Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan: Day 2 in Tokyo

Waking up on the second day was a little bizarre. It took me a minute to realize that I was lying on a futon mattress on the ground (which is common Japanese practice)... in an unfamiliar room... in Tokyo!! Once that set in, I was up and ready to go. Our days in Tokyo (for most of the trip, really), were jampacked, as we wanted to sightsee until our eyes hurt and eat until our bellies burst. (Note, we will soon have our complete photo albums up on our Picasa site - for now I'm including highlights, but there you'll get a play-by-play of, among other things, all the food we ate! Stay tuned...)

So for Day 2 we decided to chart a course that went through central Tokyo, beginning with the Roppongi area, through Akasaka, the Imperial Palace, Ginza, and ending up in Akihibara.

We arrived in Roppongi around 9:15am, which was really too early to see much. The main 'attraction' is Roppongi Hills, a huge, multi-structure complex of stores, housing, theaters, and restaurants. Coming from Canada, which has such a relatively small population, it is amazing to me that a city can support something as big as this (let alone several, as Roppongi Hills is just one of many such complexes around Tokyo).
Anyway, it wasn't that interesting because everything was closed.

So, we moved on to the National Art Center, which is a beautiful building with a wavy green glass exterior designed by Kurokawa Kishi. It has no internal pillars, just two big inverted concrete cones. We didn't actually pay for any of the exhibits, but spent some time in and outside the building, and bought a curry bun from the cafe for breakfast.

The beautiful undulating exterior of the National Art Center of Tokyo

From there, we walked into Midtown, to the 21_21 Design Sight building, designed by the reknowned Ando Tadao. Two small, angular glass buildings rise up from (or descend into) the ground, housing temporary, single-theme exhibits. As far as we could tell, the exhibit had something to do with pottery, but we chose to move on to make sure we could catch all of the sights we had planned for the day.

Brian, checking out how he sizes up at 21_21 Design Site

In adjacent Hinokicho Kyoen (Kyoen/Gyoen/Koen/Goen = garden), there was some kind of group exercise/relaxation session, which lots of people stretching (and snoozing) on mats in unison to some guy's instructions. From here, we got a good view of Midtown Tower, the tallest building in Tokyo. It was your average skyscraper (we were
meh about it, since it kind of pales in comparison to the Sears Tower (814 ft vs. 1450 ft!).

Next, we walked through the Akasaka neighborhood to see the Hie-jinja (jinja = shrine), scoping out locales for lunch along the way (and snacking on some super cheap sushi rolls from a tiny store.) The path up the hill leading to the jinja was supposed to be lined with red torii (torii = gate) but, to our disappointment, wasn't! The shrine itself is notable because it is the site of one of Tokyo's biggest festivals, the Sanno Matsuri, in June.

The big stone torii leading to Hie-jinja

After a stop for some udon noodles and a mysterious, dry powder-coated ball of red bean-stuffed mochi (my motto for the trip was "you never know until you try!" We later found out that this ubiquitous coating is dried soybean powder), we metroed up to Hibiya Station. The train spits you out at the corner of the Imperial Palace grounds, which is surrounded by a huge moat. In old times, the moat served the usual defensive duties, a protective, military function. Now, however, it brings an appreciated measure of peace to the city, an artificial river running through its center. The stone walls of the the Palace buildings rise somewhat imposingly above the moat and walls, with cool lookout towers peeking out.

A lookout tower at the Imperial Palace

You can't actually visit the Inner Palace grounds (unless you arrange for a tour that's in Japanese anyway), so we just walked around a bit. Families were picnicking in the grassy areas, but much of it was covered with gravel. Further to the NE is the Imperial Garden which was quite pretty, although we were in between cherry blossom (April) and iris (June) viewing seasons, so it wasn't as scenic as it could be.

Pretty Japanese maple leaves

From the Palace we headed East into Ginza, a busy area known for good (mostly expensive) shopping. Our first stop was the beautiful Tokyo International Forum, a steel and glass building that looks like a huge ship. Just lovely, all angles and light. There was a big Bach festival going on, so it was alive with a ton of activity.

The big glass hull-like ceiling of the Tokyo International Forum

We hit up the Tourist Info Centre nearby to see if they would make a reservation for us at a restaurant in Kyoto (they wouldn't), and got a bunch of pamphlets and info for things we wanted to do. It was oddly situated though, on the 10th floor of a random building near the Ginza train station. (General note - tourist info offices were a great help along the way, very friendly and chock full of useful maps, tips, and sometimes, even coupons. They are usually situated in or very close to the main train station in each city.)

