54. Memories Can’t Wait

from “Fear of Music”, Talking Heads, 1979.

Well here we are back in Tokyo and enjoying a final week in the big city before we fly to Bangkok. It’s been a wonderful time travelling across some of Japan – it’s a big place and far more than we can hope to properly explore even in three months. So while there is still plenty we could do, we decided that in our final week would be to revisit a few old memories as well as catch special events that were on while we were in town.

The first memory we revisited was the Hie Shrine (日枝神社) in Akasaka-mitsuke. This was the location of the hotel we stayed in on our very first visit to Japan back in 2002. We discovered the shrine while exploring the local area and were drawn to it when we saw the series of red torii gates leading up a wooded hillside. Climbing the stairs within the gates takes you to the smaller rear entrance to the shrine.

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Hie Shrine – the torii gate steps, one of the ways up to the shrine: basically the one with the most mosquitoes.
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Hie Shrine – the main shrine hall.

The Hie Shrine is nestled away in a pleasant green space in one of the business and political areas of the city near the National Diet Building. Our first visit to the shrine had coincided with a Shinto wedding ceremony, though on our return this time there were just a few locals there making their devotions. As we found before it is a very peaceful place hidden away in the city.

On the way out of the main entrance we discovered the area had been renovated and expanded into a larger public space with adjoining office blocks, and also included a set of three escalators for those who don’t feel up to the climb.

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Hie Shrine – the main entrance, revamped and now with escalators.

Another favourite place to revisit and re-experience was the Tokyo Tower. Styled on the Eiffel Tower, but a bit taller and a lot less brown, this is one of the iconic images of Tokyo and pretty much the first thing Godzilla knocks down on his occasional visits. The tower itself is 333m tall and there are two observation decks: one at 150m and the other at 250m. Both give unobstructed 360 degree views of the city.

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Tokyo Tower – red and white and rather fabulous.

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It was here at the Tokyo Tower back in 2002 that we got our first views over the mega-city that is Tokyo and upon revisiting it in 2016 we both think that the views from here of Japan’s capital are still the best. The Tokyo Skytree may be taller (see our blog entry 17. Big In Japan) but it is not centrally located and for us lacked a little something, aside from being inordinately busy. There are quite a few places in Tokyo now offering sky high views but for us the Tokyo Tower remains the one to do.

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Tokyo Tower – hey you can’t park that Star Destroyer there!

Something new, but for an old favourite in terms of cinema, was a visit to see the Studio Ghibli exhibition in Roppongi Hills. Studio Ghibli has made many wonderful animated films over the years, particularly in conjunction with Hayao Miyazaki, and some of our best-loved are Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away.

The exhibition was – unsurprisingly – busy and almost too busy to actually see some of the artwork on display. There were loads of movie posters, concept art, models and more, and the place was packed with fans all wanting a look. Unfortunately the information was only in Japanese so we missed out on some of the details and background, but we were still able to appreciate the exhibition. Photography was not allowed in most of the event, although people were permitted to take pictures of the flying machines hall towards to the end of the exhibition.

This was a wonderful display of art and more from Studio Ghibli and a great couple of hours viewing for any fan of their work.

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Our final old favourite to revisit this week has been to return to the Tokyo National Museum, located in Ueno Park. This has been the premier of the various “national museums” we have visited in Japan, not only because it has a wonderfully selected collection of Japanese artefacts, but it also allows almost unrestricted photography in all the galleries, yay!

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The Tokyo National Museum – a gorgeous museum set in the lovely green space of Ueno Park.

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Octopus shaped netsuke – “ooh, suits you sir!”

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It has been a wonderful, exciting, relaxing, crazy, and at times occasionally somewhat confusing, three months in Japan and we have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of our time in the Land of the Rising Sun, and we are already looking forward to coming back again.

But for now we must bid Japan a very fond sayonara (さようなら).

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27. Top Of The City

from “The Red Shoes”, Kate Bush, 1993.

We went back in time again to the days of Edo when we visited the Fukugawa Edo Museum. This is a community culture centre that was established in 1986 and has an Edo period display of reconstructed houses, shops and other buildings to recreate a small section of the old city.

Amongst the buildings are a fish-oil and fertiliser wholesaler, a vegetable seller, a rice seller, a boathouse, a fire watchtower, a tea shop, and a row house (a house with divided sections for individual families), all authentically reproduced and filled with everyday items.

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Fukugawa Edo Museum –  a view of the top of the city looking out over the roofs.

