RTW2007: Tokyo, wherein our cloistered computer nerd tops up his lap in Akihabara and trips all over the International Date Line.

Yodobashi Akiba

Just a week before my arrival, the Tokyo Monorail had eliminated my last minor quibble with it by introducing a non-stop express service and, being headed for Ueno, I decided to give it a spin. I’d forgotten how much fun riding this thing is: swooping up and down, around buildings and warehouses, and now without any stops at Cargo Warehousing Center or Off-Center Catering Complex to spoil the fun. And, like so many other things in Japan, the Monorail just works: trains leave every few minutes and zip past each other in a synchronized symphony of scheduling.

Fruitopia for every geek, Akihabara, Tokyo

After a crushed commute on the Yamanote, I dumped my bag at Tsukuba Hotel and headed straight off down the Ginza Line to Akihabara to buy a very specific laptop unobtainable outside Japan. (Panasonic “Let’s Note” CF-R6, thank you for asking, and no, you can’t have one.) Akihabara, until recently a low-rent district of cheapo electronics stores inhabited solely by geeks with taped-up glasses, had changed beyond recognition in a few years — high-rises of glass and steel had sprung up all around the new Tsukuba Express station, more were franctically under construction, and half the shops were now devoted to a phenomenon that had pushed its way out of the margins: anime and manga were now everywhere, with big cartoon eyes, giant cartoon cleavage and squeaky cartoon voices competing for your attention in every shop. Girls in maid uniforms were soliciting customers to be served with tea, coffee or a selection of very, very personal services, and now the great unwashed with taped-up glasses and shaggy hair included a great many foreigners out to get their manga fix.

But I found the shop I was looking for, Yodobashi’s new 9-story Akiba monolith, and walked out 15 minutes later (10 minutes of that spent waiting for credit card clearance) with a spanking new laptop. After a murderously strong espresso, I burrowed back to my hotel room and hacked until morning.

The next day, Friday, I was supposed to head out of Tokyo, but around 2 AM a sneaky suspicion crept up on me. I’d booked my flight to arrive at 10 AM in San Francisco, and it was departing at 6 PM, so I’d naturally assumed it was departing on the previous day and that the International Date Line just meant that the flight time of 10 hours actual would be transformed into 18 hours virtual. I’d written it thus on the itinerary I asked my travel agent to book, and he didn’t say a peep, but closer examination of my ticket revealed that I was booked to leave on 6 PM on Saturday — 8 hours after my flight arrived in SFO. Initially I boggled, but when I factored in the International Date Line it all suddenly made sense: actual flight time 8 hours, timezone displacement 8 hours, IDL -24, so relative arrival time would be -8 hours. I now had an extra day in Tokyo!

I extended my hotel stay by a day and set off on a leisurely tour of landmarks old and new. First to Omote-sando Hills, the painfully hip twin development to Roppongi Hills, which had exactly the same kind of pretentiously fancy shops and restaurants, but did finally succeed in making the area partly worth its overused epithet, “the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo”. Harajuku, next door, had grown up from its pre-teen Hello Kitty and sugary crepes phase into an angsty teenager, all Gothic lace push-up bras, black lipstick and dodgy-looking Nigerian dudes hanging out. LaForet, the place to be back when I lived near Shibuya, was looking distinctly scuffed these days. Has it really been ten years!?

The cherry blossom police, Tokyo Midtown

Up the escalator, Tokyo Midtown

Then to Ebisu and the evergreen Tokyo Photography Museum, where I picked the cheapest exhibition (a strategy that has yet to fail me) and goggled at the winners of this year’s Japan Commercial Photography Awards, an intriguing mix of out-and-out advertisements and personal projects by ad photographers. And then onto Roppongi and its just-opened humongous Midtown development, which took a leaf out of Roppongi Hills’ book with huge steel-and-glass towers and one-upped it by adding some much-needed greenery and natural wood paneling to the mix. The sakura in full blossom in the park outside were gorgeous, and I peeked into Fujifilm’s headquarters for their free show of Japan’s 200 best photographers (how they’d picked ’em wasn’t disclosed though). This time much of it was unbearably corny — snowy mountains! cherry blossoms! — but there were a couple of real gems in there. I rued the lack of a decent photography scene in Singapore: the few shows that make an appearance tend to be either arty to the point of incomprehensibility, or hopelessly amateur, a category I already inhabit and hence visit shows to grow out of. Sigh.

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RTW2007: Noto Peninsula and Wakura Onsen, wherein our sybaritic sojourner examines earthquake damage and repeatedly plunges into nearly boiling water.

