The Islands at the Start of the World: Michael and Dan in Japan
Daniel Emberley, May 2014
My brother John lives outside of Tokyo, and the time was right to visit. His wife Miho is Japanese; they could help us translate language and customs, and offered us free room while we were there. It’s not often that family duty merges so seamlessly with a trip we wanted to take, so we booked flights and were on our way.
Japan is an amazing country with a wonderful version of how to live in a modern society. A Western economy, education, and expectations, with a unique implementation in an Asian setting. The people are friendly and patient with outside visitors. The art beautiful, both traditional and cutting edge. Architecture by their contemporary designers is fantastic, and hard to see outside of Japan. The food is astounding. The landscape can be stunning, with mountains and oceans in close proximity.
We had a blast. If you can go, you should. Details follow for those so inclined.
The only intelligent way to get to Tokyo from D.C. is a direct flight out of Dulles. Yes, you can save a few hundred dollars by changing planes in Toronto, Qatar, or LAX. Besides the additional time and stress of the change, you’d have to deal, respectively, with two sets of Customs, two sets of Customs in Arabic, or LAX. We got the direct flight on United. Cool views of Lake Erie and Hudson’s Bay, Siberia and the Kamchatka peninsula. We landed a day later at Narita.
Japanese Customs were our introduction to the friendliness, professionalism, and courtesy we were to experience across the country. They made us realize how embarrassing and off-putting ICE is at American airports. John and Miho met us outside Customs and whisked us off to their home. Narita is on the eastern edge of greater Tokyo, and Kawagoe, where they live, on the western edge in Saitama Prefecture. The drive is two hours without traffic (a good reason for arriving on a Sunday). Thank God for my brother’s patience and ability to drive on the left side of the road. Their house is typical for Tokyo: two stories, probably 1,000 s.f., three bedrooms upstairs with toilet, sizeable living/kitchen down with toilet and shower/bath. Nice garden, parking for the car, and room for their pit bull Rocky to roam. What is atypical is that it was just the two of them in that space. Even with Michael and me there, it never seemed crowded, and was much more spacious than we’d experienced in Hong Kong.
We liked the fact that Japanese homes separate the washing area from the toilets into entirely separate rooms. The bath is great, a walk-in shower with tons of space, then a high but short tub for soaking. Not sure we’d ever use the tub, but the shower space is something we should copy in the States. The toilets are cool, with sinks built into the top of the tanks. When you flush the toilet, the water first flows into the sink to rinse your hands, then fills the tank for the next flush. Very eco-friendly. Is it as sanitary as soaping up in a standard American sink? Perhaps not, but it works. We were to experience more luxurious versions of the Japanese toilet, the ones by Toto with built in bidets, sprays to rinse your butt, buttons to play music or the sound of running water, perfume spritzers. Cute, but unnecessary. Fortunately, one can ignore all those buttons; the flush mechanism is a lever on the side, similar to ours, or most exotically an electronic wall switch operated by placing your hand against it. We only once experienced a squat toilet (hole in the floor with two spaces for your feet). We also only once saw the toilet slipper system, where you were supposed to take your shoes off, walk into the slippers provided to enter the plumbed space, and that was the signal that the toilet was in use. Both in temples; presumably customs that are passing.
Miho had made a delicious chicken stew for dinner. We ate, got settled in, watched some TV, and crashed. An early evening, but close enough to our regular bed time that we had hopes for adjusting to the jet lag quickly. In fact, it took us about a week before we stopped waking up at 5AM, but I give partial blame to the early sunshine (Japan is not on Daylight Savings), and the birds in the trees just outside our windows.
John and I were up early, so he showed me Rocky’s usual walk through the neighborhood, past houses, a few fields planted in tea or rice, and playing fields along a river embankment. Both suburban and convenient. Unlike America, where we tend to build boring neighborhoods of identical houses, this one has a good mix of homes built in the last forty years. Some nicer than others, most similar in volume, but interesting. The streets are like in England, no separation of sidewalk from roadway, so walkers, bikers, and cars share the space politely. My favorite part was the vending machines on every corner. Nothing fancy, mainly selling coffee, iced tea, and sodas, but since there is little vandalism, they can afford to put machines almost everywhere.
I was concerned about how we were going to negotiate ticket purchases for the many transit systems we were to be using. I needn’t have been. There are many commuter train companies, two competing subway companies, and other modes of transit you switch between regularly. Each has their own system of tickets, passes, etc. However, there are two card systems that cross companies, and allow you to go seamlessly from Japan Rail to Toei subway to Metropolitan subway to a ferry and so on. PASMO is symbolized by a pink robot, SUICA by a penguin, but I never figured out any substantive difference between them. Miho had bought us PASMO cards for the trains, so we became pink robot people.
Miho is a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Tokyo University Hospital. She’d graciously rearranged her schedule to be able to spend time getting us acquainted with Tokyo. Kawagoe is located on the Tobu Tojo Line; Kasumigaseki Station is a ten minute walk from their house. The Tobu is a commuter rail system, like our MARC or VRE, with two different sets of lines running into Tokyo. Careful if you Google “Kasumigaseki” to include the prefecture “Saitama”, it is also the name of a station on the Tokyo subway downtown. In addition to the JR trains that serve the region, and in Tokyo act as a kind of elevated subway, there are at least two commuter lines, the Tobu and the Seibu. Both were established in the 1890’s, led to development of major areas of Tokyo after WWII, and have their own massive department store chains over their terminal stations in Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya. Both lines are successful concerns a century later: imagine if the Vanderbilts were still making money from the New York Central, with Vanderbilt’s Department Store in lieu of Macy’s.
Miho and John taught us to always get on a Red “Direct Express” train (as not all trains would stop at Kasumigaseki). There was a train every fifteen minutes; even here in the equivalent of Centreville or Columbia we rarely waited longer than that, even at night. For all other trains you wouldn’t even bother looking at schedules or arrival signs, a train would come in less than five minutes, usually two. The ride takes about 45 minutes, and terminates at Ikebukuro, one of the busiest train stations in the world. We rarely got a seat, but the standing was not too bad, and by avoiding rush hour in and out of Tokyo we missed the crowding one is warned about. Miho walked us through the transfer at Ikebukuro to the subway, and a change later we were at Tsukiji.
Tsukiji is probably the tenth Japanese word I’ve thrown at you. How do you pronounce these words? I never mastered it, but got so that I could be understood when asking directions. I is always pronounced like the “ee” in feet, E like “eh”, A “ah”, O “oh”, U “oo”. I found that if I stressed the syllable before the syllable I wanted to emphasize it usually worked. So this place is SOO-key-gee. The Japanese language is its own special hurdle for Westerners. It is one of the things that is uniquely Japanese, and helps them define themselves as a people apart. They also acknowledge that they are never going to get any non-Japanese to learn it, so have made major strides to learn at least minimal English. We found that a few Japanese phrases (thank you, please, excuse me, good morning, where is XXX?, do you speak English?) got us through most situations, and when something more complicated was necessary, the Japanese speaker would switch to English. They’re taught in school to read, not speak, but are game to help, and even store clerks, museum ticket vendors, and train attendants had enough English to get us what we needed.
Reading Japanese? You have to put yourself in an entirely different mindset. We think of our twenty-six letters as exclusive and different from Arabic, Russian, or Hebrew letters: one would not combine them in a sentence. Japanese, on the other hand, is a palimpsest of writing systems. The original writing was based on Chinese characters to create kanji, one character per word. That was considered too difficult for women and children to learn, and so simplified into hiragana, one character per consonant-vowel combo. When foreign words began to be introduced with the Portuguese in the 1600’s, they developed katakana to capture those sounds. Finally, I suspect during the U.S. occupation, they began writing signs in our English characters, Romanji. These are not exclusive: you frequently find kanji and hiragana and katakana put together in a sentence, or road sign, or store name. I had concentrated on learning the hiragana characters before we arrived, a complete waste of time. Learning the simpler and most common kanji (some of which we remembered from Hong Kong) proved more useful. We found Len Walsh’s “Read Japanese Today” (written 1969, updated edition available on Amazon) an easy entrée to how the Japanese use kanji. With that, we were able to decipher train station names, and so know when we were close to our stop. Almost all public signs are in Japanese and Romanji, including subway station and street signs, and maps of neighborhoods, which is a great help.
