Sunday, August 27, 2017

Japan: Land of the long white squid

26 July - Tokyo

Our neighbourhood - Nakameguro
And so to the big city! A relaxed train ride, changing at Osuki. There we realise that this is where the famous Maglev train can be seen! And we don’t have time to see it! Oh well … We arrive in Ebisu, our closest JR stop, and resolve to walk to the flat in pouring rain. Finally, Chris has to buy an umbrella. (Pretty much everywhere Japanese people carry umbrellas. After a short time in Japan you realise why …).

Google mapping while towing luggage, holding an umbrella, and negotiating busy footpaths and roads, is challenging, but we find the flat easily and Nakameguro, our neighbourhood, looks cool. The inexpensive Airbnb apartment is enormous, and set in a garden! But on closer inspection we see that it is somewhat neglected and grubby, and the facilities are poor (filthy washing machine! NO cooking utensils in the kitchen!). Oh well, we will make like campers.

First to the ¥100 shop for bowls, then to the supermarket for a fabulous sashimi platter with several kinds of fish and, of course, squid ($8!) and sake. After a delicious entree at home of sashimi and pickles, we head out for dinner. The road along the subway line is festooned with pink lanterns and lined with all manner of restaurants and bars - looking good! Across the main road, the very hip canal area is a groovy mix of even funkier cafes and restaurants, and alt-boutiques. Finding a tiny, tucked-away place along the canal we go in - it’s a cute 12 seat restaurant with kushikatsu (crumbed stuff on skewers) and okonomiyaki (pancakes). We have crumbed quail eggs, asparagus with bacon, pork with ginger, squid pancake, and a weird pickled eggplant/mustard dish (karashinasu, I think). And sake. It’s very nice, a little on the pricy side (this is Tokyo), but not rave-worthy - so we are surprised later to find out that Mahakala is firmly on the super-foodie radar, having been recommended by Anthony Bourdain!

Mahakala - hip kushikatsu place

27-30 July

A rundown of what we did in Tokyo:

Shibuya, Harajuku, Meiji
Walk via Nakameguro to Shibuya (famously the busiest crossing in the world, somewhat <meh> on a grey day), where we fail to find a seat at Starbucks, but get to browse a dusty old bookstore and eat ramen, as well as shop at the quirky department store ‘Tokyu Hands’ (hardware, craft supplies, luggage …). From there walk up to Harajuku to see the Goth-Lolita girls, but the famous Takeshita St is a mess of sightseers, somewhat ruining the ambience, and swamping the alt-fashion icons. Then to Yoyogi Park for the Meiji Shrine and garden. We are fading fast, so don’t get to Shinjuku tonight, but head home for more supermarket sashimi with soba noodles.

Street art, Ebisu
Ramen with beni shoga (red ginger pickle) at Shibuya
Takeshita St - can't see the Harajuku girls for the sightseers
Tourists and sake barrels - Meiji Shrine

To Ueno Park (huge lotus ponds, zoo, shrines, galleries …), and the National Museum. The museum is huge and takes all day, so we don’t get to the other galleries. A grand old edifice in the style of the great European museums, we see only half the rooms, but have lovely soup for lunch in the elegant cafe. After the museum, and quite a long train ride home, there’s only time for dinner - this time at a yakitori place close by, Kushiwakamaru. It’s popular, and we have to write our names on a list, but it’s worth the short wait.
Buddhist monk - Ueno Park
Jar with ash glaze (Heian period, 10th C) - National Museum
Yummy veg and seafood soup at the museum
To Tsukiji fishmarket this morning, for breakfast and shopping. We haven’t gone into the ballot to try to get into the wholesale market (they have limited numbers), so are cruising the outer market, little alleyways of shops and restaurants catering to visitors. It’s very busy! We wander around looking for a place to eat that looks just right, and find it in a tiny arcade - a sit up counter for sushi with only about 10 seats (Itadori Bekkan). It’s very good, and not too pricey - about $30 each. Then try to again locate some of the shops we saw on our way in ... it’s now twice as busy, and a real labyrinth! The knife shop is of course very expensive, and I don’t know enough to spend that kind of money, but buy a breadknife and some scissors. Then a pottery shop - all mass produced stuff and inexpensive compared to the ‘craft’ pottery, so I stock up on a few bowls. Had planned to go on to Kappabashi St, the restaurant supply area for kitchenware and plastic food, but we’ve had all we can stand - get us out of here!

