written by Diego Spindola Arrieta
(Not) the first day in Tokyo
Here I am again in the amazing city of Tokyo. I promised myself a year ago that my return was a short matter of time, and I stayed true to my word. That’s commitment if I’ve ever seen it. Now I bet you’re wondering what kind of amazing adventures and discoveries I went through today. Hot springs? Pachinko? That thing where you sit under a cold waterfall in your underwear? None of the above, actually. Today upon arrival I practiced futon testing with zen-like patience. Yes, I’m basically saying that my first evening in Tokyo has been a dud. Now, before you decide that I’m the worst travel blogger ever and that you’re gonna go read that article on foot fetishes instead, hear me out. It’s been a long day of hopping on and off planes, catching trains, and avoiding embarrassing American tourists. Still with me? Good. Let’s get to the important stuff.
For those of you uninitiated in the art of surviving ridiculously long flights, here is a very important fact to keep in mind: It’s inevitably going to suck.
You could bring your favorite book, your favorite record, your favorite friend, or your favorite lifesize Christina Hendricks-themed love pillow, and you’re still going to have a terrible time—also, that last one could make for a very awkward experience. The cute flight attendant you were eying a few seconds ago will not be impressed. Now where was I? Oh, right. The leg space in your seat is an exercise in amateur contortion, that tiny pillow compares unfavorably to a used diaper in terms of softness and comfort, and that pathetic bag of pretzels is as good as it’s going to get. Trust me on this: Even when your flight is so long that it includes three meals, you should have zero expectations for all of them. Except maybe for the one that has those Milano cookies. I also advise to keep away from any kind of socialization. You run the very serious risk of attempting to start a petty conversation with the passenger next to you, quickly realizing they have the mannerisms of a convict, and regrettably spending the next thirteen hours wondering if your life is endangered. Yikes. Instead, do what I do: Tune in to whatever NHK programming is available on the plane. Seriously, it’s hilarious. I caught a daytime talk show where they talking about insulin. You could think that insulin is not necessarily a humorous topic, but let me tell you that they had men dressed in yellow costumes and masks who were supposed to represent the insulin. Because, you know, insulin is yellow and has facial expressions. They also had these two comedians (one of them being a fat guy in a schoolgirl outfit) eating constantly and periodically checking their blood sugar levels. No show is complete without entertainers being used as guinea pigs for the sake of education. Progress, people.
Now, I clearly recall arriving at Narita Airport last year and being somewhat taken aback by how relatively quiet and empty it was. Maybe it was the time of the day or maybe it was the season. In any case, I sure was left with the impression that the airport didn’t get as much as traffic as a world famous metropolis should. Boy, did they decide to do away with my misconception this time around. The airport was an absolute madhouse today as immigration officials kept rearranging and improvising waiting lines for the incoming stampede of tourists. Did I mention that someone at the airport staff apparently forgot to stock up on English immigration forms? You should’ve seen every non-Japanese speaker in the room asking for assistance because they were filling out forms in Chinese. Passport stamped, luggage found, and cavities searched, all that was left on my checklist was picking up my mobile wi-fi router. That was on the third floor of the airport… in departures. And drop-off is on the first floor… in arrivals. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a little impractical? Whatever, just get me out of this airport already.
Some more important information: In your Japanese survival kit, along with a handful of yen and a stylish hairdo, you definitely want to have a Pasmo or Suica card. These are pre-paid cards that can used and reloaded for use at trains, subways, and even vending machines. You can buy them and reload them at just about every station. In the Greater Tokyo Area, the two are essentially the same thing, but if you have to make a decision, I’d say go with Suica because of the cute penguin.
I finally made it to my hotel and that’s pretty much where the day ended. I decided to lie down for a few minutes until 6 pm. Then that turned into 7. Then that turned into 8. Then that turned into dragging myself to the grocery store for some grub before I starved myself into unconsciousness.
Breakfast of champions.
So let’s just pretend today wasn’t my first day here. Tomorrow is a brand new opportunity with plenty of things to do, taste, and consume. Hopefully I don’t have to fill out any more forms in Chinese. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go cross my fingers and hope I don’t get sandwiched again in the showers.
Closed for business until tomorrow.
Tokyo, day 1
Sure feels nice to wake up in Tokyo, doesn’t it? Let’s start things off with some educational content—as opposed to the usual “watch Diego stuff his face like the pig he is” tripe. Tokyo may be a capital, but it is not quite a city, in fact. A more proper term would be “prefecture,” which in turn is made up of actual cities. The likes of Shibuya, Shinjuku, Chiyoda, and Minato are cities, or “wards,” that collectively make up Tokyo. Going even further, cities have districts, which could basically be considered neighborhoods. For example, the kawaii paradise of Harajuku is a district in the city of Shibuya. 分かりますか？それから、浅草は台東区にあります—sorry, I don’t know why I started talking in some weird language. Anyhow, as I was saying, the beautiful district of Asakusa is in the city of Taito, and we’re gonna take it from there.
Nothing says “home” like a billboard with beer.
Asakusa is very dear to me because it was essentially my introduction to Tokyo. Granted, I think it’s hardly representative of the Metropolitan Tokyo area, but Asakusa still gives you a good idea of what Tokyo can be about. Mention Asakusa to just about any Japanese person and chances are the first thing that they will think of is Senso-ji, the enormous shrine that sits past the photo-favorite Kaminarimon gate and the Nakamise market street. That’s basically Asakusa’s reputation: It’s a shrine kind of place. In terms of tradition, one could say that Tokyo is not as rich as Kyoto would be, with its myriad of shrines, temples, and historical sites. Tokyo’s fame comes more from being a modern place, with newer things, newer buildings, and newer customs. I mean, it’s kind of hard to not consider a city modern when it has a gigantic Gundam robot sitting on top of a man-made island with a bunch of shopping malls on it.
