All articles, tagged with “wanderlust”

goodbye kamikochi, hello takayama

Our last day in Kamikochi dawned much like the previous one: to the sound of running water and a slight breeze through the room, and then with a staggering gorgeous breakfast in the dining room.

After breakfast, we packed our bags and bid farewell to our room with not a few sighs and wistful glances. As if to taunt us, the morning was clearer than the day before, and we could clearly see the mountains from our back veranda. But time and the maid service wait for no man, so we rolled our bags down to reception and took off on a quick morning stroll.

Kamikochi? Still unbelievably gorgeous.

We took roughly the same path down to the onsen-hotel that we’d taken the day before, but cut closer to the river.

Finally at 10am there was no avoiding it, and we turned around, retrieved our bags, and got on the bus to Takayama. This was a two-stage bus ride, transferring through a small onsen town on the other side of the mountains, and the highway took a winding route through rockfall zones, plunging canyons and mile-long tunnels drilled straight through the mountains. There was very little traffic: apparently most of the region is closed to private cars during the summer months, so the only other things on the road were other busses and the occasional taxi — which was good, since in several places the road was effectively only a single lane wide, and busses had to make use of pull-outs to get past each other going in opposite directions.

We got into Takayama around noon, and easily found our way to our hotel: Takayama is a small place, with less than a hundred thousand residents, and you could easily walk across the entire city in half an hour. Getting to our hotel took about five minutes even with bags. We were to be staying at the Zen Ro Ji, which is actually a Zen buddhist temple that rents out rooms to travellers, run by a somewhat gruff but English-fluent monk named Tommy. Our room wouldn’t be open until 3, so we dropped our bags and headed out to our first destination: the Hida-no-Sato Folk Village.

A quick word: the Lonely Planet delicately calls the walk from the city center to Hida-no-Sato “unpleasant,” and recommends taking the bus instead. An intrepid traveler might look at the mere 1.5km distance and scoff at such wimpery. What LP, with perhaps a bit too much British understatement, is attempting to convey is that the first half of the trip is through a shade-free industrial/shopping area along a major highway with few crossings, that the second half is up a constant 15-to-20-degree grade, and that there is little to no signage for pedestrians. It wasn’t the worst mistake we’ve ever made as travelers, but if you ever visit Takayama? Take the bus.

Somewhat sweatier than we’d anticipated, we arrived at the folk village, which is an outdoor museum consisting of about a dozen old peasant and merchant buildings from the 1600s through 1800s that have been preserved and moved to Takayama-Hida from various points in the surrounding prefectures.

Walking up through the village, there was an odd odor of smoke in the air, the source of which became obvious once we went into the first house: not only did all of the houses have a working firepit, but in most of them a slowly burning fire had been set up.

Signs explained that the smoke from the fire was actually an integral part of the preservation of the houses: Takayama has a humid climate in the summer and tons of snow in the winter, so the smoke regulates the humidity in the houses, drives out insects, and keeps the wooden or straw roofs from rotting.

Some of the roofs were made from cedar shingles, weighted down with stones. A small building described as a “sawhouse” had pictures demonstrating their manufacture: essentially two men wielding a massive hand-saw cut a single yard-wide cedar trunk into quarter-inch-thick sheets. By hand, did I mention?

Other houses had thatch roofs, which were comprised of two-foot-thick and roughly two-yard-long bundles of straw that were tightly bound together with straw or hemp rope, and then tied with more rope to the structure of the building:

Another one of the outbuildings was a charcoal kiln, for making the all-important winter fuel. I’m not sure why greenery had been allowed to become part of its straw roof: the kiln was not in operation, and it may simply be a good demonstration of what happens to a straw roof when smoke isn’t applied regularly:

Further down the path was a shinto shrine. I’m not sure if ‘deconsecrated’ is an applicable concept in the Shinto religion, but in any case it seemed to have most of the religious accoutrements removed from the altars and allowed visitors the run of the place, including a signboard on the main bell encouraging people to make a wish and ring it:

The trail eventually led back down to the lake at the entrance, where one of the last buildings passed was a true bit of rural pre-modern Japan: a water mill, where a trickle of water into two “scoops” eventually weighed them down enough to pivot down and dump their load into the lake below and then spring back up, powering a hammer on the other side of the beam that would rise and then fall down with great force into the pestle below.

Cleverly managing to avoid buying any of the stunning pieces for sale at the lacquerware-making exhibit hall by arriving on a day when that building was closed, we headed downhill towards the Hida-Takayama Museum of Art. Which, incongruously enough for a town that does most of its tourist trade based on artifacts from premodern Japan, is actually a museum of the decorative arts, focussing primarily on art nouveau and art deco glassware from 19th and early 20th century Europe. The museum is originally the work of a single, never named, and presumably enormously wealthy collector, who put together an insane number of pieces and commissioned a gorgeous modern building on a hillside overlooking all of Takayama:

Without a doubt the centerpiece of the collection is a room with a single exhibit: an art deco fountain that apparently used to be at the head of the Champs-Elysses shopping arcade in Paris. How on earth it got into the hands of a private collector in Japan I cannot possibly imagine, but it was practically worth making the entire trip just to see it:

Possibly not obvious from the photo: not only is the fountain still working, but the entire room is lit with recessed lighting that shifts colors every few seconds matching the shifting of the colors of the fountain’s interior lights. It’s a little beyond awesome.

Also awesome: an entire room full of Émile Gallé pieces, of which one here:

And last but certainly far from least: a dining room comprised entirely of works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh:

It’s a pretty small museum: about 12 rooms of the permanent collection on the second floor, and then a (currently empty) temporary exhibition room on the first floor. We practically had the entire place to ourselves — there were only three or four other visitors — which would have been worrisome for the museum’s future, except that it was very obvious how the place kept in business: weddings, weddings and more weddings. There had actually been a wedding in progress when Miranda visited this place in 2003, and several discreet stands in the hallways had a spread of brochures and pictures hinting at the obvious advantages to hosting your wedding at the museum: for starters, for some amount of money that I hesitate to even consider, you can have your wedding photos taken with the bride and groom seated on one of Mackintosh’s couches.

The museum cafe, the Mackintosh Tea Room, had a set-price tea-and-cake that we availed ourselves of. The cafe was of course also stunning, done up in deco-style black wood with white accents, with an old full-size music box in a corner and tunes from it playing on the sound system. We had a cake-and-ice cream dish that was practically a work of art itself, and then we made a fatal error and decided to check out the gift shop.

A gift shop in a museum dedicated to art deco and art nouveau glassware? What the hell was I thinking? And more importantly, how the hell am I going to get it all home without it shattering into a million pieces? Um, further details as they happen: this promises to be hilarious.

Thoroughly laden down, we strode to the exit, only to find that the museum — and its primary exit — had closed at 5pm. Well no worries, there was another exit past the gift shop, so to only a small amount of tittering by the shop ladies we backtracked and went out that way. The museum runs a shuttle — an actual old red london double-decker bus that goes between the museum and the town central bus terminal, and lo and behold there was the bus idling in the parking lot! Only when we got to it, the driver in a burst of Japanese pointed us at the bus stop sign on the other side of the parking lot. It seemed a little odd that he’d have a preference as to which side of the lot we boarded on, but whatever, we walked over to the sign, and sat down on the bench while we waited for him to finish his cigarette break or whatever the issue was…

…and waited a bit, and watched him turn off the bus, carry a bag of trash from it to a dumpster, and then walk in the direction of the museum and disappear. Huh, perhaps the timetable posted helpfully at the bus stop bore further examination? Oh dear: museum closing, 5pm. Last shuttle bus: 4:55. Last municipal bus: 4:45. Us: screwed.

Oh well, the clouds had come in over the last few hours and it had cooled off considerably, and we were heading downtown this time. Switching off the gift shop bag between us, we made it back to the hotel in about half an hour, stopping only at the odd sight of the “City of Denver Park”, a park apparently built to commemorate Takayama’s sister city relationships (of which Denver was the one in the USA: there were four more in Japan, and one in China), with apparently a tree planted for each time the Mayor of Denver had visited. Note to my sister: run for mayor, it comes with a great free junket.

