Photos — Tokyo

The boyfriend and I decided to make the best use of our hol­i­day and take a trip together. We decided on Tokyo, and I’m so happy we did : it was an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence. Tokyo man­ages to pull off a breath­less bal­anc­ing act, switch­ing between crushed and hec­tic, excit­ing, serene and med­i­ta­tive / spir­i­tual at the drop of a hat. It was also a hugely pho­to­genic place, some­thing height­ened by a lack of under­stand­ing of the lan­guage : If you can’t read kanji, you’re not going to know what 99% of the things around you say, and instead you’re sur­rounded by sym­bols, an abstract of lan­guage as graphic design. It’s quite awesome.

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There’s a full gallery up on Flickr of the pic­tures taken in Tokyo (access here) if you pre­fer a raw image feed. Here I wanted to take a lit­tle time and go over the days we were there, some spe­cific hur­dles and delights we dis­cov­ered. Tokyo can be a con­fus­ing place at first, and the few blogs I read before­hand really helped pre­pare me for some things. I’m hop­ing to fill in a few of the gaps here.

There is a cus­tom Google Map we cre­ated you can access here which has almost all the places we went to (plus more). It’s a great resource, espe­cially for cam­era shops.


View TOKYO in a larger map

Travel and Lodging

We flew ANA from SFO to Narita. From Narita you have a cou­ple options to get you into Tokyo proper. We chose to take the Kei­Sei Sky­liner to Nip­porri and then trans­fer to the JR Yaman­ote line which would take us to our hotel in Ike­bukuro. The Sky­liner was a great option : fast, rel­a­tively inex­pen­sive (about 2400 Yen), and sim­ple to navigate.

The JR Line uses paper tick­ets which you can buy indi­vid­u­ally in almost any amount, or the Suica card. Get a Suica card, for sure. Not only are they easy to refill and use on trains, they’re also good for some of the vend­ing machines around town, as well as some of the con­ve­nience stores. The lit­tle pen­guin is magic.

The Hotel Met­ro­pol­i­tan in Ike­bukuro turned out to be a great choice. Ike­bukuro is at the north­ern tip of the JR Yaman­ote line, which means you can drop down South­east or South­west and hit up almost every neigh­bor­hood. Ike­bukuro is also a pretty chill intro­duc­tion to the blue­print that is the rest of Tokyo : you get the alley­way neon expe­ri­ence with­out the den­sity crush of places like Shin­juku. Your mileage may vary, but it worked very well for us.

One weird lit­tle thing about the hotel, and Tokyo in gen­eral, I should men­tion : most gyms will not let you work out with vis­i­ble tat­toos. Since tat­toos were tra­di­tion­ally only for Yakuza (the “Japan­ese Mafia”), most places have banned them out­right as a way to pro­tect their cos­tumers and rep­u­ta­tion. This rules goes for Onsen, the tra­di­tional Japan­ese baths, as well.

You can read more about this phe­nom­e­non as it per­tains to health clubs here.

Eat­ing, Drink­ing, and Smoking

Eat­ing, at first, was one of the most chal­leng­ing aspects of the trip. Not only did we want to make sure we were get­ting into some­thing we would enjoy con­sum­ing, but we were also try­ing to be very con­scious of whether the estab­lish­ment accepted for­eign­ers. A lot of bars, we read, (espe­cially in places like Golden Gai) are for locals only, and we cer­tainly didn’t want to rile the natives and be dis­re­spect­ful. This meant, some­times, great delib­er­a­tion lead­ing up to a meal or drink. After about the 3rd day we pretty much got over it and were able to spot noo­dle places with ease that we could navigate.

Besides great noo­dles and gyoza we had some Yak­i­tori in a lit­tle alley­way place under the Shun­juku train tracks. The food was meh, and the ser­vice, by “Amer­i­can Stan­dards”, was poor : you were expected to shout out when you wanted ser­vice. This wasn’t hor­ri­ble once the boyfriend remem­bered how to say “Excuse Me!” (“Sum­i­masen!”), which was one of the only times we actu­ally had to “speak” Japan­ese dur­ing the whole trip.

Almost every eat­ing and drink­ing estab­lish­ment allows smok­ing, which is great if you’re a smoker (we were) because you can­not smoke on the street. There are signs every­where not to, and most peo­ple adhere to these rules. You’ll find “smok­ers sta­tions” near train sta­tions (some­times) with a group of 10 – 20 peo­ple hud­dled around smok­ing, but your best bet to smoke is pop­ping into a cof­fee shop or restau­rant, order­ing some­thing, and doing your thing.

