Tokyo wild!

2 07 2011

There are piranhas lose in the Tama River! At least, according to Al Jazeera.

Piranhas stalk Japan river – Asia-pacific – Al Jazeera English.

Frankly it would not surprise me though. I still remember the crocodile they found in a river in Ebina (a policeman waded in to wrestle it out), and a dead white shark that floated to the no-doubt-stinking surface of a Kawasaki industrial canal. Strange things have a habit of turning up in Tokyo waterways.

For Tokyo Lovers

5 06 2011

I recently saw this book “Tokyo on foot” in a Hong Kong bookstore. As soon as I get a more stable income, I am going to buy it. It is a book of illustrations by a French graphic designer. Florence Chavouet  lived in Tokyo for six months while his girlfriend interned in one of the city’s big hotels.

In a big, exciting city with nothing concrete to do all day ( I can relate) he ended up wandering around and drawing sketches of “his” Tokyo.

The book is really evocative of Japan. For anyone who has spent time in Tokyo, the illustrations will probably strike a chord. But for me particularly it was really amazing to be able to pick out individual buildings  – in the biggest city in the world – which I knew, time and time again.

I know where this is:

(That rickety old house on Shibuya’s “Cat Street”).

And I know where this is:

(In Shinjuku Nichome. Elsewhere he sketches the really quaint little restaurant on the same street that goes to Word Up bar.)

There are also lamposts I recognised from Daikanyama, maps of Okubo – one of my favorite old stomping grounds – and those typical suburban streets – neat and cluttered at the same time –  that define Japan


It is a really cute book.

Check out the artist’s charming website here.

Old school

10 07 2009

For all its neon skyscrapers and giant robots, much of Tokyo’s charm comes from the ramshackle old neighborhoods. These are some of my favorite Tokyo scenes, the little winding streets of shophouses with paper lanterns and noren curtains, and pot plants galore.

The shitamachi or “lower town”  neighborhood of Iriya is typical of this  side of the city, with its local family businesses and little shrines and even canals.

Daisuke and I went to visit a local shrine, the temple of the King of Hell, where a 3 metre statue of the deity is placated by throwing coins into buckets, each one labelled with something the worshipper wishes for  eg luck in love, passing exams, good health etc.

Another unusual nearby temple is the Kappa-dera, or “kappa temple” (kappas are a kind of aquatic goblin in Japanese folklore). The temple was built in a riverside neighborhood formerly plagued by the creatures and is said to contain a dried and withered kappa’s arm – sadly not on display when we visited. But we did see the altar to the creatures stocked with their favorite treat, cucumbers, as well as statues of the beasts all around the neighborhood.

The thing that Iriya is most famous for, however, is its annual Morning Glory Market, held over three days in July when hundreds of thousands of morning glory plants are sold to visitors to celebrate the beginning of Summer. I was a little disappointed by the market itself – the shrubs weren’t yet in bloom so it wasn’t as colorful as I had expected, but the hokey Summer festival atmosphere more than made up for it, with old-time snacks and kiddie attractions like the goldfish scoop, or beetles in a cage.

(Caramelised fish spines, mmmmmm)

The surrounding neighborhood streets were coloufrully decorated with paper lanterns and streamers for Tanabata, sometimes called “the Star Festival” which is celebrated on July 7th to remember an ancient Chinese story about two lovers in the sky, who are separated by the Milky Way. Every year they can meet on July 7th as long as the sky is clear. Peopl pray for fine weather for the lovers and tie their own wishes on colorful slips of paper to bamboo trees.

City of the Imagination

24 07 2008

For a city of its size and importance (it is often said) Tokyo offers remarkably slim pickings for the sightseer. Held up against its peers (say, Paris, London and New York) , one starts to wonder: “Where is Tokyo’s Louvre, British Museum, Statue of Liberty?” (Although, actually it does have one of those, at one-third scale, in the harbor.)

Flattened by war, earthquake and greed,  little of its history remains.  Its “big ticket” items are pretty lackustre; Tokyo Tower (an Eiffel knockoff slightly shorter than the surrounding buildings), Disneyland ( fun, but an imitation), the Imperial Palace, invisible behind its moats (nothing to see here, folks!)

