Thursday, November 10, 2011


My first trip to Tokyo, was a brief, one-day experience. I had arrived early in the morning, after an overnight flight. I don't recall much of that trip. Although I was wide-eyed in wonder, I was also sleep deprived and much of that wonder may have been hallucination. Having over a week in and near the city meant that I could really see it ... or so I thought. 

My adventure began in my hotel. Instead of a terrycloth robe hanging in my closet, I was provided with a traditional yukata. I wasted no time in trying it on. Although beautifully appointed, the room was certainly the smallest I'd ever seen in the Marriott chain. I was not planning to spend much time there, so I didn't much care. Interestingly, it had the smallest bathroom I've ever seen outside an airplane. It was just large enough to accommodate a sink, toilet and shower stall. Again, not a place where I spend a lot of time ... until I sat down on the toilet. It was one of those famous automatic toilets. While American hotels concentrate on adjustable beds and televisions with a hundred channels, the Japanese put their efforts into toilets that make you happy to be awake. I was compelled to explore every option on the device's repertoire. I was not disappointed.

The other interesting thing about my hotel was the birds. There weren't any birds, but there were bird songs. Hidden speakers located near the ceiling played the chirping of birds, just audible over the other ambient noises of the hotel. The sounds were remarkably real and delightfully relaxing; especially since their source could not be easily identified.
Ginza district at night.
I spent my first morning exploring the nearby Tokyo Fish Market and the area around it. Although I saw no "sights," everyday life in Japan is enough to pique my curiosity. In the afternoon, I explored the Ginza district. To my delight, they had closed off the street to traffic and there were cafe-style tables set up. Unfortunately, there was no coffee or tea being served and no market shops set up. Still, it made for great people watching.

Ginza district closes the street to traffic.

Side streets lit by neon signs.
In the evening, I took the train to Akihabara Electric Town, hoping to acquire some interesting electronic gadget. Getting off the main street, there are numerous side streets and passageways, packed with stores and closed to traffic. I popped into many of the electronics stores but was, quite frankly, bewildered by the displays. With the exception of high-tech rice cookers, there was nothing there that I didn't think I could find back home. There may well have been marvelous items, but not being able to understand the labels and promotional text, I had no way of knowing. What few devices I knew well, camera equipment mainly, I could buy more cheaply on the domestic market. The specialization of the stores impressed me, though. For example, one store sold only lights. Not table lights and floor lamps, just bulbs and their fixtures. Every imaginable bulb shape and color.

The layout of these stores is what really intrigued me. Even the larger department stores had limited street space, so they build the shops tall. A store that would pass a quaint boutique-size shop anywhere else, is equipped with escalators that enabled expansion to seven and more floors. Each floor is then dedicated to a different type of product. Mind you, these are all electronics products, so there's a lot to see!

Much like the Ginza district, "Akiba" is lit primarily by neon signs, the most colorful (or annoying) of which belong to the pachinko parlors. These places are overwhelmed by sound: music from the parlor public address system, the music from the individual machines and the sound effects each produce. On a busy evening, it is all but impossible to speak without yelling. I've been to quieter rock concerts.

Inside a pachinko parlor
Cute girls, dressed in alluring clothing, handed out fliers in front of many of the larger establishments. I spotted a clutch of girls dressed in provocative maid attire. Something tugged at the back of my mind and I knew I had to see whatever restaurant they were promoting. After making my way up some dark, narrow and slightly scary stairs, I stepped into a brightly lit room with small tables with a score of customers and maids rushing about serving them. I recalled reading about a maid café, but never expected to see one in person. It's like a regular café, but served by women who act like household maids, garbed in a caricature of English or French maid attire. There's nothing untoward about the place, just a novel dinning experience. I later learned that it was the very first ever maid café I discovered. I so wanted to photograph the place, but they were adamant about their "no photography" rule, so I left empty handed.

The next morning, I walked past the Ginza district and made my way toward the royal palace. The city abruptly came to an end at a moat with a stone wall, beyond which was a serene park. 
Looking at the city from across the moat.
I had no idea what time the palace opened for tours, so I wandered through the splendid grounds until I found what looked like an entrance. It was at that time I learned that the emperor lives in the palace and that he didn't really care for visitors. With so many royal palaces open to the public, it's too easy to forget that there are still royal personages living in some of them! I contented myself by enjoying the grounds and watching the numerous locals use the cobbled road around the moat for their morning exercises.
As close as I came to the royal palace.
Near the palace, I discovered a garden park. It was fairly quiet at that early hour of the morning, but there were still people there exercising and enjoying the beautiful light.
Sun beams make the growth glow green.
The early morning light in Hibiya park.
Hibiya park is an interesting mix of things. There are areas that appear as sacred shrines, there are tennis courts, there are ponds, there are semi-feral house cats, and there are lovely gardens.

