Sunday, January 31, 2010

Christmas in Tokyo

Statue of Liberty and the Rainbow Bridge

I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time over Christmas last month. And I didn't even go to New York.

Nope, I was able to see a miniature replica of Lady Liberty on Tokyo Bay. Who needs the Big Apple when you can go to the Big Mikan? (Mikan is what they call clementine oranges here.)

Joe and I spent three days in Tokyo over Christmas last month. We got a real kick-ass deal from a travel agency by our house — round trip shinkansen (bullet train) tickets plus three nights in a business hotel including breakfast and metro subway passes for two days, all for 35,000 yen a piece. At today's exchange rate of 90 yen to the dollar, that works out to around $390 per person. To put that in perspective, a round trip shinkansen ticket alone from Hiroshima to Tokyo usually runs around 37,000 yen ($412). So it's like we got a deal on the shink tickets and then hotel, breakfast and subway passes for Free. Yeah! Hotels in Tokyo are expensive, so you can imagine how psyched we were to get this deal.

We didn't go into Tokyo with any grand itinerary. We mainly wanted to walk around and do some sightseeing and eat a lot of international food, which is exactly what we did.

Here's a little about what we saw:

— Christmas lights

Tokyo has tons of pretty Christmas lights, which really helped to brighten up our holiday. Some of the prettiest ones were in Midtown, just a short walk from our hotel in Akasaka.

These blue lights changed formation in a kind of light show.

Lights display hanging overhead between buildings.

— Ginza

Ginza is Tokyo's upscale shopping district. While I'm not the type to window shop or buy obscenely overpriced luxury clothes, I still wanted to see it just to see it.

Disco mannequins in Ginza

We poked our heads in a couple shops, including the brand new Abercrombie & Fitch that had just opened. My Japanese teacher had told me about this while we were planning the trip, telling me with astonishment that the men in this store were shirtless. So I wasn't entirely surprised to see middle-aged women lining the sidewalk waiting to get into the store, a skinny eight-story tall building. Hoping to find a cadre of chiseled, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian boys, I waited patiently to get in. No Norwegian boys in sight, unfortunately, though there was a shirtless Japanese guy with a six-pack getting his picture taken with customers. While this could have made a memorable souvenir, I had to take a pass due to the overpowering stink of Abercrombie's crappy cologne and duck out as quickly as I could. Oh well.

Lunch was German beer and sausages in a restaurant across the street from Abercrombie, where we were seated in our own private booth. It was in a cozy little room with a sliding wooden door carved with a design with spaces in it so you could have privacy yet still see through to the restaurant outside. This place was great, and I was tempted to spend all afternoon there drinking way too much beer.

— The Skyline

Not the chili. For incredible night views of the city we headed to the observation deck on the top floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (City Hall), which actually was next to the Keio Plaza Hotel, where we stayed after first landing in Japan. It felt like a lifetime since we'd arrived at the Keio, blurry eyed from jet lag and senses on overload in such a foreign place. The views from the top of the City Hall building were just as I remembered back then — buildings and lights that stretched out forever, as far as the eye could see.

There were several souvenir shops set up in the middle of the floor with lots of bright lights that reflected off the windows, obscuring the view. That was annoying. But then, I guess that's why the view at this particular building was free, whereas you'd have to shell out $10 or so at some other observation decks. So I really couldn't complain.

— Tokyo Tower and Roppongi

I suppose we couldn't have gone to Tokyo without paying a visit to the Eiffle-Tower-esque Tokyo Tower. We walked through Roppongi, the night club district, to get to it. Yep, it's a big tower. Now we've seen it. We didn't go up because we didn't want to pay.

On the streets of Roppongi there were a lot of Nigerian dudes wearing urban duds trying to get pedestrians to go into certain clubs. It was a strange place, very un-Japan-like.

— Shrines

We hit a couple of the obligatory big shrines and temples in Tokyo, the Meiji Jingu Shrine, which sits on a wooded 175-acre complex, and Sensouji, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple. These were pleasant places, though nothing drastically different from many of the other shrines and temples we've seen throughout Japan.

Sensouji in Asakusa

I did enjoy browsing the shops lining the street up to Sensouji even if they were filled with a lot of the standard tourist kitsch. The hanging decorations reminded me of Charlotte's hotel room in the movie Lost in Translation.

— Harajuku

Ah, Harajuku. This area of the city is known as the favorite hangout for teenage cosplayers who like to dress up like anime characters. A bunch of them were hanging out near the entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine in what amounted to a giant Hot Topic convention.

Interesting outfits. I'm sure if I were 19 and Japanese with money burning a hole in my pocket, I'd probably get into this.

— Akihabara

The over-the-top fashion continued in Akihabara, the electronics district known for its maid cafes.


There were many maids handing out advertisements as we walked along, most covering their outfits with puffy winter coats. I asked one if it would be OK to photograph her and was surprised when she said no. After that I tried to covertly snap pictures of a few other maids on the street, but it was really difficult to get a clear shot as night set in. As soon as a maid spotted my camera she would turn her back or hide her face. It seems that photographs are normally limited only to those who pay for the privilege.