At the hotel/monastary, we were shown around: it’s a bit of a sprawling place, and our room, the lavatories, the sinks the kitchen and the showers are all in different wings. Our room was actually nearly as large as the one in Kamikochi, but was one of several rooms in a row facing out onto the central garden, with only paper shoji doors in between them. Obviously loud athletic sex was not to be on the menu for tonight. This being Japan, there was even a wifi signal to be found in the room, although it was weirdly intermittent and seemed to maybe be coming from a neighbor — the hotel’s actual wifi only covered the nonresidential bits.

Tommy was kind enough to provide a “gourmet guide to Takayama”, which listed every restaurant in the city by type, as well as noting whether they took credit cards or had an English menu. After two straight days of kaiseki cuisine at the lodge in Kamikochi, we were both up for something a little more straightforward, so we found an izakaya called Murasaki, and as it happened Takayama is small enough that the tourist map is almost entirely accurate, and when we found ourselves on the street that we thought Murasaki was supposed to be on, a bemused sushi barman let us know that we were one street off. Only a single street off! Progress!

Murasaki turned out to be a pretty active local watering hole, and if you’re ever in the area, I recommend it without hesistation. The English menu was simply the Japanese menu with english names on white stickers over the Japanese ones, so the whole gamut was available to us, and everything we had was great. Their gyoza may have been the best that I’ve ever had: scallion-laden on the inside, crunchy on the bottom and soft on the top. We went through two 180ml bottles of what turned out to be really excellent local sake (Takayama has several breweries and is noted for the stuff), and after settling our bill did a small, slighly tipsy wander through downtown Takayama before returning home.

monkey business: kamicochi continued

Thursday morning dawned with the sun occasionally breaking through the clouds, and us cocooned in our blankets. I could have happily stayed the rest of the day in bed, but breakfast was at a set time, and there was some hiking to do. After a quick shower, we were getting ready to head to the dining room again when our phone beeped and an automated (I think? I hope?) voice let us know that our table was ready. We hustled our way down to the dining room, and oh lord here we go again:

Words fail.

After breakfast, we went back to the room to put together daypacks for a hike, and of course while we’d been at breakfast the beds had been put back into the closet and the table was back in the center of the room. It was eerily like having house-elves.

We walked back to the bus stop where the visitor’s center was, and apparently made the day of the young woman working the counter there by being the only people to ask her anything that morning: she was all alone in this huge, obviously recently refurbished visitor’s center, and nobody else seemed to be coming anywhere near the place. She loaded us down with maps and guide, and we picked a 4-hour, 12km hike that would loop us up and around some of the major sites on the river, and then down past our hotel and on towards one of the outdoor onsen for a post-hike soak.

Once you got onto the path and away from the bus terminal and hotels, you were very quickly away from any sign of civilization save for the trail itself: an occasionally raised-on-stilts path through primeval woods, alpine streams and small reflective pools. A mixture of conifers and tall deciduous trees towered overhead, while lush greenery covered the forest floor. The path mostly held close to the side of the river, but occasionally wandered away to cross small tributary streams and skirt around the swampier areas.

For the most part, the path was clear, but as we approached Myojin pond we started encountering more and more Japanese schoolchildren, somewhere in the 12-14 years old range, all in identical blue tracksuits: obviously some kind of school day trip was in progress, and by the time we hit the pond itself we were surrounded by dozens of them, and I can only assume that they were not from a large city, because the sight of two white people, one redhead and one with purple hair, both of whom could say “konnichi wa”, was just about the most hilarious thing ever to them, and we ended up being asked to pose for pictures with them amid much hilarity. This was about the only time so far I’d ever felt conspicuous in this sense: mostly in Tokyo we just got politely ignored or quickly glanced at, but this was the full-on Gaijin Are Hilarious! treatment.

(Interestingly, my hair did attract a small but consistent amount of attention in Kamikochi, but other than the one horde of junior high school children, it was almost all from senior citizens at the resorts here.)

The pond itself cost a small (¥300) fee to get in, and was obviously the main day-tripper draw up here and for good reason: it’s ludicrously picturesque. It stretches for nearly a mile across in each direction, slightly sub-divided into smaller pools by spars of land, crystal clear with a shallow sandy bottom, reflecting the towering mountains above.

Once we moved on north of the pond, the crowds quickly fell away again, and with the exception of the occasional backpacker/mountaineer who passed us, we had the trail largely to ourselves again. This area was like crack to me as a photographer: every few dozen yards, the trees would break open to reveal yet another staggering view of the mountain peaks overhead:

…and if you got tired of mountains at any point, there was almost always something else to distract you, like this tiny waterfall created by a newly formed stream cascading over the path and down a cliff:

And of course, every once in a while you’d cross the river itself. The spring snow-melt being largely past, much of the riverbed was dry rock that you could clamber over:

After about another hour of walking, we hit the northern tip of our route, and crossed back over to the west side of the river to follow the forest road back to the onsen. Looking at the map, I’d been a bit dubious about taking the road back, since it seemed like it would probably skip most of the interesting territory, but by this time our legs were a little tired and an easy walk back to the onsen seemed pretty appealing. And as it turned out, the road had some appeal of its own. After about half a mile of walking, Miranda noticed what could only be described as a distinctly, uh, mammalian turd in the middle of the road. We’d seen “do not feed the animals” signs around the bus station that included a silhouette of a monkey, was it possible that…

…about fifteen steps later, there was a bit of movement over my right shoulder, and why yes:

Sitting on a branch a few yards away from the road, watching us warily, was a monkey — red-faced and about a foot tall. And then we noticed a smaller brown spot walking along the branch towards her:

We appeared to be in the middle of an entire pack of monkeys: as we walked down the road, we saw at least six or seven more of them, none of them paying obvious attention to us, but all of them largely keeping their distance. As we walked into a clearing a little further on, I turned around to see one particularly brave one cross the open space behind us:

After a few more yards we stopped seeing them, and the last trace of them we saw was another monkey turd in the middle of the road: Miranda hypothesized that the poo marked the beginning and end of their territory, and it certainly looked that way.

The rest of the trip back to the onsen was less monkey-filled, and was merely beautiful.

Feet starting to hurt in earnest, we passed the bus terminal and our hotel, and slowly walked the remaining 15 minutes down to the onsen. On the way, we passed the Weston memorial. The Rev. Walter Weston was a mountain climber who wrote two of the original books in English about mountaineering in the Japanese Alps, and was responsible for popularizing the regiong among the world’s climbers, and also popularizing alpine sports inside Japan, and not incidentally turning Kamikochi into the bustling tourist concern that it now is. Weston is memorialized with an embossed plaque in the mountainside facing the path, with a small bubbling spring in front of it.

Turning around, you could see from the view why Weston was so taken with the place:

A few minutes later, we found the onsen, which was inside yet another hotel. After only a few minutes of staring blankly at the ticket machine, it dawned on us that there were english labels on the buttons (we may have been a bit tired), and managed to buy two tickets and two towel rentals. Or so we thought, but more on that later. We gave our tickets to the inordinately chipper attendant, found our way to the washrooms and dove in. Separate facilities for men and women of course, but comparing notes later they seemed to be almost identical: first the changing room, then the washroom, which also contained the first (and only indoor) hot bath. Then through a sliding door to the outside, where a stone pool that could easily have sat 40 was flanked by a pair of single-person tubs made out of enormous wooden barrels.

There was only one other person in the men’s bath, a middle-aged gentleman who I thought I recognized from my hotel; in any case we nodded at each other and I very gently eased my way into the main bath: it was formed of river rocks set in concrete, and was very hot, so it took a few seconds to pick my way over to the most likely-seeming perch and lower myself in. At that point it all got kind of hazy and steamy, in a good way: my companion eventually left, and I just sort of sat there melting. After a little while, I decided to try one of the wooden tubs for a change, and then switched back to the main bath. The outdoor section was carefully sculpted, with bamboo fences, artfully placed foliage, and a view of the mountains. More hot water bubbled in constantly from various sources; some above, some below. I could have happily moved in.

Finally, I hit that recognizable “about to overheat” stage, and padded back to the washroom to pour some cold (or at least tepid) water over myself. Walking past a mirror, I noticed that pretty much every part of my body from the neck down bore a distinct resemblance to a post-boil crawfish, and decided it was time to walk my pale self out of there before I poached.

