Monday, 17 October 2011

Japan! Take Two: Tokyo - Bright lights, big city

So, onto part two of our adventures in Tokyo (click here for the first part). On our second day in Japan we foolishly slept in late despite having had an early night the night before.. When we finally made it outside it was seriously hot! We kicked off the day by visiting nearby Ueno Park which was very pretty and home to some giant crows and a shrine as well as several museums although we didn't have time to look round them. We went to Ueno a lot as that was where our nearest major rail station was located and we were using Japan Rail passes to get around, both in Tokyo and for our only big journey, a return trip to Kyoto. 

Ueno Park hosts 3 major museums including the National Science museum, a concert hall, several shrines and Ueno Zoo. Unfortunately, we somehow missed most of those things and only made it to one of the shrines. I think this is the entrance to the Ueno Tōshō-gū shrine.

Pretty little stupa in the Ueno Tōshō-gū shrine. A Tōshō-gū shrine is any Shinto shrine that has been dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu.  Ieyasu was born in the 1543 and was a warrior and the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate dynasty. He was also responsible for making Tokyo the capital city of Japan. 

This is an Ojizo-sama statue. We saw these little red-bibbed figures in the grounds of most of the shrines and temples we visited in Japan. Apparently, Ojizo-sama is Buddhist deity revered as the guardian of children, particularly those who died before their parents. Grieving parents put bibs, small children's clothing and even sometimes toys on the statues in the hope Ojizo-sama will specially protect their lost loved ones.

The  path to the Tōshō-gū shrine is lined with large stone lanterns which were donated by feudal lords.

Another stone "torii" gate on the path to the Tōshō-gū shrine.

Close up of some of the stone lanterns.

These wooden plaques are called "ema". Shinto worshipers write their prayers or wishes on the ema and then leave them hanging at the shrine where the gods can read them. 

Detail of some "ema" in Ueno Park.

A statue pf the Imperial Prince Akihito in Ueno Park.

Ueno Park was filled with giant crows like this one.

There were also hoards of huge cicadas in the park and everywhere in Japan in fact. Ueno Park was where I started my Japanese cicada obsession. I took loads of pictures of them and tried to convince Rowan that they were my minions! 

Next, we headed over to see Otome Road, which literally translates to "Maiden Road", the supposed home to Tokyo's girl geeks. Otome Road is the nickname for a street in Ikebukuro district near to Ikebukuro Station. This street's nickname derives from a densely packed group of shops selling anime and manga merchandise aimed at women of the female persuasion. There is a similar and much more famous area in Akihabara that caters specifically for manga/anime fans of the male persuasion that we visited later in our journey. Unfortunately, we found "Maiden Road" quite boring. We only saw a couple of comic book shops and it was dead quiet. We even checked the map a few times to make sure we were in the right place but it just turned out there wasn't a whole lot to see - out on the street anyways.

There are several K-BOOKS stores around the Otome Road area. Enough in fact to warrant a map. 

K-BOOKS specialise in selling doujinshi and manga aimed at female fans. Doujinshi is the Japanese term for self published works, usualy manga or magazines.

Another K-BOOKS store! We didn't venture inside anywhere as we were short on time and my knowledge on manga, anime etc. is pretty minimal.

This is a sign for a popular Butler Cafe called Swallowtail. This was in fact the first Butler Cafe in Japan. Butler Cafes are a kind of theme restaurant staffed by handsome, well dressed young men who treat the female customers like mistresses in a private home. There are equivalent places for male customers called Maid Cafes. These "Cosplay" (costume play) restaurants are very popular in Japan. Click here to read an account of one woman's visit to this Butler Cafe.

Next, we paid a visit to the Yasukuni-jinja, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the men and women who died while fighting for Japan since 1869. According to Wikipedia it "lists the names of over 2,466,000 enshrined men and women whose lives were dedicated to the service of Imperial Japan, particularly to those killed in wartime." Yasukuni is very controversial, especially in Korea and China, as it enshrines the souls of over 1000 Class-B and C war criminals and at least 14 Class-A war criminals from World War 2. Many of these were executed for their crimes by the Allied Forces after the war's end. Within the shrine, their souls are worshiped as deities rather than just remembered. 

The main entrance gate to the Yasakuni shrine. These traditional Japanese gates are called "torii" which means "bird perch" and are usually seen at the entrance to Shinto shrines. 

So, when prominent Japanese politicians, including prime minsters, have gone to pay their respects at this shrine with its war criminals, many people in China and Korea get quite upset about it. Which is understandable if you know what the Imperial Japanese regime did in those countries. Many people, both in Asia and around the world, see these visits as support for Japanese nationalism and a tacit denial of Japanese wartime atrocities. It's still a hot issue here in Korea, and numerous Korean groups have tried to file lawsuits demanding that the Japanese government remove the names of war criminals from the shrine. However, the Japanese Government doesn't have the power to do this as only the priesthood of Yasakuni can make decisions about who is or is not enshrined there. It's probably worth mentioning here that the current Emperor of Japan has refused to visit the shrine since  he found out that the war criminals had been enshrined there. Anyways, we weren't on a mission to honour the glorious war dead, just to have a look at the shrine and it was impressive, no doubt about that. It also houses one of Japan's very few museums dedicated to the Second World War.

Stone lanterns on the path to the Yasakuni Shrine.

The main prayer hall of the Yasakuni shrine. Yasakuni means "Pacifying the Nation" apparently.

Stone statue in Yasakuni shrine.

Another cheeky looking fellow in the shrine.

A cool metal fish/dragon creature just outside the Yūshūkan museum. The Yūshūkan is war and military museum in the grounds of Yasakuni shrine. 

