Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tokyo January trip - IV

Well, this seems to be turning into quite a long series of posts on our trip to Tokyo, but it's just that we did SO much everyday! Wednesday January 23rd was a rainy, cold, gray, slightly snowy, sombre day. But we had a plan, there was no room for leaving visits for later.

First we got to the Imperial Palace (or Kōkyo, 皇居). You can't enter the Palace's grounds proper, but the whole area was postcard perfect: quiet, with a blanket of snow, offering tradition on one side of the street and modernity on the other. After enjoying the harmony of the stone walls, the trees, the graceful roofs of the palace and, after having had too much of the rain-snow, we left for the Meiji Shrine (or Meiji Jingū, 明治神宮). And that, my friends, was some experience.

First, we entered a park, a park with dense, tall, proud, old trees, with stone paths leading ever deeper into the park. The snow keep falling, leaving a hint of white on branches and arched bridges, but turning the paths into cold, wet, slippery ways. My shoes, my CLOTH shoes, were soaked through, and my feet were starting to feel numb. All in all, a gray, chilly, heavy atmosphere. And THAT is precisely what made it so special, because all of a sudden, from the gloomy mesh of the trees, the cold, and the incessant rain-snow (probably reflecting my own dark mood at the time), we entered another world. We were no more in the middle of Tokyo, we were at the very centre of a sacred space, a graceful, powerful, elegant yet simple shrine which turned the numbing snow into a stage for us to admire it. It was magical, it was magical because it was unexpected, because under any other light or weather the impact would have been completely different; the shrine drew us into her realm, held us willing captives, and wouldn't let go until we were standing there, speechless, at her inner sanctum. If anything, that was a sacred moment, a specific conjunction of time and space that could not be replicated.

Later that day, we rounded up the experience with a different sort of shrine, a shrine to modernity and capitalism: Roppongi Hills (六本木ヒルズ), an exclusive, monstrous, towering shopping centre, complete with a spire reaching high into the clouded evening sky.

Yet, we were exhausted and didn't feel like exploring more of Roppongi, so we headed back to the hotel, stopped at a noodle place where you had to order your food first from a machine (fun because of the idea of ordering by pushing buttons, scary because it was only in Japanese and I could only make out some basic stuff...), and proceeded to enjoy probably the best noodle broth we had ever tried (and so welcome in the cold night!).

Tokyo January trip - III (end)

After visiting the Tsukiji Market, and quite impressed with just the variety and quantities of sea-life being displayed, killed, chopped up and packaged, we went to a small, quiet, peaceful shrine right next to the market (see the picture below), and after a moment or two of just watching people stopping by for a quick prayer, we headed for two less shocking, more superficial places: Ginza (銀座) and Tokyo Dizuniirando (ie, Tokyo Disneyland 東京ディズニーランド).

Ginza, an important commercial area, was not as impressive as Shibuya or Shinjuku, yet it had it's share of high-class shopping, and provided for a nice stroll in a cool, sunny day. Plus, it had the biggest Apple Store we'd ever visited, which did us the favour of "relieving" us of some hard-earned money in exchange for a couple of nifty gadgets and essential computer programs so my habib could better edit his digital movies (in case you haven't noticed, I simply shoot and WHAM! upload the vid AS IS, while he edits, CREATES). Anyhow, all this was just meant as a distraction while we waited to go take the train to Disneyland!

(yes, there's nothing unique about this picture, but hey, I had to post it! it's TOKYO Disney!)

We had bought a Disney Winter Night Pass. What that romantic name meant, in reality, was that, in exchange for taking fast rides in chilling evening winds and running against the clock to get on as many rides as possible before the park closed, you got to pay just half-price. Given how expensive things were, and since we didn't feel like devoting a whole day to Disneyland, we thought that was a cool option. And so, ready for an evening of silly and completely shallow fun, we headed off to the magic kingdom! True to their fame as precise and exact people, we were not allowed in even a second before the time marked on our tickets. All of us "Winter Night Pass"-holders were standing in line, waiting, and the park's staff were ready at their stations as well, but it wasn't until the clock had marked exactly 4pm that we were allowed in. And silly fun we had (although I must admit I was terribly disappointed that my one top favourite ride, the Haunted Mansion, was not open that one day! DARN!).  Oh, and as for silly fun, I'm not afraid to admit that we were dying with laughter at the "Crazy Tea Party" ride! LOL.

