Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

7 min read

Spirited Shibuya City – where history meets trendy

Shibuya City is one of Tokyo‘s most iconic and vibrant wards, known for its bustling atmosphere, cutting-edge fashion, and entertainment options.  So when the MS Zuiderdam berthed at the Port of Tokyo for two days in February 2024, I had the opportunity to explore the area.

My first stop was the iconic Shibuya Scramble, officially known as Shibuya Crossing.  This is the pedestrian crossing in the intersection in front of Shibuya Station, and is famous for the sheer volume of people it accommodates with each light cycle, often exceeding a thousand during peak hours.  I was not there during rush hour, so I missed the crazy rush, but it was fun to observe nevertheless, both from ground level, and a couple of storeys up in the Shibuya Mark City Walkway.  The sight of hundreds of people crisscrossing in every direction but managing not to bump into each other is, in many ways, a striking visual illustration of both the organized nature of Japanese society and the intense urban pace of Tokyo.

5 seconds of Shibuya Scramble – this isn’t rush hour!

Adjacent to the Shibuya Scramble is another of Shibuya’s famous landmarks: the statue of Hachiko, a loyal Akita dog that has become a poignant symbol of fidelity and loyalty.  Born on November 10, 1923, Hachiko was adopted by Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo.  As the story goes, Hachiko would accompany Professor Ueno as he went to Shibuya Station each day to catch his train to work. Later in the day, Hachiko would return to the station to greet his owner upon his return. This daily routine continued until May 1925, when Professor Ueno suddenly died from a cerebral hemorrhage while at work. Despite his owner’s death, Hachiko continued to return to Shibuya Station every evening, faithfully waiting for Professor Ueno’s return.  He maintained his vigil for nearly ten years, coming to the station each day without fail. His loyalty and devotion captured the hearts of the station staff, commuters, and eventually the entire nation. Newspapers picked up on the story, and Hachiko became a national symbol of loyalty. He was even present in 1934 when a bronze statue in his likeness was unveiled at Shibuya Station.  Sadly, Hachiko passed away on March 8, 1935, on a street near the station.

Petting Hachiko …

Two must-see tourist destinations checked off my list, I made my way to the nearby Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine).  This is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Set within a forested area of approximately 175 acres, it is a peaceful space that feels far removed from the urban hustle and bustle just next door.  The more than 100,000 trees in this forest were donated and planted by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established in 1920.  The shrine itself is located centrally in the space, and is said to be a first-rate example of traditional Japanese shrine architecture, characterized by its simplicity and the use of natural materials like cypress wood.

Most of the shrine is built of cypress wood
The detailing is beautifully intricate

At the entrance to the shrine are rows of sake barrels, wrapped in straw, known as kazaridaru that have special meaning.  Sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, is a sacred offering in Shinto rituals and ceremonies, and is believed to be a way of connecting the gods and people.  Emperor Meiji is credited with encouraging the modernization of Japan, including the incorporation of Western techniques and knowledge into traditional industries such as sake brewing.  So these barrels are offerings made by sake brewers from around Japan to honor the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.  They are empty, only there for decorative purposes, but the practice of displaying these empty barrels, stacked and bound, symbolizes the brewers’ respect and gratitude towards the emperor and continues the tradition of imperial patronage. The barrels also represent harmony and unity among the people of Japan, reflecting the shrine’s role as a center for communal and spiritual gatherings.

As in most Shinto shrines in Japan, it was possible to make a small offering (100 yen) and select an omikujiOmikuji are an opportunity to consult the oracle and get divine answers to your questions. You shake out a number-labeled stick from metal containers and then read the corresponding answers on a sheet of paper that you pull out from the equivalently-numbered drawer.  The fortunes range from great blessing (daikichi) to great curse (daikyo), covering various aspects of life such as health, love, business, and travel. The predictions can be highly specific or more general, and often include a poem or a piece of advice.  If you’ve followed my travels in the blog, you might remember that I consulted the omikuji oracle when I visited Sensoji temple in October 2023, and I received two bad fortunes in a row before I decided to cut my losses and walk away.  Well I decided to try again, and this time, I did much better! 

I got a poem that read:

If left unpolished

The glow of precious stones

Will not luster forth;

Surely this is also true

Of these human hearts of ours.

Exploring the shrine and grounds was thirsty work, so it was time to kick back and relax for a while.  I had been reading about the coffee art culture in Shibuya City, so I was looking forward to trying some.  My destination was Café Reissue in the trendy, youthful, and vibrant district of Harajuku.  Owned by 3D latte artist Kohei Matsuno (yes, it is a thing!), the baristas at this café can create almost any design you request, all the way from popular anime characters and cute animals to recreations of photographs.  The café isn’t very big, it is on the second floor of a narrow concrete building, but it was warm and welcoming on a cool rainy day, and had both coffee and light snacks available.  I ordered a sandwich with my 3D cat latte, and my cruise-ship friend ordered a cookie with his 2D Pikachu.  What fun!

My 3D kitty cat!
2D Pikachu (a Pokemon character)

It was just a few hours until the all-aboard time on the MS Zuiderdam, but there were a couple more places I wanted to visit in the area.  My first stop was Kiddy Land.  Now you might wonder why.  It’s known to be more than just a toy store; it is part of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture and a place that is interactive, engaging, and full of the joy and whimsy of Japanese pop culture.  Imagine … four floors of products ranging from classic toys and games to the latest trends in pop culture.  I was mesmerized by the action figures, plush toys, stationery, and accessories themed around popular Japanese and international characters from franchises such as Hello Kitty, Pokémon, Disney, and Studio Ghibli, among others.  So much that I forgot to take a single picture inside!  However, as I came out of the store, I was delighted to see yet another real-life example of Japanese anime whimsy on the streets, and this time I had my camera ready!

Entering toy heaven!
Anime whimsy … just taking a walk down the street

I made my way to my final stop of the day – Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku (commonly known as Omohara) – a stylish shopping complex located at the intersection of Tokyo’s Omotesando and Harajuku districts.  But I was not here for the shopping, I came for the architecture!  One of the most striking features of this building is its entrance, which has a kaleidoscopic mirrored escalator surrounded by shiny surfaces that create a futuristic effect.   Even though the escalator goes up to what I have been told is a beautifully landscaped rooftop garden and café area, I was short on time, so I got the photos I wanted and made my way back to the ship.

The Omohara entrance looking down to the street
The Omohara entrance going up to the complex

On the way though, another architectural marvel caught my eye.  It was the Tokyu Plaza Harajuku Harakado (Harakado or Hara for short).  I googled it quickly and learned that it is a 7-floor shopping complex which has shops, a public bath, restaurants, cafes, a relaxing art space, event spaces, and a rooftop garden that covers three floors.  The building’s website also helpfully pointed out that the complex has a CBD store!  Alas, time was a ticking, so I snapped a photo and kept moving.

An unexpected architectural surprise along the way …
Mount Fuji came out to say goodbye!!

As our ship sailed out of Tokyo harbour that evening, it was only fitting that Mount Fuji was heralding us goodbye.  The mountain often has cloud cover, and is not always visible, so this was a treat! Standing at 3,776 meters, it is Japan’s tallest peak and an iconic symbol of the country.  About 100 km southwest of Tokyo, this dormant volcano has been a subject of art and pilgrimage for centuries.  A perfect end to a wonderful two days in Tokyo!

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