Tokyo Trip Journal 5

8 June, Heisei 22 (Tue)

Riding the subway is actually quite fun, especially when you don’t have any set schedule or anywhere in particular to be. Also, you can ride it all you want for 1000 yen (a bit over $10), so I figured I’d get my money’s worth. It threatened to rain all day, but only momentary sprinkles here and there until something resembling a drizzle at sundown.

I took the subway to Roppongi, and to a very trendy (and Westerny) quarter called Roppongi Hills, right next to TV Asahi HQ. Another art gallery sat upon a high place; in this case the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower (Mori owns many towers in Roppongi). The Mori Art Museum made the Sompo Musuem seem a little dowdy, not least the which because it was full of much newer and flashier pieces and installations of audio and video. The prices in the museum shop were, shall we say, optimistic?

I made a brief stop in nearby Akebanebashi to check out the Tokyo Tower, which was tall, white, and international orange. Then to the nearest station, Daimon, which via Shimbashi led me to Ginza, of of Tokyo’s swankiest districts. I took a look at a lot of fancy stores like Adidas and Sony, saw the new Nissan Leaf, and got lunch a a fast-food chain called Lotteria, which had very good cheeseburgers and emerald green Suntory Melon Pop to wash them and the fries down. I also bought a bottle of sake.

From Ginza, I took the Ginza line west, all the way to Shibuya, yet another cosmopolitan/bustling/chic ‘hood full of stores selling stuff no one needs at exhorbitant prices. I’m beginning to see a pattern. No matter; I realize these places need to exist. In any case, Shibuya has some of the largest crosswalks; at one notable intersection all automotive traffic stops so pedestrians in all directions can cross. It’s really something to behold and to experience firsthand. From Shibuya I took the Fukushotin line to Meiji-Jingumae, the station closest to the Meiji shrine in Yoyogi Park. I did a bit more walking than I should have, but it was worth seeing such a serene and gorgeous place.

Back in Shinjuku as night approached, I grabed dinner at a hole-in-the-wall eatery packed with smoking diners…after much constirnation and head-wrining about where to eat. The simple matter is, there is so much choice, it can potentially be paralyzing. This restaurant has a machine that tilts a mug and slowly pours Kirin beer, pauses briefly to let the fizz subside, then tops it off. Also, the average diner was smoking 3-4 cigarettes during their meal, not after. Smoking indoors is very much allowed at most restaurants and bars. The diners here ate very fast, too…and loud slurping of broth is not frowned upon. Dinner was 1000 yen.

Tokyo Trip Journal 4

7 June, Heisei 22 (Mon)

Here’s when I thought things would get a bit…tricky.

I was a bit anxious about using public transportation, not knowing what all the flashing characters were trying to tell me, but after using it all day I have no idea why I was at all; it was easy as pie. There’s a slight learning curve to the iconography, but with a combination of bilingual signage and distinct colors for lines and numbers for stations, I had no problem navigating my way around Tokyo.

First, I followed the enormous mass of suited salarymen (and women) clutching phones and coffee to Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world by daily passengers (more than 3 million) A typicall trip on the Toei or Tokyo Metro subways costs 160-170 yen. I took the Toei Shinjuku line (leaf green) to Kudanshita, a station near the Imperial Palace complex. The imperial gardens and nearby museums were closed, it being Monday, so I hopped back on the subway on the Metro’s Tozai line (blue) at Takebashi bound for Nihombashi. The whole business district area east of the palace is called Marunouchi. The red line is named after it.

Nihombashi had a 19th century stone bridge with intricate bronzework, but was concealed by a highway overpass. In Tokyo, hardly anything save the palace is sacred, and they will build over/around/on top of whatever they don’t feel like tearing down. I also saw the Tokyo Stock Exchange, but couldn’t go inside. After mailing a couple postcards with the help of a very nice postwoman, I got on at Ometachi station and took the Tozai line to Iidabashi (missing Kudanshita from brain fart). That was okay, because Iidabashi was a junction for the yellow Yurakucho line, which I’d take to my next destination, Ikebukuro.