Beautiful fall colors.
I walked back to the Ginza district to find some breakfast. Unable to find anything suitably appealing, I settled for a coffee and danish at a very Parisian looking cafe, attended by some surprisingly Parisian looking patrons.
Having coffee in the cafe.
In the various department stores I visited, they all had a special section with gift items. In some stores, it would take up an entire floor. The gifts were unusual in that they were so heavily packaged. The most common were consumables, including dried fruits and nuts and coffees. Each was packed in a beautiful container and wrapped in layers of colorful plastic and foil. The prices, of course, reflected the care each product was given. I learned that our western Christmas roughly coincides with a gift-giving time in Japan. The gifts tend to be on the elaborate side and are very often given to bosses.

Inside the Liz Lisa boutique.
I continued my exploration of the shopping spaces. Most of the larger centers had boutiques inside that sold particular brands. Each of these boutiques were decorated in that brand's style ... and some were particularly stylish ... with a very Japanese style.

I thought it might be a good idea to buy a kimono. The shop I visited had a selection of the robes on display. They were beautiful. They would better decorate a wall than any painting or photo. I looked at the price and had to look again. My rough mental calculation of yen to dollars suggested that the particular kimono I was examining was in excess of $500. It was way more than I wanted to spend, of course, but it was certainly worth that price. It wasn't even the most impressive or most expensive, but it was the one that most appealed to me. There was a gentle click-click-click as my brain slowly chewed over the cost, then there was an almost audible "bing!" This kimono was not five hundred bucks, this kimono was more than five thousand bucks. I would not be hanging this kimono on my wall ... but I thought briefly about a fur tapestry.

Romantic streets.
That evening, I stopped at the Sagami-Ōno train station on the way to my accommodations. The shopping area near the station is as typical as one can find in Japan. There were no tourists in sight, just people going about their business, shopping, etc. I was mostly looking for interesting souvenirs and good food.

What I really like about Tokyo is the fact that cars are not the rulers of the city. The area where I was walking around had almost no cars. There are plenty of bicycles, of course, but few cars getting in the way of everything. The roads were practically alleys, they were so narrow, and people walked through the streets like Americans walk through the mall corridors. 

Having experienced crowded trains on the weekend, I could not imagine what the weekday commute is like. On a Saturday morning, I took the train to Asakusa to see the most famous shrine in the city, Sensō-ji. The train was packed with people. I got off the train too soon and found myself in the middle of ... well, wherever I was in Tokyo, but probably not the middle. I was fortunate to fine a policeman who knew enough English to point me in the right direction. In the end I was lucky to have exited when I did as it afforded opportunity to see more of the city.

Outside the Ban Dai headquarters. One of the most welcoming corporate headquarters ever.
Outside the Bandai headquarters
One of the first things I stumbled upon was the headquarters of Bandai, Japan's biggest toy manufacturer. I was not alone in admiring the building. Many Japanese tourists stood with their noses pressed against the glass, looking at the showroom lobby. Outside the building stand many oversize versions of Bandai's characters (including my childhood hero, Ultraman).

When I arrived at Sensō-ji, I was a bit overwhelmed. After passing through the first enormous gate, I found myself in a lane leading up to the shrine, each side of which was crowded with shops. I was actually pleased to see so many potential souvenir items in one place, but I thought it a bit odd that a sacred place would be so commercial. I later learned that since ancient times, the merchants had been allowed to set up their small shops in exchange for looking after the temple grounds.

Visitors pull incense smoke toward themselves near the shrine gate.

I barely made it to the first gate when I was approached by three college students. They wanted to be my guides at the shrine because it gave them an opportunity to practice their English. I was quite suspect, but dropped my guard when I realized they were sincere. As they told me about the gate we were standing beneath, I was distracted by small groups of people walking with, what looked like, fishing poles in bags. I asked my guides to help me figure out what they were doing. We learned they were all coming from an archery tournament held at a recreation center near the river. This was my chance to see one of Japan's most famous art forms!

The archer's equipment.
I told my guides I was changing plans and they offered to accompany me. We spend a good bit of time trying to find the tournament. It was being held in the largest recreation center I've ever seen. Such places in the US are spread out over acres of land. In Tokyo, the only way to expand is to go up. The building looked like a huge office block. We climbed about five floors to find the archery competitors, all dressed in traditional outfits, preparing for the competition.

