Friday, November 06, 2009

Planet Japan: Day 3

AOG, Tokyo

We got up this morning, tired from the night before, and had breakfast at what has become our usual breakfast spot: Café Veloce. It is just across the street from our hotel.

The decor of the place is very European, and the food on sale too. We have discovered that in Japan, tea and coffee can be served either hot or cold, and when you buy it, you must specify whether your latte, here known exclusively as "café au lait" is hot, or cold.

We took all our guidebooks and Japanese directional paraphernalia to decide what to do today. Since this journey was slightly spur-of-the-moment, we have not really done all our homework concerning the place's sights. So this little directional ceremony happens daily.

"What do you want to do?" "Dunno. How about you?" "Dunno. I saw this..." and we take it from there.

Less than perfect, but it works.

Culture Day -

Since many people told us that today was 'Culture Day' in Japan, we thought we'd do something cultural since, as everyone told us, there is no official nationwide celebration of any kind.

So we decide to visit the Asakusa (
浅草) neighborhood. Why? It is by the river and there is a temple, the Asakusa Shrine.

Ah yes, temples. Perhaps the few remaining pieces of ancient Japanese architecture in Tokyo. The city was bombed during WWII so most architecture is post that era.

After paying for our hot cafés au lait and our mustardy ham and creamy egg sandwiches, we head for Shinjuku station.

Getting to Asakusa means taking the Subway and not the JR. So we do. However, they tell us we have to change at some point, at which point we do, in Chiyoda City, and find a side street which keeps us occupied for almost an hour just outside
Kanda Station (神田駅).

It is at this station that I discover that Japanese stations have a sort of Rubber Stamp Stand with their own individual stamps. Judging from the map and layout on the wall, I'd say that you can go all over Tokyo collecting your stamp and printing it on whatever piece of paper you have at hand.

I'm sure there must be people who do this all year round and have filled many a notebook with them. I only did it this once. But I love my black stamp!

I must point out that one of the reasons we don't see as much of Tokyo as other mortals might is because to us, everywhere we go is a photo-op.

Given how all we see is different, all is game. Even the poor normal Japanese people who politely look away when two goateed "Gaijin" are taking their picture. In the middle of the street. For no reason. But then, when your country is another planet, what are we to do?

So after many clicks and much focusing, we go back to the station and enter Subwayland.

The subway trains are very spacious and, today anyway, not as crowded as JR. Opposite us is a 2.4 kids type of family, sprawled on the seats. Dad is keeping watch, and mom and children are passed out on the seats. Yes. Yes we did.

We took their pic.

Come on, they looked so sweet! How could I not?We also took some pics of, to us anyway, hilarious wall signs. Japan is a treasure trove of these, I must confess. Somewhere between Stalin and Hello Kitty.

There is one in particular which tells women to do their make up at home. It is a drawing.

In one frame, she is this unattractive hag doing her hair in the carriage, bothering everyone.

In the next frame, she looks like a beauty queen, much to the chagrin of her fellow passengers.


So we finally get to Asakusa. It is a very crowded neighborhood today.

This is the place where most restaurants in Tokyo get these plastic mock-ups of their food. They seem to be very expensive because they are meant to mimick real food as realistically as possible. I have to say that they do a good job of this.

Culture Day Parade

But the main point of interest in Asakusa for us today is the parade. Yes, the Culture Day parade. Either we didn't make ourselves understood, or they lied to us. As we leave the station, we face an oncoming parade of Japanese folks dressed in ancient and historical gear representing the country's (or Tokyo's) different guilds.

On both sides of the street, Boy Scouts keep the crowds back. I have to say this is a very good way of using Boy Scouts: crowd control. It works because, I think, most people would be too embarrassed to overpower a young boy just to get to the other side of the street.

Most people except, only in Japan, senior citizens, and in particular, women. Yes, old women in Japan seem to have the run of the place.

In a culture which respects the elderly, the elderly do as they please. Respectfully, politely, at their own pace, but very much contravening the order of the day. The Boy Scouts smile and even help them to cross the street when they choose to do so.

We too try to cross the street once we realize that we are at a strange angle to take good pics. So we wait until the Flying Fish Goddess Purple Fishmonger's Guild pass by before sprinting to the other side of the street where the lighting is better. All Japanese look very solemn in their historical dress and makeup.

All but the gay.

From our new vantage point we saw one of the Japanese religious floats come by, surrounded by serious-looking men, and we start to point, and shoot the cameras. And yes, every mother has one.

Suddenly, one of the pallbearers caught sight of us, snapping away. All I can say is that his inner Naomi Campbell came out and he started to pose like this was a Mario Testino moment.

We thought it was hilarious. So did everyone else.