Tsukiji is the fish market where the world’s best seafood passes on its way to Japan’s chefs. The market is scheduled to move to a place called Toyosu, but we were fortunate to see the area in its last days downtown. The fish auctions happen too early in the morning for us to have caught, but the market stalls were hopping. There are cool Buddhist and Shinto temples, and stands selling exotic groceries in addition to the expected fresh and dried seafood. Oddly, and unlike Hong Kong, no smell of fish: it must move out while still fresh, plus there is a generous use of Saran Wrap. We hunted for a sushi lunch, which was delicious. Michael ordered a tofu salad (huh?), and after guessing at a particularly mysterious piece of sashimi the chef informed us it was horsemeat. We can take THAT off our bucket list. A little more shopping, and a stop at a 7-11 to get cash. American bank cards don’t work in most Japanese ATM’s, but we always had luck at 7-11’s and post offices. Leaving Tsukiji we stopped at a Lawsons, a ubiquitous chain of convenience stores with amazingly good food. Yankees may remember Cumberland Farms; add to that food that is fresh and delicious. We got an “American dog”, aka, a corn dog, and ice cream on a stick. Miho led us toward downtown by the recently renovated Kabuki-za Theater, the major place to see kabuki in Tokyo. We never caught a performance, but enjoyed the shops in the subway arcade underneath the building. We were shocked by how quiet the streets were: not that they weren’t jammed with cars, trucks, and pedestrians, but no one was shouting or honking, carrying themselves with dignity. There was no trash, despite the fact that there are very few trash cans (we ended up holding our ice cream sticks for several blocks until sighting one in a bank).
Miho got us on the subway to Asakusa. This is the former “Low City”, the trader’s city across the Sumida River from the palaces of the nobility. It is one of the few places where you can see older Tokyo. Or at least is supposed to be. We walked up Nakamise-dori, the street of shops selling souvenirs, snack food, and temple goods leading up to Senso-ji Temple; it had been transformed into a Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Fun, we got an “ice cream burger” (red bean ice cream served in two square wafers of ice cream cone pastry) and shopped our way to the temple. Despite the heavy commercialism just outside its door, it is surprisingly tranquil. We washed our hands in the well, waved the sacred protecting smoke over us, and went up the steps to leave a donation to the spirits. Not at all off-putting, as a Catholic shrine might be to non-believers, but welcoming of all who came in respect.
West of Asakusa is a street of commercial restaurant vendors, Kappa-bashi-dori. This is touted in the tourist literature as a place to purchase the plastic food displayed in restaurant windows all over Japan. It reminded me of the Bowery in Manhattan: lots of supply houses, but for restaurant owners, not us. Lots of specialization, a store that sold only pots, another chairs, another menus. There were a couple places selling plastic food, but it was expensive, much more than I’d seen for similar items online. Fun to walk the street, though, lined with cartoon images of kappas, a water sprite used to frighten children away from playing in streams and ponds. For a neighborhood catering to eateries, there was no place to eat: we eventually found a coffee shop for a break of iced hot chocolate, very 1950’s diner with tobacco smoke and Formica walls.
An excellent tour guide, Miho got us back on the subway to Shinjuku. The “shin” syllable implies “new” (the Shinkansen, the “new” high speed train, often stops at “new” stations that were built away from the old downtown stations to allow faster runs: Shin-Kobe, Shin-Osaka). Here, it refers to a downtown that was built from scratch in the 1980’s. The big attraction is Kenzo Tange’s 1991 Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices, Tokyo’s city hall. It’s a pair of matched skyscrapers with an atrium, you can go up either tower to a free sky deck. There are other observation platforms around Tokyo, but all of them charge. We stopped off at the Information Center for maps of the city, where we were met by a person in a cartoon cow outfit pushing dairy products. The sky deck is full of a toy/souvenir store, but one can easily walk the periphery and see the city, with photos explaining what you’re looking at. The view is okay, but not spectacular. There is no zoning in Tokyo, so, like Houston, skyscrapers get built next to gas stations, single family homes, even a few plots of rice or garden. It’s mainly a city of two-three story houses rather than apartment buildings. Because of the jumble, and possibly because of the expectation of destruction from the next earthquake, most structures are utilitarian. There’s totally a New York energy here, if not more so, but without the organizing structure of Manhattan’s avenues, rivers, and park to make sense of it. More like Boston, with its collection of neighborhoods, except exploded to many times the extent and density.
Shinjuku reminded us of Tysons Corner, or Boston’s Prudential Center, or New York’s old World Trade Center. We walked east on landscaped sidewalks, terraces, and moving sidewalks, under freeways and parallel to rail lines and parking garages, from government-oriented Shinjuku West to commercial Shinjuku East, passing through Shinjuku Station itself en route. A cool connection to the Cocoon Building above us, Kenzo Tange from 2008. There is supposed to be a whole street of underground shopping at Shinjuku, but we never found it, wandering instead through shopping arcades between department stores. We had a snack at a French bakery (not uncommon here), then shopped at Tokyu Hands. This is an eight story department store for handymen and crafters. Like a Nordstrom’s with floors for wood working tools, fabric, house plants, scrapbooking, and kitchen gadgets. Very cool.
Miho found a Japan Rail commuter train that ran us express from Shinjuku back to Ikebukuro, where we caught the Tobu Tojo line back to Kasumigaseki. John brought us to Q-Don, a place that sells rice bowls with a variety of toppings. He showed us how to use the vending machine kiosk to order the food. It’s pretty cool, and commonly used at fast food joints: you make your order at the machine, where there are (usually) pictures to help you decide. You pay at the machine, which spits out a ticket. The kitchen prepares your order, which you redeem from a sales person with your ticket. It’s sort of brilliant, the staff do not have to wait on hesitant customers or handle money. Instead they concentrate on making good food. We walked it home and ate there, it was delicious. Meanwhile, John and Miho were off on a mission of dog mercy. A friend of a friend of Miho had a dog that needed an operation and blood transfusion. Since most Japanese keep small dogs, getting a blood donor is difficult. Rocky was volunteered as the donor, which meant hours of driving around Tokyo and waiting in vet’s offices while the procedure took place. They were glad that Rocky had been able to help.
Waking up at an ungodly hour, we took an early walk around the neighborhood. We were pleased to discover that we could find the train station from the house on our own. This may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but the Japanese do not use streets and numbering as we do. Frequently, streets are the width of an alley, and lack continuity, even in newer suburbs. But hey, I grew up in Boston; that I can handle. More challenging is that their addresses do not reference streets at all: they mention the prefecture, then area, then neighborhood, then block. On the block, buildings are numbered as they are constructed. So, building 7 might be next to 25 which is next to 12, and so on. Building 15 might have been torn down and replaced with a parking lot, which was then rebuilt a decade later and numbered 33. This makes finding any address in Tokyo a bit of a puzzle even to locals, and helps explain the prevalence of small police stations, kobans, every few intersections. One of the main tasks of a Tokyo policeman is helping people find their way. Really.
Our homing skill meant we did not have to drag John or Miho with us as guides. John was psyched, as it meant he did not have to accompany us to a bunch of museums he had no desire to see. He and Miho took us in on the Tobu to Ike, where Miho helped me buy tickets on the Shinkansen for Kyoto and back to Tokyo. Then she got us on the Yamanote Line. The Yamanote is run by JR, Japan Rail. It forms an oval around Tokyo, connecting the major stations and most neighborhoods. If you were afraid of the subway, you could easily survive Tokyo without a car by riding the Yamanote. You would think it would be like one of our commuter trains, as it rides above ground on the same rights of way as the national rail network, but in fact operates more like another subway, with trains running every two minutes. I so did not believe this until I rode it. We all rode together to Ueno Park. John and Miho went to the zoo, then Miho went to work and John headed home. We went exploring.