After two days of Kanazawa, I took the Noto line local clunker up into Nanao, the end of the JR line. You can always tell you’re in the Japanese countryside when little “Jesus loves you” signs start appearing on houses, local banks adopt vegetables as their logos (for example, Notoshu Bank’s is a carrot) and the biggest building around is the local JA, a mysterious institution whose primary function seems to be converting taxpayer dollars into the world’s most expensive rice.

My destination for the day, Wakura Onsen, has a good claim to being among the oldest hot spring towns in Japan, with 1200 years of recorded history. It’s hence home to some of Japan’s most illustrious ryokan including Kagaya, which now occupies a high-rise complex larger than most major hotels and still charges up to 50,000 yen per person for a stay. However, one week previous to my arrival there had been a major earthquake in the northern part of the peninsula, which had flattened the better part of 1000 houses. Down south, aside from the occasional cracked pavement, Nanao and Wakura weren’t significantly affected, but it was clear that tourists were staying away in droves — there were few guests in hotels, most restaurants and gift shops were closed, Wakura’s solitary museum (dedicated to an intriguing combination of lacquerware and confectionery) was closed for damage checks, and the only industry that appeared to be booming was construction. I found a solitary sushi restaurant open, where I was the only guest, and had a mediocre nigiri set coupled with some really great tuna. (I asked for maguro, the cheapest, but the chef gave me chu-toro, a cut above, for the same price. No complaints.)

It was a balmy 20 C in Fukuoka when I arrived, but the weather had been getting colder and colder, and soon after I’d checked into my ryokan there was a sudden hail of snow that left an inch of slush on the roof. While most of Wakura Onsen is aggressively ugly, all charmless concrete and rusty rebar, Togetsuan, the “Hermitage of the Passing Moon”, was designed as a faithful replica of a 1920s Taisho-era inn complete with cedar shipped in from Yakushima, and I dedicated the afternoon to sampling all the baths in it and its sister operation Hosenkaku. In every single one I was alone, and I contemplated that there are far worse ways to spend a bitterly cold weekday on the roaring Japan Sea coast.

I booked a shared taxi the next morning to take me out to the airport, and the garrulous minibus driver (a very rare species in Japan) quizzed both me and my four fellow passengers. In addition to me and a local lady on her way to Tokyo for reasons undisclosed, the only others on board were three insurance agent salarymen dressed in appropriately drab dark suits, assessing the damage caused by the quake. Indeed, the driver confirmed, business had been completely dead ever since the quake: the day after it struck, the news agencies chartered out 20 cabs for the full day, but that was that. The drive up the twisty road from Wakura through Anamizu was rather charming, although (as I’d correctly guessed) Anamizu turned out to be a thoroughly mundane fishing town of more concrete and rusty corrugated iron that not even the fetchingly named “Iwashi-no-Yu” (Sardine Baths) could rescue.

 

RTW2007: Kanazawa, wherein our curious culinarist eats metal, is unintentionally insulted by his geriatric innkeeper and narrowly avoids committing electoral violence.

I really like Kanazawa. Much of it is modern and funky: you’ve got brand-new buildings, hordes of university students dressed up in the latest Shibuya-kei fashions, fancy shopping malls tucked full of Louis Vuitton and Gucci. But the station sets the tone: it’s a concoction of glass and steel, but the entrance is built as an ancient Japanese wooden temple gate.

Unlike Tokyo or Kyoto, where you have to hunt to discover even a single old building, Kanazawa, spared the devastation of the war, has invested a huge amount of energy into preserving places like the Higashi-chayamachi geisha district, which is probably Japan’s single best-preserved Edo-era area. I had a cup of ceremonial matcha green tea in the Shima geisha house (chaya), gawped at the countless bizarre uses of gold leaf in the restored shops (“say, why don’t we eat it?”), and strolled along the riverbank watching the cherry trees just about to burst into full blossom. I was just one week too early for the cherry blossom festival, but this was a blessing in disguise — the town was not yet inundated with tourists, so finding lodging was not a problem, and both Kenroku-en Garden and the (remains of) Kanazawa Castle were already lit up and open at night, yet not overrun with crowds.

Kenrokuen, being one of Japan’s Top Three Gardens, is to some extent a victim of its own success — what were once meditative footpaths are now wide, roped-off thoroughfares, and souvenir shops dot the park itself. But in the evenings of cherry blossom week there was a nice row of food stalls outside, selling festival fare like great corn on the cob doused with soy abd really bad okonomiyaki. But Hokuriku’s forte is seafood, and indeed, the conveyor belt sushi I had atop the department store next to the station was among the greatest meals I’ve had in a long time: why, oh why, is it that sushi just doesn’t taste the same outside the country?

