Saturday, October 27, 2007

Japan Roundup 1

Well, the Tokyo trip may be a diminishing memory, but I've still got a several photos to add to the blog, so stand by for a few more posts, wringing the last drops from the holiday. Here we have an arty shot of the Senso-ji temple roof and a similarly-shaped cloud. Never let it be said I can't do composition...

Think of Japan and technology, and videogames often spring to mind. When I was in Osaka in 2005 I had great fun wandering around the gaming arcades looking at the machines and the serious expressions on the players. In Akihabara last week I explored a seven storey SEGA GiGo arcade and watched the gamers, some of whom were encased in massive Gundam pods (see here), blasting away at giant robots. I wouldn't have lasted long - well, I wouldn't have been able to work out what to do - so I made do with this, a retro Arkanoid arcade table-top in Odaiba, and happily wasted a few hundred yen pinging balls around.

Another stereotype is the perfectly timed business of the Tokyo metro, and I have to say it's always seemed true to me. Running every few minutes from 5am to midnight, the various lines make it easy to get around, with the circular Yamanote Line a great introduction to where each area of the city lies. It takes about an hour to do a complete loop, and with everything translated into English it's impossible to get lost. Or rather, it's impossible to get lost by going to the wrong place - leaving a station via the right exit is another matter. Even small stations have several exits, and JR Shinjuku has over 20, not including the other operators who have their stations connected. Many times I'd emerge hopefully from a brightly-lit underground expecting to find a park entrance, and instead be facing a supermarket and pachinko parlour.

A large ship berthed by the reclaimed land of Odaiba Island in Tokyo Bay. Odaiba was one of the notorious bubble-boom engineering products of the late 1980's, when the surging economy gave the impetus for all kinds of projects. Large islands were created in the busy harbour, and populated with corporate headquarters, entertainment districts, and even golf courses (Google Earth is great for exploring Tokyo Bay). The Odaiba name refers to lagoon defences that were placed nearby by the Tokugawa shogunate in response to the American fleets of the 1850's ('Daiba' means cannon battery in Japanese). Since then, they have been added to and developed with more and more outlandish architecture. This photo, for example, isn't actually a ship, but the Tokyo Maritime Museum.

As I said in my previous post, Tokyo really glimmers at night. There are a few viewpoints around the city, the free Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku is pretty good - but I went up the Mori Tower in Roppongi to take a look at an exhibition of Japanese Modern Art (which was suitably bizarre and fantastic). The 780ft, 54 storey skyscraper whisked me to the top in a turbolift, and after exploring the Mori Art Gallery I went into the Tokyo City View and watched the lights twinkling in the distance. Here, the highrises of Shinjuku sit behind the dark stripe of the Meiji shrine complex. Another of Tokyo's surprisingly common green areas is in the foreground, Aoyama Cemetery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Asakusa after dark

The temple district of Asakusa is another must-see on the Tokyo list. The locals pronounce it "Assak'sa", according to a rickshaw puller who chatted to me for a while in a forlorn attempt to get me in his tourist carriage. For a long time in the city's history, it was the centre of entertainment, as nobles and high-ups descended to the banks of the Sumida River for some unruly fun and games. These days, the modern-day nobles head off to Roppongi or Shinjuku, leaving Asakusa to that other key component of guilty pleasure - temples.

Asakusa's main sight is the stunning Sensō-ji temple, which is 30 seconds walk from the metro station at the end of the Ginza line. By day, it's packed with tourists - the majority of them from elsewhere in Japan - but at night, it's far less busy and the buildings look amazing as they are illuminated. The first part of the complex is the Kaminari-mon, 'Thunder Gate', dating originally from 942AD - although this one is a modern reconstruction (the 4m long lantern was made in 2003). Either side are the god of thunder, Raijin (left), and wind, Fujin (right).

