Posts Tagged With: tokyo

Shrine On, Harvest Moon

…But first, the promised pictures from last night’s visit to the Tokyo Tower. The first is of course the tower itself; the others were taken from the top observatory, 800 feet up. (There is also a midpoint observatory at the 500 ft point.)

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The Tower was the tallest structure in Tokyo until July 2008, when the Tokyo Skytree was finished; at 2080 feet it dwarfs the Tower but is far less convenient to our hotel. Plus, I was up in the Tower 20 years ago so there was a certain nostalgia factor as well.

Today was a shrine-filled day as we moved around for the first time with our 15-person group. Also, the weather appears to have improved for the moment, so I suppose one could say it was a sun-shriney day. (Rim shot!)

Our first stop, however, was the Imperial Palace. You can’t actually go inside without special arrangements made long in advance, so your options are basically to either look at the gardens (which in truth are not all that interesting), or circumnavigate the grounds whilst admiring the wals and the moat. We went with the latter, and about all we have to show for it is a nice view of the so-called “double gate”, i.e.:

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Along the way our tour lead Mariko — a knowledge, high-energy 30-ish woman who speaks noticeably accented but generally good English — filled us in on the structure and recent history of the Japanese royal family. It’s less dysfunctional than the English royal family, though not by a whole lot. There was all sorts of angst about royals marrying commoners, that sort of thing. (There was also a case of a commoner joining the royal household and basically lapsing into permanent depression upon losing control of all aspects of her life.)

We moved on to Asakusa shrine, like Meiji one of the larger and better known shrines, although not one that acrries quite as much historical import as Meiji. Asakusa, like Meiji, has a large courtyard but with an added attraction: a large well-shaped incense burner in the middle of the courtyard so that prior to approaching the shrine supplicants can immerse themselves in, well, holy smoke, I guess. You can see the incense burner smoking in the middle of this photo, taken from the steps of the shrine and looking back towards the courtyard.

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And here are some visitors getting smoked:

asakusa-004The woman on the right in the sleeveless top who appears to be complaining about a migraine is in fact wafting the smoke towards her face, the better to be immersed in it. This is not a recommended religious activity for asthmatics.

One of the fun things about Asakusa is that it attracts a lot of people in traditional garb, like this girl.

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Here’s another traditional Japanese activity that you can find in the area:

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But another fun part of Asakusa — the best part, if you don’t actually practice Shinto — is that the road leading up to it is lined with vendor storefronts selling everything from Hello Kitty souvenirs to an enormous variety of interesting edibles.

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As you can see it’s a total madhouse, jam-packed with people to the point that it is occasionally difficult to move. We had lunch at an udon (thick noodle) restaurant on a side street and hit an ice cream stall for dessert on the crowded promenade. This was more interesting than it sounds, because the Japanese — as with so many other things — have a unique approach to ice cream. You know those Keurig coffee machines, where the cofee comes in a little cup-shaped pod that you pop into the machine? That’s how the Japanese do ice cream. The “pods” in this case are about the size of a small cereal bowl and are (obviously) stored at very low temperature. You specify what flavor you want, and they pop the appropriate pod into the machine, which aerates and extrudes the contents into the familiar cone. The wonderful thing about this paradigm is that since the pods can be stored so efficiently in these single-serving pods — you just have to stack the things in the freezer — that it is easy to lay in an inventory with a very large number of flavors, even in a small store. And so it came to pass that I had honeydew ice cream and Alice had — wait for it — sesame ice cream. In case you were wondering, sesame ice cream is gray in color, which is a little odd to behold. But they taste great.

Sated, we moved on to our next shrine, the controversial Yakusuni war memorial. More on that in a moment but first we stopped along the river for a view of Asahi (the beer company) headquarters. Why?  Here’s the building:

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The tall pointy thing second from left is the aforementioned Tokyo Skytree. The Asahi headquarters is the gold building with the funny upper floors. Look carefully now. Could it be that that building is built to resemble….a glass of beer? Yep, complete with foam head. But what’s that giant misshapen rhinoceros horn on the right? It is supposed to represent some kind of divine spirit that motivates the (apparently) blessed beermakers of Asahi. To me it looks less like a divine spirit than some kind of caricatured spermatazoa from a poorly-made junior high school sex-ed film. But that’s just me.

