My Travel Map

My Travel Map

30 July 2013

Tokyo, Japan: 2. Chaos

Tokyo is massive;
With that many vibrant souls,
All is possible.

This post focusses more on the big city side of Tokyo and more on the brilliant variety of people that live there.  By "chaos" in the title of this post, I don't mean the negative sense of the word, which is often associated with destruction.  Chaos is a fundamental characteristic of nature; it is present in everything from galactic formation to a cup of coffee stirred with cream.  Chaotic systems are complex and nonlinear, meaning we have no accurate way of predicting them (yet).  Cities are a societal form of chaos, in which people and their ideas are brought together and blended through highly nonlinear processes.  Human impact on the Earth is also highly nonlinear (i.e., chaotic), and large cities can serve as perfect places to examine the causes and effects of those impacts.  Throughout my stay in Tokyo, I was thrilled by how clear the effects of urban chaos were present in everything from the architecture and art to food and fashion.  It is even present in the culture, which has broken down into a variety of vibrant and unique subcultures.  Thus, despite the fact that Tokyo is clearly one of the most efficient and well-functioning cities in the world, it is also quite chaotic, which is the focus of this post.

Where peace ends, chaos begins: the Tokyo Sky Tree.  Sometimes it seems as if the major cities of the world are in an epic competition to see who can build the tallest phallus.  Sydney, Paris, Auckland, Las Vegas, Berlin, Riga, Kuwait City, Tehran, Shanghai, Toronto, Tokyo.  Just a short list from a much longer list of cities, all of which boast one of the world's tallest towers.  As with many lists of cities, however, Tokyo tops them all.  This is a view of the Sky Tree from near the market on the approach to Asakusa.  I loved the statue of the man sitting on the facade and the colored lights on the Sky Tree in the distance.  Tokyo is apparently a playground for architects... 

Despite its age, Tokyo is a very new looking city.  Sadly, this has a lot to do with the fact that it was bombed heavily during WWII; approximately half of the city was leveled by bombing campaigns.  The Japanese rebuilt though, and now Tokyo is a showcase city in many ways.  All this construction, fueled further by economic success, has also let Tokyo serve as a no-holds-barred zone for architects, and fun, bold, and creative architecture is always something that I appreciate in an urban setting.

Artists apparently have their way with things too... there are some interesting statues and other works of public art scattered seemingly randomly around the huge city.

If you appreciate or are even just intrigued by that bold, fun, and unique fashion sense the Japanese youth are known for, then you definitely need to check out Harajuku.  This energetic district, which lies west of the center and adjacent to Meiji-jingu (see last post), is a great place to go wander on foot.  The way I would describe the area is somewhat like a massive, urban fashion show that you can walk through and interact with.

Marketing around Harajuku is obviously aimed primarily at teenage girls, who apparently show up in Harajuku in droves to spend money on the latest trends or fashion statements.  These big video screens are all over the place (in central Tokyo in general) too, with videos and advertisements and information blaring, 24-7.

Takeshita Street in Harajuku... an awkward name for a street if you are a native or fluent English speaker.  Nonetheless, if you are looking for the droves of teenage girls on shopping sprees, this is the street to find them.  In the above picture, besides the awkward street name, boldly printed in English on the nearly 3-story gateway entrance to the street, you may also notice the Bowl O Rama below the supposedly used and new men's (clothing?) store on the 2nd floor, or the ambiguous "ACDC" (shop?). It is a random place, Harajuku... the perfect example of urban chaos.

A look down Takeshita Street... apparently, it is somewhat of a popular area, which the big corporate entities (McDonalds, Yoshinoya, Wolfgang) have not failed to notice.  Nearby, I found an independent, Western-style brunch restaurant with a line around the block at 10 in the morning.  Good for the restaurant; shame on the people.  I mean, what's the point of brunch if you have to wait in line until 3pm for it?

Did I mention crazy fashion show on the streets?  Have I also mentioned that crazy Japanese youth sense of style?  Sights like this one were commonplace in Harajuku, which is the capitol of the wild and crazy, anything-goes, express-yourself youth subculture in Tokyo.  A trip to Harajuku is worth it many times over just to sit back and enjoy the show... it is a great place for people watching.

If you grow tired of people watching, Harajuku also offers up some great window shopping opportunities.  Here we see: Quirky

Oh, and at another fine establishment: Rebelious

And this one, which looks more like a run down apartment block than a retail store: Bizarre

This one, like the rest of Harajuku, has all of them combined with a little pinch of kinky.  Seriously... the stores around here all sell crazy stuff like this, and there are plenty of kids buying.  The subculture that thrives on this seems quite bold, imaginative, and fun; I think it's awesome!

