Day 8 – Yokohama

June 10, 2007 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Japan, Travel, Yokohama | 2 Comments
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Tuesday had arrived and I took the train to Yokohama for a day trip to explore the city but more importantly to meet up with the awesome Miki. Unfortunately I had dressed for summer on a less than summer-y day. At any rate this did not deter us from hanging out and catching up. Admittedly, I am counting on Miki to point out when I’ve forgotten or made something up (hopefully you’re reading this despite the delays).

We made our way to the Minato Mirai 21 district from the station in our quest for that staple – food! After a bit of indecision we settled on a diner that specialised – if one can say that – on Yokohama’s cuisine through its various historic developments, with different parts of the restaurant themed to look like, for example an 19th century parlour. Feeling full after our meal we delayed heading outside due to poor weather and opted for coffee and people watching. While the atriums seem quite empty apparently this is anything but the case on weekends.

The sky now a little clearer we walked towards Yokohama’s famed Cosmo Clock Ferris Wheel. Unfortunately, due to bad weather it was not open. Instead we wandered down to the bay and checking out some of the shops along the way before looking out over the water.

Now it was onto some of Yokohama’s museums starting with the Port Opening Memorial Hall (Yokohama was one of the first ports forced open by Westerners). Not a lot is going on at this free venue (which appears to be largely used for conventions/meetings etc) but you can wander around and see some of the work that went into restoring the building after the great earthquake of 1923.

We walked from the Memorial Hall to the Yokohama Archives of History for some education in Yokohama’s and Japanese history. Using the former British Consulate building the Archives offers a good opportunity to learn about the city’s role in the opening of Japan through gun boat diplomacy and the subsequent impact of foreigners in the city during a turbulent period in Japanese history. There is quite a lot of English – to the point where I must admit I got bored of reading and started skimming. Nonetheless a very good effort on their part to explain the Japanese position to a non-Japanese.

By this stage we were on our way to Yamashita Park but decided to rest our feet and grab a coffee at the similar to but not quite Starbucks – “Excelsior Caffe“. This ended up being a good call as it started raining, luckily by the time we were done it had cleared up and off to the park we went. There were plenty of other people (mainly students) doing the same and everyone (us included) took many photos. While in the park we stopped by the Statue of the Girl with Red Shoes (follow the link and scroll down/ click the on page hyperlink to read the story).

From the park we walked into Yokohama’s extensive ChinaTown, sampling some street vendor food which helped top up our energy (earlier coffee aside) as we walked into one of the city’s tree-lined shopping streets (Miki when you get the chance let me know it’s name), later that evening it looked charming with the lights on throughout the leaves. At the end of the street while pondering the best route to the top of the bluff so we could look out over the bay we were approached by an old Japanese man who knew some English but spoke mainly to Miki and advised a suitable route. So off we went up the steep hill and arrived at the historic bluff (where the foreigners used to live during the period of unequal treaties) just before dusk settled. On the bluff’s main street you have historic European style buildings on one side and the foreigner’s graveyard on the other. During the day you are free to wander around the cemetery. Instead we detoured slightly to look at some of this historic buildings before retracing our steps to the lookout at the bluff. At this stage daylight was almost gone but this afforded the opportunity to view the twinkling neon and other lights from the skyline and bay area.

After making our way from the bluff we stopped by the massive Don Quixote discount store that sells everything from TVs to  shampoo and after stocking up on some essentials we walked back to Minato Mirai for some food. By this stage we were both pretty exhausted from all the walking and dinner consisted of us staring at food and languidly consuming it as we fought to stay awake. Of course eating a big meal helped enormously with this struggle. Nonetheless we pulled it off and managed to get back to the station and head our separate ways.

I know I would not have had as much fun in Yokohama without a local tour guide and friend but the city has plenty to offer the casual visitor as well and I know I have only touched the surface of what it has to offer, for example you may be interested in its Doll Museum.

Thank you Miki for a great day!

Day 7 – Shibuya, Asakusa, Ueno (again) and Roppongi Hills

June 10, 2007 at 8:30 pm | Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Travel | 1 Comment
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Monday had arrived and it was time to get back out there and explore Tokyo, starting with Shibuya. I left my luggage at the capsule hotel for the day and took the train to Shibuya station. Once again got a bit lost (clearly a pattern has emerged) and eventually found the right starting point for exploring the district: Hachiko – the statue of the dog that so loved its master it returned every day after his death until he too died several years later. Reminds me of that Futurama episode. Hachiko is the meeting place in Shibuya and near the station entrance and the main intersection you can understand why. The intersection is reportedly the busiest one in the world and even if not it is nonetheless teeming with people crossing every few minutes.