Past the thunder gods is a long, straight, narrow street where the bottlenecks really happen. Nakamise-dori is a 250m long road of small shops and stalls that sell trinkets, charms, and food. In short, it's great for souvenirs and presents. At night, a lot of them have closed and gone home after trading, but it at least means you can walk down without too much difficulty. The disply of leaves are there to herald the start of Autumn - changing seasons have a big resonance in Japan.

At the end of the street are the main temple buildings, and another gate to pass under. The complex has been damaged by earthquakes at least ten times over the centuries, and was then destroyed in the firestorms of the Tokyo air-raids during World War II. In 1958 it was rebuilt and restored to the glorious vermillion and gold colour scheme. The traditional glowing lanterns on the run-up to the temple really add to the atmosphere.

And this is the main focus. Past a large incense burner dispensing 'lucky smoke' as one old man explained it to me, is the main hall and the altar. At night the doors are closed and the offering box placed outside, but still people climb the steps to pray. The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Legend has it two fishermen dredged up a small statue of her from the nearby Sumida in 628. Showing it to their local priest, he quickly recognised the significance and built a temple around it in his house, which was located in Asakusa.

It's a great place to wander around - the buildings are incredible, and in any direction the side streets have small restaurants and bars to keep you going. You can even arrive here by boat on a cruise up the Sumida if you like - but come here during the day to stock up on bits and pieces from the shops, then return at night to see the place illuminated, and looking completely different.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tokyo's Neon Wonderland

'Akihabara Denki Gai' is one of Tokyo's most immersive neighbourhoods. Translated as Akihabara Electric Town, the area five minutes from the main Tokyo station is a hub of technology and modern Japanese culture. Famed for it's otaku, or Akiba-kei, the hordes of (mostly) young men that pour into the area to indulge the passions of gaming, anime, and electronics, it's one of the 24hr playgrounds the city is known for. Just leaving the station starts the fun, as the Electric Town exit is filled with people milling about, and girls in maid costumes handing out flyers and tissue packets (a common occurrence in Tokyo). Every tall building here is festooned with lights and neon, even during daytime.

I went there partly to go on a guided tour, run by the Yokoso! Japan tourist scheme. I'm not really a fan of the manga and anime (comics and cartoons, respectively - don't let an Akiba-kei hear you mixing them up), but it's such a Japanese phenomenon that any visitor to the city should investigate, even for a short while. The tour was bizarre, being not a window into the gaming culture, but a procession through shops pointing out plasma TV's (I saw the largest TV in the world), and other electronics and robots, like this self-playing piano. The locals gawped at our group (about 20 Westerners), the same way we'd stare quizzically at 20 Japanese being given a guided tour of PC World.

In a region of fantastic food, Akihabara is something of a black hole - after all, who needs food when you're only there to buy electrical goods or plastic anime figures? McDonalds and curry houses are all there is, the Japanese twist on curry meaning you order from a vending machine outside the doors, then carry in the ticket and present it to the cook who ladles it out. On leaving one of the eletronics shops, we passed this large queue of men waiting for a kebab - the only time I've seen kebabs for sale in Japan. It was the middle of the afternoon, not Friday night, and nobody was drunk. Very different to kebab time in the UK.

Of course, it really pays to visit Aki at night, when the lights are dazzling and the after-work crowds even busier. Light and noise are everywhere - each shop has deafening displays of tunes and chatter of sale prices, music is pumped into the street, bleeps and flashes from gaming arcades compete against each other, it really is an assault on the senses. I took this picture standing in the same place as the first photo, but looking in the other direction. The tissue girls were still there, and now you can really see the detail on each building, with the illuminated escalators leading up between each floor. I've got a special post upcoming on my favourite Akihabara shop, with what kinds of things you can actually buy here (should you wish).

This sums up Tokyo for me - lights, traffic, people. You either love Akihabara or you'll hate it, and if you're not sure you can find out within twenty seconds of stepping out of the station. Just don't go there for peace and quiet...

