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.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Monday, June 15th, 2009

If I'm rich, I'll wear Bliss. That's the first note in my travel notebook for Monday the 15th. I made it as I was walking up Omote-Sando, the posh designer avenue coming off of Harajuku. Some of the most amazing prices I'd ever seen. On the other hand, everything in some of the windows was a work of art. I only say "some of the windows," because I think there's a lot less art in some of the big designer labels than there is in smaller shops elsewhere. Of course, even the smaller shops were pricey in this area: 30 bucks for a change purse was not at all unheard of. I moved on.

I did pop into the Oriental Bazaar to check out the Japanese souvenirs there. It was a tourist trap, obviously, but as tourist traps go not too bad. I still want to pick up my souvenirs in other places, but if I can't find something I want later I know where to go. I also stopped in at Kiddyland (an obscenely expensive 6-story toystore) to find small souvenirs for the kids. I ended up getting them tiny charms and erasers out of the vending machines.


Note: I love the hydrangeas everywhere. They're in full bloom here, and besides the amazing ones at the East Garden Sunday, I saw plenty at Omote-Sando and elsewhere in Harajuku. I think they're one of my favorite flowers. I keep trying to take a picture of one that captures the exact shade of blue, but so far haven't been able to. Maybe it's my camera (or my ignorance in using it). Mom: hydrangeas? Or should I just come home and start my own garden? Because this week, I'm starting to be tempted.


At lunch, I wrote: "Keep trying to like Hara. better, but just feels like a big, pretentious mall. Prob. more fun w/ friends." I'd been tromping around a while at that point, and had been mildly harassed by a North African (?) hustler in the slightly-seedier Takeshita-dori. I had lunch at the Eco Cafe, which I think was some sort of experimental organic place, but wasn't really good enough to warrant the money. Damn good coffee, though, and after I had some I felt better. I'd also found a necklace I liked-- hematite beads with copper and amethyst accents-- at a jewelry shop called the Stone Market, on one of the small streets in Harajuku. The store had some cool stuff, pretty reasonably priced, and the sales guy was really nice. I'd go back, if I came back to Tokyo again.


The coffee revived me a bit, and I went wandering. I ended up at the Fiesta Gallery, which is a massive sprawling two-and-three-story house-turned-art-gallery, which can be rented out for peanuts by local artists who want to have private showing. You choose a little bit of wall-- all the rooms are available, bathrooms and shower rooms included-- pay about five bucks a day, and put up your stuff until the money runs out. It was interesting. There was a mix there-- "real" artists, who had really interesting and compelling stuff on the walls, and then others who were pretty obviously amateurs, with... less... compelling... things. I thought the best by far was... well, the card says "kuroko." A young man was sitting in the gallery, greeting passers-through, but I'm not sure, now, if he was the artist or not. "-ko" would indicate a girl, but honestly I don't know. It's pretty gruesome stoff, some of it-- lots of things-turning-into-things, people-growing-from-things, things-growing-from-people, bones and bodies, etc. Still, it makes you look, and keeps your attention, and I did quite like it. Or, at least, I thought it was pretty good. Here's the ( website on the card I got...

There were some foreigners outside on the (painted, mosaicked, be-sculptured) deck, chatting. One of them seemed to be pitching an art installation, themed around garbage and ecology, to another, who was trying to show off how jaded and knowledgeable he was. They... gave the place a very art-school, college town atmosphere, which I guess it has overall, anyway.

Seeing an amateur gallery, where it looked like just about anyone could display, made me want to try and produce something in terms of visible art. If I were cooler, I'd bring a sketchbook when I went out and make lots of pictures for you all to marvel at. Maybe when I get home I'll try to draw more, outside of whiteboard masterworks in my kindergarten classrooms.


Harajuku more or less won me over, in the end. There's a massive "fashion tower" (as Koreans would say) called Laforet, which appears to be where most of the action is at. (To those who've been to doota! in Dongdaemoon, it's like that, but a lot cooler.) I was lured inside by the promise of "books" in the basement, but was quickly distracted by the gothtastic shops I knew my friends must have visited a few days before. I started up one escalator at a time, and was pushed by sheer stubbornness to see the whole thing. A lot of the stuff was aimed at certain markets-- gothic, Lolita, gothic Lolita, rocker, punk, artiste-- but there were also a lot of stores that were just plain cool. I saw some of the hypercolored accessories that are so popular in Korea now, and wondered which country had started wearing them first. Are the kiddies wearing neon plastic jewelry in the States these days? I can't keep up.

