Sunday, July 7, 2013

Japan 2013: Adventure Day

Today was our first day on our own since our first full day here. For me, the highlight of the trip is visiting friends, but there's a certain charm to picking a place & going there all on our own, although it's a lot more nerve-wracking, too :)

The picture at the top is a sight anyone who stays at a hotel in Japan is familiar with. They weren't as common before the 2011 earthquake & tsunami, but now they are ubiquitous. When you enter your hotel room, you are greeted by this little device, & you must heed the sign or your room has no electricity! It's an energy-saving device that must save them a lot, if you consider how many hotels are in Tokyo alone...

This was also a holiday in Japan, although you'd never have known it. July 7th is Tanabata, which is an old festival celebrating an even older myth about the movement of the stars Altair & Vega, personified as Hikoboshi the star-cow-herder, & his wife Orihime, the weaving princess. These 2 stars are separated by the Milky Way, but they converge very closely in mid-summer, needing only a bridge of birds over the Milky Way to have their once-a-year meeting. If it rains, the birds don't arrive, though. Two years ago we stumbled into a fabulous Tanabata celebration at the Zoujou-Ji Buddhist temple & were hoping to find another fun place for Tanabata this year, but for some reason this year had toned-down the celebrations. So other than the decorated bamboo fronds seen in department stores & along some streets (we saw some in Sugamo a couple days ago) there was no festival to be had :(

The morning paper said that the rainy season was officially over- Japan has a distinct rainy season that starts in May-June & lasts until early July- which is why it got so hot on Saturday (& still very humid...). The temp was supposed to go back into the 90's today, so we decided that a visit to Asakusa,  one of the largest temple complexes in Tokyo, with weekend crowds & hot temps, was not a good idea. Charlie had researched the local art museums & we decided to go to the Bridgestone Museum of art, near Tokyo Station. Our other task for the morning was activating our Japan Rail passes, which allow us to ride every train but the Nozomi (fastest bullet train) prepaid for 2 weeks. The passes seem expensive when you buy them, but in the context of taking the shinkansen (bullet train) more than once they save a lot in the long run. And you can use them for any JR train, so once we activated them, we started using them.

But even before pass activation- breakfast at our usual Starbucks :) While eating, we heard the sound of a loudspeaker, & could see a very common sight these days- a van decked-out with political posters & people shouting the name of a candidate over loudspeaker, sometimes the man himself speaking to the street at large. There's a big election in 2 weeks, so we've seen lots of these vans around town. You can see the yellow/white van in the bottom of the photo. They're parked right outside Shinjuku Station- a good place to catch passersby!

After breakfast we grabbed our passports & stuff for the day & went to Shinjuku Station to activate our JR passes. We got there right before the crowd- whew! There were a lot of folks activating passes & it was fun to hear all the languages & accents. JR passes are only available to foreigners, & a lot of the world was there with us :) We shared the window with a couple from Australia. The gal was wearing an Astro Boy t-shirt & Charlie was wearing a Totoro T-shirt, so we had fun chatting with them (& the JR ladies, too :) about anime.

Then we headed right into the station & took the Yamanote line to Tokyo Station. We are about halfway around the train line's loop from Tokyo Station, so we just jumped on the next train without worrying which direction it was headed in- a rare luxury. The maps are well-marked in English, so it's just a matter wading through the list of the stations on the map to figure out which direction the train is going in.

Yamanote Line train with cute characters & summer motifs

 We exited Tokyo Station at the Yaesu Shopping center- fortunately, because it goes under the streets almost all the way to the Bridgestone. On a hot day, things like this are greatly appreciated.

Yaesu Shopping Centre

The exhibit at the Bridgestone was really cool. It was a survey of art before & after the invention of artificial pigments. It started with Renoir & then moved right through art history to the present. The Bridgestone is a small museum, but has some amazing pieces- Picassos, Manet, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, & a room full of 20th century Japanese artists which was very interesting. It was a great way to spend a hot morning in Tokyo!

 We headed back to the Yaesu Center around noon to look for lunch. Feeling adventurous, we found a little soba place there. The menus has no English on them (sometimes the restaurants near hotels have an English menu, which is very helpful :) but I was able to ask if they had soba with veggie tempura & they did. And it was delicious!

 We took the train home in the same direction we'd come &, indeed, Shinjuku Station is pretty much exactly the same distance from Tokyo Station in either direction :) It took about half an hour each way. I kind of enjoyed the walk down memory lane of riding the full loop. We stopped in Ueno, where we've stayed before, & Harajuku, scene of a memorable adventure 4 years ago when we visited Kiddy Land (awesome toy store) & nearly got squished to death in the packed Harajuku Station on a Sunday afternoon. There were a bunch of other places that brought back memories, so the train ride didn't seem so long.

After resting a bit at the hotel, Charlie & I decided to walk back to the Hanazono Jinja (visited on Thursday) to see if they were doing anything for Tanabatta. They weren't but the walk was fun. The sky slowly clouded-up & so the sun wasn't so intense. Tokyo on a Sunday brings out all sorts of people- families with kids, casually-dressed people, formally-dressed people, ladies in kimono, & I even saw my first, real-life Goth-Loli girl! It's fun to observe the fashions & subtle changes over time. Most grown women in Japan wear neutral colours, as bright colours are considered too youthful. I tend to tone my wardrobe down some when I visit Japan, although I feel more comfortable wearing bright colours in Tokyo than in Kyoto & other parts of Japan. This visit I've been noticing women wearing orange, yellow, & other bright colors. The younger women are wearing even brighter colours- & dyeing their hair. At breakfast there was a young woman with blue hair & a bar code tatooed on the back of her neck! Tatoos are still taboo here (except in yakuza- gangster- culture) so she was really making a statement.

On the way back to the hotel we went back to Takashimaya for dinner food. More yummy corokke, Inarizushi, I found a gorgeous salad- no wilted lettuce at all!- and some pastries, & beverages. As we walked back along the bridge from Takashimaya Times Square, huge raindrops started to fall. We got back just in time before the skies opened-up:

 And then were rewarded with a gorgeous rainbow:

It lasted just forever!!

We did some packing up in the evening before heading for bed. Tomorrow- shinkansen to Kyoto!!

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