July 9, 2008

Mike's Weekend Trip to Tokyo

Back in Golden Week, we had taken a family trip to Tokyo, and we had a blast. Since I had a work-related meeting in Tokyo on Monday and had been trying to find a weekend to visit our friends Bob and Maho in Tokyo again, a second trip to explore Tokyo and spend time with friends worked out quite nicely.

After arriving on Friday night, and while on my way out of Shinagawa Shinkansen Station, I asked the JR ticket worker (in Japanese) where to find the taxis (takushi wa doku deska?). He responded - in perfect English - "Please go to the left and down the stairs, then walk to the left and you will see the taxis there." This is one huge difference between Tokyo and Osaka.

One of the best things about Tokyo is its variety. Many areas have the crowded bright-lights- big-city feel of a New York. Huge billboards, blaring pachinko parlors, masses of people shopping, tons of restaurants. Early in the day on Saturday, we walked around some of these areas, like Akihabara (the electronics district - it has about 40 types of any electronic item you could want) and Kabukicho (a seedy love-hotelly pachinkoey kind of spot).

But, as I learned this time, the real charm of Tokyo are the shitamachi (downtown) neighborhoods. These old Tokyo Edo period areas feel light years away from the busy blaring modern Tokyo, even though they are just a few train stops away. They have winding alleys with little shops, restaurants, and bars neatly tucked away. There are older buildings and temples and shrines. Many of these alleys have a quiet (really quiet - totally un-city-like) almost sleepy feel. And each of these neighborhoods has a shotengai (old fashioned main shopping street), in which there are small shops, street vendors hawking beer or yakitori, and lots of folks just strolling or slowly riding bikes throughout.
We spent most of Saturday afternoon exploring the Yanaka/Sendagi/Nezu areas. These neighborhoods have such a charming down-home slow-down feel to them. It was a nice place just to stroll through, peaking in at the many shops and looking around. Here are some pictures of store-fronts and old bicycles that I hope somewhat capture this:

While wandering, we checked out an art gallery where one of Maho's friends was putting on an exhibit. She does abstract-ish black and white wood-block prints, and is quite talented. It was a teeny tiny studio with whitewashed walls. Her work was really interesting. We also walked by the famous Bath House - an old Onsen that has been converted into a gallery. As we passed, we noticed that the very famous (but somewhat weird) Japanese photo-artist Araki was there giving a lecture, wearing his trademark sunglasses and suspenders. (Actually when I say we noticed, I mean that Bob and Maho noticed, and then explained to me who Araki was. But you get the picture.)

We also went to the Asakura Choso Museum, which is housed in the unique old house/studio of the famed realist sculptor Asakura Fumio. He does really excellent work with cats. The museum has a great roof deck too. In the museum, we had to do a footwear swap that would have put Mr. Rogers to shame. When you enter, you had to exchange our shoes for slippers. Then you walk down a hallway, where a staircase allows you to access the roof. Before heading up to the roof, you have to exchange your slippers for sandals. Then you do the whole thing in reverse on the way out!

We also checked out the nearby Nezu Jinja, a shrine that was highlighted by two long corridors of Torii gates.

The highlight of Sunday was a visit to Yasukini jinja, a famous (and controversial - see the link) shrine that is dedicated to Japan's national war heroes. The museum and historical account of Japan, from its Samurai roots to its imperialist conquests (and ultimate defeat) in the 20th century is really well done and absolutely fascinating. But it certainly makes you realize that there are very different perspectives (and spins) on war.

Tokyo also has really terrific, beautifully manicured parks. Old-style Japanese gardens and huge grassy fields are juxtaposed against the nearby modern skyscrapers. The shots below are from Shinjuku Gyoen, where Maho and I wandered around on a sweltering Saturday morning, before finding a shady spot to relax in and get away from the heat and humidity. The funniest part of Shinjuku Gyoen is that you have to buy a ticket to get in from a large automated ticket machine, which spits out a plastic credit card-like ticket. Then you walk two steps to your left and put the card in the slot in the electronic turnstile and it lets you in. Maybe you have to be there, but the whole thing felt completely ridiculous. The blatant over-use of tickets and ticket machines is legion here! And this was but one silly example.

Another really neat area of Tokyo was Kagurazaka, a quaint neighborhood on a sloping hill near a river that must house 500 restaurants in its various nooks and crannies. We had dinner there on Sunday night.

Ah yes. We haven't even talked about the food yet! In the span of two days, we had a nice tempura meal in a tatami room, went to a delicious (and cheap) yakiniku joint near Bob and Maho's apartment, had a truly exquisite robatayaki meal at a restaurant in Kagarazaka, and snacked at a nearby river-side bar. But the best meal of the weekend, hands-down, was our Saturday night dinner at Fudeya, a teeny and very quaint restaurant in Yanaka that is owned by a relative of Maho's (her Uncle's brother's wife's sister...or something like that!). The food - fresh sashimi, duck, and fish (ayu)- was amazing. And they comped us whole bunch of food and drink, bringing out orders of sake and home-made tofu for the table, as well as other goodies that we hadn't even ordered. It was just a great time.

The below picture was our main course from the robatayaki place. This is the "before" shot. We reduced this handsome guy to a pile of bones in short order:
Finally, as it was Tokyo, we also rode the subway a lot. This was my favorite subway ad. There were lots of contenders. But the "American Meat" ad, which pictures a bunch of huge steaks and three smiling Japanese kids with chopsticks (not a steak knife in sight) - just cracked me up. This ad, for a Japanese day-time drama, was a close second:

Yeah. So that's about it for Tokyo Take Two. Sorry to ramble on, but looking back on it, we packed a lot into a couple of days. Thanks again to Bob and Maho for being such amazingly gracious hosts. It was a great time!


The Kasdan Family said...

Hope you've got some time to take us to some of these great places when we come back, especially the robatayaki restaurant. There's got to be one or two in Kansai, right? We miss you!

Lisa said...

Sounds like a GREAT time. So happy you got to do that! love!

Matthew J said...

Your trip to tokyo sounded great! Enjoyed seeing the pictures and also reliving some of the places I visited with Bob & Maho. What great hosts! I think you pointed out some of the charm of many places in Japan with those quaint, windy, tucked away streets & neighborhoods...I wish I was there again!