I didn't try on much (just one shirt, not nearly generous enough), but was surprised to see quite a lot that looked like it would fit me. Either the Japanese are a bit bigger than Koreans (some people are, certainly), or there's just a lot more give in the clothes. Here, too, the "laundry basket" look has gotten popular-- layers and layers of floaty earth-toned clothes, shirts and scarves and big droopy hats, everything you need to make you look like an artist living an idyllic life in the country. Except, of course, that few artists could afford so much as a scarf at one of these places. Most of the stores were boutiques, or at least branches of very fashionable chains, so of course the price tags were heavy. The music was quite good, anyway-- especially at one shop that sold headphones and "rocker gear" in general-- and I enjoyed looking around and seeing what people had created.


Went to the Tokyo Apartment Cafe for dinner. (The guidebook had recommended it, and it's right next to Laforet-- win-win, yes?) Had a tomato-and-olive salad (actually tomato-and-olive-oil), vegetable soup, and a glass of wine. Is a preference for white wine an East Asian thing, or what? The red ones on the menu were a bit much, so I had the house wine, which was okay. (Listed as blush, but looked red and tasted... mild, I guess.) The food was okay, though not amazing. The atmosphere was cool, but it was definitely the sort of place I'd want to go with friends. I was starting to feel quite lonely at this point, so I ate pretty quickly and left (though, stirred by my new Fiesta-Gallery inspiration, I did try to sketch a little at the table).

I'd been getting a rotten headache, and it got really bad at dinner, rather cramping my enjoyment of the evening. The wine helped a bit, I think, and I dulled the pain further (ha, ha) by eating a crepe (my second of the day) from a stand nearby. Winced and shuffled my way back to Nezu station for my last night at Sawanoya.

Fortunately there's a pharmacy right by the subway station. Popped a few ibuprofen, which helped tremendously. I've gotten a cold, actually, and I think the headache must have been the beginning of it. I was fine Saturday (with the obvious exception of having been dead on my feet) and I really hope it goes away by Sunday, because I do not want to get dragged out of line by Japanese (or Korean!) customs officials a little too concerned for my health.

A band of American college students (I think) had showed up at the ryokan that morning with their Japanese teacher-- one of them admitted, when asked, that they were on a class trip. When I came back in that evening, several of them gave me borderline hostile looks. I tried to make polite conversation after I had my bath later (Sawanoya onsen... how I miss you...), but the two girls still downstairs were not in the mood for talk. I'm not sure if they were just clannish, in the way that tour groups (I guess?) can get, or if I had unwittingly offended them somehow. Maybe they just didn't want their Genuine Japanese Experience cluttered up by other foreigners. Whatever. People are weird.


Downside of tatami rooms: You really kind of have to close the windows when it rains, because otherwise you get rotten straw. Oh, forgot to mention-- it started raining around five or so, and showered off and on the rest of the night. Seems to be a pattern here, though tonight (Wednesday night) we've mostly missed it. Forgot my umbrella Monday, but will not make the same mistake again!


Am typing this in my room at Suzuki. Can hear vague sounds of the guest next door doing something or other. There's no lobby here, unfortunately; I'd really like to talk to some other travelers, since it's mostly been me and my iPod this week.

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

I'm not sure if I can get on the computer downstairs for a long time, and don't really want to monopolize it anyway, so I'm typing this on my laptop and will update the blog with it. I need to get a cute, quirky USB drive while I'm here. I keep trying to steal Internet, but without success: there's a DSL modem in the room, but I don't have the LAN password and have been too shy to ask for it. Silly self.

Warning: I'm writing these entries up from what I wrote in my notebook each day. There's no particular order to them, and a lot of tl;dr. Skip what you like. :P
Where were we... Sunday.

