Afternoon in Akihabara

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Today I’m spending a relaxed Sunday, roaming about Akihabara and visiting some favorite manga and hobby stores. Being a Sunday, the streets are closed to auto traffic and open for pedestrians to stroll…

12:00noon JST

Armed with a Match vitamin drink, I’m off to the subway but this time I’m taking a new route, the Hibya line straight into Akihabara. On past trips I’ve always used the JR Yamanote line from Tokyo station. The subway and Hibya line, however, are so much more convenient from our launch point in Monzen Nakacho.

First order of business is to stop by Vie de France for a leisurely lunch and hot tea, and then its out on the plaza for a little photography. Every Sunday, the main street in Akihabara is closed off to automobile traffic so that pedestrians can mill about in the middle of the streets… and what a gorgeous, clear, sunny day it is for strolling from store to store! Shoppers aren’t cosplaying in the streets anymore, though, the only costumes in evidence being on the “maids” handing out flyers. Five years ago the whole “Maid Cafe” thing was new and cool but now you run a literal gauntlet of maids in the streets of Akihabara, all beckoning to serve you at their respective cafes.

1:30pm JST

My first stop on this “leisurely” shopping tour will be K-Books, an awesome book store that was located across the street from Akihabara station in the building that has been demolished. Their new store is just as capable and …. oh my god did I pig out on the manga, but I got some great titles: Doraemon, Ghost in the Shell 2 Bilingual edition, Appleseed XIII…!

That’s just the first floor “new” section, next I head up to the second floor “used” section where I find toys and figures, used manga, CDs, DVDs and doujinshi. There isn’t a lot in the “used manga” section that I really want, except the first two volumes of Sargent Frog and a “food manga.” Moyashimon is tempting, but I’m trying to show restraint and I already have several Moyashimon volumes at home.

3:45pm JST

Next stop is Good Smile Cafe, on the fifth floor above K-Books. Good Smile Cafe is the store front of Good Smile Company, home of Danny Choo. Sadly the line to the cafe section is long long long so I browsed their selection of new Figma figures and bailed.

4:00pm JST

Ok, now we move on to another favorite, “Toranoana” which is Japanese for “Tiger’s Den”, and an absolute paradise for manga and doujinshi enthusiasts.

5:00pm JST

The sky has turned a deep purple as the sun sets and the police open up the streets to traffic again. Shopping in Akiba is hard work, so we take a break for dinner at Mos Burger. I remember this Mos Burger from five years ago and head upstairs to the cat loft, overlooking the street below. Across the street we can see Liberty Hobby, Figure Hobby and Toys Golden Age… the next three shops on the list.

5:30pm JST

Liberty Hobby is great for rail fans and also chock full of wonderful and expensive model train stock. Golden Age Toys we pass but promise to return to some other day, then visit Liberty Hobby where I find a Masked Rider Datack figure for a friend back in the States. Lastly we pay a visit to Animate… another huge seller of manga and figures. I buy the first three volumes of Spice & Wolf.

7:00pm JST

The camel is starting to groan under the weight of all that I’ve collected on my “leisurely” afternoon so we had back to the Hibya line subway station, just a stone’s throw from JR Akihabara station. Instead of hopping on the Tozai line for the last leg home, Andrew suggests that we get off at Kayabachō and WALK across the Eitai Dori bridge. This turns out to be a longer walk than if we had taken the connecting Tozai line but hey, its something different.

We’re amuzed to find two photographers taking pictures of Tskushima from the bridge. That Sumidagawa and Eiitaibashi are attractive sights I must say.

Tokyo Jidai Matsuri

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Today is Culture Day and there’s a big parade in Asakusa called the “Tokyo Jidai Festival” which features period costumes from a variety of periods in Japanese history. Let’s check it out!

