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A week in Tokyo August 28, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Japan, Travel.
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Harajuku signage

Back in June, I had a “short, relaxing break” in Tokyo. This was my fifth time in Japan, my fourth in Tokyo, having stuck entirely to Kansai and Kyushu on my last trip. Seeing the Japanese capital again after 4 years, it’s interesting how much has changed – and not changed – both in the city and myself.

On the one hand, nothing much has changed. This is still the same Tokyo I’ve found my way around several times before. Convenience stores and vending machines still sell my favourite bottled green tea. I still know the Yamanote line like the back of my hand. Suica is still the way to travel, Ueno station in rush hour is still a nightmare. My favourite haunts of Ikebukuro, Shibuya and Akihabara remain largely the same. And unlike much of the western world, there are still physical record stores you can browse CDs and DVDs in. On the other hand, it’s amazing how much can change in 4 years, like the entire Radio Kaikan building being demolished or the Japanese population finally embracing the smartphone revolution.

I spent the days walking around my favourite parts of the city, doing the things I love and, unlike previous travel-rushed trips, just experiencing life as a Tokyo-ite.

Akihabara

Normally I leave my Akiba trip to right at the end but this time, with just a week, I just cut to the chase and went my first day. Despite that I felt fairly level-headed (fairly). Gone are the days where, armed with an otaku map from the Internet, I felt compelled to visit every store in town, rummaging through gashapon bargain bins like a madman. I still went armed with a map (this one, though it’s a bit old) but with a clear itinerary of ‘must visit’ and ‘nice to have’s’.

Top of my list was the home of AKB48, Don Quixote (see separate AKB48 post). I also wanted to hit the places I remember being reliable for good stuff, like retro gaming mecca Super Potato, figure supremo Liberty, Gunpla specialist AsoBitCity and the eternally wonderful COSPA clothing/cosplay store. I also made a point to visit the Akiba branch of Book Off, the second-hand media chain, which is guaranteed to have a good spread of otaku-focused games, CDs and DVDs in perfect condition.

Book Off didn’t disappoint, but overall, I have to admit I didn’t find an amazing range of goods in Akiba. Maybe I’ve grown out of towels and phone straps and want a higher class of ‘rare’ item (like the Shingeki no Kyojin Eren Jaeger replica military jacket I saw in COSPA. WANT!), but none of the generic products really appealed to me that much. Much of the merchandise was for shows I’m not really that into and even for those that I am (like Love Live) so much of it was standard merchandise that just looks a bit tacky.

New places: I visited the Gundam and AKB48 Cafes by the station, the former of I actually dined at, to some disappointment. Steelbook menu aside, there’s not much to see. Only the one big screen (largely running trailers even for the cafe itself) and the one case of Gunpla near the entrance (not even in diorama form).

Gundam Cafe menu

Gundam Cafe

Even the decorated toilets aren’t that interesting.

Gundam Cafe toilet mirror

And in keeping with most franchise theme cafes the food was rubbish. Witness my “Gundam OO” dessert, fresh from the microwave.

Double O

Overall, Akiba itself is mostly the same as it’s ever been, particularly in the plethora of maids trying to hassle/entice you into their cafes. But the gigantic hole (literally) left by the old Radio Kaikan building and the subsequent spread of the stores in it (such as Volks) to the rest of the locale has mixed things up a little.

Ueno Koen

Though I’ve been through Ueno on numerous occasions, I’d never actually stopped off and walked around outside, particularly its famous park. So I figured a leisurely summer stroll was a nice way to catch up with a friend. She told me that Ueno-koen used to be notoriously dangerous due to the large numbers of homeless people and other ‘outsiders’ that gathered (and probably still gather to some extent) there. Another friend told me it’s a famous spot for, er, cottaging late at night.

Ueno Koen

Though big, Ueno Koen isn’t as big as you might imagine (Meiji-jingu Koen feels bigger, though maybe it’s the trees and my foggy memory that give that impression). Pleasant as it is, there’s not really that much to see: a baseball field, a lake ably demonstrating the effects of eutrophication; another, cleaner, one with hire boats for couples with a view of the surrounding area and the Tokyo Skytree; the remnants of an old shrine (of course selling omamori). But it is a great place for people watching. There were numerous school trips of all ages being herded to the Tokyo National Museum or the zoo, though declined to go into either myself. They also have a rather plush Starbucks on the grounds, which makes for a refreshing air-con break mid-summer.

One thing I learned about Ueno though: they sure love their pandas. Pandas EVERYWHERE (yes, there are pandas in the zoo).

#YouknowyoureinJapanwhen there are pandas on the buns.

Meguro 

Lovely little neighbourhood. Home of Danny Choo. I went to visit a friend, eat tonkatsu and visit the world’s only parasite museum (see separate post).

Yokohama

See separate post. Beautiful city less than an hour away from Tokyo. Setting of Ghibli’s Up on Poppy Hill, popular date spot, and location for this year’s AKB48 Sousenkyou. The fact that I visited on the day is entirely coincidental…

Saitama and the Bonsai museum

Out to the sticks! Or rather, away from the hustle and bustle to the real, suburban Japan. A great change of pace, I loved it (see separate post).

Ikebukuro

I like Ikebukoro. It’s well-connected, reasonably pleasant and full of great shopping, all in one convenient locale. I’ve stayed here a couple of times before, though to be honest I only did it this time because I got a fantastic deal on an en suite private room at the lovely Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro, a relatively new addition to the Sakura chain and a  convenient 5 mins from Ikebukuro station.

