Japan part 5: Tokyo. Beware your wallet!
For our final stop in Japan we went back to good ol’ Tokyo. Besides being the capital, Tokyo is a huge city full of unique opportunities. Dine in the monster cafe in Harajuku, enjoy sake in the izakaya’s in Ikebukuro, let your otaku go wild in Akihabara, visit temporary art exhibitions in the Roppongi hills,… Anyone can enjoy themselves here. We have a lot of fond memories of the last time we were in Tokyo. The city is also a huge shopping walhalla. Whatever you can think of you can probably buy it here. Soy sauce saucers with star wars logo? Sure. A hello kitty toaster? Why not. A 2 coloured pair of jeans in steampunk style? Miniature dolls you can dress up? Talking figurines that yell for you when your fridge isn’t closed completely? Tokyo has got you covered. Even if you are not really into shopping, it’s so much fun to discover all the little places or spend an entire day doing department stores.
So from classy to artsy, to weird, you’ll find it all in this city.
But first, we had to travel from Hiroshima to Tokyo, which was about 800 km! Luckily, Japan has one of the best railway systems around the world and the famous Shinkansen trains. It took us only 4 hours to get from Hiroshima to Tokyo!! We got on, and as usual Haythim fell asleep and only woke up when we arrived. I had a bit of shuteye as well, since dragging our heavy backpacks is quite wearisome. And enjoyed the rest of our ride on the luxurious bullettrain looking out of the window and making designs for customers.
We made our way to Ikebukuro for our last airbnb in Japan. But it was almost impossible to find. We followed google maps to the given address, only to find out that there wasn’t anything there. I asked directions got send back about 200 meters were we finally located our airbnb. The location was perfect though. Close to the Ikebukuro station and in the middle of a lively neighbourhood with lots of little restaurants and bars. Our room on the other hand… was nothing like the pictures really. It was pretty old, had a very interesting bed (leather futon on top of a mattress) and was… kind of a bummer. But weirdly, it proved to be one of the places where we had the best night’s sleep. The airbnb’s history, I’m not going to question, since in the end, it had everything it needed and we actually had a good time and slept there for our last two weeks in Japan. If you’re on a budget, you can’t be picky. And you might end up in some really interesting places because of it! We also had the best soba maker just on the corner of our block! And a fantastic on the block lying next to it where we had some excellent sake! Lucky us!! *drooling*
Of course being in the capital of Japan meant that I just had to try to find a guest spot. I mean Tokyo, with a population of nearly 10 million in the different wards (districts) and over 13 million the Tokyo area. I just couldn’t let this slide, since Japan is a country with one of the most beautiful styles of tattooing. But for those who don’t know, being tattooed, getting a tattoo or being a tattoo artist isn’t exactly a walk in the park in Japan... To understand this, we need to go back in history to a time when tattoos were used as a sort of brand. Criminals who committed a serious offence were marked with a tattoo that symbolised their offence. No hiding what you did or start a new life somewhere else. This thing was permanent. Later on this practice was abolished together with tattoos in general. But tattoos did make a comeback when criminal organisations and gangs like Yakuza adopted tattoos as part of their identity. The pain, and permanence of tattoos made it so that it was seen as a symbol of courage and loyalty. Though these things together have given the Japanese tattoo somewhat a bad name. In recent years however, with the influx of tourism and the widespread recognition and fanbase for Japanese style tattoos, the opinion has already changed a bit. There is still a stigma though. I literally saw a lady nearly get a heart attack when I took of my sweater on a sunny day and you could suddenly see my sleeve. Old people in particular still view tattoos as not done. Also, there still are public baths/ swimming pools/ onsen(hot springs) that won’t allow you inside if you have a tattoo. Always check to make sure!
As for the tattoo artists, they keep a somewhat low profile. Most of them have a private shop that is, from outside, indistinguishable from other houses. Those that have a public shop occasionally have trouble with the law since tattooing is still only legal in Japan if you hold a medical certificate (almost equal to a doctor’s). Naturally all of this posed a problem with finding a guest spot but I still had to try! After a lot of mails, I finally found a guest spot. As you can guess, I too was asked to keep a low profile. Therefore I won’t give any details on the shop I guested at during my first week in Tokyo. I was so happy to have been given this chance that I was over the moon. Tattooing in Tokyo was like a dream come true. And getting another close view of the inner workings of yet another shop only enriched me.