In contrast, Asakusa gives Tokyo a more vintage vibe. Things here just feel… older, for better or for worse.
Additionally, it’s an escape from the bustling streets of inner Tokyo. Magically, perhaps, Asakusa doesn’t have the chaotic aura of places like Shibuya and Shinjuku. As tourist-heavy as it is, it’s never overwhelming. Somehow, Asakusa maintains the happy medium of being welcoming to visitors while managing to be very residential. Oh yeah, there’s also this tiny thing called the Tokyo Sky Tree, but we’ll get to that in the near future. Onto our dose of Japanisms for the day.
Today things started off at Tokyo Station, a popular spot for visitors due to its novel architecture and the fact that its bullet train service connects to just about every major city in Japan. Located in the financial district of Marunouchi (city of Chiyoda), its proximity to the ritzy Ginza district shows in its flashy aesthetics and taste for the expensive. My friend and tour guide Satoko showed me around a bit, and as I found out the Emperor also lives in Marunouchi. I guess you can’t expect royalty to live in a dump. Walking around Marunouchi actually reminded me of downtown Sao Paulo, with its big buildings and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Except without, you know, the crime… and the filth… and the terrible traffic. Well, that comparison didn’t go so smoothly. Whoops. We ended up at a shopping mall that had a store specialized in importing American goods. And by goods I mean memorabilia that Stateside would be considered totally pedestrian. An Alabama license plate, Oscar Mayer Wienermobile plushies, and the head of Jack in the Box’s mascot. Very pedestrian, right? Oh, and apparently shopping bags from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are fancy here.
I wonder if they have cookie butter, too.
Having cured my homesickness, I headed out with Satoko to Ootoya, a well-known chain of restaurants specializing in traditional homestyle Japanese dishes. Yes, we’re back to the “watch Diego stuff his face like the pig he is” section, if you haven’t noticed. After struggling with a very Japanese menu, I ordered a gargantuan cauldron of tonkatsu: deep-fried breaded pork, in this case served in broth with an egg and greens. For some reason it felt like the Japanese equivalent of American Southern food.
Can I have waffles with this?
It was by all means delicious and satisfying, but I didn’t trek all the way over here to moderate my habits. So what was the logical next step? Indulging in a huge slice of cake from HARBS, a very popular cafe that also serves pasta when not condemning their customers to a sugar-induced coma. No, seriously, look at the size of this thing.
Guess that insulin special was helpful after all.
Half-regretting my lack of moderation, I hopped over to the city of Bunkyo, which houses the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious university. Apparently it was the day where parents visit the campus and proudly take pictures of their children who once toiled through the grueling entrance exams and have spent the past four years drinking heavily in compensation. Congratulations, everyone! Here’s a snapshot of the famous Yasuda Auditorium, which I may use in the future to lie about my education credentials.
“You attended the University of Tokyo?”
“Well, yeah. I was there. Like, I went there. See? I even took this picture. Can I have a job now?”
So, Tokyo’s a big place, right? Millions of people, right? The odds of just running into someone you know, let alone someone from another country, are nonexistent, right? Of course. Therefore, the only conclusion I can make from my friend Marissa finding me in the underground corridor of a subway station in the middle of Metropolitan Tokyo I MEAN WHO DOES THAT is that she’s an NSA agent. Keeping an eye on her for sure. We had some fun, exchanged stories, caught up on our Japan-related ambitions (all other types of ambitions being nonexistent), and made Satoko an honorary Miamian. All in all, a day chock-full of surprises and cake. I can’t wait to get tucked into my futon and doze off—just don’t tell Marissa that I’m actually holding a machete under my pillow in case she decides to “just show up” again. Try me, homegirl.
Tokyo, day 2
You gotta love waking up in Tokyo to a commercial with a bunch of obese Japanese men in luchador masks advertising exercise devices. I could watch these all day. Too bad I have spiritual duties to fulfill. We’re off to Meiji Shrine today and my awesome friend Yuri has come all the way from Osaka to tag along for the ride. Let’s get rolling before Yuri regrets her decision and hops on the first bus back home.
Nothing says tradition like a bunch of tourists.
Meiji Shrine may look old as dirt, but it was actually built in the early 20th century as commemoration of the Meiji Emperor’s restoration and modernization of Japan. It’s located in the district of Yoyogi, which neighbors Harajuku. As a result, I can’t help but wonder how the late emperor would react to his spiritual monument now being located next to a maelstrom of kawaii fashion. In any case, at Meiji Shrine is a hotspot for tourists and locals alike, so don’t expect any quiet praying, but the atmosphere of the place is fairly peaceful and belies its location. If you think you’ve had your fill of zen, let’s hop over to Yoyogi Park next door. Dogs, dance troupes, performance art, beer-drenched picnics, or bagpipes your thing? Feel right at home. Yoyogi Park shuns no strange hobby, unless you’re into something involving public nudity. That can be performed freely at any local Tokyo prison. Speaking of strange places, Harajuku. It’s over-the-top, excessively exuberant, and perhaps even frightening to the casual weekend stroller. But you know what? Good Italian food. I mean it. Thanks for the tip, Yuri.