1:00 JST

Again our journey starts with a stop at Mister Donut to fuel up, followed by the usual subway connections to Asakusa. I won’t bore you with those details. What I will bore you with is the wonderfulness of a street parade attended by hundreds upon hundreds of onlookers in front of the Karimarimon Gate. The Seven Lucky Gods were there as was a contingent of Shinsengumi, samurai warriors, Mito Komon and a host of historical and mythological figures that I don’t even recognize…

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

Unique to this parade (other than the solely Japanese jidai characters) were the strips of plastic tarp lining the streets for the crowd to sit on, after removing their shoes of course. And when the parade ended, wow it ended abruptly, the streets were cleared and all returned to normal.

Chatted with one of my “tarp mates” about our impressions of Japan. She is a native born Jamaican, vacationing in Japan but currently a full-time resident of Beijing. Big standout in her mind was how quiet the Japanese are compared to the Chinese who are LOUD. Especially on the trains and subways where no one speaks a word in Japan. Even this parade, with hundreds and hundreds of people, is very quiet.

4:00pm JST

Sensoji Temple is packed today. Investigated a kushi and kogai combination that I found yesterday, only to find upon closer inspection that it is cracked and the paint chipping on the ends. That’s not satisfactory, so I visited an antique dealer I know and purchased an authentic and lovely kushi and kogai set from him. Also found a few other items for friends back in the States. Postcards are also coming so stay tuned!

5:00pm JST

The sun has set and I get a big helping of Okinomiyaki from one of the food stalls set up on the temple grounds, last night. The food vendors got an early start so they could be ready to handle the additional crowd from today’s parade.

9:00pm JST

I’m now becoming expert at navigating the Tokyo Metro system in the same way that I had attained understanding of the JR system five years ago… good enough to get around without being picked off by the wolves. Walking back to the apartment from the subway station, I noted how chill the air is. My leather jacket is now going to become a must during both day and night. Figured out how to work the apartment heater too, just as wonderful a feeling as the AC was in the intense summer heat, five years ago. Ahhhh… the little pleasures.

Watched the Yomiuri Giants defeat the Hokkaido Nihon Hams in a very close game while enjoying my hot green tea and a bag of day old baked goods from Akafudado. A day old and still yummy. I also watch a variety of anime titles on Tokyo MX at night, some of which I’m familiar with, many of which I am not, some of which are so bizarre, they will never find their way to American television. Hey, I think I just saw an episode of “Genshiken”…

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

Return to Asakusa

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John returns to Asakusa to keep his appointment with the antique dealer, and continue his hunt for kanzashi and souvenirs for his friends.

12:00noon JST

Today I take the somewhat less complex subway route from Monzen Nakacho to Asakusa using the Oedo and Ginza lines, landing me on the doorstep of Senso-ji temple, the Kaminarimon Gate and Nakamise-dori. Nakamise shopping stalls carry a variety of souvenirs and giftables but you have to be careful, much of the time the prices here are inflated. I’m not one to buy souvenir chopsticks or fans, but I did find some excellent chopstick sets with tortoise, rabbit, phoenix and koi motifs.

I walk passed the five story pagoda, the Senso-ji main hall and the subsidiary temples on the grounds, to the appointment-only antique dealer and am greeted with an azuki bean filled pastry accompanied by a bowl of real, traditional matcha. Being ever so slightly aware of tea etiquette, I thank them, admire the bowl (a rough oribe-ware style bowl), turn the bowl 180 degrees and drink the matcha in the proper way. Yeah, that should be sufficient to convince them I’m not a total animal.

They ask me to be patient while the owner collects the kanzashi pieces and presents them to me. They are wonderful antiques, but the price for the kushi and kogai set is just too high for the ultimate owner of these pieces and again I have to decline. They’re worth the price too because these pieces are 100 years old and feature real gold dust maki-e work.

4:30pm JST

Twilight descends and the videography of the Sensoji temple complex continues. Trees, bridges, statuary, temples, woodwork, this is a visually rich environment as is all of Japan. Problem is there are dozens of photographers and tourists with cell phone cameras all with the same idea. Just who let all these people onto my film set?