I was so tired Saturday night that I fell asleep in my clothes, and slept the night through with the lights all blazing. I'd managed to roll off my bracelet (bit chunky jadeite bangle I got in Itaewon) and had managed to fall asleep with it planted directly under the center of my back. Ouch.
Couldn't, therefore, immediately pass an objective verdict on the comfort of the futon.
The inn was very quiet, and I was feeling a little isolated, and wished I'd talked to the Australian couple I briefly met the night before. l resolved to be more sociable in the future.
First things first: I went down to the bath, which I hadn't been able to use the night before (on account of falling asleep fully clothed, etc.). Japanese traditional baths are called onsen. It was my first time using one, and it was a conversion experience.
What you do is wash off outside the tub, rinse off all the soap, and then get into the water (which is very hot, and stays heated all the time). The tub is quite deep, and when you're in all the way the water comes up to your shoulders (or your neck, I guess, if you're smaller). Then you just sit and cook until you feel like getting out (or until the flesh melts off your bones). The baths here have sliding windows that look out on a little walled garden outside. If I knew anything about Zen meditation, I would say it was very Zen. I did try to meditate.
It was a conversion experience. I got out feeling like a happy wet noodle, and started the day cheerful and relaxed. If you will believe it, I've never once gone to the saunas in the two years I've lived in Korea. At first I was too shy-- overweight foreigner, public bathing, horror stories about rude Koreans staring and poking and making comments... After that I felt so dumb for never having gone that I just... never went. I'll go now, though. It had been too long since I'd had a proper bath.
My first order of business for Sunday (after breakfast, which ended up being at a Metro Starbucks) was to find another place to stay after my time at Sawanoya Ryokan ran out. The next ryokan on my list from the guidebook was Suzuki Ryokan, a few stops away at Nippori. I had to change from the Metro to the JR (Japan Railways) Yamanote line-- the system is much more complicated here-- but got there without a problem. This new ryokan is right by the station, and was relatively easy to find. When I got there, the lady and I had a fairly upbeat conversation in broken English and very broken Japanese (I just managed to remember the days of the week), the upshot of which was that I now have a reservation from Tuesday night through Saturday night. As the guidebook describes Suzuki as "quirky" and "weirdly charming," I am hoping that this is a good thing.
I finally made it to the Imperial Palace area around noon. There are parks all around the Palace, and I spent a good hour or so walking through them before I made my way to the East Garden (my original destination). The East Garden is the only part of the Palace that's open to the public. There's a (very) small museum right near the entrance, which was displaying Japanese artwork on the theme of seasonal flowers. Only two pieces really struck me. One was a strikingly realistic painted-ceramic sculpture by Okuda Kodo. I can't remember what flowers they were, but they almost looked alive. The other was a painting, right by the entrance, whose English name was Cockscombs (or Coxcombs, maybe). The artist was listed as Higashihara Hosen. I was completely captivated by this painting. The reds are warm and liquid and suck you in, and the painting is full of details you don't notice right away-- a bug-eaten leaf, a spotted petal, etc. It was a really simple painting-- just red and yellow flowers, with no background-- but I stared at it for a long time.
The East Garden is mostly just a small botanical garden, though it does have a few old foundations and three restored guardhouses. The only flowers that were really blooming were the hydrangeas, and those were incredible. I kept trying to take pictures of them, but couldn't capture the blue. Mom would have really liked them, I think. Along with a few other buildings (one of them having something to do with mausoleum records, I think), there's a small music hall in the garden. It's octagonal, with with pretty mosaic walls, and was apparently a present for the Empress on her 50th birthday. I kept thinking how nice it would be to get to see a show there.
I finally got out of the Garden around 3:45. I didn't feel like hanging out in the area, and I knew most of the museums in the area would be closing at five anyway, so I decided to head over to Roppongi. Roppongi, as I understand it, is half sleazy drinking area and half up-and-coming urban hub. I stopped into a bookstore and bought a Japanese dictionary on the way to Roppongi Hills, which my guidebook listed as a marvel of modern urban design. (Hey, if I'm going to get into urban planning, I might as well start paying attention.) Roppongi Hills is, indeed, a cool little area-- very self-contained and space-efficient, which apparently is the idea. Aside from the high-rises (which I actually am not sure I saw at all) there's a movie theater, a bevy of high-end shops, a statue of a giant metal spider, and an art museum. The Mori Art Museum, to be precise.


It was open until ten. What was I supposed to do? It was something like 5:30 then-- that was plenty of time to look around. I balked a bit at the price, though: 1,500 yen for a combination ticket (museum, city view, and SkyDeck), which was all they had. By that time I kind of wanted to see it, anyway, so I broke down and paid it.

It was quite misty, and the 52nd-story view was not all that impressive. It's a cool city to look on, anyway. Ordered chaos, bound by streets and highways that seem to be squeezing the city like big girdles. Most of the buildlings around the Mori tower are fairly short, which I guess makes the view seem like a higher one. I could see a few roof gardens, especially around the Roppongi Hills area, which was nice. (Everyone should have one!) I didn't want to stay there two more hours, even to see the city light up, so I moved on-- but I got a little pop-out 3-d "city viewer" to show the kindies when I get back.