Ueno is the premier cultural area of Tokyo. It was once a beautiful park, and bits of that landscaping have survived, but most of it is concrete plazas with Starbucks kiosks. That was disappointing. What did not disappoint were the museums. A campus of national and local museums fill a good chunk of Ueno, like our National Mall but more intimate, and without the governmental anchors and oversize memorials. We started at the Tokyo National Museum. This is the best museum of Japanese art in the world. It has four major buildings, which give an overview of modern Japanese architecture. We started with lunch in Yoshio Taniguchi’s Gallery of the Horyu-ji Treasures. The building is amazing, a 1998 concrete box with a front that protrudes well past the glass façade, forming a cave-like porch over a reflecting pool. The concrete-glass-water combo is one we were going to see and like a lot. We started here to get lunch under our belts to prevent me from going into insulin shock later (a not uncommon reaction when I confront big museums with great art collections). This building had the Museum’s main restaurant, French, serving an excellent grilled fish on hollandaise and vegetables. The Horyu-ji treasures come from a Buddhist temple with a historic collection that lacked the means to maintain it, so donated it to the nation. Lots of bronze statues, flag mountings, and decayed bits of paper and fabric. We were underwhelmed, not sure if it was our ignorance of Buddhist art or if one needed to have a national connection to the collection to appreciate it. The display is fantastic, a gallery of small bronze statues at eye level, like a mystically lit Buddha forest. On the whole, though, we needed the kind of interpretation we would have gotten at the Sackler.
The Honkan houses the main collection. It was designed by Jin Watanabe in 1937. At that point Japanese architects had absorbed the engineering and design history of Western architecture, and were attempting to develop an appropriate Japanese variation. This was encouraged by the government, who during the Depression and war against China were looking for a way to cement an image of Japan as imperial power. Few did this as well as Watanabe, a small number of his works survived the Kanto Earthquake and Fire and American bombing. This is a fabulous Art Deco building. You get hints of that outside, but get the full effect when you walk into the main hall, with its bronze lighting, Lalique-esque glass, and gilded woodwork. Stunning. The upstairs galleries present the history of Japanese art from Jomon clay figurines (think ancient Crete or Egyptian) to Western-style oil paintings from the 1920’s. The downstairs galleries show art by medium: bronzes, works on paper, photography, swords, textiles. We especially liked the art from the Edo (1680’s to about 1860) and Taisho periods (equivalent to our Art Nouveau/Art Deco, 1910 to the Great Depression). Adjacent to the Honkan is Yoshiro Taniguchi’s 1968 Toyokan. Yoshiro was the father of Yoshio. This is a concrete Brutalist mass. A really well designed one, but as charming as Boston’s Government Center or D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza. It shows brilliant collections of Chinese, Korean, and South Asian art, on an interesting set of galleries that step down in half-floors, like a giant split-level home that just keeps spiraling. We took a breather on the Toyokan’s terrace facing the main plaza; it looked like no one had used it except museum guards on break for years. Strange to find a place in Tokyo where you could sit without crowds or competition.
There are other buildings in the National Museum complex. The 1909 Hyokeikan is completely Beaux Arts; it would fit comfortably on a Parisian boulevard. There’s a Tadao Ando-designed Library of Children’s Literature, which we never found. Behind the Honkan are tea houses in gardens open to the public only during cherry blossom season. We could have spent much more time here. We checked out the major fountain plaza at the core of Ueno Park, and moved on the National Museum of Western Art.
Two Western architects had an outsized influence on Japanese architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1920’s, trained a generation. In 1959, Le Corbusier did the same thing with the National Museum of Western Art, educating a group who would do new and amazing things with reinforced concrete. Unfortunately, it’s a Le Corbusier building, so hard to find the entrance amongst all the sterile plazas and forbidding overhangs. We found our way in, stopping first for a “parfait” (banana split) and melon Calpis (one of the poorly named national sodas, dueling with Pocari Sweat for most dubious honors) in the café. The collection was begun by industrialist Kojiro Matsukata in the 1910’s, who hoped to educate his countrymen in what was happening in art outside of Japan. His excellent assemblage of old (a Renaissance Carlo Crivelli, didn’t expect to see one of those in Tokyo) and then-contemporary oil paintings changed the way the Japanese looked at art. But, not for a while: the collection was impounded by the French government during WWII, and only released in the 1950’s. An Old Master collection like you might see at a good college museum, many Impressionists, lots of Rodin sculptures. The building is sort of a disaster, with narrow and railing-less staircases flying through galleries velvet-roped off to protect the average visitor, but the art shows well.
Under the JR tracks south of Ueno Station is Ameyoko Market . This was similar to the markets we’d seen at Tsukiji and Asakusa, but aimed at local residents rather than tourists: lots of small grocers, clothing and houseware stores, bars and restaurants. We walked south to the next JR station, Okachimachi, caught the Yamanote line counterclockwise back to Ikebukuro, then Tobu Tojo to Kasumigaseki. We were worried about catching a Tobu train anywhere close to rush hour, and were tired. At Kasumigaseki we explored a bit, discovering Create (a cross between convenience store and supermarket) and Seria. Seria is a 100 yen store. Since one yen is one cent American, these are dollar stores, but much more tasteful, clean, and with a significantly broader selection of goods. Lots of plastic crap, but tons of intriguing items we would never have considered. Puppy-decorated socks for your coffee table’s feet, anyone? Perhaps because they’re closer to China the transport costs are less, and so more items are available at a broader range of quality.
John took us to Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Not too different than ours, the only significant variation was the option of a fish stick as a one of the sides. It was built alongside a Sanrio store, so I got to look at Hello Kitty! items while waiting for our bucket. We hit a “supa”, a regular supermarket, then home to do laundry. Most Japanese homes have a washing machine – during the Occupation, when the nation was trying to jumpstart the economy, all families were encouraged to purchase a television, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. What they don’t have is dryers. So, every residence has some access to the outside, with at least one rod to hang clothing. A bad idea in a country of monsoons, but it seems to work. They’ve got symbols on their weather reports to let you know if it is a safe day to do laundry, although as John said, it’s easier to look outside and see if it is raining or not.
This was our only rainy day, and we were able to spend most of it under cover. John drove us to the Post Office to try an ATM, then dropped us at the train station for the ride into Ike.
Ikebukuro Station is anchored by two grand department stores, “depatos”. They have been competing for decades for the title “World’s Largest Department Store”. To the south is Tobu, founded by the Nezu family to anchor their Tobu Tojo train line. To the north is Seibu, the depato that anchors the Seibu train line. We’d experienced Seibu in Hong Kong, where it was a haven of high design. Their anchor store did not disappoint. On 10 floors, extending across several blocks, were clothes, suits made to measure, housewares, crafts. There are two basement levels of food (one for gifts, one for take-out dinner), an upper floor of restaurants, and a roof deck tea house. Adjacent on one side is their more upscale store, Parco. Across the parking garage is a multi-level Muji Store (the minimalist design store with branches at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), and a five-level book store, Libro. On top of the central section is Loft, three more floors of shopping aimed at a Crate and Barrel, high design, younger crowd. Above the parking deck are two stories for Ikebukuro Community College. The Seibu Gallery, adjacent to Muji, is a mini-convention center hall, hosting vendors of olive oil when we were there, but also a place where you might find gallery shows of contemporary art. We explored it all, escalatoring between floors and discovering connections between the stores on different levels.
It was fun, but exhausting. We got lunch on the eighth floor, at Tam-bo, a noodle restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Hokkaido. The most northern of the four major islands is known as a place of agriculture and mountains. Sort of a combination of Wyoming, Iowa, and Vermont. We ordered from the pictures, getting the set lunch (miso soup, salad, bowl of rice topped with something, pickles, and green tea). This is a standard meal all over Japan. I was surprised to discover that what I’d thought was beef and mushrooms was actually mutton; Michael happily exchanged for his salmon and roe.