New Discovery Tour

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Two hours north of Tokyo on the Tobu Asakusa line is the historic town of Nikko - one of the great centres of Japanese religion and power. As such, it`s one of the busiest places in the country, and as yesterday was a major festival there I figured if I went a day later it would be quiet. It certainly was here - the Gamman-ga-Fuji Abyss. The gorge of the River Daiya is bounded by dozens of these statues of Jizo, protector of travellers and the souls of `departed children`. Green moss offset against the bright red clothes on the Jizos, with nobody in sight, it was really eerie.

The Abyss was quiet because it was a thirty minute walk away from the main centre of Nikko activity - Tosho-gu, a sacred site since the 8th Century. In 1617 the area was chosen as the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns and founder of the shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250yrs until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. His shrine was constructed by 15,000 artisans, and is a World Heritage site. I took this on the main approach path, and thought "Well, there`s a few people up ahead, but maybe it`ll be reasonably quiet."

Err, no, not really. This happens a lot in the touristy parts of Japan, there`s not much to do but wait. Trouble was, it was pouring down by this point so I just toughed it out and charged into the mass of umbrellas. Incidentally, the sign at the bottom of the steps reads `keep left`.

Tosho-gu is also famed for it`s carvings, there are the three monkeys posed in the `hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil` style, there`s a white horse in a mock stable, a crying dragon in a room with strange sound properties (an echo directly underneath the dragon but nowhere else) - and these elephants. If you think they look a bit strange, the man who carved them had never seen one, he just followed verbal instructions of someone who had.

But back to the main shrine gate - Yomeimon. Up close (about fifteen minutes of shuffling later) it was covered in figures of mythical creatures and wise men. In classic Japanese style, the team of artisans who put this stunner together were so concerned that it`s brilliance might offend the gods, they put the final supporting pillar on upside-down, as a deliberate mistake so it wasn`t exactly perfect.

Um, sumimasen!

After three hours of soaking wet wandering around, the perfect pick-me-up is a can of Itoen Darjeeling blend milk tea. Delivered hot from a vending machine for Y120, they are incredibly sweet and milky, with a background hint of tea somewhere. But after fighting the crowds in the cold climate of the Nikko mountains, it`s just what was needed at the end of a long day. (yes, it really is that colour)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Laundering Money in Kamakura

An hour south of Tokyo is Kamakura, a small seaside town that was the capital of Japan during the 12th and 13th Centuries. Today, the location and surrounding hills (which were the reason for the defensive garrison) are popular with day trippers from the big city. One of the lesser-known shrines is Zeniarai Benzaiten, 20mins up a innocuous street from the station. Eventually, you come to this opening.

Through which is a spooky mine-like tunnel. In 1185, so the story goes, a man by the name of Miramoto Yoritomo had a dream on the day of the snake, during the year of the snake. The god Ugafukujin appeared and told him about a mysterious cave with magic waters, in which he should build a shrine. Not surprisingly, he immediately went out and did just this, first chipping out the tunnel, presumably.

On the far side are some usual shrine buildings, large incense burners, and a small altar stage - all enclosed within a secluded cave grotto. Further on is a low gap in the cliff-face, and it`s here that the magic waters of Ugafukujin are located.

Shintoism is an animist religion, with many, many facets and components. As such, small shrines (not temples, those are Buddhist) are located all over the islands of Japan, many having a specific role or worshipping an exact deity. Zeniarai Benzaiten is all about magic money. And you don`t stand off and watch monks or priests doing their thing here, you roll up the sleeves and take part.

In a nutshell, any money (coins or notes) you wash in the magic water will become sacred. In the words of the god - "If you spend money that has been washed in the spring`s water, it will increase many times and come back to you". So the faithful such as myself grab a small reed basket, tip in some Yen, and get dunking...

But don`t worry, it dries naturally (credit cards not accepted).

There were no instructions on how long to leave the cash in contact with the lucky water, so I gave it a few extra seconds, just to be on the safe side.