Well, I had a very well-deserved share of fun. My habib was probably even more amused at seeing me gleefully go from one ride to the next (I'm such a fan of amusement parks of all sorts, I get totally excited! and being there with my habib brought many warm feel-good memories of very many visits to similar parks with my family when I was a kid). And after a whole evening of child-like energy spending, we crashed back home, as the next day we had quite a number of things to see. This was one intense city, Tokyo, and you can expect up to five additional posts on that intense January trip)

Tokyo January trip - III


Having had a rather intense day on Monday, we decided to have a more relaxed and fun on Tuesday, visting the Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場), a shrine nearby, Ginza (銀座), and Disney! (on a special Winter Night Pass).

So, the Tsukiji Fish Market. Here’s one version of it: a bigger than you can imagine, wondrous covered market where, from early morning (4-5am) until about noon, 2000 tons of all sorts of fresh seafood are sold to satisfy even the most demanding of palates, Now, some guides and people recommend getting there sometime around 5am to maybe witness the auctions and to have probably the freshest (and supposedly best) sushi you could ever try.

Here’s just but a sample of the variety of things you’ll see there:

Of course, there’s more than one way to view that. Here’s the less savoury one: Tsukiji Market is a huge market where hundreds of thousands of recently dead or presently dying (from suffocation) sea-borne creatures from different species are sold so that they may be cut into pieces, boiled or destroyed in a number of ways (sometimes while they’re still struggling to stay alive) so that Tokyoites can eat their bodies, body parts, body insides and body fluids. Every day. Somehow, sushi doesn’t seem so sanitised and appetizing when looking at these:

Of course, “seafood” (that is, sea-borne creatures killed to feed us) is not just about seafood: birds are caught in long-lines (fishing lines of great length) and drown when they swoop down to catch a fish that’s already caught in a line; life-rich sea floor is destroyed by trawlers (huge nets dragged across the bottom to catch whatever falls in their path), not to mention the countless animals caught unintentionally and thrown back to the sea, dead or dying, as they have no commercial value (i.e., they're not "seafood").

Then again, that's how it's been done for centuries: taking from from whichever resources ara available, right? Billions of nonhuman earthlings annihilated globally, yearly, BECAUSE WE CAN. And because we like their taste.

Somehow, Ginza and Disney do NOT seem to fit here, so those shall become a small, silly post a bit later on.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Tokyo January trip - II (end)


(this is the final chapter of the second part)

So, after sumō and to finish the day, we visited three important spots: Shibuya (渋谷), Omote Sandō (表参道) and Harajuku (原宿). All three important shopping and busy hubs, but in different ways:

Shibuya: Similar to Shinjuku, with hundreds upon hundreds of shoppers, people meeting other people, bright ads and screens running the length and height of your field of vision, love hotels (where lovers can discretely rent a room for an hour), food, etc. etc. etc. Want to meet someone there? sure, but tons of others do, so unless you have a mobile phone and guide your friend verbally or with text messages, just agreeing to meet at Shibuya Station is not going to help!

Next (yes, I know, we still went for more?) we went to Omote Sandō, seeing just one of the most expensive shopping streets you could imagine. World class brands had their shops on a broad, tree-lined, pleasant avenue, within buildings that had such size and design that you could only wonder at the money that had cost to set them up, and the money that kept them running! Stunning. Alas, we were not there to spend several times my salary buying trousers or wallets, but to get to Harajuku (原宿), another zone which was also a fashion mecca, but for the more alternative and avant-garde crowd (with stuff that made it patently clear that we were not alternative, or avant-garde, at all), and where young women like to engage in "cos-play " (i.e, costume play): dressing up in the fanciest, craziest, most attention-grabbing way possible to, well, to grab people's attention! Extreme make-up, the queerest of fashions, wigs, everything's allowed, as long as it's accepted and encouraged by your own cos-play in-group, of course. Unfortunately, we saw little of it, as the day and time were not the best.

And so, dead tired, having had an exhibition, a museum, a memorial, a garden by a poet's house, a sumo evening, and a stroll around three crazy shopping areas, we crashed back home.

Next post: a fish market and, if it doesn't take a whole post, Ginza and Disney too!

