It's a new PV strip! And it reminded me just how much more work these big battle strips are...and the fighting hasn't really even begun yet... But anyway, travelogue!
Monday (June 17th): Asakusa and the Skytree
As I mentioned before, it's currently the rainy season here in Japan. And, while I'm not one to let rain slow me down when traveling (see some of the entries from my previous Japan travelogues), it does make certain activities rather difficult. But, the forecast predicted no chance of rain today or tomorrow, so I decided to jump on that and do a couple of things that really wouldn't be as good in the rain. First, I wanted to actually go up the Skytree. While rain wouldn't really prevent me from doing that, it would likely ruin the view. And, since the Skytree is near Asakusa, I decided to start there and make a day of it.
Since Asakusa is only about three miles from my apartment, I figured it would be nice to walk and see some more parts of the city. Gotta say though, the walk from my apartment to Asakusa isn't nearly as interesting as the walk to Akihabara or Tokyo Station. There was a museum, though not one I had any interest in visiting, and a random block or so of figurine shops, which slowed me down for a little while, but really the walk didn't get all that exciting until near the end when I just happened to pass a group of buildings belonging to Namco Bandai (their main offices, I think). It's not like I could do much there (they don't give tours or anything), but as a fan of many of their games, anime, and toys, that was still kind of cool.
Asakusa itself is pretty much unchanged from my previous visits, though I think it's a place that's worth coming to every time I'm in Tokyo. The shopping arcade and streets are just fun to walk around, and there are lots of interesting souvenir shops and restaurants. I decided to basically snack my way through a sort of late brunch (I kept expecting to pass a decent breakfast place on the walk, and never did). Fortunately, my favorite taiyaki place is still there and I also picked up some momonji, rice crackers, and soba ice cream (out of curiosity; it's not bad but not especially great either). That gelato place from my last visit was still there as well, though the flavors have changed a bit. I decided to try red bean (very good), satsumaimo (Japanese yam) (excellent), and umeshu (Japanese plum liquor) (mild but nice). Gotta say, it's also probably one of the cheaper gelato places I've ever been to anywhere.
Since I was there, I figured I might as well stop by Kaminari gate and Sensoji Temple. While it's not one of the older temples (sorta, it's been around for quite a while but kept burning down in the past), it's still quite impressive to see and the crowds can make for some enjoyable people watching. I saw lots of regular Japanese visitors, including some women in kimono, various foreign tourists, and a large group of junior high schoolers (in uniform), who were probably there on a field trip.
Leaving the temple, I walked down a few nearby streets. When you get out of the tourist areas, you run into some more practical shops and a number of arcades. I stopped in one to play a few rounds of various music games and look at the crane games (anyone want to win some plastic food?), then headed off for the Skytree.
So, I didn't talk about it in Saturday's write-up so let's have a quick overview. The Tokyo Skytree is a broadcast tower, built to take over Tokyo Tower's former role. The reason? While Tokyo Tower is very picturesque, it's also nowhere near the tallest thing in the Tokyo skyline anymore, reducing its broadcasting effectiveness. The Skytree, on the other hand, is not only the tallest structure in Japan, at 643 meters (around 2,100 feet) it's the world's tallest tower and the world's second tallest man-made structure (the tallest, BTW, is a skyscraper in Dubai, though I haven't been able to figure out why that isn't technically a "tower" as well). You can't go all the way to the top though, the main viewing deck is at 350 meters and the upper deck (which costs extra) is at 450. But either one will put you way above anything else in the city.
Now, back to my visit... The Skytree is, naturally, a pretty popular attraction. Unless you got your tickets ahead of time, you need to start by getting a number ticket, which lists the time and gate where you can go to buy your actual ticket. Despite it being early afternoon on a normal weekday, I still had to wait over two hours after getting my number ticket. Had I known that, I may have gone to the Skytree first, to beat the rush. Fortunately though, there's plenty to do. The Skytree is set again a large multi-story mall which features, among other things, an impressive food court, a Shonen Jump store, and a Ghibli store. Between walking around and getting an early supper of really good sukiyaki (I tried the slightly expensive but really excellent Japanese black wagyu beef), I didn't have much trouble killing time.