Miranda had apparently come to the same decision at about the same time as me, and I found her waiting for me near the gift shop downstairs, which was when we found out that the towels we thought we’d rented were in fact towels that we had bought. Oh well, we’d had to rent towels at two hotels already, so this would just save us a little money going forward.

Back to the hotel, where at 6pm we hurried down to the dining room for another dinner that counted as a major work of art. Interestingly, it was a nearly completely different menu from the night before, and we spent a while wondering if they changed the menu every day, until by virtue of some rubbernecking Miranda figured out that there was an ingenious labor-saving ploy at work: several people in the dining room who we hadn’t seen the night before were eating the same menu we’d had on our first night: obviously the menus were “first night”, “second night” and so on. The interesting unanswered question: if we came back in a few months, would we get the first night’s menu again? Only one way to find out…

Back in the room, the beds had magically appeared again. We kicked around for a little while checking email and updating the universe on our whereabouts, then contentedly retired.



Oh god, I’ve been waiting days to be able to make that joke.

Kamikochi is a little resort… you can’t call it a town, and even “village” would be a stretch. It’s really a handful of hotels, ryokans and lodges parked in the middle of a nature preserve in the middle of the Japanese alps. To get here from Matsumoto, you take a non-JR private train line — a line so “local” that I’m pretty sure in at least three cases the end of the platform on one stop was only a few feet away from the beginning of the platform of the next stop — from Matsumoto halfway up the mountains, and then take a “Highland Line” bus the rest of the way up to Kamikochi, through a bunch of heartstopping switchbacks and through what appeared to be a series of hydroelectric dams.

When the bus dropped us off at the Kamikochi terminus, a light mist was coming down and everything was shrounded in a green curtain. Our hotel, the Kamikochi Nishiitoya Mountain Lodge was about five minutes walk down a well-tended path, and on entering the polished wood lobby, we were divested of our shoes and shown up to our room, which smelled astounding: fresh tatami mats have a unique odor, a little pine-y, a little green-y, but very much its own thing and hard to describe. A teapot, a thermos of boiling water, and a small assortment of sweets waited for us on the lacquer table. And when we opened the sliding doors to the veranda, this was what we got to look at:

(Except a lot mistier the first night: that shot is actually from the second day, when the clouds broke for a while.)

Dinner service was at 6, and the rain was coming down hard enough to make hiking in sneakers seem like a dubious proposition, so we poured ourselves some tea, sat down and tried to relax. It wasn’t difficult at all.

Then at six, we padded down to the dining room to meet our dinner. Formal introductions seemed warranted; frankly I’m not sure its parents would have approved of it hanging out with the likes of us:

No, seriously. We sat there stunned for a while before we were able to work up the nerve to actually start eating any of this. It largely tasted as good as it looked, which was particularly impressive in my case: anyone who’s eaten with me knows that I have… well, somewhere between “issues” and “outright horror” of foods of a certain gelatinous/mucilagenous/colloidal texture type, and Japanese food — especially this strain of Japanese cuisine — tends to be pretty heavy on the jelloesque textures. But the only true show-stopper for me was (not pictured above — it got served later) a whipped white root vegetable concoction that Miranda identified as something that had been called “mountain yam” to her on her last trip: its taste was actually pretty inoffensive, but the texture was reminiscent of lightly poached snot. I felt a little guilty about eating around it since it’s apparently a regional speciality, but everything else (including even some of the tofu, which is usually a nonstarter for me) was awesome.

After dinner, we explored the lodge a bit and found its onsen — a heated, communal (gender-segregated) bath that’s one of the main attractions of a vacation in this area. We ran back to our room to change into our yukata (bathrobes, basically) and went for a dip. Onsen etiquette is pretty simple: there’s an external bathing room where you pull up a small footstool in front of a water tap that’s on knee level, soap yourself up, rinse off by pouring a few buckets of water over yourself, and then enter the main pool room where there are some number of baths ranging between “hot”, “scalding” and “blistering”, and submerge yourself in them for as long as you can stand. If you like, return to the washroom, pour some cold water over yourself and then return to the hot pool. The lodge’s onsen was indoors, but faced an enormous glass window that would have provided a great view of the mountains had it not been after dark and completely fogged over from the steam rising off the bath. It was still gorgeous, and I stayed in it for about 20 minutes, when my head began to swim.

Returning to our room, we found that the table had been moved off to the side, and our beds had been set up in the middle of the room: two futons, pillows, and a pair of enormous down blankets. We left the window open and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of mountain rains and a running river.

A boy could get used to this.


Wednesday morning started out with breakfast at the hotel, which was in some ways our most “Japanese” breakfast so far: mostly in Tokyo we’d been grabbing european-style baked goods from various breakfast counters, and the lodge in Nikko had made us french toast, but this was seasoned rice balls, miso soup, and… a pickle bar! Six different kinds of pickles for breakfast! Why don’t I live here again?

Our plan for the day was a side-trip to nearby Hotaka, site of Japan’s largest wasabi farm. We left our bags at the hotel and took a tiny little 2-car JR train 30 minutes to Hotaka station.

Hotaka is a tiny little semi-rural hamlet, and it’s really just stupidly charming. Its primary function appears to be wasabi and rice farming, and its secondary function is internal tourism, with gaggles of Japanese tour groups coming to see the wasabi farms. At the station, an effusive man at the tourist information office gave us a map and highlighted a path that would, on bicycle, show us most of Hotaka’s major attractions in about an hour’s riding. Bike rental was ¥200 an hour, and there were three rental places within a block of the train station. Picking up bikes was dead simple (they didn’t even ask for a deposit: this really is a foreign country), and after waiting a moment for the bike shop proprietor to adjust my seat height, we were off. Hotaka is on a plateau at the foot of the Japanese alps, so the riding was completely flat, and there was really no traffic to contend with. Within a few minutes, what little of Hotaka was built-up dropped away, and we were riding leisurely down a nearly empty road in the sunny Japanese countryside, past rice paddies and… a blueberry field? With a roadside sales stand? Oh hell yes.

Fortified with half a kilo of fresh blueberries, we rode the remaining five minutes over to the wasabi farm. Dai-oh wasabi farm is the largest wasabi farm in the area, and I suspect probably in the world. In addition to being very much a working farming concern, it also seems to function as a major tourist draw: the (nearly empty this day) parking lot looked like it could accommodate several dozen tour busses at least, plus a small fleet of cars and bicycles. But much like a pick-your-own orchard in New England, the touristy nature of it doesn’t really distract from the charm, and charm it had in abundance. Wooden bridges and gravel paths led you through vast covered fields of wasabi, which grows in neat gravel paths that are semi-submerged in clear, cold running water that is glacial run-off from the nearby mountains. The river had a few sets of rafters going down it, and the farm’s old water wheels still fronted it. The farm appears to be family-operated, and there are several small shrines dotted across it (including a pair of cave shrines), plus a monument to the family patriarch and matriarch.

With the exception of a few marked-off areas, visitors pretty much have the run of the place for as long and as far as they like, and after a while we found ourselves in a wooded area behind the farm, following a dirt road. We could hear in the distance something that sounded like rapids or a waterfall, and were hoping that the road would lead us there. It never did, but instead it led us to the biggest damn eagle I’ve ever seen outside a zoo: as we were crunching our way down the road, we apparently startled it, and a few dozen yards ahead of us an enormous raptor that had apparently been sitting on the ground took off quickly, its wings audibly cutting through the air. It was easily 5 feet wide, and sadly I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to get a shot of it while it was still close and at eye level. It came to rest only a bit further down the road from where it had been originally, and we crept forward a bit more slowly in hope of getting a better shot, but this is about all I managed:

Chasing the eagle (or whatever it was) further seemed likely to just annoy the bird and muddy our shoes, and the road was curving away from whatever was making the waterfall-like sound, so we turned around and headed back to the main part of the farm, where the multiple gift shops were. It’s worth noting at this point that admission to the farm was free: the only catch was that in order to get from the parking lot into the pretty hiking area, you had to pass a phalanx of stands, in front of each of which was a woman who would run up to you and offer a free sample of whatever wasabi-based concoction her stand was selling, ranging from freshly picked and scrubbed wasabi roots (rhizomes actually, but who’s counting?) to wasabi-infused pickles, to wasabi peas, wasabi crackers, wasabi sweet chewy things: a whole gamut of wasabi products, and they were apparently gambling quite successfully that if you liked wasabi enough to come visit a wasabi farm in the first place, the odds of you leaving without purchasing something wasabi-flavored were near zero. For my own part, they had me at wasabi ice cream:

How could I resist? My only complaint with it: not enough wasabi. The first few licks really only tasted of vanilla, and it wasn’t until I’d gotten through a bit more of it that a subtle wasabi flavor began to build up.

