Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tokyo (round 2) Sept 25-28

The first thing you should know about Tokyo is that Metropolitain Tokyo houses approximately the same population as all of Canada. One (crazy) city.

To say that Tokyo is unique is an understatement of massive proportions. Tokyo is about a million things, all rolled into one. Tokyo is majestically old yet wonderfully modern and creative. Tokyo is all organization and rules as well as innocence and perversion.

I could go on and on....and give you a page full of adjectives but I'm not sure I would be properly describing Tokyo or doing it justice. I think a better way to describe Tokyo is through a few standout experiences (both pictured above and below, some sort of festival-walk, seen on streets of Hajaruku).


Tokyo is so big that it is divided into wards, 23 of them to be precise. Each one of these wards could be a vacation destination in itself. When we read about Tokyo, trying to determine what we'd do, it felt a little overwhelming. We basically decided that we'd focus on just a couple of places. For approximately half of the time we were in Tokyo, we stayed in Shinjuku. We stayed in Asakusa, photographed here, for the remainder of the time.

Shinjuku is known for many things including its ubiquitous (and obnoxious) train station (see above), crazy bars, hundreds of restaurants, not-to-be-missed red light district, towering business center and quirky yet intense nightlife. We chose to stay in East Shinjuku on the fringe of the entertainment district.

Shinjuku is the least homogenous-place in all of Tokyo. It is rich, interesting, fast-paced and also complicated. We found our stay to be interesting, fun, dizzying and overwhelming.

We thought staying in Shinjuku would allow us to walk almost everywhere we wanted and that we'd really be in the heart of things, even if it was only for a few days. A certain amount of care was taken in chosing our hotel, which was about a half a km away from the reputed alleys of the golden gai, about the same distance from the red light district and only about 20 minutes walk from the insanity of Shinjuku station. In theory, we thought we could find almost anything we needed in about 15-20 minutes.


Our first order of business after arriving was to find a francophile bar called La Levée. We had a point of reference on a map, a name, a tentative location (in the alleys of the golden gai) and that's about it. According to all of these things, it was determined that la Levée was about 500m distance from our hotel. Again, one might *think* that this should be easy to find. Heh! One would think wrong. I'm pretty sure that neither of us was drunk by this point....but everything seemed to feel like this.

Shinjuku is a dizzying tangle of streets, alleys and temples. It ended up taking us over 2 hours to find La Levée....with a map. But the place did not disappoint.

We saw the small (minute) sign for the bar sandwiched between two other bars on a dimly lit side street. As we climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor, we had no idea what to expect. We did not expect to find a bar that sat less than 12 people.

We did not expect to spend the night laughing with a bunch of French ex-pats.

We did not expect to learn that regulars could buy their own bottles, mark them, and put them on the wall. We did not expect to see bottles marked with Quentin Tarrantino and Francis Ford Coppola (above). We did not expect to have such a great night.


When Erik proposed that we take in some baseball on our trip, I (Natalie) had my doubts. I (Natalie) had never been to see a major league game, and here I was, agreeing to see two of them in just as many weeks. The Tokyo Dome was a great place to get initiated to baseball. For those skeptics, I assure you that the Japanese take their baseball very seriously. The Yomiuri Giants franchise is 75 years old this year. They are the current leaders in their division and also the pride of Tokyo (and Japan, to a certain extent).

The Tokyo Dome is an electrifying dome which serves copious amounts of beer, hot dogs and sushi.

Fans are dedicated, hardcore and organized. In turn, their voices are loud, heartfelt and patriotic. The game itself went 0-0 for all nine regular innings. The fans tried to will it otherwise and both teams played their hearts out. But still a draw.

By the time the game went into its first overtime inning, the crowd had reached full fever pitch. The tension in the air was intoxicating, every swing a possible victory. And when Sakamoto swung his bat and connected with the ball, magic happened. Pure Magic. And I (Natalie) now truly GET why people LOVE baseball.


Sumo is as much part of Japanese culture as sushi and electronics. A Beginner's Guide to Sumo will tell you that sumo dates back at least 1500 years and actually helped determine, at some point, the future of the Japanese race.

Sumo is incredibly simple yet also strangely complex. The entire goal of a match is to throw your opponent to the ground or outside of the sumo ring. Simple. But not really, sumo is so much more. Sumo is about ranking, training, fight-winning moves, categories and ancient rituals and theatrics.

