At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Saturday, February 16, 2013


I have had cabin fever (or should I say, island fever?) for a while now.  My return to the US helped alleviate it for a period of time, but the feeling started to reemerge again in November.  At first it was a small tug towards any travel agency.  Every morning I woke up with a very tiny pinprick in my soul that would widen ever so slightly every time I walked by an OTS or HIS travel agency.  I would look at the brochures in Japanese and imagine flying off to other parts of the country.  There were advertisements for Kansai in the autumn, with its lush, breathtaking world-on-fire foliage and the pristine artic snowy lands full of delicious crabs and grilled lamb for Hokkaido.  I wanted to go to both, but alas my coffers are barely ever full enough to afford even a modicum amount of travel.   While most ALTs fly off to places like Bali, Thailand, Burma and India, I have never had even enough cash to fly to Tokyo.  But I decided to slowly save enough money to afford a short trip and when my friend Satomi Wada announced that she was having a live art and performance show, I decided it was the perfect time to go.  (By the way, I wrote a review of her show that you can read here.)  Of course, everyone thought that I was crazy to want to go to Tokyo in the dead of winter, especially after it had just snowed. But the weather in Tokyo was perfect the entire weekend.  It wasn't windy and the sun was out with only a few clouds in the sky.  Yes, it was in the low 40s and low 30s (between 3 and 1 degrees C), but that really isn't that cold, especially in comparison to the temperatures in NYC last week (10-12 degrees F with a wind chill factor of 5 degrees? Um, no thank you).

ANA 777 to Haneda

My trip to Tokyo was way too short unfortunately.  But it was a rather fun filled weekend.  I just wish I had had at least one more day to spend in the city.  I missed the opportunity to see Asakusa and the Sensouji temple there, which is one of the older parts of Tokyo and worth a trip.  Because it's on the Eastern side of the city, I couldn't get out to that area because I was based in the Western part, with my hotel in Shinjuku 3-chome (near the Keio Plaza Hotel, which is the hotel I stayed in when I first arrived in Japan 2.5 years ago).  Shinjuku is an interesting area because it has a ton of avant-garde theater/performance art, a large Korean town with delicious food, as well as a lively queer scene in 2-chome.  In addition to these areas, it is also the ward that houses Kabuki-cho, which is an adult entertainment area in the evenings.  In comparison to places like Thailand, this red light district is rather tame.  I didn't spend any time there, but I wished I had gone to Golden Gai, which is a small area very close to Kabuki-cho that has very tiny bars.  It was once a yakuza watering hole, I believe, and off limits to 外人. But that has changed in recent years and it's become rather welcoming to anyone who is interested in having a few drinks, chatting with locals or other Japanese staying in the area.  I've heard great things about these little bars, so I wanted to go, but I wasn't brave enough to venture there by myself the first night I got into Tokyo.  I had tried to get a friend I know who is staying in Tokyo for a semester study abroad course to meet up with me, but he didn't respond.  But that was probably for the best.

Four Views of Tokyo from the Tokyo Metropolitan Govt. Building

A massive, sprawling city that was once a small fishing village

View towards 富士山 (he was hiding that day though)
 Basically, I arrived from Naha on Friday evening to the Washington Hotel in Shinjuku around 11:15PM and checked in around 11:30PM.   I realized that going out and staying out late would probably leave me exhausted the next day, so I had a quick bite to eat, took a shower to wash off the airplane grossness and after finishing a chapter of Sheila Heti's "How Shall A Person Be?" and a quick look at my Saturday itinerary I was down for the count.

Typical street in Shinjuku
 Saturday was just a whirlwind tour of the city.  I decided to stay in and around the Eastern area, because my friend's art/performance show was in Omotesando and I wanted to see Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, Harajuku and to visit the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi.  I knew I had a window of time to do all of this without having to rush too much.  I walked for hours on Saturday, in and around these areas.  I had wanted to see some performance art/experimental music at Superdeluxe on Saturday evening in addition to all of these other things I planned to do, but I ended up spending the evening in Shinjuku's 2-chome with my friend as part of her show's after party.
Entering Meiji Shrie

Instructions in English on how to offer prayers

A Japanese wedding (it was a lucky day)
 My Tokyo walking tour went something like this:  I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku first for breathtaking views of Tokyo and Fuji-san (though Mr. Fuji was being shy and hiding behind clouds unfortunately).  Then I walked south through Shinjuku towards Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine.  This visit was probably one of the highlights of my time in Tokyo.  I love nature and the trees around that part of the park were gorgeous.  There was a feeling of peace everywhere in the area.  Meiji is a beautiful shrine, built to honor the former Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Meiji was the emperor who ushered in many reforms to shift Japan towards westernization.  Whether these reforms and this push was good or bad is debatable.  There are a number of things that came out of the Meiji era that still define Japan and the Japanese as they see themselves in the modern world.  But I didn't visit Meiji shrine because of the former emperor.  I went to pray for someone I love and to also see a Japanese shrine, since it was the first one I've seen outside of Okinawa.  After that I spent some time walking around the park, which was so dense and lush even in midwinter.  I wonder what kind of trees they planted in this area, because the southern end of Yoyogi park was not the same as this area.  Also, there were patches of snow still around from the snowfall the week before. Luckily it didn't snow while I was there, but now I hear its snowing again in Tokyo this wee which is actually abnormal for this region of Japan.  I think Tokyo has winter weather that's about 10 degrees warmer than NYC on average.