When in Tokyo do as the Romans do.
We then made a quick trip to Shibuya to visit the statue of Hachiko, a loyal Akita dog who waited for his deceased owner everyday for nine years at Shibuya station until his own death. Finished crying? Me neither.
I feel like we’re missing something. Oh right, that thing. As I mentioned previously, there’s this insignificant little building in the city of Sumida that locals like to call the Tokyo Skytree. I mean, I guess it’s kinda cool. It’s pretty big and it lights up and stuff.
Not bad. 6 out of 10.
Looks a bit boring if you ask me. Can we move on? No, we don’t need to go inside. Seriously? Whatever.
Fine. 7 out of 10.
Okay, I take it back. It’s pretty awesome in here. Let’s get the less impressive part about it out of the way first: Skytree has a huge shopping mall adjacent to it, called the Tokyo Solamachi (Tokyo Sky Town). It includes but is by no means limited to fashion outlets, marketplaces, import shops, bakeries, an aquarium, and some weird store with interactive video projections. Inevitably, the shops include Skytree-themed memorabilia featuring famous anime brands such as Doraemon, Evangelion, One Piece, and Attack on Titan. Because, you know, when I think of a towering building I want to imagine a gigantic humanoid that is perfectly capable of obliterating the place and everyone inside of it. In true Tokyo fashion, there is also a food court with plenty of options. I went with Gindaco, which specializes in takoyaki, searing hot balls of fried batter filled with octopus and vegetables. Be warned that they will melt your tongue off if you’re foolish enough to bite straight into them without letting them cool off first.
Goodbye, taste buds.
Now that my tongue is reduced to a piece of ash, let’s move to the Skytree itself. It’s a pretty impressive piece of modern architecture, much in the vein of Osaka’s own (but smaller) Umeda Sky Building. By the way, if you choose not to make a reservation, have fun standing in line. Once you’ve made it inside with a ticket, you’re put in an elevator that goes up 1148 feet at a top speed 1968 feet per minute. No biggie. The spectacle itself is an observation deck that pretty much covers all of Tokyo and part of its neighboring territories, with Mount Fuji being visible on clear days. At night, it’s an absolute light show and you can have fun spotting Tokyo’s numerous architectural landmarks. For those of you scared of heights, there is a small section inside the Skytree that has a glass floor, in case you feel like soiling yourself in public. You know, have to make memories somehow. Lastly, you have the option of purchasing an additional ticket for a floor that goes even higher to 1476 feet. Tempting, but another long line may make you reconsider. The Skytree experience is absolutely recommendable and actually brings up a good rule of thumb: If local Tokyoites make an effort to do something time-consuming in their city, it’s probably worth looking into. Tourist traps be damned.
By the way, I found a hilarious fugu restaurant.
That totally looks appetizing.
Tokyo, day 3
One of the things I can’t wrap my head around is how Tokyoites are able to move around Shinjuku Station. Not only is the place absolutely packed and frantic, it’s also a maze. Doesn’t help that it runs multiple train lines and has as many exits as Larry King has ex-wives. Anyway, I’m here to meet my friend Mono. She’s actually a Shinjuku resident so I feel tempted to ask her if she experiences chronic neurosis from living here. Maybe I won’t. We head over to nearby shopping mall Takashimaya Times Square, which in true Tokyo fashion, is absolutely enormous.
What do they sell in here, helicopters?
I’m seriously starting to wonder if there is any difference between any of these huge malls. At Takashimaya, Mono recommends we eat at Negishi, which specializes in grilled cow tongue and is one of her favorites. She was actually reluctant to recommend it at first, since she feared that the foreign taste might alienate me, but it was delicious by all means. New rule of thumb: If Mono hesitates to recommend something, it’s probably good.
Nothing like taking another animal’s tongue after losing mine to takoyaki.
After the delicious meal and some meandering around Shinjuku, I headed over to the nearby National Tokyo Stadium to meet up with Satoko and experience one of the highlights of my trip: A Tokyo Verdy game!
“Faje… fagee… faghi—… what?”
Some historical insight before we go any further: Tokyo Verdy was founded in 1969 as Yomiuri Football Club, named after the Yomiuri Group, the conglomerate responsible for funding it.
To give you an idea of how huge the Yomiuri Group is, to this day they lend their name to 22-time Japanese baseball champions the Yomiuri Giants, who play in the massive Tokyo Dome.
Yomiuri Football Club, thanks to its owners’ heavy investing, managed to build a strong and competitive team, and championships came quickly. Notably, Yomiuri F.C. featured two players who would go on to become Japanese football history. The first one, Ruy Ramos, a Brazilian expatriate who was one of the very first foreigners to both play and become well-known in Japan. Ramos would actually acquire Japanese nationality years later and participate in his adoptive country’s near-qualification to the 1994 World Cup. The second one, Kazuyoshi “Kazu” Miura, a legend in Japanese football who plays to this day in the second tier of Japanese professional soccer at age 47. Kazu rose to fame as a teenager who debuted professionally in Brazil before returning to Japan and signing for Yomiuri. He has since enjoyed a lengthy career at clubs from Japan, Italy, Croatia, and Australia. WIth these two stars, Yomiuri became giants in a league that was only semi-professional until 1993, when the professional J-League was established. In line with the tournament’s reform, Yomiuri changed its name to Verdy Kawasaki, reflecting both its new hometown and the common custom of naming Japanese football teams with Italian words. With Kazu and Ramos at the helm, Verdy were champions of the J-League’s debut season, defeating none other than Brazilian legend Zico’s Kashima Antlers (no, Antlers is not Italian). Titles would continue piling up for Verdy into the early- and mid-90s, but the Japanese economic crisis and its rivals’ strengthening of their own squads meant bad news for the green shirts. At the turn of the century, still struggling with finances and the competitive level of other, now stronger teams, Verdy left Kawasaki and returned to its original home base of Tokyo, adopting the name Tokyo Verdy 1969. This wouldn’t exactly prove to be the solution, as the capital now had a J-League team of its own, FC Tokyo. As the years wore on, Verdy continued to perform poorly with only sporadic accomplishments, until in 2005 the team saw itself relegated to J-League 2, where they play to this day despite the occasional return to the top tier.