When your brain has overloaded on people watching and window shopping, you can next retreat from the crowds to some of the back streets and alleys and appreciate the great street art around Harajuku.  The piece above was just fantastic, and I especially liked the serious koala in the Native American feathered war bonnet beside the centerpiece.  What a complement.

Ah, and the fine work of Space Invader, a now famous street artist who was featured in Please Exit through the Giftshop.  I love how this counters the 24hour parking sign below!  I've now seen his work all over the world; from Tokyo to Istanbul, Toulouse and Brooklyn, and I must say, I'm a fan.  So simple, so fun.

Need a sticker?  Try the sticker store.  Seriously.

Did I mention Harajuku was a bit quirky?  I'll just let this picture speak for itself after simply reminding you this was taken in Tokyo, Japan.

Harajuku definitely has character.. around each new corner there seems to be something new and interesting to grab your attention.  This young shop-keep was just opening up.  That painting of the dragon on the awning extended down the security gates that close over the shop front as well.  The Japanese are just great with details!

Did I mention the wires?  Not yet... so the first picture on this post (one of my favorites from the trip) is one example of the rats nest of wires almost constantly overhead in Tokyo.  The picture above is another example (good examples of this are easy to find).  It's really a wonder why they haven't buried them, especially considering Tokyo's extensive, labyrinthine subway/train system.

Yes... yes, this is the Tokyo metro map.  Just figuring out the quickest route between two points is a great bit of fun for any puzzle enthusiast and a near nightmare for the color blind or anyone with OCD for timeliness.  The system is extensive, and overall, it is remarkably efficient.  They will actually issue you a written excuse if a train is late (to explain to your boss... seriously, they do this).  Other than figuring out where you are, where you need to be, and the best way to get there, the only real challenge is jumping between lines operated by different networks.  There are two major networks (I think!) in Tokyo: those administered and operated by the Bureau of Transportation and those by the Tokyo Metro system.  Each network runs its own trains on its own lines with their own ticket system, even though they share many stations.  Just trust me, travel by Tokyo's subway is an adventure in itself.

Fortunately, everything is remarkably clear once you are on a train.  The main lines are all color coded (with a lot of colors) and the stops are numbered.  Plus, everything is written in Japanese (both writing systems) and Latin letters.  So, once you've taken several minutes staring like a deer in headlights at the metro map and figured out where you are, where you need to go, and the multiple different lines and transfer points in between, you should have no problem getting to your destination, on time nonetheless (depending on how long it took you to figure out your locations and route).  Seriously, this metro is extensive; Los Angeles has NO excuse!  I hear all the time how: "The city is too big" or "you can't build a subway because of earthquakes"... and to those things I answer, "Yes, you can.  Take Tokyo for example."  Sprawling size and the threat of earthquakes be damned, the Japanese have tackled those hurdles and built an enormous, complex subway network for their enormous, complex city.  So there L.A.

OK, I'm a little obsessed with the Tokyo metro... I mean, it's amazing, a true marvel of modern engineering.  For example in the above picture: yes, that is a train tunnel through a building.  The only things I could really complain about were 1) the fact that the metro shuts down around midnight every night and 2) drunks trying in sad desperation to make their connections to get home on the final trains.  I was amazed by how many Japanese, men and women, drink heavily on seemingly random nights throughout the week.  Supposedly, this is an important part of the business culture, where going out for drinks after work is just a continuation of the work day and it is expected for all underlings to keep up, drink for drink, with their managers.  However it works, I was shocked by how many very, very intoxicated folks I came across on the later trains.  I almost reached out a few times to pull swaying bodies at the edges of platforms away from approaching trains (my reaction of distress actually caused several odd looks and frowns though...weird).  There are several types of business that actually take advantage of this bit of the culture around Tokyo, keeping their establishments open throughout the night and charging those that missed the last trains home to stay the night... more on this below.

Ginza: the 5th Ave. district of Tokyo.  That's about all I'll say about that.

Ginza is not just ritzy hotels and ridiculously overpriced shops though, it also has some great options for eating, for example, the place pictured above.  The place is located right below the train tracks, and I had a bowl of tuna sashimi with rice for an early lunch... it was amazing.  The interesting thing was that neither the waitress nor the chef (the only two working there that I could tell) spoke any English.  We made it work though.  Ginza is also the home of Jiro Ono's sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro... a 3-Michelin starred establishment located in the Ginza metro station (hmmm...).  Jiro is world renowned for his sushi and his passion for it; there has even been a documentary called "Jiro Dream's of Sushi" describing him, his family, and his work.  Unfortunately, the restaurant requires reservations to be made months in advance and costs several hundred dollars for one meal, so I was unable to test the acclaim.

