Wednesday, January 3, 2007

New Year's in Tokyo 2006/07

These are times I wish I had a digital camera, or a scanner. I bought 4 disposable 27-shot cameras and shot up the place while I was in Tokyo, but for now I have no way to show you all the cool things I saw.

The trip started with a bus ride to the Hamamatsu Station, then a shinkansen ride to Shinagawa. A heavy-set guy sat next to me and an elderly woman handed out cacao-flavored chocolate to all of us sitting near her. I think most of them were her family, but my seat buddy made sure I got a piece, too.

Cacao is very popular these days, adding a bite of bitterness to various chocolate products. I sometimes eat a 72% cacao dark chocolate bar from Galba, but they also offer a 93% variety. That might be a little too intense for me.

After Shinagawa, I took the Yamanote Line train to Shinjuku. The Yamanote Line is a big loop around Tokyo that hits most of the main destinations: Tokyo, Ebisu, Shibuya, Harajuku, Yoyogi, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Akihabara.

From the South East exit at the station, I had a 15-minute walk. Luckily, my suitcase was pretty light. And after a couple of wrong turns, I found Hotel Listel Shinjuku. It's right off Yasukuni-Dori, but it's down a side-alley and easy to miss... unless you know exactly where you're going. Once you're oriented, it becomes surprisingly easy. After I found it, I felt pretty stupid for missing it. My hand-drawn map wasn't much help.

I recommend you print out the map on the Listel homepage. It's perfect, as I can now verify.

Hotel Listel Shinjuku is a nice place. I was surprised to find a hotel like that in such a cozy little neighborhood. As I approached it, I was afraid it would be a dump but once I was inside, no problems. Clean and classy, with a friendly staff (although they had my name as "Joel Pobar" for some unknown reason) and my room was spotless as well.

I had a small deluxe single room, with heavy wooden screens over the windows for almost total darkness at night... which is something of a luxury in Shinjuku. Of course, I wasn't in Kabuki-cho, the neon heart of Shinjuku. So despite having quite a few guests, the place was very quiet at night and I had no trouble sleeping.

The only drawback is the walk. When I stay there again, I plan on using the subway.

The first night, I explored the south side of Shinjuku Station where I'd read there was a huge bookstore called Kinokinuya with a selection of English language books. Sure enough, just behind the Takashimaya Times Square, there it was. I bought a few things, then went to a KFC for dinner.

The next day, I enjoyed the complimentary breakfast down at Hotel Listel's Femmenette Restaurant. The place was busy, with every table occupied by a chatty, happy bunch of guests. The two women to my right were Chinese, and I also heard some English mixed in with the other languages.

Then I went to Shibuya. The stations were crowded, the streets were thronged. It was pretty exciting. But to my disappointment, I found one of my favorite stores, American Comics Specialties, was defunct, just an empty building covered with a mesh tarp and a sign that promised a new clothing boutique opening in 2007. Fortunately, even though the rest of the world's Tower Records are going out of business, the Japanese Tower company separated from the parent corporation years back, so the world's largest Tower Records is still open and packed with customers.

New Year's Day was a little downbeat. A lot of restaurants and shops were closed. The sidewalks were still packed, though. Many people were carrying arrows... I'm not sure what they symbolize. New Year's is a family holiday in Japan, and closer in feeling to the Western Christmas. Most of these people had been to shrines to pray and ask for good fortune in the coming year.

I spent most of the afternoon exploring Akihabara, which was formerly the Electronics Capital of Japan, so much so that the English signage in the station still directs you to the "Electric Town Exit." Akihabara is undergoing a change... it's still geek-central, only now it's for the otaku, the Akiba-kei, with manga and toy shops, plus maid cafes.

I have severely mixed feelings about maid cafes. These are places where you go to drink coffee or have a meal and you're served by ultra-cute girls in sexy Gothic-style maid costumes, straight off the pages of the hentai (pervo) manga that's super-popular here. Japan in some ways is a very sexist country, with attitudes roughly akin to 1950s America... or current day Albany, Georgia. I saw a few admittedly adorable-looking young women handing out flyers while dressed as maids or catgirls, but I didn't partake.

Maybe next time I go to Tokyo, I'll check one out from curiosity, but as I've told a few students whenever the topic comes up, treating women like dolls isn't my thing. Without being too judgemental of this aspect of Japanese pop culture, I find it... well... creepy.

I went to AsoBit City, a tower of anime/manga/toy nerdishness that's spectacular in its overwhelming abundance. Everything from coin machine toys (another popular item in modern Japanese culture) to cosplay items, plus Momoko dolls, Star Wars action figures and Disneyana.

Overall, Akihabara was kind of a disappointment, but only because I didn't do my research beforehand. I was expecting more toy and hobby shops. The electronics places are still going strong, but you're not likely to find any super-bargains. Things are pretty much the same price there as anywhere. I think its reputation was made back in the days when Japanese electronics were much cheaper than Western goods.

Hey, I remember when I was a kid, "Made in Japan" was a synonym for cheap and junky. Now that Toyota has surpassed General Motors and I'm using a Toshiba laptop, "Made in Japan" means "high quality, reliable stuff." Better than American, jack.

Next time, I'll do a little more research. I'm sure I missed some of the craziest nerd stuff.