Maids on the street corner

Joe and I finally settled on a maid cafe advertised by a maid with an English sign. It turned out to be a very small, brightly lit room filled with super cheap tables and chairs arranged too close together, cheap linoleum covering the walls and a shelving unit full of electronics and sound equipment set right out in the open. The maids were young and not very pretty. Looked like they were probably just out of high school, not much if any makeup, and they were all wearing cheap black and white maid costumes that looked like they'd been sold out of a bag at a Halloween shop — and not the sexy kind either. These outfits covered all skin from their knees to their neck. This surprised me because I'd assumed the appeal of these places was sexual. Isn't the whole reason guys go to these cafes to get an eyeful of a girl in a short skirt, sexy heels and fishnet stockings? It seemed we'd unwittingly selected the unsexy maid cafe.

At any rate, our waitress was friendly enough and we ordered some coffee and cake. When she brought it to our table she set it down daintily and carefully added the cream and sugar to my coffee herself and stirred it. Then she informed us that we must chant a spell over the coffee to make it more delicious, and taught us how to do it. Together we said the spell with her while she motioned her fingers in the shape of a heart over the coffee.

Still tasted like coffee.

I was creeped out by the whole thing. I wanted to like it but I didn't. The atmosphere was all wrong — cramped and brightly lit with girls who didn't have the looks for the role. We finished our coffee and left. On the bright side, there was a really awesome kebab street vendor just outside where we got a cheap and delicious dinner.

— Shinjuku and Shibuya

Our seedy adventures continued in Shinjuku and Shibuya, the neon crazy areas famously featured in the movie Lost in Translation.

So many lighted shop signs line the streets in Shinjuku that the dead of night still looks like mid-afternoon. We went and just wandered around for a while. It is street after street after street that all look like this.

Some areas were a bit shady, and we passed some strip joints and one place with some rather...large... sex toys in the window display for all to admire.

Oh, and also this place:

Didn't see the inside. Apparently American honky tonk ladies aren't Joe's style.

We also passed several billboards for what appear to be male escorts. These appear to be the bad-ass pretty boys of Japan. Interested?

Here are some real life lookalikes:

In Shibuya we crossed the world's busiest intersection. It was very...busy.

— Tokyo National Museum

Tokyo has it's fair share of museums, but we chose to hit the National Museum, Tokyo's biggest and oldest. I'm usually not the type of person who enjoys going to museums, but I did like this one. Architecturally, it was absolutely beautiful, and the art and artifacts within also held my attention. I learned about samurai swords and armor, painted screens, kimono, lacquerware, etc. Beautiful.

— Gardens

Koishikawa Korakuen Garden

We hit a few gardens in Tokyo, including the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, the garden within the Meiji Jingu shrine complex and the Koishikawa Korakuen Garden next to Tokyo Dome. None were extraordinarily impressive, but then again December is not exactly the prime time to be admiring a Japanese garden. Unfortunately the visit to Koishikawa Korakuen was spoiled by the ungodly din pouring out of Tokyo Dome. It sounded like a giant pachinko parlor (their pinball gambling joints). In the spring, and minus the noise, I imagine Koishikawa would be quite pleasant.

— Other Stuff

So those are the highlights and here's a few more random things. Since it was Christmastime, shops everywhere were selling Christmas cakes, which are a big thing in Japan. Lovers get their darling a Christmas cake. They are small, beautifully decorated, and obscenely overpriced.

These cakes ran around 3,000 yen a piece (more than $30). Rather than shell out for a whole cake we just enjoyed a slice each at a coffee shop. I was hoping to see some deep discounts on these beauties the day after Christmas. Alas, by then they were nowhere in sight. I was not entirely surprised. There is an old saying in Japan that likens unmarried women to Christmas cake: After 25, nobody wants them. And sure enough, after the 25th, they were all gone.

Besides the Christmas cakes, we also saw a few shops selling cakes that looked like this:

I'm not sure what these things are but they certainly looked like a big loaf of bread with some sweet toppings. I am not sure if there was anything in the middle or not, but this being Japan, I would not be entirely surprised if they actually considered a plain hunk of bread with some ice cream on top a proper dessert. Joe and I have learned the rule in Japan that 99 percent of the time, sweets look much better than they taste. And so chances are if it looks like a hunk of bread... well, it ain't gonna be better than a hunk of bread.

Last but not least:

Ah, Ohio's own, right there in Tokyo. Did you know the first Wendy's opened in Columbus, Ohio? This was the first Wendy's I'd seen in Japan and it will likely be my last as I recently read an article that the Wendy's restaurants in Japan would be closing. *tear*

All in all, Tokyo was fun. Parts of it were disappointing, but other parts lived up to expectations quite well. My feet were squawking by the end — we did a ton of walking and just sightseeing. In that few days, we just scratched the surface though. If I get a chance to go back again, I'd like to spend more time ducking into Tokyo's little nooks and crannies, enjoying a few more drinks late at night, and delving a bit deeper.

1 comment:

sleepygirl said...

Wow! All I can say is, Tokyo is definitely a city that knows how to dress itself up! Lovely photos, the city just looks magical!