I admit with a cer­tain amount of shame that we ate at McDon­alds a few times dur­ing the trip : once for break­fast and once for a after-drinking meal. Break­fast was sur­real because we had it on the sec­ond floor with the rest of the smok­ers… some­thing about smok­ing in a McDon­alds is weirder than most else we expe­ri­enced the whole trip.

Drink­ing was gen­er­ally pretty chill : we found a bar near our hotel the first night that we went back to a few times : The Nos­tro Modo Inter­na­tional Cafe and Bar, a chill lit­tle base­ment place with an affa­ble South African bar­tender who spoke enough Eng­lish for us to have a proper con­ver­sa­tion. He gave us lots of good advice, and more impor­tantly, beer. We also caught a drink at Advo­cates in “Friendly Town” (the Toyko Gay dis­trict) which was a low pres­sure expe­ri­ence. The bar filled up with French for­eign­ers the longer we sat, but that seemed pretty nor­mal. Also, they were play­ing atmos­pheric / jazzy Drum & Bass… some­thing I’ve *NEVER* heard at a gay bar in the states.

Shop­ping

Ah, now here’s where things get inter­est­ing : Shop­ping in and around Tokyo is nuts. There’s no com­par­i­son on the West Coast. Maybe New York rivals Tokyo for it’s sheer vari­ety and avail­abil­ity of obscure goods, but I doubt it. Cloth­ing brands I only seen small selec­tions of in big­ger depart­ment stores have their own store­front in Hara­juku. The big elec­tron­ics store (Yodobashi and Bic Cam­era) are like walk­ing through Amazon.com : their selec­tion is off the charts. Then you have the smaller cam­era stores pep­pered through­out each neigh­bor­hood, each with their own spe­cial magic to sell.

We spent our first day (and the boyfriend spent most of his money) at MAP Cam­era. They have two store­fronts on the same street in Shin­juku (you can find them on the map linked at the start of this arti­cle). They have an amaz­ing selec­tion of Laikas, Has­sel­blads, and other outta-my-prince-range-cameras. Their medium for­mat selec­tion, new and used, body and lens, was superb. Briand picked up a Pen­tax 55 f4 for his 67 II kit at a price well below Amer­i­can used inter­net pric­ing. While he shopped I ogled the vast array of cam­eras I’d only read about online : Rollei Rollei­flex 6008, Fuji­film GF670, even a Mamiya 645ZD. Tokyo is also a great place to shop for com­pact, intel­li­gent 35mm cam­eras like the Fuji Klasse or the Nikon 28ti. These cam­eras just aren’t avail­able in the states.

We hit up almost all the cam­era shops in Shin­juku, which quickly because an exer­cise in over-stimulation. Which MAP Cam­era, Lemon Cam­era, and some oth­ers were nicely orga­nized and easy to browse, some places like Chuuko Box were inde­ci­pher­able : glass cases floor to ceil­ing, stuffed chock full of vin­tage cam­eras. It was impos­si­ble to tell what any­thing was, what shape it was in, some­times even what the price was. We ogled, pointed and cooed at a few of the rarer birds, but in the end it was too much : back onto the streets to take more pic­tures with the cam­eras we *did* understand.

If you’re going to Tokyo as a pho­tog­ra­pher, make sure to check out this blog post from JapanCameraHunter.com.

I actu­ally only bought one thing in Tokyo, if you can believe that : a sling bag from Res­cue Squad in Hara­juku. But that’s not for lack of try­ing! There were lots of entic­ing things in Hara­juku, espe­cially down the lit­tle “menswear alley” sec­tion, lined on both sides with Nike con­cept sneaker stores, Carhartt, Supreme, Huf and many many oth­ers. There were also tons of used / vin­tage cloth­ing shops that I was dying to get into, but in the end didn’t have the energy. Next time!

Hara­juku sort of became our hub for shop­ping, in part because of it’s prox­im­ity to the Meiji Shrine and the New Years activ­i­ties sur­round­ing it. While we were pretty clear on the shrine-visiting part of New Years, what we didn’t also know was that it was a huge shop­ping vaca­tion for most peo­ple. The shops had lines out the door, every­where, for crazy deals and sales. Almost every shop had a vari­a­tion of the Happy Bag : you pay ¥10,000 to ¥20,000 and leave with a grab bag / box of mys­tery clothes and acces­sories. These bags were seri­ous busi­ness at all the menswear places in Hara­juku, lead­ing me to believe that they must con­tain lim­ited edi­tion stuff. Most major inter­na­tional stores par­tic­i­pated too… I think Levis was one of the only places I didn’t see rock­ing the Happy Bag.

