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Tokyo: Wandering Back to Harajuku

Saturday, July 08, 2006
A couple days after going to the fish market, my friend Gabe flew in from New York, and I had about 9 days to show him Tokyo, the island, and Kyoto. Needless to say we had quite a schedule. In one heroic day, we started at 7:30 and hit the fish market, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ginza for yakitori lunch, Ikebukuro, back to Harajuku, a nice walk to Shibuya as the sun went down, and then back to the hotel. Considering he was just off the plane the night before with 13 hours of jet lag, Gabe was a trooper. I didn't take very many pictures, but for the day and a half we spent in Tokyo, I have a few. Here they are.

The extremely polite white-gloved police officers of Ginza.

Most of these pictures I'm not exactly sure where I was or what I was doing, they could fall into a category called "Things that caught Ben's interest briefly while he walked around Tokyo."

One thing - high school students. In Japan, but especially in the cities, high school students are incredibly cool. Maybe I don't remember high school very clearly, but it seems to me that when I was there, no one was anywhere near as cool as the kids I saw on the street in Tokyo. They have to wear school uniforms, which usually means jackets and ties for the boys with matching pants, and short skirts, high socks, a blouse and a some sort of tie for the girls. Maybe it's because they don't have to pay attention to their clothes, but so many of them have awesome hair, excellent accessories, and the perfect completely aloof look on their faces. I told myself that I wouldn't leave Tokyo without getting one picture of a good group of kids looking as cool as can be. That is actually a tall order, because there's always the risk of looking sketchy, a lone gaijin snapping shots of high school girls in short skirts, but I buckled down and did my best. With every perfecto opportunity that I missed, I wouldn't call this a complete success, but at least when I look at this picture, I'll remember the others, and this girl has got a pretty good look.

Interestingly enough, those skirts are completely normal in Japan. There is simply no taboo on short skirts, as the girls wear them starting in elementary school. It is far more scandalous to show some midriff or wear a low-cut shirt than it is to wear a six inch long skirt. Not to mention that this girl is wearing some frilly red bow on her chest and stands there looking like she owns the city. I don't know anyone back home who could pull that off, especially not when they were in high school.

Random lantern: a little temple in Shinjuku.

Back to Harajuku

As Harajuku is my favorite place in Tokyo, I made Gabe go twice we went in the morning, took in the people, the shopping, walked the neighborhood a bit, and then went to see if the crazy Harajuku cos-players were there, and they were not. I'll get back to that, but we walked into the park and went to see Meiji-jingu, one of the two big temples in Tokyo.

Meiji-jingu seems to be the place to go if you want to have a traditional Japanese wedding, and so look what we found!

The advantage of sneaking right up behind the photographer and taking a picture - It looks like they were all posing for you. How about this setup though? It looks straight out of the late 19th century.

In Mori's words, "this kind of wedding is so boring. You have to sit seza (on the floor on your knees) for two hours, and then drink some sake. Then you sit for two more hours, and then you drink more sake. Then you sit more."

That hair impresses me.

After watching the people, and hanging out a bit more, Gabe and I headed back out through the park. Somehow we got into a situation where we would both take the same picture, and then we would both argue that ours was clearly better. So.

Mine is better.

Mine is better.

This one, really - mine is better.

Much later in the day, when we came back, the cos-players were out, and so I decided to take the classic touristy picture. These kids come out on the weekends and wear crazy costumes, usually anime characters, super goths, victorian maids, punks, or some crazy mix of those themes. Lots of men in corsets, high boots, crazy hats and crazier makeup. They arrive looking like normal kids with a small rolling suitcase, they change, and then they sit around for the day, being seen and photographed, enjoying the attention. When Gabe and I got there, we surveyed the scene. There were three girls in ridiculous outfits posing for a photographer, some kids packing up, and then off to one side there was a guy sitting away from his friends, looking scary. Gabe and I at first agreed that he was probably too scary to go over to, but then I decided that if I didn't take the picture I would regret it forever, and besides, I had to show how tough I was now after a year in Japan.

As I wandered over to the guy, his eyes lit up. I asked him in Japanese if I could take a picture and he was on his feet with a big smile on his face and getting into a pose before I finished the question. I wanted him sitting, so I used my essential classroom Japanese ("sit down please") and elicited hoots of approval from his friends. He sat down and got into his pose, which was the most serious thing I have ever seen. This pose was heavily practiced, and involved a number of hand gestures as well that I didn't get in the photo. I took a couple pictures, and then passed the camera to him so he could look at the pictures.