The museum's featured exhibit was called "Kaleidoscopic Eye," or something, and it was all supposed to be multisensory art like the "Synaesthesia" exhibit Mom and I saw in Seoul. This one was on loan from Austria or Germany or somewhere, but a lot of the artists were English or Canadian or American. My favorite installation was "Global Domes XII," by John M. Armleder. It's a room where two rows of six big disco balls each hang from the ceiling, lit from overhead by small spotlights. The balls are spinning, and the entire room is filled with whirling flecks of light, all turning in different directions. It was like watching snow fly, or cells moving in a bloodstream, or (the title "Global" reminded me) the spirits of millions of people, all going about their daily lives in different ways without taking much notice of each other. Since the balls were lit from directly overhead, their shadows were perfect circles directly beneath them, adn they seemed to be resting on columns of air. The room was quiet, and felt like a temple. It wasn't quite an optimal installation, since the ceiling was clearly panelled and there was a covered window on one wall, but I really liked it anyway. I'd love to see more of Armleder's work.

Because so many of the artists in this exhibit were from English-speaking countries, a lot of the artwork used varying degrees of written/spoken English. There was one exhibit, for example, that was called "Y": a forked tunnel made of Christmas lights spiraling around a plywood walkway, with mirrors on two sides to confuse people. Viewers were supposed to walk through the entrance and out one of the exits, and then go back and do it again if desired. The problem was that the two exits, which were clearly marked "EXIT ONLY," were marked only in English, with no translation posted anywhere I could see. The result, most of the time, was a traffic jam.
Another artist whose work used a lot of English was Janet Cardiff. Anyone heard of her? I found her pieces really unsettling and worrying. One was newspaper articles and poems on index cards; one was a table where you moved your hand over the surface and heard a sound (just like a lot of the exhibits at the Seoul MOMA, Mom!). All the speakers played spoken-word scripts, in English. I'm not sure what the people who didn't know the language were making of the whole thing.

Matthew Ritchie, a British artist, had an installation there called "The Family Farm." It was drawings, paintings, and written words, all combined. Take away the words and the piece loses half its effectiveness. (He's definitely an artist I'd like to see more of.) Another interesting British artist was Sarah Lucas, who had a piece from a set called "Bunny Gets Snookered."

It really drove home to me the importance of the English language in modern culture. It's not just direct communication; it's reading, writing, movies, art, and everything else with an international aspect to it. I've really been reminded of how lucky I was to grow up speaking the world's current lingua franca (haha), and I really want to improve my foreign-language skills so I don't feel like soem kind of global freeloader.

There was a piece by Peter Tcherkassky called "Outer Space," which was an edited film on loop in a darkened theater-like space. It was pretty creepy: the whole point of the piece, apparently, was to convey the impression that a spirit was in the room with the viewer. I don't know if I'd credit it with that level of effectiveness, but it got me thinking. Why don't artists do haunted houses? For a "multisensory" exhibit like this it would be perfect. You could make it a challenge: who can make the most effective haunted house using only senses other than sight-- changes in air pressure, soft breathing, thumps or running feet, etc. Sometimes horror is at its scariest when it's at its most subtle. Maybe someone should do a study of haunted houses as an art form.

One of my favorite pieces was a crystal fountain flowing with diluted LSD, overhung by pitcher plants (actually, the sign said they were Nepenthes, which I guess are different). The artist was Klaus Weber, and apparently the thing was a proposal he did for a public hall somewhere. It was rejected; go figure. I liked it, anyway-- the "water" in the fountain made a beautiful sound as it hit each layer, while the plants overhead made the piece very dreamlike and ominous. There were glass walls up around the fountain, which dimmed the effect a little bit.

Two other pieces I liked were Casa con piscina, by a duo called Los Carpinteros, and Astrophotography by Cerith Wyn Evans.

On the way out, I stopped by what was possibly the most expensive museum store I'd ever been inside. Bought a postcard.

No pens were allowed inside the museum, but I sneakily took a lot of notes anyway. As you can see.



Side note: In several places so far, I've seen displays of books from the Wallpaper travel guide series. Many world capitols are represented. Seoul is not one of them. I wondered if that was a buying decision, or if the book just hasn't been made yet. I hope it's the latter, since it would be rude of Tokyo to blatantly exclude its neighbor.


