Sunday, March 12, 2006

A whirlwind tour of Tokyo...

A lot can be said about today's trip to Tokyo. We visited several different areas of the city, with our itinerary taking us from Utsunomiya to Ueno to Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace Gardens to Yasukuni-jinja to Omotesando to Harajuku to Shinjuku to Akabane and finally back to Utsunomiya. 8 (or more?) different stations in one day, in the world's biggest city*. It was quite the whirlwind tour, but unfortunately there was more whirling and wind then there was touring... and I will take a few lessons from what happened today. Making a quick tally of my goals for the day, I think we did pretty well. I got to see Steve and Leah again and bought myself a kick-ass DVD player, but after our visit to Yasukuni shrine, the organization of the day disintegrated pretty quickly and I figure we wasted anywhere from 3 to 4 hours waiting for various parties to arrive, depart, find their subway tickets (that one was me) and travel to (and subsequently get lost in) a different station to recover belongings, and on and on and on. So what did I learn today? When planning a trip to Tokyo, where you actually want to get stuff accomplished since you're spending 4 hours on the train and expending lots of Yen no matter what, it's better to liken the trip to a military operation. Plan it out, keep it simple, be flexible but stick to the plan. I think our biggest problem was size, From the initial 2 it quickly grew to 6 and eventually up to 9 people... all of this somehow happening in Tokyo of all places (a miracle we even pulled it off, thank the cellphone gods for our good fortune)... with only a few of the group living in Tokyo... it was quite the challenge, and we paid the price. It was nonetheless a lovely day, thanks to the company of course.

Our day started at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM, in order to be at the station to catch the 8:04 train to Ueno. After a quick breakfast, we took the first steps of a long day and hoofed it to 宇都宮 JR Station. After a long 2 hours riding local trains, we arrived in Akihabara, the first stop of the day where I wanted to get my hands on a region-free (plays both North-American and Japanese DVDs) DVD player that could also play burned discs. Akihabara is known as Tokyo's Electric City... it's where otaku people come to play, and my students were all very concerned that their totally hip teacher was heading there. Otaku are the subclass of Japanese society who devote a large (some would even say total) part of their lives to such subjects as computers, anime and the pursuit of all things geeky. I guess the English word for it would be nerd, but at least nerds have some limited social skills... from what I understand, otaku do not, and feel extremely uncomfortable in social settings not specifically dealing with their obsession, whatever that may be. This was certainly in plain sight today as large numbers of these gents were floating through the streets of Akihabara, getting their weekly fix of electronics.

You can be just about 100% certain that somewhere in Akihabara, you can find whatever electronic item you are looking for. From nose hair trimmers to a cell phone with a blood pressure monitor and cordless vacuum cleaners, these mega electronics stores have it all! After checking out a few different stores, I settled on Laox and proceeded to make my purchase. We tried in vain to find a maid cafe nearby, but couldn't and so my answer to the "what the heck is a maid cafe?" question you just asked yourself will have to wait a bit... unless you decide not to be lazy and google it. After a coffee at the Beck's near Akihabara Eki, we headed out to Tokyo station to meet up with Leah and Steve.

From Tokyo station, we proceeded to the Imperial Palace where a small section (the gardens) are open to the public. It was a nice walk and I'd definitely like to return in the later spring\summer to get the full effect. Looking out from this hill on the grounds of the palace, I couldn't help but wonder at the changes the area has seen since the palace was built in 1888. (note that the palace was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt again in 1968, so the current buildings are nowhere near as original as the Forbidden City in Beijing) When it was originally built, Japan had just opened it's doors to the world again after being closed to the world for better than 300 years. It is fascinating to think of the pace at which change has occurred since then.

We were also lucky enough to spot this lovely early flowering plum tree in the gardens... just a taste of the beautiful scenes to come as plum and cherry blossoms bloom throughout Japan in the next few weeks. (and months for those in Akita and beyond... ahem... Alex)

After the gardens, it was suggested we head to Yasukuni shrine to check that out and grab lunch. After a slight train mishap, we got back on track and chowed down on some subway before heading to Yasukuni. On the way, I spotted this amusing use of our old friends from Sesame Street to remind commuters to be courteous to others.... which just makes the packed rush hour train rides that much more bearable.

Yasukuni Shrine is by far the most controversial site in Japan. This shrine is dedicated to honoring those who have died in military service for the emperor. It's literal translation is "Peaceful Nation Shrine" and you'd think the story would end here as every nation has some kind of memorial to honor it's war dead.

