Saturday, April 9, 2011

On The Road: Tokyo, Part 1.

To say that Tokyo isn't atop many travel lists today is an understatement. On the first leg of my flight, from Sydney to Hong Kong, I had three seats to myself; on the second leg, the steward who was seated in front of me and had reclined his seat during the flight informed me that I could spread out elsewhere if I like, because the plane was so empty. Um, thanks, three seats is fine.

I could have cancelled my flight, as my travel companion did, and as so many others have; I'm sure I could have found no shortage of government authorities to cite in advising me not to travel to Tokyo, to say nothing of the countless suggestions that I might wind up "glowing" or somesuch if I so much as drank the water or ate spinach.

But it was important for me to go, and not just because I needed a vacation, and not just because I was seeing friends I hadn't seen in ages, and not just because cherry blossoms were in season. A few weeks prior to the tsunami hitting Japan and its resulting devastation, New Zealand had its own disaster, the Christchurch earthquake, and in the face of it, I told my friends overseas that, by far, the best thing they could do is to book their trips to New Zealand, to come see this country, to give it money at a time when there was such a heavy hit to its economy.

To then turn my back on Japan in a similar situation seemed worse than hypocritical. Also, cherry blossoms.


A few boring practical things that will be essential for some and tedious for others.

I wasn't sure how to handle telephony in the country, other than having a deep and abiding fear of using my New Zealand SIM and acquiring ludicrous roaming charges. As it turns out, it couldn't be easier; outside the train station at the airport, I rented a SIM card for my phone for a trivial amount (slightly over 100 yen a day, plus usage fees). Easy.

Train services are still touch and go. The disaster has sharply hit Tokyo's power production, and both rolling and spontaneous blackouts occur. The Narita Express, upon my landing, hadn't run since the earthquake. The backup route, provided by my ryokan (more on that in the moment), wasn't running the night I landed, either. Ultimately, my route to Ikebukuro, the district of Tokyo I was saying in, was over two hours.

I stayed in Kimi Ryokan in Ikebukuro, which I recommend for the easily sated minimalist traveller. No one will mistake it for luxury, but for 4000 yen it's fantastic. It's traditional, with shoes left at the door, tatami and Japanese beds (read: a not very thick mattress on the floor) in the room, shared bathrooms and showers, very helpful friendly staff.

(A ryokan, by the way, is a traditional Japanese lodging. They vary widely from the budget to the incredibly fancy, apparently; I wouldn't know anything about the latter. You can get cheaper, like backpacker lodging, or capsule hotels, but I explored neither seriously.)

I bought a Lonely Planet Tokyo Kindle edition before I left. On the plane, I realized it was impractical beyond belief. Someday, someone will invent a way to navigate electronic information that is truly as convenient as a book. In the meantime, just pick up a paper version of LP Tokyo. Or, you know, your favorite version, I'm hardly dogmatic. But LP Tokyo has a tear-away map of the trains in it, which will prove very useful.

(I am cynical, as you might be, about travellers who rely overly on Lonely Planet, at the expense of what is in front of their very own faces. But in a country where English is not prevalent and the 3 sets of characters used as alphabets are all unreadable by me, it's quite helpful to have a guide to some place where you can hope for, say, an English-language menu.)

Those travelling to Tokyo soon should note that, at least in the short term, many businesses are practicing austerity in various forms; while some tourists may be disappointed by the lack of stunningly bright lights and TVs at famous locations such as Shibuya, the more practical concern is shortened hours and/or closed attractions. Double-check hours for any museum you want to visit before you go. It's hard to say how long this will go on for; my friends suggest that, as summer comes up and air conditioning use skyrockets, rolling blackouts may continue and/or accidental blackouts will rise. That said, at the moment, the actual impact was relatively minor for me. Trust me: even if a museum here or there is closed, you will not run out of things to do in Tokyo.


Saturday night, arriving at Kimi Ryokan at 9:30 PM after waking up in Sydney at 3:30 AM to catch my flight, was hardly the big night I hoped for. I had received work of garage rock shows I wanted to attend, but: exhausted, and much ahead.

