Saturday, November 22, 2008

Japan '08: Odaiba

Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo, from the Decks Tokyo Beach shopping mall.

One afternoon, my friends and I trekked out to Odaiba, an area of modern developments on artificial land in Tokyo Bay. First stop was the Decks shopping mall, where we had lunch buffet (baikingu, or viking style as they say in Japan) at an Indian restaurant, Khazana. The food was pretty good, and the place had an outdoor terrace with a fantastic view over the bay to Tokyo. There was hardly anyone else around; presumably Decks would be a lot more crowded on a weekend.

Sujith and Initial D Arcade Stage 4 Limited.

We visited Tokyo Joypolis at Decks, mainly to check out some new video games. Joypolis is either a very large arcade, or an ultracompact amusement park, depending on how you look at it. Sujith waited in a short line (an advantage of coming on a weekday) to play Initial D 4, on a special setup with real cars on actuators. He didn't win his race, but he chose a tough course and the strongest opponent, against the recommendation of the attendant. And, he did get to use the tofu shop car. The guys also tried out House of the Dead 4 Special, while I found an old Puyo Puyo SUN machine in a corner.

Tokyo Big Sight

On the other side of the island, we made a stop at Tokyo Big Sight, known to us fanboys as the venue for Comiket, but in use the day we were there for some sort of business convention. Some people are apparently so impressed by the craftsmanship of the pyramids in Egypt that they wonder if mere humans could have built the things; it seems to me you'd have to be pretty hopeless as an architect to fail to design a workable pyramid. But constructing a building out of upside down pyramids: that is impressive.

Public art outside of Tokyo Big Sight.

Odaiba is a strange place, like a combination theme park and city-sized corporate campus. It's all empty public space, studded with eccentric modern architecture; the atmosphere struck me as downright surreal. Even the train line that services the area is like something out of a scifi dystopia: the trains are automated, with no driver on board. It was fun to see it once, but Odaiba would be pretty low on my list of priorities for a return visit, unless there was a chance to catch a Comiket.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Japan '08: Asakusa

Kaminari Mon, the main gate leading into the temple complex and shopping arcade at Asakusa.

Probably the most famous temple and associated cultural sites in Tokyo are located in Asakusa, in the northeastern part of the city, not far from where we stayed in Hongou. The main attraction, Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, was destroyed in World War II, but rebuilt in the 1950s. Throughout October and up to November 25, they are having special celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the re-dedication of the temple.

Larger temples and shrines in Japan tend to have touristy commercial districts associated with them. The Nakamise shopping arcade inside of Kaminari Mon, along the street leading to Senso-ji, is especially extravagant. You can get a pretty decent lunch by hitting the food stalls, then shop for o-miyage (souvenirs). I bought some reproduction old fashioned money from the Nakamise Association booth, which technically could have been used like cash at Association businesses, though it seemed a shame to spend it.

Nakamise money and my fortune from Senso-ji.

Omikuji at Senso-ji Temple yielded kichi (good fortune), which is almost the best outcome. It seems to me that omikuji has a strong bias towards more or less happy fortunes; I've done it a bunch of times and never gotten one of the variations on kyou (curse or bad luck). It's too bad, because if you get kyou, you can engage in another odd little temple/shrine activity: folding up the paper and tying it to a branch or wire frame on the temple grounds, in order to undo the fortune.

Alter inside of the main hall at Senso-ji.

We visited Asakusa on a weekday, but things were still incredibly busy; the crowd was 10 people deep around the main devotional area in Senso-ji.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Japan '08: Washinomiya Shrine

On our first full day in Japan, we decided to visit Washinomiya Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, which is probably the oldest shrine in the Kanto region, having supposedly been founded by the god Amenohohi prior to 660 BCE. Rather more recently, Washinomiya has gained fame as the inspiration for some of the settings in the 2007 anime version of Lucky Star.