But back to the Yasukuni shrine. It is controversial because it is the memorial to 2.5 million war dead, all of whom are named there. This might not be so terrible except that the names include a number of Japan’s A-list war criminals. Every year there is a huge blow-up as to whether the prime minister should visit the shrine and pay homage; for many years he did not, at the urging of the US, Russia, China, and just about everybody else, the not unreasonable argument being that it kinda sends the wrong message. But the very nationalistic right wing is ascendant in Japan these days, just as in the US and Europe, and so the Prime Minister attended this year and pissed off a number of foreign governments in the process.

The shrine includes a good-size museum about the war, which I can hardly begin to describe because it is frankly such an egregious whitewash. But here’s a corner of the lobby:

yasakuni-001You may have a sense of where this is going. I won’t go into the details — partly because I am still picking my jaw up off the floor and partly because it is late and I need to get to bed — but here’s the big takeaway: World War II was the U.S.’s fault. Wow! I had no idea. I will have to sleep on this, so good night.

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Cats (Not the Broadway Show)

The Meiji Shrine is located in the Harajuku district, about which I wil quote Wikipedia: “Harajuku is known internationally as a center of Japanese youth culture and fashion. Shopping and dining options include many small, youth oriented, independent boutiques and cafés…” To put it another way, it’s where you find a whole lot of very oddly dressed young people; indeed the mere act of typing that sentence makes me feel like an old fart. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.

As we exited the park and crossed the large intersection at the front of the railway station, the first thing that caught my eye was a building that said Cat Café. This is more or less what it sounds, unless you think it sounds like a place where cats go to drink coffee – which, now that I think of it, is something crazy enough for Japan to actually have. But no, what it actually is a place where people go to play with cats. It’s a big room with all sorts of comfy cat-friendly furniture and crawling with cats. You pay your entrance fee and for a half hour you get to de-stress by playing with a room full of cats. Or at least, maybe you get to de-stress. I am allergic to them, and no huge fan to begin with. If forced into that setting at gunpoint (which would be required), I would while away a happy half hour sneezing, wiping mucus out of my eyes, and running around screaming “Get it off me! Get it off me!” Many people who know me think that this would be well worth the investment.

But Alice is a cat person and I offered her the opportunity to go in solo, which slightly to my surprise she declined. But let the record show to my extreme cat-loving friends (Angie and Thumper, you know who you are) that I did offer.

The intersection and main thoroughfare heading away from the station were mobbed, and we worked our way slowly down the street in search of both lunch and the famous Cat Street, the latter having nothing to do with cats despite the name but rather the hub of the aforementioned “Japanese youth culture and fashion”. We were temporarily impeded along our route by some kind of religious parade, as yiou can see here.

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As you can see there are three large groups of identically-dressed marchers, each carrying a shrine. They were highly enthusiastic, to say the least, shouting in unison, fist-pumping, and thumping rhythmically on the bamboo shrine supports.

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All very interesting and exciting, to be sure, but no one in the crowd or the nearby shops seemed to know quite what they were doing there. It is likely that it is some kind of equinox celebration (which they are big on here), a couple of days late so that it could take place on the weekend.

We continued down the road to Cat Street, indeed encountering a great number of the promised fashionable youth. Many, especially the young women, were very elegant. Many were rather outré, and many were of the “casual/vaguely hostile” look. Here’s one of the latter.

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But the most unsettling by far are the quasi-Lolitas. Here’s a head shot of one.

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What you cannot see in this picture is the rest of her outfit, which is a frilly white knee-length dress — complete with petticoats — with a big lacy heart on the front, white stockings, and patent leather shoes. Here’s a really lousy shot of one of this species that I sneaked in the Edo Museum the other day.

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(Her boyfriend’s striped pants definitely add to the effect, whatever it is.)