I`ll be spending this later, and will be very sure to monitor exactly how much comes back to me. I`ll keep you posted...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Happy Shoppers

Japanese Supermarkets are great fun to wander around in, just to look at the sheer variety of what`s on offer. Of course, many of the things on display are not the kind of produce you`d find in your local Morrisons - or even Waitrose - many seem difficult to know what to do with them. These giant Daikon radishes are a fixture in Japanese cooking. Each was about as long as my forearm.

Rose heads - I really don`t know what these could be for, other than decoration. Everyone knows how intricate and artistic Japanese food is, so presumably you need to go somewhere to buy the little bits and pieces that make your food that little bit more special. Some clever chefs can make `roses` out of a piece of carrot, but when you can buy them in a packet, it saves so much time. Only choice is, which colour?

The anti-plastic bag revolution hasn`t made it this far yet - in every shop you visit, a purchase results in a plastic bag as well, often an enormous one. I try and say "Iie" as much as I can, but in the Supermarkets are shelves of individually wrapped fish, vegetables, or fruit like these limes. The fish section of this Supermarket had a vaccuum-packed Parrot Fish, like something you`d expect to see in the Aquarium (and not the aquarium gift shop).

Speaking of fish, it`s a major component of the diet, so lots of fishy products on offer. Here we have some dried fish grindings with the consistency of sand. Good for adding instant flavour to soups or stews...

...or you could get the real thing, if you`d rather. There were packets of different sized dried fish on display, from tiddlers the width of your thumbnail to ones as long as your finger. I once went to a Japanese cooking class when I was in Sydney (see here), and before we cooked we had a tea snack of tiny dried fish mixed with flaked almonds. It was pretty good, although you kind of hoped the crunchy parts were just the almonds.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Crowds and Dolls

Sunday in Tokyo all seems to happen towards the west of the city. First off, the Meiji shrine. Opened in 1920, it was destroyed during the war and rebuilt afterwards. This wooden torii gate is the largest of it's kind in Japan, made from massive Taiwanese cedars. 1 million people visit Meiji over the new year period, and although not reaching those numbers when I was there, the Sunday crowds were everywhere. Roughly a 50-50 mix of Japanese and Westerners, everyone was out taking pictures, especially of the Shinto weddings that were going on.

There was a special festival happening inside the main shrine courtyard, just for that one Sunday. 'Doll Thanksgiving Day' is a nifty and rather sweet idea where you can offload those dolls and toys that have outstayed their usefulness. You hand them in, and they are arranged in these large doll grandstands (this was only a small percentage of them). The idea is, they are blessed and then disposed of "in a fitting manner" (incineration). It acts both as a good way of saying goodbye to toys when you've outgrown them, and saves you from cluttering up cupboards with boxes of forgotten playthings. Young kids taking part in the wedding processions accross this courtyard had to be restrained by their parents from bolting off into what would surely be a toddler's toy heaven.

Now a quiff. Even on my spikiest of days, I can't compete with this chap. On Sundays the Rockabillys come out to Yoyogi Park and do their thing, much to the amusement of tourists. Essentially, they just play loud music and stand around drinking beer, but it gives them an outlet for their fashion. I sat down and watched them for a bit, and an old Japanese man started talking to me (this happens a lot in Tokyo), explaining what was going on. He pointed at this man, miming his enormous haircut, then said " work...", before mimicking a swooping flattened combover style. "Much, much hairspray!", he chuckled.

The Cosplay (Costume Play) hordes and their watchers outside Harajuku station. Just round the corner from the Rockabillys is the famous patch of teenage girls who dress up as outlandish anime and manga characters. This spot has to be the highest concentration yet of Western tourists, as they queued to get pictures taken with the girls, most of whom were only too glad to pose for the cameras. It all seems a bit strange to me, and just at the edges of each scene were middle aged men with zoom lenses.

