to the high catbus (Studio Ghibli Museum, Akihabara)

Last night’s plan A: take the JR line out to Koenji, where a friend-of-a-friend was tending bar, and try to sample some of Tokyo’s nightlife.

Last night’s actual activities: realize at 8pm that we were barely able to move, much less drink. Send apologetic emails, then stagger to the nearest grocery store to get some takeaway fruit and veggies (Tokyo dining so far having been pretty light on both), eat them in our room and collapse. Perhaps not our most glorious moment as intrepid world travelers, but the jetlag demons will have their due. But it was all for the best: we managed to sleep (if somewhat fitfully toward the end) until about 6am, allowing us to get up, shower and shave leisurely in plenty of time to go hit this morning’s destination. Where were we going to?

Aw yeah…

(If at this point you’re confused, my recommendation is: go rent My Neighbor Totoro. Then Spirited Away. Then Kiki’s Delivery Service. Then come back. I’ll wait. If you’re a little pressed for time, just read this.)

Getting to the Ghibli Museum involved taking Japan Rail out to Tokyo’s outskirts, a cute little neighborhood called Kichijoji. A few blocks from the JR station is Inokashira park and nature preserve, and on the edge of the park is the museum. Since the museum doesn’t open until 10am, we killed some time walking around the perimeter of the lake that is the park’s centerpiece. Along the lake is a small shinto shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, behind which is a stone dragon fountain:

Orb spiders had woven webs in many of the bushes in the park; this one was along the footbridge to the shrine:

Our plan had been to skip getting breakfast in Jimbocho, but to get some food before the museum opened by availing ourselves of one of the many cafes and vendors that Miranda knew to dot the park from her last visit here. Unfortunately, 8:30am on a Saturday turned out to be a bit before the operating hours of any of the cafes, and not only did we not find any food, but we found ourselves being eyed balefully by the park’s many, many enormous crows, all of whom looked like they expected us to provide or at a pinch be breakfast.

There were, of course, vending machines in multiple locations in the park, but the only one selling non-liquid items was dedicated to vending tins of caramel corn, which seemed like a pretty unhealthy breakfast even by our standards, so we decided to just wait until we got to the museum, on the theory that there would certainly be a cafe there.

Continuing along the lake, in a wooded area there was a tiny shrine to the Jizo buddha:

At multiple points along the lake, there were seating areas set up where you could watch the turtles surface to sun themselves:

After making our circuit of the lake, we followed the signs to the museum entrance, where a queue of excited children was already forming. And no wonder, considering who was taking the tickets:

Even at the beginning of what was promising to be a sweltering morning, the Ghibli museum was a very popular draw:

Understandably but unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum, so there will be no photos of the catbus for you all. And yes, there was a catbus. A nearly full-scale catbus, covered in fake fur, being climbed over and through by a horde of delighted Japanese children ranging from about one to six years. (Adults were, sadly but again understandably, prohibited from joining them.) The smallest children, who couldn’t even make it into the bus under their own power, could lurch around in a pair of tiny depressions on the floor which were filled with stuffed soot sprites. Cute? Kawaii? You don’t know the meaning of the words.

The museum itself was an interesting mix, serving as it had to the dual masters of “museum/mecca for serious Ghibli fans” and “amusement center for six-year-olds.” The building itself was appropriately beautiful: an organic-looking poured concrete structure with rounded stained glass windows depicting scenes from various of Miyazaki’s movies. There is an internal movie theatre showing short films (admission to the museum gets you in to one showing), a re-creation of Miyazaki’s office and studio, and a gift shop with appropriate amounts of Miyazaki miscellany. There’s also a room with multiple kinetoscopes depicting Ghibli characters and scenes, and lots of little nooks and crannies for children to explore, some with ceilings and entrances sized for them. The building has exterior patio sections on every level, including a cafe on the 2nd, and a rooftop garden:

I’d like to report back on the food at the cafe, but I can’t: it didn’t open until 11, and by the time we got there at roughly 11:05, there was already an hour-long queue to get into it. An hour-long outdoor queue, in the ever-more-oppressive Tokyo summer heat. As we were near-fainting with hunger at this point, it took all of about 10 seconds to decide to bag on the cafe and use the nearby take-away window serving hot dogs and ice cream, the line for which was moving briskly. So I guess I can report that the Ghibli Museum serves a perfectly serviceable hot dog.

