Ernie goes to Tokyo pt. 5 (Jun 2015)

Tokyo 2015-165

Saturday came with beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds moving slowly in the light summer winds. This was our last full day in Tokyo, and Ashley, who had been working all week, was finally able to join me for a day out together. We decided to go to Western Tokyo, where some of the more famous neighbourhoods are – Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. Our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, hidden in the forested paths of Yoyogi Park. The southern entrance to the temple complex was a short walk from Harajuku Station, but the city quickly disappeared as we walked underneath a massive torii gate and into the urban forest. A steady stream of tourists and temple visitors walked alongside us on the long, gravel path, but it never felt too crowded, and we were in no great hurry.

The Meiji Shrine was completed in 1921 to commemorate Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken after his death in 1912. The Emperor had presided over a time of great change and upheaval in Japan, as it emerged from its pre-industrial isolation, overthrew the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate, and restored the authority of the Imperial household. The nation rapidly modernized and industrialized into a capitalist empire within decades,  driven by aspirations of regional hegemony. This brought about significant disruptions in the spheres of political structure, military doctrine, international relations, and society, forever changing the face of Japan. The Emperor’s reign, from 1868 AD to 1912 AD, is known as the Meiji Period, and it is considered the boundary between the old Japan and the new.

Like so many other structures in Tokyo during World War II, the Meiji Shrine was reduced to rubble and left in ruin during the immediate post-war years. The current temple complex was completed in 1958, and it is now one of the most popular shrines in the entire country. During the New Year alone, more than 3 million visitors pass through the gates of the Meiji Shrine to offer the year’s first prayers. It is also a popular venue for Shinto weddings, and Ashley and I had the good fortune to witness one such event as we entered the courtyard. The bride and groom led the small procession across the courtyard, before disappearing through a gate to the side. Shinto marriage ceremonies are a relatively recent creation, surprisingly, dating only to the late 19th century, and the number of Japanese couples choosing to have a temple ceremony is in decline. As I was witnessing the walk across the courtyard, though, it reminded me of my own wedding and some of the fading wedding traditions in Hong Kong. Some choose to incorporate most of the cultural cues, while some do away with them altogether, but I really do believe you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

From the green copper eaves of the Meiji Shrine, we made our way over to the vibrant fanfare of Takeshita-dōri, the epicenter of Harajuku. This pedestrian avenue is lined with innumerable shops and boutiques, dictating the latest trends in fashion and personal style for Japan, and the world. Harajuku‘s reputation as an international fashion mecca began in the 1970s and 1980s, when trend-setting urban youth communities migrated over from Shinjuku. Small local shops and larger fashion buildings soon established themselves on Takeshita-dōri and surrounding streets, to be joined by international clothing brands in the 1990s and 2000s. These days, Harajuku and Takeshita-dōri are often used to gauge and forecast upcoming trends, and many brands seed the neighbourhood’s shops with samples and prototypes to get a feel for what’s on the up and up.

Besides the shopping, Harajuku has become a destination in and of itself. The very name of the neighbourhood is associated with a certain individualistic style, or coolness, that is familiar, yet somehow alien. Western pop culture has often appropriated elements of Harajuku, or a filtered idea of it, to accessorize and exoticize itself (see Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne), to the consternation of Asian communities in Western countries. The reaction in Japan to such claims of cultural appropriation is not so cut and dry, and conversations on what is appropriation and what is admiration tend to fall along parallel lines. As Ashley and I walked through the bustling Saturday morning crowd, we were admittedly hoping to see examples of unique personal style and fashion innovation, but it turned out to be a fairly normal weekend shopping scene. The only wigs and outrageous accessories we saw on Takeshita-dōri were on other tourists like us.

Once we got to the end of Takeshita-dōri, we walked around the block to Omotesandō, a higher-end shopping street sometimes referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées. We skipped the window displays and outrageous price tags, though, heading straight into the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku instead. Located on the 7th floor of the half-glass, half-brick building is Bills Omotesando, one of the most popular breakfast spots in town. The original Bills in Sydney, Australia, has a reputation for serving “the best breakfast in the world”, and the popularity of the Omotesandō branch hinted at its continued success. We waited in a line that stretched out the front door and down the stairs around the corner, but we didn’t mind – the day was getting hot and we could feel it through the tempered glass. After about 45 minutes, we were led to our 2 person table by a friendly server. The dining space was bright and airy, the tables were spaced out with plenty of room to walk around, and the light colours of the wooden furniture and bookshelves only added to the carefree atmosphere. We ordered their famous ricotta hotcakes with banana and honeycomb butter, and it was heavenly. A roast beef sandwich with wasabi sauce, pickled cucumbers, and fresh arugula rounded out our meal, and after dilly-dallying for a bit, we left with satisfied bellies and refreshed minds.

