Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conspicuous consumption

On the airplane this time, on my way back to the U.S.

My last days in Tokyo were exhausting and exhaustive. As a matter of fact, it's hard to remember exactly what I did on which days, but it involved doing pretty much all my Christmas shopping. Tokyo is a shopping mecca. I can't see why, to be honest, you'd go shop anywhere else, except of course for the strength of the yen. With my usual impeccable timing, I hit something like an eleven-year high of the yen against the dollar, much like when I visited England and the pound was 1:2. I opened a vein and happily bled my way to Wimbledon, and so I did once more. Almost bled my way to another tennis tournament, as a matter of fact, since the women's Toray Tokyo tournament was going on, but in the end decided against it.

To return to the shopping, there are multiple high-end shopping areas, Ginza being the most famous and most ritzy. You've never experienced such customer service—such bowing, such gift-wrapping, such polite greeting, such bagging and rebagging of your purchases. Omotesando is also extremely famous, with some great architecture – a standalone Prada store made out of puffy glass diamonds, a famous mall called Omotesando Hills that has a kind of zigzagging ramp from one floor to the next. The Hills has a Harry Winston and a Jimmy Choo. You'd go a long way to find that kind of mall in the U.S. Shinjuku, though a little more vibrant and less high-end, also has some fairly high-end department stores.

For the cool stuff, you head to Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku. Shinjuku is home of Disk Union's flagship store(s), with six branches within three blocks, many specializing in a particular genre or genres. I got myself a fanclub Queen concert recording and an obscure Turandot. People were buying like mad, particularly on the classical floor, where the customers just had little shopping baskets. I was distressed to note that I was almost the only female shopping there; that's just not right. It doesn't aid stereotypes that Harajuku is so female dominated, full of young girls like a Forever 21 is here (and there's one of those there, too). Though there are plenty of guys, hanging out or accompanying girlfriends. Shibuya is also youth-oriented, very trendy.

Asakusa is full of tourist shopping. Little souvenirs, ranging from tiny drums or refrigerator magnets to beautiful handmade crafts that cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. For that matter, there's a lot of tourist shopping as well as worshipper shopping at all the shrines, where you can buy little charms for all kinds of things; pregnancy, scholarship, traffic safety (it was green). Main tourist shopping street here:

I've already mentioned my trips to the guitar stores of Ochanomizu and the bookstores of Jimbo-cho, of course. A used English paperback will run you about $5 there. And, of course, my mandolin purchase at the Meiji Park flea market behind the National Stadium. There are many weekend flea markets in Tokyo now, popularized by recycling and, of course, everyone's love of deals. I just couldn't be sure what haggling was like in Japan's polite culture, though. I watched it happen, but when you can't understand numbers, how can you know how much the price is shifting?

Finally, I just about hit my shopping max in a store called Tokyu Hands. This has several branches in Tokyo, and it's billed as a hobby shop or handcrafting shop or something of the kind. Basically, if you do it with your hands, you find everything for it here. I hit the kitchen floor of the branch in Ikekuburo, and to my great delight, found white silicone steamer lids that I'd eyed at MOMA Design Store but were twice as expensive there. They're just round white silicone disks with a pig snout in the middle. Put them over whatever you're microwaving or steaming or boiling, and the steam issues out the pig nostrils. Too cute, and much saving of paper towels, etc. I did take the escalators to the other floors, but I was so maxed out by that time that I could barely function to take in the giant assortment of insoles, gift bags, knives, garden hoses...

One area I did not hit is famous Akihabara, the electronics mecca. I was hoping to find a retractable USB cable, and I almost found one at the airport—but it was a USB to other-connector converter. I knew they'd have anything you could dream up, and I was just about right. I bet I could have found one in town. Oh well.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Donkey, two piles of hay, me

[ETA: I've been blogging about guitar-related Tokyo sightseeing on the other blog, so skip over there for that stuff.]

I've never been on a trip where it was so completely true that it wouldn't matter which choice I made to go wherever; it would still be awesome and amazing and I would also wish I could see the other place. Tomorrow is such a choice. Kamakura or more of Tokyo?

