Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tokyo, Japan Part II: The Saga in the Land of Sega

We woke up to the pitter-patter of rain against the rickety Japanese paper windows. With a subtle hangover, I turned on the heat for the water and proceeded to hop into the shower for what would be my morning resurgence. The shower is always the short window of time where you can reflect on the previous day's events, yet simultaneously prepare yourself for the events to unfold that day. I find that I think the most clearly in the midst of a foggy shower. Afterward, Bri and I grabbed breakfast with Ken (a pleasant character from Ireland who had previously taught in Korea), and then headed toward Tokyo Station which, as the station name suggests, is as good a place as any to start an ambitious day as a tourist.
We began our day by sauntering around the grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. It's really more of tourist area than a specific tourist site. It is more reminiscent of a park, and the entire area spans a little over 7 kilometres. I can only speculate that during the Japanese property bubble of the 1980's, this piece of land would have superseded the real estate value of entire countries. The area currently withholds the main residence of the Emperor of Japan and his family. Judging by the visiting restrictions, the lives of the royal family are kept under considerably more secrecy than their British counterparts. Unlike Britain, I wouldn't imagine that you would find scandalous tabloid headlines written by a slew of sleazy magazines across the nation. It was certainly a nice visit to the Imperial Palace, but I've been lucky enough to see some prominent palaces around the world (Vienna and Budapest come to mind), and taking pictures of exterior gates and bridges in Tokyo can really only go so far. Nonetheless, it would be a far cry to suggest that I was disappointed in the slightest at any point during my visit to Tokyo. The nearby Tokyo International Forum afforded us a glance at some truly impressive architecture before we moved on to the next destination on our exhaustive Tokyo "To-Do" list.

Ginza District was calling our name, but unfortunately the sky was providing the rain to make that call a little less enticing. Ginza is an area that screams at the top of its lungs about Tokyo's fashion dominance. It's Tokyo's version of Fifth Avenue, and upscale fashion companies seem to have also agreed on that fact. The shimmering lights and exotic facades of Dior, Gucci, Armani, Chanel and Louis Vuitton consume you, and your wallet too, if you'll let them. It can easily be included alongside some of the most luxurious shopping districts on the planet. While I didn't shop excessively, I did enjoy the Sony Building's impressive display of electronics and interactive exhibits that would leave any gadget hound drooling at the mouth. It would be an understatement to suggest that, between Korea and Japan, I have been technologically spoiled over the past 6 months. The teeming rain led us back down to Tokyo's vast underground metro, and thus we headed off to the up-and-coming area known as Roppongi.

The Roppongi area really began to garner some attention with the construction of Roppongi Hills. It's a revolutionary mega-complex built by Minoru Mori (Arguably Japan's foremost building tycoon) that includes a movie theatre, shops, apartments, restaurants, office space, a hotel, and several parks among many other things. The whole complex has re-conceptualized urban living and is headlined by the imposing 54-story Mori Tower. At the foot of the Mori Tower stands one of Canadian Louise Bourgeois' famous sculptures "Maman" (http://bit.ly/mamaninfo). I still vividly remember showing Ottawa's "Maman" to students outside the National Gallery when I guided tours for Keating by Explorica. I know Bri also vividly remembers this from her prolonged touring in our nation's capital, so this was a little bit of an added bonus for both of us. Walking out of the metro, I was immediately struck by the sight of Mori Tower. As the dark crept over Tokyo, I snapped a photo of Mori Tower that immediately reminded me of something out of Batman's fictional "Gotham City".
The ground floor of Mori Tower consisted of a full fledged miniature indoor shopping district, and of course Starbucks crawled their way in to get a piece of the corporate pie. However, Bri and I were heading far away from the ground floor Starbucks, about 52 floors away to be exact. We bought tickets for the exhibit premiering at the sky-high Mori Art Museum, and a few moments later were whisked on up in a state-of-the-art elevator. Before we had bought tickets, I'd viewed a few of the sample pieces in a brochure and was under the impression that the artist was a sort of modern manga or comic artist. I was baffled to find out that the artist began his illustrious career in the early 19th century. Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a great master of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and he explored a wide range of genres in his work. I can't recall a time I have been so utterly impressed and astounded by an exhibit. I spent several hours drifting through the immense showcase that encapsulated his entire career. I found myself taking note of at least a dozen different different pieces that really caught my eye. He was impressive, clever, and remarkable all at once. I usually pay my due diligence at museums and enjoy my visit, but this was really another experience altogether. I was constantly snickering to myself as I thought of all the famous European museums I had visited, and what artists from the same period had produced there. Kuniyoshi's work not only appeared before its time, but in many ways could still be relevant in today's society. I would highly recommend investigating his work further; Bri and I personally couldn't help buying two copies of a beautiful book, including his entire anthology, before leaving the Mori Art Museum. I couldn't find the exact images I was looking for, but here's a small sample of his work:
"Mitsukini Defying the Skeleton Spectre"

"Keyamura Rokusuke Under the Hikosan Gongen Waterfall."

"Men Join to Form a Man: Looks Fierce But Is Really Nice."

