Archive for the ‘Hanami’ Category

Ode to Tokyo – Part 1

After an extended absence from blogging, I’m back.

I took a break for a few reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I broke my little finger’s knuckle bone. And, while I was getting pretty good at typing with one hand and one finger, I also felt that my blog was getting negative. There’s enough of that in the news every day, on both the left and the right, that more screaming and yelling about all that’s wrong probably won’t help anyone, least of all me.

So I stopped reading the news as much and got down to being in the here-and-now, trying to see what I’ve got rather than what I’ve got to lose.
That said, I’ll be leaving Japan around this time next year, and I’ve been keeping a running tally of all the things I’ll miss when I go. Besides all my excellent, character-laden friends, what I’ll miss most I think is Tokyo itself. Just the other day I read “50 Reasons Tokyo is the best city in the world”, and I was a bit disappointed. “I can do better than that”, I thought. And so I shall try. Before I start I should say that I doubt I can make it to 50, but it’s quality not quantity, right?
So here goes,

The People:

I’m talking both Japanese and foreigners here. Japanese people and Japanese culture go a long, long way to making life with 30 million neighbours more than bearable. Sure, there are exceptions and some common behaviours (mostly associated with trains) that can drive you batty with rage, but generally speaking the people are outstanding examples of patience/tolerance, generosity and selflessness. The tiniest of examples is likely familiar even to tourists who may have been lost or looking for something specific. When they finally got the courage to ask where the “such and such” is, many, I’m sure, have been surprised to find that the Japanese person they asked would figure out where they were going, give directions, and then take them all the way there as well. Yes, that person was going somewhere completely different before, and your destination might be a 5-minute walk away, but that doesn’t phase them. In the years since I realized this is common, I’ve often had to thank the person and tell them to stop guiding me (apologizing profusely for so rudely telling them to stop helping me, of course) before carrying on to find it by their directions.
Another example might be the self-restraint with which Japanese people conduct themselves in large groups. There wouldn’t have been any riots in Vancouver if it was a Japanese town. They’d probably get a bit depressed and go drink twice as much than if they’d won, but no riots. If by some strange power rioting had started, others probably would have gone to stop them from embarrassing themselves. The shame involved with destroying shared property would have been far too strong, compelling them to act.
One more event worthy of mention here would be the inspiring way in which the Japanese behaved after the March 11th earthquake/tsunami.
Finally, to see the best of Japanese people, you need to go out an have fun with them. Of course everyone is happy when they’re having fun, but being a foreigner in a group of Japanese people doesn’t mean you’re the outcast. Often it’s just the opposite, them asking questions, doing their best to integrate you into the group.
As for the foreign community, I think maybe I’ve been lucky to find a group of amazing individuals here, but I keep meeting new people who are spitting-images of the kinds of people we need more of.
The above examples can’t by themselves come close to capturing the relative courtesy and tolerance of these people, but it’ll have to do.

The Variety of Places:

Just a short trip away from anywhere in Tokyo is some other station with a completely different atmosphere or focus from the one you’re at. Shibuya for fun. Ginza for glitzy shopping (almost anywhere for shopping, actually). Akihabara for electronics or anime, Kichijoji for a great park, Koenji for “hippy”, Ochanomizu for guitar shops, Roppongi for trouble, Azabu-juban, Asakusa, Ueno, Yotsuya, Kagurazaka, Ikebukuro! The list goes on. And for everything and anything else and maybe all of the above too, there is that bitch we all love, Shinjuku.

The Trains:

Tokyo would neither function nor exist without its trains. It has the world’s most advanced, largest, longest, fastest, cleanest, busiest and most ubiquitous train system in the world, and anyone who has been here (unless you’re Lady GaGa or some limousine-bound celebrity) will have some experience with them.
Last time I heard, Tokyo trains carry an average of 8 million passengers per day. They’re on time (mostly), clean, efficient and very convenient.
You don’t need a car here, period. I figure if you can find it on a map of Japan, you can get 90% of the way there by train, and probably another 9.5% by bus – all of which are relatively pleasurable to ride, not like in some cities I’ve been to.
Trains (and buses) aren’t “for poor people”. Everyone uses them, so the standards of service are high.

