I re-checked my guidebook and confirmed where I was going. It wasn’t my first time to Tokyo, more like my fifth and I had decided that this time; I was going to do things a bit differently.
On my previous four trips to Japan’s capital, I had pounded the pavement and had hit all the major sites; Shibuya, Shinjuku, the Imperial Palace, Asakusa (Senso-ji), Roppongi, Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, and so on and so forth. I had so many pictures of these sights from various trips that I knew that it would be crazy to add more to my collection. There was just a point where you had to stop. But tell that to the people who take a million pictures of sakura every year.
Stepping out of the train station at Akihabara (meaning “field of autumn leaves in Japanese), commonly referred to by the locals as Akiba, I was immediately handed a flier by a pig-tailed young woman dressed in a dainty maid costume, urging me to come and try a tea set at her place of work. If I go there, can I take a picture with you, I asked her. She shook her head. Even if you went inside and ordered a tea set, one Polaroid picture with a maid girl cost 700 yen.
I decided to forget about the maid café and search instead for robots. That’s right, Akihabara, the Electric Town of Tokyo, was rumored to have a store specializing in robotic goods. My mission today was to find it. However, after wandering through a maze of shops specializing in otaku goods and rainbow-colored computer parts with no sign of the robotic goods shop, I finally gave up. The recent downturn in the economy had possibly affected the robotics industry as well. Perhaps the store had closed down or moved to another place.
Leaving the area, I knew one thing was for sure; Akihabara certainly gave Nipponbashi, its Osakan counterpart, a run for its money. But don’t tell that to any Osakans.
The next stop on my list was the beautiful Happo-En gardens, located near Shirokanedai station. Happo-En (meaning beautiful from any angle), I discovered, was one of the more secret places of the city, a beautiful garden tucked away amongst the towering buildings of central Tokyo. On arrival there, I decided to have a coffee in the Thrush café which overlooked the gardens. The café was upscale, full of well-heeled people; wedding guests, refined older couples, and well-dressed young professionals. Happo-En is a popular place for weddings among the upper-class and on a Saturday, the place was hoppin’ with several different wedding parties buzzing about. Couples posed for pictures in the beautifully manicured gardens amidst ponds teeming with orange and red spotted carp, some wearing traditional Japanese wedding garb and others bedecked in the traditional dress of the West. It was clear that these couples came from money, if they could afford to marry at Happo-En Gardens. Of course, they would be repaid in full later, through the monetary gifts that their guests were required to give to the couple.
I sipped at my 800 yen black coffee and sighed. Happo-En was definitely the kind of place you could come to if you needed an escape from the city. I knew Tokyo was just beyond the grove of trees but at least for now, I could forget about the pressing crowds.
After finishing my coffee, I took a stroll through some of the winding paths through the gardens, crossing over a small bridge where a little girl was trying to touch one of the many carp swirling around in the water just below her fingertips. A row of tiny and twisting potted bonsai trees lined one path, some of them over several hundred years old. Cherry blossoms, azaleas, and maples filled the rest of the park and tucked among them was a teahouse, where several people sat on red benches and sipped at cups of steaming matcha. I was instantly greeted by a tiny sparrow of a woman dressed in kimono, asking me if I would like a cup of matcha. I nodded and watched her as she whisked the bright green powder and steaming water together gracefully. Perhaps my trail should end here, I thought to myself, looking at my watch. There was no need to be anywhere else.