The poor quality of the photo is a direct result of my having taken it on the fly from waist level without any niceties of focusing or composition, my having done so because I simply did not have the temerity to ask permission of someone who so clearly occupies a different universe than I do.

So the Lolita look is a thing; we’ve seen six or eight girls who look like this. So I guess that there is a demographic that considers it fashionable to dress as though you’re on a date with a pedophile. Creepiness factor = maximum. (Humbert Humbert, check your messages.)

So that is Cat Street and environs. In addition to the high end boutiques, it includes a lot of cool little shops like this one where they make candy by hand.

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…as well as some appealingly normal people like this mom carrying her daughter.

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We ended the day with a trip to the Tokyo Tower, the city’s second-highest structure. From 800 feet up, we got a spectacular 360-degree nighttime view of the city. I will post photos tomorrow after I have a chance to edit them.

Now we’re off to meet up with our tour group. We’ve been on our own for the past week, but today is our last day in Tokyo and starting tomorrow we head south with a group of 14 other people to Mt Fuji en route to Kyoto.

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Meiji, Meiji Not

Remember when Commodore Perry muscled his way into Tokyo in 1853? Of course you do: we told you about it a couple of days ago when we visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, although in fairness we did not warn you that there would be a quiz. Anyway, that more or less marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s Edo period, when the shoguns ruled the roost. They continued to lose ground after that, until finally in 1867 the biggest, baddest shogun of them all, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, ceded power to the emperor Meiji and thus ushered in the eponymous Meiji Period, also called the Meiji Restoration.

Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, opened Japan up to international trade and diplomacy, and generally built the country up into a world power. When he died in 1912 it was  literally the end of an era. His son Yoshihito ascended the throne and with the assent of parliament built a large elaborate shrine in his honor; its grounds cover 174 acres and include a lake and gardens. Here is the entrance gate to the grounds.

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It is a much-visited and much honored place, which is one of the reasons that the Allies firebombed it to ashes during World War II. It was rebuilt in the 1950’s. The shrine itself faces a large courtyard where amulet and votive vendors ply their trade, as they do at all large Shinto shrines. Just as in Kamakura, you can buy oddly specific good luck charms, e.g., for passing an exam, or finding a job, or improving your health, or (my personal favorite) “traffic safety”.

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We were milling around the courtyard when to our delight a Shinto wedding procession exited the shrine, crossed the courtyard, and disappeared through the gate.

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“I can really feel that you’ve been working out.”

This was very exciting: our first Shinto wedding, and at a big-name shrine at that! How often does that happen?

The answer, as it turns out, is “about every ten minutes”. Because it was only a few minutes later that a wedding procession came back in through the gate, across the courtyard, and into the temple. Our first thought was, “Hey, why did they come back?” But no:

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Different couple! It appears that the Meiji Shrine is the Las Vegas wedding chapel of Shinto nuptials. So, mazel tov to these happy couples, and any others that happened to go through the mill today.

Despite my personal flippancy, many Japanese take this place very seriously; Meiji transformed Japan and is still venerated. We saw a number of visitors — including young people — come to a stop as they were exiting the gate, turn 180 degrees, and bow repeatedly to the shrine before leaving. We obviously did not, but we did linger long enough to stroll around the grounds and lake.

Cutting this of early today as we are off to get a panoramic nighttime view of Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower, at 800 feet.

Next time: the curse of the cat people.

 

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Tokyo National Museum & Friends

The Tokyo National Museum (“TNM” in the local signage) is one of the major destinations in the city, and an impressive institution it is. A complex of multiple buildings whose main entrance resembles a gigantic temple, it is the repository of many of Japan’s treasure: sculptures, swords, scrolls and other artifacts that in some cases date back some 1500 years. Unsurprisingly you are not allowed to take photos in much of it, but there are some exceptions so here are a couple of shots of the kind that you (unsurprisingly) find there:

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Do not be on the wrong end of this object

tnm-001  I was going to title this post “Samuraiiiii…. Museum!” à la the late great John Belushi, but there is in fact a separate Samurai Museum which we will probably not have time to see.