Polishing off my ice cream, I wandered into the gift store proper, and walked out about fifteen minutes later with a very large bag full of wasabi-themed stuff, some edible and some not. I managed to avoid buying the scrubby towels emblazoned with Hello Kitty wearing a wasabi root costume, but only just. Sadly, what I could not buy at the wasabi farm was any actual wasabi, which was heartbreaking since they had piles of the fresh roots for ¥500 each. But we had no way of preserving them for the next week, and would have had to smuggle them back into the US in any case.

Wasabi-ed out for the time being, we took a leisurely bicycle ride back into the town, during the course of which we found out that both the English and the Japanese maps we had to work with had only a passing resemblance to the actual roads of Hotaka. This wasn’t much of a surprise in the case of the English map (which was pretty obviously not to any scale nor even attempting to be accurate), but a little moreso in the case of the Japanese one: the best I could describe it would be cubist: roads that in reality were meandering and many-forked were displayed on the map as neat straight lines with few or no intersections. We got predictably pretty far off course, which was aggravating but not panicking: we were still primarily in flat rice fields, and getting back to town would have been do-able by dead reckoning alone if need be, but we eventually ran into of all things a little regional art museum, and the woman behind the counter was able to point out our rough location on the Japanese map and give us rough directions back into town.

Hotaka’s other main draw is the Rokuzan art museum: a tiny little museum comprised of several small gallery buildings spread around a cute little park. The museum is primarily dedicated to the works of Rokuzan Ogiwara, “the Japanese Rodin”, a Meiji-era sculptor who travelled through Europe and the middle east, studied briefly with Rodin and left a very small but impressive body of work behind before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 31. Unknown in the west, and probably not very well-known in Japan either, but the museum made a very good case for him as a potentially major artist, sadly lost far too early.

Seeing the entire museum only took about 45 minutes, and since we were facing a multi-step train and bus ride to our next destination, we decided to head back to Matsumoto. We returned our bikes and found that we had about 40 minutes until the next train, and were getting hungry again. It was at this point that I realized that we’d been in Japan for over a week and had still had no ramen. This was clearly not acceptable, so we went off in search of a ramen stop, figuring that there was bound to be one near the train station. We figured correctly: it was about a block and a half away. The lunch rush (if there is such a thing as a rush in Hotaka) was long over: the place was inhabited only by its owners, a pair of middle-aged Japanese women watching a television. They sat us at one of the kneeling tables, made a small fuss over my hair, and brought us our ramen.

God it was good.

Ramen is fast food in Japan, and so we’d picked the perfect thing for a quick lunch ahead of an impending train departure: we finished our soup with just enough time to settle the bill, say our goodbyes, walk to the station and step onto the train that came onto the platform three minutes later. Next stop: Kamikochi.


Getting to Matsumoto from Nikko was a bit of an adventure: a three-hop train trip involving a shinkansen back to Omiya, another shinkansen to Nagano, and then a “limited express” train to Matusmoto. Japan Rail continues to live up to its nigh-unbelieveable reputation for punctuality: each train left pretty much instantly on schedule, and arrived within 60 seconds of its posted time. As a lifelong user of American commuter train systems, I can only say: it’s fucking eerie.

The conductors sing out “Maaaaaatsumotooooo” when the train pulls in to the platform. It’s adorable.

Our accommodations in Matsumoto were the local branch of a chain of business hotels called the Toyoko Inn, and while the tour guides tended to rubbish such places as soulless, I can’t fault it for value: we had an immaculate room that while certainly small by American standards nonetheless had a double bed, a desk, and an en-suite bathroom (and also a safe, free internet, and a trouser press!), and enough room for us to move around without falling over each other. There was a coin laundry on the first floor, and an included breakfast of rice balls, Japanese pickles, miso soup and tea or coffee: for $85/night, if they set a branch of this place up in New York City, people would call it the best deal running.

One thing to note about Japanese hotels in general: while American places are generally able to handle it if you show up early, when Japanese hotels say “3pm check-in” time, they mean it: they’re not going to show you to your room any time before then. They are, however, usually quite happy to hold your luggage at the front desk for you, and since it was only 1:30pm when we got there, we did just that, and trouped off to Matsumoto’s primary attraction, the castle.

We got to the castle’s threshold when we realized that it was nearly 2pm and we’d last had a proper meal in Nikko around 8:30am. Restaurant pickings at the castle park entrance were slim, so we ended up getting a plate of cold soba noodles (a local specialty) from a little place (a sobateria? if that’s not the word it should be) a few steps away from the ticket office. Restaurants near major tourist attractions can be pretty dicey, but this place was apparently a local institution: the walls were lined with autographed photos of olympic athletes and sumo wrestlers. It was pretty dead when we walked in (it was a weekday, and the lunch hour was long past), and I personally find soba to be somewhat bland, but the appetizer we got was fantastic: a mixed tempura plate in which about half the pieces were fresh battered eel. Mmmmm…eel.

Fed, we took the remaining few steps to the castle. And what a castle it is. Built of stone and hand-hewn fir and cypress logs, the castle’s primary tower is seven stories high, providing a commanding view of the parkland around it. A self-guided tour takes you through most of the castle, from the “warrior’s walkways” on the lower floors (extra-wide hallways to accommodate samurai in full armor running single-file toward the nearest point of defense) to the daiymo’s room at the top of the main tower.

Most exterior walls are lined with tiny portal windows for pointing rifles out of, and in fact on the 5th floor there was a small museum of 16th-through-18th century Japanese riflery, with many gorgeous (and intimidating) hand-forged guns ranging from flintlock rifles to blunderbusses to early revolvers. Wall hangings near the museum area were of samurai toting and cleaning their rifles, or of pitched battles between armies. I found this all fascinating: probably due primarily to James Clavell’s baleful influence, the samurai era is usually thought of in the states as a swords-and-shields epic, but in reality feudal japan had the rifle from the mid 1500s on (courtesy originally of the Portuguese, I assume), and seeing the tasteful watercolor scrolls of samurai shooting the hell out of each other gave a little more historical context into how Japan went from an isolated island kingdom to kicking the Russians’ asses in a very short amount of time.

In a lower section of the castle was the “moon-viewing room”, which was actually a much later (early 1700s, I think) addition to the castle: the feudal war period was largely over by this point, and so this room unlike all the others had wide, open windows from which the castle’s operators (you can’t really say “residents”: the castle was a battle fortification, not a house) could sit back and watch the moon with a cup of sake in hand.

The tour ended on a path through the castle’s mammoth stone wall and over a red lacquered bridge over the carp-filled moat. We sat in the shade for a while, and I lurked and hovered until finally, after about 10 minutes, there was a shot of the castle and bridge containing… no other tourists!

From the castle, we walked over to Matsumoto’s other noted attraction: Nakamachi street, a Meiji-period warehouse district whose white-walled buildings were converted over primarily to jewelry, ceramic and art shops, as well as the occasional ryokan, sake store and restaurant. We found a few little things to bring back, and then walked back to the hotel along the riverside, itself a charming pedestrian-only arcade where most of the shops and little decorations had a distinctly froggy aspect to them. This turned out to be due to a somewhat elaborate pun in Japanese: the words for “shop” and “return safely” are both homophones to the word for “frog” (“Kaeru”), so the shopping district to which they hoped you would return was, essentially, Frog Street.

Also along the riverside was a small shrine with a huge straw circle at the entranceway. There was no English in the signage, later googling suggested that the temple is dedicated to the four Shinto gods Amenominakanushinokami, Takamimusubi, Kamimusubi, and Amaterasu Oomikami.

We’d seen in the Lonely Planet book that Matsumoto had a “Timepiece Museum”, and walking back toward our hotel we spotted a building that, just at a guess, might have been it:

Sadly, the museum was closing up by the time we got there.