The city section also includes animals and plants, as well as lighting and sound effects that change according to day and night as well as the seasons. With all these features it felt quite realistic and about the only thing we could see missing from the ensemble (apart from actual inhabitants) was mud in the streets.

Time to take a wander through the streets and alleyways:

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Edo – main street.
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Edo – vegetable store.
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Edo – rice store.

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Edo – no we don’t know why those chooks are up there either.

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Edo – street food seller.
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Edo – tea shop.

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Other than an English language leaflet with a map of the town and the major features and some information on them, all the remaining information was in Japanese. However, there were several guide-staff available who wandered around and happily provided additional information for visitors, and they spoke English in varying degrees. We talked with two of them for some time, including at one point a discussion on the best words for ‘poo’ with regards to humans and animals. We’re sure that while we were getting answers to our questions they were enjoying practising their English language skills, so everyone was happy.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Fukugawa Edo Museum and in all honesty think that this museum did the reproduction of Edo better than the Edo-Tokyo Museum we had visited previously. This is mainly because although the Edo-Tokyo Museum did have some similar buildings they were just individual examples rather than having been integrated into a larger reproduction of how the city used to be.

A great experience and one of the best museums we’ve been to so far in Tokyo.

26. Imperial Zeppelin

from “Fool’s Mate”, Peter Hammill, 1971.

After the rain it’s back to the sunshine and back outdoors, this time to walk around the Imperial Palace gardens, or more specifically the East Gardens, which are open to the public. The gardens are the former site of Edo Castle’s innermost circles of defence and although none of the main buildings remain today, the moats, walls, entrance gates and several guardhouses do still exist.

There are three entrance gates to the gardens: Ote-mon Gate, Hirakawa-mon Gate, and Kitahanebashi-mon Gate. We entered through the Ote-mon gate.

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Ote-mon Gate – just across from Otemachi station, the most complex and sprawling metro station in Tokyo where five lines converge.

Although entry to the gardens is free it is regulated to control the number of people in the grounds at any given time. Once through the gate we went to the “ticket office” and got our pass tokens.

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Imperial Palace gardens token – now we’re free to roam.

Token’s in hand here is sample of what we found while strolling around the Imperial Gardens that sunny day:

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Ninomaru Garden – a traditional style garden.

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Tenshudai – the foundation of the former main tower of Edo Castle.
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Tenshudai – getting a bit artistic here.
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Tenshudai – and here is the view from atop the foundation.
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Ishimuro – this is the entrance to one of the underground stone cellars of the old castle.

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Fujimi Yagura keep – one of the smaller keeps, unfortunately off limits to explorers.
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Doshin-bansho guardhouse – one of several guardhouses dotted around the gardens.

All the walking and the sunny weather put us in the mood for an ice-cream afterwards and we tried one of the pre-made cones which was all that was available at the garden’s gift shop; as you might have seen from blog entry “23. Turning Japanese” we were not particularly impressed with the pre-made cones! 😛

The Imperial Gardens are beautiful, with a wide variety of landscape styles: an intricate section of Japanese gardens with a lake and sculpted greenery; open areas of lawn; and shady woodland. There is certainly something to suit all tastes for those that enjoy formal gardens and quiet spaces. Definitely one to put on any visitors list.

Oh and there was a “zeppelin” too:

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“Zeppelin” – it’s so imperial.

25. Cities

from “Fear of Music”, Talking Heads, 1979.

On only the second rainy day since we arrived over three weeks ago we needed something to do indoors and that would keep us occupied for the day: cue the Edo-Tokyo Museum. This is a very large museum; stepping into the main hall with a life-size reconstruction of part of the original wooden Nihombashi bridge sets the scene for the scale.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum – a life-sized replica of a section of the original Nihombashi bridge greets you as you enter.

The museum essentially comprises two halves: the history of Edo, and the history of Tokyo; Edo is the city that Tokyo grew from. There are lots of exhibits of artefacts to see, as well as models of how the cities used to be.

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Edo – a busy main street in the old city.
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Edo – the riverside at one end of the Nihombashi bridge.
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Tokyo – the new city grows and adopts a distinctly Western appearance.

Fortunately the information presented is in English as well as Japanese making this museum very accessible to tourists. There are also guides available who take groups around though as usual we eschew these as we prefer to wander and explore for ourselves rather than being led.

As well as the models there are – like the Nihombashi bridge – life-sized replicas of period buildings from Edo and Tokyo.

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Our favourite building replica was the kabuki (歌舞伎) house, which were Japanese equivalents of theatres in the Edo era. The kanji symbols for kabuki literally mean “sing, dance, skill” and so effectively translate as “the art of singing and dancing.”

