decided to stay with our original plan. The city is built to withstand most earthquakes. We were on the 33rd floor of the Conrad Hotel when the 7.2 quake happened. It would have damaged most cities but the hotel swayed a bit as it is built to do. In the nine days we were in Tokyo were daily 2.5 to 6.2 aftershocks.

It was cherry blossom time – usually peak tourist season in Tokyo. There were virtually no tourists but the parks were full of local people making us realize it must be unbelievably crowded most years. As is often our method we stayed at three hotels. The Mercure Ginza, in the center of the shopping area, had hotel-generated do-it-yourself tour fliers. Using one of the fliers we toured Ueno Park famous for its cherry trees. The park has several large museums and a zoo but we chose to go to the small Shitamatchi Museum that recreates the atmosphere of Tokyo from the 1860s to the 1940s when shop houses were prevalent. It was a beautiful, relaxing day. Following the information on another flyer we signed up for a free guided tour of the Imperial Palace’s East Garden.

It worked out perfectly because the tour was scheduled during the time we were at the Peninsula Hotel, which is directly in front of the Imperial Palace. The tour did not include the Palace interior. We were surprised at the simplicity of the Imperial Palace. The previous Palace was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt with low, straight lines. The Peninsula ranks as one of the world’s best hotels. Gotta’ love a hotel that has a fleet of Rolls Royces then purchases a special edition Mini Cooper perfect for city shopping trips. The hotel had two free iPod tours, which we enjoyed. One toured the amazing artwork in the hotel while the other took us across the street to beautiful Hibiya Park.

Our last stop was the Conrad Hotel with an incredible view of Tokyo Harbor. The 28th floor lounge has one of the best Tokyo views. The Conrad is across from Hama-rikyu Gardens where the cherry trees were in full bloom. After wandering the park we took the boat ride on the cherry-tree-lined Sumida River. Japanese gardens are works of art. Interestingly, so many of the cherry trees were destroyed during the war that we sent seedlings from the ones in DC that they had gifted to us.

Midway between the Mercure and the Conrad is the Shimbashi Enbujo Theater, the temporary home of Kabuki, Japanese traditional theater. It seemed a bit expensive until we realized it was about the same as seeing a Broadway show in NYC. We are so glad we attended. Even the least expensive tickets had good viewing. It included three different performances and lasted four hours. The English language headphones made it very enjoyable. Interestingly, between the first and second performances most of the patrons ate from a box dinner that they had pre-purchased or brought with them.

We were glad we didn’t change our plans. We have transited through Japan many times but this was the first time we stayed. The country is amazingly efficient, safe, and genteel.