Takeshita Street is a famous side street in the shopping district of Tokyo. All the latest trends either start here or become mainstreamed here, I’m not sure which. I walked down the street, surrounded by teenagers dressed up in outrageous outfits shopping for even more outrageous outfits.
Shop employees stood up on plastic stools to shout about their wares via megaphones. At least one store was devoted entirely to tights and leggings. I passed what I think was a photography studio, where you and your friends can dress up as pop stars and have your pictures taken with glamorous backgrounds. Or maybe it was just a place selling posters of pop stars.
I went into a Daiso, a chain 100 yen shop (a dollar store), and came out with some souvenirs and travel items. The store is large enough that it has its own directory. Some of the English translations describe items that I couldn’t actually find or couldn’t figure out what they meant (what’s Straps?), so that’s a bad translation, and some of them were just very specific (an entire section for Opera glasses).
My host Junko told me how to get a sweeping city view for free instead of paying for an observation deck at Mori Tower, so one night I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building. (This is like sending people to the Hancock instead of the Sears when they go to Chicago.) The observation deck on the 45th floor was made up of a restaurant, an overstuffed souvenir shop, and windows all the way ‘round the room. I liked seeing all of Tokyo spread out before me, lit up as far as the eye could see. (One of the downsides of going to the free deck is that it’s not set up well for photos, so there’s a glare on most of these, sorry.)
The Meiji Jingu shrine is named after the last Meiji emperor of Japan and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine was built after the emperor’s death in 1912, near the imperial couple’s favorite iris garden.
The government decided to build a Shinto shrine to the deified spirits of the emperor and empress, and they surrounded the building with over 100,000 trees donated by citizens from around the country. I found that a lovely idea, to build a living, natural shrine as well as a painted, manmade one.
The park is large, as you can imagine since it contains over 100,000 trees, and I had a nice walk through the forest, over a pond lined with turtles sunning themselves. I entered the main grounds and took in the large trees hung with paper lightning bolts of power, and saw a wedding party walking across the large gravel courtyard.
Priests in ceremonial dress led a procession through the courtyard to a side yard and around a corner out of sight. The groom wore a dark suit and the bride wore a white kimono with a mushroom-shaped hood. A female attendant carried a parasol over the bride. Friends and family, some dressed in kimonos but most in contemporary clothes, walked behind.
The empress was a big supporter of the Red Cross, so there were collection boxes for the charity around the temple. The emperor was considered quite the poet, and for 107 yen, I purchased a small roll of paper with a short poem inscribed on it.
The torii, the main gate to the shrine, is the oldest of its style in Japan. According to the sign posted under it, the torii was rebuilt in 1975, modeled exactly after the original built in 1920. It seems unlikely all other torii of this style in the country were built after 1975, so this seems to be another instance of something being displayed as an original in Japan, without actually being made of the same materials as the original. I’m so used to the old buildings and sites of Europe and the States, which are venerated for being the very same stones touched by previous generations.
The original is such a prized thing in Western civilization, from paintings to cathedrals, and the materials used are an integral part of that originality. I have not made a study of this, so please do correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, but originality in Japanese culture is less important, or it’s interpreted in a different way; the materials aren’t as important as the precise style and location, perhaps. The London Bridge was moved to the Arizona desert, and people still flock to see it because it’s made of stones centuries old. In Japan, temples may have been rebuilt only a few decades ago, but they imitate the form and decoration of their predecessors so precisely, and inhabit the same space so perfectly, that they are admired as the temple, not a copy.
This is ending up very freshman philosophical, all “what is the you-ness that makes you, you,” but it’s something I pondered several times at the different tourist sites I visited throughout Japan. I admit to a thrill when I see or touch something truly old, but seeing a perfectly symmetrical temple identical to one people admired centuries ago is a thrill of its own. The common thread, for me, is the historical connection to others. Whether it’s the actual building that people stood in, or a replica, the exciting thing is the idea that I might be experiencing the sights and sounds of a place just as earlier generations did.