Ah, the smell of failure.
Had enough? Too bad, we’re back to the present now. I went to the only partially-filled National Tokyo Stadium expecting a fairly mediocre showing as Verdy currently sit in 20th place on the J-League 2 table, which has 22 teams. Its past seasons have been less than stellar, as if Verdy is trying to prove a point to Japanese children: Not everyone can be a Japanese football star, some have to settle for being Tokyo Verdy players. The sole comfort previous to the match was they were facing Fagiano Okayama, a team about just as terrible. To my delight, the home crowd compensated for its diminutive size by chanting throughout the entire match and displaying true team pride. And to my surprise, Verdy played a decent match: Good control of the ball, plenty of running, tidy possession, and quick combinations. Could this be a breakthrough? Was this the turning point on an otherwise horrid season? Not a chance. Verdy lost 0-1 thanks a defensive blunder. I guess I should see the silver lining here: Verdy put on an admirable display but ultimately showed the true spirit that has been with them in the past years; the true Verdy essence of doing everything right but getting everything wrong. Hrm, I’m not sure if that’s what silver lining means. Anyhow, I left the stadium with plenty of Verdy merchandise to show my open support for mediocre ambitions. Feels good to be part of something.
See you in the showers, losers.
Did I mention that it was freezing at the stadium? My god, Verdy has some dedicated fans. The only solution to this problem (the cold, not the fans) is some good ol’ tonkatsudon: Battered and fried pork cutlets on rice with fried egg on top. Throw in some miso soup and your soul is all warm and cozy now. Feels good to be in Tokyo.
Can I get this as a sandwich?
Tokyo, day 4
One of the many great things about Tokyo is that you can, on any given day of the week, decide to pick up a new strange hobby. There are stores for just about everything. If you want to learn an instrument, Ochanomizu is jam-packed with music shops, one of them even catering to ukuleles. If you want to learn how to cook like the best, there’s Kappabashi-dori, famous for its kitchen utensil shops. And if you want to get into something geeky, chances are Akihabara is your place. It is no exaggeration to say that Tokyo’s “Electric Town” is a mecca for otaku culture aficionados worldwide. From the harmlessly cute to the utterly shameless, it’s all here. Akihabara has no qualms about hiding it, either. Shops advertise with banners featuring large-chested anime girls while real girls dressed in maid outfits shout out their specials of the day in cartoon-like squeaky voices. For the more casual audience, there is plenty of mainstream manga and memorabilia to pick from. For the seriously committed folks, there is an absurd number of ready-to-assemble robots as well as limited-edition items such as trading cards and figurines. And for, well, perverts, let’s just say that Akihabara is the place where you can shop for erotic DVDs and love pillows with three-dimensional breasts knowing that you are safely in your habitat. I have seriously been left wondering if otaku of a more… debauched persuasion proudly wear their flag or take their dirty secret to the grave. However, for decency’s sake, all nude figurines have their private parts slightly covered with bits of wax paper while on display. Just imagine running into a busy train station wearing nothing but a tiny loincloth made out of newspaper and people going, “Oh, okay. I was scared for a second.”
I was told there would be breasts.
Well, that’s enough horndogging for a day. Time for some grub. Pop quiz: Ask any Japanese person what their favorite dish is and what are they very likely to say? Sushi? What a touristy answer that would be. A very correct choice would be curry. Japanese people love their curry and so do I. If I could pick “To eat a lot of curry” as an option on my immigration form for purpose of visit, I totally would. Make no mistake. Here’s to you, delicious curry.
Resident status: Curry visa.
Bent on immersing myself even further into trendy Japanese culture, I headed out to Tower Records in Shibuya. Somehow, record and book shops are still thriving over here, maybe because Japan has strict anti-piracy laws or maybe because Japanese people actually have a sense of culture. Now, Tower Records is as trendy as it gets. Every hot release, every artist currently getting hype, every new J-Pop girl group is here. Tower Records’ building is split into eight floors, the top seven belonging to different genres while the ground floor is for new releases and whatever else is popular. Even more interesting is that, to my suspicion, each floor has employees wearing the respective genre’s fashion. It’s like they really want you to believe they know their stuff.
Ah yes, I was looking for the vegetable pop section.
On the topic of music, here’s something very important you should know: Pop music’s—no, art’s—greatest phenomenon and figure of this day and age is from Japan. Forget everything you believe and pay attention for a moment. To the shortsighted ones, she is but one more viral trend on the Internet. Those poor souls. To those who see clearly, Harajuku icon and unofficial Tokyo culture ambassador Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a deity among us mortals.
In an industry that produces interchangeable and very forgettable pop acts with cute girls year after year, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu stands miles above the rest.