The TNM is located at the edge of Ueno Park, which is sort of Tokyo’s Central Park, though not nearly as big. (When I was here 20 years it also shared Central Park’s reputation of not being a place that you wanted to be at night. I don’t know if that is still the case.) It has a zoo, and fountains, and all that other park stuff, and like parks everywhere is a good place for people-watching, such as this contemplative young woman.

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At the metro station just outside the park are also the dreaded Chia Pandas. (They don’t call them that, but they should.) That is to say, there are two of these:

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Also near Ueno is one of Tokyo’s premier souvenir shopping districts, the Ameyoko promenade. This is a huge area literally under the railroad tracks, yeasty with bargain hunters and noisy as hell from the trains, where you can buy, well, pretty much anything: clothing; jewelry (with a particular emphasis on American Indian jewelry, for some incomprehensible reason); leather goods; fresh fish, fruit and vegetables; cosmetics; food stalls; etc., etc. As with every other market place anywhere, it is mostly narrow passageways thronged with people, including the hawkers themselves, shouting at the top of their lungs,like this guy:

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Here are some local shoppers trying on hair bands, or cosmetics, or something. Whatever it was they were doing, it was a group effort and they were really into it.

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You notice the face masks, of course. The Japanese are very fond of them, ostensibly for hygienic purposes, though it’s hard to say whether they actually do any good in that regard.  Out on the streets maybe one in 20 people wear them, though on the trains and subways the fraction is noticeably higher.

I am happy to report that it is not raining today. his gives us the opportunity to see an outdoor sight, probably one of the major shrines. Tomorrow we meet up with our travel group for our last day in Tokyo, then head south to Hakone and Mt. Fuji.

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Maximum Fish, and a Mad Scramble

A lot of images spring to mind when you hear the word “Japan”, and for Alice and me one of those words is “sushi.” And like the old saying goes, “Teach a man to fish, and he will eat a lot of sushi.” Something like that. But anyway, as you doubtless know fish is a very big deal in Japan, and consequently one of the major go-to sites in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is where it all happens: the tuna and other catch brought in during the predawn hours of every morning and auctioned off to the wholesalers. It is possible to see the tuna auction itself — that’s the biggie, with the biggest fish going for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that is not a typo) — but it isn’t easy. They only allow 120 spectators in, and demand for a seat is high. The auction starts at 5 AM every day and it is recommended that you show up two hours before that if you want to have a decent shot at getting a seat in the gallery.  So naturally Alice and I, intrepid travelers that we are, looked at each other and said…. “Uh uh.”

If like us you are sane enough not to go to the auction, your next best course of action is to show up at  the much more congenial hour of 10 AM, at which time the wholesale floor opens to the public. The wholesale area is a huge warehouse, a good one or two city blocks in size, shaped like a giant Quonset hut with endless banks of incandescent lights receding into the gloom above you. As you enter — being careful not to break your neck on the perpetually slippery floor as it is constantly hosed down — you pass through the loading area, dodging the little electric loading trucks as they barrel heedlessly past you.

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“Hey, does this place smell fishy to you?”

Once past the loading area, you find yourself in a maze of stalls, navigating past the vendors on narrow passageways which, somehow, the delivery flatbeds still manage to squeeze though without killing anybody. No matter which passageway you turn down or which direction you look, you are likely to see scenes and characters like this:

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They sell every fish you have ever heard of, and a fair number you have not. There were more than a few specifies that neither of us could identify, but there were plenty that we could: tuna, eel, gar, snapper, clams, scallops, mussels, octopus, whelks, crabs, shrimp, and on and on. It was pretty impressive, and a lot of fun to behold. Some of the vendors have all their wares on ice; others have them displayed live in tanks. There are hoses and Styrofoam bins of crushed ice absolutely everywhere — and a few stations manned by guys whose sole job was to continuously wrangle suitcase-sized blocks of ice into giant ice crushers.