We jumped onto the subway, changed lines, and got out at Ryogoku. This neighborhood east of downtown is famous for its sumo schools and arena; major meets were happening that day. Our destination was the Edo-Tokyo Museum. In the 1960’s, the Japanese developed Metabolism, a school of architecture that explored urbanism, how we could live together in floating cities, or on the moon, or underwater. In America Paolo Soleri was doing this at Arcosanti, and similar ideas were being explored in Europe. Metabolism is when Japan was embraced by the architectural community as a full participant, not a quaint Oriental adaptation of Western ideas. The Edo-Tokyo Museum was designed in 1993 by Kiyonori Kikutake as a late expression of Metabolism. It is an enormous concrete mass on mammoth stilts next to the river. Funky, and easily accessible from the subway via a covered arcade, a blessing in the rain. Inside the museum splits between the history of Edo, the shoguns’ capital of Japan, and Tokyo, the emperor’s capital after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The story is well told through artifacts and recreations, including a Nihombashi, the bridge that once connected the high and low cities of Edo, a noble’s palace compound, and homes of average working people. Tokyo is younger than Boston. The museum takes the history up to the 1964 Olympics, when the city is generally accepted to have joined the big leagues with New York, London, and Moscow. Not a lot of English, but enough that you can follow along. Must be amazing to read Japanese and understand all the material being presented. Slow, though, too; we were happy with the two hours we spent there. Great gift shop.
We took a different set of subway lines back to Ikebukuro, surprised to discover that our transfer between lines took us out of one station, onto city streets, then back into the subway again. All went swimmingly with the PASMO card, and we were able to take advantage of a Lawsons on the route for a hot dog and fried chicken. It is impossible to get bad food in Japan.
Back at the house, Miho and John drove us to Donton Bori for dinner. They specialize in okonomiyake, cabbage pancakes that you cook yourself on a hot grill built into your table. They are served with a black sauce that looks evil, but was amazing. We supplemented with yakisoba (noodles we fried ourselves) and a daikon salad. Delicious, and fun to have John and Miho cook for us in the restaurant. Back home we watched some of the sumo matches we’d passed by in Ryogoku, and some goofily cool game shows.
When we first were planning this trip, I’d sent Miho a wish list of places we might like to go. She e-mailed back almost immediately: “Naoshima? You’d go to Naoshima? How do you know about Naoshima?” Naoshima is a small island in the Inland Sea, between Honshu and Shikoku. The area once supported fishing and shipbuilding, but declined. Twenty-five years ago the Benesse Corporation asked architect Tadao Ando if he could design them a destination art museum-hotel-resort. It’s now four hotel structures, three museums, and two restaurants sprawling across the southern third of the island, a protected natural environment dotted with installations by the world’s best artists. The only problem was, I didn’t think I could get there. It’s pretty far to the west on Honshu, and required multiple train and ferry connections. I told Miho my concern, and she said she could handle it.
We got up early and hit the Tobu Tojo to Ikebukuro, Yamanote to Tokyo Station, and the Shinkansen for Okayama. The Shinkansen is a dream, your ticket tells you which platform, which car, and which door, and you walk right on to your assigned seat. It was in and out of Tokyo in two minutes, similarly in the following seven stops. That’s 420 miles, which would have taken eight hours to drive, but only four on the train. Like Boston to Washington, in a similarly congested and urbane world. Lots of tunnels, mountains, rice fields, and cities. The Kirin beer factory tanks are painted like a row of foaming pilsners. The ride itself was so smooth that our sodas did not jiggle in our glasses. We got a lunch of tonkatsu (pork cutlet) in Okayama Station, then Miho led us to the bus area. I was confused, as the museum had told us to take two connecting trains, but Miho explained that she found that confusing, and had found Rainbow Bus, a company that got us the next stage in 45 minutes. The bus stopped in Uno, at the end of the peninsula, where the ferry to Naoshima departed. Lovely ride, across an island-studded sea backed by mountains and what looked like former shipbuilding and mining yards. On the island we were met by the museum’s courtesy bus, and rolled up to our hotel a few minutes later. Having left Kasumigaseki around 5AM, we were on Naoshima by early afternoon, after three trains, two buses, and a ferry.
Benesse Art Site’s accommodations run in descending order of cost from the Oval (top of a mountain, private monorail access) through the Beach, Museum, and Park. We did the Park, and could not have been more pleased. All were designed by Ando, had luxurious amenities, and original art in the public spaces and rooms. Park was the furthest from the Museum, but had the best landscaping, a private sculpture garden and beach, and extensive guest facilities. John and Miho checked-in and jumped right on the Museum shuttle to the Art House Project, a series of artist installations in former fishermen’s houses in the island’s main town.
We took a nap and then a walk through the gardens, along the pier and beach and up the cliffs. As promised, great art was installed all through the site. Most by artists we’d heard of, some by people new to us, but all well sited and worth seeing. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photo murals led us to Teresita Fernandez’s “Blind Blue Landscape”, a corridor of undulating waves made of mirrored cubes. Out to the terrace where George Rickey’s mobiles dominated the reflecting pool. The park has Nikki de Saint Phalle benches surrounding a Dan Graham mirrored pavilion, set into pink and yellow wildflowers and daisies. On the pier Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin has become the unofficial symbol and required photo spot of the Art Site. There were more Hiroshi Sugimoto pieces, video installations of beaches around the world, on enormous screens suspended from the cliffs. To make it perfect, a rainbow formed in the mist above the sea as we walked back.
Kaiseki is a style of Japanese cuisine usually served at onsen, inns at hot springs. The Museum restaurant served dinner kaiseki style, an eight course menu from fabulous pickle appetizer through local seafood to strawberry mousse, with sparkling sake to drink. As guests we were allowed to tour the original Museum after dinner, it was a special experience. Many of the pieces/installations look completely different in the daylight before and twilight after dinner, especially a Bruce Naumann neon piece in a spectacular Ando circular gallery. I think everyone’s favorite piece was a Jennifer Bartlett painting of a beach, installed opposite a window where one saw, on the beach outside, the same two boats as in the painting. The most talked about, however, was Jonathan Borofsky’s “Three Chattering Men”, whose “chatter chatter chatter” refrain would crack us up every time one of us repeated it. Very cool to see in the flesh art I’d only seen in the pages of “Art in America”, like Yukinori Yanagi’s “World Flag Ant Farm”. A peaceful walk along the mountain paths back to Park, where we stocked up on coffee and sat on the terrace overlooking our sculptures, our beach, and our inlet talking over the day as the lights of Takamatsu blinked across the Inland Sea.
We took a pre-breakfast stroll to see how morning light changed the pumpkin on the pier and the Dan Graham mirrors, then met up with John and Miho in the Beach hotel for breakfast. An expansive buffet, American, Japanese, and foods from other cultures that I didn’t recognize. Did both American (biscuits, sausage, eggs, fruit) and Japanese (miso soup, pickled vegetables, omelet, kiwi marmalade). Hiked it off going to the Chichu Art Museum, detouring to see the 88 Buddhas cast of industrial slag from former industry on the peninsula. The hike passes through a river-like garden inspired by Monet’s at Giverney. “Chichu” means underground in Japanese, and that’s what it is, a series of galleries buried in the top of a mountain, so that even though each gallery is well lit from above, the view is undisturbed. One of Ando’s great buildings. The museum shows three artists: Monet water lily paintings, hung above a floor of 1-inch marble cobbles; a Walter de Maria installation of a giant black stone sphere and gold-leafed columns, and two James Turrell light spaces. The greatest piece of art is the building itself.
Miho and John were off; they had a Shinkansen to catch to take them west to Hiroshima. We caught the shuttle bus to the Lee Ufan Museum. Ufan is an artist whose major work was created in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, sort of Minimalist and Action Painting. Eh, we were not impressed. The space, another Ando, is fantastic, but would have been even better if it were dedicated to an artist we cared about. Very lovely entry moment where you walk between two high walls, where the sounds of your feet are amplified by the space. Hiking back to the Park, closer to the water, we discovered Chinese artist Cai Guo-Giang’s “Cultural Melting Bath”, an open-air hot tub you can reserve, surrounded by giant Scholar’s Rocks. Wicked, wish we had known about it in advance.
Lunch was at the Museum café, squid ink curry, pasta Amatriciana, and a brownie. Communed with the fish in Nam Jun Paik’s aquarium/tv, and explored the third floor of the museum, which we had missed the night before. Great roof deck with views of the sea. We had an hour to kill, so hung out in the social room of the Park, having a last communion with the Sugimoto murals and the sea. Michael keeps referring to this experience as “Bearnaise House”, like the sauce, but if you Google it, use “Benesse”. On the bus to the ferry we made friends with a group of women from San Francisco who were touring Japan with a textile artist. We exchanged stories of textiles, and they helped us find the ferry to Uno. We’d noticed these women several times over the previous 36 hours, it was nice to meet and trade stories of what we had seen. We caught the bus back to Okayama.