We then went into the SONY building and looked at some gadgets (it's basically a showcase for current and upcoming technology). Back out on the street, there was some kind of demonstration going on. We heard its rumblings even when we were at the Palace, and saw lines of riot cops standing in formation at subway entrances.
Too bad we had absolutely no idea what it was about!

Chuo-dori (dori = street) is the main shopping street in Ginza, with the usual high-end stores like Tiffany, Apple, Louis Vitton, and a bunch of Japanese department stores. It was a particularly pleasant stroll because they had closed the street to cars, providing some relief from the usual crowding on the sidewalks. It was still busy though:

Chuo-dori, in Ginza

I had a short list of stores to check out - a couple of fantastic stationery stores with handmade washi papers and cards, and a bakery. I also made sure that we visited the flagship branch of Muji, a store that I first encountered when I was in London in 2003 (now there are several branches in NYC). Back then, I remember that it sold stationery and some clothes, maybe a bit of furniture. This Muji, though, was so much more than that. All those things, plus bikes, gardening stuff, luggage, etc. And all of it was cool, nothing tacky. My kind of heaven!

Muji was right next to the Tokyo subway station, so we hopped back on the train and headed up for Akihibara, also known as "Electric Town." As the name suggests, this is an area where you can find all sorts of electronics, from MP3 players to phones to computers and accessories. We weren't in the market for anything which was good given that we had actually heard that prices weren't cheaper than in the US. (When I was in Hong Kong in 2004, we went to the equivalent area there and there were actually pretty good deals to be had.) It was a huge blur of neon and blinking lights, though, with sales people shouting from each store. (General note - sales staff are ALWAYS talking, shouting, hawking here... it would never fly in the US!) Akihibara is also known for "maid cafes," where girls dressed up in elaborate lolita/maid costumes *serve* you (we don't really know the details, never really bothered to find out!) Such maids were all over the street, handing out advertisements for the cafes and generally classing the place up.

A bad photo of some of the costumed folks we saw

Not looking for a specific gadget, our No. 1 mission was to find Jangara Ramen, a noodle house that I had seen on the appropriately named website, We love ramen (I dearly miss Daikokuya, a terrific ramen restaurant in LA), and it was one of our primary missions to get some of the good stuff on the trip. Trying to find the restaurant was a huge endeavour, though, given the nonsensical arcaneness of Tokyo's address system. Addresses are a series of numbers identifying building , chome (area) , and block numbers in a given area, but not every map has these numbers identified, and the buildings themselves *might* have a teeny, dark plaque with its number on it. Argh. So, even armed with the address, I began to doubt that we would ever find my beloved ramen after we spent about 15 minutes scratching our heads and hesitantly walking around. My feet hurt, I'm getting a headache from all the beeping and yelling, gimme my ramen, dangit! I even had my phrasebook out and was ready to ask someone, but feeling a bit shy. Ramen Jangara wa doko deska?

So, Brian to the rescue. He carefully reread the section on addresses in our guidebook, and kept a keen eye out for building plaques. Suddenly we found a map stand that identified the block numbers, and, just when I was about to give up in frustration, we turned a corner and found it! Luckily, I had looked it up on the internet that morning and taken note of the store's blue and yellow logo, so I recognized it immediately. I was SO glad and so very proud of my
very bright husband! After all that, we were rewarded with this:

Mmmmm, miso ramen with chashu pork, cod roe, bamboo shoots, and an egg

After filling up on tasty delicious noodles, we headed back out and decided that we just had to check out the "Taito" building, with its familiar space invaders-alien logo beckoning us in. Each floor of the 6 storey building had a different focus, the first floor comprising a ton of those grabby-crane games. The toys you could win ranged from the usual innocuous stuffed animal to PSP consoles, to some very sexy-looking barbie-like dolls... Rrrrrrrrowr. Another floor was filled with nothing but those sticker-photo booths! And of course, there were a couple of floors devoted to big, noisy arcade games. A vertical circus for the 21st century.

Taito game station, a multi-storey arcade in Akihibara

Tired, full, and overstimulated, we decided to hop back on the train and head home to Mina's. Once again, sleep came pretty easily, and after some planning for Day 3, we were snoring within minutes!

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