Japan 2015, Episode 9: Taking Back Tokyo

Refreshed and enriched from my nature-centric Hakone experience, I felt all the more prepared to take my last day in Japan by storm. What better place to do it than back in the hub of boundless activity and visual stimuli known as Tokyo?

I awoke somewhat somberly, the reality finally hitting me that I had just explored a magical, foreign land for two weeks – and was about to leave. I looked back at everything I had done, which seemed like an extravagant amalgamation of cultural, historical, and natural resplendence – sprinkled, of course, with a few embarrassing moments and humorous encounters. I then thought back to the moment I bought the plane ticket; I remember it vividly. Interestingly enough, I was in a hotel room in Vegas, booking it as my girlfriends and I got ready to go to the hotel pool. I am the prime example of someone who would do such an aberrant thing, but that just happened to be the moment that the need to realize a lifelong dream hit me. Though it was a mere 10 months ago, looking back on that time felt like a lifetime ago.

Knowing full-well that I still would not scratch Tokyo’s surface, even with the extra day, I set out to do things that I absolutely needed to do. For one, I knew I needed one last incredible, if not a bit splurgy, meal before I headed out. I found that in spades at Ume no Hana in the Ginza district.

I’m not much of a meal-picture-taker to begin with, so I apologize for the lack of pictures for this stop. I can assure you, though, that this was probably one of the best meals that I can have in my life. This pleasure can’t be seen or heard – only tasted. I did take other pictures of Ginza, though!

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After a post-lunch stroll through Ginza, I next needed to seek out the infamous Nakagin Capsule Tower, a semi-abandoned building composed of futuristic “living capsules” near the Tsukijishijo and Shimbashi metro stations. An avid dilettante for urban exploration of abandoned buildings (or haikyo, as these ruins are referred to in Japanese), this had captured my attention from the moment I heard about it.

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The building had been completed in 1972 as an example of the Japanese Metabolism architectural movement that came about during Japan’s post-war economic resurgence. Envisioning the future, architect Kisho Kurokawa built the Nakagin Capsule Tower, consisting of 130 micro-apartments measuring about 10 square meters (or 107 square feet) that, from the outside, look like big front-loading washing machines. The apartments, intended primarily for bachelor “salary men”, included a bed, a desk, a refrigerator, a TV, some storage, and an airplane-sized shower/bathroom. Apparently, cooking was not foreseen as a part of the future, so these facilities are nonexistent.

The key word for this place is semi-abandoned, as there are a small number of units that have been refurbished and are inhabited. An additional unit is even available to rent on AirBnB. Most of the units, however, have been left to ruin, and the overall state of the building’s exterior and hallways are in complete disrepair. Demolition of the entire building has been deliberated, but not acted upon due to the cost per capsule of demolition (6.2 million yen…I’d be like “no thanks”, too). Still, I felt an urgent need to make sure that I saw Nakagin in the event that it is destroyed during the time before my inevitable return to Tokyo.

Having pre-read about the building in advance, I knew that my chances of getting in for a tour were 1-in-a-million-to-none. Security personnel are present from 6:00 am to 12:00 midnight daily, diligently guarding the entrance to the tower. Due to Nakagin’s popularity among certain circles, they are well-accustomed to thwarting off curious architects, designers, and possibly other red-haired American bloggers. Not wanting to risk getting chased out of Shimbashi on my last day, I opted for the simple exterior picture above.

I will be taking up that AirBnB option next time, though.

(Note: For those curious about what life is like in the capsules, look no further than this fabulous article written by a couple who moved in just a couple of years ago.)

On the way back from Nakagin, I stumbled across Kabukiza Theater (right across from Higashi-ginza station) as if fate had guided me there. I had almost given up on seeing kabuki theater before leaving Japan, given my highly-limited time in regions where it was feasible to see it. I knew that this meant I had to attend, so I purchased tickets for a single-act performance of “The Love Suicide at Amijima”.

Front of Kabukiza Theater.
Front of Kabukiza Theater.

This being my first kabuki experience, I was not entirely sure what to expect. This is the best way to go into kabuki.