In a room as long as a bowling alley, a group of six immaculately dressed archers methodically took their place at the shooting area with their great seven-foot bows. They went through a bit of a ritual as they knelt down to prepare their arrows, then slowly stood to take their shot. With the help of my interpreter guides, I gained permission to photograph them unobtrusively.

The competition begins as the row of six archers draw their arrows.
Preparing for the shot.

I spent as long as I dared, not wanting to distract the competitors with my presence as I moved behind them, looking very out of place with my western garb. My guides took me back to the shrine and we continued where we left off.

Once we had completed the tour of the shrine, my young guides asked my permission to return to the entrance so they could meet more more English speakers. I was quite taken aback by this, but they were the epitome of politeness. I was worried that I ran them off their feet, but they admitted that they had fun. They wished me good luck and took off through the crowd, back to the first gate.
My guides.
My next concern was for money. My guides were unable to locate a usable bank machine or money changer, so I headed in to the heart of Asakusa, in hopes of finding services catering to foreign tourists. I could find nothing.

I have no idea what he was selling.
Japanese shops compete for customers through various techniques. My favorite was the giant plush-toy character. You would think that an enormous cute creature would be promoting products targeted toward kids, but these things were touting everything from refrigerators to gambling halls.

While I did not see a lot of them, the ones I did see were very professional looking. Any one of them could have an entire animated TV program dedicated to them, but here, they were the American equivalent of sign flippers.

I stopped a young couple as they were entering some sort of bank. Fortunately, they spoke English. The bank, as it turned out, was a karaoke place ... so much for my powers of observation and deduction. He pulled out his smart phone and used the map application to identify bank machines. The three of us followed the directions, going from bank to bank, all of which lacked the service I required.

I was impressed by the guy's stylish attire and asked his girlfriend if he was a musician. She assured me he was. "Ah-ha, he is a singer in a rock band, isn't he?" I claimed. The two of them laughed. She said he was a singer, but that he sang opera. Now it was my turn to laugh, but she assured me that he sang opera. To test him, I (badly) hummed the opening bars of my favorite aria, Nessun dorma. He picked it up right away and began singing the lyrics in a quite, but powerful, voice. I stopped dead in my tracks. He really was an opera singer!

Opera singer and girlfriend.
By this point, I'd taken up a lot of their time and did not want to further intrude on their evening. I'd yet to find somewhere to change money, but he suspected that I could do so somewhere near the train station. I bid them a good evening and eventually did get some money. Time to shop!

I returned to the shrine, and picked up some souvenirs. Then, I headed back to the bar areas of Asakusa. I was unable to find a restaurant that really appealed to me, but was entranced by the many hole-in-the-wall eating establishements in the many alleyways.
One of the many little bars in Asakusa.
Still hungry, I returned, yet again, to the shrine. With the sun down, the place looked magical. Although there were fewer people, there were still a lot of people and the shops were still doing business.

Sensō-ji at night.
The next day, it was time to leave Japan. I took the train to the airport and arrived early enough to wander around the shopping area. There were plenty of interesting things to buy, including this unusual flavor of Kit Kat.

Soy sauce flavored Kit Kat bars? Only in Japan
See more photos from Tokyo here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A brief tour of Shōnan, Japan

My two colleagues and I had a free day to explore. They had discussed the idea of going to Kyoto, but the logistics were cost and time prohibitive. We settled on a trip south, to the region of Shōnan. My knowledge of the area was as lacking as my knowledge of the rest of Japan's geography, but I knew there would be plenty of opportunity to learn.

The way to travel around the Tokyo region is by train. According to my calculations, it would take about an hour and half to get to Enoshima island in Sagami Bay. Of course, that would be a ninety minute trip for people who knew where they were going and how to get there. We arrived at the train station and relied on the gracious ticket agents to explain how to get to our destination. The trip required changing trains at a nearby station, then changing railroads at another station. This required another patient ticket agent to assure us we were on the right track, literally and figuratively.

Looking out the windows, we watched as the buildings changed from apartment towers and office blocks to smaller row houses. We were approaching the coast.
The view from the front of the train as we rode toward Enoshima.
Leaving the train station, we crossed a bridge under which dark brown water churned its way to the bay. The river was flowing so quickly, I was half convinced the boats tied to the concrete channel might be swept away. We walked across the causeway leading to the island.

Care for some tasty little fish?
It was clear that Enoshima was a tourist destination. The road at the end of the causeway was lined with shops and restaurants. I learned that the culinary specialty of the area was a sardine. We soon found a restaurant specializing in this dish, but I was intrigued by whatever it was that they were offering free samples. It appeared to be some sort of short, white, noodly substance. Customers were buying bagfuls of the stuff. The restauranteur proffered me a spoonful as I asked him what it was. After a few attempts, I learned that it was the very sardine I had been told about. The little white noodle was actually a very tiny, fully formed, fish. I expected it to taste fishy, but it tasted more like a noodle than anything. I'm not a big fish eater, but I figured this was an opportunity that should not be passed up. My colleagues agreed and we went inside to have lunch.