I did sample plenty of delicious food in Tokyo though, and overall, I found the Japanese cuisine refreshingly simple and delicious.  Here, clockwise from top left, I have some tempura shrimp, green tea, cold soba noodles with seaweed, miso soup, and dipping sauce with chives and a quail egg.

This one was crazy fun: sea cucumber with cucumber.  The sea cucumber had a bizarre texture... parts within were crunchy like a raw carrot and the rest was somewhat like cold, slimy chicken joint cartilage.  It was served chilled and didn't have any real flavor either... just that crazy texture.  This was one of the most alien looking and tasting foods I've ever eaten, definitely a unique eating experience.  The restaurant that I had it at was awesome too... in Roppongi (see below), it specialized in cooking over straw fire.  Whenever they wanted to add some sear to the outside of food, they would throw a large handful of straw on the flames, which would go up in and immense, instantaneous blaze. Entertaining AND delicious.

Shabu shabu!  This is a fun dish... you are brought a pile of raw meat, mushrooms, and vegetables with a pot of water, which is put over a flame at your table.  When the water starts boiling, you add the ingredients, creating your own soup of deliciousness at your table.  As the ingredients cook, you can pick them out and sample with various dipping sauces.  Also fun is saying "shabu shabu" while you stir the pot... good times, especially with beer and friends.

Oh noodles... how are you so tasty?  This stuff is the fast food of choice around Tokyo... ramen noodles, meat, eggs, and random vegetables in deliciously tasty, MSG-packed and probably amazingly unhealthy, meat-based broth.  These places are open late too... perfect for satisfying some after-drinking cravings.  Enough said.

After a full bowl of noodles (especially if you drink all that greasy broth), you might need a toilet, and Japan is a great place to use a toilet!  First of all, they are obsessively clean.  Next, they are incredible complex devices.  I'll spare you a picture of the miracle machine itself (just look up "Japanese toilets" to get some great pictures), but to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, the picture above are the toilet operating instructions from my hostel... that's right folks, one toilet (in a hostel!) offers all that functionality!

Next stop, Roppongi.  Roppongi is one of many shopping, restaurant, and nightlife hotspots around Tokyo.  It is popular with tourists looking to party too, which is evident in the many, many African immigrants wandering the streets and propositioning you to "come to my club".

One of the main buildings in the Roppongi Hills shopping area.  It is another ritzy area, but the heights (including an observation deck in this tower) offer good views.

Looking out at night from Roppongi Hills.   The Tokyo Tower is seen here on the right.  It is similar in style to the Eiffel Tower and painted orange and white.  It is visible from many parts of the western-center of the city.  Tokyo is a sprawling city, which has grown and grown to fill in the possible geography around Tokyo Bay.  Large city growth is very nonlinear and organic, and Tokyo is no exception to this.  It is also immensely dense, with most buildings being many stories tall and including apartments on at least some of the floors.

Roppongi is a bustling nightlife zone, which either results from or has drawn in some disreputable characters.  The district used to be known for its yakuza presence.  The yakuza are essentially, in overly-simple terms to describe such a highly complex organization, the international Japanese mafia.  Supposedly, in recent years, the yakuza have mostly moved out of Roppongi.  In their place, are seedier characters of African origin, who have bought and now operate many of the nightclubs, strip clubs, host clubs, and cabarets.  So, needless to say, just be cautious when going out in Roppongi; however, I'm willing to bet that you wont have any problems on a night out there.  I had no issues, but avoided any establishments beyond normal restaurants and bars.

Though I didn't get to see any sumo while I was in Tokyo, I did take a wander through Ryogoku, which is the center of sumo in Tokyo and home to the National Sumo Stadium.  In the stadium, sumo tournaments are housed three times per year.  As with most things Japanese, sumo is steeped in tradition; even outside the ring, professional wrestlers must adhere to specific living conditions, dress codes, routine and ceremonies.

Only a half dozen stops on 3 different metro lines from Ryogoku lies Tsukiji, and the world's largest seafood market.

Tsukiji is something to see, but it is a working market, so you must be respectful... the people running and driving busily around are all workers, doing their jobs.  I'm sure they are not thrilled that their workplace is also a popular tourist sight.

