Ueno Park

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Refreshed by a good lunch and bottled drinks from a vending machine, Andrew and John make their way to Ueno Park from Ameyokocho. Although I’ve been to Ameyokocho in the past, I never found the time to visit nearby Ueno Park which is a very peaceful public space with a lake, zoo, temples and shrines, several museums and plenty of space to walk.

3:30pm JST

After scaling several flights of stairs, we arrive at the southern entrance to the park where we find the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals in the Battle of Ueno. Then we proceed to walk the central pathway, lined with hundreds of cherry trees, although not in bloom at this time of the year. Ueno Park is very popular as a viewing place for cherry tree blossoms in the Spring and I’m sure they are quite beautiful.

Ahead of us stands the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple. Sitting on a hillside, this temple was inspired by the Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, which I toured during my stay in Kyoto. We walk passed the temple and down the hill for a spectacular view of the Bentendo, an octagonal temple hall built on an island in Shinobazu Lake, and the multiple red tori gates of the exit from the temple.

Further down this path we find the Ueno Zoo, home of the giant panda bears and children’s amusement park, home of Doraemon and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Then we find several displays that are apparently a part of the Tokyo Green 2012 Project. A straw man? Two large mirrors reflecting the plants at their bases? Rice cultivation? Vegetable and flower plantings? These installations lead us to a courtyard with a highly choreographed fountain show. Andrew thinks the fog is actually a deliberate way of misting the flowers. Its all very entertaining although I found the natural beauty of tonight’s sunset more compelling.

Finally at the North end of Ueno Park we have the Tokyo National Museum, housing the largest collection of national treasures and cultural artifacts in the country. In addition there is a science museum, a modern art museum and other museums which beck us to return and learn more about arts in Japan.

5:00pm JST

Time to rest my weary dogs with a visit to, yet another large and very beautiful, Starbucks. I believe I’ll have a Venti Mocha and cinnamon roll. This is also the first cup of caffeinated coffee I’ve had in almost a year. Andrew and I experiment with night time photography of the moon and trees as the air grows somewhat chill.

7:30pm JST

We wander back towards Ameyokocho and the Ueno-Okachimachi subway station where we pick up the Oedo line for a quick trip back to Monzen Nakachou. On the way, I find a Beard Papa’s!

There is MUCH more to do in Ueno Park so I anticipate a return trip sometime soon!

Ameyokocho

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Again, we roll the dice… today’s adventure will be a return visit to the shopping district known as Ameyokocho in Ueno. In the years following WWII, Ueno Station became the gateway for migrants seeking work and prosperity in the city, and adjacent Ameyokocho something of a black market. Since those days, Ameyokocho has evolved into the legitimate street bazar, collection of open air stalls and shopping district you see today.

12:00am JST

Once again the Oedo subway line proves to be the most convenient jump off point to the Ginza line and then Ueno. From the subway exit we find ourselves before the Ueno train memorial. Then, we cross the street and enter Ameyokocho, the massive “under the train tracks” bazar and shopping district.

Andrew is a little cagey about where he’s leading me but I think I know where we’re going: an Enka store where you can find all kinds of Enka recordings, in all kinds of formats from CD to cassette. This store is so small, only a couple people can fit inside at any one time. The wife of the proprietor greets us and proves to be not only an Enka expert, but totally knowledgeable about every single recording in her store.

After much guidance from the proprietor’s wife, I select three Enka CDs, one featuring Ishikawa Saiyuri-san, and two CDs featuring a mix of old classic Enka songs. Before leaving, I just have to have a few photographs of this store and its owners. The store owners take our photos too and I’m sure our visit will end up on their wall with all of their other visitors and Enka celebrities.

2:00pm JST

Andrew wants to take me to a rotisserie chicken place, but instead we have lunch at a hole in the wall filled with lovely old stylings and warm patrons enjoying their drinks and meals. Andrew has the tankatsu and I have the grilled mackerel dripping in fish oil and butter. We are introduced to Mugicha, an herbal tea made from roasted barley. It’s light and not as bitter as tea.