Tsukiji Fish market (outer market)
Itadori Bekkan sushi restaurant, Tsukiji
Itadori Bekkan sushi - yum!
Roppongi and TOP
After the fishmarket - Roppongi - a serious art area. First the Mori Museum, then the (huge!) National Art Centre, for an extended exhibition of SE Asian Art. The galleries are impressive, and the exhibition is good too, with a big political focus as so much contemporary art from developing countries, but not devoid of beauty. It’s raining VERY hard when we finish there - time to go home. Another supermarket dinner,  it's late and the pickings are slim, but still it’s good food - torikatsu (crumbed chicken), pickled octopus, salmon and salad.

The newly renovated Tokyo Photography Museum (TOP) is in Ebisu, close by. The exhibitions are worth seeing (of special note - Araki Nobuyoshi: Sentimental Journey), and the gallery space itself very impressive. This afternoon, Chris is watching his beloved AFL, so I get to go shopping alone!

Shimokita and Shinjuku
Shimo-kitazawa, west of Shibuya, is reputedly hip, cool and laid back, with lots of vintage clothes shops. I’m hunting for old kimono and yukata (for the fabric) so hoping this will be the place. But wow, when I get there, there are streams of visitors heading from the train, and once again, it is inundated by sightseers. It’s like Newtown on steroids. There are loads of vintage clothes shops (among boutiques, cafes, hairdressers), but they are clones - all selling Hawaiian shirts, Levi jeans, Converse shoes, old US rock t-shirts and granny dresses at inflated prices ($40 and up). Chicago Thrift Store, which does stock old kimono and yukata, has only nasty synthetic kimono, or new cheap cotton yukata, and even these are overpriced. Oh well. I feel very happy that I scored a nice vintage frock back in Nakame, at a little street stall for only $20 :)

Finally, we will check out Shinjku, the nightlife area, tonight. We’re feeling a little over the crowds, but Sunday night shouldn’t be too crazy. But it is still a little mad. The Golden Gai district - tiny alleyways lined with tiny bars - is subdued, with many bars closed, but the main streets are thronged with tourists and touts. Where should we eat? Not the Robot Restaurant! It’s $80 just to get in! After photo-ing a bit of the characteristic neon, we slink back to our quiet neighbourhood yakitori restaurant in Nakame, mmm nice. We must be getting old :)

Chris at Mori Art Museum, Roppongi
Entrance to Tokyo Photography Museum
Shimokitazawa - not so laid back
Shinjuku girls
Shinjuku neon
Going home
Our last day! I’ve been missing the Japanese breakfasts, so we get one at a little chain restaurant (Yoshinoya) near Nakame station, and it’s plain but very good. We had planned a brief excursion before heading to the airport this afternoon but … we are exhausted. So we head to the airport, have a surprisingly good ramen for lunch, then delicious green tea ice-cream and sake in a glass from a vending machine. The flight home is overnight, never a nice prospect in economy class. But JAL economy is quite spacious (only two seats abreast by the window, and heaps of legroom). And we are home in under 10 hours, no stopovers - highly recommended!

Tokyo is HUGE, vibrant, crowded and tiring. Thank goodness we had the haven of quaint, laid back Nakame, although it seemed so busy and buzzy when we first arrived. There's so much that we didn’t get to do: eat steak, do karaoke, go to a public onsen, see enough woodblock prints or contemporary Japanese art, do a cooking or printing workshop … we have just scratched the surface - until next time ...
Final ramen ...