Okayama is famous for peaches (Momotaro, mythical peach-boy hero, comes from there), Okayama Castle, and Koraku-en Gardens. I’d hoped to see the latter two either coming or going, but there was too much to see in Japan: next trip, for now, on to Kyoto!
To our surprise the Shinkansen east was full. We did not have reservations, and had to stand, which apparently is acceptable. We weren’t alone, and there was the usual Japanese courtesy and quiet under unfortunate circumstances. A nice woman pointed us to two seats together in Kobe, and we pulled into Kyoto refreshed and eager. Nervous about this connection and wandering around a strange city at twilight, I’d booked us in the Ibis, which looked on Google Maps to be a street away from the station. In fact, it was directly across the station plaza, and while I hadn’t seen it coming out, I saw it from the platform as we left the train. To my delight, our ninth floor room had a direct view of the Shinkansen platform, so we were able to watch trains come and go at night.
Hiroshi Hara designed Kyoto Station in 1991. It is amazing, a green glass space sometimes open to sky or street, sometimes enclosed, bridging over levels of subway and bus routes, running under and over the tracks of local and high speed trains. The interior is like a canyon that you climb on high speed escalators. To your left is a flight of ceremonial/performance stairs with a computer-coordinated rainbow of lights. Beyond that are floors of restaurants and shops. To your right is Isetan, one of Kyoto’s great department stores. Behind you is another set of escalators climbing the canyon the opposite way. Both sets of ascend to sky gardens with sculpture and views. I knew I was going to like this station, but didn’t expect it to be so pivotal to our Kyoto experience. The city fathers must have been furious at its denial of traditional Kyoto and embrace of today, but it makes it easy for tourists to find food, shopping, and transit connections.
We stopped on the ninth floor, all ramen shops, and picked one for dinner. We were forced to order at a vending machine without pictures. We guessed wisely, and once seated and eating our pork ramen (who knew that was what we’d chosen?), a nice waitress hit additional buttons for us to get gyoza (dumplings) and sesame-bamboo shoots. From the maps around the dining area we guessed that we were eating ramen in the style of southern Honshu, but don’t quote us.
We took a trial walk to check out the city’s scale north on Karasuma-dori, one of the main axes of the city. We walked up two subway stations’ distance then back on one of the smaller “alley” streets to its east. This is no Tokyo: even at 7PM on a Friday night, it had rolled up its carpets. I had hopes of Kyoto being another Venice, Bruges, or San Francisco. Tourist images of Kyoto are of historic temples, rock gardens, and pine tree covered hills, but on this walk it was more like Cleveland. The U.S. deliberately did not bomb Kyoto, to preserve its wonders, but the post-War prosperity was just as damaging, with blocks of what must have been romantic (and probably uncomfortable) wooden houses replaced by mundane concrete structures (that have sewage and running water).
We got breakfast in the station. Someone has merged the American names Café du Monde (gourmet coffee house in New Orleans) and Mr. Donut into a Japanese franchise. I got the hot dog topped with scrambled eggs and ketchup, with sweet peach iced tea. The oddest and only bad meal I had in Japan. Michael wisely stuck to coffee and a French pastry. We found the subway station, and discovered that our PASMO cards worked here. Imagine if your D.C. SmartCard worked on New York’s Metro North, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and Boston’s T. The subway here is easy, one line running north-south under Karasuma-dori and a second east-west. A helpful legacy of Kyoto’s grid, laid out in 794 A.D. in emulation of a Chinese city. Once all the streets were numbered, like an American grid city. Kyoto Station is on Hachijo-dori, or Eighth Avenue. Rode north to Nijojo-mae Station. Ni is two, Nijo is Second Avenue, and the second jo means castle. So, Nijojo is Second Avenue Castle. LOVED that I was finally understanding some of how Japanese language and culture evolved.
Nijo Castle had large crowds of bus and school groups lined up outside the entrance, but the line moved rapidly. Inside a high wall is the main palace, gardens, and auxiliary buildings. The castle was built in 1603 by the Tokugawa shoguns when they had solidified their hold over Japan, but was never lived in by them. Instead, they moved to Tokyo, leaving the emperor in Kyoto. For most of its history Nijo Castle was used by bureaucrats implementing directives from Tokyo, like the main Federal Office Building in an American downtown. The palace is a series of rectangles connected at their corners, with corridors flowing around the core rooms. It’s famous for its Momoyama-period carving, painted doors, ceilings, and screen panels, and “nightingale floors”. The architecture and art are splendid. The floors were engineered to squeak when walked on, to give warning of a potential assassin. Great idea, but painful when illustrated by the tread of 5,000 students on the prescribed walk.
Surrounding the palace are gardens. There are several schools of Japanese gardens, and an unclear nomenclature to describe them. Looking at our photos, I’m remembering a garden for strolling, with grass fields and small pine tree-covered hills surrounding raw-stone-lined naturally-curved reflecting pools. Behind these is the former Honmaru Palace, a once-pagoda-like tower that burned to just its foundation, a moat-encircled square pedestal on which a traditional style palace was relocated in the 1840’s. It and its gardens are equally lovely, as were the Seiryuen Gardens, a third stretch that runs you back south past the palace toward the entrance. Near the entrance is the Castle Collection Museum. It was showing recently restored painted Kano School tiger panels from the early 1600’s and artifacts from archaeology of the site. We debated paying the $5 for the Museum: do it, it was small but worth it to experience some of the paintings up close.
East of the Kamo River, Kyoto’s grid plan runs up against the hills that surround the city. A series of temple complexes developed here over the centuries. We took the subway east to Keage, then hiked into the foothills to Nanzenji. A red brick Meiji-era aqueduct snakes through the grounds of the temple here, an interesting contrast of Victorian and traditional Japanese architecture. This is a fabulous example of the classic temple combination: street of shops approaching, the temple proper, buildings for the monks and scholars, and gardens unifying the whole. Irises were in bloom along the waterfall and lake in the gardens, with expanses of moss beneath the pines. In addition, at least two “garden rooms” provided contemplation within the temple complex, one the “National Place of Beauty” Hojo Garden. This is a classic dry garden, where a field of white stones is raked to represent water, accented by signature rock “islands”. The field is backed by trees, which then “borrow” the mountains above into the garden’s composition. Amazing, and with only a few other people present, we did not have to jostle crowds to appreciate the space. The interior rooms each had important paintings on doors and/or screens, one of tigers, one of cranes.
Philosopher's Walk is a stroll along the foothills from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji Temple. We expected it to be scenic, we did not expect it to be delightful. One is led along a canal past temples, small shops selling crafts, food stalls, artists, and private homes. Bridges let you follow the sun or shade as you choose. There is no architectural intervention that stands out, but the space is serene and beautiful, fulfilling my Kyoto fantasies dashed the night before. We got lunch at an inexpensive noodle shop, ramen and yakisoba.
Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) are both major tourist attractions. The Golden Pavilion was built first, and covered in gold leaf, which shows beautifully in photos. Photos were as close as we were going to get, it is way in the northwest of Kyoto, too far for us to travel in our 48 hours. The son of the Emperor of the Golden Pavilion built the Silver, but did not have a follower to complete the silver leaf he planned. Instead it is a stunning black pagoda with Persian windows. On the usual shopping stretch up to the complex I was stopped by junior high kids who wanted to practice their English. This is not an unusual event where tourists gather, the kids introduce themselves, ask you to do the same, and take your photo to prove their “body count” to their teacher. Fun. Before entering the temple you face two giant hedges that block your view of the complex proper, putting you in a mindset of reverence (and presumably the inspiration for Tadao Ando’s stone ones at the Lee Ufan Museum). Ginkakuji’s paintings are fantastic, mainly 1700’s, in what we would recognize as a fully refined and simplified Japanese style. The grounds begin with a dry rock garden with a human-size mound representing Mount Fuji, and flow into a mountain trail, moss gardens, and artificially-driven “springs”. It completely earns its World Heritage Site listing. I got a mango shave ice on the shopping stretch, and Michael some of the graham-like crackers Kyoto is known for.