Out­side of fash­ion and cam­eras, we really dug Aki­habara (Elec­tric Town). Could def­i­nitely spend another day there get­ting lost amongst the tran­sis­tors and crazy com­puter cases.

Ran­dom note about some­thing I was shop­ping for and noticed : the Japan­ese do not wear sun­glasses on the street in Tokyo. I do not know why, but the only peo­ple wear­ing sun­glasses, no mat­ter how bright the sun got, were tourists. I Google’d the phe­nom­e­non and found this :

“They only wear sun­glasses under cer­tain con­di­tions, such as when they go to the beach. Each time he put on his sun­glasses on city streets, the Japan­ese found it to be hilar­i­ous. This was all good clean fun until they approached the office build­ing where they were to meet with an impor­tant cus­tomer. At this point, one of the Japan­ese sales­men turned to by boss and said, “Larry-san, please remove the sunglasses…it makes you a stranger.”

The New Year

I hate to say it, but I barely stayed up through 12/31/12 in Tokyo. Sure, Ellen Alien and Appa­rat were play­ing Womb, but after walk­ing around all day and deal­ing with a sub­par drink­ing expe­ri­ence at Nos­tro Modo (some for­eign­ers had orga­nized a beer bust…) we decided to wring in the New Year from the com­fort of our hotel room. That’s not to say we didn’t par­tic­i­pate in the fes­tiv­i­ties. Japan­ese New Year is dif­fer­ent than ours here in the US. Sure, some peo­ple choose to stay up all night get­ting wasted and danc­ing. Some peo­ple ride the JR Yaman­ote line round and round drink­ing with their friends. Most peo­ple, how­ever, spend the night with their fam­i­lies or at a shine, cel­e­brat­ing Shō­gatsu with Hat­sumōde, the first shrine visit of the year.

We spent the later part of New Year’s Eve at Asakusa, where the beau­ti­ful and pop­u­lar Hōzō­mon shrine lives. The area was already in a fes­tive mood, even before sun­down, as food ven­dors set up tents along the spi­dery paths around the main tem­ple. Throngs of peo­ple prac­tic­ing the Osenko rit­ual with incense made for some stun­ning pic­ture oppor­tu­ni­ties, and filled the air with a scent I will also asso­ciate with that place. It was a charged moment, and one that would have been amaz­ing to see at Mid­night had we had the for­ti­tude to stick around.

We decided to visit the Meiji Shrine out­side Hara­juku on the 1st, along with thou­sands of other peo­ple. Over the 3 – 4 days of Hat­sumōde, the Meiji shrine is said to pull in around 3 mil­lion peo­ple(!), but lucky for us it wasn’t crushed the morn­ing of the 1st. The expe­ri­ence was at once fes­tive and som­bre : a carnival-like atmos­phere with seri­ous spir­i­tual under­pin­nings. I really like this about Japan­ese cul­ture : a quick trip to the shrine dur­ing the day for a clap and a bow seems very nor­mal. With shrines dot­ting every major neigh­bor­hood, you’re never far from a place of reflec­tion, which is good when you’ve been in the crush and swell of the Tokyo streets for a while.

Despite the fact that lots of retail places were open and bustling by the 2nd, we learned that most places stay closed through the 3rd. Eater­ies and bars in Ike­bukuro were closed on the 1st and 2nd, which made our morn­ing cof­fee rou­tine a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult (hence the McDon­alds that one morn­ing). Once you get into an area like Hara­juku or Shin­juku your options open up again, but even there not every­thing is open those days. If you do decide to go to Tokyo over New Years, be pre­pared to walk a lit­tle far­ther to find sustenance.

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Final Thoughts

I would go back to Tokyo tomor­row if I could : it got under my skin in a way no other city has. We only saw / did about 50% of the stuff we set out to, and in between those spe­cific points are 100 more undis­cov­ered things to expe­ri­ence. The den­sity, the peo­ple, the archi­tec­ture, the speed and tempo of the city… the scale of every­thing : it was right up my alley. I’ve been told it’s more of a func­tion of vaca­tion itself rather than the place you’re vaca­tion­ing, but I really felt alive in a way I’ve not felt in a long time. Thank you, Tokyo.

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