Today was also such a choice. After a morning at the flea market, I spent the afternoon at the Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, and Omotesando. Three more different things in close proximity could hardly be imagined. The Meiji Shrine is majestic and peaceful, very simple and dignified, like the emperor it honors. Go out of the park and you'll be hit in the face by the swarms of humanity that shop Harajuku and Omotesando. Yes, Harajuku, like Gwen Stefani's silent backup dancers and her fashion line. It is a very cool area, very very youth-oriented. Just insane shops from one end to the other, mostly very trendy clothes and accessories but interspersed with costume shops, the odd comic shop, and crepe stands. See:

Omotesando is yet another high-end shopping area, but right next to Dior is the Oriental Bazaar, a great place to souvenir-shop. I got myself a yukata, basically a light cotton kimono, or what we might think of as a bathrobe made out of sheet material. I've always wanted something like this, since I hate heavy robes, but I didn't know there was a name for it. I've been enjoying wearing them in the hotels (they leave them for you, along with a sash, just like a robe in an American hotel). These can be used as dressing gowns or nightwear or summer outerwear if they're nice ones.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I left my heart in Shojiko

Here I am on the bus back from Kawaguchiko to Tokyo, typing this up to post later. Bless the netbook.

I was tempted to stay all day out here, maybe go back to Shojiko, which truthfully I only saw from the bus but fell in love with as we circled it. Tiny blue-green horseshoe-shaped lake, surrounded by unassuming-looking shops and hotels, with plenty of folk boating and fishing on the lake, gorgeous view of Fuji. It also seems more walkable than Motosuko or even Kawaguchiko, which you just can't circle. No trails. This area is also not meant for hiking; you can't get there from here unless you're willing to walk along the edge of a major road. Only two lanes, admittedly, but no shoulder; you'd just be walking the line. No thanks.

Anyway, I decided against it mostly because my stomach has been only the edge of cooperation (medication issues, I think), and also because I was a little afraid that it might be anticlimactic. I got my boating on Motosuko, and that'll just have to hold me till the next water trip. I must say that I am still mightily bummed that there's no swimming in any of the lakes, particularly Motosuko. The water there was so clear and felt so good just splashing my hands in it that I'm sure it would have been the swim of a lifetime. (Had I not been wearing sneakers and full clothing, I'd have been tempted to fall overboard by accident.) Incidentally, all the people (all Japanese) were staring at me as I calmly boated around, including the old boatmen who clearly thought I'd paddle feebly away from shore and get stuck. Must not be a very feminine thing to do here. The boat was actually great, very light and with curved paddles, which let me whiz over the surface of the water. The photo is the view of Fuji from the water.

On the way to the other lakes, I stopped at two famous lava caves formed by old Fuji eruptions, Hyoketsu and Fuketsu. Fuketsu, which I went to first, is the “wind cave,” a dark little cave with a small structure built at the end of it. Alas, all the signage was in Japanese, so I have no idea what the heck I was looking at. There was lava rock. There was some ice. There were bamboo banisters.

Hyoketsu was more exciting. The descent was fairly perilous, though brief; I met some elderly Japanese emerging who looked like they'd been through the mill. Really steep, narrow stairs (wet, to boot), tunnel-like areas with vaguely step-like indentations. At one point you had to crouch and scoot through. I gave up and slid on my butt for a few feet, thinking all the time, “How would my parents manage this?” Hyoketsu used to be mined for ice, and there were signs with pictures showing how it was done. They have ice blocks piled up in a few areas for historical reenactment purposes. Lots of fun.

I hiked from Fuketsu to Hyoketsu through the beginning of the famous sea of trees, Aokigahara, following the signs by matching the Kanji to the words on my bus schedule. I now know the character for cave. Some of it was nice walking, some rougher over loose lava rocks, two small pebbles of which I took for souvenirs. I also bought some pink Japanese salt when killing time waiting for the bus to Motosuko (had to go back to Fuketsu for that).

And as I said, all day, the only foreigner around. Really unique experience. I exaggerate when I say that they didn't speak a word of English. They all spoke words. Maybe two. And I finally heard someone refer to me as a 'gaijin,' which excited me no end. I did teach the old man the word for “rowboat,” and when I backed the boat neatly into the launching fork, he said, “Nice!”

Where none have gone before

Torn between lakes and mountains, I went for lakes and caves -- mostly because the bus was earlier and I was raring to go. While Im sorry not to see Fuji on this trip, it was a great choice. I saw lava caves full of ice that used to be mined for it, the infamous sea of trees, the adorably horseshoe^shaped Lake Shoji, and the completely pristine Motosu. And all day, I was the only foreigner around. This seems like freak timing, since Im pretty sure I saw some tour buses saying Kanko, which means Korean. Still, it was pretty cool, and I think I was a nine days wonder to the old men at Motosu who rented me a rowboat for a half hour so I could get out on the surface of the lake and photograph Fuji. Motosu has the bluest water Ive ever seen, and its so clear that you can see all the way down (how far I dont know).

In case you can't tell, I just found the apostrophe on this keyboard.