Tokyo January trip - II (continued)

This is going to be an image rich post. :-D


After visiting Bashō's house, we hurried back to the sumō (大相撲) tournament. We found our seats: the very last row, the VERY last! But even then you could see quite well what was going on, and with my camera's zoom you could get every single minute detail. So, once we knew where our seats were, we went for lunch right there at the stadium and, what did we have? Chanko (ちゃんこ), of course! (remember chanko, or sumo stew, from my first post about this trip) And for desert, a favourite of mine, a steamed rice bun filled with sweet red bean paste (yes, sounds weird, but I positively love them!).

Once our hunger was happily satisfied, we went into the stadium, and had a fantastic evening:

- The makūchi (幕内) wrestlers ceremonial entrance. The sumo trainee bouts and the junior bouts were over, and it was time for the senior wrestlers. The announcer called them one by one to the ring, where they stepped on with their ceremonial aprons (or kesho-mawashi, 化粧まわし), formed a circle, and ritually marked the beginning of the senior bouts. Interestingly, some Europeans had made it to the senior ranks, including wrestlers from Estonia, Bulgaria and Russia.

- The yokozuna (横砂) grand champion ring entrance. After the entrance of the senior division wrestlers, each of the grand champions (or yokozuna) make a ceremonial entrance, accompanied by two attendants.

- Makūchi bouts. This was just fantastic: a total of 20 bouts, with the better wrestlers being left for last. Some bouts would end really quick with some special move by one of the wrestlers, some were simply pushed out of the circle, some others were even thrown off the ring and towards the public! (who, by the way, took things with lots of dignity and never made the least fuzz about having a 1.9 metre tall and 145kg heavy giant crashing on top of them...)

It's surprising how much a sport you've never watch can excite you! when watching two wrestlers putting their all to beat the other, you could not help but tense up during the bout, and even cheer for the winner! Brilliant.

- Bow dance ceremony. At the end of the day, a lower-ranked sumo wrestler entered the ring to perform the bow dance (or yumitori shiki, 弓取式). As you can see, there was a lot more to sumo wrestling than huge men throwing their weight around! (which is a horrible way to put it; actually, there are 82 official winning techniques which sumo wrestlers try to master).

- Drumming to mark the end of the day and invite fans to come again. As if everything else were not enough, when we exited the stadium, we started hearing this drumming coming from above... a wooden tower had been built, within the stadium's grounds, and a drum was being played from atop! Tokyo has wonderfully little traffic, and is quite quiet, so the drumming just resonated in the night wonderfully well, bringing to an end a great evening of something we had never thought we'd see.

OK, it seems the "Tokyo Series" might end up like Hokusai's series, with 36 to 100 items! LOL It just seems proper to let sumō have its own post, and finish our Monday adventures with my next post.

Tokyo January trip - II

Last time I wrote a lot, but in fact I wrote too little about too much (about three whole days!). Tonight I'll only write about what we did on Monday 21st, because that was one intense day! And so...


Since we were watching Monday's sumo bouts, we chose to visit Tokyo's Edo Museum, which was right next to the tournament place (Ryōgoku Kokugikan), to visit an exhibition of Hokusai's (北斎) drawings and paintings. No, I couldn't quite say who Hokusai was before my habib enlightened me: Japan's most famous artist, basically. And you've probably seen his best known painting, or at least something imitating it: a furious wave with claw-like foam overpowering a tiny fisherman's boat and, in the distance, Mount Fuji.

What we saw at the exhibition was far more than we could imagine: Hokusai had not only a series of Mount Fuji paintings, but a series on bridges, on waterfalls, and hundreds upon hundreds of sketches and drawings on everything: nature, plants, animals, masks, sightseeing spots, and even illustrated books, like a dance manual and manuals for learning how to paint! In the late 19th century his paintings and style (and, in particular, his wave and Mt. Fuji painting) were becoming quite famous in Europe, and influenced artists like Van Gogh. And there it was, in front of us, the very same painting of the wave and Mount Fuji.

I have to admit, I was definitely not the one who had proposed visiting the exhibition, and was going along with my habib, just to enjoy whatever he was interested in. But it was a truly remarkable exhibition, the kind you know you won't forget (and I have to thank the Japanese for their impeccable layout of the exhibition, flawlessly guiding you all along, into a crescendo with that painting, and finally with a relaxed tempo with sketches and manuals; just brilliantly done).