Her style, panache, and taste for the bizarre are unmatched. Her “terrifyingly adorable” ethos is a perfect amalgamation of extravagance and finesse. Her records are a clear reminder that music can be simultaneously appealing and original. However, she doesn’t write any of her undeniably catchy songs—that job falls to electronic wizard Yasutaka Nakata. Nor is she a great live performer. So what’s the appeal? Something very much beyond that. Kyary is a rare specimen. An inhabitant of a very much molded environment that has broken so many parameters. Pop music will continue with its formulas and marketing schemes as the years wear on, but Kyary will survive as something more. Maybe someday we will find out that she herself was intended to be nothing more than another cash grab, that her music was meant to be as consumable as it was disposable. But even that horrifying revelation will not deny her accomplishments and her impact. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the emancipator that contemporary art needed. Salute her with the most kawaii gesture you can make.
Shine on you, crazy diamond.
Tokyo, day 5
All that lurking around Akihabara and ogling at love pillows definitely left me with some spiritual guilt, so a cleansing was necessary today. In order to regain my immaculacy, today I decided to visit Inokashira Park. Hidden away in suburban Tokyo from the vices and chaos of the city, it’s a popular destination for locals seeking a more relaxed environment. Before I set out, however,I was treated by Satoko at one of Japan’s burger joints of choice, Mos Burger. I had the meat sauce burger, which is exactly what it sounds like. Seems Mos Burger has learned the American way, because if there’s anything more American than a burger, it’s a burger with extra meat on it.
Somewhere in Shibuya, I heard the Star-Spangled Banner.
Stomachs packed, we jumped on the Inokashira Line, a train that parts from Shibuya and goes into Tokyo’s suburbs. It’s a big change of scenery as buildings get smaller and drunk sleepy metropolitan salarymen are replaced by… drunk sleepy suburban salarymen. We arrived at Kichijoji, in the city of Musashino. Kichijoji is actually a very popular neighborhood with the Tokyo youth, with its vibrant shopping district balanced by a laid-back, artistic atmosphere with plenty of small local businesses. Inokashira Park is quite beautiful and not without its various types of attendees: Tourists, young couples, groups of mothers with their toddlers, joggers, students, and the drunk old man talking to himself. Additionally, there are a zoo and an aquarium—anyone else notice that these are everywhere in Tokyo? For the more spiritually minded, the park is also home to a shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, a Hindu goddess appropriated into Shinto lore.
Maybe the old drunk man was talking to the goddess after all.
All things considered, Inokashira Park is a great and quick getaway from the craziness that is metropolitan Tokyo. Kichijoji’s reputation as a fun hot spot is warranted, and it has plenty to offer when you’re looking for something more casual. The drunk old man was clearly enjoying himself, and so should you. And remember: Totoro is only a block away in neighboring Mitaka.
“Hi, is Satsuki home?”
That said, I’m all about that crazy Tokyo life, so a few hours later I found myself in the insane and bustling district of Ikebukuro, in the city of Toshima. Ikebukuro, much like Kichijoji, is a popular destination for the young ones. However, much unlike Kichijoji, it’s a reminder that metropolitan Tokyo moves at a thousand miles an hour. Ikebukuro’s main appeal is its huge shopping malls (are we seeing a pattern?) and its vibrant nightlife. Streets jam-packed with restaurants and shops ensure that you will have your fun here, one way or another. At Ikebukuro Station’s east exit, there is a statue of an owl called Ikefukuro. Much like Shibuya Station’s own Hachiko, it’s a popular rendezvous spot, and it was there where I met up with my friend Imo, who is quite the Ikebukuro connoisseur.
Poor thing must’ve been cold.
We started things off with a visit to Namco Namja Town, a theme park of sorts located inside the enormous Ikebukuro Sunshine City shopping mall. It’s full of little attractions, prize-awarding contests, game machines, bakeries, food stands, and gift shops—all of them video game- or anime-themed. Imo’s personal favorite, which she was quite the pro at, was the taiko drumming game. Goes to show that Guitar Hero wasn’t that novel of aconcept, eh?
Does it have that Dragonforce song?
Afterwards, we took a walk around Ikebukuro’s shops. As you may remember, Akihabara is popular with the manga- and toy-collecting crowd. Ikebukuro, on the other hand, is all about cosplay. The Animate store in Ikebukuro has two floors dedicated to costumes, one dedicated to wigs, one that is members-exclusive for photo shoots, and at the very top, a cosplay cafe where all employees wear colorful wigs and costumes. No, I did not make this up. There are also book shops that cater to female audiences, and you can get your fill of boy-on-boy romantic literature there. Finally, itching for some food, Imo recommended Abura, a popular noodle shop. We ordered some delicious, juicy soba that was good enough to have made me want three more servings. I’ll definitely be feeling that one in the morning.
Bliss in a bowl.