3:30pm JST

Refreshed by a good lunch and bottled drinks from a vending machine we make our way to Ueno Park. I’ve been to Ameyokocho in the past and there’s little here for me to buy, so we decide to make our way to the next attraction, Ueno Park where there is a lake, zoo, temples and shrines, plenty of space to walk and museums.

From Oshiage to Asakusa

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Today was somewhat more laid back but no less productive or hard on the feet, as Andrew and I searched for different perspectives of Sky Tree. After photographing Sky Tree in Oshiage, we headed across the river to Asakusa, for a different perspective and different lighting.

9:30am JST

After all the exercise from yesterday’s photographic excursions, I’m feeling rather hungry, so I convince Andrew we need to have breakfast at Matsuya. From the apartments we take the more picturesque back way to the Eitai-dori. Monzen Nakachou is rich in imagery, including the giant morning glories, commuters rushing to work, the canals and bridges, utility workers, early morning sun and nature, just daily life in the neighborhood. The view of Tokyo Sky Tree over the canals is also very unique and marks today’s first “view of Sky Tree.”

At Matsuya, I went for the large beef bowl set with rice, miso and vegetables, hearty as usual but that was supposed to be a standard Japanese breakfast of fish, rice and miso, not beef bowl. For some reason, Matsuya didn’t list those items on the ticket machine.

10:15am JST

We recapitulate my earlier solo journey to Sky Tree, taking the Oeda line to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station and transferring to the Honzemon line which takes us to Oshiage’s Sky Tree Station.

12:00pm JST

Wow, what a sight Sky Tree is, towering over the Sky Tree Town complex! Sky Tree Town is just as crowded as it was on the weekend and included a lot of school field trips and arranged group tours. First we walk around the perimeter of Sky Tree Town and then head inside and find the Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium, a plastic toy train shop “Plarail” and a Tokyo TV Store where I purchase several Doraemon items.

I break for lunch at KFC and a 4 piece meal set that includes large steak fries and a yummy melon drink. The final act of gluttony climaxes with a run to Coldstone Creamery for two huge scoops of chocolate and green tea ice cream, consumed in the shade of the towering Sky Tree. I just hope I can lumber out of here, after all that food!

3:15pm JST

We pop our heads into the Totoro Store, which has tons of Ghibli related wonders for sale. I’ll have to return here sometime soon.

4:00pm JST

After photographing Sky Tree from Oshiage, we head for the Tobu line and Asakusa for another view of Sky Tree. Sensoji Temple and the Nakamise shopping arcade are just down the block from the Tobu line Asakusa Station. The Nakamise shopping arcade sells tons of souvenirs, although mostly overpriced.

The setting sun provides excellent “magic time” lighting across Sensoji Temple… and then the light is gone within seconds as the sun sets beneath the Tokyo skyline and horizon.

4:55pm JST

Taking a break with a cold “Match” vitamin drink from one of the many nearby vending machines. The light changes from twilight to night as the lanterns and spotlights on the temple are turned on, giving new character to the Karamarimon gates, pagoda and temple. The back streets of Asakusa have a great deal of character and we find another terrific view of Sky Tree.

6:00pm JST

As a curiosity, we visit the new Visitor’s Information Center across the street, which is a lovely, modern building both inside and out. Gone is the marionette clock which I video taped five years ago, the figures preserved behind a glass case with no more time keeping duties left to them.

6:30pm JST

Time to hit the road and back to the apartments. This time we will take the Oeda line straight back to Monzen Nakachou from the Oeda line’s Ginza Station not even a half a block away.

7:30pm JST

Finally back at the apartment and settling in with hydration, a snack and laundry!

Return to Odaiba

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Today’s random throw of the dice says “Kiyosumi Garden” a few blocks north of the apartment. I had visited Kiyosumi Garden on my first trip to Japan in 2007 and found it to be all around lovely, and full of natural and designed wonders, living in harmony with each other. There’s even a monument to Bashou, the preeminent Japanese poet. Andrew, a friend also staying in Japan, has never been to Kiyosumi Garden, so this is a good opportunity for him.