Where this gets a little trickier here is that in 1978, over one thousand war criminals (including 14 Class A War Criminals) from World War II were enshrined there in secret. When this act was revealed to the media the following year, it caused an uproar which has yet to quiet down. Countries such as China and Korea who saw countless atrocities committed against their citizens by these convicted war criminals feel that this act is proof that Japan has never fully atoned for it's actions in WWII, and that relations should not be normalized until this happens. (Another interesting note along this line is that Japan and Russia never signed a peace accord following WWII and still remain in a state of war... on paper... due to some small disputed islands North of Hokkaido) These feelings have only been amplified since 2001, when Prime Minister Koizumi (leader of the conservative LDP party) began official visits to the shrine. Japan's current Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is the likely candidate to replace Koizumi upon his departure from the political scene, has made matters even worse by suggesting the Emperor should resume visits to the shrine which stopped in 1975. I feel somewhat split on this subject. On the one hand, I feel it is important for Japan to honor the approximately 2.5 million soldiers who have been lost in wars, 2.2 of which are from WWII. I think it's important to remember the horrors of war so that we are not so quick to jump back into one. On the other hand, the inclusion of war criminals has sullied this place of worship and this has essentially turned into a tool to be used by the right-wing nationalistic factions within Japan. For example, a pamphlet published by the shrine states that the war criminals enshrined here were "wrongly accused by the Allied tribunals." Since these people are the Japanese equivalent to those convicted during the Nuremberg trials in Europe, I think it is frightening to hear such rhetoric being used 60 years later. I think everyone agrees that Germany has atoned for it's part in the Second World War, and has subsequently moved on. Japan, it seems, has only outwardly apologized, while still claiming to have been justified in it's actions. There are still those within Japan, including some in high positions within the government who deny such things as the Nanking Massacre of 1937... these people can be likened to those who deny the holocaust ever happened. Anyways, these are all very taboo subjects here in Japan, which is why I think this is still even an issue, and I've gone on long enough on the subject. It is pointless and yet I find it necessary to add that I did not join the line of worshipers paying their respects at the shrine. I consider it to be primarily a symbol of the resurgence of ultra-nationalism in Japan. (cuts to ultra-nationalist picture of the Japanese flag flying over the gate to Yasukuni)

Following our tour of Yasukuni, we headed in the general direction of Harajuku, and walked down one of Tokyo's most popular shopping streets, Omotesando. This place was ridiculously packed with people, the Luis Vuitton store was at least 4 stories high and packed with people, and all the designer labels have a presence somewhere within a 2 mile radius. That solid black you see on the sidewalk to the right... yeah those are people... enough said.

We made it to Harajuku, but unfortunately were a little too late to see the cosplay people do their thing, another postponed blogging event. We left Harajuku at 4PM, grabbed some Starbucks in Shinjuku and waited for some folks until 7 before trying to make an attempt at dinner. Unfortunately, all places had a long wait time and due to the fact Yoshiko and I had to come all the way back out here, we opted out of dinner with the gang and headed home early. We ended up eating some passable pasta at the station in Akabane before hopping on a Rapid train to get back here, which was great since it only made like 10 stops max from Akabane to Utsunomiya instead of the usual 372. On the train, I struck up a conversation with an elderly lady from Minnesota who is here working with an interesting group in NishiNasuno. You can read up on it here, it's refreshing to see such a thing in Japan, though she tells me it is funded and staffed outside of Japan. I saw Yoshiko off on her bus from the station and hoofed it the rest of the way home.... man was I glad to get here and take those shoes off.

Tested out the DVD and it works great, plays multiple region's DVDs, plays the DVDs I got in China AND the Video CDs I brought from Canada... woohoo! I'm not quite sure what to do yet with the player that's given such grief in the past few months. I am seriously considering packing it to take home with me in May and taking out my frustrations on it using my 12 gauge...... I dunno.

For now, off to bed... maybe a walk with Scott tomorrow to see some of the early blossoms... we shall see.

*Note on that statement... I said today that Tokyo was the world's largest city and Tsukuba Steve was surprised to hear it. While it may be true that Tokyo proper (8-12M people depending on your definition of"proper") does not match populations of some South-Asian nations, I believe that Tokyo includes the surrounding area encompassed by its suburbs. The inclusion of Yokohama, Kawasaki and Saitama push the greater Tokyo area's population to a staggering 34 million people, more than the entire population of Canada. This website details the agglomerations of the world by population, fascinating that Tokyo's runner up is more than 10 millions people behind.

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