As I mentioned before, I had a wonderful family experience with the Shirotas, and my luck with hosts in Japan didn’t end there. I stayed with a gregarious couple in Hirosaki and a gracious teacher in Yokosuka. But I spent the most time with a lovely family in Tokyo. Andrew, whose parents I stayed with in Shinrin-koen, put me in touch with his friends Eiko and Junko, Japanese sisters who both studied in Washington state, traveled around, and settled back down in Tokyo a few years apart. Eiko took me out to a delicious okonomiyaki dinner in Kawagoe with her family and gave me travel tips for the rest of my time in Japan. Junko put me up in her newly built house in the hip Umegaoka neighborhood in Tokyo. Both of them welcomed me with open arms into their family lives for the short time I was there.
My first day in the city, Junko said, “It’s Golden Week and today is Cinco de Mayo! Come celebrate with us.” It wasn’t actually May 5th, but since that day was national Children’s Day, the Latin American community of Tokyo threw their Cinco de Mayo party a few days early. The festival took place right next to Harajuku, a central location perfect for a concert stage and food stalls. I joined Junko, her daughter, and their friends at the festival, where we ate chicken and tamales and listened to a Mexican pop star belt out power ballads and dance numbers.
The kids, all between three and seven years old, were gorgeous and funny, playing on a skateboard, kicking around a soccer ball, and entreating two strangers to swing them around by their arms. It was such fun, and it was also the perfect place to see how cosmopolitan Tokyo is. I saw the first black people I’d seen the whole time I’d been in the country, and I heard English, Japanese, German, French, and several other languages I didn’t recognize.
The Cinco de Mayo fest is used as a pan-Latin American celebration here, rather than solely a Mexican event. There are apparently a lot of Japanese people with connections to Latin America and Spain. Junko and her friends are some of these. Junko went to college in Washington and spent a semester in Mexico. She loved it so much that she moved there after graduation, and stayed seven years. She moved back to Tokyo to raise her daughter, Carmen, and she works for the American Embassy. One of her friends, Susanna, was born and raised in Venezuela by Japanese parents; she and her Venezuelan husband are raising their two adorable kids in Tokyo. Another friend, Japanese, married a Spanish man, and their son wanted to show me how he’s going to be a soccer star. Everyone there, including the kids, spoke at least Japanese and Spanish, and most of them spoke English as well. I was so impressed by their language skills and the community they’d built together.
Junko and Eiko were both amazing women, smart and loud and funny. They shared with me how it was sometimes difficult to live as loud, strong-willed women in Japan. But they both insist on living their lives as they please, not dimming their personalities to meet any societal expectations, and they seem to have a lot of fun in the meantime. I admire them immensely. Also, their kids were really cute.
After the Cinco de Mayo fest, we all went back to Junko’s house, where Eiko and her kids were waiting for us. Eiko took over the kitchen and turned out several delicious dishes, all the kids played together, and the women graciously spoke English often so that I could be included in their conversation. They were a fun group of women. It was a great first night in Tokyo.
A couple days later, Junko took Carmen and me to meet up with yet another international friend (Japanese, moving to Angola to teach Spanish for a year). We went to the park behind the Meiji Jingu shrine, a sprawling grassy area spilling down to a little pond. Junko was proud to show us the park, which her friend had never heard of, despite living in Tokyo for years. It was a secret hidden in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, Junko said. We had a picnic of sushi and frittata, and Carmen ran a kite around the park in adorable, energetic fashion.
It took Carmen a day or two to warm up to me, but by my last day in town, she was hugging me and pulling on my arm to show me something she’d built or written. In the manner of seven-year-olds everywhere, she took great pride in showing me how to do the simple routines of her household, and we had a lot of laughs over putting stickers in funny places.
Junko also fed me every day for the five days I was there, drove me to the kabuki theater and the boat that took me to Kaminarimon Gate, told me about the Lost in Translation karaoke room, and directed me to an amazing night view of Tokyo. She gave me a driving tour of the city one day, and talked with me about my dreams for the future. She gave me my own room to sleep in, a key to her home, and an invitation to come back any time. All this, and she’d had two days’ warning from Eiko before I showed up on her doorstep. I experienced Tokyo as a temporary member of Junko and Carmen’s family during busy Golden Week, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. I can only strive to be as generous when I host in the future. Arigato!
