13 Aug

ImageWhile the mountains are beautiful, the temperature seems pleasant enough (or at least enough like Delaware for me to endure), the people are friendly, and my schools seem great so far, S and I decided to take the opportunity of our first matsuri-free weekend in Gunma to head to Tokyo!  One of the reasons I requested to be in Gunma, besides hearing some previous JETs’ good experiences there, was its close proximity to Tokyo.  Not only do I have friends in Tokyo from my time studying abroad there, but Tokyo is home to the best shopping, food, and entertainment that I’ve ever experienced.  Most (if not all) plays and concerts have a run in Tokyo, and since these are two of my favourite pastimes in Japan, I’m happy to be only 2 hours’ train ride away!
There were no plays and concerts this weekend, but S and I were planning to meet a friend in Tokyo who were there for tourism.  We got to Kiryu station by the ungodly hour of 8:30 and headed on the Ryomo line towards Oyama, a larger city in the neighboring prefecture of Tochigi (for those up on their Japanese history, Tochigi is the home of Nikko, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum).  From there, we were able to transfer onto a line directly into Tokyo, the Shonan-Shinjuku line.  The train was packed, as it was filled with people from Gunma and Tochigi who were headed to Tokyo for the weekend, but we survived the crowd and eventually made it to Ikebukuro, one of our favourite destinations in Tokyo, around 11 am!

We weren’t meeting with our friend until 1 for lunch, so we had time to play beforehand.  Ikebukuro is a bustling shopping district, filled with restaurants, department stores, game arcades, and more.  The branch of Tokyu Hands that I frequent most often is in Ikebukuro, as is Sunshine 60, a gigantic mall that includes not only shops and restaurants but an aquarium and an amusement park.  But on top of all these things, Ikebukuro also has a little subsection of fan culture known as Otome Road, and that is my favourite reason to go to Ikebukuro.

Otome Road is a subsection of a larger road in Ikebukuro, basically one block, from corner to corner.  It contains around 10 shops, all of which are aimed at female anime (Japanese animation) fans, or fans of related industries such as the small theatre industry (linked to anime through musical productions of anime programs such the Musical Prince of Tennis and Rock Musical Bleach) or the idol industry (linked to anime in part by idols acting in television drama adaptations of anime programs, among other ways).  The otome in Otome Road refers to otome-kei anime and manga, or anime and manga aimed at young women.  Otome Road has a variety of resale stores for everything from anime merchandise to idol goods such as photos, posters, and concert goods, to doujinshi.  Doujinshi, a term from the 80s, literally translates to “magazines for people in the same group,” and to the best of my knowledge has similar origins to American “fan-zines.”  However, now, doujinshi mostly refers to fan-published comics dealing with characters from television shows or popular manga series, like a comic book form of fanfiction.

ImageS and my brief stop at Otome Road that morning was as fruitful as expected, and we left poorer but with bags full of older and hard-to-come-by idol goods.  From there, we headed to Shibuya, where we were to meet our friend at the Hachiko exit.

As Shibuya station is one of the larger stations in Tokyo, it has many exits (as well as multiple restaurants and department stores within it), but the Hachiko exit is probably the most well known, for a variety of reasons.  First, the Hachiko exit opens to Shibuya Crossing, possibly one of the most iconic views of Tokyo.  The view has been featured in a variety of American movies, and is constantly shown on Japanese TV to represent the epitome of Tokyo hustle-and-bustle.  The Starbucks at Shibuya crossing is one of the busiest in the world, and the giant billboards and lights and televisions all aimed to catch the attention of pedestrians as they cross to and from the station are really a sight to be seen.  Incidentally, ImageJohnny’s and Associates, the agency associated with my favourite idol groups currently, owns one of the giant billboards in the crossing, and so whenever I go to Shibuya, I can be assured that I’ll see the giant smiling faces of attractive boyband members from afar.  Right now, Johnny’s is advertising the tenth anniversary of one of their groups, a duo called Tackey and Tsubasa, as well as a stageplay called Johnny’s World meant to celebrate Johnny’s and Associates recent acquisition of two spots in the Guinness Book of World Records, and “Summary,” an annual summer concert/stage show hosted by a different Johnny’s group each year.  S and I were lucky enough to attend last year during our summer visit to Tokyo, and we have tickets to see this year’s show in 2 weeks!

ImageAnother famous element to the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station is the story behind the exit’s name (different from the usual exits named after cardinal directions), the story of Hachiko, the faithful dog.  Hachiko’s story was told in a Japanese movie Hachiko Monogatari and the American remake starring Richard Gere, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.  Hachiko was a dog owned by a professor at University of Tokyo in the 1920s, and everyday, he waited at Shibuya station for his owner to come home from work.  After his owner’s death, he continually came to the station, waiting each day for his owner for 9 years, despite the fact that his owner never came.  The dog’s loyalty was showcased in a newspaper, and he became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, fed treats and given attention by station-goers as he waited. Hachiko’s wait at the station was only ended by his death in 1935.  Because Hachiko was such a well-loved symbol of devotion, a statue in his likeness was erected at the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station.