We wandered southeast along the grounds of the Yoshida Shrine through the Jogoji neighborhood – it reminded us of neighborhoods in Rome where people live normal lives between World Heritage Site A and Great Catholic Shrine B. We were aiming for the Kyoto Handicraft Center, which sadly was a several-floor tourist trap. We fled south past the Heian Jingu Shrine to Miyako Messe, Kyoto’s convention center, and the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts in its basement. This is excellent, with displays of over twenty crafts traditionally made for the nobility and still made today. Kimono manufacture, bronze casting, wood carving, inlay, fans, paper craft, embroidery, dying, pottery, iron working. An exhibition hall had a show of contemporary local oil paintings, not good, mainly landscapes and flowers, but nice to see them being given the space. The Kyoto Zoo, Municipal Museum of Art, and Museum of Modern Art are all adjacent, but my sugars were low, so we jumped into the subway at Higashiyama and returned to Kyoto Station. We got dinner at a place whose name never appeared in English, so you’re on your own, but it was great: tempura udon, omelet, beef tendon curry, grilled eggplant, and shoju (like grain alcohol, only nicer) with lemon soda.
We’d looked into Isetan yesterday, but did some serious shopping there this evening, for paper and porcelain. Depatos do elaborate wrapping for normal purchases; when they learned we were taking the items to America they added bubble wrap and an additional shopping bag. Enough of a process that they suggested we keep shopping and return in ten minutes. Which we did. For three tea cups. The service is just incredible, very worth bowing for in thanks. We wandered down into the bus terminal part of the station, looked at food stores, found an ATM.
There was a pachinko parlor next to our hotel. Pachinko is like slot machines: you launch a ball bearing into what looks like a pinball machine, but you have no control over how the ball falls. Sometimes you win more balls, usually you don’t. Since gambling is illegal (ahem) in Japan, you redeem your balls for a prize, which you then walk outside where there is a “pawn shop” that buys your prize off of you. The whole experience just as tobacco-smoke seedy as a slot parlor in any American truck stop, but fun to check out.
We never had a problem locating a store, window, or machine to sell us food. What was missing were places to sit and eat it. Frequently there would be a food court’s worth of vendors, with only six tables between them. In a culture that discourages eating in public. I got an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, and ended up taking it back to the Ibis to eat.
A mile east of Kyoto Station is Sanjusangen-do Temple. We walked over, crossing the so-shallow-it-almost-wasn’t-there Kamo River. Its vast expanses were about to be filled by the monsoon, but for now it provided a great bird watching spot. Sanjusangen-do, a National Treasure, is a long temple housing 999 identical gold standing Buddhas about six ranks deep, flanking one primary Buddha, all from the 12th and 13th Centuries. In front of these are thirty Kamakura Period life size Guardian statues, with a ferocious dynamic that reminded me of the ones I grew up with at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. This temple is essentially one long walk down the front, before the Guardians and Buddhas, and another across the back. The shoguns held archery contests under the eaves, the space was long enough for that to be a challenge, and the back corridor interprets contests and shows rafters removed in restorations still studded with arrows. Parts of the complex are painted with bright orange woodwork, blue tile roofs, and white plaster walls, colors that pop in the spring sunshine. Pleasant garden spaces and a gravel courtyard, but the focus is on the Buddhas.
Across the street is the Kyoto National Museum. Two buildings, a 1969 Yoshiro Taniguchi stone and glass pavilion, and the original 1895 red brick Meiji structure. The original is expansive, French Second Empire, and looks like D.C.’s Renwick Gallery on steroids. The permanent collection was closed for reinstallation, but the Meiji was showing Buddhist art from southern Kyoto Prefecture. It’s difficult for us to look at large shows of Buddhist art: the artistic tradition was so recursive, with new artists regularly referring back to artistic styles from centuries earlier, that it’s hard to get a handle on what we are seeing. Perhaps the same thing happens when an Asian sees a show of Madonnas, but I think that any show of Western religious art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance would show more variation in style, if not in content. Maybe that’s just my bias, but after the first two galleries it was difficult to see why there were ten more. It was great to see the Victorian spaces of the museum, however.
Northeast of Kyoto Station is Shosei-En Garden, also known as Kikoku-tei (Orange Grove, for trees that no longer exist there). Travel literature uses both names. In the 900’s this was the site of a Heien-era palace. In 1641 Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, fighting Buddhist power, gave the site to one of two dueling temples to the west, and the current garden plan was implemented. Entering you are faced dead-on with a wall of what looks like medieval construction waste: old columns, grinding stones, giant foundation piers. That forces you to walk around and into the gardens proper. Unlike most we were to see, these gardens were not about the structures, but all about the pond and grounds. Bridges and gates lead you onto islands, past tea houses, into groves and lanes of maple trees past water lilies. It’s like a really-well-manicured slice of New Hampshire woodland airlifted to downtown Kyoto.
Walking back toward Kyoto Station we stopped at Yodabashi for lunch. Yodabashi in our context is a camera company, but here it is a guy’s department store, with floors of electronics and sports gear. On the restaurant floor we got a curry lunch. The Japanese have turned Indian/English curry into their own food category, a gravy over a meat (frequently Salisbury steak) over rice. More spicy that the average Japanese cuisine, good, commonly available, and inexpensive. Then we took the subway north to Kitayama.
Kitayama is not an area tourists regularly go. There’s a university here, concert hall, cultural facilities. We’d only scratched the surface of the historic and religious treasures of Kyoto, but needed a break from same. In 1992 printing company Kyocera hired Tadao Ando to help them show off a technology for high-resolution printing on ceramic tile. Ando designed The Garden of the Fine Arts: concrete ramps surrounding sheets of reflecting pools ending in multi-story waterfalls above, near, and mirroring tile murals of great works of Western and Chinese art. “The Last Supper”, Renoir’s “On the Terrace”, Seurat’s “Le Grande Jatte”, a Chinese scroll painting. A Monet water lily mural as floor of a shallow pool. Sounds tacky, but is sort of cool. We’d bought joint tickets that included the Kyoto Botanic Gardens next door, so used them as a shortcut southwest across neighborhoods to Daitokuji.
Daitokuji is a complex of temples of a variety of sects. Not all the temples are open to the public, and being a little less visited by Westerners, the English signage was poor. Complicating things, it seemed to be “Geisha Day”. We’d seen a couple women in traditional Japanese dress on the Tokyo subway, and a few more in Kyoto, but geisha (who are called maiko in Tokyo, not sure what the distinction is) are not commonly seen in groups unless you are hiring them. They are not hookers, they’re more like entertainers who provide personal historical Japanese cultural traditions to small groups of businessmen and politicians. I know, still sounds like prostitution, but sex does not seem to be a part of it. In any case, we were fortunate: there was a maiko indoctrination going on, or maybe just a reunion, but they were everywhere in the complex, and areas that are usually private had been opened to them. Meaning, it was hard to tell if we were expected or not, or if we were intruding. With help from staff at various sites we were able to tour three of the temples normally open to the public. The Daisen-in dry rock garden, with azaleas in bloom. Zuiho-in, another dry rock garden. Soken-in is a temple complex connected to Oda Nobunaga, the man who unified Japan under one rule in the 1570’s. In addition to the gardens here, a great walk through cemeteries to Nobunaga’s tomb. They were serving complimentary tea with the entrance fee, but it was so crowded with maiko that we passed.
A bus stop just outside the complex got us on a Raku 101. This bus is like our Circulator, designed to get tourists to the places that matter to us and leave regular transport to the locals. It meandered pleasantly to Kyoto Station. We picked up a snack (discovering another complex of shopping malls connected to the station) and took it back to the Ibis to enjoy in our hotel’s public space while we waited for our train up to Tokyo. We picked up a bento box and sandwiches, got on the 6PM Shinkansen, and three trains later at 10PM were being picked up by my brother at Kasumigaseki.