It is one of the many images I have to say thank you for.

He made us smile.

Yes, the Japanese have a sense of humor.

And people are the same wherever you go.

I liked this. I liked his impromptu reaction to the camera.

Sashay, Chantay, as Rupaul used to say!

When we turned the corner, and after not being much impressed by the Asahi Beer Hall building, or as my partner christened it, "The Booger Monument" or "Snot Tower", we turn a corner where we spend about an hour trying to capture the parade and the people of Tokyo in this festivity.

The police have closed off the street, and after the last group of people go by, and I have to say the story of the Samurai and the Fishermen was so well interpreted that even non-Japanese speaking people like ourselves understood the old tale about the fishermen who were assaulted by the Samurai (old Japanese Warrior Aristocracy) and lived to tell the tale when they kicked their Feudal asses somehow- we had an empty street all to ourselves.

But not before watching another group of people dressed in Western gear representing the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in the middle of the XIX century.

Somehow, a few westerners have been roped in to participate and lend authenticity to the event. When I see this I begin to understand (well, not even understand, but rather start to ponder about) the effect that contact with the West had for this country.

One must not forget that Japan went from being a Medieval country in the middle of the century, to kicking the Imperial Russian Fleet's ass in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War.

In less than 60 years. This is like native Americans going from being invaded in 1492 by Europeans to devastating the Spanish fleet with Airborne artillery in 60 years. Amazing does not cover it. And Japan is amazing.

Uniq-lo zebra crossing

After the parade ends with a group of all singing, all chanting children dressed as seafood and algae, or something, we stand outside the entrance to the Uniqlo store's gigantic zebra crossing to snap away. Crazy but effective.

We stay there for what seems like hours.

Eventually I get the feeling that old Japanese women try to bump into you once you have taken their photograph. Polite, but evil.


Afterwards we walk down the street which is empty. I spotted a Starbucks a while back, but as we walk down the street, going in seems like a waste of time. Too crowded.

Within 25 minutes, an eerie police car drives down slowly announcing from its speaker that the street will soon open up to traffic once more. Or so we think. We don't stick around to find out, and take the first side street we find.

We are hungry after all this culture, and need food. Sadly, the only restaurants which seem open happen to be Indian. And no, we didn't fly to Japan to have Indian food cooked in Tokyo. Snobbery? Perhaps. But it paid off.

Sensō-ji Temple (金龍山浅草寺)

We continue walking and eventually stumble upon the Temple's grounds. The whole of Asakusa is like a village, rather than Tokyo.

The scale of things is much smaller. We see more of the sky. It has a different feel. Life here suddenly turns slightly more traditional.

We see a barber shop (I think one of the few universal signs must be the barber's which is just a red-white-and-blue as it is here in the West. We also come across a second-hand camera store. We look in. All are film cameras. Nothing digital.

Nevertheless, the cameras are beautiful to look at, mechanical and metallic. Nothing like the plasticky digital wonders hanging from our necks.

We visit the gigantic public restroom by one of the statues of Bhudda and then decide to stop and eat at a local restaurant.

Local Food

A line of people are waiting outside a dark store to buy sweet hot buns made from pumpkin. The minute I see them I am reminded of the Mexican pastry which looks identical to these: Conchas. The checkered sugary top is the same! I could not believe it.

So in we go, and the old lady running the place sits us next to a very unassuming Japanese lady wearing a business suit.

The place is slightly touristy, but not as we know it. It is touristy for Japanese tourists! All cultural references are garish, kitschy, but 100% for the Japanese market only. Black walls with old movie posters, old ads, old toys. I love it!

Everything in Japan is small to us because, generally, Japanese people are not as large as Westerners. The chairs are small, the table is small, the chopsticks are smaller, the cups and dishes. All.

They bring us the usual point-and-choose picture menu which seems to encompass of all Japan's restaurants. So we pick and point. They bring us hot green tea. Although I quite like it (though sometimes it tastes like boiled dirt) my partner drinks it, but asks for beer. Like a good Japanese!

Our rice, pickled green beans and meat arrives (I would give the dish a name, but I don't know what its called).

When we are done eating, the unassuming lady who shares our table strikes up a conversation in her best English. She has been to Europe, but not Spain. She asks us if we have been to the temple. When we say no, she tells us the temple protocol. As I best remember it, we must:

1-Go to the font and wash the right hand with the left, then the left with the right using a small pot. Then wash our mouth and spit out the water (she covers her mouth and bows her head as though she were sneezing to represent "spit it out" politely).

2-Go to the temple.

3-Bow. Clap twice. Make wish. Bow.


She does not tell us about the flinging of money to the red lacquered box with bars which probably keeps the place running. I, of course, pay, then pray. The Good Ol' fashioned way.

