A week in Tokyo
I’ve been a bit busy since Robin arrived… that’s a good thing :)
Last Thursday, we visited Kapabashi-dori, the kitchenware district of Tokyo, so Robin could see the plastic food. Many restaurants have plastic food in the windows (as advertising, but it also makes it relatively easy for foreigners to order) and it’s one of the many things sold at Kapabashi-dori. We then wanted to get out of the rain so we headed to a museum in Ueno Park, but it was just closing. So I figured it was time to introduce Robin to onsen at the nearby Jakotsu-yu. After travelling around Kyushu, I appreciated this place all the more – it’s up there with the best. There’s great water, a good selection of different types and temperatures of baths, a nice outdoor tub, and it’s right in the heart of the city!
On Fryday, we got up nice and early to head to Tsukiji Fish Market. We took the 5:16 subway to be there for the tuna auction, which is only open to the public until 6:15. It’s a busy place even that early, with motorized carts driving around narrow passageways between wholesale fish vendors. After that, it was time for breakfast at a nearby sushi restaurant for the freshest sushi possible. Then we headed to Akihabara and visited some of the local shops. Robin was surprised at the selection of one of the sex shops. I guess I’ve been in Japan long enough to be used to entire floors dedicated to male masturbation aids, but I was still shocked on the top floor, where there is a display of realdoll-type sex dolls. I’d seen the display before but I didn’t notice (or maybe repressed the memory of) the dolls in the back, which are bright-eyed (and thankfully fully clothed) children. *shudder.*
Onto more pleasant things: we toured Shibuya, the youthful shopping and nightlife area one train stop away from where I was living, and visited the Pink Cow, an excellent art bar/restaurant run by an expat Californian.
On Caturday, Robin found the excellent Medicine and Art exhibit at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, so we spent a few hours touring that. They were also showing the Complaint Choir, a video where they took the complaints of locals in various cities around the world and set them to music, performed by local choirs. Things I learned: everyone hates taxes, and in Helsinki tramline 3 smells like pee. While there, we got a great view of the city because the museum’s on the top floor of a skyscraper and the ticket includes admission to the viewing area one floor below.
Then we headed to Shinjuku, both to see (but not really experience) the seedy nightlife in Kabukicho, a huge red light district full of hostess bars, strip clubs, and outright brothels, and to truly celebrate Caturday by visiting Calico Cat Café. This was the first experience for both of us and we were not disappointed. The café is two floors of a typical narrow concrete building filled with cats! There are about 25 cats living there, and you pay by the hour to visit and interact with them. It’s a popular place on a Caturday night so the cats were a bit overstimulated, but you could usually find one or two who’d play with you or who would stand around and be petted.
Funday had reasonably good weather instead of the cold, wet weather Robin accidentally brought from Montréal. We visited the Tokyo Dome park but sadly the roller coasters were closed. We also went up the Bunkyo city hall building for a view from the top. This is a nice view because it’s far enough from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku that you get a good view of them, and it’s free to take the elevator up.
After that, we visited Senso-ji Temple in Akasaka and got our fortunes. Both of ours said it was a good time for travel. Hooray! We also visited Harajuku to see the cosplayers, rockabilly dancers, clothing stores, and to have a crêpe. Then Robin was tired so she went home and I went to the climbing gym for some bouldering!
Monday morning was spent moving out of my apartment. Goodbye Ebisu, hello homelessness! We had time for Robin’s introduction to kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi before heading to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. This is a wonderful place: a fun building (for kids of all ages) with a furry Nekobus (catbus) you can play on (but only if you’re a lot smaller than Robin and I) and some great exhibits. One in particular is pretty amazing: it’s a series of plastic figures of Ghibli characters (including Totoro and the Nekobus) in different poses, arranged on a rotating platform. The platform spins clockwise while lit by a strobe light, which produces an awesome stop-motion effect. Totoro appears to be jumping in place (with his umbrella) and the Nekobus appears to be walking counterclockwise! Every minute or two, the whole thing stops rotating and the strobe turns off so you can see how it works. Robin and I spent a long time watching it, both because it’s amazing and because I now want to build something along the same lines for Burning Man :)
On Monday night we found our first love hotel. We visited one area near Ueno because of a particular hotel, but it was booked up so we wandered around. Most of the hotels were either plain and somewhat seedy or quite expensive but we found one that was a good compromise. It had the biggest selection of amentities I’ve seen at any hotel ever, a huge plasma TV with surround sound and karaoke (love hotels are adding things like this to try and get people to spend more time during each visit), and best of all a jacuzzi built for two (with its own waterproof TV screen.) All this was around $120/night. How do they make money at this? Well, each room on average is rented 3 times every 24 hours, once for a "stay" (usually 10PM to 10AM or thereabouts) and twice for 2 hour "rests." Don’t worry, it’s Japan: the cleaning between uses is impeccable.
