Catching up

Ooops! Sort of fell off the blogging wagon there!

You see, we were meant to go to Odaiba on Saturday, but Omo was feeling under the weather, so I went to Shibuya by myself. Then, Sunday, we were planning to go to the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, but I woke up with a terrible cold, so I slept all morning and then we went to Kinokuniya in Shinjuku. Monday, we did get out to the ramen museum, but it was not at all as advertised (ie, awesome) so that was a disappointment. Tuesday … Tuesday was yesterday, right? Z rejoined us after her trip south, and we visited Akihabara and Harajuku, before going to a cherry blossom party in the evening with Omo’s flatmates and their friends.

There! All caught up!

FINE. DETAILS.

Shibuya

I don’t know if Shibuya actually reminded me of New York, or if I was just in a similar mood because I was by myself. It’s certainly busy and urban, surrounded by skyscrapers and the giant LCD screens that lead people to compare the Shibuya scramble to Times Square.

But I didn’t much care for Times Square — it was almost shocking in its dirtiness and chaos, especially since I had just come from Central Park — whereas I quite liked Shibuya. Tokyo is a very clean city in general, but it was particularly noticeable in such a busy place. With no garbage bins. (Following the sarin attack on the subway in the … ’90s? Bins sort of vanished from the Japanese landscape. They’re around, but rare, and will often take only one kind of garbage, eg, cans but not paper. People just carry their rubbish until they find a bin, which is very civilised, but I do seem to be finding a lot of wrappers in my handbag of an evening.)

My first stop in Shibuya was the Tobacco & Salt Museum. And don’t give me that funny look. I really like history, especially the history of commodities, especially if it’s only 100 yen to get into the museum.

And, considering it had barely any English at all, I really liked the Tobacco & Salt Museum! Especially the tobacco levels. Sorry, salt, but I’m just not that into you. Whereas I find smoking quite interesting in theory — it’s only in practice, where you get the horrible smells and the passive smoking and the burned bits in your clothes from other people’s flying cigarette ash that I start thinking it should be banned forever, or at least taxed into non-existence.

Like I said, there was very little English, but I found the exhibits fairly self-explanatory. The early smuggling of tobacco into Japan! The widespread adoption of tobacco use in the Meiji Era! The twentieth century: 100 years of cigarette packaging! Pipes!

There did come a point where I was basically wandering around quoting Mad Men under my breath, and thinking I totally need to rewatch that episode where Burt Cooper wants Sterling Cooper to take on Japanese clients, and Roger has his racist post-WW2 outburst, and Don stands around looking manly and thinking manly thoughts. But hey, it’s a good show.

The museum’s fourth level was devoted to an exhibit of art depicting the use of tobacco. It had a few really amazing paintings, and lots of really mediocre ones, which (of course) were the ones being sold in postcard form. Such is life.

After the museum I stumbled across a book/DVD/CD store — Japanese retailers are big into integrated entertainment — where I had a good time looking at Japanese releases of Western movies and TV. Sad fact: Japan has Torchwood all the way up to “Miracle Day”, but the most recent Doctor Who I could find was from 2006. Maybe “Doomsday” scared them off. Likewise, I couldn’t find any Avatar: The last Airbender, which has aired here, but wasn’t hugely successful. Probably because the Japanese went, “Wow, America, you can do anime now. That’s so cute.” Which is fair, but when I think of the missed opportunities for merch, I get sad.

I was pretty hungry after that, but where to eat? I was in one of the great shopping districts of Tokyo, and where there’s shops, there’s food.

Only, lots of it was Italian food, which tends to be pretty heavy on the cheese and cream. And I found I wasn’t quite brave enough to venture into a cafe without a single Japanese speaker to help me out.

So I wound up getting lunch from a konbini, a convenience store. This consisted of two kinds of onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with fish in the middle, a bottle of orange juice and a can of Red Bull. (I felt oddly tired by this time, for reasons that became apparent later.) Total cost: about 500 yen. Everyone who said food was prohibitively expensive in Japan was probably trying to buy melons or something.