Finally it was time to go in...and wait in line to buy my actual admission ticket. Then I finally got to go up. Random trivia bit, the Skytree features Japan's fastest 40 person elevator (Is there a faster one with a different capacity? I don't know, but it specifies 40 person in the pamphlet.), which reaches a top speed of 600 meters per minute. The main viewing deck is quite nice, consisting of three floors along with a cafe, restaurant, gift shop, and some assorted exhibits. First, here's an old folding screen painting showing a similar view of Tokyo from the Edo period. Now, here are some modern views. Unfortunately, despite the relatively good weather, it was still a bit hazy, so Mt. Fuji wasn't visible (it can be seen from Tokyo on a really clear day though, I've done so in the past). I still got pretty impressive views, though my camera had some issues with the fog/haze (requiring me to run these pictures through Photoshop to reduce it). Here's a close up of Sensoji Temple back in Asakusa. And here's my apartment! Well, almost. The building is hidden behind some taller ones, but it's right near the left side of the middle of those three bridges.
Since I didn't get up the Skytree until around six, I figured I might as well hang out for a bit and get some shots of the night view as well (the sun is currently setting around seven). At one point, I decided to check out the cafe. Those dessert vinegar drinks made me really curious, so I decided to overlook my extreme dislike of vinegar and give the blueberry milk one a try. My first thought after taking a sip was something like "holy crap, that's real vinegar". The blueberry and milk helped a bit, but wow, there was a really strong vinegar taste. I managed to finish the whole thing, but I really wish I'd gotten something else instead...
Eventually, the sun went down and the lights around the city started coming on. I even got a shot of Tokyo Tower all lit up. Once I'd finished taking photographs (way too many of them), I took the elevator back to the ground, took a last look at the Skytree, then headed back for the night.
Random Japan Comment: Political Advertising
I don't know about those of you in other countries, but in the US election season means a slew of TV and radio ads, usually consisting mostly of warnings about how horrible the other candidate is. In Japan, however, politicians actually aren't allowed to advertise on mass media. Yes, you heard that right. So how do they get their name out to voters? Believe it or not, they drive around in vans equipped with loudspeakers, telling everyone to vote for them. It's not just in the cities either, they even do it out in really rural areas.
I'm honestly not sure which method is more annoying. I mean, I really hate a lot of the political ads back home, but being woken up by a loud voice shouting for you to vote for so and so isn't all that great either.
On a side note, I assumed that, given Japanese culture, elections here would be a bit "politer" than the ones we often have in the US, without all the namecalling, mudslinging, and the like. However, a half Japanese half American friend of mine assures me that Japanese elections are actually worse in that regard. Weird...
Tuesday (June 18th): Hiking Mt. Mitake
For my second good weather day, I decided to get out of the city and take a hike. I have several hikes planned, and this one involved hiking up and around Mt. Mitake. I started off taking the train a couple hours outside of Tokyo to the tiny town of Kori at the base of the mountains. After walking through the town (which featured a few old buildings), I reached the trail head and started up. And up... It was very steep in places and, despite the cloud and tree cover, it was really hot and muggy for a while (though things eventually got better once I was higher up in the mountains). There were some nice flowers though, and the occasional wild raspberry. Judging by some of the pamphlets and souvenirs I saw later, some type of flying squirrel is supposed to live in the area as well, though I didn't see anyway.
Unfortunately, while it didn't rain, it was a bit cloudy and foggy, which hampered the views. Eventually though, I reached the town of Mitake. As a side note, the route I took is apparently an extra long (and much less traveled) back way. Seems a lot of people take the train to Mitake Station and either climb or ride a cable car from there. I stopped in Mitake for lunch and had a nice bowl of sansai soba (soba with mountain vegetables) then proceeded to climb a whole lot of steps to Mitake Shrine. The shrine was decent, and had a number of nice smaller buildings behind it, but there are certainly nicer ones that are easier to reach from Tokyo.
I had made pretty good time, so I decided to continue on to the top of Mt. Hinode, which is supposed to have really good views. Though, once again, the fog reduced the visibility a lot. After that, it was time for a very steep hike down to the bus stop. On a side note, there are supposed to be a few small caves in the area that you can visit, though the only one I saw was closed at the time.