In a mini-post of its own, Erik posted the winning match at September's Grand Tournament. At the grandest of grand venues, the two wrestlers entertained not only an electrified crowd but also a newly elected Prime Minister. There were dozens of rituals that we observed (most of which we couldn't understand) and thousands of cheers and heckles that rung out like foreign songs throughout the stadium. Reigning Champion Asashoryu Akinori also did not disappoint. He stomped, he slapped and he yelled. Best of all though, he performed.

Although relegated to an obvious 'foreigners section' in the sumo stadium, the sumo tournament was one of the most authentically Japanese parts of our whole trip.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Kyoto - a wonderful mix of old and new. Sept 20-25

Kyoto was the 2nd of 4 stops on our two-week trip to Japan/US. After a weekend of relaxing in Niijima, we headed to Kyoto partly because a friend of ours was doing a sabbatical at the University of Kyoto and also partly because this city, so wonderfully foreign, just seemed interesting.

In the reading we did prior to leaving for our trip, we had read much about the insanity of Tokyo. We could easily imagine the exoticism in Niijima but we couldn't quite form a clear expectation of Kyoto. And as a rule, blank canvases preconceptions make for interesting trips.

While we were aware of some history, we couldn't fully appreciate that Kyoto remains a tangle of graceful Shinto temples...

a place where old traditions somehow remain largely mysterious...

a city that has some depth....

and beauty...

and surprising youthful edge...

and finally, contains a living dichotomy that is harder than you might think to nail down, or categorically identify.

Kyoto was both everything that one might expect...

and amazingly, just a little more...

We made but two quick day trips outside of Kyoto, to places that still house castles that you might remember seeing in your childhood dreams. It was hard to reconcile not having two more weeks to do even more exploring.
(Himeji, an hour from Kyoto)

As happens frequently when we travel, we both identified with Kyoto as a place where we could actually live...

If only....

one could ever make the leap...

5 days was entirely too short....

Next stop - Tokyo.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sumo Sept 27

One of the coolest and most cultural things we saw during our travels in Japan was the Sumo tournament at Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. It is a 2-week long affair lasting approximately 8 hours a day and we got to go to the final day of the tournament! It was incredible how one can get caught up in a sport one hardly knows. Despite all that, we had a blast: we ate sushi, drank beer, spoke to two Spaniards and most important of all, watched some Sumo!

Below is a little video of the playoff match between the two best sumo wrestlers out there today :
Asashōryū Akinori (winner) and Hakuhō Shō.

Asashōryū being the crowd pleaser at minute 6:00.
The actual duel at minute 6:30.

More posts and photos to come : Erik just wanted to share this video asap.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Niijima Sept 18-20

We arrived via high speed Ferry to Niijima on Friday right before a (then unknown to us) Typhoon. Our friends living in Kyoto, graciously arranged for us to stay at a local bed and breakfast near the beach. We could write a whole post about the owners of the B&B including details on chain-smoking, bickering, generosity and home-made sushi that would have been worth a fortune that could be served at any Michelin-rated restaurant....but we'll stop here in telling you that it was all that and more...

Niijima is a funny, exotic and wonderful place. As we were visiting off-season, we mostly had the place to ourselves. We counted all of 5 white people on the whole Island. Niijima is a favorite vacation destination for ppl living in Tokyo and we are told it is incredibly busy during the summer season because of its proximity to Tokyo (less than 3 hours away) and its rich history...

The best way to describe Niijima is that is a place that really makes you feel like you are in some sort of Indiana Jones movie...

It is not only beautiful...but full of great things like tons of fresh fish (making for incredible food) and a slow languid pace of life (not to mention a strange and slightly bizarre surf-culture complete with marijuana-leafed souvenirs and Bob Marley posters). And one of the best one is in hurry is Niijima.

We spent our weekend riding bikes back and forth across the Island, swimming, trying to communicate with the owners of the B&B and quite frankly feeling the raw beauty of this place that was so close to an urban center yet felt so foreign and exotic to us.

Native blooms

The coast line with a slight outline of the public onsen (hotsprings) where we spent a fair amount of our time...

Better shot of the onsen...