One of Ikebukuro station many exits led up into a Gallery-like mall, where I was surprised to find a Krispy Kreme – they’re all but extinct in Philly. I was fascinated by suddenly being in the same city where the anime Durarara!! takes place, and from what I saw the show portrays the look of the city expertly. In Shangri-la, which takes place in the future, Ikebukuro is a thick and poisonous forest. Here and now though, the place is surging with people and activity. I float around in no particular hurry until lunchtime draws near.

Rather than eat here, I hop on the brown Fukushotin line to Shinjuku-Sanchome, then back on the Shinjuku line to…Shinjuku. After a brief stop at the hoel for a shower, then searched Shinjuku by my hotel for sushi. I espied several businessmen entering a promising place and followed them, and was not disappointed. Utilizing once again the big pictures on the menu, indicated my choice and received large amounts of delicious, dead raw fish and sea creatures, all for under 1000 yen.

As miles of walking in my Nikes had virtually ruined my ankles/knees, I decided to bite the bullet and purchase decent walking shoes with arch support. I went to Keio, one of the massive department stores positioned around Shinjuku Station along with Odakyu and Mylord. Each has at least eight floors, the bottom of which are massive gourmet food markets selling every kind of food imaginable. I wasn’t hungry, unfortunately, but I did need shoes, so I took the elevator up to the fifth floor. The elevators were attended by extremely well dressed and groomed, polite and soft-spoken ladies with white gloves. I found some comfy Gore-Tex Brooks for 15,700 yen, for which I was able to use a credit card.

Thus equipped, and having purchased Buffrin (the only pain medicine with western letters I could decipher; don’t want to be wrong about labels where drugs are concerned) I hoped to lessen the fatigue on my walking bits as the week continued.

Tokyo Trip Journal 3

6 June, Heisei 22 (Sun)

Wake up aound 5:15 AM. Bed is comfortable and surprisingly, long enough for my frame. A/C is not too harsh. I felt a bit killjoyish sleeping through a Saturday evening, but again, I was a walking corpse and in no condition for sensory overload yet. Didn’t have an appetite for anything other than water and sleep…slept about 12 hours total and woke up refreshed and more or less adjusted to the time, somehow. My Verizon phone even displays local time, but is roaming.

After briefly exploring my hotel, I buy a UCC Black Iced Coffee and start out; around 6 AM. Unlike my afternoon arrival, the city is almost deserted and silent, with the crowing of enormous ravens and bus engines being the dominant sounds. The skyscrapers loom overhead like a grove of mammoth trees. Like yesterday, my route is somewhat random…N, E, N, S, NE…but I am hungry so when I happen upon the first of many Tokyo McDonalds, I go there to grab breakfast. The place is three stories, everyone working there is pleasant and affable, the food looks precisely like it does in the pictures, and the portions aren’t immeasurable. An Egg McMuffin, hash brown and OJ cost 460 yen.

After a few attempts, I find an ATM that takes my card (at a 7 Eleven; Family Mart ATMS will only take Citibank) and procure funds for the coming days. Then I continue weaving through the streets of Shinjuku, passing soda/coffee/tea/cigarette vending machines every 100 feet or so. They’re absolutely everywhere. I swear, I don’t see how anyone who has 120 yen could ever be thirsty in this city.

As I walk, my legs grow weary, so I head south to the lovely and expansive park called Shinjuku Gyoen, only to find it’s not open yet (too early) so I do a loop around it, find a smaller park to rest at and then head back to the gyoen. On the way I experience how cars/pedestrians/motorbikes negotiate the narrower streets of the city, and am also absorbed by the feeling of a pleasant, sunny Tokyo Sunday morning.

