Taking it Easy on a Rainy Day

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It’s raining rather heavily in Tokyo, so I’m spending the day mostly indoors with hot tea and pastries while editing down video footage from yesterday’s Akihabara adventure.

5:00pm JST

We begin our rainy adventure by walking to the Lawson’s (was Sunkus) to buy a Y525 umbrella. That’s actually a little more expensive than it should be, I can get them even cheaper at the local Kusuriya at Y398. My understanding is that Tokyo sells thousands of these a day and with their on again off again weather I can understand why. Pretty nice umbrella for only Y525 and now I look like a typical Tokyoite walking about the streets with a cheap umbrella!

Even monkey wants an umbrella bought from the conbini…

Andrew wants to grab something to eat so we walk to the “Freshness Burger” next to Akafudado. Now I can finally partake in the legendary “Spam Burger”… and yes, a Spam Burger is exactly what it sounds like, a burger made with a slice of Spam instead of a beef patty. The Spam Burger is actually pretty good too, just a slice of Spam and a fried egg on a bed of shredded lettuce under a hamburger bun.

After a quick trip to Akafudado to replenish my war chest of snack foods, we’re both calling it a night.

Akihabara Adventure

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Today I plan to spend a relaxed day in Akihabara, Japan’s Grand Central for fans of anime, comic books, doujinshi, maid cafe’s, electronics DIYers and buyers of geeky hipster consumer goods.

11:00am JST

First stop is a late breakfast / early lunch at one of the many noodle shops along the Eitai Dori. Today Andrew suggests a new place where I have the pork ramen, yum. Not the best noodles I’ve ever had but for Y390, its an excellent and hearty breakfast.

For today’s journey into mid town Tokyo we have also decided to visit an old friend, Etchujima Station on the JR system. Five years ago when we had JR Passes, we hoofed it to Etchujima to squeeze every yen out of what amounted to “free” rail travel. This time, we passed a restaurant called “Pepper Lunch” which serves grilled spicy steak and “hamburg” dinner and lunch plates. This looks like a great place for dinner tonight!

11:45am JST

Etchujima Station, hasn’t changed in five years. Instead of a JR Pass, I’m waiving a new Suicca card through the turnstile. I must say that Suicca and PASMO make train travel so much easier than having to wait at a ticket machine, figure out the fare, buy individual tickets, rinse and repeat… you can even use Suicca and PASMA to purchase goods from vending machines.

Tokyo Station is only two stops down on the JR Keiyo line, and both Andrew and I know instinctively how to get to the main platforms and the Yamanote Loop. Yes, we’ve ridden JR that much. Little has changed except some new shops that have been added along the way. They now call the hallway that leads to the Keiyo line platform: “Keiyo”, originally enough.

We make our way through the dense crowds of Tokyo Station, to platform 4 and wait just a few minutes for the Yamanote line train, North and counterclockwise to Akihabara. The Yamanote Loop is elevated in Akihabara so we have to make our way from the platform down to the street and exit the station… but something doesn’t look right. The Radio Kaikan building is gone. Kotobokiya has moved out of the adjacent building which now has been converted into an AKB48 “pachinko and slots” parlor.

I’m devastated… but that’s Japan, always changing and always the same.

1:00pm JST

After exploration of the local area we break for lunch at Vie De France. I have a chocolate croissant which tastes like it was dipped in butter and chocolate (not a bad thing) and a soft bun filled with clotted cream and azuka bean paste.

Yum!

1:45pm JST

The shopping begins… at Yodabashi Camera! Five years ago, I first set foot in a Yodabashi Camera in this store in Akiba, when I was forced to seek shelter in a rain storm, and here I discovered a store full of wonders: electronics, toys, cameras, lenses, printers, air conditioners, souvenirs and attentive, efficient staff.

3:45pm JST

After a couple hours of successful shopping at Yodobashi Camera, we head down the street to “Hobby Off” a hobby store run by the “Garage Off,” “Book Off,” etc, chain of stores. THey have lots of anime and game character figures so just on the last minute I ask the guy behind the counter if they have any King Kazma figures from the movie Summer Wars, and he replies “Yes”… reaches behind the counter and pulls out a boxed version 1 King Kazma! This is unbelievable and, after much wrangling with our respective languages, I understand that this is the only King Kazma that they have. Frankly its probably the only King Kazma I’ll ever find, much less so conveniently.

And so the figure that I’ve been searching for just ends up being handed to me on a silver platter (and for a reasonable price).