January 2nd was pretty exciting, though. The Imperial family make regularly scheduled appearances at the Palace in Tokyo proper. I was a little nervous about finding the Palace, but it was easy.

Not only that, Tokyo Station is beautiful from the outside. I'm not sure what kind of architecture it is, or what era it represents (because I can't imagine anything like this survived the war), but it's old fashioned, red brick and charming. Incredibly, this quaint station is surrounded by ultra-modern glass and steel skyscrapers that look like the cyber-future out of one of William Gibson's novels. And a 10-minute walk, you're on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. It's like simultaneously existing in three different eras.

You enter what's like a vast park, surrounded by a moat with still, green water in it, complete with placidly swimming ducks. There are these massive dark stone walls; I'm guessing those are pretty old. The original palace burned down during the mid-1940s for some mysterious reason, and the new one was built shortly afterward.

But to actually get to the palace requires some hiking. And since the Emperor was making his New Year's appearances, security was heavy. Uniformed cops and plainclothesmen stood around, inspecting everyone visually, while a helicopter orbited high overhead. There were also police vans with baskets on top from which still more police gave orders through loudspeakers.

I got frisked by a Tokyo cop on my way in, as did millions of others that day. At that point, I was also carrying a small Japanese flag made of paper.

Across the wide gravel lots we all trudged, this long snaking line of pilgrims, up through the gate and over a bridge. There were small, twisty pine trees all around. If I looked straight ahead, it was like being in Edo Period Japan, but if I turned around there were the skyscrapers jutting out over the pines under a gray sky.

I packed myself in with all the others under the viewing terrace and waited until my feet ached. When the Emperor and his family, appeared, the flags came up and patriotic cheers resounded across the courtyard.

It was thrilling. One guy would shout something, then a group would join him in raising their arms and screaming, "Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!" You could hear groups cheering this way throughout the crowd. As I know from many college football games where a certain level of shared hysteria reigns, it's hard not to get swept up into the emotions of a mass group... even if you're not part of the culture. I waved my flag and took as many photos as I could, and just drank it all in.

The Emperor made a very short speech, telling us in Japanese that he was very happy to celebrate the New Year with us, with a wish for world peace, and he and his family members waved.

I'd never seen royalty before, and this man's family can trace its roots back at least 1500 years, which puts any European monarch to shame. At 73, he's not very physically impressive. Mainly, he radiates a kind of warmth and friendliness. Small framed, extremely neat, with silver hair. But he kept a big, sincere smile on his face as he waved, and he wore one of those statesman/diplomat style tuxedos with the gray waistcoat and tails, so he looked very much like a modern monarch. Expectations fulfilled, I suppose.

Then I went back to Shibuya and had an early dinner at Outback Steakhouse. They were very busy and very confused but once again, I have to say this was one of the best experiences I've ever had at a steakhouse... equalled only by my other visits to this Outback.

Many on the staff speak English, and they're very friendly. And, in an oddity for Japan, you get free refills on soft drinks. The meals there are a bit pricey, but not too bad when you consider you're in Japan. I had a medium (slightly undercooked) slab of sirloin, a baked potato smothered in melting butter and some mixed veggies, plus a salad. Mmm... I wish I were eating that steak right now.

Then I went back to Shinjuku and hit the Tower Records at the station.

I had to get up early Wednesday because check out was at 10am. A girl's high school sports team were checking in. Lots of boyish haircuts and red-and-white nylon windsuits. My guess is they were a gymnastics team.

My suitcase was considerably heavier by now, but I had no trouble at all until I got to the station. Here's a tip- the coin lockers there only take 100 yen coins. My 500-yen pieces were useless, and by the time I got change, someone had taken the last available large locker.

I took the Yamanote Line to Tokyo. My main plan was to find a locker to dump my suitcase in, then head back to Shibuya for some final shopping and the buffet lunch at Shakey's Pizza. But my alternate plan in case I couldn't find an available locker was just to forget it all and head back to Hamamatsu. Luckily, plan A came to fruition.

Except for the Shakey's Pizza part. That was another disappointment for me... the line was out the door. Well, it was lunchtime. I ended up at the Wendy's nearby, eating some kind of teriyaki burger. Not bad, and the fries were freshly cooked.

And Shibuya was hopping. On the spur of the moment, I decided to buy yet another disposable camera and get some crowd shots. Wait until you see these... I don't think I've ever seen this many people who weren't going to a sports event.

I bought a few books, some cd's, then went briefly back to Shinjuku to go to the Kinokuniya to get this Kuriyama Chiaki shashinshu (photobook) I wanted 2 years ago but never got around to buying. I don't expect to see it anywhere again because the shelf-life on these things can be very short. It's pretty cool little book, some very artistic and funky/freaky shots of Chiaki dressed like various princesses from legend and fairy tales including Cinderella, the Moon Princess and the Little Mermaid.

After that, a short Chuo Line trip back to Tokyo Station, then a reserved seat on the 16:06 Hikari 419 back to Hamamatsu.

And that was New Year's in Tokyo.


Joel said...

Hey there,

Joel Pobar here (blog search alert) - dude, turns out I was staying at the same hotel, spending New Years there as well.

Small world. :)


Joel Bryan said...

Ahhh... mystery solved! That's pretty cool. I hope you enjoyed your stay there as much as I did. I may make that my new Shinjuku headquarters.