After chilling out in our hotel room for a few hours (doing laundry, catching up on email, etc), we headed out into the night to try to find dinner. This ended up being a bit more difficult than we’d expected, and here I’d like to indulge in my constitutional right to whine like a four-year-old for a bit: Lonely Planet is a great resource, but their maps? Their maps suck rocks.. Their one-third-page map of Matsumoto might as well have been a Rorschach blot for all the relation to the actual streets it bore. We tried supplementing it with a local tourist map, but while certainly much larger, the tourist maps we’ve found so far in Japan aren’t much better: they tend to omit lots streets that they consider unimportant for some reason, and since Japanese cities are organized by block numbers rather than street numbers, this is basically fatal to any westerner trying to navigate.

(Obvious question: google maps? Aggravating answer: Google Maps Japan appears to only use Japanese characters for both input and display. Try to search for “1-1-23 Shibuya-ku, Tokyo” on gmaps, and you’ll end up being directed to Japantown in Los Angeles. I have suspicions as to why this is, but refuse to put the effort into verifying them while on vacation.)

The obvious point of all this whining: our first destination, a restaurant called “Kura” that according to both maps was mere minutes from our hotel, may as well have been in another city for all of our ability to find it. After stumbling around getting hungrier and crankier by the minute, we decided to just chuck our carefully laid plans and just try the first place that looked promising. And lo and behold, a few seconds later we smelled something good cooking, and found ourselves on the doorstep of an izakaya.

An izakaya is a brilliant invention that doesn’t really have a direct analogue in the states, and I wish we had them. Basically, an izakaya is a grill restaurant and bar: they have a large selection of beers and sakes, and an equally large selection of “stuff that can be cooked on a brazier or in a deep fryer”, i.e. meat skewers, vegetable skewers, salted fish, random regional finger foods and the like. It’s sort of like a combination of a tapas bar, a sushi bar, and a korean barbecue joint: you order your drinks and the first round of plates, then more drinks and more plates as the urge strikes you, until you are too full or drunk to move. Each plate costs somewhere between $1 and $5 dollars, and even more miraculously in Japan, the drinks are reasonably priced: Miranda and I each ordered a “small” ¥350 sake from the sake menu (picking one at random, as the sake menu was not translated), and the small sake turned out to be roughly a half-pint. This izakaya even had an English menu… sort of.

Yes, that really says “the hormone burning.” No, we were not brave enough to order it. Most of the English translations made a certain sort of cockeyed sense, but the most benign explanation for “hormone” that we could think of was thymus gland (sweetbreads), and the other possibilities just got more and more horrible from there, so we stuck with things that we were pretty sure we understood the intent of. We had an order of tempura, grilled asparagus, grilled minced pork “meatballs”, some sashimi, two different kinds of broiled fish and some stewed baby potatoes, and it all came out to about ¥4800 including our drinks: by Japanese standards this was an insane bargain. Stuffed and not a little sozzled (it was really much more sake than we’d been expecting), we walked somewhat carefully back to the hotel and to bed.

misty mountain hop (Nikko)

Nikko is about 2 hours outside of Tokyo by train, but might as well be in another country. Nestled in mist-covered mountains and home to a series of ancient imperial shines that are a UNESCO world heritage site, Nikko is almost relentlessly picturesque. It’s also about 10 degrees cooler than Tokyo, which was a welcome relief.

Our hotel was a little place called the Nikko Park Lodge, a few miles uphill from the train station, so we took our first taxi ride in Japan to get to it. The lodge was really our first unequivocal hotel success in Japan: the Sakura in Tokyo was simply functional, the Cerulean would be an experience best enjoyed on someone else’s expense account, but the lodge was both affordable and delightful. It’s a small inn tucked away in the hills far away enough from the town center to seem semi-rural, and is run by a small group of Buddhists who also give yoga lessons. Business has apparently picked up a lot for them since they landed a Lonely Planet writeup, and as a result they’re dealing with an influx of western backpackers, such as ourselves. Nonetheless they were unflaggingly polite and helpful, and our room was actually large enough to have a bed and a couch, plus windows that opened up onto a lovely view of forest and farmland.

After sloughing off our bags, we got a map from the front desk and headed off towards Nikko’s shrines. Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a largely abandoned playground in the fields, which had a suspended roller slide that ran what appeared to be several hundred yards across a small creek and into the next field over. (In fact, it wasn’t until we talked to the people back at the hotel that we ascertained for sure that it was meant as a childrens’ slide and not perhaps some way of delivering firewood from one end of a farm to another.) Since the slide was dripping water and had not a few rust spots, we elected not to sacrifice our pants and bags to it, and walked on toward the shrine area.

Even along the main highway, Nikko is like something out of a painting or maybe a Miyazaki movie: mist hanging over mountains, impossibly green forests, lush plant life everywhere that wasn’t paved over. There had been signs at both the train station and the hotel proclaiming the local tourism slogan: “Nikko is Nippon”, and it’s an interesting parallel to the U.S. Both countries are, by the numbers, largely urban and cosmopolitan (there are more World of Warcraft players than there are farmers in the USA), but their self-conceptions are still conspicuously rural: the heartland is still what people think of as the country’s center, even if increasingly few people live there any more.

After about half an hour’s walk, over a dramatically rock-strewn riverbed, we reached the shrine complex. Once again, I took more pictures than any sane human should: about 200. I’ll be posting them all eventually, but here’s a small sample:

At the Rinno-Ji temple, there was a structure that I can only describe as a Buddhist Rocket Ship: a pillar with four supports that is apparently filled with a thousand scrolls of Buddhist sutras. The pillar is called Sorinto:

Inside the Rinno-ji temple (and predictably off-limits for photos) were three of the largest gold buddhas I have ever seen in my life. They were an Amida Buddha flanked by two Kannon (Guanyin) Buddhas: the left one a Bato (“horse-head”) Kannon, and the thousand-armed Senju-Kannon on the right. Each Buddha was about 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, covered in gold leaf and sitting on a gold lotus flower. The statues were not at all far away: the dais they were on was about a foot in front of you, and the Buddhas towered above you. “Imposing” doesn’t even begin to cover the effect. (Some less respectful soul than me appears to have snuck a picture of the Amida Buddha statue here.)

One other thing that we were not able to take pictures of: in one of the outer temples of the Rinno-ji shine, we walked into a service in progress. A single monk in yellow robes was sitting on a dais in the middle of the temple, in front of a small brazier. While chanting and occasionally rapping on the dais with a metal hammer, he kept the fire fed by stacking on the wooden votive prayer boards that at various parts of the different shines had been offered with a brush for people to inscribe their prayers on. It was beautiful and hypnotizing to watch, and also was the answer to a small mystery: I’d been wondering over the course of the day what happened to all of the boards, which were hung by the thousands on stations at each shine. It was also impressive to watch the monk’s movements, since at no point did his long flowing robe sleeves burst into flame, which seemed like a distinct danger.

At the Tosho-gu shrine (a shrine built in the honor of the first Tokugowa Shogun by his son), one of the buildings is the Shainyosha stables, which is covered with relief carvings of monkeys. One of the panels is the original “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys, which was carved as an illustration of the principles of Tendai Buddhism:

Slight further down in the same temple complex is the tomb of the third Tokugawa shogun (the one who actually commissioned the entire complex), the entrance to which has a carving of a sleeping cat, the nemuri-neko. For some reason that neither our guidebooks nor anyone around was ever able to really adequately explain, the nemuri-neko is possibly the most famous thing in the entire temple complex: you have to pay an additional ¥520 to see it, and it’s surrounded by photographers at all times. I will allow that it is a very cute carving of a sleeping cat, but I’m not sure I got the appeal.

Less restrained (to put it mildly) is the entrance gate to the Tosho-gu memorial. And by “less restrained” I mean “completely over the top.”

One last shot of many, this is the entrance to the Taiyuin-byo shrine:

After three hours wandering from temple to temple, we were about shrined out. (There were some other highlights, but my ability to assign names to locations is poor: go read , I’m sure she’ll have more, with better and probably more accurate details.) The only other thing on our agenda in town was the Jizo path, but we weren’t entirely sure how to get there, so we wandered in to town and after getting turned around a bit finally found the tourist information center, where we were given directions by bus to the path.

The walk from the bus stop to the path was pretty gorgeous itself: passing through the outskirts of town, it entered a nature preserve around the local hydroelectric power station, which was a verdant forest around a dramatic ravine called the Gamman-ga-fuchi Abyss. The river was clear-to-blue mountain runoff, occasionally turning white as it rushed through rock formations that had apparently been cut by a lava flow several thousand (million?) years ago.