A single hot-dog wasn’t really cutting it for either of us, so after making the requisite stop in the gift shop, we headed back into the park in hopes that some of the cafes would now be open, and were rewarded by finding of all things a French-style crepirie about five minutes walk from the museum. Set in what looked like a small converted house, the restaurant’s seating area was on an enclosed porch, with windows looking into the kitchen. (Which had, unusually, an all-female cooking staff.) On stepping into the porch, an older Japanese tourist immediately rose to take my picture, which seemed only fair considering how many unsuspecting Tokyoites I’d managed to snap (inadvertently or otherwise) over the last few days.

After finishing our crepes (which were lovely, but I’ll let Miranda relate that part of the story), we walked through the “ART MRT” — a row of vendors set up by the lake selling various homemade knicknacks, and I picked up a few postcards to send home to people.

Walking back to the JR station, we found Kichijoji’s main drag to be substantially more lively than it had been first thing in the morning, including a shop selling goth clothing, complete will full-length skull-and-crossbones-covered Kimonos:

From there, a long train ride brought us to Akihabara.

Ah, Akihabara. If you’d brought me to this place when I was 15 years old, you would never, ever have gotten me out of there. I would have set up camp in one of the many anime/manga stores there and refused to have left. As an adult, well, I haven’t watched any anime in years, and I haven’t wanted to buy a model anything in longer than I can remember — but it’s hard not to appreciate Akihabara, Tokyo’s nerd nirvana. How can you say no to a 7-story megastore where the first two levels are all giant robot toys, and the third level has an actual radio-controlled slot car track:

…and the next level consists of nothing but model trains, including a working track:

…and the next floor is nothing but wall to wall scarily-realistic looking airguns, targets, and re-creations of various police and military uniforms and equipment?

And that was just one store, out of dozens. But better even than the stores are the tiny alleyways between them, filled with vendor after vendor, each selling a distinct variety of electronic kipple. Want diodes? The diode man has them. Need LEDs? Go to the LED booth, just around the corner. Resistors? Talk to the resistor guy. Solenoids, motors, lathes, line testers, casings, tubes, joints? Yes to all of the above! But wait, whatever it is you’re building, you’ll need a switch to turn it all on! No problem:

Then just when you think you can’t take any more, you pass a small opening and realize that there are stairs. Going up. Up to a shop selling the rarest of things in Japan: used goods.

Oh and of course, there were video arcades. Dozens of the damn things, each one a 5- to 7-story monument to the latest in Street Fighter-esque beat-em-up games with the occasional giant robot shooting game to round things out. I wish I could say I liked them more than I did, but I have a few basic problems with Tokyo’s arcades. First, people smoke, which I realize is not technically against the necessary ambience of an arcade, but certainly makes it personally difficult for me to enjoy it. Second and more seriously: I hate basically fighting games, and blame Street Fighter for killing off the gloriously creative videogame industry of the 1980s — and Japanese videogames are basically all Street Fighter clones, descendants and ripoffs. Lastly, Japanese game console are nearly all identical white sit-down units with the game title on a printed sheet of paper held in a display over the game: I completely understand the economies of scale and service that this provides to the arcade owners, but for a lover of unique and weird old videogame consoles, it’s a little dispiriting.

Anyway, there was one completely cool-looking game in the Sega arcade: a Taiko drumming rhythm game! Playing it ourselves was pretty out of the question (nevermind the game instructions being in Japanese, but the songs you had to play to were all j-pop), but luckily two young men were happy to show off the the crowd:

What you can’t see in that picture is that the kid on the left was playing despite the fact that one of his hands was in a cast. That, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication.

We spent about another hour sticking our noses into Akihabara’s various corners, but after a while all of the electronics and anime and porn and maid costumes start to blur together. With one exception. This didn’t blur with anything:

I braved a strict “no photographs” rule for this one, and it was completely worth it. Click through to flickr so you can get to the full-size version of the photo. Look a little more closely on the middle shelves. Wh yes, that’s a row of crucified Ultramans.

No, I have no explanation. I’m not sure I want one.

Outside, we took another few minutes to explore a raised skyway that connects several of Akihabara’s office towers, but other than an enormous live billboard promoting a J-Pop single, there wasn’t much to be found up there.

…so we took the train back to Jimbocho, where we emerged into a sudden flurry of kimonos. Again, no explanations on offer:

Tonight: we’re going out, come hell or high water.

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