The legend is that a couple of fishermen on the Sumida river found a statue of Guan Yin 觀音
(she is Chinese in origin, the Japanese call her Kannon) the Goddess of Mercy. in their nets. They threw it overboard only to have it come back time and again. Said statue is in the shrine.

Here's two images. One Chinese. The other is the Goddess of the sea Iemanjá. Her origin's are African, though she was morphed into something else when African slaves were brought to the Americas and they were forced to become Christians. Today she is worshiped in Cuba and many parts of Latin America, including Brazil in the syncretic Santería / Candomblé religions.

I think the correlation with the apparition of statues of the Virgin Mary floating at sea, is amazing.

Except that Christians are too trusting of apparitions and they tend to celebrate the find straight away and would probably never think about throwing her image overboard.

The Japanese? Hey Yohi, what the hell is that piece of shit? Oh, it looks like a statue. Statue my ass, throw that junk overboard and lets keep fishing before our wives nag us to death.

Europeans? Hey Francesco, what the hell is that piece of shit? It looks like a statue of our Lady. (both) Miracolo!!

And they start to pray as the fish swim away and the get back to port empty handed.

Yes, willing to stop working at any paranormal event.

So, we wash, clap, bow, ask, bow, and leave by the side door. My partner wished to visit the local hot baths he read about. I'm less than keen on taking a bath in public.

Didn't like them in Budapest, won't like them in Tokyo.

As we leave the temple, we stumble upon a woman with a trained monkey, entertaining a few children. I've never liked monkeys much. Especially trained monkeys. Not since I was bitten by one of their species back in Mexico city as a child.

My partner is also not very monkey friendly. We see another shrine, a well, and take a left. Not far from the Temple there is a small, private amusement park. The lights immediately work their magic on me, but my partner steers me away from temptation and we start to look for a non-sign-posted anodyne bath house. A Sento. It is meant to be near the Kannon Temple.

Asakusa Hot Baths

I go on instinct and my partner on written down instructions. He reads as I look around. The book says the entrance to this place is easily recognizable because of the marble by the door.

He wants to go one way, and I another. Eventually I convince him (every so slightly begrudgingly) and we approach a very old, tattered, and unassuming building with no marble by the door. Guess what? That's right. That's the place.

The bath master, nonplussed, tells us to take our shoes off, asks if we have brought towels (towels?), and rents us the towels. We pay, and enter barefootedly after our shoes are placed inside a wooden locker - probably a survivor of WWII bombings. One locker for my partner's shoes, two for me, one for each shoe. Did I mention things in Japan are small?

The changing room is something out of a 1940s tattered boxing locker room. The walls have peeling layers paint and some rising damp, the still semi-veneered wooden boarded floor creaks with every step. The lockers in the changing room are slightly bigger than the ones by the front door. They are covered in a green, marble-like, formica. Was this what the book meant? When in Tokyo do as the Tokyoites.

Undress, enter the bathroom through the glass doors. Wash like the Japanese. A group of elderly men are naked, sitting on a plastic stool, washing and scrubbing away. They are not friends. Or if they are, they do not speak when washing. We don't have any soap, or shampoo, or anything. So we wash with water, just like the Barbarians that we are. Nobody looks or says anything.

In the bath house, there are two pools of water. Everywhere I look I'm thinking "fungi", but not because it is dirty, the whole place, even with peeling paint, is immaculate. Clean does not cover it. And it smells of hot water, not humidity. Though the hot air of the bath is heavy.

After "washing" with water, we enter the empty pool. We float for a while, and repeat. Then back in the pool. Then out again.

The only other young person there gets in our pool for a while, then gets out.

After a long day, this bath is like paradise. We are so relaxed that we find it very difficult to leave the water. Impossible even. However, my difficulty to breathe at one point makes me exit the room. I grab my small (hand) towel, and go to the locker room. There is a man there, taking his time to get dressed, finishing a cigarette.

Since I was covered in hot water, rather than dry myself off with the (hand) towel, I just sit on the bench, and let the hot water evaporate. Getting dressed seems like a chore.

My bench buddy puts out his cigarette and leaves.

I start to get dressed. A strange music is playing. My partner comes out and does much like me. We are moving in slow motion.

We get dressed and leave, getting out 300 Yen towel deposit on the way out. I love the fact that we came here. We leave the bath house and head towards the amusement park.

We discover Asakusa Radio. How? Well, funnily enough, we hear a Pasodoble being sung. In Japanese. And afterwards, we walk right by a cabin that says Asakusa Radio, which has a small portable stereo on the step, emanating Japanese Golden Oldies. Suddenly the whole neighborhood looks like Tokyo in 1935. The only sound is the music. A small bit of magic enters the air.