Shinjuku Gyoen is gorgeous. There’s a Japanese garden, in addition to English and French gardens, and a picturesque asian pavilion from which to view the scenery. There’s a more modern facility under construction near the entrance. There are sun worshippers here, but no dogs allowed. As the morning grows later, more people arrive. I spot an Oriental Stork in a pond, as well as a turtle identical to a friend of mine’s floating in the same. As I write this, we’re closing in on noon. I’ve walked more than two miles, and need lunch.

I procure lunch at the park’s cafe. A common means of getting food involves inserting cash or credit (its very much still a cash economy) into a machine, pressing the buttons that light up for what you want to eat/drink, and it prints out a ticket. A waitress shows you to your seat and rips the ticket. When you get your food, which I got promptly, she takes the stub. Wonderful procedure. Soba with Prawn Tempura isn’t bad, either, and quite filling. Along with a bottle of ringo (apple) juice, the whole meal is 1000 yen.

I head out of the park shortly thereafter, passing through what appears to be a mini Barnes & Noble just for anime/manga. When I return to the shopping blocks I’d passed through much earlier, they are all open and bustling. The shops sell clothing, cameras and electronics, watches, anime/manga, and restaurants and pachinki/slot and karaoke parlors are interspersed between them. Whatever the business, most of them have someone outside the entrance beckoning for customers to take a look at their wares and handing out fliers.

All the walking (~5 miles) have taken their toll on my ankles/shins, so I walk back to my hotel to recharge; buying a Kirin Cola and some broth-flavoured chips and relaxing in my room with some televised Go and, I find not soonafter, Japanese baseball, which is quite entertaining. The fans in the stadium are constantly singing/chanting like they would at a European soccer game. The teams are typically named after corporations/holding companies rather than the cities they play in, in this case the Hanshin Tigers vs. the SoftBank Hawks. Teams have the occasional white or hispanic player on their roster, just as MLB teams have the occasional Japanese player. When it becomes an 8-2 lead in the Tiger’s favor, I take a shower and head back out.

I end up on the 42F of the Sompo Japan Building, one of the skyscrapers that make up the Nishi-Shinjuku grove. This floor is an art museum, exhibiting a retrospective of the French painter Maurice Utrillo, as well as three permanent pieces in a special dark gallery – flanked by a Gaugain and Cezanne is Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, purchased by the museum during the Japanese economic bubble for 5 billion yen. It’s pretty neat to see it in the flesh, and the views of Tokyo from the observation lobby are well worth the price of admission.

Back down to earth, I find a Japanese barbeque restaurant in the basement of a building (most buildings have 2 or 3 basements with more shops/restaurants, in addition to those above ground) and settle in. The hostess and waitress didn’t speak English, but they were extremely friendly, polite, and helpful, and thanks to a menu with pictures (a necessity for me here) I successfully order a platter containing all kinds of delicious morsels, including grilled marinated beef. With beer, dinner didn’t cost much more than 1000 yen. They provide customer service cards you can mail in, but I don’t seen how service would ever be anything other than exlempary. Three food joints today – McDonalds, the Shinjuku Gyoen cafe, and the barbeque joint…three very tight ships.

It isn’t just cashiers and waitresses though…whenever I asked a random Japanese passerby something, they tried their upmost to assist me, despite usually not knowing any English. A security guard on duty led me nearly a whole city block away from his post to point out where the Art Museum was. There’s something to society here that’s lacking back home; a sense of pride in their work and in themselves and a strict decorum to business that isn’t allowed to come up short. If anyone was unhappy in their jobs, they didn’t look it. Far cry from heart-on-sleave Americans in low-wage jobs, who can rarely contain their contempt for their plight. To that end, I felt it my duty to clean my plate completely, to honor those who served me so well. I returned to the shopping blocks as night fell, getting my first tast of the electric circus Tokyo is famous for, but by 9 PM I had been up 17 straight hours and needed sleep.

Tokyo Trip Journal 2

What follows is the account of my week-long vacation to Tokyo in June 2010, where I stuck to the 23 special wards and got a taste of the people, food, music, art, pace, and culture of 21st century Japan.