Back in Tokyo. Got off the Yamanote Line at Yurakucho and walked around the Ginza. This was Tokyo’s first “modern” neighborhood, developed under the Meiji emperor to show Japan how a Western city could work. So, a grid, but that street layout is pretty much all that’s left of Meiji Ginza. Even the shopping district that Occupation G.I.’s wrote home about is gone. Today it is skyscrapers of retail on two main avenues, Ginza-dori and Harumi-dori. Saw Shigeru Ban’s 2006 Swatch Store, Kengo Kuma’s 2008 Tiffany, Nikken Sekkei’s 2010 Yamaha (with piano rehearsal halls). Yoshinobu Ashihara’s 1966 Sony Building houses the MoMA Design Store, odd to see New York celebrated here, but perhaps no odder than MoMA’s Muji Store on 53rd Street. To be honest, we didn’t find most of the shops alluring, it’s the same merchandise one sees in these stores around the world, including on Connecticut Avenue back home. Nice to see works by these signature architects, but really just a walk-by.
Crossing under Yurakucho Station we walked through Rafael Vinoly’s 1996 Tokyo International Forum. This replaced Kenzo Tange’s original city hall with a convention center, offices, shops, and a vast and impressive interior courtyard. It felt like we were in a giant ship. A design store/gallery there had a show of Juju Takeshi, an animator whose work reminded me of Tintin as a Japanese surfer dude. Got lunch at a restaurant that was aimed at businessmen. No tourist/picture menu, but we were feeling confident enough in our eating skills that we just pointed at characters on the daily specials to see what we would get. Miso soup, salad, rice, and iced tea. Michael had smoked mackerel, and I was surprised to discover I’d ordered a hamburger. The waiter seemed bemused that an American was ordering such a cliché, if he only knew how ignorant I’d been when ordering.
Walked around the recently restored, red brick Meiji (honestly, those three words should just be assumed to go together) Tokyo Station. We’d been in it to ride the Shinkansen, but had never seen it from the outside. Was supposed to be based on Amsterdam Central Station. Not sure if that’s a fit, but it is functional and impressive after 130 years. We crossed over into Marunouchi, the financial center of the country, and the grounds of the Imperial Palace. These are an enormous green space in the center of the city, broken into gardens accessible to the general public and spaces reserved to the Imperial family. We chose poorly, the area we were in was grass fields and parking lots. We approached the palace compound, where a friendly guard checked to see if we’d made arrangements with the Imperial Household Agency to tour the grounds. This is less threatening than it sounds, they were significantly nicer than the security around the White House, and I’d known we needed to write for permission if we wanted to see some of the areas. We laughed, let him know we hadn’t, and retraced our steps.
Sometimes the Tokyo subway was difficult to use. We wanted to get to Roppongi, which sprawls across freeways and train rights of way like the Houston Galleria, or Bethesda if it had developed at Grosvenor. It has three subway stations, and I took us to the wrong one, forcing us to walk at least one unnecessary kilometer when changing lines. Then we had to figure out how to get across/over/under freeways from the Ark Roppongi complex to Tokyo Midtown. It was frustrating, especially since it would have been unnecessary if I’d gotten us off at the correct station in the first place. My sugars had dropped to almost nothing, so we stopped inside Midtown for a snack of apple pie.
Our goal was the Suntory Museum of Art. Tokyo has many private corporate art museums, usually on the top floors of office buildings with shopping malls below. They’re frequently just two to five rooms. The Suntory was designed by Kengo Kuma for a collection of Japanese screens. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for reinstallation. When I checked that night, I realized that most of these small museums were closed for re-hanging. They have regular weeks in the year when they do this, and since they’re so small, they just close for the week. Unfortunate, but now we knew. Good gift shop (which of course, stayed open), and the rest of the floor had high end stores making a design mall that was fun to shop.
Made more intelligent subway choices to Ikebukuro, where we shopped at Tobu, then caught the train home. At Kasumigaseki we shopped at Seria and Create for inexpensive souvenirs. Miho was on duty that night, but John took us to a road-side chicken stand. Since we’d all enjoyed the sparkling sake in Naoshima, Miho had picked up three different kinds at their local supermarket for us to try. Lightweights that we are, we were only able to finish one small bottle, but they let us take the other two home. John supplemented the chicken with a daikon-cabbage salad he made, it was an extraordinary meal. If you’ve made it this far in my report and have decided to go to Japan, you should hire my brother as your chef <smile>.
We’d been in and out of Ikebukuro several times, but had never seen it above ground. We poked our heads out and walked fifteen minutes southwest through one of the nicest neighborhoods we’d seen. Sort of academic, funky, and affluent combined. We were on a quest to find the last Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Tokyo. Wright had come to Japan in 1921 to design the Imperial Hotel. The Imperial survived the Great Kanto earthquake and World War II bombing and fire storms. It could not survive the real estate pressure of a location south of the Imperial Palace, and was torn down in 1967. The lobby was rebuilt in an architectural theme park outside Nagoya, but we didn’t have time to get there. While Wright was in Japan the Hani family asked him to design a campus for their progressive school. The Myonichi-kan of Jiyu Gakuen is still owned by the school, used for special events and interpreted to the public. We were blown away: it’s rare to get a whole Wright complex to walk around, much less one in a central city location. The leaded-glass is simpler than we expect, probably due to Wright’s being away from his usual craftsmen, but the woodwork is great. Michael took documentary photos of the library shelving, I expect to be asked to reproduce them for a future residence. Women were setting up a textile show while we were there; the Hani’s had weaving as part of the original school program (very Progressive Era), and it continues today. They kindly let us get in their way as they were working, ditto the yoga class we walked in on when we toured the auditorium.
Lumine is an upscale brand of the Tobu chain; we shopped and got lunch on their restaurant floor. This was one of our favorite meals in Japan, and we can’t figure out what we ate. The restaurant served rice in a cast iron pot over a small sterno, so the rice got a crispy crust as we ate. On top of the rice was an omelet and gravy. I got mine with Salisbury steak and cheese fondue, Michael with shrimp in lobster sauce. I’ve Googled it, the closest I can find is kamameshi, but that involves a different kind of steel dish.
We took the Yamanote to Chuoda. This was one of the venues of the 1964 Olympics; the Tokyo Swallows still play in the baseball stadium there. We saw our most impressive array of vending machines, with hot and cold foods and beverages. Still just food and cigarettes, though, none of the curiosities that guide books promise. The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a 1926 Deco cultural hall. It’s not to be confused with the Meiji Shrine, burial place and Shinto temple dedicated to the first modern emperor. Instead, it houses eighty large canvases telling the history of the Emperor Meiji. Also the taxidermied body of the Emperor’s favorite horse. More interesting for the history it tells than the paintings themselves, it’s a different perspective on events like the Industrial Revolution and the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars.
Back on the Yamanote to Harajuku. This is famously a place for teenage girls to hang out in their best Goth-Lolita-School Girl outfits. Sort of like groups of overwrought Katy Perry’s. We were here, of course, for none of them, but for Kengo Kuma’s Ota Memorial Museum of Art. We got lost in the shopping alleys trying to find it, but sighted off a department store to face Kuma’s usual brilliant mix of textures, here in brick. The Ota holds an excellent collection of ukiyo-e prints; the show on display was about the technical difficulty of producing the color blue, and how that was solved just as Hiroshige was creating some of his best series of works.
Omotesando-dori is one of the best elite shopping streets we have seen. Unlike most Tokyo streets, it is lined with trees, which make this stretch graceful and leisurely. Issey Miyake, Cartier, Rei Kawakubo’s anchor Comme des Garcons store. First stop was Kiddyland, which sells everything with a cartoon theme. A whole floor of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, another of Hello Kitty. I knew I was going to buy things when I saw the ice molds of Han Solo frozen in carbonite – where else will one ever see that? Much more fun than either of us were expecting, Michael was able to replace the NYC subway watch he’d lost with a Shinkansen watch. Continuing up Omotesando, several blocks of the north side are given over to Omotesando Hills, a mall by Tadao Ando. The stores, eh, but the design, a series of shallow ramps spiraling up to a roof garden, brilliantly uses the uphill slope of the street to provide multiple places of access and for display. Tres classy, we stopped in a café for iced yuzu tea and tiramisu. On to Herog & de Meuron’s Prada and Jun Mitsui’s Cartier boutiques, just as cool as the architecture magazines make them look. Turning south on Aoyama-dori, Fumihiko Maki’s 1985 Spiral Building is still fabulous, with an entire floor selling high-end design above a gallery and café floor.