The complex is ringed by countless tiny seafood restaurants — some seating ten people or less — and street vendors, all offering fresh-as-fresh-can-be seafood in its many forms, prepared in as many ways. Radiating out from the ring of restaurants is a network of crowded market alleyways, also thronged with people, seafood restaurants, and sushi vendors. So here is our lunch being prepared:

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That’s about eight different kinds of fresh seafood — at least one of which we couldn’t even identify — steamed and then braised with a blowtorch over the grill, and served on a big scallop shell with a pair of chopsticks. Seriously good.

That evening, we did the Shibuya Scramble.

The what?

The Shibuya Scramble is not a dance, though it sort of sounds like one. Although come to think of it, it actually is a sort of dance, as you will see in a moment. More narrowly, it is a place, officially known as Shibuya Crossing, an enormous intersection in front of the Sibuya train station in central Tokyo. Five streets come together in a very broad intersection ringed by over-illuminated multistory department stores, pachinko parlors, restaurants, and everything else, all with animated light displays. It looks like this:

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Even the side streets get into the act:

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So the name of the game, as elsewhere in Tokyo, is “sensory overload”. But what makes Shibuya Crossing special — and it shows up in most “Top Ten” lists of things to see in Tokyo — is the traffic flow, which would probably not have been your first guess. The thing is, that because of the stores and the train station, an exceptionally large number of pedestrians flow through this huge multi-lane intersection at any given moment, and the traffic lights are timed such that everybody crosses in every direction at the same time. The lights turn green and the scene suddenly looks like an explosion in an anthill:

shibuya-005 Hence the name “Shibuya Scramble.” At ground level, in the middle of the crowd, here is what you see as you cross:

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If you want to see this in action, check out this YouTube video. And if you want to watch it as it happens, there is even this live feed webcam. There is a weird anticipatory pleasure as you watch the ebb and flow of people, watching the car traffic pass through the intersection as you wait for the magic moment when the light turns and those hundreds of people all surge forward at once. It’s sort of like watching the waves at the ocean.

In short, the Shibuya Scramble is utterly lunatic and it is enormous, incomprehensible fun to be a part of… I’m not altogether sure why. It is, in its way, quintessentially Japanese: a detailed, choreographed aesthetic overlaid with a veneer of batshit craziness. Or maybe the other way around. It’s Blade Runner meets the Bolshoi. We’re really glad we went.

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Oh, the Humidity!

September is typhoon season in Japan — it averages over 9 inches of rain — which raises the obvious question of why anyone (and by anyone I mean “we”) would plan a vacation here in that particular month. The answer in our case is work-related: I have a consulting gig supporting my former employer in winning a major NASA bid, whose timing would collide with an October or November trip. So I hope that my former coworkers all appreciate that I am taking a bullet for the team here. Or at least a large number of raindrops.

In truth, though, it doesn’t really slow us down. We’ve only had one “Why the hell are we here?” downpour, at the Giant Buddha in Kamakura two days ago; most of the time it’s no worse than a light drizzle, and we’ve gone for up to six hours at a time with no rain at all. When this happens, we get very excited: we look outside our hotel room in the morning and exclaim, “Look! It’s only gloomy today!”

It is, however, humid. Really, really humid: the needle is pretty much pinned at 100%, and every article of clothing and object on our person that is not made of metal is at least slightly damp. There is no point in eating potato chips: they go stale before you can get them to your mouth.

I mention all this because the weather was a direct contributor to one of yesterday’s interesting and non-touristy experiences, which was a short journey through the Japanese health care system.

I am very mildly asthmatic, and it normally impinges upon my life almost not at all. I do not experience any shortness of breath but rather on occasion am afflicted with a mild but irritating cough. It’s not much of a problem; I have one of those little puff-spray inhalers that cause undersized nerds to get beat up in high school movies, and I just take a hit or two off it if I start to cough. Even that doesn’t happen very often. But since arriving in Japan I have been coughing much more frequently, the result being that I have been hitting the inhaler much more often than I anticipated and it is thus running low. Alice speculated — correctly, as it turned out — that this was because of the relentless humidity. Again, not a huge problem, but I didn’t want to spend the last week or two of the trip with an annoying cough, and so decided to seek out a doctor and try to get a refill. (My family doctor is 6700 miles from here and no Japanese pharmacy is going to honor an American prescription anyway.)

