Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tokyo Diary - Part III

DAY 3:
Despite being the strongest in a decade, and claiming extensive damage, Typhoon Wipha appeared a considerate host to us, that ensured to reveal its darker side only when we were safely tucked into our beds, and also withdrew itself the next morning as we prepared to brave the weather for another day of maddening sojourn across the length and breadth of the city. By mid-day, we were basking in a bright warm sun, with no trace of rain and clouds and gloom. 

What better way to begin our third day in Tokyo with the super luck of being spared by a typhoon, than to pay our homage and convey our thanks to the city's oldest and most popular deity - Goddess Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) - enshrined at the Sensoji temple at Asakusa. Breathing a formidable history that dates back to 628 A.D., the lore goes that two brothers were fishing in the nearby Sumida river, when their net caught a small gold statue of the Boddhisattva Kannon - the buddhist goddess of mercy who has the power to release humans of sufferings. The temple was thus built in her honour, and the statue still remains apparently in the temple, though it is not displayed to the public. Like many other architectures of Japan, this temple also could not evade the impact of WWII, and had been destroyed in one of the air raids, but was again rebuilt with the help of nation-wide donations. 

Asakusa is also the old part of Tokyo, where one would still find the remnants of the Edo period - old wooden houses, geishas in their finery, shops selling traditional knick-knacks, and locals in their traditional attires. 
Traditional means of transport
A short walk from the Asakusa Subway station in the Ginza line (Exit 1), we were greeted by the imposing Kaminarimon Gate, which is protected on both sides by the two gods - Fujin (the God of wind) and Raijin (the God of thunder) and has a giant red lantern hanging at the entrance which has on it written in Kanji "Thunder Gate".

Kaminarimon Gate
Beyond the gate is a shopping street - Nakamise dori - which is a paradise for travelers looking for traditional souvenirs to take back home. The 200 metres walk from the main gate to the temple's second gate - Hozomon gate - has an entire treasure from chopsticks, decorations,  handbags, colourful trinkets, key chains, masks, sandals, yukatas (casual summer kimono), folding fans, ninja suits for kids, to senbei (rice crackers), ningyoyaki (traditional snack cake of flour, eggs and sugar in iron molds), kaminari-okoshi ( again a popular traditional snack made by roasting steamed sweet rice to pop, mixing them with other ingredients such as peanuts, and forming them into a shape with sugar and starch syrup/mizuame), agemanju (battered and deep fried soft cake with red bean paste filling), lots of tea, and ice- creams. Undoubtedly, I went a bit overboard checking out each shop, given my long list of souvenirs to take back home for family and friends. But it also makes for interesting conversations with the shopkeepers, who are extremely warm and friendly and despite the literal crowd that swept each shop at all times, they were still very cordial to answer my queries and strike up a chat on various things - from totems to Japanese hand-made papers to India to what not. 
Shops lining the Nakamise dori

Nakamise Dori

Hozomon Gate

The giant sandals on either side of the gate is for the deity, in case, she feels the urge for a stroll
The inner complex after crossing the Hozomon gate houses a five-story pagoda and the main prayer hall. There's the traditional hand-washing area and the huge smoke bowl to cleanse oneself before approaching the deity. While the main altar is covered by a glass pane, the ceilings of the temple attract attention for their beautiful murals and paintings. There's a waterfall and serene gardens off the main hall, if you are interested in a quick retreat from all the hubbub. 
The sacred smoke bowl  

The hand-wash area

The Main Prayer Hall

The Five-story pagoda
Spending a considerable amount of time at Sensoji, Nakamise dori and the lanes of Asakusa, we decided to walk down to Tokyo's latest sensation in its skyline - the Tokyo Skytree. At 634 metres, this TV broadcasting tower, opened to public in May 2012, is not only the tallest structure in Japan, but also the tallest free-standing tower in the world and only the second tallest structure in the world after Burj Khalifa. While the walk from Asakusa to the Skytree, crossing the bridge over the Sumida river was lovely, and took some good 20 minutes, it wasn't much worthwhile, since the queue at the 4th floor of the Skytree for tickets to the Observation deck at 350 metres seemed unending and would have been almost an hours wait. There's another deck at 450 metres, but tickets for those can only be bought at the Tembo deck at 350 metres. Online tickets for the Skytree can be bought, but they are only in Japanese, so it was hard luck for us. Waiting for an hour would mean sacrificing on other plans, so we decided to satisfy ourselves with the view from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and as I mentioned earlier, it did reap benefits. However, the view from the Skytree would have been from one of the highest observatory decks of the world. 
The Skytree defining the Tokyo skyline