As we walked southwest, Aoyama-dori got less elite, and more every day retail, until we got to Shibuya. Found a good paint-your-own-porcelain shop. Shibuya is another of the big train stations, where the Yamanote crosses several subway lines and major department stores cluster. Miho needed a rendezvous spot that both she and I could find, and Hachiko, the statue of a dog still waiting for a master who was never again getting off a Japan Rail train, was a good one. This is at the intersection called the “Shibuya Scramble”. The traffic, both auto and pedestrian, is so intense that when the lights change they shut down all auto traffic and people scurry every which way across the streets. It’s supposed to be the busiest intersection in the world; seeing it at rush hour was fantastic. John and Miho treated us to a final meal of sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked tableside by a woman in traditional garb) and shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef swirled in boiling water at the table). The shabu shabu broth became a soup; we were so stuffed we could hardly walk. It was a great meal.
Which was not a bad thing, because when we got off the Yamanote Line at Ikebukuro, we realized that the trains were not running, and people were filling the platforms. Odd for 8PM. Turns out someone had died on the track earlier, and the Tobu was just getting back into gear. This was the only time we rode on an exceptionally crowded train. Forget seats, we were lucky to all get on the same car, and stood to Kasumigaseki. It was a Tokyo experience we’d missed, and now we appreciated all those times we’d skipped traveling at rush hour.
You know your family loves you when they are willing to wake at 5AM to drive you two hours to the airport. Or maybe they just couldn’t wait to get us out of the country <smile>. Highways in Japan are only two lanes in each direction, even in Tokyo. Plus, there is no such thing as a Beltway, more of a web, so no way to avoid traffic heading downtown. To get us to our 11AM flight without hitting rush hour gridlock the early departure made sense; we only hit a bit of traffic near the river, which gave us a parting view of downtown.
I’d booked us through United on ANA for the return leg. I’d been worried that ANA hadn’t allowed me to choose/pay for seats and bags in advance, and was dreading the hit we’d take at the terminal. I forgot, ANA is Japanese: they weren’t out to gouge us, they were there to provide personal service in getting us our boarding passes, the seats we wanted, and our bags on board. We would recommend this airline to anyone, an infinitely better experience than flying an American airline. The stewardesses were friendly and professional, they left snacks and drinks out on a counter so travelers could help themselves during the flight. A nice way to extend our Japanese experience until the last possible moment.
Dan’s Survival Guide to Japan
Some things we learned that helped us be polite visitors:
You will be handed warm towels at many restaurants. They’re to refresh your hands, and you can sometimes get away with wiping your face with them. When done, put to the side of your plate, you will be using them later the way you might use a napkin, as you will not be getting a napkin.
Almost every restaurant will have a box or basket next to your seat; they’re where you put your purse, shopping bags, or brief case to keep them off the floor. This is a great idea that American restaurants should adopt.
You respect your rice. Unless it is served with a gravy already on top, keep it pristine. Do not add soy sauce, or anything from your plate, to your rice bowl; you eat it plain. Frequently at the end of the meal.
Paying in a restaurant is wonderfully consistent. If you didn’t order your meal and pay at a machine up front, you will be handed a bill at your table. You will take that to a cashier by the entrance to pay. Always. It’s marvelously freeing, no wondering whether you should leave money on the table, or give to a waiter, or pay up front.
There is no tipping. Don’t even try, it will be perceived as an insult, not a thank-you. Bow instead.
The paper currency starts with a 1000 yen note, about $10. The 100 and 500 yen coins are like one and five dollar bills. The only coin that doesn’t have a number on it is the nickel-equivalent; if you get a bronze coin with a hole in it it’s either 5 or 50 yen. The 50 yen will say so.
The Japanese are clean, neat, and well dressed. Try to be the same, don’t let down the home team. We rarely saw Japanese in shorts.
You can almost always find public bathrooms in train stations and department stores. They are free.
Public bathrooms will almost never have paper towels or electronic dryers. People bring little fabric towels with them to wipe their hands; you’ll sometimes see them drying on top of brief cases or shopping bags. The little towels you see for sale in department stores and gift shops are as much for locals as for tourists.
In summer, tea is frequently served iced, and you’ll almost always get ice in your water. Often a pitcher of water will be left on your table, if not, the word you want to request some or more is “omizu” (oh-me-tsoo).
The variety of food is fantastic, there is so much more than sushi and rice. Try it all, it’s all worth it. The cost was equivalent to what we pay in D.C., so a little pricey, but not unaffordable.
There is no issue with safety; you can leave your bag, go to the bathroom, and it will still be where you left it. We walked in places that I thought were sketchy and never felt unsafe. It’s almost disorienting.
Watch for groups of unsupervised little kids in the stations, they’re wicked cute, usually in identical uniforms. Because of the safety, people do not hesitate to send kids to negotiate urban turf alone. Miho says most adults are keeping an eye out for the children, which is even better.
There is an issue with privacy. Keep your voice down, don’t shout across rooms; try to keep your eyes off other peoples’ reading. People on trains love texting, but unlike Americans don’t do it when they’re walking.
People drive on the left, like the British, and tend to walk on the left, but not always. Sometimes the sidewalk is just a soccer scrum you have to get through.
You can inhale anything, but all outgoing body fluids are considered repulsive, including sneezing.
The surgical masks you see people wear are supposedly to prevent one from infecting others with germs if you have a cold. I would believe that, except 95 percent of the people I saw wearing them were female. I think a lot of folks use them as a privacy shield.
If you want to do something, so do 30,000 other people. At the same time. There will be crowds, and lines, and everyone respects the queue. Just something you have to deal with.
One never walks on tatami (grass mats) in your street shoes. This will not be an issue in a hotel room, but in some museums, most temples, and private homes you will see a sunken area, the genkan, just inside the entrance. Step out of your shoes in the genkan, and put your feet on the raised floor. You may be offered slippers to step into, but if not, walk in your stocking feet. Leave any socks with holes at home, and wear loafers to Japan: they won’t sell your size. Your shoes will still be in the genkan when you leave, as no one in Japan has feet as big as ours <smile>.
When in doubt, bow. It is an expression of courtesy and respect, and will earn you the same.
Language: Some phrases that helped, along with a lot of Sicilian hand gestures
Ah rig a toe, Doe moe ah rig a toe, Ah rig a toe go sigh mass: increasing levels of Thank you
XXX doe coo dess ka? Where is XXX?
Con-ee-chee-wa is hello, Ohio-go-sigh-mass good morning. Morning stops around 10AM.
A koen is a park, ekky is a station, shee-ma an island, san or jee-mah a mountain, dory an avenue, shin is new
Itchy, knee, san, go, she-chee, ha-chee, coo, joo are 1-2-3-5-7-8-9-10. Four is variable, I never figured it out, and six I never used, go figure. Holding up fingers a great assist here.
We didn’t get to see the following, but want to remember them for a future trip:
Bridgestone Museum of Art
National Museum of Modern Art, also Crafts Gallery, Yoshiro Taniguchi
Imperial Palace, Museum of the Imperial Collections
Akihabara, Kaiyodo Hobby Lobby Tokyo
Odaiba: Yurikamome Monorail, Venus Fort shopping mall, K-Museum (by Makoto-sei Watanabe, on Tokyo's infrastructure)
Yoyogi Park: Meiji Shrine, Kenzo Tange's Olympic Stadium, Sunday flea market
Mingeikan, Japan Folk Crafts Museum
Nezu Art Museum
Museum of Contemporary Art
21-21 Design Sight
Mori Art Museum, in Roppongi Hills; The Art & Design Store
National Art Center Tokyo
Tokyo Sea Life Park, Yoshio Taniguchi
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
Yokohama, walk Chinatown, Yamashita Park, Yokohama Museum of Art
Chiba, Hoki Art Museum
Nagoya, Meiji Mura
Okayama, Koraku-en Garden, Okayama Castle
Kyoto: National Museum of Modern Art, Nishiki Market, Gion neighborhood, Shokoku-ji & Jotenkaku Museum (tea treasures, Oda Nobunaga), Rosan-ji Temple (Lady Murasaki's residence), Higashiyama, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Ryoan-ji Temple and garden, Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari-Taisha (vermillion tori)