9:30am JST

Andrew and I decide to first tank up at the Mister Donut, next to the Tokyo Metro Oeda line station. We won’t need the Metro on this trip because Kiyosumi Garden is a moderate walk of several blocks. Here is another thing in Japan that hasn’t changed a bit since I was here five years ago, and the garden is just as beautiful as ever.

We circle the lake as a cold front turns the sunny sky into intermittent showers and storm clouds, but this just provides additional photo opportunities. Andrew consciensciously brought special DSLR rain bags to shroud our cameras during storms, and we need them too! I just wish I had brought an umbrella, but those are easily obtained at every local conbini and kusuriya.

And as suddenly as the showers come, they’re gone…

1:00pm JST

Next on our list of things to do: visit Tsukushima, a reclaimed land island where the Sumidagawa meets Tokyo Harbor. Tsukushima is known for a dish similar to Omeyomiyaki called Monjayaki…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukishima

We grab an Oeda line train at Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station, very close to the Kiyosumi Garden and take the idea line two stops to Tsukushima. From Tuskushima we walk to the shopping arcade where neighborhood shops serve up piping hot Manjayaki…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monjayaki

1:30pm JST

We’re both hungry from all of this walking, so we stop at a Manjayaki restaurant for lunch, ordering two servings of Manjayaki, one with mostly vegetables and the other with pork, shrimp, squid and octopus. We watch as the waiter prepares the first serving, and then Andrew and I take turns preparing the second. Its pretty straightforward: you first squirt some vegetable oil on a hot plate and then pour the vegetables and meat onto the hot plate to cook. Then you pour a batter/sauce onto the “fixin’s” being careful to mix everything together into an even consistency with a pair of large spatulas. Let the Manjayaki cook until its nice and gooey and caramelized, I prefer to let the bottom cook until its nice a brown and most of the liquid has boiled away.

The Manjayaki is then eaten directly from the grill with small personal spatulas. Its a fun and very social food.

After lunch, we continue towards the park until we arrive back at the Tuskushima subway station, but the weather looks threatening so we continue on to our next adventure: paying a visit to Odaiba!

3:00pm JST

This time we take the Oeda line to Shiadome where we pick up the “Yurikamome” driverless, automated, elevated train which takes us passed many familiar Odaiba landmarks including a spectacular view of the Rainbow Bridge. While in Shiodome we find a fantastic vantage point to photograph the Shinkansen and an amazing clock built by sculptor Shachimaru Kunio who also built the giant Laputa robot on the rooftop of the Ghibli museum. The Shinadome clock was obviously inspired by Myazaki.

There’s much more to Shiodome too so we shall return at a later date.

3:41pm JST

We arrive at the Daiba stop on the Yurikamome line, right next to the Joypolus entertainment complex. Yes it really is called Joypolus. Its a short walk to the beach and the boardwalk, passed modern art and soaring skyscrapers. Along the boardwalk we pass by Joypolus, Aqua City and the River Cruise Water-Bus terminal. Besides the traditional water-buses we got an up close look at the futuristic water-boats designed by manga artist Leiji Matsumoto…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leiji_Matsumoto

4:30pm JST

And The Statue of Liberty. Yes, The Statue of Liberty, or rather a replica of one of the original models in France. At any rate, its pretty cool. There is one subtle but obvious difference between the statue in New York Harbor and the replica in Japan… the full size version in New York faces the sea to welcome immigrants, the replica in Japan faces towards the city.

It begins to rain again and we seek shelter about ten feet from Liberty, under an elevated platform. Fortunate for us and our expensive cameras.

5:00pm JST

The rain is becoming more intense so we seek shelter in Aqua City and the warmth of hot coffee and pastries at Starbucks. This is one of the nicest Starbucks I’ve ever been in too. Its odd too because I’m sitting in a Starbucks, listening to R&B hits from the 70’s and sipping a typically American drink while enjoying a WARM cinnamon bun…. in Japan.

The Japanese do enjoy their creature comforts and I harbor no ill-will towards them for that. The ability to enjoy an afternoon (or a rainy evening) over a hot drink, good food and a good book is a very civilized pastime.