(photo of exhibition's catalogue)

And the rest of the museum was quite fine, too, and huge! they even had a real size reproduction of an old Theatre, and this was on the 4th or 5th floor of the building! There we also learnt how Tokyo did live through a period of traffic mayhem and terrible pollution, which helped us admire even more the change to this successfully public-transport oriented society, and the city's blue skies (and made us hope that Beijing will someday follow suit, and free us from way too many cars and more pollution than they probably dare admit). We also saw some truely horrific footage of the U.S. bombardments of Tokyo during World War II in 1945: in a single night, 100'000 Japanese civilians perished, with a good part of Tokyo in flames. Yes, the country was at war, yes, Japan had done its fair share of damage around, and yet, that knowledge didn't diminish a bit the horror of those images.

Afterwards, and since the more important bouts were not starting until after 3pm, we decided to go take a peek at the Kantō Earthquake Memorial, a beautiful temple in a park, commemorating the death of some 45'000 thousand people and the destruction of 70% of Tokyo in the 1923 earthquake. That, plus the destruction that took place during World War II, go a long way towards explaining why little of ancient Tokyo remains.

With still some time left, we tried finding the home of Bashō (芭蕉), the most famous poet of Edo Japan, in the 17th century. He's also recognised as the first great Haiku (俳句) poet. You might have read haiku poems before (like this one, from Bashō, in English, Japanese, and its pronunciation):

Old pond... 古池や (furuike ya)
a frog jumps in 蛙飛こむ (kawazu tobikomu)
water's sound.
水のをと (mizu no koto)

Japanese haiku should consist of 3 lines, 5-7-5 syllables long, usually have to do with nature, and capture a moment of experience, an ordinary event, somehow turning it into an insightful revealing of its self. No, not easy to explain, actually. But reading them helps getting the idea.

Unfortunately the house and museum was closed that day, and all we got was to wander around the tiny, but intricate and beautiful, garden behind it, with rocks, winding foot-paths, a tiny brook and artificial waterfalls... Here's a picture of some dry plant, with red fruit-like things (sorry, my botany knowledge is next to nil). Picture green, brown, red, lilac, water, wood, gravel...

OK, you see? there's so much to write about! That same day we still went to watch sumo, and went to Shibuya and Harajuku (two interesting and lively areas). But I don't want to make this posts ultra-long, so I'll leave that for the next one!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Tokyo January trip!

Now that I'm done sorting all 137 photos and 36 movies that I took in Tokyo, it's time to finally write about that trip! We spent just 10 days in that crazy and amazing city, and I'll do my best to spare you having to read 10 different posts, although believe me, there's material to write on and on and on... so, enough about talking about writing, and on to the writing! WARNING: long post, about too many things, not sure I managed to pull it off or if it will be to your liking...


Our first day in Tokyo was spent marvelling at the (at the beginning confusing) transport system: you can get basically anywhere of interest, ANYWHERE, on public transport. The subway system is really dense, with many lines crossing each other more than once, and with underground passages connecting different lines so you rarely have to go back up to the surface even if you're changing onto a different company's line. Of course, it all comes at the cost of about 1.5USD for the shortest trips, so travelling back and forth and all over the place, even though fantastically easy, is also just a bit expensive (although when compared with the outrageous fares taxis charge, it's not bad at all!).

We stayed at a nice, rather new hotel in the zone of Akasaka. If you've been to Japan, you already know this: unless you're forking out A LOT of money, you'll probably end up in minuscule rooms. Clean, with everything you need, but TINY: double beds look more like the size of a "1.5 single bed" (and your feet usually reach the end of the bed, even if you're not particularly tall), there is little to no closet space, and the bathroom is the most compact arrangement possible with all amenities available (including our favourite, the toilet with, among others, seat temperature control and remote controlled shower and bidet options!).

So, after getting used to thinking smaller when it came to sizes and bigger when it came to prices, we decided to go for a drink to Tokyo's #1 gay zone: Shinjuku Sanchōme (新宿三丁目). Just a few blocks big, the place seems to concentrate some 200 gay establishments. TWO HUNDRED. Catering for all sorts of tastes: bears, leather, SM, muscle men, sex-shops, transvestites, preppie boys, lesbians, etc. etc. Coming from Beijing, where you could count... maybe ten gay establishments? and in no specific area, but just here and there, knowing there were a couple hundred was mind-boggling. But then, you have to remember two factors: size, and verticality! Size: many of them can't seat more than 6-10 people at the bar at a time, and may even only welcome regulars (who'd be very upset to find their seat taken by a stranger, of course). And verticality: when you look for a place, remember to look up as well as ahead, as a great number of them occupy small apartment sized spaces in buildings 4-8 stories high. Still, we found a place to grab a beer; it wasn't particularly inspiring, nor big, but just the idea that there was so much choice was most welcome.