Takeshita-dori - the place to shop if you're a Harajuku girl (Google it). I'm not so much, of course, but nobody can resist teenage craziness, so I had an amusing - and cramped - wander along the tiny pedestrian street. The thing is, after a while, the kawaii pink madness dissipates and the clothes shops get pretty decent. I went in a few of the men's ones, and even managed to find myself a new golfing jumper. How hardcore is that - shopping for golf wear in Harajuku? Not only am I bucking the Tokyo trend by purchasing naff sports equipment in their hottest urban area, but next time I take to the East Lothian links, I'll be the only player ever (I would think), to be clad in an outfit bought from the hub of the Cosplayers.

And while we're on Tokyo stereotypes, here's the quintassential night view of the city - Shibuya's Hachiko crossing. As seen in every Tokyo film or travel piece, the hordes of people spill over from every direction at two minute intervals. In fact, when I was crossing it before taking this, there was a French film crew doing a piece to camera in the middle - dashing out as the lights went and then standing in the middle of the throng, waving arms around as only a French TV presenter can.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

On Tokyo Time

No swimming, o kudasai!

So, I`ve been here in Japan for three days now, without much chance to update on how I`ve been getting on. Having said that tomorrow is Monday when everything closes in the city, and the weather is forecast to rain all day - so I will probably come back online then and do a major upload of blog posts and photos. Until then, the story so far...

Flight over was fine, and for a supposed 12hr trip it really wasn`t so bad - we had a 50kmh tailwind most of the way (I know this because I always keep the TV channel on the map/info page - it was either that or watch Harry Potter). So we roared along in just over 10hrs. I suspect the flight home will take a fair bit longer. Still, I didn`t sleep at all on the flight, as we took off at 1pm, had a meal, and then all the lights went out (to adjust us to Tokyo time). So there I am listening to the iPod for the next 7hrs, until `breakfast` time.

The first day and a half were really a blur - I got to the hostel OK, thanks to generous directions on the website. I couldn`t get checked in for a few hours, so my sleep-deprived body was back out on the streets in the unseasonal 28C weather. I wandered around Ueno park for a while, during which I checked out one of the hidden gems of Tokyo - Shinobazu Pond (pictured), a Edo-era lake said to be really beautiful. At the moment though, it was chock-full of giant water lily leaves, which made the `No Swimming` signs a bit pointless.

After I got sorted out at the hostel - and here`s a tip for you, if you bring your VISA card 6000 miles around the world with the intention of using it to pay for things, remember to recall your pin number before you go. I had fun with the girl at the hostel desk thinking I was a complete moron for offering my card only to immediately apologise for not being able to remember the pin. Fortunately, I had a big wad of cash to pay for it. That covered, the hostel is really good, got all kinds of treats, including my own Japanese bath, which is the perfect relief for tired travellers.

Jetlag being what it is, though, I was up most of the night, but after another day pounding round Ueno Park catching up on the bits I`d missed or dazedly walked past, I was right as rain. Speaking of which, since the first hot day the weather has been amazing - mid 20`s, light winds, no rain. Whilst I was sitting in the park an old man wobbled up to me on a bike and drunkenly practiced his English on me - he said they had been through an unusually hot summer this year, but it was slowly getting to Autumn. Incidentally, he told me he learned English by watching Sherlock Holmes DVD`s - not the same as the old Tricolore textbooks we used to get at school.

So that`s it for this intro, check in over the next couple of days and I`ll probably have put up a few more posts, some of just photos, some with what I`ve been doing. In a nutshell, I`ve been getting historic in Asakusa (and learning the correct way to pronounce it to avoid sounding like a tourist), getting crazy in the madness of Akihabara, getting some peace in Meiji, and getting some t-shirts in Harajuku. Until next time...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More action to come...

I know things have been a bit slow on DUaB of late - my two posts a week usual seem to have dwindled to one every week - largely thanks to the activity over at The BeerCast. But change is afoot! Next week I'm going back to Tokyo for ten days, and will be blogging as often as possible from the place that put the mega in megacity. Also check out my Flickr page for more comprehensive photo updates (see link on the right). Anyway, I'll pop up again next week in the city by the Sendai. Ja mata ne!