Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tokyo, Japan Part I: Sumo Fights and Neon Lights

As the Backstreet Boys might insinuate, Tokyo is "Larger Than Life." While that joke might only appeal to a small populous of late '80s and early '90s babies, it's safe to argue that Tokyo has a universal appeal. It's a city that ranks at the top of every travellers hit-list. I've had an aching to visit Tokyo since about the time I recognized the wonder and value of travel itself. I live in Seoul, an enormous city in its own right, and yet Tokyo just felt so much bigger. I don't necessarily even mean that it felt bigger in land mass or population, but just bigger in scale. When I arrived at Narita Airport, I had this image pop into my head. I visualized an upscale fashion T-Shirt that generally lists 5 cities on it. Those 5 cities are respectively "New York, London, Rome, Paris, Tokyo." I believe this is really an attestation to the fact that these cities are really now larger than the sum of their parts. They have become symbolic in society, and have become idealized as a statement on human progress for a variety of different reasons. I've visited 4 of these 5 cities, and can aptly suggest that Tokyo rightfully belongs to this grouping. It's an enormous check-mark on my travel bucket-list, and a city that will be revered (understandably) for the foreseeable future. I can spend all day describing this mysterious metropolis, but Tokyo is simply Tokyo.

As per usual, the adventure begins in the early depths of morning as Bri and I head off to catch the shuttle to Incheon Airport. Early bird gets the worm, and early flier gets the deal. We stepped onto the bus to realize that, somehow, it was full to the brim with passengers. Luckily, on the rafters we spotted miniature folding chairs that you could place in the aisles - think kindergarten size. Nonetheless, as it's Korea, the rest of the bus filled up to the brim, and so we were relieved to have our tiny stools in the end. We dealt with the prescribed airport shenanigans, and boarded our eccentric plane heading from the peninsula of Korea to the island of Japan. I refer to this specific plane as eccentric as the cabin was lined with joyous characters who were certainly drawn with an Asian pencil. Asian characters tend to hold all of the expression in their eyes, while somehow managing to not have any eyes at all. You may notice from the picture that a batman character even made a guest appearance on this flight, and on the other side of the plane you could have witnessed a little alien character. I've flown on more flights than I can remember, but leave it to a Korean airline (EastarJet) to give me a flight in a plane I'll never forget.
We arrived at Narita Airport (no big surprise there), and proceeded to hop on the metro that would lead us into the heart of Tokyo. I am always amazed at how many cities have the metro connected to their airport. It makes logical sense, so based on that premise, Toronto withholds no logic. A city like Toyko or Seoul has over a dozen comprehensive subway lines, and Toronto has a mere 2. It's really something of an embarrassment as far as I'm concerned. I attribute this lack of development to a certain stigma that we have of the metro in North America, and more specifically in Toronto. For example, you see the elderly riding the subway in Tokyo and Seoul simply because it's an effective means of transportation. However, if you heard word that your grandma rode the TTC to your house in Toronto, then you would immediately be up in arms about why she wasn't driven. The metro is an effective means of transportation, nothing more and nothing less. North America, in my opinion, is the only developed continent that emphasizes the use of the car more than the metro. I think it's emblematic of the fact that we also place more value on the individual, rather than the collective goal of society. Rants aside, we arrived in the revered cultural area known as Asakusa one hour later ready to explore. Well, more accurately, ready to buy an umbrella, and then explore.

Although the weather was less than stellar, I'm careful not to place much emphasis on it. If it's sunny, you have the opportunity to experience certain outdoor gems around the city. Moreover, if it's raining, then you have the opportunity to discover galleries or museums that you may have otherwise bypassed. I've generally been lucky with weather when travelling (except for that typhoon in Hong Kong, and the volcano eruption in Iceland which disrupted European travel like the plague), so I'm generally happy to just deal with whatever weather comes my way. The first order of business was to get some delicious Japanese food in my ever-hungry belly, and then find our way to the hostel through the misty drizzle. With my stomach full of Udon, and my bag safely in the hostel it was time to go and find out why we chose Asakusa over other prominent areas of Japan. I should first mention that our hostel, called Khaosan Tokyo Kabuki, was absolutely fantastic (http://bit.ly/Irecommendthishostel). As you may have guessed from the customized link that I posted, I couldn't possibly recommend this hostel any more. It has an excellent location, passionate staff, impressive facilities, and all around good vibe.

We found ourselves in the heart of Asakusa when we left the doors of our hostel, so we spent a little bit of time familiarizing ourselves with the surrounding area. I also recently bought a new camera (Nikon S8200), and was inclined to try out some of the new settings. As we were heading towards Sanja-sama "Shrine of the Three Gods", I focused the lens on red, and ended up with an intriguing bi-product. It may also be noted that you could focus a lens on red just about anywhere in Tokyo, and end up with a pleasing result.Soon after, the rain persuaded us to visit one of the seemingly innumerable museums in Tokyo. We chose the Tokyo National Museum, as it seemed to have a great reputation, and a national museum is never a bad place to start when visiting a country. It's the oldest and largest museum in Japan and the exterior was certainly quite impressive. However, I'd have to say that, overall, it was a tad underwhelming. This may be due to the fact the Korean National Museum in Seoul was so utterly impressive, but I wasn't blown away. I was, however, fascinated by the intricate kimonos, Buddhist sculptures, and impressive ancient art. I have to say that I probably have a greater affinity for Japanese art than Korean art. There seems to be more room for expression, creativity, and individualism. I was perhaps most blown away by the exhibition on metal-works, specifically from the Edo period (1603-1868). Simply imagining how much time and devotion each of those pieces would have taken is enough to put you in awe. I suppose time seems a lot more fleeting now, as if there is an imaginary sense of urgency imposed by nobody at all. I was able to snap a few relatively clear photos of specific works that I found particularly striking.
Seated Senju Kannon Bosatsu (14th Century - Nanbokucho Period)

