The old Tokyo Train Station is like new again, and it's brought fun into the financial district.
By Annarosa Sabbadini
Where was Hello Kitty? I expected to see lots of the vaguely cute white-and-pink feline. She's a Japanese cartoon character, practically a deity worshipped by the daycare-set worldwide. So why not here?
I thought it was because I was in Marunouchi, Tokyo's financial district nestled between the Imperial Palace and the Tokyo Train Station. I remembered the area from a previous visit as the faceless part of the city: imposing Mitsubishi office towers, big hotels and not much for a visitor to see. But no: I couldn't see Hello Kitty because the little Japanese bobtail cat had gone underground.
I found her in a pink polka-dotted shop on Character Street in what's called First Avenue Tokyo Station, three floors of subterranean neon shops thematically arranged under Tokyo's Train Station. First Avenue opened in 2011, along with a five-and-a-half-year renovation that returned the Marunouchi side of Tokyo's busiest station to how it looked before 1945.
Designed by Tatsuno Kingo, considered Japan's first modern architect, and completed in 1914, the station survived the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake but wasn't so fortunate in World War II when much of the structure, including its rooftop domed windows, was destroyed. The station is as central as it gets with 710,000 people passing through it daily to connect to the Narita Express, the Shinkansen (aka the Bullet Train), Japan Rail or the Tokyo Metro. If you've ever visited Tokyo, you've passed through Tokyo Station.
Now I found a reason to stick around. There are 20-odd shops on Character Street, and despite my many years consuming preschool pop culture, I barely knew where I was. I recognized Hello Kitty, as well as Snoopy, Miffy, Ultraman and laid-back Rilakkuma — each had a store devoted to it — yet One Piece, Dragon Ball and countless other G-rated characters said nothing to me. They obviously said a lot to the toddlers — and their parents — jostling each other for figurines.
From Character Street, I went to Okashi Land (sweet land), a massive area where three of Japan's top confectionaries make and sell visually pleasing sweet things that, judging from the lineups, are hugely popular. This is where Tokyo comes — and sometimes waits for hours — to taste Calbee's freshly-made potato chips served with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce. To me, this sounded like more junk-food madness but after trying one of the made-on-the-premises chips, I knew this junk was good.
But I was not about to spend my only 24 hours in Tokyo waiting in line. I spent some time trying to understand the dizzying array of boxed candies, then I knew it was time to visit Ramen Street. Here, eight of Japan's most popular restaurants serve out their specialty — be it ramen, udon or soba. It was Sunday, but it looked like all of Tokyo was there to slurp up noodles in steamy broth. Apparently when the Rokurinsha restaurant opened, people were willing to wait six hours to try its one-of-a-kind tsukemen dipping-style ramen. I considered heading to Kitchen Street instead for a sit-down meal. I was told those restaurants cover every style imaginable — except, of course, ramen.
Getting around the station is a bit of a navigational maze, but there is a method to the whole interconnected enterprise. At one point, I found I had wandered into the Daimaru department store (GranTokyo North Tower). I admired how sale clerks packaged pastries for a while, then knew I wanted to see more. The kimono shop on the 10th floor was worth the visit to admire the fine craftsmanship that goes into each item. I was told that this is where to shop in April when some kimonos are put on deep discount (sales change yearly). During my stay in January, I happily discovered plenty of shops displaying multiple sales racks. I saw plenty of price tags that could fit neatly into a Canadian budget.
After a few hours in a seemingly-unstoppable, commercially-overactive state, I knew it was time to seek respite at the other extreme of Marunouchi: the Palace. I was fortunate enough to be staying in the Palace Hotel Tokyo, directly across the street from the Otemon Gate of the Imperial Palace. Unlike the renovated Tokyo Train Station, the hotel reinvented itself entirely by imploding its 51-year-old former interior, recruiting the help of six design firms and building a new identity from the ground up.
It reopened in May 2012 and, while this luxury hotel isn't the least expensive in Marunouchi (rooms start at about $500 a night), it may just have the best views (with the possible exception of the office spaces that allegedly look directly into the Imperial family's private quarters).
Eighty-five percent of the rooms in the hotel are across from the palace gardens. From my room on the 14th floor, I had my own private view of Imperial green and Tokyo’s far-reaching skyline at the same time. The Chiyoda Suite on the 23rd floor has a spacious terrace that offers it all: the Imperial gardens, a panorama of the Tokyo skyline and Mount Fuji in the distance.
Adrenaline-driven Tokyo strives to always be a few steps ahead of your imagination, but for many visitors, the biggest draw remains the oldest of them all: the Imperial Palace, home to the royals since 1868. Much of the main grounds are off-limits — except for pre-booked tours and on December 23 and January 2 — but there's plenty to see and photograph wandering the free Outer and East Gardens, as well as Kitanomaru-Koen Park. There are remnants of the shogun-era Edo Castle, two ancient stone bridges, manicured gardens and, of course, lots and lots of cherry blossom trees.
I considered everything I would do if I had another 24 hours in Tokyo. I'd certainly try to be one of the first in line for tsukemen ramen. Then possibly more shopping. Or possibly not. Maybe I'd forgo the frenzy for a relaxing afternoon inside the palace walls.
But, alas, I was leaving the next morning. I would have to satisfy myself by returning to my hotel room, opening the curtains for a quiet night of viewing Tokyo's sensory swell from afar.
Meet me in Marunouchi
Japan Airlines (tel: 800-525-3663) flies regularly to Tokyo. For more information on Tokyo and travel to Japan, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization websitehttp://www.ilovejapan.ca/en/index.html.