The Food:

There are endless places to eat in Tokyo, and many of these places offer great food.
Soba, ramen, gyoza, nabe, yaki-tori, yaki-niku, okonomiyaki, sushi!!!!, steak like you’ve never imagined. Japanese food is the best you’ll find anywhere, of course, but you can find Thai, Chinese, American, French, Italian, and all the rest. If you can think it, you can probably find high and low-end places selling what you want. Besides the standard fare, there are frequently innovative turns on a common recipe, or often original creations.

The Parks:

Parks in Tokyo range from tiny playgrounds to huge, 100,000-capacity cherry-blossom observation/picnic staging areas. The catch is that there are a lot of them. I read some years ago that Tokyo has more parkland per square kilometer than any other city on Earth.
From the banks of the Tamagawa river to the lovely Koi-pond/stone-bridge park near my house, most parks that are more than a playground are maintained to a high level, and they are that much more enjoyable to visit as a result.
From my house in Suginami-ku, I’m a few minutes walk to the 3km-long (or more) Zenpukujigawa-koen which echoes the meandering river with small enclaves of shade, open spaces, paved paths and a playground or two. A 10-minute bike ride the other way brings me to a lake surrounded by paths and trees. If that’s too far, there’s a tree-shaded medium-sized park with benches 2 minutes away.
And I’m not particularly lucky with this situation; it’s the same almost everywhere.
Inokashira park in Kichijoji, Koganei park (complete with an architectural museum – with full houses), and Yoyogi park next to Harajuku are three of the best parks I’ve ever been to. I’m sure there are many more here that I’m unaware of.

The Festivals:

Summer heat melting your enthusiasm? Not to worry. There are more than enough crazy festivals to remind you why you’re here. Koenji Awaodori is one of my favourites, though similar festivals can be found at many stations scattered throughout the year. I once participated in an “omikoshi-matsuri” (shrine-carrying-festival) where 20-40 people hoist a mini, mobile shrine above their shoulders, usually dedicated to growing a good crop. Fireworks celebrations are often of epic proportions; the largest launches 20,000 individual fireworks over a 90-minute show. If you haven’t seen a 20,000-firework show before, you’re in for a treat. Other fireworks displays, while having fewer fireworks, are no less impressive. The best “festival”, if it can be called that, is “Hanami”, the cherry-blossom festival. This marks the beginning of spring, and everyone goes to the park with a small barbeque, friends, drinks and a ground sheet to enjoy the weather and look at the amazing colors. Fantastic stuff! The only down side is that it only happens once a year!

You can drink anywhere:

Feel like walking through that lovely park with an ice-cold drink? Go ahead! Want to people-watch in the streets of Shibuya with a few friends over a beer or three? No problem! This single rule, which implies huge respect for the Japanese people’s ability to behave themselves, allows street and park festivals to thrive. It can also make hot summer days in the park a little more enjoyable. I couldn’t imagine Tokyo without it.

The Women (sorry ladies):

Japanese women are (or can be, at least) gorgeous. Any man questioning his wedding vows should never come here, as he will quickly find he’s got a mind to make some new friends. Tokyo seems to be where Japan’s loveliest like to hang out, and many times a day I’m blessed with some vision or other walking by, wherever I may be. Japan doesn’t yet suffer from the obesity epidemic which has swept the west, not to mention the fact that Japanese frames are slight by nature. These add up to a city full of humanity’s best strutting around dressed in high…

Fashion:

Some people don’t like, or even resent, fashion in general, but here it’s pretty unavoidable. Even if it’s not your thing, the ladies of Tokyo embrace it completely (which can be disturbing, in a mindless-robot way), show-casing Tokyo’s latest creations daily. According to a recent cultural study, the Tokyo fashion scene is one of the most under-exported cultural resources Japan has. Fashion is made here, not (always) decided in its magazines, but in its streets, shops and clubs. Every year I see everything from the beautiful to the scandalous. The streets of Shibuya and Harajuku in particular are huge runways for the latest fashions.

