I’ll bet that title got your attention. All in good time….
Because the weather was drizzly (and would get a whole lot worse, though we didn’t know that yet), we decided that seeing Tokyo from indoors would be our best starting point. And so with little difficulty we Metro’ed our way to one of the city’s best-known museums, the Edo-Tokyo Museum. “Edo” refers to the so-called Tokugawa Shogunate era, when the shoguns ruled the land for over two centuries and provided enough material to script generations of TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain. The nominal start of the Edo era was in 1603 when 260 samurai pledged their fealty to the shoguns and basically started keeping everybody in line. It was a period of significant economic prosperity and extreme isolation from the rest of the world: no foreign influences of any sort were allowed, including books and people. Things started to falter economically in the 1800’s and the system was already tottering when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of gunships in 1853 and announced that he had heard so much about the place and really, really wanted to pay a visit. And so the negotiations went along the lines of:
Shoguns: “Sorry, we just closed an hour ago. No one is allowed in. Ever.”
Perry: “Please re-check your reservation list. It’s under the name “gunboats”.
Shoguns: “Ah, um, yes, we see. Please come in and make yourself loud and intrusive.”
And that was the end of the Edo era. It is remembered as a time of great cultural richness, driven in part by a great expansion of education. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a large blocky structure with most of the exhibits on two large floors divided into open galleries. There is some summary signage in English, enough to actually learn something without being overwhelmed by detail, of which there is a great deal in Japanese: the walls are covered with all sorts of graphs and charts, showing things like the change in life expectancy correlated with the size of the rice harvest, as well as assorted block diagrams and organization charts showing how the local governments functioned. I was secretly grateful not to be able to read any of it.
But the highlights of the museums are the artifacts and the many really cool models of villages and royal compounds, huge (20 x 30 feet) platforms at waist height populated by wonderfully detailed buildings surrounded by hundreds of miniature people going about their business. Each model has a few sets of binoculars around the perimeter so you can scan the setup as though you were spying on a real village.
At the risk of compromising historical accuracy, these things definitely need little electric trains running around them.
Besides the models and the pie charts, there are the expected assortment of beautiful artifacts: samurai armor, tapestries, that sort of thing. Some are interactive: models of water buckets and peddler sample boxes that you can pick up (all ridiculously heavy), and a palanquin (sedan chair) that you can climb into as you wait for your underlings to carry you around.
We spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the museum, then decided to head over to Akihabara, the electronic district, to ogle the consumer goods and find some lunch. Akihabara is legendary, and rightly so. It is an area about four blocks on a side, and it all looks like this:
The thing that you have to understand is that nearly every single one of those establishments is selling electronics of one sort or another. Some are in a well-lit, upscale department store setting; others are literally back-alley vendor stalls, and it is these that are particularly fascinating. You duck into a storefront and are instantly in a 21st century Japanese version of an Arab souk: dimly lit passageways lined with stall after stall of vendors selling the most ridiculously specialized electronic goods. This one sells only network cables; that one only connectors; another one only power bricks. It goes on and on, and you have to wonder how this sales model is economically viable. I mean, how many feet of CAT-5 ethernet cable do you have to sell every day to pay the rent? And yet, somehow it works, and has worked for quite a while: when I was here 20 years ago the same vendors were no less specialized, this one selling resistors, that one capacitors.
It is not strictly correct to say that every building is an electronics store. There are some restaurants as well, but the remaining retail establishments fall into two categories: pachinko parlors and manga action figure stores. Both are weird enough to merit discussion.
You may have heard the word, but in case you have never seen the device, a pachinko machine is a cross between a slot machine and a pinball machine. It is about the size of a slot machine and stands vertically. You sit in front of it and feed a large number of ball bearings into the top; these bounce around inside, eventually landing in slots that reward you with…..more ball bearings. You do this until you either die of smoke inhalation (these places are not smoke free), go deaf (each machine pounds out techno music at Who concert decibel levels, and there are hundreds of machines), or redeem your accumulated collection of ball bearings for dubiously-valuable prizes. In other words, it’s like Chuck E. Cheese for grownups, but much less subtle.
When I was hear twenty years ago, pachinko parlors were noisy, smoky, dirty, somewhat primitive and (to me) sad places. Now they are noisy, smoky, clean, digital, and still sad. Which is to say that they are better lit than twenty years ago, and now each machine has an animated digital display in the center showing a variously writhing or kiss-blowing nymphet. Progress!