After walking through a small park that had another Buddhist rocket ship in it, we came to the Jizo path. The Jizo bodhisattva is the protector of women, children and travelers, and you’ll often find tiny statues of him in any wooded area in Japan. He is especially said to look after the souls of children who died young or were stillborn, and most of the statues will have a red cloth cape tied around them, and some small offerings and/or stones placed in front of him. The path alongside the ravine in Nikko has hundreds of Jizos:

…some nearly new, some old enough that their heads or their entire bodies have worn away:

In the damp woods, with the only sound coming from the rushing river below, the effect was quieting and even a little creepy. This was amplified by what we found on the way back: an ancient cemetery, with most of the stones covered by luminous green moss. Later at the hotel, we found out that this is the monks’ cemetery:

Back at the beginning of the path, we followed the river back into town. The river remained gorgeous:

Early July appears to be low season in Nikko, as the vast majority of restaurants and shops that we passed on the way in were closed up tight. We ended up at a place that the LP guide recommended: a okono-miyaki restaurant, which is a sort of cook-your-own savory pancake on a griddle that’s part of the table. Typically for any place that’s in LP it was overrun with british and australian tourists (really a danger in small towns where LP might be the only guide that an anglophone can get), but there were also a smattering of locals there, and the pancakes were tasty and filling.

From the restaurant, we took a cab back to the hotel, where I made a vain attempt to get all of my photos sorted, and quickly crashed out.

In the morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, which as previously noted is under a bit of an anglophone backpacker onslaught due to getting a Lonely Planet writeup. Our breakfast companion was a genuine eccentric: an older African-American man named Carl, who split his time between San Diego and Osaka, with a Japanese wife who spoke very little English (Carl appeared to be fluent in Japanese). Carl was wearing a yarmulke, and claimed to be a convert to Orthodox Judaism. He apparently taught in a private school in San Diego (we never quite ascertained what), but spent most of his vacation time in Japan, and was hoping to move there permanently. Carl was a bit of a conversational monopolist, peppering us with questions about our opinions on various aspects of American politics, which we fielded as best we could: I got the impression that despite his professed love of Japan (and his relief at “not having to wear a .45 to walk outside”, which was a little puzzling given what I know of San Diego), that he was a bit homesick: certainly I can’t imagine that there’s much of a community of Black Jewish Nipponophiles for him to connect with, here or in the states.

After breakfast, we packed up and were efficiently delivered to the train station by the hotel’s minivan. Now we’re on the train to Matsumoto. To be continued.

a timeless question, answered

Who likes short shorts?

Why, every woman under the age of 25 in all of Japan appears to like short shorts.

And now you know.

oh no, there goes Tokyo…

Monday morning was blessedly much cooler and there was even an occasional drop of rain against our window. We woke up and bid a sad farewell to the glass-walled shower, the electronic toilet seat, the king-sized bed and most of all the astonishing view of our room in Shibuya. Quickly repacking our bags, we found that we actually had a little time to kill before grabbing the train up to Nikko, so we decided to do something a little shameful. We’d noticed that there was a coffee counter overlooking Shibuya crossing from the second floor of one of the facing department store buildings. The only problem was that it was… a Starbucks.

Quick digression: a lot of people have a (to my mind) slightly weird anti-Starbucks obsession. Me, I don’t get it: sure, the coffee is a little over-roasted to my taste (although not by much: back when I drank coffee I always liked it a little on the heavy side), and sure their omnipresence is a little creepy sometimes, but as a former resident of Manhattan, I have to appreciate the fact that Starbucks has become the de facto clean attended public restroom system that New York City so desperately needed, and whatever one’s qualms with their coffee there’s no denying that the average quality of New York coffee was substantially worse before their arrival. Plus they offer health insurance to food service workers and pay them above minimum wage, and if you think that’s small change you can have my old shift at the Great Barrington Burger King. So no, I don’t fear the green…

…but going into an American chain restaurant while in a foreign country has always struck me as an admission of defeat. Still: location, location, location — they had the space we wanted to be in, so we bought a latte, a tea, a muffin and a scone, and walked up the stairs to watch the flow of people. Interestingly, Shibuya crossing during rush hour on a Monday morning wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it had been on the weekend. I can only assume that most of Tokyo’s schools and office jobs are elsewhere, and the department stores and boutiques of Shibuya are really more of a weekend destination:

Finishing our food (and sadly I have to note that the pre-made food in the Japanese Starbucks are substantially worse than their emrican brethern: given the astounding average quality of just about every bit of baked goods we’ve so far had anywhere else in Japan, I’m a little puzzled as to how they managed this), we returned to the hotel, checked out, and took the metro over to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Utsonomiya, and from there the JR line to Nikko.

I’ve already rhapsodized about the Shinkansen, so permit me to ramble a bit about the Tokyo Metro system. The question, with apologies to Stephen Colbert, is simple: is it merely a great metro, or is it the greatest metro? And I’m honestly not sure. There are a few crazy-making things about it: it’s comprised of multiple interlocking independent systems, and tickets for the Tokyo lines aren’t valid on the Toei lines, nor on the in-city JR lines nor vice-versa. It doesn’t run for 24 hours, which is a little surprising in a city of Tokyo’s size. During rush hour, it’s unbelievably crowded.

…but those are all complaints that really can only be made inside the context of the system itself. It’s not perfect, but is any other metro system better? Certainly none of them are bigger: by the number of passengers, stations and lines, Tokyo outclasses even New York and London. And even holding aside the incredible density and coverage, it simply works astonishingly well: the trains and stations are spotlessly clean, and the trains arrive at an astounding pace. Except for the time that we tried to take a train at 5am, I don’t think we ever waited more than three minutes for a subway. And nothing ever seems to break down. New York has the advantage of being 24-hours, the Paris Metro is perhaps prettier (Moscow’s certainly is), but mechanical failures are a frequent thing in both systems, and if you asked either of them to carry the same number of passengers at the same speed as Tokyo’s commuters are used to, they would shatter into a million pieces.

And for a metro system in a country with a language spoken and written basically nowhere else on earth, they’ve made it incredibly easy for tourists to navigate: stations are numbered as well as named, and the signs in the stations make use of that to make it visually obvious in what direction each track leads. Plus there are overhead signs that alternate between Japanese and English, and most of the train lines have crystal-clear audible announcements in both languages. I tried to think of what it might be like for a Japanese tourist to navigate San Francisco’s transit system, and nearly died of embarrassment.

Yeah, actually, maybe the greatest.

Oh god, I just spent four paragraphs talking about trains again. Right, on to Nikko.

Shibuya Rock City

The streetlamps in Shibuya sing to you. This is not a crappy metaphor: there are loudspeakers in the streetlights in Shibuya, and they play J-pop at you as you walk past them.

Ah, Shibuya. We’d thought that Harajuku was the epicenter of madness. How wrong we were.

After getting back, we took an hour in the hotel room to cool off, rehydrate, recharge the camera batteries (ahem) and ourselves. From our window, we could see our next destination: Shibuya. We could also see… a soccer game?

Girding ourselves for battle, we descended into the fray. If you’ve ever seen a modern movie (even an animated one) about Japan, you’ve probably seen Shibuya crossing: it’s a huge, 4-way intersection which alternates between a large auto interchange and a pedestrian free-for-all every few minutes. The car streetlights all turn red, the crosswalk lights all turn green, and underneath more neon and LED signage than you ever thought existed, easily ten thousand people surge across the huge intersection in all directions. And then a few minutes later, it happens again. Times Square, Trafalgar Square, the Arc d’Triomphe — none of these even remotely compare.

At the corner we were crossing toward was another noted Tokyo phenomenon: the scary right wing ranting sound truck. Apparently there are dozens of these things set up at various junctions in Tokyo all the time, allowing various nationalist politicians to harangue passers-by for hours on end. This one was loud enough to be heard above the din of the crossing, but of course I have no idea what particular sect they were advocating for:

Our first destination was the 109. (Actually the 109-2, but who’s counting?) What’s the 109?