I notice one of the stalls on Nakamise Dori sells bridal accouterment so I ask the owner of this store if they sell kanzashi… and she trots out the very thing I’m looking for, kogai style kanzashi made with wood and kushi with elaborate decorations. The prices aren’t outrageous either, although a tad higher than in Kyoto. The icing on the cake is a kogai and kushi matched set, very nice but I think the ultimate owner of what I buy will prefer the separates I’ve selected.

The owner of the store is amused by my Doraemon cell phone cover and impressed by my knowledge of such historical characters as Mito Komon. “You know a lot about Japan,” she exclaims! No, I just watch a lot of television 🙂

5:00pm JST

The sun has set as I stroll passed more vendor stalls full of toys, temple goods, maneki neko, hina dolls (yes collectable hina dolls), kimono, happi and jinbei. The tiger and dragon happi coat looks sharp on me in black and gold but the fit isn’t quite right. I would like a set of jinbei for those hot summers, though…

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

I retrace my steps on the Ginza line to the Tozai line and back to Monzen Nakacho. Oedo line would have been a somewhat shorter ride.

6:45pm JST

I meet Andrew at Mos Burger for dinner and then we do a snacks run to Akafudado where I pick up a tube of “Dental Cream” and a bag of pastries for Y350. It’s anime and pastries before bed tonight!

Kanzashi in Asakusa

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It’s a gorgeous, sunny day in Tokyo and John is out and about, shopping for “kogai” hair sticks and “kushi” hair combs for a friend back in the States. What better place to start than Nakamise Dori in front of Sensoji Temple, Asakusa!

12:00noon JST

After a hearty breakfast of onigiri from Lawson’s with the lunch time crowd on the nearby park benches, I begin today’s subway journey with something new: a Tokyo Metro One Day Pass. This pass allows you unlimited travel on Tokyo Metro lines as well as Toei busses and Toei subway lines. I hop on the Oedo line train bound for Karamae where I have to walk a block to change trains to the Asakusa line. Oh look, there’s a Toei bus stop right outside the station, what a surprise.

[ First-Time Traveler’s Tip: If you plan to use either the subway or JR systems heavily, consider one-day and multi-day passes! ]

Before changing trains I run across a nifty toy store that sells tons of children’s toys, scale model kits and N gauge model railroad trains. They also do wholesale business. Needless to say, I have to pick up four N gauge locomotives [ although at a significantly higher price than if I had purchased them at one of the stores on Nakamise Dori ].

I change trains to the Asakusa line and it’s only one stop to Asakusa station, but unlike the Ginza line, this station stop is a couple blocks from the Karimarimon Gate in Asakusa. I walk the back streets of Asakusa and a large covered shopping arcade.

1:30pm JST

Enjoying the afternoon shopping at a wide variety of stores, some carrying kitchy junk but others carrying quality goods. The kimono tailor, for example, where I ask them where I can find kanzashi, and they direct me to Nakamisme Dori. On the way to Nakamise Dori I stop in another store that sells paper goods and decorative items. After picking up a few cell phone stickers and keychain, I also ask them where the best place is to find kanzashi…

… and the snowball starts rolling.

From there phone calls are made, maps are consulted, the owner of the shop arrives to add his opinion, and a thick Asakusa guidebook is annotated with PostIt notes to direct me to a few antique dealers.

Then I meet Yuki, a Japanese woman with excellent English language skills, who is picking up a special order from this shop. She proceeds to act as translator and offers to guide me to a couple of these antique shops. One of them will see you by appointment-only, so an appointment is made and Yuki and I stroll through the Sensoji Temple complex on the way to these antique dealers, first to a stall where antique kanzashi (as well as old kokeshi dolls) are sold.

We then head to the appointment-only antique store on the far side of Sensoji which houses the hilts of samurai swords, armor, expensive china and ancient ceramics. We are seated in comfy couches and served hot coffee before the antiques master who has several very expensive antique koogai and kushi sets waiting before us. Absolutely lovely pieces and all of them true antiques.