Japan: Retro and OTT


Fire hydrant, Hakodate
While we think of Japan as a bastion of both the startlingly new, and the reassuringly traditional, what is surprising is the rustic retro aesthetic that prevails, framing both modernity and history. At least in regional towns, it’s as though time stopped in the economic heyday of the early 70s, with urban architecture in shabby Jetsons concrete, trains and buses (and especially taxis) straight from my school days, schoolgirls in knee-length sailor style dresses on old-fashioned upright bicycles. The shops, the manners, the clothes, the haircuts - until we reach central Tokyo it’s as though punk and post-modernism never happened.

Rustic in Sapporo
Schoolgirls, Sapporo
Retro gift shops - Mt Uzu (Toyako)
Retro skyline, Hirosaki
Doorman and taxi, Hakodate
Hirosaki street scene
Hydrant, Hiraizumi
Cafe sign, Hiraizumi
Hardware shop, Yamagata
Retro in Tokyo (Nakameguro)
Retro in Tokyo 2 (Nakameguro)


OTT signage, Sapporo
In Japan, things are done passionately, wholeheartedly, obsessively. It can be seen historically in the adoption and transformation of culture and cuisine (tea ceremony, pottery, calligraphy, whisky). And it is evident in everyday life: hygiene (toilets! slippers! toilet slippers!*), etiquette (amazing courtesy and intricate rules one is bound to break), bureaucracy (booking trains or arranging any kind of business, conducted with great intricacy and amazing efficiency).

As a respite from madding Tokyo crowds, I hie to laid-back, hipster Shimokitazawa to check out the vintage clothes shops and … yes, more madding crowds following the whiff of a trend. The shops are all selling the same vintage Americana, and hipsters are outnumbered by sightseers. Even bohemian vintage is pursued with an obsessiveness that becomes conformity.

A tourism lady conducting a survey among departing passengers at Narita Airport: what activities did we do? (choice of around 30, list in order of preference), how much did you spend? (in each of about 12 categories), where did we go? where did we shop? where did we stay? … OTT. The poor woman.

And don’t get me started on the OTT ‘kawaii’ (cuteness)! And the gift shopping! And the packaging!

* Yes, it's true about Japanese toilets. While traditional squat toilets are still around, more common are new-fangled western-style, with an amazing array of functions. I am too intimidated to press any but the flush button (and some flush automatically when you stand). But sometimes just sitting down is the signal for music, or the sound of a rushing waterfall, to begin playing :)

Kawaii tram driver, Hakodate
Kawaii post box, Hakodate
Retro AND kawaii - 'face-in-hole' photo boards (kaohame) are everywhere!
OTT packaging for OTT gift shopping
OTT crowds in Harajuku (Tokyo)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Japan: First there is a mountain ... + Photography

23 July - Nikko to Mt. Fuji

Mt Fuji view from our room
(First image of my Ten Views of Mt Fuji series)
It’s the longest travel day - around 5 hours on trains, with three changes. Of course, being Japan, it all goes like clockwork. And we have bought some lovely bento for the train! One of the greatest pleasure in travelling in Japan is the train travel - looking out, eating, doing some research (our mobile wifi another marvellous thing!). But most trains travel too fast to take useful photos from the window.

It’s quite late when we arrive at Kawaguchiko, near Mt Fuji, and a popular starting point for the Fuji climb. It’s a lovely old guesthouse, converted to a hostel with dorms and private rooms. Sadly, the big old bathroom has been divided into shower cubicles, catering for the large numbers of Western tourists. Our room has three large windows, a traditional tatami/futon set up, and a Fuji view - through rooftops, power lines and aerials - fab! After Nikko, I was concerned about it being another unfriendly touristy place, but it’s feeling good, and I’m glad we have three nights here. Dinner is a combini (convenience store) picnic in our room, with sake of course.