Well okay. After a few days in Tokyo, it’s impossible not to notice that the Japanese use roman languages (primarily English, but also chunks of French and German) much the way that some westerners use the Chinese alphabet: for decoration, largely independent of any grammatical sense or meaning. Specifically, you cannot throw a rock in Tokyo (if you were so insanely rude as to be throwing rocks) without hitting at least two, possibly three (ricochets being what they are) people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a completely incomprehensible phrase or two in English. (“Do Not Be Influenced by Feeling Black Lady”, passim.)

…and one of the interesting side-effects, for me, of being rendered instantly illiterate by being in an Asian country is that I’m constantly scanning my visual field for any written communication in an alphabet I recognize. In Tokyo, as often as not there’s a hit, but it’s usually on a t-shirt with a phrase that makes no sense whatsoever. After several days of this happening several times per block, I’d come to hypothesize about the existence of a Great Engrish T-Shirt Shopping Mall, a multi-story building filled with nothing but t-shirts with mysterious pseudo-English phrases on them.

Ladies and gentlemen, that shopping mall exists, and it’s called the 109 in Shibuya. Seven solid stories of mutilated English silk-screened onto cotton for $30-60 per shirt. Each floor packed to the gills with stylish Japanese teenagers, occasionally dragging their confused-looking parents in tow. If Tokyo’s youth culture is a particle accelerator, this is where the beam hits the ball, and heretofore undiscovered quanta of fashion are emitted.

For instance:

Yes, those are men’s (we think) briefs with “I (smile) KY” emblazoned on them. There was a moment where I actually found myself considering them, until I looked at the price tag, and realized that $40 was a little much for briefs that I could only really consider wearing at Pride.

109-2 is actually, unbelievably, the annex to the primary 109 building (into which we never gathered the strength to venture), but it’s also the only one of the two buildings with mens’ clothing, and I actually found a pair of metallic red leather shoes which (miracle of miracles) fit me, and I came painfully close to blowing more money than I care to mention on them. Luckily, common sense intervened.

After making our way through all seven stories of the 109, we shocked ourselves by actually managing to navigate to our next destiation: Pink Dragon, the rockabilly shopping mall.

The Pink Dragon is architecturally mad even by Tokyo standards: on the outside, it’s an L.A. Art Deco style building with pink accents. On the inside, um:

…and yes, it’s a rockabilly shopping mall, for all your rockabilly needs, from leather jackets to Elvis-emblazoned Zippo lighters. It’s also the home of Cream Soda records, one of Tokyo’s oldest rockabilly labels, and I picked up one of their samplers before leaving. I’ll report back when I can.

Our next planned amusement in Shibuya was to find “love hotel hill” and poke through some of the establishments there, but on the way we (well, really “I”) got distracted by the entrance to Mandarake:

Mandarake is Japan’s largest comic book store, and it’s a veritable labyrinth of manga To reach it you have to walk down about four flights of dimly- or strobe-lit stairs…

…until you finally emerge, blinking, into the enormous, sprawling basement, every inch of which is packed with manga, anime and figurines. The pretty-gay-boy manga section alone was larger than most comic book stores in America. Just idly browsing the racks and looking for the elevators back up took about half an hour.

No crucified Ultramen though. Maybe that’s more of an Akihabara thing.

Finally, we hit our objective: love hotel hill. We picked a likely-seeming place at random (called “Shibuya Strawberry Jam”), and made our way down a brightly lit set of stairs in search of the lobby, which various guides assured us would be full of garish pictures of the themed rooms for rent.

Instead, what we found was a pair of panick-stricken Japanese men who immediately started shouting “Japanese only!” at us the moment we walked into view, and staring oddly at Miranda Oops, this was not a love hotel, this was an actual brothel, the likes of which normally employ enormous bouncers to keep whitey (and blacky and browny and probably Korean-y and Chinese-y as well) very far away: apparently it was early enough that the bouncers hadn’t set up shop yet, and we caught them by surprise. We beat a hasty retreat, but I snapped a photo in their stairwell, just because:

Around the corner, we found the actual love hotels, which functioned as promised: walk in, see pictures of rentable rooms. This one was all art deco and art modern-style rooms, and if we hadn’t already had a perfectly nice hotel room of our own, we might have been tempted:

Our Shibuya missions accomplished, we trekked back to the hotel in time to shower off the inch-thick layer of sweat and sunblock, and change into nicer clothes for dinner: the Cerulean Tower is the home of “Szechuan Restaurant Chen,” the flagship restaurant of former Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi, and this was to be the site of our one semi-extravagent restaurant dinner in Tokyo.

We ordered a la carte, so since there weren’t menus to take away, this will be from error-prone memory. We had the day’s special appetizer, which was a combination plate of a few slices of what I think were pickled pigs ears (kind of like a crunchy/chewy head cheese: I liked it, but I suspect this wouldn’t be to many westerners’ tastes), a piece of steamed pork in some sort of peppery sauce which was good but not necessarily memorable in any way, and a small pot of what appeared to be fungi in some sort of egg or soy custard: since “egg or soy custard” is pretty much kryptonite to my palate, I had one of the mushrooms (which were excellent) and let Miranda finish the rest. Her appetizer (which I stole quite a bit of) was “steamed chicken in hot and spicy flavor sauce”, which was perfectly steamed chicken in a red pepper sauce that certainly qualified as “spicy” in the sense of being strongly spiced, but didn’t really register as “hot” to me.

My entree was “smoked Szechuan duck,” and was fantastic: a smoked duck breast (finished, I think, by searing or broiling, since the skin was a little crispy and the fat layer underneath not too thick), sliced thin like salami, with some mixed greens and pancakes to eat it with. As good as the duck was, Miranda had spicy eggplant cooked with minced pork, and that was probably the winner of the night: spicy enough to bring at least a little flush to my face, the eggplant was perfectly done and only restraint kept me from licking the bowl after she was done.

For dessert, Miranda had coconut ice cream, and after a small linguistic dance with the waitress in which we ascertained that first, second and third choices were off, off, and “twenty minutes to prepare” respectively, I crossed my fingers and ordered the “dessert special”, which was presented to me as “chinese wine pudding,” and indeed was an oddly grey-colored pudding with a bit of caramel and a preserved plum on top. I tasted it with a little apprehension (pudding textures can be touch-and-go for me), and as god is my witness, “chinese wine pudding” was, in fact, Maotai pudding. And even stranger, Maotai pudding turned out to be really good.

I’m a little hesitant to offer an opinion of the food per se: we got what looked good to us, not necessarily what the kitchen considered its specialties. So take this for whatever it’s worth: what was had was very very good, but it wasn’t the same sort of imaginative brilliance we had at, to pick an example at not-at-all-random, Morimoto in Philadelphia. This was top-of-the line Sichuan cuisine, done to Japanese standards, meaning no bones in the meat and despite the enormous decorative bowl filled to overflowing with red chilis in the restaurant entrance, not actually very hot. As a night out, it was good if a little oddly paced: one waiter was refilling our water glasses after practically every swallow, but our primary server took about 15 minutes to take our dessert orders after our entrees were cleared — but to be fair we were the only westerners there and I have no idea if this was simply a difference in how service is expected to proceed in Japan. If I went again, I’d probably order one of the chefs-choice menus and let the kitchen take a bit more control— and I’d certainly go again if the opportunity arose.

The meal over, we went back to our room to plot the next day’s journey to Nikko. Being dressed in good clothes and not wanting to go back outside into the soup to get our JR tickets, I had the brilliant idea of asking the hotel concierge to use the JR website to make our reservations for us. This was probably a good idea in theory, but it turns out that you can’t book JR Rail Pass tickets via the web or over the phone, and it took longer for the increasingly flustered and apologetic concierge to figure this out than it eventually did for me to skip out of the hotel, down three blocks to Shibuya station and over to the JR ticket counter to pick them up myself. I get the impression that the Cerulean does not get a lot of the American backpacker trade, and fair enough really.

Finally back in our room, we watched the pretty lights until it was time to go to sleep:

Wild Zero (Yoyogi Park, Harajuku)

(metanote for those following via livejournal: lots of cuts? one big cut? no cuts at all? I normally only cut for really big images, on the theory that long text scrolls are what the page-down button is made for, but I know I’m being pretty verbose here, and I’m happy to cater to people’s needs. Anyway, trying the ‘lots of cuts’ approach this time.)