I realized that night that I'd managed to go two days in Japan without eating any Japanese food. I had had: Coffee and a sandwich. A banana Curry and nan Two more bananas More coffee and another sandwich A matcha (green-tea-powder) latte. Okay, I guess that kind of counts.When I realized this, I was at the Roppongi Hard Rock Cafe, drinking a vanilla shake and eating steamed vegetables. (That place is expensive.) I resolved to at least have some ramen before the day was out.


I had expected Roppongi to be a bit like Itaewon in Seoul-- a one-street dive, kind of a ghetto for foreigners of various origins. It's actually quite different: much cleaner, with more restaurants and clubs, most with tuxedo-clad African men outside hustling for customers. It's also bordered by a quite up-market area-- Roppongi Hills, where I'd spent the evening, is right next door. Maybe Itaewon is just like itself.


Something funny that I've noticed: Certain Japanese and Korean foods are "evil twins" of each other. I stopped into a 24-hour diner on the way home Sunday evening (wanting something a bit more substantial than a milkshake and veggies) and ordered what looked like bulgogi and rice with sides of kimchi, soup, and salad. I thought I'd happened onto a cheap Korean chain restaurant. The rice was as expected, though there was a lot more of it, but the bulgogi was... oddly tangy. Silly Japanese people, I thought, don't you know that bulgogi is supposed to be sweeter? It took me a second to realize that I was, in fact, eating teriyaki. -_- The "kimchi' was actually Japanese pickled cabbage, which was flavored with ginger instead of pepper and surprisingly pleasant. The soup was good old miso. Two years ago, Korean food used to fake me out the same way.

Another side note: Eating rice with chopsticks is damned hard. It makes perfect sense to me, now, why the Koreans would want to use a spoon. One of the first things I started to miss, maybe.


There's a three-story grocery store in Nezu (and probably elsewhere) called Akafudado. It is made of win. I meant to take pictures, but forgot. What I really wanted to document there was the curry section: it took up both sides of a mid-sized aisle. If I want to eat "real" Japanese food, like "real" British food, I should really just eat a lot of curry.


Walking back to the hotel, I was struck by how many actual houses I saw. In Korea it's all high-rise apartment buildings, but I haven't seen that many of them here. Strange, actually, since I think the population density in Japan is a little higher. (I have no idea, actually; I need to look that up.)


I'm finding that I know and remember at least a bit more Japanese than I thought I did. I also gesture a lot. I've wondered a few times if people who gesture a lot when speaking in their native languages have an easier time communicating nonverbally with people who don't speak their language.

I do think I might be speaking Japanese with a slight Korean accent. I keep blending my vowels, instead of pronouncing them properly. I wonder if I also bow and gesture like a Korean. The don't-pass-things-one-handed thing, for example, is apparently not nearly as important here. I keep forgetting and doing it anyway, so I propbably look a bit strange and formal.


It's now 12:05 a.m. Thursday-- I keep falling asleep before I can update this. I bought a USB drive yesterday, so with luck I can finally start updating the blog (there's no internet at my new ryokan, and I am not dragging my laptop around Tokyo. My back and shoulders hurt enough now as it is!)

Monday, June 15, 2009

6/13/09: Arrival in Tokyo

Spent a sleepless night, packing and playing with the cat. For some reason I got in the habit of pulling all-nighters before big trips. Not "for some reason," actually: it's because I procrastinate and don't start packing till the last minute. Was (and am, residually) as tired as you might expect.

Dropped the cat off at friend Katie's around 6 or 6:30. Poor baby was completely bewildered: I packed up all his stuff, including his litterbox and all his toys, and abandoned him at a strange woman's house with only a hug and snuggle goodbye. I have since heard that he started off the morning by pooping on Katie's bed, and now won't snuggle with her. As I am in another country, I hope he starts to adjust a little better soon. :( How do you explain to a cat that you're just leaving him with a baby-sitter and will be back soon? He was okay at my mom's house last summer...

It was an absolutely BEAUTIFUL day out, and I had a lovely ride from the Gimpo airport to the Incheon one. (Shortest and best way to get to Incheon International is a bus to Gimpo Airport and then a half-hour on the Airport Railway.) Instead of long stretches of mud, I saw estuaries, covered in grass and populated by egrets or whatever those white birds are. Tried to practice with "My Japanese Coach" (DS game) and got a little done.

There was a brief kerfuffel over my visa, which expired on the 14th. Sleep-deprived as I was, I had a hard time explaining to two airport staff members that I would in fact be getting a new visa as soon as I came back to Korea. I was allowed to go, eventually, but Korean Customs kept my alien card. Hope I'll get back into the country okay.