Here’s a few pictures of the kabuki house:

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Away from the buildings there are lots of artefacts, so here’s a few of the ones we liked most:

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A wealthy man’s writing set – with brushes, ink, and ink-stone.

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Japanese sandals – stylish and practical; we’re getting a pair each.

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Pocket watches – damaged not so much by the Great Kanto Earthquake, but by the many fires that raged subsequently.
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An abacus/calculator – loving the retro-tech.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a huge place to explore but even so it does get quite busy so it paid to be there slightly earlier in the day and miss the worst of the crowds. We highly recommend it as a very fine introduction to one of the world’s great cities.

24. Two Tribes

from “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1984.

On a recent visit to Akihabara to explore the electronics and anime madness of “Electric Town” we decided to drop it down a gear by taking some time out relax and stroll around two nearby shrines that we found on the map: the Kanda Shrine (神田明神) and the Yushima Seidō (湯島聖堂, literally “Hall of the Sage in Yushima”) sometimes called the Confucius Shrine.

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Akihabara – home to electronics and anime, and on Sundays the road is closed to traffic so everyone can roam freely.

The Kanda Shrine is a Shinto shrine that dates back 1,270 years, although the current structure has been rebuilt several times due to fires and earthquakes. The shrine  was important to both the warrior class and everyday citizens, especially during the Edo period.

Here’s a few pictures from the shrine:

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The Kanda Shrine – the main shrine building and the plaza.
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The Kanda Shrine – the entry gate to the shrine plaza.
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The Kanda Shrine – the washing trough to cleanse your hands. There’s also a poster in the background telling you how to pay your respects: bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow once more.

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The Kanda Shrine as you can see in the pictures is quite colourful, and looked more like a Chinese temple than the Japanese temples and shrines we’ve seen so far. We had an enjoyable time here just meandering around and then sitting in the plaza in the afternoon sunshine. Very pleasant, but onwards we go.

The Yushima Seidō is a Confucian temple established at the end of the Edo period. It is a temple for the veneration of Confucius and the sages and philosophers of Confucianism in several East Asian religions. Confucian temples often housed schools and other study facilities.

Here’s a few pictures from the temple:

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Confucian Temple – the main temple building.

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Confucian Temple – the man himself, Confucius.
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Confucian Temple – the building roofs have guardians lurking everywhere.
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Confucian Temple – and the edge tiles of the roofs have intricate details.

In a chaotic and busy city like Tokyo it’s very welcome to be able to find and enjoy these little oases of peace and tranquillity. We’re always surprised at just how many places like this there are, lurking in all kinds of unexpected locations, from behind ordinary houses to sitting shoulder to shoulder with 21st century buildings.

23. Turning Japanese

from “New Clear Days”, The Vapors, 1980.

From our time so far in Tokyo it has become clear that not everything is quite as we might be used to at home, or in some instances in any sane place. So here’s a few of the things we’ve discovered so far as we’re gradually “Turning Japanese” (we really think so).

Maps

There are lots of helpful maps in the metro stations just as you would hope to find. However, we soon learned that North is not always at the top of the map. In fact it is just as likely to be on the left, or right, or even bottom. Cue lots of head tilting and turning as we try and reconcile the map on the station wall with the map in our hands. Now that really is quite literally “Turning Japanese.”

Escalators

Sticking with the metro, in Japan you stand on the left and walk on the right of escalators. And they think we’re barbarians!

And no Philip still hasn’t fully made the transition yet.

Metro Music

And in still more hijinks with the metro, the stations play little jingles and other pieces of music – some unique to particular stations, and others used more often – whenever a train is at the platform. When the music stops the train doors close. It’s a bit like musical chairs, only with men in white gloves ready to stuff you into the train if you don’t fit. The music acts both as a way to time getting on-board and as a handy ear-worm for you to hum along and get funny looks from the locals; we do.

Ice-CreamIce Cream

Ice-cream cones can be bought pre-made, as shown in the picture. We had our first (and last) experience of these while walking around the Imperial Palace Gardens the other day.

The pre-made cones suffer from two fundamental problems:

  1. The ice-cream is too hard to lick properly.
  2. The cone is soft as it has absorbed moisture.

And there’s no Flake either. Pure insanity.

Give us a good old British 99 any day.

Japanification

OK this is a word we’ve made up, but turnabout is fair play. We’ve encountered various perfectly good English language words that have been “Japanified” in order to fit into Japanese. For example:

Aspirin (アスピリン) is pronounced “Ah-su-pi-rin.”