I immediately noticed a huge change, compared to the American shops, when the shopmanager stood there ready to hand me my slippers when I walked in, and to take my coat. My booth was always cleaned and prepared by the shop-manager as well. Pretty much every affair was handled for me. The feeling it gave me, was that the artist was a kind of god, that didn’t have to deal with earthly affairs such as the aftercare talk, the payment, the cleaning and setting up. Just being the artist is enough… Silence during a session was also highly appreciated, and there wasn’t that much social contact going on, on a daily basis. I hope as I get to know more people inside this culture in Japan, it’ll warm up to me more, because for once I actually felt as if I missed out a bit. Still I am very thankful for the opportunity, and I hope to do it again. After my guest spot we still had about 10 days left in Tokyo. This was both a long time and short at the same time. We didn’t have anything planned for Tokyo really, because there is always something going on somewhere in Tokyo.
Funny thing actually, one of the first things we did was go to the movies! It had been a couple of months since we last went to the movies (Spiderman Homecoming in Toronto, Canada) but we had an extra push now. Zombieland: doubletap was coming out and damn it, we were going to go and see it! Ever since the first Zombieland movie came out we absolutely adored it and I’m pretty sure Haythim had already seen that one over 25 times. It was a whole different experience compared to Belgium (more expensive too) but it was a lot of fun. At first we thought it’d be difficult to find a movie theatre in Tokyo where they showed movies in English but we actually found one quite easily. And only a 10 minute walk away from our Airbnb! The Grand Sunshine Cinema in Ikebukuro. We went to check out the movie theatre on the day we finished up on the Kobe blog (as a little hurrah). It wasn’t difficult to find since it was a brightly lit skyscraper, and it had a Tully’s coffee (greatttt coffee!) so we didn’t need to move around too much. We bought our tickets (quite expensive) for the 9 pm screening and checked out the goodies section. Yes, they have a goodies section in the movie theatre, and it was chockfull of cool items from Frozen, Zombieland,… It’s as if Tokyo wants you to spent your hard earned cash in a heartbeat… The movie Zombieland: double tap completely fulfilled our expectations and is literally what the resume says. Go in there for a fun time with new kinds of zombies, a girl going through puberty and Tallahassee’s Indian heritage…We liked our experience so much we went back a second time a couple of days later to go and see Frozen II. It was awesome! Of course it is different from the first movie but again, had great music, sad moments, happy moments and… Olaf!
So, not a lot of people know this, or maybe they do, but I’m a huuugeee Sailor Moon fan. I’ve watched all the episodes multiple times, the old ones (because they ARE the best). So when that next day Haythim suggested we go to Harajuku to check out the Sailor Moon store I could hardly contain my excitement. We quickly took a subway to Harajuku and… it was busy! A Saturday in Harajuku is like a human river really. Thousands of people going to thousand places and in the middle of that … us two kittens trying to find our way to the Sailor Moon store. We did find it eventually though. But I have to say it as it was. I was disappointed. They only had a small selection of stuff and it was of poor quality. Needless to say we left the store totally bummed out. But luckily we were still in the middle of Harajuku, with hundreds of little stores to go through and find funky stuff including lots of little food stands! So onwards we went! we visited kiddyland with its 4 floors full of goodies. Totoro, Snoopy, Rirakuma, Star Wars,… We entered the famous Tokyu Plaza mall with the futuristic mirror-like entrance hall, we tried the famous Calbee potato ships and snacked away on something called Zaku Zaku. Anything sweet or flashy you’ll find it in a food-form in Harajuku!