You must also be very, very careful walking around inside as those carts just whiz around, even down the narrow lanes in the market itself!  The place is packed with all sorts of things too and is a hive of activity.

I was intrigued by the variety of fish and other creatures available at the market.  I got there later in the morning too, so most of the best offerings were already taken, but it was still mighty impressive.

I didn't know what some things even were.

It was when I saw the octopus like this that I really started having mixed feelings.  Octopus are pretty intelligent creatures, and I normally feel a pang of guilt in the rare cases where I enjoy part of one for dinner.  Seeing crates full of them like this made me feel guilty for humanity and what we're doing to our oceans.

It's kind of sad... actually, it's very sad to see just how much we are plucking from the sea EVERY DAY.  This is not sustainable, as calamitously declining populations of sea life worldwide are demonstrating, and Japanese (and other national) fishing vessels scour the globe for their catch.  The meat from all those whales being taken for "scientific research" by Japanese fishing vessels also ends up in this place.  They eat dolphin too... but, I can't be too critical: the thing about this that disturbs me most is that dolphins are incredibly intelligent animals, but so are pigs, and I eat those, so I'm a hypocrite like pretty much everyone else.  I just get frustrated whenever I'm confronted by humanity's negative impact on this world, especially when it involves the destruction of so many living organisms.  The stalls I saw were intriguing at first, with all the different and exotic and colorful fruits of the sea laid out before me, but the more I saw, the more and more I became disturbed...

because this market is huge...

I don't know exactly how business goes down around the market, but it is very, very big business.  Being the largest seafood market in the world, it handles ~8 billion dollars (US) in seafood each year.

And the granddaddy of them all is tuna.  These enormous fish are the most prized in the market, and their sale is treated differently than most of the other options from the days catch.  Each morning, bright (or not so bright) and plenty early at 5am, the tuna auction begins.  Whole fish are auctioned off for immense prices.  Restaurant owners pay small fortunes for prize fish, and some will even pay ridiculously above market prices to end up with their names, plus those of their restaurants, in the local news.  Interesting form of marketing.

I love tuna; it is incredibly delicious.  I ate at an expensive, quality sushi restaurant while I was there, and the o toro (fatty tuna) and other cuts of tuna I had were some of the most delicious things I've ever eaten.  The marbled flesh has complex but subtle flavors that, when hand selected and properly prepared by a master, just dance on your tongue triggering burst of endorphins.  However, by eating those delectable mouthfuls, I fanned the fire.  Tuna stocks are in decline worldwide.  As with most other things in the ocean, our insatiable demand of flesh is driving this; when it comes to the natural world, we, humanity, are a plague.  Agh, I'm too frustrated with myself and humanity to finish this

OK, on to something different.  On my way over to check out the nightlife in Shinjuku, I made a slight detour to check out Tokyo's city hall, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.  The inspiration of this building was supposedly Paris' Notre Dame cathedral, but it definitely has a futuristic, utopian twist to it.  It almost looks like the facade is part of some enormous computer chip.  Very, very cool building.

So one of the main reasons I came out to Shinjuku was to grab a beer in this place.  Omoide Yokocho is a small maze of tight alleys like this, lined with tiny bars and yakitori houses, each of which is indicated with the red lanterns.  Conveniently, the micro-district is adjacent to the enormous Shinjuku metro station. This bar district is what the locals so lovingly refer to as Piss Alley.  Despite the name, there are public toilets (possibly because of the old name), and it was a really fun place to wander around and grab some quick snacks and drinks.

I grabbed a couple drinks in this place, the tiniest bar I've ever seen.  Kindly note that there are 2 bartenders back there, with all of about 2 ft by 4 ft of bar space to do their work in!  There were 7 of us crammed in there with them; the whole place is only about 6 ft by 8 ft...seriously, sitting at the bar my back was against the front window, and those of the people to my right were against the side wall.  They sat in the walkway and had to pile out and shuffle around each time someone wanted to enter or exit!  Overall, it made for a very, very intimate and really fun bar experience, since you're forced to converse with everyone around you.  I was lucky that one of the 6 Japanese people (8 including the bartenders) in there with me actually spoke English, so she served as the translator between me and the rest.  The bartenders were also mixology masters... they took their cocktail preparations very, very seriously and mixed a drink with the same precision as a kendo master wields a sword or a bonzai master prunes a tiny tree.  The finesse and meticulous style of a Japanese tea ceremony seems to have worked its way into the cocktail lounges of modern Japan... watching a good Japanese bartender at work is a thing to appreciate.