Our traditional room in Kawaguchiko
Our local combini (7eleven - with retro taxi)

24-25 July - Kawaguchiko

Fuji is fickle, and appears/disappears among the clouds (‘First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is’ - Donovan). We get a two-day ticket for the sightseeing bus that will take us all around the five lakes area. First - to Oishi Park for floral Fuji views, then to Itchiku Kobota kimono museum - an artistic vision of a gallery and garden (no photos allowed inside, as usual!). A quick noodle stall lunch of soba noodle soup, and yakisoba (fried noodles), then to Iyashi no Sato - a restored traditional village rebuilt on the site of a former farming village destroyed by a landslide during a typhoon in 1966. It’s an open air museum and traditional craft village for learning about the culture and handicrafts. Touristy, but in a low key way, and there are some nice crafts, and even some homegrown organic veg. Chris even buys a souvenir - a cheap sake cup!
Back home we find a tiny teriyaki restaurant not far from the station, and try the okonomiyaki and grilled salmon - it’s terrific, as long as we can put up with the non-stop western pop clips playing on the TV.

Chris with floral Fuji - Oishi Park
In the garden at Itchiku Kobota Museum (Itchycoo Park?)
Iyashi no Sato - craft enclave
Enormous Buddhist pines at Motosu-ko shrine
Next day, we take a longer bus ride to more distant lakes - Saiko, Shoji-ko and Motosu-ko. The bus runs 2 hourly, so we have to hang about a bit in Motosu-ko, a small and rather non-descript village at the end of the bus route. Explore the neighbourhood - a shrine, a Buddhist temple and cemetery, a main road. Get some vending machine drinks - Chris always sticks to the milk coffee, I have tried the milk tea, green tea, lemon tea, vegetable juice, and today try the buckwheat tea. They are all pretty good, although the latter does taste a bit like dry grass. Drinks cost only about $2, but … all those plastic bottles! Mostly I carry a green tea bottle and fill it with water from the plentiful drinking fountains.
Next stop - Aokigahara Jukai, also known as ‘suicide forest’, growing near Lake Saiko on a gnarly base of lava from Mt Fuji. A macabre idea, and it IS a spooky place (in a Miyazaki way), with mouldering trees and moss everywhere on the lumpy volcanic rocks. I see an old backpack down a crevice, and wonder …
Back in town we finally get to try the local delicacy - Hoto - a miso, sweet potato and pumpkin stew with fat, chewy noodles - it's not really a summer dish, but - yum!

Hoto restaurant
Spooky Aokigahara Forest

26 July - Kawaguchiko to Tokyo

Today, Fuji has disappeared from our window for good, so it is time to go. But not before encountering an uncouth bunch of young Chinese tourists who mess up the wash area, and the dining area, and have their stuff piled on all the chairs (though they are nowhere to be seen) when we come down for breakfast. They get back and grab their stuff, without acknowledging our existence. Seems they are not taught courtesy as the young Japanese are. I daresay a young bunch of Aussie kids could be equally lacking in manners, sad to say …

Young tourists on the train


Japan, you would think, is the land of photography. And certainly, wherever there are Japanese tourists, are a zillion cameras and selfie sticks. But where one can take photos is highly prescribed. In many, if not most, tourist sites, photographs may be taken outside but not inside. This is why I have only a few images taken inside museums, galleries and temples. (A few museums are now beginning to understand the promotional advantage of social media, and allow photos taken on phone, but not camera.) Photographs on the train are forbidden, maybe because of the prevalence of ‘upskirting’, but perhaps also because Japanese people prefer to maintain their privacy in this space. Mobile phone calls on trains are also forbidden - what a good idea! (I am sneaky and take images of train interiors while pretending to be photographing out of the window.) However, the streets are saturated with photographs - mainly advertising food, sex (or at least, young girls and young boys), and politics (middle-aged men). It's a highly stylised version of reality.

Girls on the street, Sapporo
Soft serve ...
Girls on the street, Hakodate
Seafood, Hakodate
Would you trust this man? (Hiraizumi)
Boys on the street, Shibuya
Giant food, Shinjuku