Eventually we ended up at the Square Enix Artnia store/ cafe in Shinjuku (no idea as to how we got there). As you’d expect, it had a ton of goodies from Square Enix. Most important for us was the Final Fantasy part. Especially the part Final Fantasy VII. They have like a separate section wholly dedicated to Final Fantasy. Clothes, jewelry and of course figurines. If you didn’t know it, Final Fantasy is hugely popular, even if the game is like over 20 years old. It was so popular it got its own movie (advent children) and they are currently remaking the game for PS4. Yes, Haythim would have loved to buy some figurines but luckily for us most of them were sold out. Would have been way too expensive or way too big for us to drag along on our trip. After having drooled over the goodies and buying a small souvenir we headed home.
A couple of not-mention-worthy days later, we visited the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi. Just outside the trainstation and an escalator up, stood the skyscraper where we needed to be. Right in front of the museum was a piece of art of which we already saw one in the sculpture garden in New Orleans. It was the 'Maman' by Louise Bourgeois: a statue of an enormous spider with marble eggs in her belly. Right in front of the Mori museum stood the statue, a way bigger version than the one we had seen before. It is a strange sight at first, though the more you look at it the more it actually makes sense. Both the meaning and the placement in Tokyo. Though at a busy pedestrian interjection, we managed to sneak in a good picture!
The museum itself is in the Mori tower on the 53th floor. It’s a museum that has mainly temporary expositions so you never know what you can expect. We arrived around noon and went straight up and paid the entrance free for the current exhibition: future and the arts, ai, robotics, cities, life: how humanity will live tomorrow. This exhibition was straight up our alley! Both me and Haythim are quite concerned about the future and we always try to find ways to make less waste, have a smaller footprint and are constantly looking for options to do better. The ideas, new and very real technologies we saw there gave us hope. The technologies to actually save ourselves and the planet already exist. They are out there and ready to be used. The only thing we need now is people who are willing to think about the future instead of their immediate wallet. In the first room we saw new concepts about living on artificial islands with bio-farms and kelp farms that have zero waste. In another room were new kinds of building materials made out of renewable sources. There were vastly different ideas about how to build or reorganise our cities and buildings to not only stop global warming but to also make life in cities more viable and attractive . It was really awesome, totally recommend it!
Over the next days we visited some more spots in and around Tokyo. But probably none as epilepsy inducing as Akihabara. If you want to see Tokyo at its craziest, Akihabara is the place you really want to stop by. No need to tell you that Japan is the land of gaming, anime and manga. So if I tell you that you can buy a Sailor Moon sceptre, a perfect maid costume, a limited edition figurine of Final Fantasy VII, all the episodes of Hellsing on blu-ray, or a Totoro blanket,… it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Let me just warn the people with epilepsy or hsp to maybe skip this part and head over to a more peaceful part of Tokyo… The second you get out of the train station, you’re greeted by massive skyscrapers full of flashy neonlight advertising boards, massive crowds going in and out of stores and arcades, all while psychedelic music and sounds are being played from everywhere. And almost all of those big buildings, up until the 8th floor are chockfull of goodies! Walking around in Akihabara may therefore seem a bit as a haze, when you’re going in and out of buildings, ascending, descending, looking through so much stuff. Some junk, some maybe antique, some new. All the while squeezing through crowds, with lights flickering everywhere. It’s not an understatement to say that not even by the end of the day, we were absolutely exhausted and dying to get out. Also, if you’re a fan of gacha gachas, this place is your nirvana.
We were surprised that when we got back to our airbnb, we actually didn’t buy anything that day, besides a lunch. I felt as if we had outgrown it a bit, because ten years ago, I would’ve gone crazy for all that fanstuff. Now, I just see things that collects dust and over time will end up in a box in the attic. We both felt that if it’s not practical, we didn’t have much interest for it anymore. Could be because we were already travelling for over 4 months, and our luggage only got heavier with little trinkets we picked up here and there as souvenirs, gifts,… Everything was starting to seem like a hassle, something extra we had to drag along. So our focus shifted towards only necessary things. ‘Oh no my socks are worn down and got holes.. Yay! Now I can buy those cute nightmare-before-christmas socks!’