(Don’t buy melons in Japan. Strawberries are another thing that are supposed to be hugely expensive, and I did see them going for 600 yen a half-punnet in Shibuya, but out in Katsushika, where I’m staying, I’ve been buying whole punnets for 280 yen, which is about what I’d expect to pay in Australia.)

I tried to shop for clothes after lunch, but I just couldn’t. I stuck my nose into Shibuya 109, which is supposed to be aimed at women in their early 30s, but there was nothing at all that appealed to me.

Omo later explained that Shibuya 109 — and Shibuya in general — is dominated by gyaru stores. Gyaru is a Japanese style that’s hyper-feminine — false eyelashes, false nails, the highest possible heels — but which emphasises sexiness over being kawaii — cute. It’s amazingly cool to look at, but doesn’t suit me in the least.

(I find myself constantly on the verge of thinking that Japan values the floral, pasteltastic kind of femininity, but I think that’s a selection bias at work. Omo’s house is amazingly pretty — there’s floral wallpaper, the doors and skirting boards are pink, it’s all women with no men allowed — and my first thought when I walked in was, “Oh wow, I’m not remotely feminine enough to stay here!” And since that moment, I’ve been noticing the femme displays in department stores and so forth.)

Anyway, I had a browse at Forever 21 — which is a gyaru brand as well — but nothing fit. That’s the other problem with clothes shopping in Japan: in Australia, I’m completely average, and it’s only the inability of designers to cater for women with hips and bellies and breasts that makes it hard for me to find clothes. In Japan, I’m a fair bit rounder than the average, and lots of stores don’t stock anything higher than an L or XL. Forever 21 started at XXS and ran all the way up to M.

I did buy jewellery, though. Earrings and a necklace, but the necklace is already broken. Oh well!

Finally, I realised that there was a Loft in Shibuya. Loft seems to sell everything from homewares to gifts, but I’m especially in love with their stationery section. Japanese stationery is just really, really good, okay?

Problem was, I couldn’t seem to find the store. You’d think it would be hard, misplacing a six-storey department store, but apparently I managed it. I’m not saying that I wandered around in circles for an hour before I finally found Loft, but it was a fair while.

Luckily, within Loft, I found the greatest invention ever.

A cocktail bar.

In a stationery/homewares/make-up/gift shop.

It was amazing. I really don’t understand why this isn’t a universal practice.

I had a nice sit, and ate a refreshing salad — my konbini lunch was a few hours in the past by then — and drank something green with gin in it.

It was lovely.

Then I bought some gifts, and some stationery, and made my way back to Katsushika. Where I basically collapsed, because it turned out I was so tired because I was coming down with a cold. Or rather, I had been fighting a cold since I got off the plane at Haneda Airport, and it was finally making its move.

So I ate a punnet of strawberries — full of vitamin C, you know — and drank some more orange juice, and went to bed.

Only I didn’t sleep so well, and when I woke up, Omo and I agreed that there was no way I was going to Yokohama, so I might as well go back to sleep.

Which I did. And it was great.

I felt much better after that, so Omo and I got dressed and headed into Shinjuku for the afternoon.

Shinjuku

Shinjuku is another major shopping district. It’s also home to Kinokuniya, a major Japanese book chain. They have a store in Sydney, and when the day comes that they finally open in Melbourne, I will have to seriously consider returning to retail. The Shinjuku store is the main one — the mothership.

Of course, its selection of English novels was limited, but I was mostly there to look at English translations of Japanese novels, and they had plenty of those. I bought two more crime novels, and gave serious thought to a few books that I think my brother might enjoy, except they were all giant hardcovers. Sorry, little brother, but your birthday present will be from Japan via BookDepository.

