Friday, June 19, 2009

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

I'm writing this in an internet cafe near Ueno station. It's six minutes past midnight and I really should get back to the ryokan and get some sleep, but I wanted to get at least some of my backlog of travel notes typed up before I lost my momentum. I thought, a few minutes ago, that I'd lost my travel notebook, which would have about broken my heart. It's the same one Mom and I used when she was here, and I hope to keep it forever.

Tuesday morning, I overslept. A lot. Checkout was at 10 o'clock, and I woke up at 11-- for some reason I'm having a hard time waking up to my phone alarm here. (Maybe I should have brought my regular alarm clock, a big musical one that might well be able to wake the dead.) Just as I was muttering "no... no, no, nooo," there was a polite tap on my door, and I was able to apologize in person to one of the ryokan staff members while pantomiming frantically that I'd been sleeping. Everyone there was quite nice about the whole thing, and they didn't charge me any extra for the late checkout. I would wholeheartedly recommend Sawanoya for anyone who's staying in Tokyo; it was a lovely experience in pretty much all respects.
Suzuki Ryokan, on the other hand, is more than a little disappointing. (Can I give it a negative review while still staying there? Is that kosher? Somehow I doubt the owners spend much time scanning the Internet for English-language reviews of their establishment... ) It is orders of magnitude less nice than Sawanoya. I will grant that it is, in fact, weirdly charming-- there's a kind of woodland theme going on, and I've even got a "tree" in my room (will post pictures when I'm able). It is also cheaper, by about 1,300 yen (around 13 bucks) per night.
I would, in a heartbeat, have spent those extra thirteen bucks a night for more time at Sawanoya. I don't regret not having made a reservation there ahead of time, because I had no way of knowing if it would be nice or not, but I wish they'd had space available for the whole week.
Unfortunately, Suzuki asks for cash up front (at Sawanoya, you pay at the end), and I paid it before I'd looked very closely at the room. The room, I discovered later, is none too clean. The shower room is downright disgusting. They do not clean every day-- or, indeed, any day, as far as I've seen. Mostly, the family that runs the place stays in the back rooms, and the guests come and go as they please. It's a weird, slightly creepy little place, and I wish now I'd shopped around more before deciding to stay there. (I was so excited that one of the places from the Lonely Planet book could accommodate me for the five days I needed that I didn't bother to look further.)
On the other hand, it's insanely convenient-- the train station is only a flight of stairs away! The futon is more comfortable than the one at Sawanoya, too. Trade-offs. :)
(I just listened to "Camel Walk," by Southern Culture on the Skids, because it was playing on Di's playlist which I put on for background music. It is a weird, weird song. Reminds me a bit of the B-52s. Strange... yet fabulous.)

After a shower-- I felt like I needed one, having just lugged all my crap to the new ryokan-- I headed over to Asakusa for a look around. Sensoo-ji, the big Buddhist temple over there, was lovely (or what I could see of it was). The building was mostly covered by scaffolding when I went, unfortunately-- I guess they're doing some kind of renovations-- but I could see the temple guardians and five-story pagoda and the giant straw sandals and the big red lantern and all that good stuff. I would have liked to sit down inside for a while, because it did have a very beautiful altar, but only temple members were allowed past the outer... foyer, I guess you'd call it.
Asakusa temple, the little Shinto temple there, was almost an afterthought after Sensoo-ji. It's tucked around the corner from the Buddhist temple and is only a fraction of its size, and I imagine a lot of tourists go their merry way without ever realizing it was there.
There were pigeons everywhere. Lots of signs explained (in multiple languages) that pigeons were quite capable of feeding themselves, and that people who fed them were contributing to a minor ecological disaster and general nuisance. Some of the statues in a small garden I passed were wearing "cloaks" and "bibs" made of old clothes, apparently to protect them from the pigeon poop. It worked, to a point, but didn't do much for their heads or faces.
Passed some kids playing rock-scissors-paper (however you say that in Japanese). Another cultural similarity with Korea. :P


The Lonely Planet guide has a blurb on a doll shop called Yoshitoku, where they make beautiful, traditional dolls intended for collectors. I'd decided before leaving that I would go and look around, and that I might get a doll if I found one that I liked and could afford. (I always loved looking at Mom's collection of international dolls when I was a kid!) The store wasn't too hard to find (it was raining again, but I'd brought my umbrella), and they did have a lot of beautiful dolls inside. I looked at everything, and read what documentation was available in English.
I was surprised, at first, that some of the most expensive dolls in the shop were quite tiny, and looked very simple compared to the tall kimono-clad ladies in traditional poses. I couldn't figure this out for a while-- surely a beautiful embroidered kimono was more expensive than the simple, hard, cloth-covered bodies on the little dolls I was looking at? Then I looked closer.
I just looked it up, and found that these are called kimekomi dolls, made of carved wood into the grooves of which the cloth is very carefully tucked, creating the visual effect of very elaborately folded cloth garments. The closer I looked, the more impressed I was, because I saw that the expressions and poses where much more subtle and real than the ones on the geisha dolls I'd spent the first few minutes looking at. I was surprised, and delighted, to see a tiny kimekomi girl sitting on a shelf, holding a flute, with a price tag of about 43 dollars. I immediately decided to get her.
I pointed her out to an employee, who brought her to the counter and had me sit down. He handed the doll, and the price tag, to another employee. She looked at them both, frowned, and left the room. When she came back, she said two cruel words: "Chigau puraisu."
Wrong price. The actual price on the doll I'd chosen was well over two hundred bucks, and far more than I could justify spending on a four-inch doll I knew nothing about beyond the fact that it was pretty and I liked it. My mother always jokes that she knows she has good taste, because she always gravitates towards the most expensive thing in the room without even seeing the price tags. I've obviously inherited that knack from her. -_-
Side note: It is much easier to find drip coffee in Japan than it is in Korea. Also, Mr. Donut is a superior breed of donut shop. Cream-filled, icing-dipped crullers, anyone?
We do seem to bring the rain, don't we? My parents used to joke that we should hire ourselves out as a rain charm to places suffering from drought: all we have to do is go on vacation somewhere, and down it pours. Tuesday got rainier and rainier as the evening progressed.
There's a street in the Asakusa area that specializes in restaurant areas-- plastic food, mass-produced dishes, door curtains, etc. I went looking for it, with the vague idea of picking up some plastic food for my mom (heheh), but couldn't find it. It might have been there, but just closed down already: a lot of businesses here close around five. I might try to find it again before I go.
After Asakusa, decided to go to Akihabara-- the big electronics district-- to see what I could see-see-see. I ended up in a massive (6-story?) electronics store called Yodabashi Camera, where I wandered up and down and picked up a USB drive and a little camera case. Afterwards, quite exhausted, stopped into a "Victorian pub" next store called "The Rose and Crown," looking for a beer and possibly some English-speakers to talk to. Akihabara is a big tourist draw, after all, and a British-themed bar seemed a likely hangout for parched foreigners looking for beer.
The bar was packed... with Japanese customers. As I should have expected.
Japan seems to understand beer much better than Korea does. It's quite a big thing-- like at home, I guess. In Korea, half the advertisements in the subways are for soju companies; in Japan, it's beer.
Half-pint done, I went outside and looked in vain for crowds of otaku. Should have looked at the guidebook: prime time for Akiba is apparently late afternoon. The rain was coming down harder and harder, but I needed to find an internet cafe-- no 'net at Suzuki-- so I slogged around for a long, long time. Finally got directions from a nice attendant at a smoker's-den-and-pay-toilet across the way from Yodobashi. Found cafe; checked mail; left, looked for dinner; realized trains were about to stop; left.

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