Yuki translates between myself and the antiques master and his wife who is seated on tatami mats in the space that serves as their office. I feel like I’ve just turned Japan on its head with this one simple goal and entered another world. It’s also emblematic of how things are done in Japan… the word of a friend… a phone call… a personal meeting. We discuss prices (which are reasonable) but I’m reluctant to purchase such expensive items for a friend whose budget doesn’t include Meiji Era antiques. I defer and agree to meet with the antiques master at his shop tomorrow, when he says he will show me a few, more appropriate pieces.

4:00om JST

Yuki and I say goodbye to the antiques master and chat as we wander back to Nakamise Dori where we wander into several shops … and then the the time comes for us to go our separate ways. I am indeed fortunate to have made a friend whose bilingual skills made this experience enjoyable and memorable. Helping each other to extremes seems to be an obsession with the Japanese and it’s the oil that keeps their society and communities running, everyone doing his part to keep the karma bank full.

I hang about Sensoji taking photographs and recording some video footage of the lovely twilight sky against the temple gates and Tokyo Sky Tree just across the river.

6:30pm JST

Instead of the Asakusa line, I take the Ginza line back to Monzen Nakacho, the total time from station to station, a little more than half an hour. Its also time for dinner and what better place for dinner than Yoshinorya, right next door to the subway exit and I do mean right next door. I have beef curry and rice with a soft boiled egg and a bowl of miso soup.

7:35pm JST

Iidesuyo!

I wander down to “the other side” of the Pachinko parlor to score some fresh baked pastries and noticed the food vendors are setting up their stalls on the sidewalks. Serendipity, the way it works for me in Japan, has set up an imagawaki vendor for me… fresh grilled pancakes filled with sweet red azuki bean paste, yum!

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

Sumidagawa

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It’s a grey, overcast day in Tokyo Japan and I’m spending the afternoon on the banks of the nearby Sumidagawa river, video taping the sights and sounds and weather along the river bank.

1:00pm JST

Inspired by the dreary weather, I’m headed to the Etaibashi Bridge and the banks of the Sumidagawa to video tape the weather, boats and the passage of the river. Chatted (sort of) with an older gentleman who seems to have had the same idea as he too was video taping the river and river busses making their way from the Asakusa docks to Odaiba.

Suddenly, I saw in the distance… yes its a Matsumoto river bus and I pointed it out to my new found acquaintance as it approached! He knows these boats by name and stayed around to video tape Himiko and Hotaluna as they passed. After a single pass by both Matsumoto busses, he packed up his video camera and we said our goodbyes leaving me to enjoy the river and the passage of other Suido river busses…

http://www.suijobus.co.jp/ship/index.html

Storm clouds are rolling in but I have my conbini umbrella to keep me (and the camera gear) dry. The sunset is doing pretty things to the clouds as twilight illuminates the river, followed by darkness, prompting the bridges and surrounding street lights to turn up. The Eitaibashi lights come on, turning the bridge a bright blue and reflecting lovely patterns in the water. The Tokyo water busses pass by up and down the river, their warm lanterns and lighting glowing like fireflies on the rippling waves of the river.

6:00pm JST

It’s time for dinner and I try yet another restaurant on the Eitai Dori, this time Kagetsu Arashi, specializing in ramen noodles.

6:00pm JST

This exotic foreign country feels more and more like home all the time. I’ve found that you can become attached and even grow to love any place and community, it just depends on what you put into it. I want to get to know these people better but language is still a barrier for me… and them.

After dinner, I wander the streets and can feel the cold of Autumn and Winter approaching. I definitely don’t like Japan in the Fall, give me the Japan of long summer days with heat and typhoons and starry nights and friends in every port! Christmas and New Years in Japan have their allure but these are times for family and community and not a wayfarer like me, one who isn’t fully integrated in the community, and how many years would that take?