While we were taking the subway in Tokyo we often saw some Star Wars related posters. At first we thought it was for the new movie coming out this December, and some posters were exactly that. But on closer inspection we found some posters that were about a Star Wars Identities exposition that was being held… in Tokyo… right now. Finally some luck on our side! I have to say that, since the Kiyomizu-dera and the giant torii at the Itsukushima shrine in Hiroshima were under restoration, so we kind of felt jinxed. So no doubt about it, we had to go. As it was a rainy and cold day the prospect of a day inside surrounded by Star Wars related stuff already warmed our bodies.
When we arrived we immediately feared the worst. We needed to go up some stairs on the side of a building and entered a large room with just some desks and Star Wars related items but… nothing that even resembled an exposition. I went and asked if we were correct and after some reassurance that we were indeed in the right spot we purchased our tickets (damn expensive we thought at first). We received 2 audio guides and went up an elevator. The second we entered our jaws dropped. The exposition was absolutely amazing. Not only did we see sooooo many original props and costumes, like Yoda, Leia’s slave costume, Han Solo in frozen carbonite,… but we also got to know the characters more intimitately. The tour took you along 10 guideposts were you found more information on the character, their psychology, drive, education,… But also info on how our current society works/ evolves/ what place you want to take in society. After a short explanation you could use your interactive wristband to make a choice yourself. What philosophy do you adhere most? ‘Principals before everything’ like queen Amidala? or ‘ Good or evil are a point of view’ from Dath Sidious. You could make your own choices and follow your own path but at the end of the exhibition ended in one decision you HAD to make. Would you join the darkside or not? Haythim’s character for example had Darth Sidious as mentor but he still became a Jedi. It’s maybe weird to put so much importance on something from a movie, fiction. Though I truly believe that it all comes down to choice. You get to choose what you do. Be it good or bad. Ultimately, no matter the circumstances, the choice to do what you do is your own. No one else’s.
Oh, and of course we got some fun new goodies! Be prepared for more pictures with a Star Wars t-shirt!!
Visiting the Ghibli Museum had been on my bucket list for over 10 years. But sadly, getting in the Ghibli museum is not easily done unless you book a (very expensive) tour or something. When we came to Japan the last time, we were too late to book tickets. The official website stated that we needed to book our tickets at lease two months beforehand. So naturally, ever since New Orleans (2 months) prior, I had been checking how to book the tickets. Though the website still stated I was too early and when I checked again a little later, the tickets were sold out. Something was not right, it felt a bit like foul play. So apparently (of the records as they say), Japanese people get priority in buying tickers for the museum. The system works like this: a limited number of tickets can be purchased online from outside Japan (very limited) and the rest is sold in Japan. The reason is, and I partly understand it, that Ghibli movies have gained massive popularity outside Japan and they don’t want the museum to be overrun by tourists not giving the locals a chance to go and visit.
I took my problem to the internet, and soon found out that you can perfectly buy tickets at a vending machine, in a Lawsons Store (of which you can find one on almost every corner in Japan). I took a couple of printscreens of the how-to page, because even knowing Japanese didn’t make it easier this time (the vending machine was only in Japanese), and soon enough we finally had our tickets to the museum!! Getting to the museum took only 2 trains and a 20 minute walk. So finding it is no biggie at all. The outside of the museum is also in a very distinguishable Ghibli style, so you can’t miss it. We got in line, eagerly waiting for opening time. Also here you want to be early, because the later it gets, the busier… A lot busier...
Unfortunately, taking pictures is not allowed inside, and I didn’t take any sneaky ones, because I have too much respect and admiration for Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Ghibli Studios. I can obviously give you a detailed account on how it was like on the inside. And I bet you can maybe find some pics on the internet anyways… We were allowed to take a few pictures on the outside of the building luckily!