In any case, it was fantastic, and I'm jazzed and wiped out at the same time. I spent the afternoon at a small museum, about which more later. Dinner is ready.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Neither fish nor fowl

Out at Fuji Five Lakes, more specifically Lake Kawaguchi. 50-min bus ride to Fuji is giving me pause. I may just do the caves, lakes, etc. Touristy but not very dolled up on this side of the lake. Yamanaka might be nicer, or the north shore. Will try tomorrow and blog from my own computer if the wifi is back up. This Japanese keyboard is driving me nuts.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Faster than a speeding train

Going around Tokyo has been so easy. The subways are full of English signs, and they move fast. Fast! I can get to Ginza in 10 minutes, and to Ueno, which is almost the opposite end of Tokyo, in 22. The only difficulty is the stations themselves, which wind around crazily for transfers sometimes and have multiple exits that are rather far apart. In addition, the system is made up of Tokyo Metro lines (the majority), four private lines run by Toei, and the JR network, which is more like a commuter rail. So if you buy a day pass, you need to know which lines you want, or else you may just be wasting money. Stations are clean and most have bathrooms.

Today, however, I take a break from Tokyo and go out to Kawaguchi-ko, one of the five lakes around Mount Fuji. Wish me luck. I will try to blog from there if I can.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Here I am in the land where you can access blogger and facebook, i.e. Japan. I couldn't get to them in China, which blocks such instant-commentary sites as best it can. In spite of such reminders of totalitarianism, I loved China and found it unbelievably interesting and surprisingly modern, full of paradox and development and Michael Jordan ads. The first three days there were an orgy of tourism and eating such as I have rarely managed before on jetlag – more on those later.

They were then made up for by the next three days at a conference center out in the boondocks next to a petrochemical plant and nothing else. Not a shop nor restaurant nor anything else within sight or a half hour's drive, and a serious lack of bottled water. I boiled like nobody's business, but on the second day found white particulate matter in my mug, and sure enough my stomach rebelled about six hours later. God only knows what it was – I really don't like to think. My traveling partner and I escaped on Sunday morning, heading first for an expat clinic for medical treatment for me and then to Dashanzi 798, the artist and craft area that's kind of like a pedestrian converted-warehouses version of, say, Greenwich Village twenty years ago? I don't even know if that's a fair comparison, but it was obvious that this is where cool young Beijing hangs out. After another fraught stomachic night, here I am in Japan, quietly drinking my hotel's free bottled water.

I had a great time talking to the Chinese graduate students, so cool and aware and curious and all completely untraveled outside China. So young-looking for their ages. I bestowed my Glamour magazine on one girl who had a Coach knockoff purse, and she was so delighted she couldn't even express it. She said they can't get the American fashion mags there – I wonder if that's true, but maybe they don't try shopping the Peninsula hotel newsstands. Another girl expressed great love for Kobe Bryant and Nicholas Cage, and inquired if there was a real Central Perk (the coffeeshop in Friends). A lot of the girls were very into the Twilight books -- can you imagine? Worldwide phenomenon. They wanted to know what Seattle and the Pacific Northwest were like (which is where the books were set and movie was filmed, apparently). Some few had extremely good and idiomatic English, some were very halting. They all have English names for speaking to foreigners (a practice I hope they get rid of ASAP), and one couldn't even pronounce hers: Nadine. The only two Nadines I have ever encountered are Gordimer and Fran's sister on "The Nanny."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Over the North Pole

Off I go tomorrow morning, folks. Flying to Beijing via Tokyo for three days of jetlag/tourism and then a conference. Return to Tokyo for a week+ of tourism (will need to work, also, while I'm there), including three nights in the Fuji Five Lake region and a possible day trip to Kamakura or Kawagoe. Will try to keep you posted -- I'm taking the netbook, god's gift to weary travelers, or in my case, the gift of Asus and a Best Buy sale.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Deeply disturbing

Back in Chicago, frantically unpacking and repacking, but taking a break to mention a nice visit to the Chelsea Museum of Art. Combine it with a walk on the new High Line Park, and you'll have a fun afternoon in one of Manhattan's fanciest but fun neighborhoods. The museum is a nice small space, and right now they (I think still) have an exhibition of modern Iranian art. If you can judge a country by its modern artists, you wouldn't have to know anything about the political situation there to see that this is a deeply disturbed and rifted society. Some of the video installations were just brutal. One featured a couple watching that movie where Deborah Kerr is supposed to meet Cary Grant on top of the Empire State building and happily sobbing while a young blond woman is raped by a band of dark-haired young delinquents outside their window. On the lighter side was a room imagining what the world might look like if consumer goods were centered on the Arabic world -- sneakers with lots of Arabic lettering and designs, reoutfitted Chanel purses, etc.