As I previously mentioned, I couldn't find the exact images I was looking for, but I believe these effectively illustrate Kuniyoshi's boundless imagination and creativity. I can almost guarantee you that you will find at least some of his work fascinating and perplexing. The third image above almost reminds me of Salvador Dali in the way the picture forces you to carefully decipher it, as well as effortlessly containing multiple layers of meaning through perspective (it's also particularly funny when you recognize that his nose is actually comprised of a man's outstretched bum). Before heading back down on the elevator, we enjoyed a drink atop the Mori Tower, and were mesmerized by the astounding views. Lights of all colours and strength shone brightly throughout the city and, strangely, gave Tokyo a visual pulse.
It occurred to me that someone from long, long ago might look at this scene and be completely baffled. Cars whip through the bright streets in between vibrant skyscrapers, as Tokyo fulfills its stereotype at a technological leader of the 21st century. We had a moment of peace and tranquility and then hopped back onto the subway, but this time aiming to arrive in the Shinjuku District (it would be interesting, in retrospect, to count the amount of times I entered and exited the subway while in Tokyo) .

Heavy waterlogged snowflakes were waiting for us on the exterior of Shinjuku Station. Apparently, Shinjuku Station is the busiest in the world, which makes sense because it's the largest transportation hub of, arguably, the largest city on the planet. However, the "Golden Gai" bars in the area couldn't have been more contrary to the vast station. Closet sized mini bars surround you on all sides as you try to navigate the narrow streets. It's not unusual to find a building that is composed entirely of mini-bars 5 floors high. Bri and I personally visited two of the bars in the area, and were the only customers on both occasions. In the first bar, we walked down a flight of stairs and into a peculiar little whiskey tavern. We made small talk with the bartender (very small talk due to language restrictions) in this quaint establishment, and were ultimately given some of the finest sake he had on the house. In the second bar, we made even smaller talk, but somehow ended up listening to him serenade us with his accordion behind the bar while we happily played the role of the audience. He was a truly remarkable accordion player, and I can't help thinking that it was undoubtedly a once in a lifetime experience, especially since he let us experiment with the accordion too. That will be a story I share with the grand-kids, which will hopefully seal my fate as the coolest grandfather on the block.

Our trip crept closer to its closing as we awoke once again in the confines of our Japanese hostel. However, this time it appeared that the weather may actually be promising. Beautiful blue winter skies were overhead and the air was as crisp as it comes. Taking advantage of the weather, we decided to explore our neighbourhood even further which led us to The Asakusa Shrine. Our exploration lead us to believe that, if nothing else, we certainly chose the perfect area in Tokyo to book our hostel. The temples located in the surrounding area were breathtaking and we found ourselves strolling through picturesque Japanese imperial gardens.
The itinerary for our last day in Tokyo was jam-packed to say the least, so we took one last deep breathe of the fresh winter air, and found ourselves back on the Tokyo Metro. The destination this time was Tsukiji Central Fish Market, which is surprisingly one of Tokyo's top tourist attractions. It is hands down the largest fish market on the planet and annually turns over about 700,000 metric tons of seafood for between 5-6 billion dollars. Bri and I went to see what it was all about, but I'd have to say that it was a tad underwhelming for me overall. I can directly attribute this to the fact that I've visited several mammoth fish markets around Korea. All in all, it's safe to say that most fish markets tend to resemble each other in some manner or another. Nonetheless, the sheer economics of this place are staggering enough to make it worth a visit.

On the move again, this time it was back to Harajuku to wander into the snowy forests and locate the Meiji Shrine. This shrine is widely considered to be Tokyo's finest, and I can do nothing but nod my head in agreement to that statement. This shrine commemorates the emperor and empress who were responsible for ending the paranoid isolationist policies, and reuniting Japan with the outside world. Bri and I took a charming walk through the surprisingly dense forestry and eventually happened upon the shrine area.
Acting as if it was "Shrine Day" in Tokyo, we suddenly found ourselves across the city at yet another shrine. This time it was the Hie Shrine, which is famous for its "Tunnel of Torii." The present site dates back to the middle of the 17th century, but it had to be rebuilt (like many things in Tokyo) post WWII. I felt like it was a uniquely Japanese experience to walk down the staircase and "through the tunnel," and I know that Bri and I both appreciated the ample photo opportunities.
The final stop of a day that effectively redefined the word "busy", was to the Akihabara District. Akihabara has long established itself as the headquarters of Tokyo's legendary technology and electronics. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and the neon lights were out in full force. In many ways, this is what you might mentally envision before ever stepping foot in Tokyo. Akihabara is a fast-paced district which thrives on the money of technology lovers and anime mania. It was almost bizarre to see the way in which the female anime characters had been made into objects of peculiar sexual obsession. However, It was something you couldn't possibly experience anywhere else in the world, and there is something to be said for that. Akihabara was sensory overload...perfected.
Well, I've finally completed the retelling of my saga in the land of Sega. Going to Japan actually taught me a lot about my life here in Korea. It illuminated the things that I appreciate in Korean society, but it also highlighted certain ways in which I felt Japan was superior. Illumination is never a bad thing though, and that's why I love travel so deeply. When you travel, you both consciously and unconsciously wave goodbye to ignorance. I've always found myself agreeing with a fellow by the name of Mark Twain when he stated, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." So, I do my best to avoid vegetating in Twain's aforementioned corner, and keep on trotting along. My mom might suggest that I never could stop moving, and I'm beginning to gleefully agree.

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