Most stores are closing for the day, and a faint light is coming from the ones not shut yet. We stumble upon a local television soap opera production, which has many of the neighbors very interested. It might have been a movie, I'm not sure.

We move away from them, and chance upon one of the commercial streets. We see Japanese wooden sandals of different shapes, and many shops selling Kimono fabrics. The colors are something else! But the place is closing down, and the energy is one of saturation with the public. We understand and move on.

We then find a street with a gigantic Pachinko hall. Pachinko is a Japanese game to which the whole country is addicted.

Read that in many places, they place a few rigged machines by the door to entice you to enter because it looks like you win more often than not.

I take a few pics and we walk down the restaurant strip we could not find hours before. Its dinner time and everyone is enjoying themselves. A couple of Japanese rickshaws pass us by, and a well-dressed (slightly tipsy) couple asks me if I want to take their photograph. The light is awful, but I do take a couple of snaps.

As we walk through the Asakusa commercial maze, we see a woman sitting outside a store, with a table and a candle on the table. My first thought is that she is a fortune teller. I try to take her picture, but as soon as she sees us, she scuttles inside. We walk past and I see a giant hand with dotted lines across it. I now think she is something to do with Acupuncture, or something like that. It certainly looked medicinal. My partner is convinced she is a fortune teller.

We eventually get onto the strip which leads unto the temple. Wall-to-wall stores selling all sorts of Japanese tourist gear. Candy, toys, kimonos, chocolate, snacks, pottery, crafts. Everything.

I'm too tired to take it all in, but my partner decides to purchase a small girl kimono for his niece.

I am starving and I need to pee. We make it back to the subway station and discuss the evening's plans. We decide to visit one of Tokyo's other gay districts, Ueno once inside the train.

We decide on this just as the train pulls into Ueno station. Handy? Yes. Also mad.

We rush out and step outside. There is one of Tokio's gigantic Highways in front of us. And a map of the area.

The night before one of the Bar Master's had written down the address of a bar he thought we'd like.

No, Japanese addresses make no sense to the uninitiated. Looking at the map, and at what we have written down, we decipher the address. I think it went something like: M neighborhood, X district, Y street, P building, number 5 door.

We decide to chance it, and, lo and behold, we find the place!

It is early, there is only one other guy there at first when we arrive. The bar master must have been about 28, and his English is about average. We like this new place. Every time my partner goes to the toilet (beer), the bar master gives him a hot towel. It doesn't take long before he develops a pee complex. Soon enough, a few more people arrive.

We are surprised by how relaxed they are with their personal belongings. We have all our stuff either touching our feet, or in full view. One of the businessmen who arrives hangs his laptop and forgets about it.

We are amazed by the sense of security which permeates Japan. Still, our things remain where they are.

One of the locals approaches us when he finds out we come from Spain. He tells us his name is José. We are surprised. He lived in Miami when he was a kid (though he has been back in Japan for about 30 years), and he tells us that he's had many latin partners. So we speak in Spanish with him. He tells us that he'll take us to another bar he thinks we will like. So after two hours of biscuit eating and innumerable hot towels, he takes us through the dark, though spacious, streets of Ueno, to a bar called Battle. Yes, they called ahead, and the bar master speaks some English.

We get there, and the place is small. I'm getting used to this. Bar in Japan are small. I get it.

It is brown in color, very masculine. The previous bar was very nautical in feel. White and blue, white and blue.

Bar master at Battle is called Takashi. He asks if we are hungry. We are. He makes us spaghetti. A la Japonaise. Delicious.

There is one more person there, who speaks some English too. I have to say they both are puzzled we are intent on visiting Japanese bars. We do tend to be the only Western people everywhere we go. After asking our age, (and me my weight, I mean hello?) and the usual niceties, the bar master's partner arrives. Much younger. But very nice. We look at the clock and decide to head home. Trains stop running around midnight and we have to get home before they do.

When we get to Shinjuku station, we stop to take some more pics. I buy a fruit juice from the fruit juice stand on the platform. It is the best fruit juice I've had in my life. After taking a few pics, we head home. Shinkuju is alive with a buzz as it is every night.

The makeshift street stand that sells Manga porn in front of the station's South entrance (the one facing Takashimaya Times Square) has left and in its place there is a traveling Noodle bar.

There is the usual street bands trying to catch our attention. One in particular does. It consists of 4 grown men, dressed in suits, singing, and somebody's mother, on keyboards. They have a CD which we omit to buy, but we do take a few pics.

When we arrive at the hotel we are beat. Shower, and to bed.

1 comment:

Timbo said...

As usual...I felt as if I were with you! If only!!