I was also tempted by a book that claimed to be a collection of Japanese science-fiction, except that most of the contributors were American. Nice try? Cementing my decision, I noticed that one of the contributors is the author of this post, which I found shockingly UScentric and generally dubious even before I went to Japan. Although Omo’s rage blackouts as I read it to her later were pretty funny.

Finally, I bought a Japanese magazine about Sherlock Holmes. No, I don’t read Japanese, but I really liked the illustrations.

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(There was also a big feature on Sherlock, but, you know, *snore*)

We wound up eating at an “Irish” pub, partially because I was sick and wanted comfort food, but also because I was on the verge of a blood sugar low, and that seemed like the most appealing place. Bit embarrassing, but they did an excellent gin and tonic, so stop judging me.

Then Omo took me to a gothic lolita department store. IT WAS AMAZING.

So you don’t get the wrong idea, department stores in Japan aren’t vast buildings housing a single company that sells lots of goods, but narrow skyscrapers that hold lots of businesses. In this case, all the businesses were related to the gothic lolita subculture. Most sold clothes and accessories, but there was a wig shop, a store that sold anime merch, and more.

Now, I, obviously, am not a lolita, but I really like the aesthetic, while recognising that it is not remotely for me at all. But occasionally I have yearnings, especially if you put a really well-cut steampunk suit in front of me.

The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum

The ramen museum gets talked up a lot on blogs and in travel books, and it’s supposed to be a blast. And it probably is, if you read Japanese.

If you’re monolingual, you get a rather claustrophobic walk through an indoor recreation of 1958 Tokyo — much smaller than the photos suggested — and an abbreviated ramen menu. Which is fair enough — it’s a bit rude to expect a country to cater to me linguistically — but it was a bit of a hike to get to Shin-Yokohama, and the ramen wasn’t even that good.

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I must say, though, I liked the bit in the pamphlet about how the museum’s creator loved his home town and had a passion for ramen, so he created a ramen museum in the city of his birth. More people should do that. I’m not just saying that ‘cos I love museums, honest.

Akihabara and Harajuku, followed by a picnic under the cherry trees

Omo and I had no particular plans for Tuesday, save that Z was getting back from Kansai in the early afternoon, and Omo wanted to play the taiko game. You know the traditional Japanese drums? There’s an arcade game where the drums are simulated, like Guitar Hero only more banging things, and Omo’s quite good. Well, she’d want to be — last week she played so intensely, her hands started bleeding.

Akihabara is where technology … happens, or so I am given to understand, and there were arcades on every corner. I mean, literally, every corner.

So we didn’t have any trouble finding the game, only there were these two guys playing it already. One was just in practice mode. The other was … well, he brought his own sticks. And he had a bag stretched over the game’s drum for some reason. And he was very, very good.

So we slunk away and had lunch. I ate the greatest hamburger of my entire life, so well done, Akihabara. Then we found a bookstore — it’s a sickness, it really is — and eventually went back and finally played the game.

I suck quite badly, but I think I just need practice. No one’s hands bled this time.

Game completed, we met up with Z and decided that Akihabara was a bit of a bust. Lots of sex shops. Lots of computer stores. I saw a young man coming out of an arcade wearing traditional Japanese clothing — hakama and a kimono — and a bowler hat. I was torn between being super impressed at his dapperness, and wondering if this was the Akihabara equivalent of a fedora-wearing neckbeard.

We decided to go to Harajuku. Ah, Harajuku, where the young folks where the street styles, etc. Not on a Tuesday afternoon, apparently. I mean, there were teenagers, and they were wearing cool clothes, but the famous outlandishness of the Harajuku scene was not in evidence. Which is probably good, because one wouldn’t like to be staring at innocent people like they were exhibits in a zoo, but also a bit disappointing, because SPECTACLE.