The Shopping:

I’m not a shopaholic, and hate the hyper-materialism that we’ve entered as much as the next self-respecting environmentalist, but as an English teacher, a natural topic of conversation is hobbies. When I first started teaching, I was surprised by the number of students claiming that shopping was their hobby, and I was bound to correct them. “Shopping is not a hobby”… or so I thought. In combination with the wide selection of places to go, the dazzling number of original shops and fashion, tech, or other crafts, I’ve been swayed into believing that shopping is in fact a hobby. I’ve gone out many times with my girlfriend just to look around and enjoy Tokyo.

So, as you can tell I’m a big fan of Tokyo. It’s got a lot going for it, and I will miss it when I go. If you have the chance, visit!!!

That’s all for this round. I’ll try to collect some pictures and add them to this post before finishing in “Ode to Tokyo – Part 2”.

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Life goes on in Japan

I watched another video of the carnage left by the tsunami yesterday.  My girlfriend said the video hasn’t been on the news yet because the damage is too severe.

The video was taken by a few people from the town of Onagawa driving around town naming things that used to be in this or that place.  That’s where the city hall was.  That’s where the hospital used to be, this was a train station.  The narrator gets lost because there’s nothing recognizable around.

They drive more and what’s most noticeable, besides chaos everywhere, is just how flat everything now is.  They spot a train lying on it’s side in the distance, nowhere near any tracks.  As they finally start climbing a hill you think they’ve reached the safe zone, and then you see cars on their sides, more debris.  The tsunami reached a height of at least 20 meters here.  Twenty meters!  Rescue personnel said they found over 1000 bodies in town.  The tsunami in Minamisanriku was worse, by the looks of it.

I’m sure you’ve seen similarly shocking videos by now, and there are many of them, but I’m still surprised by the scale of it.  One of the women in another video expressed it well, screaming, “Is this not a dream?”, while 20 or 30 large boats and even ships floated into and then back out of her town.  I couldn’t find the video again later.

I think that I’ve never really been confronted with the severity of a natural disaster before.  I’ve seen them on t.v., and because they’re so far away or I don’t know anyone there, the scale of human suffering involved has usually escaped me.  The death toll here will probably be well over 20 000.  In contrast, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed over 230 000 people.  It boggles the mind to imagine how that many people can be killed all at once.

But, life goes on.

Things are not at all bad here.  Tokyo is 90% normal.  Bottled water isn’t easy to get, but if you’re on a mission for it, you can find it at the supermarket in the morning.   We keep having aftershocks but nothing serious.  M4, maybe M4.5 once every 2 or 3 days.  They are much less frequent than before.  The nuclear situation hasn’t affected the availability of foodstuffs that I’ve really noticed.  Some things run out quickly, but you can do without, or change to a different meal.  Trains aren’t fully regular.  For example the Toyoko line only runs local trains, but the leave every 5 minutes.  Basically things are getting along pretty well.  I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of, unless there’s a leak seeping directly into Tokyo groundwater sources, which I think is unlikely.

I’ve just celebrated the first weekend of “Hanami”, the celebration of blooming cherry blossoms.  My grumpy old neighbour told me I can’t celebrate Hanami because of the earthquake, at which point I took great pleasure telling her that the park was full.  This coming weekend should be better!

This is maybe the best time of year in Japan.  Many people come to Japan during Golden Week (end of May-1st week of April), during the summer or Christmas Holidays, but there’s nothing like feeling spring in the air, grabbing some drinks and a barbecue, and going to hang-out with friends in the park with all the trees blooming light pink.  Just a week later, all the petals will be falling off in the wind, creating a week-long dream of raining petals.  It really is beautiful.

After Hanami, we’re in for a few weeks of excellent street festivals scattered around Tokyo.  Hopefully I can go to more than a few.  Here’s hoping they’re not canceled!

Went to the park this morning to take pictures of the cherry trees.  It’s a completely amazing day out.  Have a look!