The big smile came back right away, and he passed back the camera and said "good! I like...picture!" I told him his English was amazing, and he said (in Japanese) "ok, now take my friends' pictures." And so I did.

It was too funny. These super serious kids acted just like my students when I actually talked the them, and they all waved and said their best "see you! good bye!" when I left.

I love Japan. How could you not after something like that?

Give me some hours.

My life was (once again) hijacked by karaoke and whiskey highballs, I will put up the final Tokyo post tomorrow.


Tokyo: Ginza and Tsukiji

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

After Harajuku, Shinjuku, and Shibuya, I decided it was time to see some new places. I flipped through the guidebook, and Ginza popped up, a giant commercial center, lots of stores and fancy restaurants, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

As it turned out, I didn't love Ginza - it felt like the shopping streets in uptown Manhattan, expensive stores fancy old ladies, big wide streets lined on both sides with big department stores selling giant arrays of handbags and fancy pumps. The people were significantly less hip than those of the last few days, and they didn't have the spark that I think of when I think of Tokyo people.

This looks like an American city to me. It even has American flags!

Some of the department store windows were crazier than others - this one in particular was good, especially with that guy standing in front of it.

I started making up my mind that Ginza was just not for me, surrounded by highways and crammed full of stores that didn't interest me, restaurants that were too expensive, and so I decided to walk away from the commercial center. Things immediately got better.

First of all, the sky started getting dark and ominous, so that was nice.

To get out from the impending rainstorm, I sought shelter. I saw the JR train tracks in the distance and headed towards them. As I turned a corner, suddenly it went from giant shopping streets to something that looked more like Blade Runner.

Tiny restaurants packed into tight corners were all over.

And so I walked, following the tracks, going through cramped little passageways now and then, beckoned by someone to come in and have a beer or a bowl of noodles. Up ahead of me I saw an archway under the tracks with smoke pouring out of it. As I got closer I smelled barbequing, and I knew I had found the best part of Ginza. I had found the semi-famous yakitori alley under the tracks, and the semi-fame was well-deserved.

The alley houses two restaurants, directly across from each other. Both sell two things: Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and beer. Both are crammed full of businessmen every day, and they both look great.

The alley, from the other side.

Did I sit down, have a beer and a few skewers? You bet I did. They were delicious.

Tsukiji Fish Market

The next day I decided I would go to Tsukiji Fish Market - the guidebook said Tsukiji was a necessary stop in all trips to Tokyo, so I got up at 5 in the morning and headed over. I got there at about six and followed the general flow of foot traffic to find the market. After a few minutes walk, I thought "aha! I have found it." There were rows of stalls, narrow little alleyways, and some people wandering about. A bunch of tourists stood in front of a shop and took pictures. I walked over.

People were getting ready for the day, arranging their wares and making sure everything was clean.

There was also some fish.

As I wandered, I was really underwhelmed. Sure, there were some stalls, and some people buying things, but I couldn't see why this was so necessary in a visit. It seemed overrun by tourists and finished by 6:30. I found a quiet spot and opened the guidebook. Apparently, Tsukiji Fish Market does about 23 million dollars in fish sales every day. Apparently it is a dangerous place to walk around due to the phenomenal number of tiny trucks careening around with whole tunas strapped to them. Apparently, I hadn't found Tsukiji Fish Market yet. I started walking. In the distance I heard a faint roaring sound. I followed it.

Coming around a corner, I saw a pile - a mountain is closer to it - of Styrofoam containers. I knew I had found the right spot.

The roar got louder, and revealed itself to be the sound of hundreds of three-wheeled trucks careening around, with and without tunas.

Make no mistake, I put myself in great danger to get this picture. These things are going fast.

They were all going in and out of a giant dark warehouse, and so, dodging and sidestepping, I made my way in.

To one side was a giant pushcart parking area.

The warehouse's main road made a long U into the distance, so I turned off and headed into the center - the middleman's market.

It was pretty amazing. I don't have numbers, but it easily felt like thousands of people, all hurrying through tiny alleys between enormous displays of fish, people shouting, buying, selling, and jumping out of the way of the little trucks as they came screeching to a halt to discharge some giant piece of fish, and then cruise off again for the next load. behind the stalls, were long alleys, piled high with boxes and bustling with people preparing new fish for display.

I like that picture, I have to admit.