The bridge on the Sumida river

The Skytree
From the old-world charm of Asakusa, we headed for the uber chic luxury of the Omotesando street and to check out the Aoyama structures - buildings which have been winners of Japan's Pritzker Prize (the most prestigious award for architecture). The long stretch is a veritable catwalk of style and architecture and is quite interesting - the Omotesando Hills, a shopping complex, which looks like three storeys from the outside, but is actually six storeys inside, or the Prada building with its bubble-surfaced crystal exterior, or the Cartier shop, the Tod's boutique, or even the Dior building - they are indeed a marvel to watch out, and not just for the products on display.
The Prada Building

The Cartier building
The Cartier Building from a different angle

The Tod's 
 As the evening set in and the neon lights jazzed up the streets, we headed for Akihabara, the electronic district of Tokyo. Dazzling bright from the illuminating lights of the endless shops and buildings, this gamer's and geek's mecca is worth a visit for all, when in Tokyo. Here one would find all imaginable and latest technological gadgets that you had been desiring for all this while. Even if you do not end up buying most things, just browsing through them is good enough satisfaction. It was indeed a tough task to keep the gadget-freak A from going berserk. Yodobashi Camera is a huge storehouse of everything that I could think of from computers, phones, watches, cameras, accessories, gaming consoles, music consoles, TVs, to what not. There are endless gaming centres and pachinko parlours all over the place. 

Akihabara is also the centre of Japan's 'otaku' culture. While the word 'otaku' in English would translate to 'obsessive interest', in Japan it chiefly indicates to the anime and manga fan-dom. Anime and manga figurines, video and card games and other collectibles indeed fill the spaces between the electronic retailers. 

And then there are the maid cafes, where teenage girls - waitresses - dress up as anime characters and address men as 'masters' and invite them to the cafes. Photos are strictly prohibited inside. Since maid cafes are chiefly men-only, we had to chuck the plan to check them out. Comic cafes, better known as 'manga kissaten' are also quite ubiquitous in the are. These are type of internet cafes where customers can read comics and watch DVDs in addition to having access to internet. However, there's a sleazy side to Akihabara that would definitely draw attention, despite all the cutesy anime faces all over the place - from billboards to figurines to actual maids. The manga stores often stack up hentai magazines and general porn covers gape at you at many a magazine stands, redundant to mention the very shadiness of the 'maid cafe' concept.

From the old-world lanes of Asakusa to the new age gizmos of Akihabara, and much more in between,  Day 3 of Tokyo  was a wonderful excursion from the Edo of the yesteryears to the Tokyo of now!!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tokyo Diary - Part II

DAY 2:
As we kicked ourselves out of bed and geared for new excitements awaiting us, we were greeted by dark and gloomy clouds and a steady drizzle, with a chill in the air to perfect it. Checking the weather forecast stumped us further, as there was a Typhoon alert and quite a strong one (one of the strongest in a decade) they estimated. As I stood on the balcony cursing the ill fate, I noticed the Tokyoites in their Louboutins and Burberry coats with bright umbrellas happily walking down to their work, almost unaware of any deterrents. This lifted our spirits quite much, and by the time we reached the lobby downstairs, raring to go out and embrace the grumpy nature, we met other travelers who were equally upbeat and set to enjoy a wet Tokyo. Indeed, by the end of the day, the Japanese taught us well, how not to be bogged by anything; they showed us why they are the best survivors.

We headed first for the Kokyo or the Imperial Palace, the current residence of the imperial family of Japan. The Kokyo stands at the site of the Edo castle, which was built in 1457 and passed through various hands before being occupied by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1590. Tokugawa became the Shogun ( a hereditary commander -in-chief in feudal Japan) and his descendants ruled the country for the next 300 years. With the end of feudal era and restoration of Imperial power in 1868, (also the time, when the capital of Japan was shifted from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo) the Edo castle became the emperor's official residence. A new palace was constructed in 1888 on the site of the earlier Edo castle, and later that was destroyed in WWII, and a similar palace was rebuilt again, which is the one that stands now. 
A short walk of 15-20 minutes from the Tokyo station, the castle is surrounded by an expansive park encircled by canals and heavy stone walls. 

Cutting across the Kokyo Gaien or the Imperial Park, we reached an open plaza, from where we could get a clear glimpse of the inner palace grounds, entrance to which is not open to general public. However, it makes an enchanting fairy tale-ish view, from the plaza, of the two bridges which form an entrance to the inner palace grounds.

Strolling down from the Kokyo, we crossed the Tokyo High Court, and towards the Tokyo station, where we also checked out the Tokyo International Forum, supposedly an architectural marvel. 
Tokyo High Court

Tokyo International Forum building

Tokyo International Forum Building
To get some respite from the constant drizzle, we zeroed in on a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. The visit was worth the effort, as one needs to follow the sign posts and almost a good 10 minutes walk from the nearest subway station, and on a dull rainy day, it becomes difficult. 
Following the signposts

Following the signposts

Came across a cemetery while following the signpost

and still following the signposts

Really? still more to walk?!!
However, when you stand to admire the Andy Warhols, Roy Lichtensteins, Sam Francis, David Hockneys and Japanese artists like Tokujin Yoshioka and Yoko Tadanori, you forget the efforts and only bask on the returns. The museum architecture of stone, steel and wood, is in itself a work of art by Yanagisawa Takahiko. Opened in 1995, its over-3,500 collection of artworks of  Japanese and international artists is indeed a treasure trove for art lovers. 