On our 2nd day, we started most culturally, attending a Nō performance, which is a traditional Japanese dramatical art. We had seen Nō before in Kyoto on a different trip, and we were eager to see some more (only some, as performances consist of a number of plays, and can easily last 6 hours). We were not allowed to film, so I have no video to show, but I can only say that, even though at moments it DID seem impossibly tedious (fortunately, a number of Japanese spectators dozing off reassured me I was not the only uneducated one), we enjoy Nō for some other key moments that kidnap your mind and imagination, and hold them hostage to ancient drum-accompanied vocalisations and to dances which, though performed by someone completely covered in clothes and hidden by a mask, project amazing energy.

Ah, and the other thing I enjoy about Nō: people watching, like this group of women, all elegantly dressed in kimonos, enjoying their box-lunches just before the performance.

After watching one play and a short comic skit (well, that's what it was supposed to be back when it was created, but the old language and the ritual does detract from its comicity for modern spectators), we went to buy tickets for a sumo tournament! Neither of us had ever seen a sumo match live, and I was bent on having that experience. What you see in the first picture is the arena, and the banners have the names of the sumo wrestlers; all the people standing there are waiting, not to buy tickets, but to see the arrival of the wrestlers! Of course, we had no idea which ones were the more important wrestlers, but watching people get excited over one or another did give us a clue. Actually, the guy you see in pic 2 is a senior wrestler from Bulgaria (apparently, a number of Eastern European wrestlers have made it to Japan, trained as sumo wrestlers, and are doing pretty fine!). We bought tickets for a different day, and I'll show you some fantastic vids in a different post.

Of course, all that culture and ticket buying had to get us hungry, and since we were in the area, we decided to try a sumo meal: chanko! Similar to Chinese Hot Pot, you select a number of ingredients, a soup, and then you get all of that in a pot, which is then brought to a boil at your table. At first, we felt really awkward, because we had no idea whether we could start eating or not, and whether we should add a couple of ingredients they had brought or whether they were snacks, but fortunately we were patient and let the staff do their job, and in due time they told us "OK, it's ready". And it was not only ready, it was DELICIOUS. And abundant! We left more than satisfied, and elated at discovering a new dish!

Finally, at night, we decided to try a nightclub at the gay area. It was fun, we danced, had a beer or two... and in the end found out why people usually go back home until 5 or 6am: we didn't feel like staying up all night, so we went back to the subway station, only to realise that the last train had left some 4 minutes earlier! Well, we thought "we're not far, we can take a taxi; sure it must be expensive, but how expensive can it be?" The answer: VERY. The taxi had a beautiful GPS system, a computer that could tell you the address of any place just by its phone number, doors that opened and closed automatically, and a fare of some 23USD for a short ride of just few minutes. And we were close to the area! Any party goers living at more normal distances would easily end up paying 100USD or more for a ride, which explains why you see places PACKED until about 5am, with people even falling asleep in the corners or rinking their money away and waiting for the subway to begin service in the morning.


OK, this has gotten fairly long already, but I'd like to end this post with two really interesting walks we had around Shinjuku Station, one of a number of ultra-crowded, shopping-packed, neon-sign and plasma-screen plastered areas of Tokyo. And we caught a street jazz concert! The guys were pretty good, and I just felt totally energised by the whole experience: music, tons of people, movement, big buildings, lights, movement movement movement! Here you have two vids, Shinjuku by day, and by night.

The second part of the walk was around Kabukichō (歌舞伎町), also in Shinjuku, with an important Kabuki theatre and sort of a red-light district, with a number of clubs and bars offering adult entertainment:

But what we found most amusing was this ad in Kabukichō:

Young looking men, with make-up, some with coloured contacts, fancy hair-do's, quite feminine looking... we assumed at first they were gay "escorts" (because of the look), but then we spotted a door that explained the cover charge, and it was twice as high for men than for women! these were escorts for women! And then I remembered reading something about women paying plenty of good cash for the company and conversation of young, funny, interesting men (and not necessarily implying sex). The concept, and the visuals of it, was a great reminder of how Western Japan is, and how UNwestern it is at the same time.

OK, you made it this far, let me bow to you for your patience. Soon to come: more sumo, a fish market, Dinsey, a temple during a snowfall...