Tuesday, January 26, 2010

and oh yeah, silver week

So, just realized that in those two massive posts this morning, even despite their massiveness, I managed to forget about an entire vacation. Namely, when me and Jo went to Tokyo for Silver Week. Ha! There is a disparaging remark just waiting to be made here, but Tokyo is pretty okay, so I'll skip it.

Silver Week, much like Golden Week except that it doesn't necessarily happen every year, is a series of national holidays in September that line up to make a long weekend. In this case, a five day weekend. So, what do you do with a five day weekend? You grab a buddy and jump on the shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo!

In no particular order, the sights:

Harajuku -- So, anyone who even has a peripheral awareness that Japan is "hip" or that Gwen Stefani is a famous person has probably heard of Harajuku. This area of Tokyo is notorious for being populated by the young and the weirdly dressed. There is a particular bridge always photographed in travel books and fashion guides, where moody teens dressed as punk rockers, goth lolitas, and everything in between loiter to...well, to do nothing. Glare at the crowds, maybe. There is also a lot of shopping to be done here, much of it for clothing, and much of it for the type of clothing that would appeal to the above teens (and their less grumpy alt-rock counterparts). It's interesting, to be sure, but not quite as out there as people make it sound. Most people are dressed relatively normal (for Japan), so it's not like you've been swept away to a Marilyn Manson concert. At least, not quite.

Meiji Jingu -- Shrine to the Meiji emperor. Though it may surprise you, it's located right next to Harajuku, about a five minute walk from the Harajuku train stop. In fact, you have to cross the aforementioned weirdo bridge to get there, and the entrance to the shrine is visible almost immediately. Once you get through the first torii gate (marking your entrance into the realm of the gods), it gets remarkable peaceful for Tokyo. Broad paths lined with huge trees, winding through the forest for a pretty good distance before you reach the actual shrine. It's not the biggest shrine (though that might be my Kyoto snobbery talking), but it's a pretty nice one -- very serene and pleasant, and the surrounding forest grounds make up the space. There are also some little shops selling souvenirs (including cherry blossom sugar crystals, which sounded so charming that I almost bought them) and some mini museums. We stopped into one housing imperial relics. The most impressive thing was the full black coach emblazoned with the imperial chrysanthemum.

Sensoji Temple -- This is actually more of a temple complex in Asakusa. Probably the most popular in Tokyo, even. To enter the grounds, you have to go through a gate with a giant red lantern, done up with huge black kanji that read kaminari-mon, or, "Lightning Gate." Sweeeeeet! Once you're through, there's a long covered shopping arcade, with various gift shops. And finally, at the end of that, the temples. There's a whole collection of them, and wouldn't you know, there're festival stalls set up everywhere in honor of Silver Week. The temples were nice, but we probably spent as much or more time snacking on weird festival foods. Chocolate covered bananas, check. Shaved ice, check. Takoyaki fried octopus balls with whole tiny octopi inside? Well, that's different from the way we do it in Kansai, but hey, I'm game for anything. In the end, I think I prefer one small tentacle piece at a time. But we had fun naming the octopi as the were devoured, tiny faces and all. Alas, poor Franz, the last to go.

Ueno Zoo -- In terms of actual visibility of animals, this has got to be the best zoo I've ever been to. There wasn't a single one that we just couldn't see. The gorillas were just chillin', the elephants trundling merrily along, and the tigers were all like, "He~ey!" My favorites of the day might have been the big black bison, who just looked shaggy and huggable, and the giant anteater, who is my new boyfriend. As an added and geeky plus to this trip, I realized at one point in the zoo that we were walking through the location where a semi-important scene of the Japanese drama "Hana Yori Dango" had been filmed. Me and Jo both adore that show, and proceeded to have total girly meltdowns. I think we even took a video of ourselves just being there.

Meganebashi and the Imperial Palace Grounds -- You can't, of course, actually enter the Imperial Palace. Neither can you meet His Imperial Awesomeness. But you can poke around the gardens, and ogle the buildings from a safe distance. Perhaps the most picturesque place to do this is the area immediately surrounding Meganebashi, which literally means "Glasses Bridge." It's called this because of the double arched undercarriage, which reflected in the water forms two whole ovals that together resemble spectacles. As if this effect was pretty enough, from certain vantage points you can also see the white palace buildings in the background, making for a really nice composition.