5 June, Heisei 22 (Sat)

Arrived just before 2 PM, Tokyo time
after waking up @3 AM Eastern time
Didn’t sleep on plane / dozed maybe 2 hrs total
Immigration/customs were no sweat
Took Narita Express (N’EX) to Shinjuku Station from Narita Airport Terminal 1. Price? 3,110 yen.

Walked through a mass of people on roundabout route to hotel and checked in to Shinjuku Washington Hotel.

Had so many meals and was so tired, took a hot bath/shower and just went to bed in my room at the @ 5 PM.

Tokyo Trip Journal 1

What follows is the account of my week-long vacation to Tokyo in June 2010, where I stuck to the 23 special wards and got a taste of the people, food, music, art, pace, and culture of 21st century Japan. The only other foreign country I’d visited prior to Japan was the Dominican Republic.

4 June, 2010 (Fri)

Left home @ 3AM
Depart PHL @ 6 AM on a
tiny plane.

Tiny plane was in air for half
hour. Got to EWR
@ 7.
Waited from 7 to 11 AM, for
Big Honkin’ Plane.

Been in Big Honkin’ Plane

for many many hours.

Watched Up In The Air
and Death Note I + II

Couldn’t see out; had aisle
seat. Over Alaska all clouds.
No Scenery.
Same with Kamchatka Penn.

3 1/2 hours to go.
Seat too upright to sleep


4577 miles so far
~1800 to go…

Uragiri wa Boku no Namae o Shitteiru – First Impressions

Rundown: Mysterious teenager has a fantastic dream, wakes up in normal Japan. He was found in bushes and grew up in an orphanage. When he touches others, he can feel their emotions, leading to reactions that can confuse or anger those people. He receives death threats, but is saved from an attempt on his life by someone in weird clothes claiming to be his brother.

Like Ookamikakushi last season, this show doesn’t reveal much in its first episode; a lot is still wrapped in mystery. I even felt a tinge of Escaflowne-ness in the cross between the kid’s cheesy Final Fantasy dream and reality, though elements from the former show up in the latter before long. The kid himself is not that interesting yet, girls love him, kids love him, rival guys loathe him; nothing out-of-this-world. But I’m intrigued enough with the buildup thus far to keep watching for now. Rating: 2.5

Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei [The Tatami Galaxy] – First Impressions

Rundown: A college student in Kyoto is vexed by his inability to enter meaningful romantic relationships with the fairer sex at university. Egged on by his antisocial and mischievous friend, he has spent much of his college life as a “black cupid,” intervening and spoiling other students’ pairings. Despite this, he develops a liking to a quirky yet cute freshman girl. One night at a roving ramen stand, he meets a so-called “god of matchmaking” who says the girl will be bound to either him or his odd friend. He must get serious, shed the black cupid act, and act on his feelings for the girl, or risk losing her.

Ye gads, I thought Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei was hard to keep up with. This show combines an almost constantly-changing animation style and color palette with rapid-fire narration and dialogue that goes by so fast, even the subtitles lag a bit. Like Mr. Despair, watching this show is a workout, but once you find your comfort zone, its a gorgeously presented and highly entertaining account of a student’s college dreams deferred. Living in Kyoto, he was bound to run into a god of some kind, and he does – one who’s offering him a chance at a wife. The girl’s reaction to a moth landing on her face was priceless. You may want to brush up on your speed-reading beforehand, but I reccomend you watch it!

Working!! – First Impressions

Rundown: A 16 year old high school student is recruited to work at a family restaurant by a female classmate one year his senior, whom he nevertheless mistakes for middle schooler. The restaurant staff  is full of odd personalities, but he decides to stick with the job that fell in his lap.

I’m always weary of slice-of-life, since the genre itself just sounds like a snoozefest. Thankfully this has enough liveliness and comedy and production values to warrant a fair viewing. Everyone has a quirk, from the protagonists’ somewhat disturbing love of “small things”, a watress so terrified of men she attacks them viciously, a laid-back manager who calls delinquents to rob customers who run out on the bill, and a cheerful hostess who always carries a wakizashi around and never opens her eyes. Again, nothing groundbreaking, but for me, it’s nice, calm, amusing slice of life with odd but ultimately likable characters.