Instead, I got yakitori at Akiyoshi (thanks, Lonely Planet!), then, having noted a intriguing bar on the way, returned to investigate further. The sign for Bar Memory Record said in clear English "Old Music Bar Plays Records Only". This sounded promising.

Bar Memory Record is small - maybe four barstools and a couple small tables. Two eager bartenders, one who insisted on taking my jacket. Being in Japan, I tried to order shochu; this was met with abject disapproval. The menu being in all Japanese, I cast an eye on the small collection of bottles, and went for the Caol Ila 12 year.

And so began an hour of sitting in a wonderfully dark bar, listening to great old jazz records on vinyl, drinking single malt scotches. More shelves in the bar are devoted to records than are devoted to scotch, and while there, I heard three sides; the first may have been Rose Garland (I thought I'd remember the name, then forgot, so that may have been invented), but the second was certainly Wes Montgomery, and the third was, most definitely, KIND OF BLUE by Miles Davis. By the time it hit, I had switched to what appeared to be the bar's conventional serving of single malt scotches - with a giant sphere of ice, almost the circumference of the glass, punctured a few times by an icepick. That might have been a Talisker.

It was heavenly, and it was time to collapse.


The next morning, and eliding a failed attempt to find an entrance to a park in Shinjuku that promised cherry blossoms, I met my friend Trent and his 3 year-old daughter Sweelyn for one of my few must-see attractions on the trip: the Ghibli Museum.

For those who don't know: Studio Ghibli is the Japanese animation studio responsible for such works as SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONONOKE, PONYO, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, the latter being one of my most treasured films ever.

Those films are directed by Hayao Miyazaki; Ghibli has also released films by others, most notably Isao Takahata, who's responsible for POM POKO and MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS, but it's Miyazaki-San who looms most large at the Ghibli Museum.

You can't take pictures inside the Ghibli Museum, and thus its exact contents were unclear to me prior to arriving. I don't want to spoil too many of said contents, and I expect many of them change on a regular basis; suffice it to say, that if you are a Ghibli fan, your attendance is essential, and within five minutes I'd already gotten my money's worth. Much of the signage is in Japanese only, but don't worry, you'll get the idea.

One very special thing that is worth noting - in addition to the original cels and the small films and the custom Nausicaa-labeled beer and the real-life catbus (for elementary school students and younger only; Sweelyn rode it three times, nestled amongst the soot sprites) - is that your admission includes one screening of a film, specially created for the Ghibli Museum. So far, eight of these films have been created. Like most TOTORO fans, I was hoping for a chance to see the Totoro semi-sequel, MEI AND THE KITTENBUS, but I knew going in that wouldn't be the case. (You can find out what's screening on the Ghibli site.) Having said that, the opening trailer to the film showed brief snippets from every Ghibli short to date, and the chance to see a few brief moments of Mei hugging a spastic Kittenbus, followed by her ride in said Kittenbus - there are no words.

(The film that was showing, about an evil witch, an egg-shaped hero, his living dough friend, and lots of breadmaking, was merely wonderful by comparison. It had no language, so subtitles or lack thereof weren't an issue.)


There's a lot I'll elide in this blog, in part because I forget things and in part because I'm not sure who cares to read it all.

One problem of travel writing, though, is that it boils down to a checklist of things that were done, attractions that were visited, and that is how the trip is measured. Maybe because these things are easily quantifiable.

But the truth of it is that, for me, the moments that often come back as memories, months and years later, are the moments between attractions, the moments walking through an unlikely part of a foreign country and experiencing something that won't acquit to language, but that gives you a true sense of the place that feels much more real than any of the attractions you find yourself in.

All of which is to say that the walk back to the Mitaka train station, through a park, and all the digressions endemic to travelling with a three-year old, was a pretty special trip. But perhaps everything feels fresh and new after hours looking through the eyes of Miyazaki.