Tuesday was a day outside the city: we visited the nearby town of Kamakura to see some wonderful ancient temples and the massive Daibutsu, a bronze Buddha over 13 metres tall. He’s survived a tsunami that destroyed the temple around him, several earthquakes, and now survives the hoards of tourists who visit him every day. For dinner, we met up with some Burners. Tokyo has a very small Burning Man community who meet monthly a curry restaurant. We met Makibee and her baby, as well as Kevin, who’s currently sailing around the world!
At night we took the train to Ikebukuro, which seems to be Tokyo’s best love hotel district. We stayed in a cute, cartoon-themed hotel where each room was decorated in a different cartoon. Of the cartoons I recognized, there was Peter Pan, some sort of aligator I’ve seen around Tokyo a bit, and Totoro! Of course, we picked Totoro. The room also had a ceiling full of twinkling fibre-optic stars! All in all, a nice place to spend the night.
Wednesday was our last full day in Tokyo. We met Ihara, whom I used to work with at Sun, for lunch at the famous Monjadori. This is a street full of monja restaurants. Monja is a strange food. It’s cabbage and batter with whatever toppings you order (between the 3 of us we had cheese, kimchee, and octopus.) Each table contains a gas grill where you put down the dry ingredients, let them cook a bit, make a well in the middle, and add the batter. It cooks slowly and unevenly, and you eat a partially charred, partially raw gooey mass straight off the metal grill scraper. Delicious!
Ihara then took us to the beautiful Hama-rikyu Gardens and we were thinking of taking the ferry to Odaiba Island but it was cold and wet, so we parted ways. Robin and I went to Shibuya to do a small bit of shopping then took a train out to the suburbs so Robin could try the bouldering gym. After that, back to Shibuya for one last visit to the Pink Cow, which was unfortunately fairly quiet but the burritos were still great.
We decided to sleep at the nearby Dogenzaka, Tokyo’s famous Love Hotel Hill. The rooms there are all on the small side and a bit more expensive than those in other areas, but we were tired and didn’t want to take the train across the city. But Dogenzaka completely fails now. We went into at least 4 hotels and were refused service at all of them. I didn’t understand what was going on at the first two – were the rooms shown on the selection board not actually available for some reason? But the third made it clear: they wouldn’t serve anyone who wasn’t fluent in Japanese. The woman at the fourth went as far as to take my money and give me a key (I was able to understand enough Japanese to get that far) before demanding the key back and refunding the money when I couldn’t understand some sort of question about their frequent-stayer point-card system. We were starting to wonder if any hotel would actually let us stay and Robin asked me exactly what I was thinking: "can we still get the train to another area?"
Yes. Fortunately, the Yamanote line runs late by Japanese standards, and we got one of the last trains to Ikebukuro. There, they were happy to see us and our money. We checked into a seedy, kitschy hotel and the woman said some Japanese set phrases I knew to be friendly as well as "goodnight" in English. We didn’t even care that the room was small and smelled vaguely of mildew.
So all in all, the experience of being homeless in Tokyo and depending on love hotels was a bit stressful. I’d visit love hotels again, but just as a "rest" while staying at a normal hotel, hostel, or apartment. And not in Dogenzaka. I don’t know what their problem is. Love hotels are supposed to be anonymous – why should it matter if I understand how their point-card system works if I have money and I’m willing to pay for a room (especially at 0:30 when most people have already taken the last train home?) Oh well.
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