Shibuya is well known for its fashion and walking around and through the fashion stores its easy to see why but if Harajuku has a more alternative inclination then Shibuya could be described as more elitist, more, how should I say, in a Paris Hilton vein of clothing and well vanity. Very glossy, shiny and expensive. I hadn’t intended to spend too much time here but I ended up spending quite some time as I waited for my phone to be recharged at a SoftBank I stumbled across (I had left my charger in Osaka).  So I explored some more, which turned out to be a good thing as a few more stores were opening now that it had reached 11, including a very large anime/mange store – Mandarake. It was very popular with more foreigners in this concentrated space than I’d seen through all my traipsing in Akihabara’s manga shops the previous evening. Afterwards I ate at a random hole in the wall got my phone back and began navigating my way to Asakusa. Shibuya is excellent for fashionistas and for the rest of it’s great to sit down and people watch.

With a more rustic or traditional feel Asakusa may be the closest you’ll get to a ‘traditional’ Japan in Tokyo, well that and loads of tourists, shops selling to tourists and the giant Asahi beer factory. But besides all that it is nice and relaxing to wander amongst the stalls and through the Sensoji temple. Apparently the temple had recently had some sort of event (possibly related to those I’d seen in Akihabara) and as a result there was a great deal of dismantling and other clean up activity going on, however this did not deter me or the other tourists from checking out the large temple at the center, the tall imposing pagoda or the assorted shrines set up in the grounds.

Asakusa is a pleasant place to wander around but at the end of the day the throngs of people put a real dampener on any real enjoyment. Additionally, I don’t intend to write so little on the temple or the district but honestly, I wasn’t overawed by the complex per se but the combination of temple grounds and shopping streets does create an atmosphere and it is this atmosphere that I as a tourist savoured the most from my experience in Asakusa.

It was now starting to get a bit later in the afternoon and it was time to return to Akihabara to pick up my belongings and check-in at my next hotel. I admit I didn’t particularly want to go through the effort of researching a new place so booked myself back in my original hotel in Tokyo – the Oak Hotel. After all it was fine the first time. I paid less than 7,000 yen and received a single room with ensuite. The room also features a TV and phone, while the hotel is accessible 24hrs (with swipe), has several internet computers, friendly staff and a small common kitchen and is located about 10-15 mins walk from Ueno station. Overall it is very good for the money that you pay. Really the only downside for me was having to lug bags there after arriving after a long international flight and train ride into Tokyo – a minor complaint that should not detract from the other advantages.

Once I’d settled back in my room I made my way to Roppongi Hills to catch up with jjag and have a wander around looking at the good side of the tracks area compared to its neighbour Roppongi – which we’ll cover briefly in a future post. There isn’t much to say about Roppongi Hills other than it is gleaming and well to do.

Day 6 – Harajuku, Ginza and Akihabara

June 10, 2007 at 5:53 pm | Posted in anime, Anime & Manga, Japan, Manga, Tokyo, Travel | Leave a comment
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On Day 6 (Sunday) I returned to Tokyo in the afternoon once again via Shinkansen and made my way to Harajuku. I was planning on seeing the Meiji Shrine and the cosplayers that make this suburb their home (particularly on the weekend). Harajuku, with its narrow winding main street is filled in equal parts funky clothing shops and food stalls on the one hand and tourists, spruikers and locals (whether cosplaying or not) on the other.

If you’re into shopping and fashion you’ll no doubt be interested in taking the time to explore all of the ins and outs of Harajuku but for me I was here to check out the people and to do it quickly. Time was ticking after all. Unfortunately, after “exploring the surrounds” (getting turned around) I found my way to a shrine or temple which was roughly in the place of a shrine listed on a Japanese language map I’d seen earlier. While it didn’t look as big as I remembered the Meiji shrine from my previous trip I put this down to the access paths were closed and not being at the main building. I wandered around a little hoping to find a big cluster of cosplayers to check out but unfortunately there were none in this area.

Of course if I’d been smarter I would have realised/ remembered that this was completely the wrong part of Harajuku but instead had to rely on Miki to tell me a few days later as she scanned through my photos.