So entering the building, which is actually not superbig, we were immediately greeted at the counter by a huge fluffy Totoro, looking wide-eyed at its guests. There we were handed our tickets: a paper one and a piece of a movie roll from a Ghibli movie (so cute!). Besides the beautifully painted ceilings, all the windows in the museum were stained glass, showing characters from all the Ghibli movies: Kiki, Totoro, Ponyo, Calcifer,… creating an atmosphere so magical you feel like being in another world. In the great hall is a grand majestic staircase, a spiral staircase, a bridge and a huge Ghibli-esc chandelier and small corridors leading to small rooms everywhere. It’s like a castle in a child’s mind. I didn’t know where first to go and look. Luckily Haythim had once been here before, and remembered a room really worth paying a visit first. It was breathtaking. Inside you are greeted by all kinds of inventions, handmade machinery and trinkets that show how Ghibli movies are made. You take a step into a magical world of stop motion animation and movie-making. You discover how a moving picture, with the landscapes and characters in it work, in such a playful way that you feel like a kid again. Other rooms showed the behind the scenes of Hayao Miyazaki and his team, displaying concept art, a set of his atelier, the colouring studio and more. I didn’t have enough eyes, and stepping inside an other artist’s world also felt like a relief: seeing his try-outs, his struggles, the hard work,…
There are a couple of things you have to do when visiting the Ghibli museum. Besides just exploring the whole museum because every bit of it is from top to bottom awesome beyond belief!! You have to go to the roof-top of the building where you will find a cute garden, in the centre of it a five meter tall copper robot of Lupin III episode II of Castle in the Sky. Secondly, there’s a room on the second floor that has an area where a life-size, fluffy Cat Bus sits (from My Neighbour Totoro), with two ball pits next to it filled with susuwatari (sooth sprites). Yes, I nearly cried finding out that only kids were allowed to play here… Don’t judge me! (I’m pretty sure that if I were here as a kid I would have glued myself stuck to it). Lastly, your movie-roll ticket gives access (on a given time) to a cute movie hall where you can watch a short Ghibli movie. Absolutely do this! Don’t worry about the language, though there is sound and (beautiful) music, there is no language spoken! So everyone, no matter what age, can enjoy the picture. I will conclude my expansive explaining about the Ghibli museum by just saying it was a total dream come true, and enjoyable for anyone, just go!! (ps. Tickets are also quite cheap if you buy them from a vending machine in Japan). One last thing… if you want to buy items in the Ghibli shop and you want you do it in peace and not squirming through people, go early. The shop opens about 15 minutes after the museum does, and it was still ok when we got there. But even then we already saw buying-frenzy people. And when we left? It was almost impossible to visit the shop, people were queuing, pushing their way inside, trying to grab… basically anything. I pity the people who have to work there.
For our last activity, before packing our bags one last time in Japan, we decided to visit the Meiji-jingu shrine next to the train station at Harajuku. The shrine lies in a beautiful big park which you enter by passing under a massive wooden torrii. The shrine has a broad way leading up to it, obviously prepared to receive a lot of visitors. Before you reach the entrance, you pass by arrays of donated Sake barrels on your right side, and donated Wine barrels from France on your left (durp?). I guess nobody told Japan you're supposed to keep these in a cellar instead of a forrest... Just a bit further you will find the entrance and a well where you can wash your hands. Entering the templegrounds, you walk out onto a big square, where a couple of times a day a wedding parade passes through, guided by priests and shrine-maidens. On the left side stands a couple (literally) of trees, that give good luck to couples saying their prayers there. On the right side is an area where people can write and hang up their ema (small wooden plaques with wishes written on them). Proceeding deeper in the templegrounds is only permitted for priests and shrine maidens, but there is a second part to the right where visitors are allowed and you can get your Shuincho (temple book) stamped and signed. If you’re willing to get in line and wait for aprox. an hour… (there’s always big line due to the popularity of this shrine). Of course you can also buy your mamori (charms) of all kinds here.
The shrine is mostly famous and popular because it was dedicated to the first emperor of Modern Japan, emperor Meiji (ruled from 1868 - 1912), it’s beauty, and its fortunate location right next to a train station. It’s so accessible you’d be an idiot not to visit this big beautiful shrine located in the heart of Tokyo. It’s also a nice get-away from the busy Harajuku, if you’re in need of a breather. And during summertimes you can enjoy the coolness of the forest that surrounds it! Doing a last prayer here, getting my temple book signed and stamped, we finally felt ready to say goodbye to Japan, and headed towards our Airbnb one last time.
CU next time Japan!!