6:17pm JST

It turns out that this Starbucks is also a great vantage point for photographing Liberty, Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge. The sun has set, giving us some perfect night time views for photography.

6:45pm JST

Time to head back to the Yurikamome line. The wind is becoming ferocious and I wonder if another cold front is coming, along with more rain storms.

7:30pm JST

Before returning to the apartment, I stop off at one of the local kusuriya to pick up toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, body soap, mouth wash, calcium, vitamins and snacks. Vitamins are expensive in Japan. And true to form, it begins to rain heavily on the walk back to the apartment. Well it could be worse, could be raining… oh wait.

I may have to buy an inexpensive conbini umbrella if this persists.

8:30pm JST

Finally, relaxing after a full day of exploration, photography and videography.

Picking up the keys…

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Today is my second birthday! Since I celebrated my first birthday a day early in Japan, now I get to celebrate my birthday in my home country’s time zone!

Birthday celebrations will have to wait, though. First I have to pick up the keys to my Tokyo apartment, where I’ll be staying for the next 30 days. The rental company, Sakura House, is located in Shinjuku so I start my apartment rental adventure with a subway ride from Monzen Nakachou to Shinjuku!

Looking at the Tokyo subway map, it seems the Oeda line is the most direct way to Shinjuku and the Oeda line station is conveniently located just down the street from the hotel where I’m currently staying. After a 20 minute subway ride, I arrive at Shinjuku Station and take the Nishi-Shinjuku exit, which opens up at the main intersection where several pachinko parlors are located. I remember well the way to Sakura House’s offices from here, just an easy 15 minute walk down the street passed many familiar sights including the KFC…

Note of interest: The Odakyu line station is also located in Shinjuku. Odakyu owns and operates the train line, hotels and other facilities in the Hakone region, a resort area that my friend Andrew and I are planning to visit. Picked up several brochures, these could come in handy when making travel plans.

Arriving at the offices of Sakura House, I fill out the necessary paper work, pay for a full month’s rent in advance and pick up the keys. Sakura House has a mailing list, blog site and Facebook page which will keep me in the loop with such activities as DesignFest 2012, held at Tokyo Big Sight in Daiba, this November.

A quick subway ride back to Monzen Nakachou and I’m settling into my Sakura House apartment for the second time. I find living in a long-term stay apartment like this to be more convenient, cost effective and roomier than a hotel room. After unpacking and settling in, I relax and find this particular apartment to be cosy, tidy, clean and with enough room for my computer, photo gear and clothes.

Very pleased.

But move in day isn’t over yet, I still need some essentials like a towel, soap, shampoo, laundry soap, recycling bags, etc. In 2007, I bought a few inexpensive towels at the local Sunkus but this time I found two excellent hotel towels on sale and a pack of recycling bags at the 100 Yen Store above Akafudado. Grocery shopping is a joy at Akafudado where I also found chocolate cream filled pastries with enough calories to fell a bull elephant in mid stride 🙂

I have my second birthday dinner at Matsuya, a chain of gyudon/noodle restaurants, similar to Yoshinora where I had dinner on my first birthday.

No cake on my birthday? Instead, I’m enjoying a cream filled chocolate pastry while watching Japanese baseball in HiDef, courtesy of Tokyo Sky Tree! Tonight’s game between the Yomiuri Giants and the Chunichi Dragons determines the Central League winner and who will play the Pacific League for the Japanese World Series! The Giants win!

This is a fine and auspicious way to begin my stay in Tokyo and celebrate my birthday…

A Little Night Photography…

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10:00pm JST

Andrew comes up with an interesting idea, let’s walk across the Eitaibashi Bridge and take photos of Tokyo Sky Tree at night over the Sumidagawa. Well, not only did we photograph Sky Tree, but we also photographed the Eitaibashi Bridge itself and Tsukushima which is also clearly visible on the horizon. This impromptu photo shoot was also a great opportunity to test video modes and compare camera settings and underscores just how easy it is to walk to Tokyo proper.

11:00pm JST

All that waterfront photography and walking makes me hungry so I have some late night beef bowl and miso at Matsuya!

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