IN the roaring ‘80s, when real estate and stock market prices were at stratospheric levels in Tokyo, my mother returned from a trip there with stories of how shockingly expensive things were in Japan’s capital, a cup of coffee going for the equivalent of P500.

Today, more than 25 years after the 1989 stock market crash from which asset prices have yet to recover—a weaker Japanese yen and an aging society holding back domestic spending mean that one can get an entire meal there for less than half that price.

This is why Filipinos are descending on the storied prefecture in droves.

Last November, my sisters, cousins, niece, a Korean friend and I picked Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s 23 special wards (boroughs), as the base of our Japan adventure, not least because it is also a fantastic area for shopping—with familiar and well-loved clothing and department stores (at Takashimaya, check out the confectionery and black sesame ice cream too), as well as less familiar ones like Labi (Japan’s largest electronics store)—in the environs of the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, where our aching bodies and feet repaired to every night.

Japan’s top tourist attraction is the majestic Mt. Fuji, some 90 kilometers from Tokyo. The country’s tallest mountain with near perfect symmetry has inspired many a poet and pilgrim, but we did not go there because our intentions were less than spiritual.

Instead, we walked to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden after our very fit Japanese guide Miyazaki Minori said it was “very near” our hotel. Twenty minutes of pounding the asphalt later with still no garden in sight, we learned that it was in fact a kilometer from our hotel, which is why it took us half an hour to get there.

With its large number of cherry trees, the park is the perfect place for cherry blossom watching in the spring, which it was not when we visited. But there was still much to see as the park has three gardens: the formal French garden, the English landscape garden and the traditional Japanese landscape garden where maple trees changed hues under the autumn sky.

Fish meal

At the (truly) nearby Shinjuku Station, a railway hub used by more than three million people daily, we hopped on a train to get to the Tsukiji Nippon Fish Port Market, described by National Geographic in 2005 as the world’s largest fish market.

Miya took us to lunch at a famous sushi place there which she said had appeared on several TV shows. We each got a set that featured eight kinds of sushi, and included an appetizer, soup and tea that kept me up all night. Even after ordering extra dishes, we paid just an amazing P760/person for the magnificent spread.

The Tsukiji market is great for food tripping, and one should get in line at the small stall selling scallops. It’s an experience just watching the cook blast the scallops with a blow torch, scallops six times the size of the ones we have in the Philippines. And no, their monster size is not due to any sci-fi interaction with nuclear radiation. That’s their regular size, Miya said.

Close to the market is the Tsukiji Hongan-ji, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple in the Tsukiji District of Tokyo. Built in the 1930s after its predecessor temple was leveled in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, its architecture shows traces of influence from South Asia.

It is a pilgrimage site because it contains artifacts from the 7th century Prince Shotoku, a regent and ardent Buddhist; Shinran, the Japanese Buddhist monk who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect in the 13th century and claimed to have seen Prince Shotoku in a vision; and Shonyo Shonin, the sect head credited with spreading Jodo Shinshu Buddhism abroad in the 20th century.

Lost and found

In Tokyo, the holy and the earthly have no problems sitting side by side. And we saw another example of this in the Asakusa district where Tokyo’s oldest temple, the Senso-ji, lay at the end of a line of shops like some sort of reminder that all things shall pass, including one’s obsession with shopping.

Senso-ji is a Buddhist temple founded in the 7th century. Among other things, it is famous for its huge “Thunder Gate” featuring a large red and black paper lantern intended to mimic thunderclouds and lightning. And to some extent, the action there now does resemble thunder and lightning, with footsteps rumbling and flashes going off all the time as visitors jockey for position at the famous gate to take photos.

The shops leading to the temple are on the Nakamise shopping street, where tourists can buy snacks and souvenirs. To save time, our group split up to explore the shops we preferred, only to promptly misplace our cousin. But the battle-ready tourists that we were, we had laid out a strategy beforehand to ensure that we didn’t get lost in the sea of dark coats that the Japanese favored. My sister Rose Marie was able to find our cousin after picking out the only person in the crowd wearing a bright yellow-green coat.

At Asakusa, we also posed with the Tokyo Skytree in the background. It’s the tallest structure in Japan at 634 meters. A broadcasting tower, the Skytree has observation decks and a restaurant, and at its base, a shopping center complex. It’s actually in the Sumida special ward across the large Sumida River that flows through Tokyo. Sumida is a kilometer from Asakusa. But there’s no need to go there if one just wants to take a picture. 

Gizmo and grub

In Tokyo, the shopping options are legion. At Akihabara District, known for its many electronic shops, we entered a six-level department store with Apple iStore products on the main floor and kitchen and other products on the other floors.

If you didn’t open your wallet then, you might at Ameyoko, a market street that runs between the Okachimachi and Ueno railway stations.  Located in Tokyo’s Taito special ward, Ameyoko hosts some 180 shops hawking everything from fresh food, fish and spices, to clothes, bags, cosmetics, jewelry, toys and other Asian goods. It’s one of the places in Tokyo where one can bargain with shopkeepers.

If an open-air market doesn’t do anything for you, there’s a big department store nearby, the Matsuzakaya Ueno, where we bought green tea- and chocolate-flavored crepes. Japanese packing technology ensured that the crepes survived the rush hour crush in the subway on our return to Shinjuku at day’s end.

Tight squeeze

Past 5 p.m., we were packed like hapless sardines in our rail car—bags and crepes pressed against our persons like there was no tomorrow—as Japanese men in suits pushed and shoved their way into the very full compartment. This they did quietly, though—gently, almost courteously—briefcases in hand and maintaining their corporate dignity, even as they contorted their bodies to avoid getting caught in the train doors that they had forced themselves through.

No way to move, no problem. No need to hold on to any handle bars to steady ourselves as the car sped off. Stifling giggles (it is impolite to make noise on public transport in Japan), my niece Tracy managed to extend one arm above her head to take a group selfie and capture the trauma of our Korean friend, who may still be mourning the violation of her personal space.

We never worried, though, that in the squash of strangers, one would disembark with our wallet or cell phone in tow.  Such was our confidence in that nation’s moral code.

Shorn of our guide as night fell, we dug into the still perfectly shaped crepes. They were heavenly.

So was our dinner of chicken skewers and other grilled meat at Nijyu Maru, a Japanese-style pub, over which the laughter and the stories flowed more freely on our market and other adventures on our first full day in Tokyo. *(To be continued)