And so we came to St. Luke’s International Hospital, one Metro stop from our hotel. It is a large university hospital, and — being Japanese – extremely modern and well-organized. Everything is white, except for the people. By which I mean that Japan’s ethnic homogeneity is somewhat jarring to a foreigner; I saw but a single Caucasian person (a blonde woman) among all the hospital staff. The administrative staff’s English skills were rocky but serviceable, and it wasn’t a problem in any case because, in billing itself as an “international hospital”, St. Luke’s has a number of interpreters on staff. When someone wanted to explain something to me in detail — like the fact that I needed a Japanese national medical insurance card to do anything (“Single payer” system! Take that, critics of Obamacare!) — she would dial an in-house number and hand me the phone, and I would find myself talking to a very friendly person whose English was absolutely perfect. Admin girl and I would pass the phone back and forth, communicating through the interpreter. This worked surprisingly well, and I now have a unique souvenir: a Japanese national medical insurance card.

My doctor was a delightful young woman whose English was a little rough but adequate for the purpose: no phone calls to the interpreter needed. She very clearly knew what she was doing — trust me on this assessment, as I have way too much experience with doctors — and confirmed the asthma diagnosis, writing me the needed prescription. She also established Alice’s medical credentials, remarking that typhoon season brings her an enormous number of asthma cases.

I could fill the prescription right there in the hospital, and did so, and we were on our way. Total elapsed time since we walked in: 1 hour 35 minutes. Total cost (since despite now being registered in the system I obviously do not have Japanese medical insurance): $500, all major credit cards accepted. So now when we get home I will experience the joy of submitting a claim to my own actual health insurance company. I’m sure they won’t be fazed in the least by the fact that my receipt and every piece of accompanying documentation is in Japanese.

After leaving the hospital we went and did some actual fun stuff, which I will leave for the next post.

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Giants in Diapers

We are talking about sumo, of course. It is Japan’s national sport, 1500 years old with roots in the Shinto religion. Indeed, many of sumo’s rituals are religious, including sprinkling salt around the ring and that peculiar one-leg-at-a-time stomp that is so often parodied. Both are purification rituals designed to demon-proof the proceedings. (And there must be a lot of demons in the vicinity, judging by the amount of salt these guys throw around. More on that in a moment.)

We were lucky to get tickets. There are only six matches a year held throughout the country, and only half of those are in Tokyo. Each match is 15 days long, which means that there are only 45 days during the year when you can see professional sumo in Tokyo. Happily, one of those 15-day windows falls in mid-September, so here we are. We booked a sumo-plus-traditional dinner tour and were fortunate to have a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and generally adorable guide named Nao to give us the skinny on the fat guys. Nao was something of a sumo groupie, so she even had cheat sheets made up for us with the names and stats of the players, plus some handicapping information in the bargain. It is all a very big deal, and the players themselves — of whom there are only 660 in the country — are highly venerated as a result.

This led us to our first bit of surrealism, in fact, as Nao lectured us on the unapproachability of these 350-pound demigods. We might see one of them in his robe outside the arena, she cautioned. If we do, do not approach him! (What, will they attack unprovoked?) I’ll do the talking, said Nao, and if we are very, very lucky and very, very polite then he may consent to have his picture taken with us. She proudly added that she had last succeeded in this quest a week ago.

Well, we exit from the train and who is wandering around the station in his bright yellow robe but one of the behemoths in the flesh. Nao approaches him as obsequiously as possible — and in Japan that is very, very obsequious — and after a few moments of conversation the giant consents to a photo op, to everyone’s delight. He does this gamely for a few minutes and most of our group — but not us — managed to get into a shot by the time he turns away to buy a train ticket. Our bad luck, it seems, until Nao imparts out of the blue the biographical nugget that this particular guy is originally from Hawaii. That’s all I need.

As Nao looks on in horror I march over to the ticket machine next to him and say, “Hey, I hear you’re from Hawaii! I used to live there!” It turns out that he is, well, just a guy after all and he says, “No kidding. Where?” So we chat for a minute or two and shake hands and I ask if we could squeeze in one more shot of Alice and me. He says, “Sure,” and here is the result:

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So we are once again officially awesome.