Tokyo, day 7 (and recap of day 6)
So I spent a day away from the blog and it felt absolutely amazing. Between the shopping, the drinking, and the standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to salarymen in packed trains, all sense of duty was lost. But we all come back to earth sometime. So here I am writing this thing again. Let’s quickly recapitulate on day 6: I ate a lot and saw a giant robot. The end. Here’s proof:
Now, onto the prese—er, more recent past. I started the day at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the city of Koto. Despite being an appealing destination to international art aficionados, the museum and Koto itself are well outside of Tokyo’s tourism hub, so getting there can be a bit of a task. Nevertheless, I’m no Tokyo amateur so I made it there without a problem… okay, maybe one wrong turn. I’m already acquainted with the museum’s permanent collection (which includes Do-Ho Suh and Elizabeth Peyton) so instead I opted to check out their visiting exhibition, titled The Marvelous Real. Apparently the Japanese government has designated 2014 as the Year of Spain in Japan, and the show is meant to reflect that. The Marvelous Real features mainly Spanish artists as well as some Latin American ones. So essentially, it’s a tribute to the art of Spain and the countries it colonized… plus Brazil, which is also in there. Whatever, it’s the intent that counts, right? Personally, I didn’t find the show terribly impressive. A few strong statements and a lot of duds to my taste. Notable mentions go to these select ones: Firstly, Kaoru Katayama, a Japanese artist who has been residing in Salamanca since the early 90s and combines traditional Spanish themes with contemporary Japanese imagery in her work. Secondly, Javier Tellez, a Venezuelan filmmaker whose piece at the exhibition was a retelling of Oedipus the King through a bizarre cowboy Western in which the protagonists wore Japanese masks. Interestingly, the credits later mentioned that the entire cast were part of a special care unit for schizophrenic people. Not a great show overall, but some gems were found. At least the building is very nice.
Now if only the bathroom wasn’t so hard to find.
A different kind of museum followed. In Ochanomizu, known for its music shops among the young crowd, is the Japan Football Museum. It offers some pretty extensive documentation of Japanese football history as well dedicating space to the current generation of the “Samurai Blue.” On the ground floor, there are glass cases containing multiple memorabilia of Japan’s accomplishments in the sport, notably the women’s team’s winning the 2011 World Cup months after the Tohoku Earthquake. There is also an auditorium of sorts that shows replays of famous matches in the history of the national team. In the same area there are rooms with wallpapers made up of photographs of past Japanese national squads as well as memorable moments in the Japanese league. The basement floors include shops, a small exhibit for each team competing in the two top tiers of the J-League, an in-depth look at famous Japanese players, and the Japanese Football Hall of Fame. And you can’t miss current Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni’s wax replica right at the entrance.
Konnichiwa, signior Zach.
Taking a break from museum excursions, I went out to Shibuya’s Daikanyama neighborhood with Marissa. She managed to convince me that her intentions were good-natured, so no machete was needed this time. Daikanyama, despite being in Shibuya, can be quite the antithesis to the city in which it is located. Whereas the area surrounding Shibuya Station is a haven for trendy fashion and fast-paced shopping, Daikanyama appeals more to the intellectual side. It has book and record shops, small boutiques, and foreign cuisine restaurants all in a very relaxed atmosphere, belying the fact that one of the world’s busiest street crossings is minutes away. Following Marissa’s recommendation, we ate at Hacienda del Cielo, a Mexican restaurant. While the menu was largely made up of legitimate Mexican dishes (including a great guacamole), I couldn’t ignore the hilarity of both Inca Kola and ceviche being served there as well as Brazilian songs playing in their music selection. But all is forgiven, since we are by all means guilty of much more severe atrocities against Asian cuisine Stateside. Seriously, who puts cream cheese in sushi? In any case, I had a molten lava bowl of meat and green peppers and it was absolutely delicious.
Not pictured: Bubbles melting through pot.
Back to the city life, I headed out to Tokyo Midtown, an affluent part of town. Located in the city of Akasaka, and much like neighboring Roppongi (city of Minato), Midtown is all about high standards of living, with plenty of spiffy hotels, restaurants, and shops. Midtown actually has two of the three museums that comprise the “Art Triangle,” those being the Suntory Museum of Art and the National Art Center, Tokyo. Determined to see what all the fuss was about, I arrived at the Art Center… only to realize it was already closed. So was the Suntory. Whoops. Shouldn’t have spent so much time on Mexican food. Well… the building looks huge and nice, right?
I can KIND OF see inside.
Not to worry, though. The third museum in the Triangle, Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum understands that Tokyo doesn’t sleep and is open well into the night. Located in the enormous Roppongi Hills complex (an experience in itself), the Mori never fails to bring in reputable exhibitions, with the likes of Aida Makoto and Alphonse Mucha having been featured in the past.
Heard they’re bringing George Bush next.
The current exhibition, however, might be their biggest one yet: An Andy Warhol retrospective titled “15 Minutes Eternal,” a clear homage to Warhol’s famous phrase. The show is by all means extensive, sparing very little in the Pop Art figure’s career. From his beginnings as a graphic designer, passing through his painter phases, and all the way into his commercial art empire, 15 Minutes Eternal has just about every piece that made Warhol famous. Marilyn Monroe is there, the Campbell’s soup cans are there, the flowers are there, and the cow wallpaper is there. Interestingly, there is also an installation that, made in cooperation with former Warhol accomplice Billy Name, is meant to accurately replicate what the Factory looked like in its early days. Although interesting, it does feel more like a theme park attraction than an actual replica. More notable, however, is a room that has on display the hundreds of magazine cutouts, letters, invitations, postcards, and other things that Warhol hoarded throughout his years. The depth of the show is gargantuan. Even some of Warhol’s lesser known works share the spotlight. And in true Warhol fashion, a painting is just as captivating as a commercial for a video camera. 15 Minutes Eternal is a must-see for anyone in Tokyo.
Pretty sure I’ve seen this picture somewhere before.
