An Afternoon Stroll

On Saturday Dan and I took a stroll to Nippori in search of Yanaka Ginza.  We recently purchased a new camera and thought the quaint shopping street would be perfect for some practice shots.

But first, no afternoon stroll through Tokyo can begin without ramen:

We didn’t even make it to the train station before this stop, since this ramen-ya is in our neighborhood.  Dangerous, I know.  B1F, 1-7-9 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku  博多チムそば 麻布十番店、〒106-0045 東京都港区麻布十番1丁目7−9

On to Yanaka Ginza.  Well, almost.  To reach Yanaka Ginza we had to take the train to the JR Nippori station, which is also the home of Fabric Town:

Does anyone remember Cheapo in Minneapolis?  Oh, the hours I spent trying to look interested in used CDs while Dan click-clicked his way through new arrivals.  Apparently it’s payback time.  (You can find more info on Textile Heaven here.)  Only one hour was lost, and then it was back to our mission…

We got a little turned around, and eventually found our way across the train tracks via tunnel.  I sort of love/hate it when I’m in one of these tunnels and the train passes overhead.  Popping out the other side, we noticed people were gathering:

We’d stumbled upon Fujimizaka (meaning Fuji view slope), and joined just in time to watch the sun set over the city.  Everyone was gathered along a road that climbed up a steep hill (apparently some with better cameras than us).  If you are like me and need a little help, Fuji-san was just about here:

Finally, on with our quest.  We were looking for Yanaka Ginza, a small shopping street in northeastern Tokyo that is famous for maintaining the feel of Shitamachi, the traditional and lower class part of Edo which housed merchants and artisans in the marshy (read: humid and stinky) low part of the city.  Most of Shitamachi is gone, due to fires and wars over the years, but a few areas of Tokyo still do it right.  After some iPhone-led zig-zagging through neighborhoods, we finally arrived… and forgot to take photos.

Believe me though, it’s great.  We bought sencha 煎茶, stood in line for grilled meats, and wandered from shop window to cafe menu.  On our way home, we passed a small shrine tucked along the road:

A nice end to a lovely winter day.

1/1/11: A Day in Pictures

To friends new and old and family near and far, Happy New Year!  あけましておめでとうございます!

First it was a champagne toast and countdown to midnight with new friends, then off to Meiji jingu shrine 明治神宮.  Fortunes were told and hot, sweet rice milk was glugged.  New Year’s Day had us strolling the neighborhood to Zenpuku-ji temple 善福寺 for hatsumode, our first visit of the year.  Welcome, 2011!


Have no fear, folks — no talk of afterbirth today, just pretty pretty pictures.

A few weeks ago we took our first day trip out of the city to Nikkō.  Tokyo was experiencing its hot, sticky, rainy season and Nikkō was cool and so very pleasant, so we congratulated ourselves on our good timing.

Two hours north of Tokyo by train, Nikkō (日光市, meaning “sunshine”) is home to the World Heritage-listed Tōshō-gū shrine. We were looking for both culture and trees, so it was the perfect destination for us.  We picked up some bentos at the train station, and off we went.

Let us begin with a little history (because it’s fun!): when the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616, construction began on a shrine and mausoleum to honor him. Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, declared that it should be the most splendid and impressive shrine ever built, and that the feudal lords, or daimyō, should pay for it (in order to prevent them from acquiring too much money of their own, you see?  Smart grandson!).

Artisans from all over Japan were brought in, and for two years some 15,000 of them worked on the shrine.  I think my guidebook describes it best with, “Almost anything that can be decorated is.” Gaudy or gorgeous, either way, it’s pretty awesome.

We went to Nikkō in search of culture and trees, but what we really found was a crowd.  Tōshō-gū was packed full of tourists and school children, and we spent a lot of time trying to keep either ahead of or behind them.  Despite the awesomeness, it wasn’t long before we decided we’d had enough of Tōshō-gū shrine and went looking for something else.  Tōshō-gū shrine is the big attraction in Nikkō, but we’d heard nearby Taiyūin-byō shrine was worth the visit.

Some more background (and more fun!): Taiyūin-byō shrine was finished in 1653, and is the mausoleum for Tokugawa Iemitsu — that’s right, the grandson.  Iemitsu turned out to be an extremely powerful shogun — he was the one responsible for closing Japan to foreign commerce, isolating it from the rest of the world for almost 200 years.  So he got a pretty impressive shrine as well.

The shrine built for Iemitsu feels like the antithesis of his grandfather’s.  Where Tōshō-gū is flashy, Taiyūin-byō is serene, set back amongst the cedar trees where it blends in with the landscape.

I fell in love with these lanterns.  There must have been hundreds of them scattered throughout both shrines, though the ones at Taiyūin-byō were more eerie, all covered in moss.

Nikko has been considered a holy place for over 1,200 years, when as legend has it, the Buddhist priest Shōdō Shōnin was helped across the river by two snakes who appeared and formed a bridge, then vanished.  The red Shin-kyō bridge marks the spot.

Walking back to the train station along this river was a refreshing end to our day — the water was so cold we could feel a rush of cool air go by as you stood next to it.  The scene was completely lovely, and we stood there for a long time.

For those interested, we took the Tobu line from Asakusa station using the Nikko World Heritage Pass.