Heartland (a brand of beer) is pronounced “Heart-oh-land-oh.”

Receipt is pronounced “Receipt-oh.”

And so on. It looks like if you need an English word then just put an “ah” or an “oh” in. We can’t look much more silly than we already do stumbling around with our current smattering of Japanese; we enjoy being the gaijin entertainment.

Drinks Machines

Drinks vending machine are everywhere. And we mean everywhere. There are even gangs of them lurking on street corners like this bunch of bad boys located just near our Airbnb apartment:

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Drinks vending machines – option paralysis time.

There’s no end of the drinks available: you can get water, sodas & pop, iced-coffees, oolong and other teas, beers; so many it’s almost bewildering. One bonus is we can get Fanta Grape, a drink from Philip’s youth that he’s enjoying again.

But food snack machines if you want crisps or chocolate or squid-crunchies? We haven’t seen one yet. But then again there are so many convenience stores (7-11, Daily Yamazaki, Family Mart, Lawsons, Mini Stop) around that you don’t need them.

But hang on, these shops sell drinks, and usually for less than the vending machines. Erm…

Tiny Places

Look up at most blocks in Tokyo and you’ll see a host of boards to identify the premises found within:

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In our area alone there are literally hundreds of restaurants, cafés, and bars packed in like this. The vast majority of restaurants and cafés we’ve seen and used are tiny, usually only seating at most dozen or so people. And often a lot of this seating is at a bar and more suited to individual dining. It seems a lot of eateries are geared just as much to the more functional aspect of eating as a place to also enjoy company for a meal.

Being so small it’s no wonder that so many of them can be squeezed into any given building. It just makes you wonder how the higher up ones get any business when you can’t just happen to be wandering by and like the look of the place? Word of mouth perhaps?

Wet Hands

You need the little boys (or girls) room? No problem. There are plenty available. OK done? Now wash you hands. Water: check. Soap: check. Paper towels or hand dryer: erm…

From our experience so far we’ve found a way to dry your hands after washing them in only a tiny fraction of the toilet facilities. Not sure why – paper towels not being available we could understand from an environmental point of view, but there could definitely be a lot more hand dryers than the one or two we’ve found so far.

Smoking

You are not allowed to smoke on the streets – as non-smokers we definitely like this as you don’t have to suffer other people’s smoke in your face, though we can see smokers would not be amused as an infringement of their liberties.

In case you forget there are plenty of signs on the pavements to warn you:

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No smoking – it’s there spelled out plainly on the pavement.

There are, however, designated smoking spots dotted all over where people can enjoy their little piece of tobacco heaven:

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Smoking spot – hey is that drinks machine in there smoking too?

But what Japan gives non-smokers with one hand it takes away with the other: many restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops permit smoking.

Suffice to say that after the many years of enjoying smoke-free eateries in the UK and elsewhere, it doesn’t matter how good the food is if a place allows smoking, we won’t be eating there.

Here’s looking forward to more “Turning Japanese” aspects; it would be a boring world if we were all the same.

22. Madam Butterfly

from “Fans”, Malcolm McLaren, 1984.

While surfing through various Tokyo-related websites on things to see and do we encountered the Kite Museum. Somewhat intrigued we thought we would give it a try in a change from the more mainstream museums and galleries we have been visiting so far.

The museum is not quite so easy to find as it is basically one largish room on the fifth floor of an anonymous block on a back-street in Nihombashi (日本橋, which literally means “Japan Bridge”). There are no signs to it either. Fortunately the websites that mentioned the Kite Museum gave good information on finding the museum and Google Maps always helps too. Locating the Taimeiken restaurant first is the key, then go inside and take the little lift up to the museum.

You reach the fifth floor and the lift doors open onto a room literally stuffed with kites. Pay your ¥200 and you’re free to roam.

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Madam Butterfly – “Take it away Cho-Cho.”

Unsurprisingly the kites are mainly Japanese in origin though there are other non-Japanese ones scattered amidst the kite chaos. And chaos it pretty much is – there are kites everywhere: on the walls, the ceiling, in cabinets, they’re all over the place. You do need to be a little careful moving around too; we were having to mind our heads and bags.

Here’s some pictures of what we found:

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Kite Museum -it’s kitetastic.

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Rarrrr! – something for Tiamor (sorry, ‘in-joke’).

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Dried squid kite – flyable and tasty, well maybe.
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Kites for sale – dang that luggage limitation again.

The Kite Museum is certainly an interesting way to spend a half hour perusing the kites and their quite amazing designs and decorations.

If you can find it that is.