Washinomiya is located pretty far out in the sticks, relatively speaking, and getting there from home base in Hongou involved a couple of transfers, so the outing served as our baptism by fire into the Tokyo train system. We took it slowly, and didn't get lost. Actually, we never once got turned around on the trains the whole trip, which is partly due to preparation (Ray in particular gets props for figuring things out ahead of time), and partly due to the fact that the train system has gotten a whole lot more user friendly than it was when I was last in Tokyo, about 10 years ago. The signage in the stations and on the trains themselves is really thorough, and mostly includes romanized place names, and the stations on a line are now given consecutive numbers, which makes it easy to tell if you're going in the right direction.

Ueno Station in Tokyo, relatively quiet after rush hour.

The biggest improvement to the train system has been the introduction of prepaid fare cards that you just swipe at the gates at your starting point and destination, as opposed the old system (still available if you're a masochist) of trying to figure out what your fare is going to be from a map and buying tickets for the right amount at a vending machine. You don't even have to take the card out; it has an RFID chip that generally works if you nonchalantly wave your wallet over the reader. Probably the most important single piece of advice that I can give to prospective visitors to Tokyo is: buy a Suica or Pasmo card (the two competing card types are equivalent, so just pick one at random) as soon as you arrive at the airport. We got a special deal for tourists, that included a Suica card with some money on it and a ticket on the Narita Express from the airport to Tokyo Station at a discount price.

Washinomiya Station, with Sujith (L) and Ray (R).

Washimiya--the town--where Washinomiya--the shrine--is located, was about an hour and a half from Ueno Station, though we were taking our time and being cautious about catching the right trains. kc_komicer provides good directions. Basically, you take the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line to Kita-Senju Station. There, catch the Tobu-Isesaki Line (the main train line through Saitama). We took a rapid train to Kuki Station, then got on a local train for a one station hop to Washinomiya. There might have been other options--it looked like there was a limited express from Kita-Senju that stopped at Washinomiya--but this route seemed like it would be quick and certain.

Garden in Washimiya with orange trees, persimmons, figs, etc.

Washimiya is a pleasant, quiet place, at least late morning on a Friday; my neighborhood in rural Connecticut is noisy in comparison. Use the East exit from the station, walk up the main drag and work your way over to the wooded area visible to the left, which is Washinomiya.

Washinomiya Shrine main gate, live action and anime versions.

Sadly, neither my friends nor the old guy sitting in front of the tea shop in the photo of the actual gate were much inclined to do the dance. The Washinomiya expedition was on October 10th (Moe Day, coincidentally) but it was pretty hot, especially out in the sun. According to the natives, the weather was unusually warm for that time of year; I wished I had brought more short sleeved shirts.

Walkway inside of the gates, 3-D and Lucky Star modes.

If I was really hardcore, I would have had some printouts of key Lucky Star scenes with me, in order to search for good photos. This shot of the entryway to the shrine was just an interesting view; I noticed it was present in the anime only after my return to the U.S. It's probably just as well my preparations didn't go that far; I received enough ribbing from my Japanese friends just for visiting Saitama to see anime locales ("Uwaa, mania sugiru!" or something along those lines). Much of the shrubbery to the right in the background is Osmanthus aurantiaca, (Kinmokusei, Orange Fragrant Olive), which was in bloom and gave the whole area a citrusy smell.

A cherry tree (sakura).

Cherry trees were planted all along the main walkway; it must be nice in spring. This was a particularly gnarled old specimen that must have an associated spirit or some such in order to warrant the shimenawa (ceremonial ropes) with shide (folded paper wards) around it. If years of watching anime have taught me anything, something interesting would happen if you tripped and broke the rope. Nobody tripped. The grassy green leaves growing on the side of the trunk are an epiphytic fern, probably Lepisorus thunbergianus, that was pretty widespread on old trees in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Washinomiya Ema stand.

Shinto shrines sell wooden plaques (ema) on which visitors can write their wishes and hopes (and sometimes just random chatty observations), and provide a place to hang the finished work. Washinomiya has been getting a good amount of otaku traffic since Lucky Star aired, so there are lots of funky ema, and even a few from foreign visitors.