Bike Journey

Today I bought a used bike.  I took the subway for 30 minutes to my meeting point at Nakano-sakaue Station, an area just northwest of Shinjuku.  Then, I had to get my new wheels home, without the help of the train.

First, agh!

Then, ah.

Next, wow.

Then I started to recognize where I was…

And finally, home!

The whole trip was just over 10 km and took me 2 hours, which is funny because the walking directions on Google Maps are listed at 2 hours and 5 minutes… well, OK, I did stop and buy beer.  I couldn’t bring my new mamachari home with an empty basket!

It’s true, this little mama chariot doesn’t look quite as mama as it could, which is just fine by me.  It gets my precious cargo home just the same.

ps – You can see my route here.

Tsukiji, say what?

One of the best things I’ve done in Tokyo thus far is visit the Tsukiji fish market.   Officially called the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji (pronounced “skee-gee”) is where 2,000 tons of seafood come into Japan every day.  Did you get that?  Every day!  With the auctions beginning at 5:00 am, I dragged my feet a bit in getting around to visit here — I thought, if this place requires me getting up so dang early, it better be worth it.  Since I had a friend visiting who was up at the crack of dawn with a bit of jet-lag, it seemed as good a time as any.  With iced coffee and onigiri in hand, we set off soon after the subway started running.

A gigantic warehouse complex packed full of tiny stalls where wholesale vendors peddle their goods, the market is not for the faint of heart.  We picked our way through the skinny walkways, trying to avoid the remains of who-knows-what at our feet.  The place was busy and packed so full of people doing their daily business that it felt like a place we really shouldn’t be.  But one of the great things about visiting Tsukiji is that you get to see the real deal.  No one asked us to leave, and a few men in rubber boots even nodded or smiled at us as we passed.  Fish flop at every corner, or are gutted and sitting on styrofoam platters.  Every sort of sea creature is for sale, some still alive, all packed on ice or in huge plastic tubs.  One live shrimp jumped out of its bucket as we walked by, and at one point I’m pretty sure I was fish-slapped by a stray in a passing tank.  Water mixed with fish guts sloshed around the floor.

The market was almost chaotic, but perfectly orchestrated.  By far the loudest place I’ve found in Tokyo, people shout and little three-wheeled motorized carts speed by (seriously, they are fast), but everyone is respectful and no one crashes and everything moves together in unison.  It was really amazing and beautiful to watch, despite the glassy eyeballs staring up at me from the styrofoam.

Then we found the tuna.  Tuna is a big deal in Japan, and once I saw them at Tsukiji I understood why.  I was mesmerized by them.  They are as big as me and flash frozen, so the giant fish literally look like ghosts.  They’re stacked on palettes, driven around by carts, sent through table saws, and hacked up for sale.  Their insides have a deep red color unlike any other fish in the market (they’re warm blooded!), and create a dramatic contrast to the other fish in mostly whites and grays.  A slab of tuna looks like a juicy t-bone steak, and could cost you $50 or more.  I watched the bright white and red tuna parts being carted around the market and was incredibly moved.  I actually felt haunted by them.

After learning that bluefin tuna is seriously endangered, Dan and I have tried to stop eating it, a difficult undertaking while living in Japan.  I’m still not quite sure what I was feeling at Tsukiji, I suppose simultaneous awe and heartbreak.  It is a very weird feeling, and I remain conflicted.  Tsukiji is an amazing place to experience, but part of what makes it so is exactly the thing it hurts.

In case any readers wander upon this post and want to visit Tsukiji, the closest subway station is Tsukiji-Shijo on the Odeo line, though it seems the Tsukiji stop on the Hibiya line works as well.  If you want to make it in time for the fish auctions at 5 am, you’ll have to take a taxi or walk.

Also, if you’d like more information on the peril of the bluefin tuna, there’s a hefty yet worthwhile article here.

Tea for Three

We have a friend in town for a visit, which has been a great excuse to check out some of the guidebook sites we haven’t yet seen.

Hama Rikyū Teien is within walking distance of our current apartment, and is a pleasant diversion from Tokyo’s humid June weather.  Now a public garden, the area was owned by a feudal lord during the Edo period (1603 to 1868) and served as duck hunting grounds for the shogunate.  It opened to the public in 1946, and includes a flower field with blooms for every season, a saltwater tidal pond with floating tea house, and a 300-year-old pine tree.

While we wandered through the gardens, we came across a bride and groom in traditional kimono having their pictures taken.  It was amazing to think that we were in the center of the city.

Matcha (Japanese green tea) and sweets in the tea house were our aim, so we wandered over the bridge and inside for some welcome shade.

Tea was served in the style of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which I hadn’t yet tried for fear I would make an offensive mistake.  The casual atmosphere of the tea house was a great place to try it for the first time.  As we sat on our knees on the tatami mat, kind women in kimono smiled, brought out our tea, and then slipped us each a cheat sheet.

Sweets are eaten first, placed with the paper in your left hand while you use the wooden skewer in your right to swiftly cut it into pieces.  It was just the right amount of sweet.  Then on to the matcha.  Place the bowl in left hand, then turn it clockwise 3 times, so to display the fancy design of your bowl outward.  Three sips is all you get, leaving as little foam as possible.  A slurp is always polite.

I was a little worried I was going to scald my tongue, but by the time I got to my tea it was just the right temperature. I should have known — a few centuries of practice, and the Japanese have their tea to perfection.