Kabuki is characterized by numerous, subtle idiosyncrasies relative to western types of theater. For one, in most prominent kabuki performances, all roles are played by men. However, the ornate makeup (kesho) worn and feminine drama captured by many of these performers is remarkably convincing. Second, the performance itself is highly stylized, with crazy faces made, movements exaggerated, and words drawn out in a way that seems to emphasize every last syllable. During the performance, audience members will also randomly shout things. This startled some of the American tourists sitting next to me and, frankly, none of us knew what was going on at this time. I later found out that these shout-outs, called kakegoe, were expertly-directed compliments to the performers. If one is so inclined, they can either shout the performer’s “house name” or the performer’s father’s name, the latter of which is an even higher compliment.

As photos could not be taken of the performance (understandably), I’m going to defer to Google Images to provide better pictures here. Again, at the risk of using a cop-out, this is an experience you just have to see for yourself.

I caved into doing a little bit of personal shopping after the performance by rationalizing to myself that I would not be a true Japanese explorer without shopping at Uniqlo, so I did that in between my performance and my late dinner back in Ginza. One hour, two pairs of underwear, and a hair tie later (productivity maven over here), I had the urge to go back to Ginza to find a much-anticipated Okinawan restaurant.

I finally did find the restaurant, though I didn’t eat there. In all honesty, this was the first (and only) experience where I truly sensed that I was not welcome. As I approached the host, I could see a bustling and lively cadre of locals posted up at the bars and tables behind him. Feeling completely out of my element, but hellbent on trying champuru for the first time, I mustered up enough confidence to smile and hold my finger up for one.

“I’m not sure we can seat you,” said the host somewhat sternly.

“Oh!,” sprouted from my lips, carrying the faintest air of despondence. “How long is the wait?,” I asked in broken Japanenglish.

“It will be very long,” said the grave man. He seemed to tell the rest of it to me with his stare after that. I then knew where we stood, and I knew I was probably best served elsewhere.

After thanking him with just as much eager politeness as I had entered with, I took it upon myself to find dinner at a place that would be just as good. I’m sure if I had maybe tried a little harder to get seated there, I could have – but I had just gotten a strange feeling. I’m sure there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Okinawan place. Heck, I’m sure I’ll give it another go next time I’m back in Tokyo. But I got the sense that the host, and possibly the patrons, had not had good experiences with foreigners. The truth is that it’s impossible to go through a foreign country for an extended period of time and not experience some degree of “outsider-ness” – whether implied or clearly cut out. That, though, is an essential part of the travel experience.

I ended up at Hina Sushi directly next to the Sanrio store in Ginza. While I was, once again, the only foreigner here, I just went for it this time. The food was nothing short of satisfying and incredibly fresh, which constituted as a job well done on my part.

After dinner, I took what is probably my favorite image of the whole trip:

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Why this image? I’m not sure. Maybe its the gritty, comic-like ambience. The sense of community. The glow of the underground nightlife. To be honest, I’m not even sure what this area is called, but I was entranced.

I walked around a little more and got some last minute Ginza shots. The hustle-and-bustle does not even compare to places like Roppongi or Shibuya, but it still looked cool:

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After calling it a day, I knew that I had a whirlwind day looming ahead. Not just any day, but the day of my return. I lay awake in my hotel after getting back, pondering if I had “done enough” on my trip, what I had learned, and, most importantly, when I would be back.

This is one of those places that I cannot wait 5 or 10 years to come back. This needs to happen again soon.

Places Stayed/Places Seen/Places Eaten

Accommodation: Remm Akihabara – follow the link for a description/review.

Lunch: Ume no Hana Ginza Namikidori – follow the link for a description/review.

Nakagin Capsule Tower (English website).

Kabuki-za Theater (English website).

 

Things to See Next Time

Are we even going to go here? WAY TOO MANY! Although sumo is probably in my top.

 

Stay tuned for the ultimate reflection-y episode, and the final installment of Japan 2015, Episode 10!

Hasta luego!

– H

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