Dinner in Shibuya at Gyubei - yakiniku, a course meal that was probably more truly Korean than Japanese but still wonderfully tasty, albeit smoky as we cook our own meat, then farewell to Trent and Sweelyn, off to Ikebukuro Station and hello to Scout and Jarrett, who have just returned from out west, and, after delivering a parcel of New Zealand snack foods (pineapple lumps! sunday roast flavoured potato chips!), we catch up at Jonathan's, a Denny's-esque restaurant apparently proximate to most train stations.


The next day I am alone, and my first destination is Ueno Park, to check out this cherry blossom business.

(Quick vocab lesson: "sakura" refers to cherry blossoms, and "hanami" refers to the activity of going to see cherry blossoms with friends. My secondhand information indicates that this mostly involves going to the park to drink.)

Ueno Park is considered to be one of the best locations for hanami in Tokyo, and it's simultaneously both clear and surprising once I arrive. A wide pavement lane is lined with cherry blossom trees for a great length; simultaneously beautiful for a long wander and uncomfortable as a place to sit, though that hasn't stopped many.

The blossoms themselves are still in the process of emerging; while some seem fully formed, many have yet to open. And while there are many people viewing the sakura, and camera crews shooting the blossoms swaying (or making them sway to improve the shots), the truly big crowds in Ueno are reserved for the zoo, where two new pandas have arrived.

(Overheard in English: "We're going to be in China in five days, and you want to wait in line to go see the pandas?")

Blossomed all I can blossom, a wander through the streets of Ueno and lots of panda-related signage, a long train ride, and lo! Roppongi. I arrive in Tokyo Midtown, a fancy, gigantic development that sprawls without outside air for ages; it feels like something out of a J.G. Ballard novel, waiting for some paroxysm of violence, except it doesn't really feel that way, it's far too soothing.

Roppongi is home of the National Art Center, Tokyo, which is worth visiting even if you don't see a visit because it's an absolutely crazy building; stunning. The charges are by exhibition, and I've prioritized an exhibition on Surrealism, apparently the first to visit Japan. The signage is in Japanese and French (the latter, I believe, because the exhibit originated in France) and I pass on the audio guides, instead having a pleasant stumble through the work of artists both familiar (Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy) and un- (Raoul Ubac, Victor Brauner, Andre Misson, Judit Reigl). Thanks to the shortened hours, I don't have a chance to visit any of the other exhibits, and instead head to Mori Tower.

Mori Tower, again Ballardian but also a brilliant place to see Tokyo in all its glory. The Mori Art Museum is on the 52nd floor, and is renowned for its emphasis on contemporary art. A ticket also garners admission to Tokyo Sky View, a chance to see the skyline from all directions. There's juice bars and regular bars here, and I realized I've arrived a short bit before sunset, so I wait around, drinking first some kind of peach-carrot juice and then a Ginger Highball, as sun sets in the distance, and then I go upstairs.

It turns out the main exhibition at the Mori Art Museum is also about French art - specifically, Marcel Duchamp and the recent winners of the Duchamp Prize in France. (I don't have the information directly in front of me; I may have the name wrong.) As with most contemporary art, I find a good 50 percent of it of negligible interest, 40 percent of mild interest, and 10 percent between very interesting and stunning. I'll write more about it at some point, when I have the exhibition book (which I purchased) at hand. Suffice it to say that I consider it well worth the visit, and English guides were, at least at my visit, complementary. Also, a supplementary exhibition showcases the stopmotion work of Japanese Taguchi Yukihiro; clever and engaging, and thus far my only look at a Japanese artst.

As I leave, I have mild regret that I've used my admission to Tokyo Sky View before nightfall, thus missing my view of Tokyo at night. Heading to Shibuya, I head to the Cerulean Hotel, and its 40th floor bar. The drinks are overpriced, but you're not playing for the alcohol; you're paying for the atmosphere, and it's stunning, all hardwoods and quietude and a view of lights extending impossibly into the distance. One of my most pleasant hours ever.

And I could say more, but the shinkansen is arriving in Kyoto. Will explain later.

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