More beach. There were kilometers upon kilometers of various colored sand, we swam on one of the beaches, the water was salty and warm and the surf was fun and strong. The rest of the time we spent simply gazing at the waves...and no, it never got repetitive....

As the weekend went on, we noticed with only slight worry that the weather network (which was all Japanese) seemed to be announcing some bad weather off the coast of Tokyo.

It was pretty rainy and windy (which sucked for biking) but as we did not understand Japanese, it was difficult for us to figure out that it might actually mean something bad, especially in terms of our return. We figured out that it *might* mean something when we finally understood (though diagrams) that all flights and boats on Saturday were canceled (we were intending on leaving on the Sunday ferry)! With a bit of confusion, much beer and alot of pointing and drawing and even a phone call to a bilingual relative in Toyko, we finally were able to exchange our boat tickets for a direct flight to Tokyo as we were told that this was likely our only chance to get off the Island. We took it.....

About two hours before we left...we decided to make one last trip to the beach, the surfing beach. Erik was riding his bike ahead when all of a sudden he heard a gigantic crash and some screaming. The rusty metal clip which held the basket over the front wheel of Natalie's bike snapped (does this REALLY surprise you?), causing the basket to get jammed into the wheel...and causing Natalie to go head over feet over the bike. See results below...

Yes those are actual tears (the damage to Natalie's face actually got much worse than it appeared after the swelling set in, more pictures later) but she took it in stride and decided to enjoy her last couple of hours on the Niijima. It was, after all, rather hard to not feel better when you got to recuperate in a place that looked like this.

Next stop Kyoto!

Love to everyone
Natalie & Erik

Tokyo (a stopover) Sept 17-18

Our flight on Japan Airlines (JAL) was everything you might imagine a 13 hour flight to be. Exhausting, boring, interesting, fun, strange and long. JAL was a pretty good option however...imagine a cross between British Airways elegance and WestJet value. The food was good (not great), the seats were reasonable (not comfortable) and the service was polite (not friendly).

Arriving at Tokyo airport could be the subject of a whole separate post...but we are lazy, so it wont! Imagine more people than you have ever seen (none of which look even remotely like you) and signs everywhere (none of which you understand) and much noise. And then, imagine yourself having to navigate trains and buses after having been awake for 24 hours. Welcome to Japan....insanity! It is actually now about a week later and when we both discussed the evening (prior to this post), we found it hard to remember much...except for the confusion.

We stayed our first night at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese Bed and Breakfast). A ryokan generally differs from a B&B in a few key ways. Usually, breakfast AND supper are included, some sort of view is usually provided (we overlooked a small zen garden) and the bedding is traditional futon which is laid out on a tatami floor. The reception was however warm (see sign below)

Our ryokan was located Asakusa (a historical part of Tokyo) and offered and traditional Edo-styled meal (which had more food than what 4 people could properly eat!)

Later that evening we walked (ok, more like ROLLED) around some quiet alleys nearby to see what we might find...It was mostly quiet...but graceful and beautiful.

At this point, our stop in Tokyo was meant to be temporary...but it was hard to not get excited about returning....

One of many temples we stumbled across....literally about 5 minutes walk from our ryokan (not exactly akin to anything in downtown Fredericton)

The next morning, bright and early, we hit the Tokyo Fish Market.

This market runs 5 days a week and plays host to an INCREDIBLE amount of commerce. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fish are won at auction or bought outright. The auction section of the market is an actual tourist attraction where you can watch (from a roped-off area) local buyers carefully inspect single fish or large lots of fish. Some (like the tuna shown) are worth THOUSANDS of dollars.

Part of what is difficult, in any city, is actually getting a *feel* for the city without becoming an annoying (and obtrusive) tourist. We usually strive to find a happy medium....however this fish market was difficult....because as much as we wanted to SEE what was going on....we absolutely wanted to avoid annoying (or getting in the way) of business.

As we were heading out still in hand, we caught one of the fish vendors fueling up his mini-cart at a local gas station....and he posed, spontaneously...and suddenly, most of our worries evaporated.

Given the incredible quantities of fresh fish, it goes without saying that breakfast that morning was the freshest bowl of sushi that either of us will no doubt EVER was the perfect way to end our (brief) stay in Tokyo before catching a ferry for our first real destination, Niijima.