I wish I’d clarified for myself that I wanted to see as many types of musical and stage performances as possible earlier in this trip. I didn’t seek them out as vigorously as I did by the time I reached Vietnam, which I suppose means I’ll just have to go back to spots earlier on the itinerary and see what there is to see. Still, I knew what I wanted when I was in Japan, and I saw a lot: a Cinco de Mayo concert, a geisha dance performance, a Beatles cover band rehearsal, a traditional lyre-type performance, and a kabuki show. My experience at the kabuki show was a great mixture of high and low, even from the cheap seats.
Getting a seat at a kabuki show isn’t hard, so long as you get it early and pay what is, for me, a large sum of money. But as at so many theaters throughout the world, concessions are made for the poorer theater fan. You stand in line outside the theater for at least an hour, get a ticket, and then wait for another hour before you can stand in line inside the theater to get your spot. I used my in-between hour to eat some tasty noodles from the shop next door, then went up to the fourth floor to wait in line again.
People were in a range of outfits, from jeans to suits, and a few women in full kimono outfits. Two women in perfectly turned-out kimono took it upon themselves to make sure I stood in the right place in line and had my ticket, and generally was all taken care of. They posed for a photo for me, and we shared a lot of smiles, but we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, so that’s as far as that friendship went. It’s all I needed to feel good going into the performance, though.
I paid extra for an audio guide in English, which was worth it. The guide gave a summary of the story before the show and then translated as the actors spoke. It was the story of an old man who needs to sell a sword to raise money for his daughter, and he approaches three warriors just returned from battle. Warrior 1 offers to buy it, and has Warrior 2 appraise it. But Warrior 3 says looking at it doesn’t prove anything. If the sword cuts through two human bodies, it’s a good sword. They find a convict facing the death penalty, and the father sacrifices himself as the second body. But when Warrior 2 does it, he only kills the convict. Warriors 1 and 3 leave in disgust, and Warrior 2 explains to the father and daughter that he purposely didn’t use the full strength of the sword because he noticed it belongs to his ancestral home (the side he’s fighting against in this war, because adoption complications). He proves it’s good by splitting a stone cistern in two, and that cistern was in the name of the play, which I can’t for the life of me remember now or find on Google.
The set was simple, a painted backdrop and a few low tables and tall screens to break up the stage. The actors wore large, stiff costumes that looked practically 2-D, and often the actors moved in deliberate, almost jerky movements. Kabuki has had close ties to Japanese puppetry for centuries, so that’s not surprising.
Kabuki is performed by all-male casts. I was surprised to learn that the form actually started with all-female casts in the early 17th century, but it was quickly deemed too lewd and subsequently outlawed. Since then, it’s been the all-male casts we’re used to associating with Shakespearean times. (Kabuki’s beginnings and Shakespeare’s peak are just about the same time, incidentally.) Apparently, women perform in some productions today, but not in the one I saw.
The actors spoke in exaggerated tones, the female character a plaintive whine, the narrator a sharp bark, the great warrior’s voice a sonorous command. The male characters often made that “ohhh!” sound, accompanied by a slight roll of the head and eyes, that I associate with bad imitations of dubbed martial arts films. It served a similar purpose here, it looked like, as a mocking end to a challenging statement.
Occasionally, audience members would shout out phrases (whether of encouragement or disapproval I’m not sure), especially when the actors were exiting the stage via the hanamichi, the long walkway that extended into the auditorium stage right. For years, kabuki was the common man’s theater, a combination of drama, stock comedic characters, and specific story structures that amused the masses. It was only at the end of the 19th century that kabuki performers tried to get the upper classes to enjoy and support the art. It worked, and now kabuki has several fancy theaters in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country, and it’s promoted outside Japan as a traditional, serious art. But you can’t keep the hoi polloi from their art forms entirely. People will shout out during kabuki plays, just as they will at concerts and movies.