The restaurant included simple wooden tables but also a closed-in area with mats on the floor. Our hostess wisely didn't bother to ask us if we wanted to sit on the mats. We were fortunately that the menu included pictures so we were able to pick out what we wanted to eat. Out meal consisted of rice or noodle with the sardine and other items. It was tasty, but not particularly memorable. 

Afterward, we headed up along the commercial street on the hill to the shrine. On the way, I engaged a friendly cat. Moments later, a man approached me, holding a calico cat, laughing and saying "Ah, a present for you!" and handed me the cat. His colleagues chortled at this and I went along, accepting the furry gift. The cat purred as I held it and scratched it behind the ears. 

A young woman, who noted the exchanged, came up and told me I had a very beautiful cat. "Oh, a present for you!" I said, and handed her the cat. She accepted it with a smile. The other shop keepers gave laughing approval. 

I spotted a group of girls eating something on skewers. It looked like meat, but it could just as easily have been a sweet of some sort. As I tried to ask them what it was, they looked at my camera and giggled in delight then posed for a photo! I never did find out what they were eating, but I did manage to get them to hold them for the picture.
I don't know what they were eating, but it looked delicious.
The stone stairway and cobbled walk leading up to the shrine was lined in red banners. By ignoring the fact that the banners were nylon and hoisted on plastic poles, I could imagine that I was walking back in time. Near the entrance, worshipers were engaged in a cleansing ritual. They used a dipper to wash their hands and some took a sip and spit it on the ground.
The ritual cleansing fountain.
Shrine attendants sell souviners and items of adoration to worshipers at a sort of kiosk done up in very traditional style. 
A shrine attendant patiently poses for my camera.
There were areas where people tie wishes to a fence or attach wooden charms to a frame.
A frame with wooden charms left by worshipers.
We wandered around the island, looking at the various viewpoints and passing through the tall trees and lush bamboo stands. There was not enough time to enjoy the parks and other diversions, though, as we wanted to see more of Shōnan.

We walked back across the causeway. The wind had picked up and the surf was churning. Some brave and foolhardy surfers were enjoying the chilly water. We returned to the station from which we arrived and discovered that we had to go back across the bridge and walk to an alternate railroad line. That gave us more opportunity to see the town. 

The other train station had a unique feature. There are four metal birds attached to the railing at the station. Someone takes the time to dress them up according to the season.
Birds on the station railing, all dressed up for Christmas.
The train from Enoshima runs along the water, so we had an excellent view of the bay. There was not much to see but windy waves. Our next destination was Kamakura, home to one of Japan's most memorable landmarks.

The enormous statue sits imperturbable.
The great bronze Kamakura Daibutsu stand (sits, really) more than thirteen meters high. Standing on the grounds around the statue, it's difficult to imagine what it was like back in the thirteenth century. Back then, it was inside a temple. That structure was destroyed by a tsunami and it has sat outside for nearly five hundred years.

I stood at the foot of this serene giant and watched the shadows crawl up as the sun descended behind the hills. It's hard to know if he's got his eyes closed or watching the people walking up the stone terraces through slitted eyes. I imagined how he looked when the waters flowed around him so long ago.

Ginkgo leaves carpet the pavement.
As imposing as the statue is, it was the grounds around it that caught my attention. The leaves of the ancient ginkgo trees were turning yellow and dropping to the ground. Old women in bonnets were sweeping the leaves with gigantic brooms made from reeds. Little pools and fountains were scattered among the decorative foliage and walls held doors to secret places forbidden to tourists. 

We decided to stop by another shrine before returning to the train station. This was a forested hill with numerous statuary dispersed throughout the gardens. I would love to see the place in the spring, but the autumn colors were something to behold.
Miniature stone monks stand serenely.
The Cadillac of rickshaws.
Outside the shrine, I discovered which career I would next like to have: rickshaw driver. The gentleman who was pulling this beautiful cart was as fit as any athlete. Just think, create and deliver training for eight months of the year and spend the summers getting in fantastic shape! When he told me that his rickshaw cost as much as a small car, I admit that I reconsidered this career option. Still, it would likely last longer than most gym memberships.

As the sun went down, we made our way back to the train station. After a brief visit to a soba noodle shop, we return to our domiciles and to a well-earned rest.

See more photos from Shōnan here.