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April 09, 2005

TravelBlog: Tokyo, the New York of the East...

Actually, a more apt statement would be New York is the Tokyo of the West. (For some great pictures of Tokyo at night, try here.) The urban area of Tokyo and its surrounding areas are sprawling metropolis encompassing a staggering 34 million people. As a city itself, it lacks many of the architectural anachronisms of New York, but this is largely due to the fact that earthquakes knock many of them down every so often. In fact, because the islands are perpetually changing shape (earthquakes, volcanoes, waves), the Japanese could be said to rely more on social structure to preserve their cultural heritage than to rely on architectural cues as is the case in Europe (think: the Palace at Versailles).

My adventures in Tokyo began the night I arrived. After meeting up with friend Chris Salzberg (currently working on a PhD at U. Tokyo, doing cool artificial life stuff), I experienced the tightly packed urban eating area in Shinjuku where salarymen eat a variety of Japanese cuisine in small shops that seat at most six or seven. The next morning, I rose at 4:30am to go to the Tokyo Fish Market, which my Let's Go guidebook recommended (although, I can't recommend the Japan guidebook). Just like Shinjuku train station, the Fish Market is the largest in the world. 27 tonnes of fish pass through the market every day (except Sunday), chilled by 200 tonnes of ice! The market itself starts up at around 3:00am, so by the time I arrived at 6:30am, things were in full swing. The daily auctions of freshly caught tuna had just finished, and rows upon rows of flash-freezed tuna carcasses lay on the auction house floors. From there, the fish were transferred to about a dozen densely packed rows of processing merchants who, with band-saws and 4-ft long knives, sliced and carved the tuna into progressively smaller chunks. Tuna isn't the only thing that passes through the market. There are so many things that do, I was at a loss to identify all but a few familiar ones: sea cucumbers, tuna, giant crabs, spiny lobsters (I think), squid, cuttlefish (maybe), and a host of other finned, shelled and tentacled things.

On the subway to the market, I met Sue and Ann, two South African sisters. Both were twice my age, but we had a great time strolling through the bustling market. Sue had been to the market once before, and shared the statistics I mentioned earlier. At the far side of the market, the processed fish were packaged and moved so as to be transported to the far reaches of the globe. From what I hear, there are sushi restaurants in New York City that have their fish flown in daily from Tokyo. I've seen one end of the chain now, so next time I'm in New York, I'll have to see the other. My companions and I finished our tour with a breakfast of fresh sushi; delicious!

My next stop was the neighborhood of Akihabara, which is better known for its cheap electronics and anime stores, but I was there to see a little Confucian shrine, and the shrine to Kanda Myojin (Japanese legendary figure). As seems pretty common in Tokyo, nestled among the endless tall buildings, bustling streets and fashy modernity are islands of aged tranquility. Smack in the middle of Akihabara is a walled compound that houses the Confucian shrine, and across the street is the Kanda shrine. Both were imperfect santuarie, as if, despite the stillness within, the young, modern and energetic Tokyo a few dozen meters away refused to be silenced by the stable, ancient and peaceful Tokyo of yesterday.

Next, I walked from Akihabara to Ueno, another major transportation hub much like Shinjuku. Situated just behind the station is the sprawling Ueno Park, home, it would seem, to most of the major museums in Tokyo. I focused my time in the Tokyo National Museum complex, which houses six different buildings containing art and treasures from historic Japan, as well as the rest of Asia. Apparently, the mummys are the main draw there and I missed them. Instead, I wandered amongst thousand year old urns, scrolls and statues of buddha. Of all the pieces, I enjoyed the black and white Japanese screens, and the 'modern' Japanese art, from the 1800s, that appeared to be slightly post-Renaissance and reminded me a little of Andy Warhol's stuff. Oh, and, the samurai armor was neat.

Finally, I walked from Ueno to Asakusa (getting lost only a couple of times on the way - the directions in Let's Go Japan are universally bad for Tokyo; fortunately, the Japanese are often extremely helpful to lost foreigners) to see the famous Senso-ji shrine. "Shrine" doesn't really do it much justice - "campus" seems a better word. The main shrine is about the size of a small office building, and it's flanked by a huge and beautiful five story pagoda building. The small hut-like structure on the approaching road billows smoke that the Japanese waft towards themselves to get luck. At all the shrines I visisted, the offering box is situated in front of the buddha and is fitted with wooden slats running short-ways across the top - coins tossed onto them make a pleasing thunk-thunk-chink as they bounce across them before finally settling into the interior. The offering box at Senso-hi was proportionate to the size of the shrine... that is to say, it was huge, and patrons tossed their coins from a proportional distance away. After snapping some pictures of this sprawling and very traditionally Japanese structure, I browsed the shopping street nearby. Tourist-trap central, although a lot of the goods are hand-crafted. I hear that it used to be more pleasant (read: less touristy), but I found it nice enough.

On my second day, I ventured to Harajuku neighborhood to see the "fashion parade" of young girls wearing outlandish costumes (accompanied by Chris and Hana). At first, I had much respect for them since I thought they much have made these costumes themselves. Then, as we walked from Harajuku to Shibuya for lunch, I spotted a host of stores that sell these get-ups pre-made. The outlandishness suddenly became both less endearing and less interesting. But my faith in Japanese weirdness was restored when I came upon a group of four Japanese men outfitted in tight leather and copious amounts of hair grease, dancing to "Do The Twist" in the nearby park. As any Japanese tourist would do, I snapped a picture of the crazy locals.

That night, Chris, Hana and I had what's called "munja", a kind of traditional Japanese food. The restaurant was small and run by a local family, the menu was in kanji; Hana ordered. Soon we were brought three bowls of chopped stuff (possibly soaking in a liquid), which is then fried on the hot plate built into your table. For one kind of munja, once it's partially fried, you carefully construct a little pen on the hot plate and pour the liquid from the bowl into the middle. If you've built properly then none of the liquid seeps out. Trying my hand at this, my dam only sprung one leak, and the final result was extremely tasty.

Tokyo, like New York City, is too big to see in a few days. As I've come to expect with all of my travel, many interesting things will go unseen and unexperienced. My rationalization is that I simply have to return in the future to experience more. Tokyo is no different. During my last day, I focused more on business, visiting both the Ikegami and Kaneko laboratories at U. Tokyo. My intention was to investigate the possibility of doing a post-doc in Kaneko's lab, and this may materialize in the future. My trip to Japan left me so enamored with the country that I've placed it on the (very short) list of places to live in the future.

posted April 9, 2005 12:33 AM in Travel | permalink