Instead, we were off to go stare at innocent boy bands like they were exhibits in a zoo. Well, Omo and Z did. I had a look around, then waited outside with my book. Not, I add, because I was bored or sulky or passive-aggressively hurrying them along! I’m just not really into boy bands, even when I enjoy their music, and it was a really good book.

Harakuku, it turns out, has a lot of stores selling boy band merch. One was at the bottom of a very steep, narrow, scary staircase.

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I stand by my decision to stay out on the street. I’d already tripped on one flight of stairs for the day.

Also, loitering out the front, I got to see a young Japanese woman, aged about 20 (I’d guess) pause in the middle of the entrance, throw her arms and gaze upwards and cry, “Oppa!”

“Oppa” is a Korean honoriffic meaning “big brother”. K-pop fans address their idols as “oppa”, except me and Omo, ‘cos we’re not Korean and most of those boys are younger than us. But it’s not an unusual thing to hear in the vicinity of a boy band store.

What was unusual was that the woman was addressing SexyZone, a Japanese band. And SexyZone are … I think the oldest is 16? One was born in 2000, which means he’s much too young to be in a group with that name. Suffice to say, it’s a bit odd that the woman was addressing them as “oppa”. But I stood where she stood and looked where she looked, and I can’t think who else she was referring to.

(Speaking of “oppa”, and Korean honoriffics, for lack of anything better to do, I once watched the Korean dub of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and there was a lovely bit of characterisation where Katara addressed Sokka as “oppa”, but Azula disrespectfully addressed Zuko by his name. It was a very neat thing, and something you can’t quite convey in English, even with Azula’s use of diminutive nicknames for Zuko.)

I was still meditating on this incident — okay, fine, I was tweeting about it — when the owner of the shop came out and yelled at me to move on. It was mostly in Japanese, but I got the gist, and I found it very strange. But Z and Omo emerged a few minutes later, saying he had kicked out all the customers who were browsing, saying that anyone who wasn’t definitely going to buy something had to leave. I still found it strange, but I suppose I’d been in Japan for 10 days, and bad customer service was bound to happen at some point.

We visited one more idol store, and Omo found something rather special, but I’ll let her blog about that.

By this time it was getting dark, so we made our way to Ueno Station to meet Omo’s flatmates for the hanami — the cherry blossom viewing party.

Hanami

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I’m not a very aesthetically sophisticated person, and I’m not good at sitting still and contemplating things. I really like Tokyo’s sakura, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sit under one and view it for more than a few minutes.

Luckily, it turns out that Japanese festivals are a lot like the ones in Australia — an excellent excuse to eat food and drink a lot in the company of friends. The Japanese versions are just prettier, that’s all.

So we sat under the trees, about half a dozen of us, and ate bento and drank … let’s see, there were two kinds of wine, sake, shochu and … maybe there was a third kind of wine. Yes, there was!

I only tried one of each drink — unlike a certain friend who was given a whole cup of shochu, drank it and then regailed us with her feelings about idol groups — because I didn’t want to seem like an Aussie yobbo, and also I hadn’t brought any alcohol myself. (Not that a certain friend seemed like an Aussie yobbo! Her Japanese got better with every drink. It was terrifying and amazing.) But it was a very pleasant night.

And I am, in fact, quite fond of looking at sakura. Tokyo’s landscape is dominated by mid-twentieth century high density housing, and it would seem quite bleak and utilitarian if there weren’t so many trees. And it’s really amazing to be sitting on the train, looking out at a predominantely grey landscape, and then there’s an explosion of pink and white as you pass a cherry tree. Probably even more amazing if this is coming at the end of a northern hemisphere winter. I’m team cherry blossom, me.

I started this post in the morning, and now a day has passed, and I’ve done all kinds of things in the meantime, but I’m much too tired to blog about it now. Stay tuned for a SkyTree adventure (today), my last day in Tokyo (tomorrow), and some kind of post about the bicycles of Tokyo. But not just yet, because right now, I really need to eat some mochi and read my book.

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

One thought on “Catching up”

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