Before you get to the main shrine plaza, there's a washing station, where you are meant to purify yourself before entering. Ray demonstrates: you wash your left hand, then the right, then take a sip from your left hand and rinse your mouth. Most people seem to drink the water, though you should read the signs (or watch what other people do if your Nihongo is shaky), because the hand washing areas at some shrines and temples are marked as being non-potable. At right there's a really impressive female Ginkgo tree, which was just starting to shed seed. I snagged a few fallen seeds and brought them back to the US, and will have to see if I can grow some Washinomiya Ginkgos.

Sujith and me at the shop.

Shrines and temples include stores where you can buy omamori (charms for protection in various endeavors: studying, childbirth, traffic safety, etc.), ofuda (paper wards with writing and seals), or get your fortune told via omikuji lottery. I picked up some shrine goods, and did omikuji. To get your fortune, you pay the cute miko (shrine maiden) 100 yen, shake up a container and draw a stick, tell the miko the number on the stick, and receive a slip of paper. At Washinomiya, I got shou-kichi (small fortune), which is so-so.

Shou-kichi or no, things seemed to work out well on this trip. For example, by dumb luck we happened to visit Washinomiya Shrine on one of its seven annual festival days. When we first arrived, around 10:00, the staff seemed to be doing something with relics in the inner part of the shrine, but the area was closed off to the general public and it was hard to see what was going on. Later on, the action moved to a public area, with music and much ceremony, all picturesque if more or less incomprehensible for us gaikokujin.

Ootori Tea Shop bulletin board.

After we were all matsuri-ed out, we headed back to the ancient-looking tea shop, Ootori Chaya, just outside of the gate. Ootori is a traditional eatery in most respects, but the local youth group that operates the place [ref.] has taken up the Lucky Star theme with a vengeance.

Their menu, for instance, lists the usual tempura, udon, soba and dango, but many items have been given names that are puns or references from Lucky Star or other anime. For better or worse, I did not sample Tsukasa's Balsamic Vinegar Parfait, though I sort of wish that I had. It's easy to say things like that, now that I'm safely thousands of miles away from Japan.

The interior of Ootori Tea Shop is decorated with Lucky Star memorabilia, including signatures from voice actors and anime staff who have visited Washimiya.

Ray, Sujith and lunch at Ootori.

The food was ordinary light fare, but tasty. After lunch, I snagged a few more souvenirs, including a Sacred Land Washinomiya t-shirt (visible behind the guys) and we made our way back to the city. That evening I caught a movie (Gurren Lagann) on my own, and then we all went out to dinner in Shinjuku with some of Ray's Tokyoite friends. All in all, it was a really satisfying day: a bit laid back, but with enough challenges to get us into the swing of things, and enough excitement and outdoor activity to keep 13 hours of jet lag from overwhelming us.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

From the M.J. Political Desk

I'm feeling pretty good about the election. No mistake, the problems that Obama will face come January are formidable, and all of us here in the U.S. should be prepared to hold the president elect's feet to the fire about bringing Bush's various wars to swift and humane conclusions, effectively re-regulating the economy, restoring eroded civil liberties, bringing balance, transparency and accountability back to the federal government, enforcing environmental regulations, awarding political and judicial appointments based on the merits of the candidates, ending government use of torture and secret offshore prisons, and fixing a thousand other things that have gone to hell in the past eight years. The really broad scale, long term problems that the world is staring down--environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources--might be beyond the ability of any leader to address, no matter how capable and well-intentioned they are.

Still, and cheesy as it sounds, I felt something while watching the results last night that I haven't felt convincingly in a while: hope for the future of the country, hope that progress is possible, hope that something, besides video games and moe character designs, might have been getting better amidst 30 years of creeping neoconservative cultural rot. At one point after Obama's victory was certain, a reporter talked to some grizzled old civil rights activists, and the hardened veterans of a decades long and still ongoing struggle had to choke back tears of joy: the country had achieved something that they had never imagined could happen in their lifetimes. It may just be for a few hours or a few days, but I can't maintain a drop of cynicism in the face of a scene like that.

I'll continue with Japan trip reports next week; election aside, this week is impossibly busy.