Hakuouki – First Impressions

Rundown: Girl travels to Kyoto looking for her father, and witnesses a battle she isn’t supposed to see. The warriors who won the battle take her back to their HQ and keep her detained while they debate what to do with her. They eventually learn that the doctor they’re looking for his the girl’s father.

This is a nice change of pace from a set of mostly modern/futuristic settings of the anime I’m watching this season. That said, while I sympathize with Chizuru (the female lead), I’m not that interested in all the warriors quite yet. The show throws a lot of characters at her and you at once, and keeping their names and opinions straight was tough. At first I thought, well, they’re all assholes for teasing and threatening to kill her, but eventually they let up, and even gave her her katana back, so they can’t be all bad.

House of Five Leaves – First Impressions

Rundown: Technically sound but weak-willed ronin hired by a gangster who turns out to be a member of a band of thieves who have kidnapped a boy. He initially questions whose side he’s on, but once he finds out the thieves have a code and their victims are hardly sympathetic, he decides not to back out and joins the group.

The Samurai Champloo similarities are here: both center around ronin in the Edo period; both are done by Manglobe…but I loved the character design in Champloo and I don’t care for it at all in Five Leaves. This show had a beautifully-done opening sequence, a decent intro story, and gorgeous landscapes throughout, but the character design ruins it for me. The last straw was when the main guy laid eyes on whom he believed “the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.” IMO she looked like a man in drag. Everybody looks tired, worn-out, and ugly, like they’re strung out on drugs or starving. Maybe that’s the point, but usually, to enjoy an anime I have to like how the characters are drawn, which simply isn’t the case here. The only character design I liked was the cat, which is why it’s pictured so prominently.

Rainbow – First Impressions

In depressed post-WWII Japan, seven teenage delinquents are incarcerated in an infamous jail and have to deal with the humiliation and abuse of prison life, and also share their cell with a more seasoned inmate.

Lovejoy: Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies is a highly-acclaimed and celebrated film but frankly I couldn’t stand it…it was too damned depressing. So far I’m getting that same vibe with Rainbow; I appreciate an anime digging deep into one of Japan’s darkest times and their effect on youths, it’s not necessarily the genre I’m looking for, and nothing in the first episode stood out as being particularly groundbreaking for a prison drama.

B Gata H Kei – First Impressions

Rundown: Girl vows to have 100 sex partners, but just ends up pursuing her first male target.

Lovejoy: The opening credits were a bit too syrupy, and it’s a cringeworthy premise, but all that aside, this first episode turned out to be a surprisingly decent and amusing romantic comedy. The show does a good job capturing the hormone-soaked fiasco high school courtship can be, and isn’t lazy with the dialogue. While Yamada, the female lead, is incredibly naive and overzealous, the show itself isn’t and seems to have a good bead on what it wants to do. Yamada’s meta sidekick, kind of a mini love-god version of herself with a mustache, is a nice touch.

Arakawa Under the Bridge – First Impressions

Rundown: Rich, pompous, self-made 21-year old Tokyo U student can not allow himself to be indebted to anyone. However he becomes just that when a mysterious girl who lives under a bridge saves his life. Demanding he repay her, she orders him to become her “lover”. He then enters her extremely bizarre world under the bridge.

Zetsubou-sensei, bakemonogatari, and now this: Shaft continues to churn out intriguing shows with curious, multi-textural visual style, self-deprication vis-a-vis anime conventions (cliches, not cons), and rich, carefully-manicured dialogue. Our protagonist is loud and over-the-top, which contrasts nicely with the soft-spoken, calm girl. Her meek appearance and gestures conceal a sharp wit that is likely a match for the confident family heir. It isn’t clear yet what she has in store for him, but this introductory episode (or 9 episodes, according to the numerous title cards) made me curious to find out. Rating: 3.5