Sunshine City Aquarium -- Let me be honest with you. If you are taking a vacation to Tokyo, do not bother with Sunshine City, nor its aquarium. Actually, Sunshine City is a pretty decent shopping mall, and the aquarium isn't bad. (Definitely nowhere near the enthralling grotesquery of Mongolia's Natural History Museum.) It just isn't worth going out of your way for if you've got limited time. Some neat fish, a brief birds of prey show, a mystery mammal that we couldn't find the name for, but suspiciously resembled a jackalope. (But those aren't real, right? Right?!) Also, why so many birds and mammals? Isn't this supposed to be an aquarium?

Yebisu Garden Place and the Yebisu Beer Museum -- Okay, let me be honest with you again, but this time in a "confession of my dorkitude" kind of way. At Ueno Zoo we accidentally found a scene from "Hana Yori Dango," but we specifically went to Yebisu Garden Place in search of one. (Specifically, the one where Domyouji waits by a sculpture in the rain for three hours because Makino has stood him up for their first date, but a guilty conscience makes her show up way late, and she discovers that he's still there just waiting for her, and then later when they get trapped in an elevator it turns out that Domyouji's got a fever from all the waiting. Ah, true love!) Of course, here comes the big cosmic joke. Perhaps the only time when I didn't want to see a beer festival, there is a great big beer festival totally surrounding -- and therefore, obscuring -- the sculpture where Domyouji spent those three hours. Curses, foiled again! On the upside, we did find the other two (peripheral) targets of our trip there, the Yebisu Beer Museum (the cretins sponsoring the festival) and the first official MLB restaurant in Japan. The beer museum was short and all in Japanese, but there was a sampler available at the end, and we had fun pretending to know about beer. And the MLB restaurant served seriously butt-kicking hamburgers, of a kind we hadn't had in at least a year and a halfish. Go figure, the chef owner had spent many years in America, no doubt perfecting both his English and said butt-kicking hamburgers.

Yasukuni Shrine -- A place that Joanna actually feared to go, but agreed to because I am geeky for war history and have big manipulative puppy eyes. The thing about Yasukuni Shrine is that it's extremely controversial. Every time a prime minister stops by, the entire nations of China and Korea start flipping out big time. You see, Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to the Japanese war dead, and this makes China and Korea particularly nuts because there are fourteen class-A war criminals enshrined there. Your first impression upon entering is the usual torii gate, except that this one isn't usual at all. First of all, it's massive in size, probably one of the biggest, right along with Heian Jingu here in Kyoto. (According to wikipedia, it was in fact the largest at the time of its construction.) But more unusual, and more eerily striking, is the material. Almost all torii gates are made of wood, or occasionally stone. But the Yasakuni torii is weathered steel, and right away there's a perhaps unintentional feeling of the industrial, of ships and planes and war. Inside, the shrine itself is about what you'd expect from a shrine (especially if you'd been living in Kyoto for a year) but there is also a really interesting museum attached to the complex. I found this part absolutely fascinating, because it is a history of Japan's various wars...from Japan's point of view. Reading their take on conflicts up to and during WWII was totally captivating, partly because of the things they said, but more for the things they didn't say. I wish I could remember all the details now that I was spitting at Joanna then, but I guess that means I'll just have to visit again (and write my thoughts down this time).

Hie Shrine -- Even as someone who sees a lot of shrines, I found this one really lovely. It's set up on a hill in Akasaka, in the middle of Tokyo, quiet and surrounded by trees, but you can see buildings on the horizon (particularly, Prudential loomed nearby). Maybe it was that proximity between new and old, or maybe it was the lack of people, or maybe it was just the nice arbor we were sitting under, but this shrine absolutely relaxed me. It was so peaceful that I didn't want to leave -- Joanna eventually had to drag me away.

I think that about sums it up. We had a good time bopping around town, having constant and impromptu writers workshops, and accidentally running into parades of half-naked men. Oh, Japan, I love you.

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