This bronze statue commemorates the 5,843 kamikaze pilots who lost their lives carrying out suicide attacks against the Allies in World War 2.

The museum's A6M Zero Model 52 Fighter Aircraft.

This is steam locomotive model C56 Number 31 which  played an important role in Japan's campaign in Thailand. It was used on the Thai-Burma Railroad during the Second World War.

This gun is a 15cm howitzer. It belonged to the First Field Heavy Artillery Regiment who fought a desperate battle trying to defend Okinawa in the last days of World War Two. They fought to the,last man and went down with the gun. Note the damage. 

This is a 15 cm Cannon used by the 100th Independent Heavy Artillery Batallion and was also found on Okinawa. It also has numerous deep gouges left by bullets and shrapnel.

Once we'd had our fill of military history at the war museum, we went outside and stopped at a small cafe in the grounds of the shrine where we got an ice cream. This was when Rowan met his new bird! 

We were sitting outside at a picnic table eating ice cream to combat the intense heat when a small bird took a shine to Rowan - or perhaps it was to his ice cream!

Eyes on the prize!

Going in for a taste! The bird ate some of Rowan's ice cream. It even sat on his hand for a few moments! Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get a photo of that as I'm an idiot.

We also saw loads more cicadas in the grounds of the Yasakuni shrine.

This is the empty outer casing shed by a cicada. You can find these hanging from leaves all over Japan and Korea in the summer.

The cicada casing placed on Rowan's hand to give a sense of how big these things are.

After all the war and ice cream we headed over to Shinjuku, the district that is home to Tokyo's tallest buildings. We made it just in time to go up to the top of the Metropolitan Government Building, right up to the 45th floor! Naturally, we got some amazing views out over the city from all the way up there!

Standing on the 45th Floor of the Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.

The view from the top.

Tokyo skyline.

More monstrously tall buildings.

This helpful picture was above the windows of the Metropolitan Government Building. It shows what we should have been able to see if it had been a clear day. One of the possible sights included Mt, Fuji.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a clear day so this is what we actually saw, no sign of Mt. Fuji.

Our next stop was Shibuya, a district famed for its fashion, shopping and nightlife. Shibuya is home to Tokyo's busiest train station and to the Shibuya crossing, one of the most famous "pedestrian scramble" crossings in the world. For the uninitiated, a "pedestrian scramble" is a crossing system that "stops all vehicular traffic and allows pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction, including diagonally, at the same time" (cheers Wikipedia, what would I do without you!) The crossing in Shibuya is famous due to the sheer volume of people using it. When we crossed there, it was like being swept along in a human sea, a strange, unnerving but oddly exhilarating experience (though I expect it gets dull and irritating pretty quickly if you live there). We spent some time just wandering around Shibuya, enjoying the pulsing neon vitality of the place before finding somewhere to have some dinner. We ate some pretty average ramen and drank an expensive but tasty beer with it (drinking out is sooo expensive in Japan, it's enough to turn you tee total)!

The massed crowd waiting to cross Shibuya's "pedestrian scramble".

Inside the pedestrian scramble.

Bright lights of Shibuya. 

As we walked out of the station, we were immediately confronted with an awesome spectacle of huge lit up billboards all around us and an unbelievable amount of neon - just the way that you'd always imagined Tokyo would be!

These three young men are from a Korean boy band. Their pictures were on a massive billboard just outside Shibuya station. K-Pop is very popular in Japan, as it is across most of Asia. In fact, K-pop (Korean pop music), Korean dramas and Korean films are popular throughout Asia. This surge in popularity across Asia of Korean pop culture is known as "hallyu" meaning the "Korean wave". 

The area around Shibuya Station was a popular place to hang out and pose.

We saw a couple of young guys singing and selling their CDs out on the street in Shibuya.

This was the other half of the singing duo looking cool and nonchalant.

We popped inside a large amusement style arcade that had a casino in the basement to use their toilets.It looked pretty stylish but was devoid of customers. There were loads of people using the gambling machines though.

A romantic date shooting computer generated killer zombies. Ah, how sweet!

Ramen (noodle dish) restaurant in Shibuya.

A rather average bowl of ramen that we ate in Shibuya. It was okay but it didn't really match up to the ramen that we had in Hakata on our first visit to Japan. Not surprising though I guess as Hakata is the home to ramen.

Rowan enjoying a small but tasty (and expensive) beer with his ramen.

Then we headed back to Shibuya to check out the red light district, as you do! It seemed quite sedate and sophisticated for a red light district, just the usual neon signs advertising girly bars and some young guys with ridiculous hair-dos standing outside trying to attract some custom. We took a few pictures then headed home to Asakusa and the hostel bar where we used our drink vouchers to get a couple of beers. It was nice enough in there but far too crowded so we didn't stay long before calling it a night.

Neon signs for DVDs and sexy ladyeez in Shibuya's red light district.

Well dressed, surly young guys with David Bowie circa 1970s hairdos hung around outside the bars in Shibuya's red light district. Not sure what their role was.

Weird billboard for sexy Tank Girls.

More Tank Girls this time with guns.

Woman in traditional garb advertising a restaurant in Shibuya.

Giant plastic King Kong climbing up the side of a building in Shibuya.

Adverts for more crazy hair dos.

Not sure what this place was about. Some kind of sexy house of horrors perhaps?

Sign warning people not to smoke on the streets in Tokyo. Yep, that's right, you're not allowed to smoke outside in Tokyo.

Cool cartoon guy on a billboard.

Plus his gun-toting sidekick.

In the next post, I'll give the lowdown on our visit to Tsukiji Fish Market where we tasted the best sushi we've ever eaten, our wanderings around the Hamarikyu Gardens and our first ride on the high speed Shinkansen train on our way to Kyoto.

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