Friday, April 26, 2013

Been back for a couple of weeks from another successful couple of weeks in Tokyo. This was really a perfect trip this time around: Trevor logged a lot of training time and I got to meet some of the wonderful British Budo folks he met last year, and there was also plenty of time to see our friends and family, and take in a lot of what Japan has to offer -- which is, namely for me:

Excellent food...

(Serious damage being done with friends at all you can eat yakiniku, Akihabara)

And great people...

(Jeebus, just look at that mass of people! [Takeshita Street, Harajuku])

"But saudade!" you exclaim, "I know you've been going to Japan for many years now, but surely you're not so jaded yet that there must be more to visiting than just food and crowds of people-watching?"

I mean, I guess.


I have covered many of the things I love about Japan over the last 7 (!!!) years I have blogged here; my friends have been nearly regaled to death for almost 20. So, you'll have to forgive me if I come across as jaded, which is lame. It's more that I don't want to bore you! Japan, my friends, is super interesting (settle in for the long haul if you ask me sometime about growing pains and tenability around rigid societal constructs there, which is endlessly fascinating to me); more important though, is that IT IS TOTALLY RAD.

Lemme see...something somewhat new to blog about (and, more importantly, give an excuse to put up pictures)...

Okay, so, the gorgeous natural environment (can be) a big winner. Even though I find Japan's reverence of nature juxtaposed with their almost fanatical desire to control and politically monetize it somewhat off-putting, I also tend to waffle and find their control fascinating. From bonsai to parking space-sized park retreats in the middle of highrises to lining rivers with concrete to ostensibly control their flow, it always makes for an interesting environment.

For the last few years I have visited during cherry blossom season. The impermanence of cherry blossoms -- they only bloom for a couple of weeks and then they are gone -- represent the intense and ephemeral qualities of life. All of Japan takes time out for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, for that short time. We usually go to Inokashira Koen, in Kichijoji, but alas, there were few blossoms left this time around. But spring had definitely sprung.

Architecture, too, is a wonderful thing to behold in Japan. While there are plenty of plain Soviet-style concrete block buildings jutting about, and often it seems there are no zoning laws so you're left with a sort of weird jumble in high density, suburban, and mixed-use areas alike, there also seems to be gorgeous traditional architecture and exciting and innovative new architecture everywhere you turn.

My particular passion is that old-school, proletariat spirit, or shitamachi. While I crave the pounded dirt-floored homes still in use in the more rural areas of Japan, I spend most of my time on the city now, so the tiny, tin-sided, home/business mixed use buildings dating from the early 20th century to post-war tend to be my jam. These are in Shinjuku bordering a park and the pleasure district. Lying somewhere between old and new, I love this shitamachi spirit and seek it out anywhere I can.

These newer, but still old-school, passageways in Nezu -- just a hop, skip, and jump from the museums and shopping in Ueno -- were also lovely to behold.

And finally, no shitamachi-style trek is complete without visits to the old-school drinking establishments, or nomiya, that are centered around shitamachi areas like Asakusa and Ueno. This alleyway was tucked away in a tiny corner of Shinjuku, just bordering the highrises and fancy bars and clubs of Kabuchicho.


Architecturally, the new and old can be blended seamlessly as well. This is the new gorgeous Asakusa Cultural Center, by Kengo Kuma and Associates, Tokyo.

Beautifully lit up at night, I was still sad it was closed in the evening. I usually go to Asakusa in the evening to avoid the temple crowds and get my old-school outdoor nomiya on, and I had no idea this had just been completed. Next time I am going inside!

Then there's what lies in-between all the glass and steel in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. Trevor and I happened upon a building removal site in Shinjuku. Wild what lurks beneath, and it ain't all that sophisticated.

But even though you've got some serious analog shizz happening right behind and below the bright lights of the big city, I would be remiss if I didn't mention this other wonderful thing about Japan: the amazing attention to quality, detail, and service. This is in addition to how people are in general helpful and polite, even if they aren't working and supposed to help you; get them drinking, and normally shy Japanese will love you like a brother.

Coming from a place like the Wild West, it can seem almost criminal how well-done and polite even the most simple of things are created and transacted.

So my insanely delicious, healthy, and perfectly presented matcha latte kind of brings me full circle. I always appreciate Japan, and there is always something wonderful to experience and behold there, but really, it is all about the food...

(my udon and umeshu at the gorgeous Maenohara Onsen, Shimura-Sakaue)

And the people...

Ja mata, Nihon.

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