Exhausted from so much art and whatnot, there was no way better for me to wind down than with some succulent tonkatsudon curry. I arrived back at Asakusa and went into my curry shop of choice. It’s one of those places where you punch in a number at the machine outside, get a ticket for your meal of choice, present the ticket at the counter, and eat away. No time lost, no nonsense. It’s as succinct as eating gets. You just gotta feel for the poor soul who’s working the counter and preparing dishes at light speed. Thank you for the curry, kind man. Where would I be without you?
Definitely tastes like sweat, blood, and tears.
Tokyo, day 8
This morning I was supposed to go to Kamakura, a city in Kanagawa prefecture, which neighbors Tokyo to the south. Kamakura is a popular destination for tourists due to its beaches and historical sites, which include temples and an enormous statue of the Buddha. Sadly, the weather was absolutely terrible so I was stuck in Tokyo. Seems like the Buddha didn’t want my company. In any case, I was limited to indoor activities for the day, so out the window went fun things like jousting and harvesting turnips. Instead, I ventured over to Nakano Broadway, a popular shopping spot in the city of Nakano. Although outside of Tokyo’s metropolitan area, it’s only a station away from Shinjuku.
If only you knew what was coming.
At first glance, Nakano Broadway seems fairly pedestrian. Its entrance and ground floor are full of restaurants and food stands, clothing shops, pharmacies, arcades, and the like. Notably, it doesn’t have the glam that you’d find in Tokyo’s more affluent shopping districts. The atmosphere is much more casual. Nothing strange here, right? Very wrong. From the second floor and upwards, things get weird fast. Granted, you’ll still find unthreatening locales like jewelry shops and nail salons. However, one thing is clear: Nakano Broadway’s primary clientele is geeks and collectors of geeky memorabilia. However, unlike the also geek-favorite Akihabara, which concentrates on the latest brands and franchises, Nakano Broadway has a more nostalgic flavor. A lot of merchandise here is years, if not decades old, carefully preserved for collection. The decor also falls in line with this theme, as shops are fairly unkempt as if made to look vintage—they also kind of smell vintage. A monopoly of sorts is run by Mandarake, a chain that specializes in manga and anime products, often selling them secondhand. They have shops all over Nakano Broadway’s top three floors, each one catering to a specific type of product: Books, trading cards, costumes, DVDs, figurines, etc. While Mandarake are the biggest presence in the mall, there are plenty of other smaller businesses with their own specialties, and that’s where things can get quite peculiar. The deeper you get into each floor’s corners, the more likely you are to see adult-themed products, creepy doll shops, and kinky cosplay outfits. I’m almost left with the impression that Nakano Broadway is the haven in Tokyo for the regular folk who hide a darker side. I was particularly amused by a very small shop that only had two young girls in maid outfits and an inside furnished with cushioned seats and curtains. I wanted to ask what kind of services were offered there, but if I had done so I’m not sure I’d be alive and writing this now. Nakano Broadway is a strange place, but ultimately proves that anything can exist in Tokyo, whether in plain sight or tucked away in some hole. Additionally, in Nakano Broadway you can go to Ikko’s salon, who is apparently famous and whose specialty seems to be his own hair style.
On the topic of shopping, let’s tackle something most people want to know: Is Tokyo expensive to visit? The short answer is yes. I say that because you’d be a sucker to come here and not indulge in the many pleasures that Tokyo offers. Let’s get the less fun stuff out of the way first: For convenience’s sake, at this very moment the conversion rate from yen to dollar is 100 yen for .98 dollars. Moving from a train or subway station to another one is at least 140 yen for a one-way trip. Trains tend to be more expensive and can go up to 300 yen depending on how far you go across the city. Hotels can be pricy if you choose to stay inside the metropolitan area, especially if you want a Western-style room with your own bathroom, a raised bed, and room service. If you can settle for something more traditional and further away from the tourist hub, it gets way cheaper. I personally recommend Hotel Kaminarimon in Asakusa. The staff here are great, your room is tiny but cozy, you get a futon and a TV, and the bathrooms and showers are shared. For a one bed, it’s about 5000 yen a night, which is a hell of a deal for Tokyo. Now onto the fun stuff: Tokyo is a shopper’s paradise. Chances are you will like at least one thing here. The often outrageously expensive fashion, famous brands like Sanrio and Ghibli, the mountains of anime and manga, traditional Japanese souvenirs like fans and chopsticks, CDs and DVDs of music not found elsewhere, the list is endless. The tiniest items can start you off at around 300 yen, and it’s only going to go up from there. I’ve found music to be particularly pricy as new releases go for around 3000 yen, and expect those limited edition box sets to cost at least twice as much. Museums and attractions usually start at around 700 yen, but of course prices go up the fancier the place is. The Tokyo Skytree, for example, is 2000 yen with a reserved ticket. Lastly, and most importantly, the food here is amazing and often worth the fortune you’re shelling out. That said, it’s absolutely possible to get a great gastronomical experience while playing conservatively. For those on a budget, your best options are “ticket restaurants,” which I’ve mentioned previously. You pick a meal, the machine releases a ticket which you then present to the staff at the shop. These shops serve common dishes such as soba noodles and curry. Meals can be as cheap as 300 yen, but you are by all means encouraged to try the more expensive ones. If you feel a little more generous, Tokyo has plenty of fancier choices, particularly restaurants that specialize in traditional cuisine or foreign food. What’s important to remember about these places is that dinner is often more expensive than lunch, with afternoon prices starting at around 900 yen and at least doubling at nighttime. As I’ve found, you get what you pay for. I’ve never been disappointed by food here and it only got more delicious as the tab went up. In conclusion: Bring a fat wallet. You’ll feel much more at ease.
