Thursday, July 31, 2008

July 10-13, 2008: Tokyo

When Cindy and I parted ways in Edinburgh, she was headed for a short trip to St Andrews. I, on the other hand, had a 6 hour train ride to London followed by a 12 hour flight to Tokyo to look forward to. My brother Matt has been residing in Tokyo for just over a year now, and I decided it was finally time to visit. Unfortunately I got in in the middle of a work day, so I dragged my jetlagged body around on my own (and camera-less) for the first afternoon. Matt had provided me with a range of options, and I settled for a stroll through Ueno Park.

The relative spaciousness of the park was a gentle introduction to the crowded bustle of Tokyo-proper, and I happily wandered around the ponds and through the gardens before deciding I was awake enough to take on a museum. Feeling culturally adventurous, I skipped the Museum of Western Art and opted for The Tokyo National Museum - a dauntingly large complex, with at least five different buildings to explore. I settled on the Japanese Gallery in the Honkan building to start off with, and was suitably impressed by the tour through Japan's art history, from 10000 BC up until the end of the Edo period in the mid-1900s. It's pretty remarkable stuff.

By the time I'd made my way through the wonderful special exhibition on the representation of Buddha, I was buggered. I'd barely slept the night before the flight, worrying that I'd oversleep and miss my train from Edinburgh. Even that lack of sleep didn't make it easier for me to sleep on the flight, so by the time 5pm rolled around, I'd had about 3 hours sleep in what felt like a week. I still had an hour or so until meeting up with Matt, so I sat by the pond for a while and watch the birds (including a really beautiful Egret that was happily fishing a couple of metres away from me). Of course after about five minutes of sitting, I was out like a light. Not a good look. Luckily I roused myself in time to get back to Ueno Station to meet Matt.

It wasn't time to sleep yet - it was time to rock. Matt had bought us tickets to see Shonen Knife in Shinjuku somewhere, so it was straight out on the town It turns out that gigs in Japan are designed for tired old people like me - they start about 7 and are finished by 10:30 - so despite a few long blinks I was able to hang in there until the end of the second encore.

Our quick stroll through Shinjuku back to the train station gave me my first real taste of the bright lights of Tokyo.

A good night's sleep left me ready to face a solo day of Tokyo exploration (Matt was stuck working again). Again I'd been well-hosted - Matt had pre-purchased me a ticket to the Ghibli Museum. I've only seen a couple of Miyazaki's films, so some of the exhibitions lacked a bit of context (not helped by the strictly Japanese signage). Still, I was suitably wowed by the zoetrope (I've tried to find a youtube video that won't give you a headache, but you'll just have to imagine it - if anyone saw the Pixar version at ACMI, you'll have the basic gist) and enjoyed the exclusive short film (it had no dialogue at all, so my language lameness was no problem). The life-size Catbus was pretty rad as well (helped by the fact that Japanese kids are all insanely cute). I think if I hadn't been to the excellent Pixar exhibition, this would have amazed me a bit more - it's still worth the trip though.

It helps that it's situated right in the middle of a really relaxed park - lots of trees, paths and a couple of large lakes. Highlights: a tiny temple, lots of spot-billed ducks, little-grebes and some sort of night-heron. And turtles!

Matt had given me directions to a mountain walk just outside Tokyo, but the heat had taken its toll on me and I had plans back in the city: 1) visit a vego restaurant from my guidebook and 2) do some gift shopping for Cindy. The vego restaurant was a bit of a letdown - it was actually an organic restaurant that carefully marked the various ingredients in the buffet. There were a couple of options, but most stuff was stuffed with fish. This was to be a common theme of the trip, and there were a couple of meals where I ended up just picking bits of meat out. This, along with my lameness, explains the general lack of food photos. The shopping was more successful - plenty of trinkets for Cindy (only the food-themed treates are photo-worthy apparently)! And some eye-popping moments just wandering around Shibuya.

I was utterly pooped again, but Matt had more late-night plans for me. We met up outside Ikebukuro station for a soubetsukai (leaving party) for one of his workmates. The venue for the evening was The Lock-Up (I'm pretty sure that website wouldn't make any more sense in English) - a horror/prison-themed bar that was about five times funnier than it was scary. The creepy death-metal versions of Abba songs were the freakiest moments. The food was fine (again I struggled to find purely vego options) - the highlight: this eyeball that came with someone's creepy drink. Delicious.

Another late night meant that Saturday started a bit late. Matt's fine planning work continued, with a jaunt to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography for the 2008 World Press Photo Exhibition. I'd been to the 2006 version of this in Amsterdam and been knocked out, and it was wonderful again. Not entirely upbeat, but very, very impressive. The other bonus was the indoor, air-conditioned nature of the exhibition - Tokyo had turned on mid-30s, high-humidity weather, making outdoor activities kind of painful. Nevertheless, we headed off to explore Shibuya, stumbling across this terrifying horde of Macca's promoters.

Matt's main goal was to get us to the A to Z cafe - home to a mock-up of Yoshitomo Nara's workspace, filled with loads of his artwork, trendy furniture and a pretty veg-friendly menu. I left on a high, having been complimented on my chopstick skills by one of the staff. Go me!