Barrels of Sake (the brewers give offerings for a prosperous fiscal year)
 Anyways, after that I ended up walking around Harajuku and then headed over to Omotesando to make certain I could figure out where exactly the club Le Baron de Paris was located.  I found it and then decided to see how far away Roppongi was from Omotesando.  Since I had some time to spare, I walked through a few residential neighborhoods close to the Aoyama Cemetery.  I know that its difficult to compare a city like Naha with Tokyo, but the architecture and layout and overall feeling one gets in Tokyo is so much different from Naha.  From one thing, Okinawa does not have organized cemeteries.  People are buried on hillsides facing towards the East (as it was a custom imported from China when the Chinese sent its delegates and intellectuals to help shape Okinawan culture).  Because there isn't one particular space for tombs, sometimes these burial plots are located next to buildings right in the middle of the city, or randomly in the middle of a field, because they are on ancestral areas bought and claimed maybe close to a half a century ago or longer, before the buildings or houses existed.  Tokyo has organized cemeteries and Aoyama is one of them.

Cute food stand park in Omotesando

Another food stand (don't you agree with the sign?)
 Roppongi has a wild reputation, but it really isn't that wild.  Plus, it seems to be an area that has been revitalized in recent years to become swank and upscale.  Roppongi Hills is the center of this shift and that complex hosts a number of great restaurants, movie theaters and the Mori Art Museum, which is where I went after I watched my friend's show at Le Baron de Paris. The artist Aida Makoto's work is currently in exhibition at Mori Art Museum and while I didn't really know too much about Makoto's work beforehand, I found it be incredible. The exhibit is titled "Monument for Nothing" in English but in Japanese it's called "天才でごめんなさい。 He's known in Japan for his "otaku" paintings that are very provocative.  Much of his work is sexual (and there was a room for his explicit work that only those over 20 can enter, by the way), but it's almost as if he's holding a self-reflexive mirror up to male culture in Japan and the way women are viewed and treated by men.  In addition, he has a series of paintings about the war and I thought those paintings were incredibly honest and well done.  He's most famous in the West for one of the paintings from that series that depicts NYC being firebombed by Japanese fighter pilots (in the same way that Americans fire bombed Tokyo during WWII).  But the one I really liked from that series was one that showed travel brochures for various tropical islands throughout the Pacific.  Places such as Guam, the Phillipines, Okinawa, etc.  and juxtaposed to it were pictures of bombs hitting the beautiful water.  The painting is obviously done as a critique on both imperial Japan and modern Japan's interest in holidaying on various islands in the Pacific that were subjected to heavy bombing and war during the Pacific War/WWII.   I also really loved his ironic piece "How to Become the Greatest Artist in the World."  If you're in Tokyo, you really should try to see this exhibit.  Plus, you should go there at night because the view from the Skyview (which is one floor beneath the art museum) is breathtaking.  I suggest going there at night.

Two views from Skyview on the 52nd Floor of Roppongi Hills

After that I was ready to head to Superdeluxe for a night of performance art and experiemental music, but I ended up getting summoned to a 二次会 for my friend's after-performance party.  So I went off to a restaurant in Omotesando and then later on to a bar in Shinjuku's 2-chome, which is the premier gay bar area of Tokyo.  All in all the evening was actually chill.  I think I might have enjoyed Superdeluxe more, but it was nice to hang out with people as well.

On Sunday I had to get ready to go home, but I had a little bit of time left so I headed down to Harajuku again because Sunday is the big preening day for all the Harajuku girls who dress up in cosplay.  I wanted to see it, though I'm not really a big cosplay fan.  I don't know if it was because it was cold or if I was just there too early, but I only saw one cosplay girl walking around.  That being said, the area was really fun to shop around in.  It's like the super sweet icing on a strawberry shortcake.  It's almost too feminine and too precious with its hot pink, crepes and frilly designs everywhere.  But it's also hip enough to pull it off.

In Harajuku

One of the many crepe shops

Harajuku Cosplay stores

The only Harajuku girl I saw in Harajuku

Takeshita Street in Harajuku
 Tokyo is such a different city from anywhere I've been and it's probably the safest big city I've ever visited.  It's much safer than NYC.  Definitely safer than London, Paris or Berlin.  But I don't know if I would enjoy living there.  It's almost not gritty enough for me.  It's a bit conservative and lacks some sort of dynamism.  It's fast paced, but there is something that was missing for me.  Plus it was like this huge bastion of consumerism.  That is definitely what I felt in Shibuya and Harajuku for sure.  Like buying things and having the money to buy those nice things was still very much what makes that city tick.  Plus, looking like a supermodel as well...though these arguments could be made towards cities like LA, NYC and London.  Still, maybe living there is fun and exciting.  But I think if I were to live in a city in mainland Japan I would want to live somewhere else I think.



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