The price of comfort: 470 yen.
All this talk about food got me hungry, so here’s another tip: Japan has two different kinds of hamburger. And no, I don’t mean two different flavors. I mean two different dishes. “Hambaga” is the regular burger we know and love, served between two buns and topped with cheese, veggies, bacon, caviar, etc. “Hambagu” is a fancier, more presentable version of a burger. Its English translation is Hamburg Steak, as it’s served breadless and with side dishes. These include but not are not limited to miso soup, rice, pickles, and potatoes. The meat itself is hamburger-shaped, but it’s often covered in a semi-sweet brown sauce. It’s absolutely tasty and will make you think about how much a brute you seem to be by eating a piece of meat with your hands. Or maybe not.
This is what civilization looks like.
Tokyo, day 9
Today you will enjoy these cherry blossoms because sometimes we need to cherish the easy things. And because I’ve seen a few during my stay here.
Tokyo, day 10
Today I decided that I was going to purposely miss my flight back to the States, gather up all my savings, and live on the down-low until I became schooled enough to work at one of those maid cafes. At least that’s what I was thinking until I woke up. Sometimes we have to forget to chase our dreams.
In any case, the previous day had been great. My friend Arisa came to visit and we indulged in some succulent tuna pizza in Harajuku, but not before finally trying out those famous Harajuku crepes.
Tastes so kawaii.
Afterwards, Satoko, who at this point is essentially my Tokyo sibling, joined me one more for time for some sushi. Rule of life: Meeting up with friends will always be a good excuse to eat.
Ordering a California roll is punishable by death here.
Today was no different, so I headed out to Nakano to rendezvous with Imo and finally try out some yakiniku.Yakiniku is a Korean-derived grilled meat cuisine. Usually, a yakiniku restaurant will have tables with grills in the middle, which means you cook your own cuts of meat. Imo and I let loose with two platters of assorted beef cuts, a salad, rice, and egg soup. The soup is guaranteed to be delicious and to make your cholesterol skyrocket. The beef, once cooked, is best served after being dipped in tare, a soy sauce concoction of sorts. Yakiniku is actually fairly easy to handle, and it’s a great opportunity to show that cute lady how good of a chef you can (pretend to) be. If you still manage to screw it up, well, we can’t all be winners.
Remember, kids: Always moderate. As in, moderate how much of a break you take in between bites.
After the grillfest, Imo and I went over to Ochanomizu, known habitat of young rockstardom aspirants in Tokyo. She introduced me to her friend who was a volunteer tour guide of sorts and we joined a group of Japanese visitors, with me being the only one pathetic enough that needed to ask for something in Japanese to be repeated slowly. Our walking tour took us to through Ochanomizu to Yushima Seido, a temple dedicated to Confucianism.
Confucius says, “Always leave your porch open.”
Next was Kanda Shrine, which was frequented by shogun Tokugawa himself during the Edo period. We actually caught a wedding take place.
“Is there free booze at the wedding?”
Having made it through the Kanda district of Chiyoda City on foot, we arrived in Akihabara next. On Sundays, Akihabara holds a flea market and traffic on the main streets is blocked to make room for the surge of pedestrians. Pretty much looks like an apocalypse.
Attack of the zombie love pillows.
Our last stop was Ueno Station, a popular spot on the weekends. After the tour group disbanded and I was able to get back to speaking lousy Japanese without additional embarrassment, Imo and I sorted through some English language guides at a nearby bookshop. Some of their examples were hilarious.
A normal everyday conversation.
Lastly, we checked out the apparently new Gindaco Cafe. You may recall that Gindaco specializes in takoyaki, flaming hot balls of octopus-filled batter. Well, Gindaco’s ambitions are going skyhigh, because now Gindaco Cafe makes their own taiyaki. Taiyaki is a traditional Japanese sweet pastry shaped like a fish and filled with various flavors, notably bean paste, green tea, or chocolate. Gindaco puts its own twist on it by frying to hell out of it and dousing it in sugar. Just in case you didn’t feel guilty enough with the takoyaki alone.
“What is it filled with?”
After parting ways with Imo, I made my way back to Asakusa for an evening stroll. Even in the freezing weather, there was a solace in walking the streets that were slowly emptying as vendors closed shop and tourists began to head out. Asakusa, an early riser that fills its corners with merchants and food stands, also goes to bed early. All that is left come nightfall are the few lone visitors and the drunks who don’t want their evening to end just yet. Everyone else is preparing for the next morning, when Nakamise will pack itself once more with foreigners and locals alike, all looking for that perfect souvenir. The crowds will be gathering at Senso-ji again as coins are tossed and wishes are made. The rickshaw drivers will be up at full energy offering their services. In a way I was jealous that all those people would enjoy Asakusa while I made my trek back to the States. That my turn to spend another morning in Tokyo had passed. But I knew the remedy to that sadness. I went to that shabby old restaurant again, punched in the number on the machine for my favorite tonkatsudon curry, and waited for my delicious dinner. The old men were more courteous and cheerful than usual. Maybe it had been a good day for business. I downed my last spoonful of heavenly curry and thanked them for the meal. I said it very casually, as if to imply that it wasn’t goodbye. Rather, it was a “catch you later.”
Good night to the neighborhood.
Diego Spindola Arrieta is an artist who resides in Miami and is an alumni of Florida International University.
where next, where now
Image documentation provided by Diego Spindola Arrieta.