4:30pm JST

Further down main street in Akiba we duck into Liberty Hobby, another hobby store that I frequented five years ago. They too have a King Kazma version 1, but for Y1500 more. Right next to King Kazma they also have a Love Machine figure from the same movie, Summer Wars. Love Machine isn’t quite as desirable but no less collectible.

So easily within an hour, I have scored two figures on the top of my shopping list!

6:00pm JST

The sun has set and we;re ready to call it a day so it’s back to Tokyo Station and the Keiyo line to Etchukima Station. This is actually a tricky line to deal with, if you take the Rapid Express from here, you can blow straight passed Etchujima and waste a lot of time getting turned about. Etchukima Station is less than 30 minutes from this platform, the problem is that this platform is the final station on the Keiyo line so you wait a good half an hour before the train even leaves the platform.

6:30pm JST

It’s a quick half an hour ride from Tokyo Station to Etchujima Station and short walk to that steak place we saw on the way out. Spicy, sizzling grilled steak and the obligatory bowl of rice! Man that is good steak and reasonably priced too! I pick up a chocolate chip bun from one of the local pastry places and a Match vitamin water and I’m ready to relax for the evening. These chocolate chip pastries are great after nuking the chocolate chips in a microwave!

8:44pm JST

Settling in to an evening of baseball and anime, including a playoff game between the Yomiuri Guants vs Hokaido Nippon Ham-Fighters…

Tomioka Shrine & Fudouson Temple

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John and Andrew pay a visit to the Tomioka-Hachimangu shrine and Fukagawa Fudouson temple in Monzen Nakacho. Monzen Nakacho, where we are staying, is the site of the Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s “big three” festivals. This festival is HUGE and fills the streets of Monzen Nakacho, but it’s only held every three years and 2012 is not one of those years.

11:30am JST

Its a gorgeous, warm, sunny day in Tokyo. I’m hanging outside of the apartment building, soaking up rays while waiting for Andrew. I also have a nice chat with Claudia, another Sakura House resident, who is working on her thesis in the old court music of Japan. Claudia is new to Monzen Nakacho although she has stayed in Japan in the past with a host family in Tsukishima.

12:30pm JST

First up is the Fukagawa Fudouson temple. We walk to the East side of the Eitai Dori and pass through a large red tori gate, the entrance to the temple grounds. Just a block or two beyond this tori gate is the Fukugawa Fudouson main hall. Although Fukugawa Fudosoun is a Buddhist temple, it apparently shares the grounds with an Inari Shinto shrine. I still haven’t figured this one out yet.

Next up is the Tomioka Hachimangu shrine, home of the 4-ton Ichinomiya mikoshi, the largest mikoshi in the Kanto region. It is decorated with gold and precious stones and is housed behind glass in a climate controlled shelter. Because of its weight and value, this mikoshi is not carried into the Fukagawa Hachiman matsuri, but rather loaded on a trailer which itself is moved through town.

To one side of the walkway leading to the main shrine, we see monuments to ozeki and yokozuna sumo wrestlers from the past. One monument has the hand and foot imprints of these champions cast in stone. I compared my hands to theirs and my hands weigh in at perhaps 3/4 the size of these sumo from the past. On the other side of the main walkway leading to the shrine we find a statue of Ino Tadataka, who in the 19th century was the first person to map all of Japan. In his hand he carries what looks like a staff but is actually a compass on a gimble mount, one of his surveying tools used to create these maps.

Both the temple and shrine are celebrating the “753 Children’s Festival” wherein children of ages seven, five and three years old, come of age. They’re so cute, dressed up in their colorful formal kimonos.

Just before the sun sets, the mikoshi are illuminated, looking very impressive, like the crown jewels behind their glass cases, and then as the sun sets, metal protective doors are lowered to protect them for the night.

2:30pm JST

Time to get something to eat so we retire to 伊勢屋 (Iseya), a nearby restaurant where Andrew and I had dinner five years ago. This time I order soba with pork and vegetables, and a soft boiled egg on top. These soba bowls were yummy and enough to fill us up for the day. Last time we ate here we had root beer floats, desserts and ice cream being their specialty. Although there is nothing overly photogenic about the interior, I recommend Iseya.

After filling our bellies, we make a quick stop at Akafudado to see what’s good in the bakery section and then return to the apartments. The sun is setting early in Japan and I feel like getting some sleep before tomorrow’s adventures. I hear a rumor that Akihabara and Jimbocho might be on the plate for tomorrow!

7:00pm JST

Settled in for the evening with chocolate pastries and drinks and watching Gatchaman on Tokyo MX… yes, the original Gatchaman in Japanese! I’m a happy puppy!

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!

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