It would be difficult to capture the tremendous variety and amount of marine life on display and for sale. For example. My supermarket here on the island, serving maybe 5,000 people, has a fish section that puts most fish stores in New York to shame. The variety, freshness, and quantity is amazing, and that's in a tiny country supermarket. This is a market called "Tokyo's Kitchen" - almost every good restaurant, every fish store, probably the nicer supermarkets - as well as places I am certainly forgetting - all get their fish from here. Every day. Every year, the Tsukiji Fish Market clears two billion dollars in fish. That is a quarter of Iceland's entire annual GDP. Almost any fish in the world is bought and sold at Tsukiji, and probably in enormous quantities.


Eels - yum!

There were some really beautiful cuts of fish on display.

Sushi grade tuna - maguro and toro.

There were also some nice and bloody displays - you should see the cutting board here. Every time a still-living fish was flopped on the board for chopping, it would flop around and blood would go flying everywhere.

This picture is mostly for the knife. See that handle and blade on the left? That is the big tuna-chopping blade. It extends all the way to the floor, the blade is probably five feet long and incredibly sharp. It is wielded with both hands, and requires one or two helpers. We'll come back to the giant knife/sword.

There's a lot of frozen fish as well, I'm not sure exactly why - maybe it has come from further or is used for something different. It is cut with a band saw - you can actually see the fish band saw in the previous picture, on the right.

This was the most beautiful cup of green tea I have ever seen - perched on that perfect smooth piece of wood, hovering over the display of tuna steaks, bright green with just the perfect amount of bubbles.

With all the business going on all around, there was a lot of bookkeeping to be done. Booths with one or two women inside them kept up with orders and customers shouted from the selling area, and behind the cleaning tables was usually someone writing columns of numbers in a bunch of little accounts books.

Another pushcart area - I guess with so many around it pays to have yours be recognizable.

Back to the knife. When wielded, it moves quickly, so in this low light it was tough to get a picture. You can see it here though, a blur of sharp steel - and you can see the damage it has just done to that tuna on the cart.

It must be hard, because the guy bent over to catch his breath after the cut was made.

Here you can see the knife - you can also see what a perfect cut they made into that tuna - having cleaned a few small fish, I can't even imagine the sill involved in wielding that blade, cutting a fish worth probably almost ten thousand dollars, and getting every single bit of meat off the bone. In a few places I saw sellers working the finished carcasses with spoons, scraping meat out from between the bones - breakfast, most likely.

As it got later, things started slowing down. Fish was still being bought and sold at an insane pace, but it felt like the energy had calmed down. The first big buyers had been in and out, and now came the second and third waves. I saw less people cutting and more taking a moment to rest and have a snack or cup of tea. It was about 7:30.

These would be the pieces cut off a tuna with a giant knife, cleaned up and ready to sell.

Shopping basket, Tsukiji style. A lot of guys had these. I want one.

Back out in the big U. It looks like someone just forgot these tunas out here. While that is probably not the case, I like imagining some guy getting back to his stall and thinking "now where did I leave those tunas?"

With this much fish around, you're going to need a lot of ice. Ice was brought in by truck in giant blocks (maybe four or five feet high, three feet around), and the cut and ground to order by a few ice grinders scattered around. Sellers would walk up with a cart or truck covered in empty containers, the guy would heave a block of ice onto the ramp, the machine would start shaking, and with a roar of grinding, the customer would have his ice and be on his way.

By about eight I was feeling a little beat and a little fish-weary. I started making my way out into the rainy morning.

This stall had been closed when I came in, and now as business would be wrapping up, they provided essential services: newspaper, ramen, hot tea, snacks. I have imagined a whole story for the girl who sells tea and newspapers to the fish sellers every day, and it goes something like this. The sellers have all known her since she was the little girl behind the counter with her mother, they would sneak her candy when her mom wasn't looking and she had a wonderful smile that brightened the days of selling fish. She knows all the old guys and they treat her like a daughter, and the day she gets engaged the entire fish market will be electrified and she will have the most delicious fish in all of Japan at her wedding. It's a nice story, right?

Outside, the Styrofoam mountain had tripled in size.

I just imagine this guy thinking "I'm definitely going to need a bigger broom"

As I headed out, some tuna-sickles headed in. The day was far from over.

The truckers, waiting for their loads, probably headed to all the restaurants and shops of Tokyo.

That was about it. The guide says traditionally you should have a sushi breakfast after Tsukiji, but I couldn't find any of the restaurants they mentioned and I ended up having my usual convenience store rice ball and water. Getting up at five pretty much wrecked me, and I did a bit of shopping, but that was about it for the day. I almost fell asleep in a media immersion pod, wandered around a bit, and then came back to the hotel early and passed out. With the Ghibli museum and Tsukiji, I didn't feel like I had to do anything else. I had already seen more amazing things than I deserved.