We swung past a couple of shops in the neighbourhood - I was tempted by some hip outfits, but decided I lacked the appropriate muscle-tone.

Next stop was the Tokyo Design Festa Gallery, an insanely decorated gallery that basically lets out little rooms to all kinds of local artists. It's all very cosy, with the artists often hanging out in their rooms chatting to the people strolling through. The overall vibe was very much the cute cartoony art that seems so popular in Japan.

One of Matt's hipster friends had suggested that we visit Nagi Shokudo, a tiny vegan cafe tucked away near Shibuya station. It's loaded up with trendy cds and books and is decorated with more cute little animals. The staff were super-friendly and knew enough English for us to get our orders in - fake meats for me and tofu for Matt, with various side dishes (shamefully I forgot to get food photos!). It was all pretty good, and the welcoming atmosphere had me content to sit around all night. We also discovered the vegan restaurant pocket guide. It looked an invaluable resource for vegos trying to find their way through Japan's seafood-heavy cuisine.

But there was no time for that. It was off to the cinema to check out a documentary about the crazy Boredoms drumming show, 77 Boadrum. Some of the droney bits combined with my ongoing tiredness to have me drifting off, but it was pretty great in patches.

Sunday was another stinking hot day, and Matt and I started off inside at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The observatories on the top floor of each 250m tall tower are open to the public and are completely free. Unfortunately it was a bit of a hazy day, so we couldn't see anywhere near all the way to Mt Fuji.

The rest of the morning was basically spent wandering the streets and admiring the architecture and public art.

The heat was too much for this guy.

We stumbled back into the constantly crowded Shinjuku, enjoying some of the peculiarly Japanese imagery.

More heat, more crowds and more lights.

My Tokyo sojourn ended with a trip to a multi-level entertainment complex - chock full of cutting edge video games. Strangely, multiplayer horse-racing games seem to be the current trend. For all the complexity and action, the none of the people playing the games seemed particularly enthused.

We couldn't leave before I'd had a nostalgic trip down Streetfigher lane. I was having a great old time fighting the computer, but one of the locals spotted me and joined the battle - hilariously trouncing me in about 12 seconds. I've never seen so many flaming body parts.

That spanking seemed like an appropriate farewell from Tokyo - it was like I was being brutally thrown out of the country. Besides, I was hot and exhausted and work was calling. An hour long train ride through the never ending density of Tokyo got me out to Narita and I dragged my sweaty, tired carcass onto the 8 hour trip home. Good times. Tokyo was a complete change of pace from the UK places we'd visited - less ancient buildings and more neon. The crowds would eventually wear me down - we didn't catch a single train that wasn't crowded to bursting point, but the whole place is pretty exhilarating. I'm hoping Matt hangs around for another year or more so I can head back there (although maybe not in mid-summer) - not only does he provide a place to sleep, he's a superb host, chock full of ideas, maps and planning.


  1. Great post, Michael.

    You were WAY more productive in Tokyo than I was, but you did have the advantage of a host who knew where to take you. I recently had a one-day stopover in Tokyo but I was so hot, jet-lagged and disoriented that I barely managed to find my way around the awesome subway system before I had to make my way back to the airport. Adding to this, my one opportunity to try some authentic Japanese food was completely blown. I followed a sign down a set of stairs to a venue I thought would be serving some interesting food. It turned out that that I was right, except it was food that was exciting to a Japanese person - spaghetti! D'oh! I was too tired to move from my seat once I realised what sort of restaurant it was. So much for authentic Japanese cuisine. I'm definitely going back to Tokyo though - perhaps once I find someone to guide me.

  2. sounds fascinating but I have heard how tiring tokyo can be - not a good place to be fighting jetlag - you sound like you did well to find some vegan cafes - a little local knowledge helps with these things - the only time I have spent in tokyo was the airport and I was quite shocked how little English they spoke there so I imagine in the city there wouldn't be a lot of English spoken.

  3. Oooh....this post had me travel sick! I wanna go back!

    Question is, how many Kit Kats have you brought home? ;-)

  4. Dmargster - I think a guide makes a lot of difference in Tokyo, especially in summer. The first few days when I was on my own were hard work - everything was so hot and confusing. The subway/train system is amazing, but so immense that it's easy to get lost (I'll admit to going the wrong direction at least once in my 4 days). I'll also confess to copping out for lunch on the Sunday and settling for Indian.

    Johanna - the language barrier was a bit harder than I expected - thankfully Matt could read and speak enough Japanese to decipher (mostly) whether meals had meat in them etc. It made life a lot easier.

    Mellie - I totally forgot about the kit kats! Whoops.

  5. Okay, I don't want to be all "I asked for no salt on these fries" and up in your grill, but where was the food Michael. Surely some squeamish tofu concoction, or eggplant delight managed to capture your lens?

    Love from your dear reader

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  7. No, JL, I think you *should* be up in Michael's grill!

    There are no food photos.

    I am appalled... but also forgiving because he brought home crazy trinkets for me.