Another bar area nearby... this one just a stone's throw away from the sketchy, blazingly bright Kabukicho red-light district.  I preferred the intimate, local feel of Omoide Yokocho much more than this area.  This was all about young, dolled-up servers and college-style drink-til-you-drop specials, and there were a hell of a lot of tourists and expats here.  It was still fun though.  I got into a great conversation with some Chinese tourists from Qingdao; it was interesting to get their take on Tokyo and Japanese culture (both of which they quite liked) and share my opinion of it all with them too.

Tokyo has lots of these places: video game stations.  Game stations are like internet cafes, but they specialize specifically in video games.  People can come here, pay a flat hourly rate, and play their hearts out in popular online games.  These places stay open throughout the night, and they serve as one of the options where people (often drunk) who miss the last trains can spend the night for cheap... other options include host clubs (not so cheap; see below) and those capsule hotels, where your "room" is a coffin sized capsule in a wall of capsules.  It's amazing what the Japanese have turned to because of their super-dense population... a lesson for us all unless we can somehow stabilize our population growth, which is currently exponentially increasing.

Kabukicho, near Shinjuku station.  This district is named after Kabuki theaters, and it is still an "entertainment" area today of sorts.  It is also a great place to be overwhelmed in the artificial day-glow of neon lights and signs.

Kabukicho is also home to the Golden Gai, which is basically a big red-light district.  Home to host and hostess bars, strip clubs, sex venues, and love hotels plus plenty of gambling dens, it is pretty well natural that this is also a yakuza hotspot.  You can see them, keeping a low profile in their immaculate and expensive suits (which cover all of their extensive body tattooing), standing beside or just inside of the large, African bouncers at the entrances to their establishments.  Like Roppongi, African immigrants are also used to entice people in to different places, particularly hostess bars.  However, for the male host bars, this recruitment job is performed by young, attractive Japanese men.  Sorry, host and hostess bars are a place where people can go on a "date" with a young, attractive host (man) or hostess (woman) for some hourly rate.  These are not brothels and "date" does not mean sex (though I'm betting some of the places can lead to that for more money).  Instead, it is a place for the lonely and overworked to go satisfy their craving for interaction with the opposite sex.  Interesting place if you want to see the seedier side of Tokyo, and fortunately, it is quite safe to walk around despite the obvious criminal undertones.  Tokyo is an incredibly safe city, which is an incredible feat pulled off by the Japanese considering Tokyo's size, wealth, and density.

OK, back into the metro and on to another part of the city.  The picture above is from part of a beautiful wall mural in one of the metro stations.

Last stop: Shibuya, which is a great place to get that big metropolis feel and maybe do some shopping and eating.

The thing that drew me there was to see this place, the Shibuya Crossing.  This is one of the busiest pedestrian crosswalks in the world, and it is a sight to see hundreds of people pouring through it as soon as the green walk sign lights.  The best place to view it is from a skywalk in the Shibuya metro station or (of course) walking through the throngs in the crossing yourself.

You'll notice as you walk around Tokyo all the numbers followed by "F" on the many, many signs for shops, restaurants, and other establishments.  This is a floor designation, telling you what floor of the building the place is on.  Once you realize this, you start to get a whole new appreciation for the density of Tokyo.  It also opens up a whole new world of places you might otherwise spend a lot of time trying to find.

Shibuya is a busy place and very good for people watching.  It always amazes me how many people walk city streets in their own worlds, without looking at all those other people around them, and I'm always slightly refreshed to see others taking in and appreciating the different styles, quirks, and traits of those around them (in a non-creepy way that is).

The Myth of Tomorrow mural... 30 m long and taking up an entire wall in one of the busy grand corridors of the Shibuya metro station.  This mural depicts the moment of the Hiroshima explosion, a grim reminder of the chaotic destruction we, humanity are capable of inflicting on ourselves and the world we rely on for existence.

We've come full circle, to a little bit of peace amidst the chaos... the Hachiko statue outside of Shibuya metro station.  This statue commemorates the undying devotion of a dog name Hachiko.  Everyday, Hachiko would wait outside the station for its owner to return home from work.  Even after the owner died, Hachiko came and waited outside the station every afternoon FOR 10 YEARS!  The people of Tokyo remember this incredible show of love and devotion, and quite fittingly, this statue is a popular rendezvous spot.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo and my first glimpse of the complex and intriguing Japanese culture.  I'll be returning later this year for another week in the metropolis, and I'm very much looking forward to learning and experiencing more!