ImageThe Hachiko statue is a popular meeting point, and so S and I had made plans to meet our friend here.  After meeting up, we headed back to Takadanobaba, where I had lived during my study abroad, to get one of my favourite Japanese treats: kaitenzushi, or conveyor belt sushi!  It’s as easy as it seems: sushi moves past customers on a conveyor belt and customers can simply grab plates at will.  At the end, a restaurant worker counts the number of different colored plates the patron has accrued (at this particular restaurant, red is the cheapest, followed by blue, etc, with gold plates as the most expensive) and rings up the bill accordingly.  Great things about kaitenzushi are the fact that it’s cheap (restaurants often offer the lowest priced items at 105 yen), it requires minimal interaction with restaurant staff for those who speak little or no Japanese, and it allows diners to see the options literally pass in front of their eyes before making decisions on what they’d like to eat.  I find that kaitenzushi often inspires people to try new things as they see intriguing sushi go by them on the conveyor belt, and it’s a fun and delicious experience for tourists or people new to Japan.

ImageAfter sushi, we headed back to Ikebukuro to show our friend around, and we hit a few stores we hadn’t been able to go to earlier before taking her to Tokyu Hands.  S and I needed to buy more uchiwa supplies for Summary in two weeks (the other uchiwa from a few posts ago are for a concert we’re going to in Nagano next weekend), and the items in Tokyu Hands, ranging from efficient to adorable to bizarre, can provide entertainment for tourists and people who live in Japan alike.  Each floor of Tokyu hands has a different category of item available (though it seems some locations are arranged slightly differently than others) with everything from stationary to hardware to leather-working to party costumes! I highly recommend it for anyone planning a trip to Tokyo– if you forget something or need something, it’s also a great place to pick it up!
After the Tokyu Hands, we were beat, and so we headed to a coffee shop.  In America, the chain coffee domain is ruled by Starbucks, and while Starbucks is popular in Japan, it’s hardly alone in its realm.  Dotour, Becks, and Excelsior are also popular coffee chains, to name a few, and so we found ourselves in a  little Dotour in Harajuku (a subsection of Shibuya and yes, the place Gwen Stefani has popularized in America through her love of “Harajuku girls”… don’t get me started.  Perhaps there will be another post about Harajuku at a later date) enjoying iced coffees and juices while we rested our tired feet.  Sitting for hours in coffee shops is possibly even more common in Japan than it is in the states; doing work, reading manga or books, chatting with friends, simply taking a breather… all of these are common activities to do at coffee shops.  This often makes finding a table quite hard, as partrons are often loathe to relinquish theirs, but it made the victory of finding a table at this particular store close to the station a great victory, and so we enjoyed the opportunity to chat while being off our feet and out of the humidity in the air conditioning of the shop.  But after coffee, it was time for the reason we had come to Harajuku: crepes!

ImageCrepes are one of the food items that has come to Japan and evolved into something else as it has completely ingrained itself in modern Japanese culture. These sweet treats in Japan are completely different from crepes that can be found in the United States; unlike the sweet breakfast treat an American might expect, served on a plate and eaten with a fork, in Japan, crepes come in cones and are eaten in a manner similar to ice cream.  The crepe itself is wrapped conically inside a paper wrapper and filled, in their simplest incarnation, with whipped cream and fruit.  Other common additions are cheesecake, ice cream, custard, caramel, and chocolate, and I’ve also seen meal-crepes filled with common sandwich items like cold cuts or tuna salad with lettuce and tomato.  However, I’ve never tried one of these, and like to stick to my standard classic, banana and chocolate with whipped cream.  While I couldn’t resist diving into my crepe as soon as I got it (I always have this problem when I try to remember to photograph food…) S kindly took a picture of her own strawberry, chocolate, and whipped cream crepe.  They were delicious!

It had gotten late by the time we had walked around Harajuku and finished our crepes, and so it was time for S and I to bid our friend goodbye and wish her safe travels around Japan.  We visited a few shops quickly in Harajuku (I grabbed a pair of cute lace ruffle socks, which are popular in Japan, hooray!) before heading back to the train station to get to Ikebukuro and head home to Kiryu.

Since Kiryu is relatively far away, we had to plan ahead to make sure we made it clear of the last train.  Unfortunately, the infrequency at which trains from Oyama to Kiryu ran at that time of the evening left us waiting at Oyama for quite some time to catch our connection, which turned out to be a run down train that looked as if it was from the early 70s at the latest.  But the train ran fine, and finally, around 11, after leaving Tokyo at 8, we made it back to Kiryu station.  By the time we made it back to my apartment by bike, we were completely exhausted, and after briefly going through our finds, we collapsed to bed after a long day of traveling and fun.


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