Plane ride: Asiana; short and painless. Awful food, though.

The first thing I noticed about Japan was that it is hot. Or, at least, that they let more gaps through their AC systems than Koreans do (Koreans have a horror of natural weather patterns, I think). Customs was amazing-- quickest immigration procedure I've ever been through. Got mug-shotted and fingerprinted, and out the door I went. There was an airport employee making all the foreigners show him their disembarkation forms before they got to the front, so he could be sure they were all filled out correctly. About ten minutes after I got to Customs-- maybe fifteen-- I was buying a train ticket for Ueno. Twenty minutes after that, I was on the train.

At first glance, the Japanese countryside is both different and not-different from Korea's. The houses weren't too dissimilar, but there were more of them-- not nearly as many high-rise apartment complexes here, at least not that I've seen. In some ways, this country feels more familiar to me than Korea ever does. People seem much more casual here. The Metro actually reminds me a little bit of the one in Paris, though I can't pin down why.

I actually feel a little guilty for liking Japan so much already-- like I'm being disloyal to Korea. I don't think I'm going to share this blog with any Korean friends-- I'd hate to hurt their feelings. I like the styles here better, and the food at least as much. It also just feels more comfortable. There are fewer stares-- people are more used to foreigners. There's also a more relaxed feel to the whole area. In Korea, a lot of people are constantly on edge, as if they're afraid of putting a toe out of line.

I navigated the subway to Nezu, having decided to check up on some of the ryokan there. (Ryokan are traditional-style Japanese inns.) Once I got to Nezu, I stood around for a while and looked like an idiot, because I'd progressed far enough into sleep deprivation that I was having a hard time deciphering maps. People in Korea, if they see you looking lost, will very quickly come up and ask you if they can help you find something-- in English, half the time. I've been spoiled, and it took me a while to figure out that wasn't going to happen here. (The only people who've approached me on the street so far have been hustlers; you attract them by pausing on the street while leading a suitcase and being white.) It's good for my self-sufficiency, I guess.

I finally made my brain work out the way to the first ryokan on my list, and made it most of the way there by myself. I finally double-checked with a couple on the street, and they jumped to help me the second I looked twice at them-- both of them speaking almost-perfect English. It's not that people aren't perfectly willing to help you, apparently; you just have to let them know that you would in fact like some help. Good to know. :)

I found the ryokan I had been looking for-- Sawanoya Ryokan, it's called. I hadn't made a reservation, because I wasn't comfortable doing it sight-unseen over the internet, but they had a room available for three nights. I took it, figuring that left me three days to find another hotel.

I thought, for a few minutes, that I'd be over the ryokan thing by the time three days were up. It's nice, sure, like a family-run B&B aimed at tourists, but I figured that the novelty would wear off soon.

What I didn't count on, however, was the scent of the tatami mats. They smell like fresh-cut grass. IT IS INCREDIBLY ADDICTIVE. I had never realized that tatami mats had a smell! I almost wonder if I could get away with having a room like this at home. The setup, for the uninitiated, is a small room with a floor covered by rectangular woven-grass mats. There's a thin, flat mattress to sleep on (I think it's what the Japanese actually call a futon) with a big thick duvet over that. The duvet in my room is stuffed with down. My room has a regular sliding door to the balcony, and more traditional wood-and-parchment screens just inside. Wall panels swing and slide open for storage space. There's a low table with a tea set, a corner with a phone and a DSL modem (which, sadly, does not appear to work) and a small sink by the door, which shuts and locks in the traditional hotel-room way. Instead of hotel bathrobes, you get a yukata (a light summer kimono). They put origami planes on the pillows, I guess to keep the tourists happy.

I was EXHAUSTED, but resolved at least to go out for dinner. On the way out, I noticed a book-exchange shelf. Fabulous! I took the marked neighborhood map the ryokan owner gave me and went out, seeking food.

I am ashamed to say this, but I must: I had Indian. It was so late at night, and I was so tired, that I didn't feel like going into a restaurant where I couldn't read the menu or understand any questions-- and the Indian place was right there. I had mutton curry and garlic nan. (Curry was -ish; nan was amazing.) The (Indian) waiter kept smiling like we were sharing a private joke; when I left, he thanked me in Japanese. I just managed to answer him in kind.

I am amazed by the fleets of bicycles I see here. They were out in force last night. Everyone seems to have one; most of them don't even seem to be locked up, though I haven't looked really closely. The air (at least right here) is quite clean, and the streets are much quieter than in other cities I've been to. Something to think about.