On one hungover day, I didn’t wander too far. I got my haircut (managing somehow to convey what I wanted reasonably well enough in Japanese) and spent the rest of the day doing all my omiyage (gift) shopping. With a Don Quixote, a huge branch of Tokyu Hands, two major department stores (Tobu and Parco), and two branches of Uniqlo, not to mention several otaku stores in ‘Otome Alley’, the giant Sunshine City complex AND a massive Book Off, there’s just about everything  you might be shopping for, plus a few 100 yen stores and supermarkets to get edible goods to bring back to the office. And if you need to chill in one of Tokyo’s famous cat-petting cafes, the 8th floor of Tokyu Hands has the original ‘Nekobukuro’.

A word about Otome Alley. It’s famous for being the mecca of boy-love manga, and though the branches of Mandarake and K-Books seem to carry nothing but that, when I visited here 6 years ago it did boast the largest branch of Animate in Tokyo. I was somewhat surprised then, to find that the Ikebukuro Animate has doubled-down on the Otome concept and become a cosplay specialist. Gone are the floor upon floor of generic anime merchandise, replaced by floor-upon-floor of (admittedly amazing) costumes. Every school uniform from every anime you can think of, for example. Thankfully Lashinbang hasn’t changed and still has its bargain buckets full of discounted goods and shelves full of figures.

One further shock: when did the Ikebukoro Tora no Ana close and move from a whole building to the top floor of a 7 storey building (with no lift) round the corner? Is this and the changes in Animate a sign of the times? Are the days of free-spending expensive anime merchandise now gone?

By the evening I’d done a lot of walking and wanted to soak my aching bones, so I found a really old-skool sento (public bath) 10 minutes away from my hotel. A tiny, crumbling little place run by an irritable oyaji (old man), it has one male bath and one female bath and nothing more. These weren’t particularly well-labelled at the front either – the kanji is on the windows at the top, and backwards when read from the outside. The attendant sits within the doors so there’s no-one to ask without opening one of the doors first. Of course, I ended up picking the wrong door and only realised when the oyaji shouted at me for being an idiot (>_<). Still a bath is a bath and sitting in boiling hot water looking at an old mural of Mount Fuji, the paint peeling off as a salaryman washed his nether-regions beside me, I thought, “this is the real Japan”. :P

Shibuya, Harajuku and an exhibition

I knew I’d be a little down on my last day in Japan, so I planned a pick me up by wandering through two of my favourite places in Tokyo: Shibuya and Harajuku.

Shibuya hasn’t changed. It’s still the noisy, busy, happy place I always remember it being. No visit to Tokyo is complete without that moment walking out of JR Shibuya station to where the Hachiko statue is to the sound of the giant screen (in this case AKB48) and a faceful of massive advertising posters (in this case, Itano Tomomi) in your face, as the commuters of Tokyo descend across that famous crossing. As always, I had a coffee in Starbucks Tsutaya and watched the world go by.

Shibuya

Later my wandering turned up a massive branch of Book Off, which I’d somehow never been into. And I enjoyed the nostalgia of the still-standing Shibuya Tower Records.

After lunch, I headed down to Harajuku to explore areas beyond Takashita-dori that I’d never been too. In truth, much of Harajuku is pretty similar – the large designer stores of Omotosando and a thousand similar hipster stores (largely for young women) emanating behind, full of tourists and the most painfully hip members of the Tokyo community.

One place new and of interest to me was the Evangelion Tokyo-01 store, which lies hidden down a side-street off Takashita-dori. It’s a lovely building with some great details – I particularly like Kaji’s ‘flower patch’ out front.

Evangelion Store, Harajuku

Rikaji's flower patch
The store itself is a brilliant, if stunningly overpriced, case of anime merchandise gone upmarket, the range of stuff is amazing: fashionable trainers in Eva unit colours, bags and shirts in artistic Eva tie-ins, even Lance of Longinus wedding bands. If only I could afford any of it! Luckily the upstairs has much more regular, affordable, goods and practically everything an Eva fan could want.  I did feel for the shop assistants though, listening to the fabulous, but disturbing, tones of the Eva soundtrack on a loop….

The reason I was in Harajuku that day , was for a friend’s exhibition. She’s a character illustrator, and had been invited to take part in a small exhibition of illustrations around the theme of ‘travel’ – to which I was invited to the opening. This was wonderful. Not only to see my friend’s work recognised in a gallery right on Omotosando, but to see the imagination of a group of Japanese artists – from cute sketchings to imaginative portraits, epic landscapes and curious interpretations. It was also great to see and speak to some of the illustrators themselves. It tested my Japanese to the limit, especially when I was asked to fill in a feedback form, but I really enjoyed catching a glimpse of my friend’s world and hope to see her work exhibited again sometime.

That was something of a theme for my trip. Most evenings, I met up with friends, catching up on their crazy Japanese lives, eating awesome food and brushing up on my Nihongo. I definitely noticed an improvement in my language ability this trip. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pretty poor – it still takes me a few minutes to take in a face-full of kanji,  every so often a shop assistant’s keigo would totally throw me and Japanese TV is still a total mystery. But I can definitely scan kanji and kana faster, am now confident enough to ask for directions and shop assistance right away, and I managed to get by whole days speaking nothing but nihongo. I’ve a long way to go, but it’s nice to know that the last few years of study has done some good!

You can see all my Tokyo trip photos (including my loot) in this Flickr set.

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