We spent an amazing time there and then headed out once again to embrace the chill and the rain and decide our next destination. 
Since we had plans to do a day trip to Mt.Fuji-Hakone and Nikko, which meant sacrificing two whole days, we thought we might as well brave the rain and the storm and do and see as much as possible, also because we were apprehensive how would the coming days be, post the Typhoon tandem. So, we headed for the Tokyo Tower, one of the most prominent structures defining the Tokyo skyline. Built in 1958,  to assert Japan's economic eminence and post-war boom, this Eiffel look-alike in white and orange at 333 metres is a good 13 metres taller than its inspiration and also the world's tallest self-supporting steel tower.
Tokyo Tower

On a rain -soaked, typhoon-on-its-way day

A lovely garden adjacent to the Tokyo Tower
It was built as a communication tower, providing radio and TV services, but is now more famous for its amusement quotient - with a four-story mall, and an aquarium and the observatory decks.  However, as we approached the iconic structure, the clouds hovered even closer and the showers became heavier. Appreciating it from the outside, we found no point spending our much-valued yens to climb the observatories (there are two at 150 metres and 250 meters), as we could well enjoy the clouds from the ground-level as well. On the hindsight, good that we saved the money, cause later, the view from the 45th floor observatories of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building were not just free, they were as good if not better - we had a lovely time enjoying the sights in bright daylight as well as again in the evening.
As the evening approached and things turned darker, we decided to head to Roppongi Hills. However, we couldn't wander much around with the rain now lashing hard, so we decided to simply enjoy the wet Tokyo and the dazzling blurring lights while enjoying a good meal in a cafe. Later in the evening we were back to our comfort zone of Shinjuku, and to the cosiness of our room, to reflect back on the day's earnings. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tokyo Diary - Part I

The Kansai had been quite a wholesome experience - Kyoto and Nara were an amazing excursion into ancient Japan, replete with the cultures and traditions, still holding strong against the rising tide of modernism. Kobe was a lovely sneak peek into a modern port city, the gateway to cosmopolitanism in Japan, and an inspiration for revival, after the city's near annihilation of a major part in the 1995 earthquake. Himmeji  told us the story of how a city would be in Japan, that is out of focus compared to its more famous counterparts in the vicinity. And finally Osaka - the perfect "merchant" city, bustling with dazzling shopping districts and armed with all the neoteric attractions, the Universal Studio, Osaka Aquarium and the Floating Garden Observatory - that transported us back to the now that we exist. And then we set for Tokyo. 

If the Kansai region had offered diverse experience in different cities, Edo Tokyo was a melange of  all those diversities and much more. A vanguard of progressiveness, symbolic in its ever-rising skyline, it is the most singular conflation of  ancient history and the au courant, but also the microcosm of the experience, that is, Japan. Any amount of research on things to do or see in Tokyo, will turn out to be woefully inadequate and extremely stressful. Realising that after a certain point, I just chucked the idea of cramping my head and imagination and decided to live it up as we go. 

DAY 1:
We arrived early on a Sunday morning in Tokyo at Shinjuku, only to realise that we were just too early to check-in to our service apartment, that we had rented for the week. Shinjuku is the most convenient and also the best place to put up when in Tokyo, though the prices might be on a steeper side. But that's the price you pay for being in the heart of the city. It is most convenient to commute across the city from this juncture. So, at 6:30 am we plodded with our luggage to a just opened-Tully's (thankfully) for a hot cuppa and some sandwiches and greet Tokyo as it leisurely woke up from its Saturday night hangover. 

A Sunday morning in Tokyo - and you should plan it so that you have one to spare in the city - means heading to Harajuku to hobnob with the city's hip and the happening and witness the bizarre and eccentric street fashion made famous worldwide by the likes of Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga.

 What begun with a curiosity of the Japanese youngsters for western culture and clothing, who hunted the place - which was a US military barrack post WWII - for the shops catering to the foreigners, slowly transformed into the mecca of fashion votaries, who pay homage every Sunday to all that is outre, avant-garde, edgy, and even at times revolutionary in fashion. In fact, Harajuku has surpassed its geographical identity now, to become synonymous with a trend, a culture and a concept. As we stroll down from Harajuku station to Takeshita Dori, we get zapped by the lolitas, the draculas and vampires, cutesy anime characters, barbie dolls and punks, goths, and rockers - all young Japanese teenagers engaging in cosplay. 