The full moon rises above the houses of Eitai Dori reminding us that this is Halloween night! I celebrate Halloween in the traditional manner… with seasonal donuts from Mister Donut. The Japanese decorate and seem to celebrate Halloween and Christmas in a similar manner to Americajin, but without the religious overtones. I notice that the Japanese also have a thing for pumpkins, perhaps they’re comfortable with the idea of a vegetable attaining an animus.

Return to Yokohama

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Today Andrew and John return to Yokohama to tour China Town, take photographs in Yamashita Park and view Mt. Fuji from the observation deck of the Landmark Tower…

11:00am JST

Our journey begins, as many of them do, by tanking up at Mister Donut and planning our trip route. Since we’re taking the Tokaido Main line train to Yokohama from Tokyo Station, the Keiyo line train from Etchujima Station will be the most direct route to Tokyo Station and the rest of the JR system. So, our journey really begins with a brisk hike to Etchujima station under a blue sky and pleasant temperatures.

Once at Tokyo Station, we find the Tokaido Main Line platform, easily enough… but the train on platform 8 is headed in the wrong direction. We scurry over to platform 7 and jump on the Tokaido Main line train bound for Yokohama just a minute before leaving the platform.

12:00pm JST

We have arrived at Yokohama Station, but the game isn’t over yet, now we need the Yokohama subway to Minato Mirai and the Landmark Tower. I’m well acquainted with Minato Mirai but have never ridden the subway and wow I’m impressed, this is a very modern, well designed subway system!

We emerge at the Queen’s Mall exit and… look over there… there’s the book store where I bought some books five years ago! There’s the Snoopy store! There’s the escalator leading up to the two story tall inscription by romantic German poet Schiller! Wandering through this mall is like traveling back in time five years to Worldcon 2007.

Outside the Queen’s Mall we find the roller coaster sculpture, the Nippon Maru and the entrance to the even more expansive Landmark Mall beneath the Landmark Tower.

1:00pm JST

Its a lovely day, so we should have a gorgeous view of Mt Fuji from the 69th floor of the Landmark Tower. Let’s go! Tickets to the Landmark observation deck cost Y1000 and like so many things in Japan are purchased from a ticket machine. The ride to the 69th floor takes 45 seconds and is so smooth, you really have no idea you’re ascending at such a high rate of speed.

The view from the 69th floor is FANTASTIC… but try as we might we can’t see Mt Fuji. There’s a layer of haze on the skyline preventing us from seeing beyond the horizon. Like the view from Tokyo Tower, the view of Yokohama and Tokyo are awesome, with a cityscape stretching uninterrupted to the horizon. And speaking of Tokyo Tower, not only can we see Tokyo Tower from here, we can see Tokyo Sky Tree as well.

Also visible are the Docomo Tower, the temples and shrines we once visited, the wind turbine, the Pacifico, the ferris wheel and of course the restaurant where I bought my first meal using a “kippu machine.”

4:00pm JST

We’re both getting hungry so its just a short ride on the subway to Yokohama China Town to explore and find food. Yes, this is China Town alright… chinese gates, bright lights, lots of restaurants and souvenir shops. Yup, we’re in China Town.

5:05pm JST

Our wanderage in Chinatown at an end we decide to skip Yamashita Park for today and have dinner at a nearby Chinese buffet, decent food but small portions and overpriced.

6:30pm JST

We head back to Yokohama subway, ride the JR Rail Tokaido Main Line back to Tokyo Station. At this point I suggest we take the Tokyo Metro back to Monzen Nakacho, all we have to do is walk to the Tozai subway gate. And so we walk… and walk… and walk… and walk. Man, I am sorry I suggested that maneuver, we might as well have walked all the way back to Monzen Nakacho from Tokyo Station on foot for all the good that did us.

[ I later discovered that we walked all the way to Otemachi Station, a hub for subway lines in the same way that Tokyo Station is a hub for rail lines. Never again! ]
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