Even the “national shrine” at Meiji-jingu is little more than an impressive gravel driveway, leading you to expect a monument of much greater proportions than the wooden shack waiting anticlimactically  at the end.

All this is true. And yet, it misses the point. Because with a few exceptions (the skyline view from Rainbow bridge, Fuji on a clear Winters morning), Tokyo is not about the “Big Picture”. It is all about the details.

A visitor’s most memorable experience here could be the walk from their hotel to the nearest 7-11 : a weird sticker on a vending machine, a teenager with shaved-off eyebrows clumping down the street in a Little Bo Peep dress. Bizarrely branded snack foods in odd flavor combinations.

In Shibuya, androgynous gigolos lounge around in shirts with “Muthafucka happy time” stitched on the back in rhinestones, and black neo-fascist trucks roar past playing disco music, down streets of teenage malls and whale restaurants.

That is the joy and the beauty of Tokyo. It never makes sense. You never know. You can walk around a corner – any corner – and find a stray medieval castle, or a lifesize blue elephant statue, or Missy Elliott on a shopping spree, a dog on a skateboard, or a shop selling chocolate-covered squid, or a tiny ricefield in the middle of a highly urbanized suburb, or a vending machine selling rice or batteries, or (yes, the legends are true) used underwear.

And this is what gives Tokyo its boundless energy – more than anywhere else I know, there are no limits – not of taste, or logic, or even economic feasability. Anything goes. And once you are attuned to this – the city’s hunger for the new, its insatiable and unerring instinct for weirdness – you see it everywhere.

People often ask me “Where do you find this stuff?”. But I answer; “How can you live in this city and not see it?” Its everywhere. There is so much weird shit you are tripping over it  on a daily basis.

So in this spirit – the spirit of what makes Tokyo tick – I have thrown together a list of some of my favorite attractions; no Tokyo Towers, no Imperial Palace, nothing you could conceivably find in London or New York. Just Tokyo ; raw, uncut and deliciously random.

Great underappreciated Tokyo landmarks

24 07 2008

A Buddhist sect’s black-pyramid-deathstar Cult Headquarters in Roppongi

Strawberry House in Den-en-chofu. There is a Hello Kitty gift shop inside.

Primitivist-shipping-crate boutique by Brazilian designer Alexandre Hercovitch, in Daikanyama.

Cyborg-facade karaoke parlors in Roppongi and Shinjuku

Yoyogi Uehara; the impressive Turkish mosque

New Cocoon Building, West Shinjuku

King Kong storming a convenience store (for some reason) in inner suburb Sangenjaya

Shonandai Cultural Centre. And this is what it looks like inside:

Mikimoto Pearls, Ginza

Takadanobaba Gothic

Aoyamadori – United Nations University’s ziggurat, and alien pod buildings

Shinjuku; castle in the sky floating above the traffic of Yasukuni-dori

Sayonara Tokyo: saying goodbye to the city you love

21 07 2008

21 07 2008


With less than a week til I now leave Tokyo, I have been making a mental checklist and ticking off the things I still want to do in this city. How to say goodbye? How to say goodbye to the city where I did so many of the things that being in your 20s is all about; my first real job, first flat, first time living with a roomate, first hangover, first big relationship, first heart-break …?

All of that was in Tokyo for me, and I have pretty much loved every minute of it. What was left?

I had finally made it to the Tsukiji fish market (just before it closed to tourists), been to Club Yellow (before it closed for good), climbed Fuji ….

What else was there?

I decided my last big hurrah would be underground, to explore the vast and secretive, billion-dollar network of tunnels and drainage canals that lie under the city.

The project, known as G-Cans (above), has now opened to (Japanese-speaking) tourists on guided tours but when my friend Ryu called for me, we discovered it was booked solid for the next four months!

One for when I come back, then.

Instead, I thought I would take a few days of work and just walk around the city, savor the atmosphere, and go back to my favorite places, or fill in the remaining blanks. A few days – just me and the city I love.

As a guidebook I took with me the sightseeing guide from Tokyo Damage Report – the best, funniest and most in-touch of the gaijin-in-crazy-Tokyo blogs, written by some American punk dude I have never met, but who rocks my world. Some of his recommendations I knew and loved before I read about them, others I had never been to and was anxious to explore. So I printed out TDR’s directions and set off, to say “sayonara” to Tokyo.