I stood for the entire hour and twenty minute performance, leaning awkwardly against a rail provided for that purpose. The cheap seats aren’t even seats, as it turns out. It’s standing room only up at the back of the top balcony, crowded in with women in kimono, men in suits, teenagers in jeans. Surrounded by this cross-section of Tokyo society, all of whom clapped, laughed, and gasped appreciatively throughout the performance, I smiled to myself. This is why I want to see as many different types of performances as possible as I travel the world–to see how the varied acts affect us all the same way, lighting up our faces and moving us deeply.
Top of my list of things to do in Tokyo was sing karaoke in the land that invented it, and the first Saturday I was in the city, I did just that. Of course, the closed-room private karaoke of Japan and Korea means that, unlike the karaoke nights at bars in the States, I couldn’t just show up and put my name on a list to sing next. I’d need to have a set of friends to go with. Luckily, a couple of Oregonians I’d met in New Zealand were visiting a friend in Japan the same time I was there, so the four of us met up and went to Shibuya, the neon entertainment hub of Tokyo.
Even better, we went to Karaoke Kan, because my host said that’s where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson filmed the karaoke scenes in Lost in Translation. Takako, Vasha and Dar’s friend, arranged for us to be in one of the two rooms that they filmed those scenes in, which was cool, and she ordered our drinks and food for us, too–lucky us! She’d done a study abroad thing in high school, where she became friends with Vasha, so those two had the easy chatter of old friends, which is always nice to see.
The three of us women got silly right away with Spice Girls and the like, and Takako serenaded us with a Japanese ballad. Dar took a little longer to find the perfect song, but he blew it away when he did. (I didn’t know it; I think it was a pop punk song from the ’90s? Most of our choices were from the ’90s.)
Then I sang “More Than This,” that moody beauty by Roxy Music, in an homage to Bill Murray’s talk-song version in Lost in Translation. Of course, I wasn’t flirting with a girl half my age while I sang it, and I’m not a comedic legend making a splash in my first dramatic role, but other than that, it was just about the same.
After our two hours were up, we decided not to extend, since the prices make a huge leap after 11pm. Instead, we had a bite to eat at a place across the street, then wandered into one of the many arcade game places and had a drum-off. We realized the last train of the night was about to leave, and I didn’t know how to get home without the train, so we raced across the busiest intersection in Japan just in time to make it.
As we ran (okay, my friends ran, and I jogged poorly), I glanced around me and took in the stylish Japanese youth texting, laughing, strolling to their next destination. It was a beautiful spring night, the neon was buzzing, the bars and nightclubs and arcades were full of smiling people. I wished I could stay up all night with them.
Kaminarimon Gate swarmed with people. The gods of wind and thunder who guard the entrance to Sensoji Shrine looked fierce in the afternoon sun, and all the Golden Week visitors snapped photos under the red lantern that takes its name from those wooden guardians. Kaminarimon, or Thunder, Gate is in the heart of Asakusa, a district in Tokyo on the Sumida River.
I sailed up the river on a packed tourist boat and followed the crowds past the rickshaw drivers, under the gate of thunder, and down Nakamise-dori, a walking street selling snacks and souvenirs. I had some mochi and admired the five-story pagoda at the end of the street.
Rows of drawers filled with paper fortunes lined the approach to the shrine, and people tied fortunes they didn’t want to a fence in one corner of the pavilion. I joined in others who stood at the fire in front of the shrine, waving purifying smoke toward my face while wishing for luck.
I climbed the red steps to the shrine and took a couple photos before I saw the sign requesting that people turn off their cameras. So I won’t show those photos, but I’ll tell you that the altars were an ornate gold, fronted by rows of flowers, and the ceilings were painted with scenes of sinuous dragons and elegant women.
Asakusa used to be the main entertainment district of Tokyo. Shinjuku and Shibuya have taken over as the nightlife areas of the city, but sites like the Kaminarimon Gate and the Sensoji Shrine keep it a central part of the city’s identity.
Most people took pictures of this guy after we disembarked in the neighborhood of Asakusa, and he started posing with his sword drawn. But I spotted him while the boat was docking and loved the idea–completely false but still fun–that this area of Tokyo was guarded by a ninja, invisible until he’s needed and always standing ready to defend his turf.