I spent three nights at the wonderful Shibaya Ryokan, which despite the name is actually a Japanese-style business hotel (4200 yen/night) in a modern house not far from the train station. The owners were a doddering elderly pair who’d actually visited Singapore (as, seemingly, had everybody else I talked with in Kanazawa), but couldn’t rememeber a single thing about it. (After a lengthy scratch of his bald head, hubby opined: “I think we went to some place with flowers?”.) The lady, more talkative of the two, addressed me as otaku, the first time I’d ever run into this — the word literally means “honorable home” and used to be a polite word for “you”, but after serial child killer Tsutomu Miyazaki’s misadventures is now a rather rude term for “obsessive geek” — but evidently meant no harm by it.

At the other side of town from Higashi (“East”) was the inevitable if rather less impressive Nishi (“West”) geisha district and, not too far away, the Nagamachi samurai district, which — unusually for resolutely egalitarian middle-class Japan — preserved and documented the ornate caste system of Japan’s feudal era. The full-fledged samurai at the top of the heap lived in giant palaces full of art, gardens and altars, theirashigaru footsoldiers lived in modest three-room houses, and their chugen petty retainers, tasked with handing over their Lord’s sandals or feeding his horses, lived in drafty one-room shacks.

Cherry blossoms in Kenrokuen

In addition to being cherry blossom season, it was also election season, conducted in uniquely Japanese style: driving around trucks outfitted with loudspeakers, female voices literally shrieking out the same message in repeat: “Tanaka Taro desu! I’m Tanaka Taro! Mina-san no tame ni ganbattemasu! I will try my best for everybody! Douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu! Thank you!” One particularly obnoxious dipshit called Yachi Something, may he rot in Hell, was so incessant and loud (grannies in the vicinity were covering their ears) that I seriously regretted not having a spare shoe to fling at them, as I’d previously done to a Japanese Communist Party candidate blasting through my ‘hood in Tokyo at 8 AM on a Sunday. (They stopped for about 5 seconds as the shoe went “bonk” onto the van’s roof, then continued unperturbed. Next time I’ll aim better.)

Every time I go to Japan, I’m a little shocked at what has changed, and a lot more shocked to realize that it’s been ten years since I set foot there for the first time (as an adult). Things that caught my attention this time:

  • Non-smoking has caught on in a big way. Taxis, trains, airports, even streets like all of Higashi — unhappy-looking smokers are confined into little smoky boxes. It’s about time!
  • Facilities for the disabled are now ubiquitous. Of course, the real reason is not that the Japanese care any more about the disabled than previously (they’re still locked away out of sight), but that the population is getting old fast and the elderly vote.
  • “Jet towels” for drying your hands. Mitsubishi must be making millions off these things: I don’t think I saw a single paper towel anywhere in Kanazawa.

RTW2007: Fukuoka, wherein our analytic adventurer admires the amazons of ASFUK and has pork bone soup for second breakfast.

Tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran, Fukuoka

Immigration was painless and Customs, unusually, didn’t even bother to open my bag. I hopped on the shuttle bus to the domestic terminals (there are three) and engaged in Japanese speed-reading to figure out that my flight to the non-major destination of Komatsu must be leaving from T1. Female Japanese airline staff tend to be selected for more than just bean-counting ability, but the Ms. Tanaka who awaited me was gorgeous even by ANA standards; more interestingly yet, her nametag proudly proclaimed that she was working for Airport Services Fukuoka, abbreviated “ASFUK” in big capital letters. Oh my.

I’d completed the gauntlet by 8:20 and my flight left at 10:15. This meant there was only one thing to do — head into the city and sample Hakata ramen noodle soup! The subway was right below the terminal, and 15 minutes later I was outside Nakasu-Kawabata station, reading the instructions on the vending machine outside Ichiran: “Just get the basic ramen and go in.” I deposited my 650 yen, got my slip and ventured in. There were a few customers this early Sunday morning, but I took my seat along them in my little curtained partition and handed over my slip, receiving a questionnaire in response. Would I like my noodles firm, standard or soggy? Would I like my soup thin, standard or thick? Would I like my soup mild, standard, or spicy? And so on. I circled all the “standards” and handed over my form, and within minutes, a Japanese Industrial Standard Hakata tonkotsu ramen appeared, faithfully replicated from the platinum-iridium copy kept double-locked in a Parisian vault right next to the official kilogram. I sampled, I slurped, I drained it to the last drop. Delicious. Back in Japan!