Photo of the week
I arrived in Tokyo late at night, but I was immediately struck with how different it is from other places I have been. Tokyo had a very unique feel; I’m not sure whether it was the population density, the orderliness or over politeness. It is such an interesting place to visit, and different from what I imagined. I should explain, ever since high school when my friend Eric started my fascination with Japan, I have developed a certain idealized view of it in my mind. It has been so interesting to see how the real Japan actually stacked up to my ideal version.
It was really good to see that the trains and buses were very much on time and a good portion of the signage was bi-lingual. Everything about the transport works so that passengers can get from one place to another as easily as possible. I had to make several transfers and the trains were scheduled so that one train arrived and a person could get off and get to the next train before it left, but only just. Some transfers only allowed 1 minute, but it turned out to be sufficient.
The interesting and surprising thing is that Japan is very behind in certain areas, with innovation coming slowly. Eric explained to me that generally Japanese create a very good and efficient system that provides a certain solution, but once the problem has changed or adaptation is required it is often slow in coming with significant reluctance towards any change. Real change often requires that rules are broken or bent in order to create innovation, but in a rule following society like Japan breaking rules is relatively uncommon.
The first day in Tokyo was quite overwhelming with an overabundance of visual and audio stimuli everywhere. It was a bit overwhelming, but after several days it eventually all blended away into the background. My first day was spent getting familiar with Tokyo’s trains and some of the main neighbourhoods, with Eric’s mom acting as guide. After exchanging my JR train pass voucher for the pass itself, more information can be found at the JR website, we were off to meet Eric at Shibuya Station which is next to one of the busiest pedestrian crossings where 6 roads converge. It is a very interesting site indeed.
Click on the photo to see a bigger version and you can zoom in to see detail as well.
We met Eric for lunch and I had some delicious sashimi, including sea urchin. It is very interesting how much better things like sea urchin (uni), eel (unagi) and even the different tune cuts are in Japan then in Australia or the US. Eric had to duck back to work so Janet and I had a stroll through Harajuku where people tend to go show off their manga inspired costumes. There were several interesting costumes that I saw, but apparently Sunday is the traditional day to see cosplay in full swing.
We also had a wander through some of the back streets of Harajuku which Janet didn’t even know existed. It was fun and interesting to find some small restaurants and shops that had very interesting architectural designs. We also found some very expensive houses in the neighbourhood between Harajuku and Omotesando Hills, most of which are occupied by expats (mostly American). We met up with Eric for dinner of okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes of sorts) which were very tasty. Okonomiyaki is a dish that originated in Osaka after World War II, with the Tokyo version having a more runny consistency. We tried both styles and even a stir fired noodle and cabbage dish (yakisoba) with all three being tasty.
The following day I made a pilgrimage to Akihabara for their huge selection of electronics and manga stores. I really enjoyed my trip there, but I was disappointed with the rather high prices, and a lack of desire to bargain on the prices. Also there were not as many interesting and new products as I hoped, for example the camera models were all ones that could be purchased in the US or Australia currently. I suppose I was hoping for a sneak peek of things to come (Canon 1Ds Mach IV perhaps!!!), but alas it was not meant to be. Still it was fun to wander through Yodobashi Camera with 8 floors and Bic Camera with 5 floors of electronics.
As a change of pace I traveled north from Akihabara along the Yamanote Line to Nippori Station where I visited the Yanaka Cemetery, one of Tokyo’s largest, which was opened to the public in 1874. It is home to several prominent Japanese including the famous Japanese novelists Soseki Natsume (1867-196) and Ogai Mori (1862-1922). It was a very interesting place with two temples, Tennoji and Anryuin, and the remains of the Five Story Pagoda which are actually very difficult to see, mostly because of the adjacent playground and police box.
The cemetery also contains the Tokugawa Family graveyard, including the grave of the last Shogun, which gives it an added air of significance. It was interesting to see the graves with their sotoba which have the deceased’s spiritual name written on it. I did not realise at the time that when a Japanese person passes away, they are given a new Buddhist name, distinct from their regular name, by the Buddhist priest who is handling the funeral and memorial services. The new Buddhist name is what is written in stylized Japanese on the sotoba and the other side of the sotoba has a mantra written on it.
That evening I met up with Eric and he took me to see his workplace before going to dinner at a kaiseki restaurant. The food came out as a set menu, similar to that of a degustation menu in Australia, and was not only tasty but very nicely presented.
The meal was a definite visual and gastronomic experience which was very satisfying, with every dish arrange to appeal to all the senses. Our meal turned into a long night which set me up for a rough side trip to Kyoto.