We took the train one stop south to Shibuya Station, passing by the famous Hachiko statue as we exited the street-level gates. It stands in a shaded corner of the concourse outside of the station, where it honours and remembers a dog’s undying loyalty to his master. Hachiko was an Akita owned by a professor at the University of Tokyo during the mid-1920s, and, each day, he would trot out to Shibuya Station to wait for his master. One afternoon, however, the professor failed to show up, having experienced a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. For the next 9 years, 9 months, and 15 days, Hachiko continued to show up at Shibuya Station, waiting for a master that would never return. The story and the dog are celebrated throughout Japan as an example of loyalty and faithfulness, and versions of the tale have been told and re-told around the world (see Futurama’s incredible Jurassic Bark episode).

Just around the corner from the Hachiko statue is one of the more iconic sights in all of Tokyo. The Shibuya Crossing is almost a rite of passage for visitors to Tokyo, and a staple of any film or television show set in the city. For an interval of 60 seconds, traffic from all directions is stopped and a flood of pedestrians (up to 2,500 at a time) washes over the temporarily abandoned streets. The mass of bodies converging and passing through one another hints at disorder, but the delicate dance completes within the allotted time, and a new wave of participants begins to build up on the sidewalks. We set up shop at the Starbucks overlooking the intersection, one of the busiest locations in the world, and just sat and watched the rhythm of humanity for a while.

After we tired of the masses, we walked around Shibuya for a bit, before deciding to head north to Shinjuku out of curiosity. The district is known for its nightlife and entertainment, and the Tokyo after dark seen in movies and television are often shots of Shinjuku, with its dizzying avenues of glass and neon. We took the train from Shibuya Station to Shinjuku Station, the busiest station in the world, and it took us an embarrassing amount of time to find our way out of its cavernous depths. There’s an urban legend about a hidden section of Shinjuku Station where people disappear and are never seen again, and I can believe that after our ordeal. When we finally went above ground, we took a quick peek at daytime Shinjuku, the warm tones of the afternoon belying the area’s somewhat seedy reputation. As it happened, this would be our last stop in Western Tokyo and its notorious neighbourhoods. We hopped aboard the next eastbound train from Shinjuku Station in the late afternoon, gunning towards Central Tokyo and the glitzy district of Ginza.

After making a quick stop at the massive 12-story Uniqlo Ginza store, we had dinner at Ginza Gyuan, a traditional Kobe beef steak house. It was recommended to us by the same family friend who introduced us to Manten Sushi, so we had reasonably high expectations going into the meal. Those high expectations had nothing on the numbers on the menu, though, with some sets going for over ¥10,000. I’ve heard that high quality Japanese beef is worth every penny, and that the price range at Ginza Gyuan is actually a pretty good deal, but the hit to the wallet is very real. Having said that, the meat was incredible – just the right amount of tenderness and melt-in-your-mouth fat, with plenty of flavour to go around. We walked off our meal on the now quiet streets of Ginza, where the biggest and poshest luxury brands in the world stand rigid behind their commercial fortresses, enticing shoppers with dreams of prestige. The daily skirmish for dollars and yen had largely concluded by the time we arrived, the only interruption to the post-battle stillness a random party bus full of middle-aged passengers flying down the street in a blur of frenetic music and pumping arms. It turned a corner at the next stoplight, disappearing down a side street and, just like that, it was quiet once again.

Our friend Sam had moved to Tokyo from Hong Kong in the spring of 2015 to work for British Airways. We met her at church a few years ago, and we were all part of the same small group for a number of years. Prior to Hong Kong, she had taught in Japan after graduating from university, so she had a familiarity with the country and a more than rudimentary grasp of the language. While we were in Ginza, Sam was having dinner with a friend of hers elsewhere in Tokyo, and we met up with them afterwards to go hang out at her apartment. The rest of our late evening hours was spent looking out over the sea of lights by the Tokyo Bay, catching up and talking about what we’d seen and done in their city so far. We’d see Sam again later that summer at a mutual friend’s wedding in Vancouver, and she’s come back to Hong Kong to visit friends and family more than a few times since. As for Ashley and I, we needed to get back to our hotel to pack our things for the flight home the next day. There was one more thing we wanted to squeeze in the next morning, however, and it would turn out to be one of the absolute highlights of our Tokyo holiday.

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