While I didn’t get to the bridge connecting Harajuku with the Meiji shrine (where according to my guide the bulk of the cosplayers gather) I did see quite a few as I walked around but nothing amazingly outlandish. Did I take photos? No, I feel a bit weird taking photos of people, especially those who are dressing up, as I wouldn’t want to make them feel like they’re an attraction when they’re just trying to be themselves. Granted I’m saying that without knowing their individual motivations and possibly just laying my own preconceptions onto the situation.

With Harajuku done (at least in my head at the time) I was ready to move onto Ginza. Tokyo’s high end shopping district. My guide book advised that on Sunday they close the main street and it turn it over to pedestrians and (not verbatim) ‘cafes and everything spills out onto the streets in a European style’. Except not. Silly incorrect guide book.

Yes the street is closed which means you can walk at pace quite well up and down the main boulevard and there are the occasional street performers but that’s about it. There are no alfresco coffee shops just a few chairs placed in the middle of the street every so often for those weary walkers. I was glad to have gone to Ginza but annoyed that I’d bothered to go on Sunday when I could have visited realistically on any day and spent more time either in Harajuku or my next destination: Akihabara.

Akihabara is Tokyo’s technology district with every shop stocking alternatively a piece of technological gadgetry or manga/anime related products. Honestly, while I should have been uber impressed by the technology I wasn’t.  The items may have been super advanced on the inside but I was oblivious to this due to the language barrier and so I was reduced to a casual inspection of the exterior where they all looked like a variant of a TV/ phone/ camera etc. One of my stops was to the Tokyo Anime Center and it was quite disappointing. When I hear the term “center” I had imagined a variety of things, none of which were the glorified information service and gift shop that greeted me at the (small) Anime Center. It would be so much easier to just walk down the main street and wander into various shops than to bother with the anime center in it’s current size and form.

Speaking of walking, when I arrived into Akihabara I found that its streets were closed as well and this may or may not be a result of the festival that was occurring. Many, many people were working together as they paraded small shrines through the streets. I have no clue what this was in honour of but apparently there was a large festival in Tokyo over the weekend. The participants (from all ages and genders) looked like they were having a ball – it was infectious.

I checked myself into the Akihabara capsule hotel and then headed back into the area and wandered around anime and manga shops. A relatively healthy experience given the number of stairs to climb to cover each building’s floors. I was suitably impressed by the range of products in anime, manga and general merchandise. Whatever your taste there will be something in Akihabara for you – although being able to read it is another matter entirely. If I had any room in my luggage I may have bought more (as it is very cheap compared to prices in Australia/UK – although these are translated) but in the end I only purchased the latest Bleach.

Another Akhabara staple are maid cafes. I’d vaguely heard about these cafes where the staff dress as maids without knowing too much about it or doing additonal research and had considered going in just to check it out but while in Osaka I happened to watch a game show that shed a little extra light (as well as ick) on the cafes. This game show (no idea of the name) pitted various foreign otaku against each other in the struggle to be named biggest otaku. I was quite impressed by these foreigners (from a number of countries) as they had to speak and understand Japanese. After one of the challenges the contestants ended up at a maid cafe where the ‘maids’ dutifully spooned ice cream into their mouths. From what I have since gathered this maid/master relationship is the standard and honestly it doesn’t work on any level for me – even to just check it out and say I went. So I didn’t. For those more interested there are plenty of maids on the street handing out flyers. I didn’t see any cafes on street level but there are numerous signs pointing the way.

After all that walking it was time to head back to the capsule hotel. For those of you not in the know or not wanting to click the link a capsule hotel is basically a single futon in a rectangular box, it features a tv, reading light and alarm clock and the ‘entrance’ has a blind. It is quite high, lying on my back I could not touch the ceiling. The capsules are stacked two high and on this particular night I was on the lower capsule. They are highly affordable at 4000 yen per night and are often used by late night revellers or businessmen who have missed the last train home. Going on a Sunday night was a good option as there seemed little chance of drunken idiots. Men and women are segregated to different floors and there is a gender plity communal (Japanese style) sento bathing. In your little gift bag you receive toothbrush and towels as well as the Japanese yukata. I had a good experience, sleeping quite well but if you were quite tall or claustrophobic it may be a challenge. At this particular hotel the reception was 24hrs which allows for lots of sightseeing. I met a British traveller here who’d spent the past 4 nights at the hotel and had no problems and enjoyed his time.

If you’re coming to Japan and are on a budget then the capsule hotel is a great alternative, conversely you may want to give it a try before they become too old hat and are available in every airport and train station.

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