Being way out in the country, the busses don't run all that frequently. Unfortunately, my timing was horrible. I missed a bus by 20 minutes, leaving me with around an hour and a half until the next one. So I thought I might as well start walking to the train station in the meantime. Maybe I could beat the bus. Well, I didn't quite pull that off, but I made it pretty far before finally taking the bus the rest of the way. As I walked, I passed through a number of tiny towns, a lot of fishing parks (you pay and get a certain area of the river assigned to you), and even ran into a couple of those annoying political vans. The scenery was actually quite nice but, by that point, I was pretty worn out, sore, and more than a bit annoyed about how long I had to wait for the bus.
All in all, I'm not really sure how far I walked (the hiking maps just listed estimated walking times rather than distance), but it was a pretty serious distance, and much of it uphill. The hike as a whole was pretty (though it would have been better on a clear day), though not of the best I've taken in Japan. Still, I enjoyed myself overall, despite the mishap with the bus.
Random Japan Comment: License Plates
This is especially random, but Japanese license plates are boring. They're a solid color, with a few words and a number. No design, no nothing. In a country where people go crazy for cute things and can't pass up all sorts of crazy special and limited edition items, this seems like a wasted opportunity. They really should institute a system of designer plates, like the various US states have. The plates would look nice, the government would get some extra money, and people would have one more thing to collect. Everyone wins.
It's late so my write-up for today will have to be on Friday. See you then!
Regular PV strips will resume on Wednesday. In the meantime, back to the travelogue.
Saturday (June 15th): Catching Up
The rain cleared up today, making for the nicest weather since I got here...but, being a Saturday, I had services to go to so I didn't really get to take advantage of it. However, I did get a chance to catch up with all my friends at the congregation, which was really nice. That night, a bunch of us went out for a bit. We started in Asakusa, but didn't stay long. Instead, we walked to the Skytree and looked through some of the shops around the base. I'll actually be going up the Skytree in the future, so I won't go into detail about the tower itself right now, but there's a lot of stuff around it including shops, an aquarium, planetarium, and even a blood donation room. That last one is a bit odd, isn't it? Anyway, we stayed long enough to watch the Skytree light up for the night then headed off to a restaurant. Nothing too exciting, but it was great spending time with everyone.
On a side note, I spotted some odd English when we were out. Like this menu board. I suppose the wording is technically correct but really, who uses tubular? There was also the Non Step bus. Personally, I'd be more curious to see what the step bus is like...
Monday (June 16th): Harajuku with Friends
Yesterday, Une, Una, and Hanbee (three of my friends my the congregation) invited me to hang out with them in Harajuku and Shibuya this afternoon. I had planned to use the morning to visit that big flea market I've been to before but it was canceled due to rain (yesterday's nice weather didn't last). But, since I was already in the area, I figured I might as well stop by the Pokémon Center. There was a huge line outside for some kind of special event but, as a result, the Pokémon Center itself was surprisingly uncrowded, which was a nice surprise.
To kill time till the scheduled meet up, I decided to walk around Ikebukuro (another part of Tokyo). I was kind of curious since I've never been there before and some anime I've watched take place in that area. Ikebukuro reminds me a bit of Shinjuku, though on a somewhat smaller scale. There are a lot of restaurants, bars, and clubs near the station, making for what's probably a popular nightlife area. Though there's also a large university nearby, so a few streets over you get that atmosphere as well. Other then a few odd signs, I didn't see anything too impressive...until I stumbled across a cosplay event. I was running out of time at that point, so I couldn't stay long, but it was fun to watch all the different cosplayers, even if only for a few minutes.
After that, I met my friends near Harajuku Station and we ate, talked, braved Harajuku's crowded Sunday streets, and shopped. Well, more like they shopped and I tagged along, but I was ok with that. Hanging out with them was fun (and good Japanese practice) and, while fashion isn't really my thing, I like Harajuku for the people watching. You really see a lot of interesting styles there. Besides, following girls around on a shopping trip is bound to be good dating practice :-P
Random Japan Comment: Umbrellas
If there's even a chance of rain, you can bet that just about everyone in Japan will be carrying an umbrella. A lot of people in the US don't seem to bother, since it's often a simple matter of dashing from you car into your house, school, workplace, or wherever. But in Japan, where most people rely on public transit and shopping streets greatly outnumber indoor malls, a lot more walking outdoors is necessary. When it's raining, sidewalks tend to become forests of umbrellas. This happens even if the rain is so light that it doesn't really matter. Being able to navigate a crowded space while carrying an open umbrella is an important skill to develop if you're going to live in Japan. Being able to bike while holding an open umbrella in one hand can be quite useful as well.