Sunday morning found us rolling out of bed at the inhumanly late hour of 8am. Perhaps not quite fully on local time, but at least our nightlife expedition led to us being asleep during hours that could be more or less described as “night.” Since we were changing hotels, we packed up as quickly as we could, and lugged our bags onto the metro and over to Shibuya station. From there, it took us a mere 20 minutes of staring at the street atlas and asking several people for directions until we found our new hotel, which was merely a 40-story tower looming over Shibuya with its name emblazoned on the top.

At the hotel, there was a moment of true, heart-stopping terror: after an agonizingly long time of watching the desk clerk try to find our reservation, a lightbulb suddenly went on over his head, he looked carefully at our receipt, and reprovingly informed us that our reservation had been for last night. There was pretty much nothing to do but put on our best stupid gaijin faces and blame Orbitz furiously, which I suspect would all have availed us nothing, except that mid-July was apparently low season there, and the hotel had a room they could give us at close to the same rate. Thus was mercy amply dispensed. (As far as I can figure out, what actually happened was that I’d made the reservation back when we thought that the 5th would be our last night in Tokyo, and when we decided to take an extra night there, I never remembered to move the reservation. Um, oops.)

Our room wasn’t going to be ready until 2pm, and it was still only around 10, so we did a bit of quick on-the-spot repacking (undoubtedly annoying the hell out of every other person in the lobby, of whom there were mercifully few), gave our larger bags to the bellhop, and headed back out into the heat towards the day’s objectives: Yoyogi park, home of cosplayers and rock bands, and Harajuku, Tokyo’s notorious youth fashion district.

By this time, the fact that I’d only had a light dinner the night before and that it was now after 10am and I’d had no breakfast was beginning to take its toll. I managed to walk into the Metro without even noticing the teeming insanity of Shibuya crossing right next to me, and what was supposed to be a leisurely stroll from Omotesando station to the park was done with gritted teeth, clutching my bag of pastries that we’d grabbed at Shibuya station, and sweating buckets.

Did I mention the heat? Tokyo is famously uncomfortable in the summer, but for the first few days it hadn’t been that bad: warm and humid to be sure, but only in the low-to-mid 80s or so. No worse than Zurich had been, and nothing on (say) an August day in Manhattan. On Sunday though, Tokyo let us know that it had just been toying with us and put the spurs in: it was easily 90 in the shade, and so humid that the line between walking and swimming was uncomfortably blurred. I have to say: I haven’t missed this kind of weather at all, and will be perfectly happy to go back to chilly, foggy San Francisco when the moment comes.

Somehow we managed to make it into the park without me completely deliquescing, and we grabbed a shaded park bench so I could wolf down my food. This improved my outlook on life about a thousandfold, and I actually took notice of the fact that I was in a lovely urban park and there were things happening around me. Just down the sidewalk, Yoyogi’s famous rock and roll bands were setting up their generators and their drumsets. One band was even playing a first set, but they were being drowned out by the noise of what appeared to be a stand-up Taiko drum troupe twenty feet away from them.

One thing we hadn’t really seen any of were cosplayers, and from looking at the Time Out and Lonely Planet books, it was a little unclear if we were in the right place for them. As we were contemplating our next move, a Japanese kid with a north american (Canadian, it turned out) accent came up to us to hit us up for a donation for what he claimed was earthquake relief in China. We were a little dubious (Tokyo is not heavy on tourist-scamming, but the whole pitch sounded really sketchy), but I gave him some of my loose coinage, and Miranda sussed that he was about the right age and asked him where the cosplayers would be found. The answer, apparently, was not really much of anywhere: there were a few of them left by the pedestrian bridge, but “really it’s been pretty dead all year.” Apparently Tokyo’s ever-churning youth culture has mostly moved on.

Oh well, cosplay or no, it was time to start exploring Yoyogi. Figuring we’d come back to the bands once they were a little more geared up, we first wandered through what appeared to be a combination flea market and Earth Day fare, where we found that even Tokyo has hippies:

Next, the park’s centerpiece: the memorial shrine to the Emperor Meiji. The shine is vast, kind of a park within the park: it’s a five minute walk up a carefully tended gravel pathway (three car-lanes wide) until you arrive at the entry torii, which is easily 30 feet tall, made out of Japanese cypress trees:

On the way up the path, there was a sign pointing to “restrooms, cafe, gift shop and wedding arrangers”, and if that last one sticks out a little, well…

Weddings at the Meiji shrine turned out to be very popular. We saw no less than three (possibly four; it got a little hard to keep track after a while) wedding processions going on, of which the bride above was part of the first. She was standing on a pillow, being laboriously sewn into the outer sections of her kimono, while a small horde of tourists (not to mention the official wedding photographers) snapped away. Eventually, her husband joined her.

It was at this point that a minor catastrophe struck: my camera battery expired. I’d forgotten to charge it the night before, and apparently 600 shots without a recharge is its limit. Oops. I dug in my pocket for my little handheld camera, but that one was out of juice as well. Sensing my incipient panic, Miranda was kind enough to loan me hers.

After watching another several weddings walk by, we headed back out to the park proper to sample some street food: chicken yakitori skewers in my case, and fried octopus balls for Miranda:

Next to where we were sitting and eating, a Britney/Janet/Abdul-esque dance troupe was practicing their moves:

Then it was time to wander Yoyogi park in a daze. Yoyogi is a pretty quintessentially Tokyo experience: it’s complete sensory overload. Down a sidewalk path, what appears to be every rock band in the city has set up all of their amps and drum kits, and is putting on shows right next to each other. They manage to stagger the songs such that the bands don’t completely drown each other out, but it’s still pretty cacophonous. I wandered down the length of the rock’n’roll sidewalk, and some of the bands were actually pretty good. The only one who’s name I managed to get was the slightly improbable Venomstrip: a trip to venoms? A strip of venom? Hard to say, but they gave it their all:

Closer to the park’s entrance was the rockabilly area, and there was some serious dedication to fashion going on there. The temperature felt like it was cracking 100f at this point, and the air could charitably be described as “soupy,” but that didn’t stop these guys from flying the colors — and in this case, the colors were “black,” “black” and “more black.” Even from a few meters away, sweat was visibly running off them, but that didn’t stop them from pulling on the leathers and putting eggwhites in their pompadours:

…and as if what they were wearing wasn’t heatstroke-inducing enough, a group of them set up a boombox playing Chuck Berry and proceeded to do, yes, the Twist again:

Heading out toward the park towards Harajuku, we passed what apparently is the bitter dregs of Tokyo’s cosplay scene. Interestingly , a good 25-33% of the kids in costume were caucasian. Dunno if they were tourists, exchange students or residents, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this ratio officially marked the cosplay phenomenon as over:

From there, we walked to Harajuku, which is where the descent into total madness began. Harajuku street is like… wow, what is it like? Take St. Marks Place in Manhattan, combine it with Rodeo Drive in L.A., add in a dash of the Upper Haight in San Francisco and South Street in Philadelphia. Mix them all together, compress them down into a ball of degenerate matter, load them into a railgun and fire them straight into a wall built of Hello Kitty. The resulting mile-long crater would strongly resemble Harajuku, only it would probably be quieter and have fewer people in it.

Harajuku is where Tokyo’s 10,000kph youth culture goes to see, be seen, and buy new outfits. And holy god, the outfits. Picking two random examples out of thousands of completely insane stores, we have “Wonder Rocket”, the Alice in Wonderland themed clothing store, the mere sight of which would have made Lewis Carroll die of priapism:

And then about a block or so later, we found… this:

Never quite figured out the name, but it was like a head-on collision between Patricia Field, Vivienne Westwood and a paint factory:

The streets were a surging sea of Tokyo’s 16-to-25 set, with fully costumed greeters outside every store shouting “Irryashimae!” as loudly as possible, perhaps the most impressive of which were these two, who had to be nearly melting in the heat:

After about six blocks of Harajuku, we’d had more than enough, so we took a quick detour over to the Togo Shine, where Miranda had read that there was a flea market going on every weekend. The market was still mostly setting up when we got there, but the shrine is, yes, to that Togo, so it afforded this astonishing shot:

Also at the shrine was… another wedding:

By this point, it was nearing 3pm, and we were tired and dehydrated. Time to head back to our hotel, claim our room, and explore Shibuya. Which will be the next chapter.