Which brings us to the manga action figures. I am not quite sure how to begin because the concept is so uniquely Japanese that the weirdness quotient is astronomical. So let me begin with this photo of one of the display cases:
Each case is jammed with an assortment of plastic homages to every anime character in existence, a large fraction with more than a passing nod to the uniquely Japanese take on what we might call crypto-pedophila, e.g.:
Now I need you to imagine not just a small store full of these things, but a multi-story emporium. The particular one that we were in was at least three stories high. And the items are not cheap. The very smallest ones, perhaps 5 inches tall with minimal detail, start at $20 or so. The prices goes up rapidly in proportion to the size of the figure — the size of her boobs in particular — and in inverse proportion to how much clothing she is wearing. The almost-pornographic ones cost hundreds of dollars. Who buys these things? This guy, for one:
I am being a little unfair here, of course. (Hey, that guy can write his own blog.) But only a little. These models are very big business here, and they are not all semi-naked schoolgirls with 50-inch breasts. Those are only about 65% of the inventory. The rest are determinedly-scowling muscly guys with flames instead of hair, and variations on Godzilla. I feel much better now.
After leaving the manga store and hosing ourselves down, we ate lunch at another uniquely Japanese establishment, which I have come to call the Vertical Food Court. This is a great concept that I would love to see back home. Typically, such a place is a several-story building, each floor of which houses one or two regular sit-down restaurants. At the entrance to the building is a display showing photos of each restaurant and offering a sample menu. You then step into the elevator and pick your floor/restaurant. Since the information was all in Japanese we chose essentially at random — we picked floor 8 out of a possible 9 — and ended up at a good Korean restaurant. (We didn’t know it was Korean until we sat down and were given English-language versions of the menu. Who knew?)
Our penultimate stop of the day — it was now getting on towards about 4 PM and the wind and rain were worsening — was a kabuki performance. A kabuki play and a sumo match have both been on my bucket list — no remarks about having an odd bucket list, please — so I was finally going to check one off. (And we’ll see the sumo match this afternoon!) Kabuki, as you may know, is a very traditional formal style of Japanese drama; there is a well-known kabuki theater in Tokyo and tickets are much sought-after. The thing is, full kabuki performances are 4-5 hours long, and so the theater wisely caters to tourists by offering single-act tickets in the nosebleed seats, available very cheaply on a first-come basis at the box office on the day of the performance. We opted for the second act, which would take 45 minutes to perform. We figured that since we were there mainly for the atmosphere, we would not bother paying for one of the handheld translation devices. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not, since we had almost no idea what the hell what was going on.
The theater was large and beautifully architected in wood. The stage was very wide and the set simple and elegant, a Japanese house a la “Teahouse of the August Moon”. There were about five actors, apparently well-known judging from the applause with which each was greeted upon walking on. The plot was incomprehensible, but I will quote for you the English summary sheet that we were given for our particular act:
“A petty gang member called Rakuda has died after eating blowfish. Hanji, one of his evil companions, wants to hold a wake but has no money, and the neighbors will not contribute. Hanji threatens Kyuroku, the waste paper collector, to go to the landlord’s house to collect some money, but the landlord turns down the request. Hanji forces Kyuroku to break into the landlord’s house again, this time carrying Rakuda’s body and make it look like it’s dancing. The plan works, and they buy some sake. They start drinking together but as they become drunk the hapless Kyoroku becomes surprisingly aggressive.”
That’s it. The play ends with everybody drunk and dancing with the corpse. This is a comedy. (Yes, really.) Dancing with a corpse is apparently a particular laugh riot in these parts, judging from the audience reaction.
Well. That was different. The acting was rather broad, the actors sort of barking their lines in that Japanese way, as all the while a shamisen – that tradition Japanese stringed instrument — goes plink-plink-plink in the background. Particularly important moments are underlined by clopping wooden blocks.
We were glad we went. We were also glad that it was only 45 minutes.
By the time we left the theater, Tropical Storm Godzilla (I have renamed it) was in full cry. Driving rain, howling wind, peoples’ umbrellas being turned inside out, the works. But we still needed dinner, and Alice had identified a particular shabu-shabu restaurant in the area that she wanted to try. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the place, and after passing about a half dozen inviting-looking sushi bars, all the while being pummeled by the weather, we realized that we were being, well, stupid. So we gave up and popped in to one of those sushi bars, where we had an excellent meal. We rolled the dice and went with the “chef’s choice”, which worked out well: there was only one completely unidentifiable object, and it tasted OK. And I only humiliated us once by dropping a piece of sushi onto the counter when my chopsticks slipped. (Unusual for me, actually, as I am normally gratifyingly adept with them.) I offered to kill myself but they said not to bother. My family will simply have to live with the shame instead, but they’re used to that.
This afternoon: sumo match. Stay tuned.