On the way back to our hostel we stopped in at Ameyoko Arcade, or what I like to call "the pinnacle of madness and chaos." It appeared to be something of a Japanese casino with miniscule leaden balls as currency. Deafening noises pulsed through the air at an unnecessary decibel, and the sheer pace of life inside the arcade was enough to make you dizzy. I feel as if the way it was all tied into casual fun through the presence of anime characters and games promoted some sort of acceptance for this form of addictive gambling. It was mayhem in its finest form.
A few stops later on the efficient Tokyo Metro and we were right back where we started. Back at the hostel, we formulated an ingenious plan for getting tickets to the Sumo World Championships the following day. We would set the alarm for 4:15am, then make the early morning trek to the stadium and camp out for the remaining tickets that were available to the public. However, it was still the night, so first we were due to stop at the Izakaya (Japanese drinking establishment) for some Yakatori (meat skewers) and Sake (no description necessary).
Japanese Izakaya in Asakusa District. Quite possibly my favourite photo from Tokyo.

It's a little easier to digest an early wake up when you have an enticing cause. I could never manage to wake up on time for school, but you better believe I'll be the first in line at the Sumo Tournament. It was a unique opportunity to view an uninterrupted and pure taste of raw Japanese culture. Another unique side product of walking there so early was viewing a calmer side of Tokyo. Tokyo is a city that is bustling to say the least, and we found ourselves almost completely alone. It was almost reminiscent of a scene from the movie 28 Days Later where you try to figure out where the rest of civilization has gone off to. As the sun began to poke its anxious head through the clouds, we arrived in line. We were certainly the first foreigners camped out there, and ended up drawing #5, and #6 of hundreds of tickets given out to championship that day. It's all about dedication when it comes to travel, and I know that Bri and I felt that we simply couldn't miss this opportunity. We bought a towel from a convenience store, put it over our legs, fired up "The Sopranos" on Bri's iPod, and happily waited through the wee hours of the brisk Japanese morning. I can't actually recall ever camping out for several hours for tickets previously, but it was completely and utterly worth it to camp out for these tickets, as I would find out only hours later. Just looking at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Pavillion) filled my cold body with warm jitters.

We arranged to meet two fellows from England and France at the front gate around 2pm, so we had some time to visit some sights, and thus cross them off our ambitious sightseeing list (there actually was a long physical list, and Bri even colour coded it). We found ourselves in Harajuku which is probably the equivalent of a "hipster-meets-high-fashion" neighborhood of any respective city. On weekends, eccentric Tokyoites are known to flock to Jingu Bridge for a bizarre costumed affair. It's not particularly my thing, but I can appreciate it for the fact that this type of individualism is rarely seen in Korea.
Ryoguku Kokugikan had a raging crowd outside when we arrived. People lined up to get pictures of their beloved sumo stars, and the energy was palpable. We rendezvoused with the two gentleman we had met earlier, Attiq and Julien (who were from Korea, and turned out to be great companions), and headed into the enormous Ryoguku Kokugikan. I was quick to buy a calender with hilarious and suggestive photos of sumo wrestlers, after which we went and found our seats. The stadium was nothing short of astounding, and I knew then and there that this would be an afternoon for the books. A sumo tournament without Asahi(a popular Japanese beer) and Sake is like swimming without water; it just doesn't make logical sense. So, we quickly stocked up for the upcoming matches. I can honestly say that going to this tournament was one of the best decisions I have ever made while travelling. It was like the World Series of Sumo, but it somehow felt like that inside the pavillion. I'll never be able to experience something like that again, and there's something special about knowing that, even during the tournament itself. We rented little radios for the occasion to get the inside scoop on an English broadcast, and then let the sumo wrestlers do what they do best - wrestle (well maybe they are better at eating, but then it's undoubtedly wrestling).
As the pictures may have already suggested, it was an experience like no other. It's one of those stories that will ensure that I am the cool grandfather with a whole bunch of tales from "back in my day". After taking it all in, all four of us headed off to Shibuya Crossing, which is often thought of as the Times Square of Tokyo. Where Ameyoko Arcade was deafening, the bright lights of Shibuya were blinding, but pleasantly so, on both accounts. A great Aussie friend of mine, Neil, who I met while living in Norway recommended a standing sushi bar, so there we headed. We actually more or less stumbled upon it, but it didn't change the fact that it was arguably the best sushi that has ever graced my stomach (and that is saying something, considering I cause all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant owners to quiver in their boots upon my entrance to their establishments back in Toronto). Filled, appropriately, with Sake and Sushi we headed off to make our night even more Japanese. Tokyo isn't Tokyo without your fill of Karaoke. Well, I'm going to conclude "Part One" before I put everyone to sleep (especially my Grandma, who is easily my most important reader). If you think we'd been busy thus far, then stay tuned for the blog on the rest of the trip. But, as they say, more on that later.

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