The sumo arena is square and holds roughly 4000 people. The sign at the ticket window said that the match was sold out, but as you can see from the photo below it seemed far from that while we were there.

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That’s Nao on the far right. In the corridors outside the seating area there are a number of snack bars selling a rather interesting variety of stuff: ice cream and popcorn like stadiums the world over, but also bento boxes and alien Japanese snacks.

After some preliminary bouts the big-time players marched in for the top-of-the-card matches. The overexcited announcer named them one by one as they formed a circle, clad in ornate, colorful upscale loincloths, and the crowd went wild. Here are the top-ranking champions on display.

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Speaking of “alien” this is probably a good time to note that it was only in 1993 that a Hawaiian fellow named Chadwick Haheo Rowan broke the “nation barrier” by becoming — amidst an enormous amount of controversy and hand-wringing — the first non-Japanese yokozuna, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler. His sumo name was Akebono Taro, and he pretty much opened the floodgates for non-Japanese participants. Today, in addition to our Hawaiian guy at the train station, we saw wrestlers from China, Georgia (the country), Brazil (which has a large ethnic Japanese population), and a veritable Mongol horde. (Literally: a disproportionate number of the top ranked guys are from Mongolia.)

A match begins, as you probably know, by the contestants strewing salt around the wring, then stretching and stomping around for a bit, then finally squatting down and facing each other. At this point you expect the referee to say “Go!”, and the guys go at it, but no. The referee does not start the bout; the players do, and only when they’re both damn well ready. So after squatting and glowering at each other for a few seconds, one or both will get up, walk around, towel off the sweat (from what?), and throw around more salt. Then they’ll squat down and face each other again, and one will decide, “Nah, not yet,” and the whole cycle starts again: stretching, salt, towel, a stomp or two, maybe a quick mani-pedi. This can go on for half a dozen cycles until there’s enough salt in the ring to de-ice your driveway next winter. At this point the audience is ready to storm the ring and finally things get serious…

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…for about ten seconds, until something like this happens:

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That “ten seconds” remark is not an exaggeration; many of the bouts are indeed that short. The rules state that a bout may last a maximum of four minutes, but it is hard to imagine that happening given what we saw today. A couple of the very top-ranked matches lasted noticeably longer, the longest being perhaps two minutes. Most of that time was spent with the guys locked together, leaning into each other like a rigid triangle, absolutely unmoving: the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.   Sometimes things get slightly out of hand, e.g.:

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The deadly 350 lb Atomic Wedgie

…but mostly it’s wham, bam, sayonara.

The players are famous, of course, but not terribly rich. There are ten ranks of player and only the top five are paid at all; the lowest of these makes about $120K a year, the highest about three times that. Sponsorships provide a little extra money, though nothing on the scale of American athletes. In fact, it works rather differently. Companies will choose to sponsor particular bouts — generally the ones with the best known players — and pay into a sponsorship pool to do so. When that bout comes up the company reps get to march around the ring holding their company banners, and whoever wins the bout gets the pool. Bouts with top-ranked players will get a dozen or more sponsorships, leading to a scene like this:

sumo-009 …while bouts with low-ranked players will get no marching banners at all.

At the end of the bout, the referee hands the winner an envelope containing the sponsorship cash, right there in the ring. We should definitely adopt this system at home: when the Yankees are playing, at the conclusion of the game a pickup truck drives onto the field, filed with $50 million in cash from all of Alex Rodriguez’s sponsors, and the coach of the winning team gets to drive off with it.

You are now a sumo expert, and I have retired a minor bucket list item.

 

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Sailor Moon Vs the Dancing Corpse

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.

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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.

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I couldn’t find any volunteers to carry her around, so she’s still there.

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:

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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:

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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.:

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Sailor Moon, call your office. And Child Protective Services.

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:

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“Don’t tell Mom I shop here or she’ll kick me out of the basement.”

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.

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Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

tokyo-metro-map

Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

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