As for the umbrellas themselves, traditional Japanese umbrellas have wooden slats and paper canopies, and you may have seen them in some old paintings or historical fiction anime. You can still buy those in some places, but they're used more as souvenirs than anything else. Most people use perfectly normal modern umbrellas. There are a variety of different styles, but the most common (probably because it's cheap) is a generic long handled umbrella with a hooked end and a transparent canopy (if you watch anime, you've probably seen lots of characters carrying them). They're hardly the only kind around though. Personally, I keep a collapsible umbrella in my backup whenever I'm out and about in Japan. It's more portable than the big ones, and it rains often enough here (even outside of the rainy season), that it's nice to have one handy.
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to stop for now. I really wanted to cover today as well, but I took way too many pictures and got back later than I planned so I haven't had time to finish sorting through them yet, much less get some of them web-ready.
Please don't e-mail me and say the menu on the left side of the page looks weird. I know it does, it just wasn't designed to work with comics this tall. It'll fix itself once regular PV strips resume. And, as a reminder, while I'm in Japan, the site will be updating in early to mid morning, rather than late at night.
I didn't have time on Wednesday, but now I've given my latest Japan Travelogue its own page. Now, let's get back to it.
Wednesday (June 12th): Nikko with a Friend
A lot of people I know are in Japan right now. Some live here, others are here to teach English like I did, some are in study abroad programs, and some are just traveling. But anyway, I'm trying to meet up with some of them while I'm here. Though my chances of seeing all of them are pretty slim since they're spread out all across the country.
Anyway, my friend Aika is touring Nikko at the moment, so we made plans to meet today and see the shrines and temples.
I've already covered Nikko and its amazing collection of shrines and temples multiple times in the past (see Sept 17 and Jan 1, among others), so I'm not going to retread it. But this was Aika's first time, so I got to play tour guide a bit. The only thing we did that I hadn't before was follow a small path around the back of the area with the shrines. It was nice, but nothing amazing. After seeing the shrines we walked around the town, ate, looked at souvenirs, and the like. It was lightly raining all day, but we had a good time regardless. Not too much to talk about really, without overlapping my old coverage, but here's a few photos to make this entry worthwhile. The breathtaking Toshogu Shrine and one of its walls of carvings; the nearby pagoda; and the iconic Shinkyo Bridge. You know, in retrospect, I probably should have gotten Aika in some of my pictures...
Random Japan Comment: Feels like home?
I was talking to my dad on the phone and he asked if coming back to Japan felt like returning home. That got me thinking, where does feel like home for me these days? Grand Junction, Colorado certainly does. I lived there a long time, my parents are still there, and I really feel at home when I return. Phoenix, Arizona feels like home as well, though a bit less than it used to now that I'm not a student and a lot of the people I used to hang out with aren't there anymore. Pennsylvania, up where my grandparents lived, really used to feel like home but, over the last few years, there's been a combination of moves, deaths, and family problems and, the last couple times I went, it just wasn't the same. Florida...really doesn't. Never mind that I've lived there for two years now. I mean, my apartment feels homey, I guess, but not the area as a whole. The reason? Probably because I'm just not all that attached to it. The little town I live in is nice enough, I have some friends down around (though not all that close to me), and going to all the theme parks has been fun but, when it comes down to it, if it wasn't for my job it's just not a place I'd want to live. Ideally, I'd be out of Florida entirely but, even I was going to stay in the state, I'd rather be in Orlando or on one of the southern beaches. Other than that, I think Honolulu could potentially feel like home if I spend enough time there. Tokyo? Well, I've certainly felt very comfortable since returning, but I wouldn't say it feels like home either. Maybe it's because I've lived in a different area each time I've come to Japan. Maybe it's the drastic cultural differences. Maybe because all my apartments have been roughly the size of the nicer walk-in closets I've had back in the US... That said, given the right circumstances, I might be able to feel at home here. Maybe...