These youngsters congregate here every Sunday, to let their imagination run free and dress up as characters they want to be. Harajuku on a Sunday is indeed the most eclectic confluence of cultures that one might come across anywhere. The place is also famous for its quirky fashion shops and boutiques, and the lanes deeper into the Takeshita Dori becomes a treasure trove for anyone who is on a look-out for interesting fashion knick-knacks and I couldn't help being sucked into the lanes and bylanes, until I called it quits and sealed it with the awesome crepe, which is a must must try at Takeshita Dori. They are usually rolled with an assortment of fillings of your choice. For me it was a double chocolate cake, vanilla ice-cream with dollops of cream...yummm. 

We then headed for the madness that is, the Shibuya crossing. In fact, we did not realise where we were headed, since we were almost seemingly guided by the sea of people towards it from Takeshita Dori, and we had decided to just  go with the flow. 

Locating the statue of the loyal Hachiko standing vigilant, from afar, I figured out we were approaching the most iconic landmark of Tokyo - the busiest cross-walk in the world. According to the legend, Hachiko, a friendly Akita dog,  trotted every day to the Shibuya Station to greet his master and walk back home with him. One day the master did not return, as he suffered a hemorrhage at work and died. However, the loyal dog did not lose hope and continued to traverse the course for the next nine years expecting his master to return someday. The story now has a perfect literary ending in that Hachiko known for waiting for his master when alive, has now become the most iconic spot for Tokyoites to wait and meet up.

As the traffic lights turn red, the cross-walks are buried under an avalanche of footfalls and it is most amazing to be part of that mayhem. But what is even more unique is that despite the crazy crowd tumbling together into the zigzagging cross-walk, you would not collide, or be hit or pushed from behind or brushed from the side, or jostled to be overtaken. You would just cross peacefully, least realising the fact that you are part of the busiest cross-walk exercise. While participating is definitely recommended, one must not miss the view from atop - and the best place suggested by everybody and indeed so is from the second-floor Starbucks, across Shibuya Station.

The veritable mecca of high-end fashion with seductively-decked stores vying for attention from all corners, Shibuya is an interesting walk. While one road leads to quirky boutiques of Harajuku, another would transport you to the world of luxury shopping on the Omotesando street. Keeping the luxury for another day, when we returned to also check out the famous Aoyama structures, we headed for the most venerable shrine of Tokyo - Meiji Jingu Shrine - a Shinto shrine dedicated to the first emperor of modern Japan post the feudal era, Emperor Meiji, and his wife Empress Shoken. Just right across from all the delirium and assemblage, the imposing Tori gate of the shrine exported us immediately to a blissful retreat into the realms of serenity. 

An expansive forested area of nearly 100,000 trees, the stroll from the Tori gate at the entrance to the main shrine precincts is a perfect exercise in the cultivation of ataraxia. 

Interestingly, as we entered the main premise, we caught a wedding in progress - the demure bride and the nervous groom followed by a procession of friends and family, supposedly a very usual scene at the shrine, mainly on Sundays. 

From the enchanted walk at the Meiji Jingumae, we strolled into the adjacent Yoyogi park to treat ourselves to some Japanese street play, more of the genre of farce, 

and then meet the 'Greasers' who assemble there to shake a leg every Sunday. These rockabilly dancers are the dying breed of an underground Japanese group - takenoko zoku - that sprang up in the '80s. Leather jackets, pompadours, slicked black hair, weird-looking goth boots are their trademarks.

The sprawling park hosts families out on a Sunday picnic, lovers sharing sweet nothings, children playing and dogs trotting, tourists capturing a slice of Tokyo Sunday, and loners and travelers soaking in the leisured ambiance on a box of bento. We joined the last group and rambled on the lovely green bed until our bellies churned and we headed for some lipsmacking Japanese treat.

The evening was spent amidst the dazzling lights and frantic life of Shinjuku and its surrounding. One of the famous (or infamous) neighbourhoods of Shinjuku is Kabukicho, the fabled Sin city of Tokyo, the biggest adult entertainment district in Asia. Apparently, the area was completely destroyed in WWII, and during its reconstruction, plans were on the anvil to build a Kabuki theatre (the traditional Japanese theatre) for amusement. However, financial issues and other impediments ensured the plan to never see the light of day, but the name stuck to the place as Kabuki-cho. It is easy to identify the neighbourhood by its ever thinning lanes and bylanes and the garish neon lights of pachinko parlours, karaoke bars, hostess clubs, sleazy establishments and 'love hotels'. It was interesting to walk through the dazzling lights of shadiness and peep through the windows.

After a hectic day for our senses, not to mention the feet, we finally decided to call it quits, sealing with an Italian-Indian fusion food. Keep guessing how would that be!!