Thursday (June 13th): Exploring Koto-ku
The part of Tokyo I'm staying in this time around is a section of Koto-ku. I'd originally wanted to walk around and explore a bit on Tuesday, but didn't get a chance to finish due to that emergency Akihabara trip, so I decided to do that today. When I was out shopping before, I saw a map of the area and spotted a park and garden that looked worth checking out. So I stopped by Doutor (a Starbucks style chain) for a green tea latte (they have the best ones of anywhere I've tried) then headed to Kiba Park. It turned out to be really large and part regular park (with playground equipment and the like) and part botanical garden. It was raining a bit, but I was still able to take a nice stroll through the park and get some pictures of various flowers. The park ends at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, but it's closed for a few days for exhibit changing or some such, and I generally prefer older art anyway.
Next, I walked to Kiyosumi Garden. It's a Japanese garden that belonged to a government official a long time ago but is now public property. Like the park, it was mostly empty (likely due to the rain), but I was still able to get some nice pictures of the garden, the flowers, and various birds. Kiyosumi isn't an especially large garden (I'd call it medium size), and there are nicer ones in Tokyo, but it's still a very pretty and relaxing place and the entry fee is a minimal 150 Yen, so it's worth a stop if you're nearby.
After that, I got some lunch (Indian, for a change, since there's a place right near my apartment) then headed back to my apartment for a bit to get out of the rain, sort through my photos, and get some work done on trip planning for future days (I have the basic ideas marked down, but need to work out train schedules and the like for many of them).
That evening, I headed out again, this time going towards the center of Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace. My destination was Hie Shrine, site of Sanno Matsuri, one of Tokyo's most important local shrine festivals, which is going on this week. Unfortunately, the festival is only at its best on even numbered years (it alternates with Kanda Matsuri in May, with each one only having a small festival in their off years). Despite that, it was still fun to visit. There was a beautiful lantern lit path of tori gates (which reminded me of Fushigi Inari Shrine in Kyoto), dancing, and a few booths with food (I got a whole grilled fish on a stick). So I ate, watched the dancing for a while, and had a nice time. On a kind of amusing side note, you won't notice this if you don't read Japanese, but the writing on those lanterns isn't anything festive or religious, it's all ads for various businesses.
On my way back to the subway station, I got sidetracked by an interesting looking street and ended up walking around the Akasaka area for a while. I've never been there before, but apparently it's a popular nightlife area, with lots of restaurants, clubs, and bars. There are some foreign embassies nearby too, like the Embassy of Canadian...something or other. I'm guessing it's not Canadian Grammar Teachers.
Random Japan Comment: The Rainy Season
This time of year in Japan (mid June through mid July, give or take) is known as the rainy season, which means lots of cloudy days and rain. It's generally acknowledged to not be one of the better times to visit. But, on the bright side, a lot of the rain is little more than a gentle mist, and can be quite scenic. Plus, is reduces crowds and helps keep the temperatures down, so there are some good points.
Friday (June 14th): Back to Akihabara
I didn't really get to finish my rounds of Akihabara on Tuesday, and I was still in a shopping mood so I headed back there today. The route between my apartment and Akihabara crosses over one of Tokyo's many rivers, and this particular one is often used by ferry boats going between Asakusa and Odaiba. Some boats are pretty typical ferries, some are made to look more like old Japanese crafts, and then there's this one. I seem to recall hearing that its design is based on a ship from some anime, but I don't remember the details.
As always, I had a lot of fun shopping in Akihabara. Running around to a zillion little stores in search of rare items and good prices can be tiring, but it can also be fun (at least if you find all the stuff in said stores interesting), and there's that moment of triumph when you track down something in particular or get a good price (like when I found the rare Infinity Plus collection for 1,600 Yen less than average). Since I had a lot more time, I was able to get through most of Akihabara and hit most of my favorite stores. And, while I still have a bit of spending money left, I think I'm about shopped out for the next couple of weeks. I'll probably go back to Akihabara at least once more one this trip though, and I've got to visit Nakano Broadway at some point as well.
Oh, as I mentioned a couple days ago, I can now confirm that Maid Cafes seem to have had a big growth in popularity since the last time I was in Japan. I mean, there were a number of them then, but there seems to be even more now and they're being advertised pretty aggressively. Before, I'd see a handful of costumed girls handing out flyers on weekends. Today, I couldn't walk a block without seeing at least a couple of girls in maid uniforms, cosplay, school uniforms, shrine maiden outfits, or some such, and this is on a weekday. Maybe I should try one sometime so I can do a write-up...