By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
TOKYO.—It’s early on a spring morning in Tsukiji. The whole fish market is alive with brusque men driving small trucks, pushing carts of fish, mollusks and octopus, the smell of tobacco mingling with the aroma of fresh fish.
It’s the first time I’ve ever witnessed this. Over the years, I’ve been an exchange student, an office worker and a clueless tourist in Japan’s greatest metropolis, yet somehow managed to miss Tsukiji, one of the most popular tourist attractions. One balmy summer night, some coworkers and I had gone to a temple in Tsukiji for an obon festival, but that was my one memory of the downtown area.
Like jaded Angelenos who have no time for Mann’s Chinese Theater, I left Tsukiji and some of Tokyo’s other famous sites to the tourists and their cameras. But sitting in one of the many sushi restaurants for an early breakfast of some of the freshest maguro and uni I’ve ever had, I had to wonder of some of the other sites I’ve missed.
In recent times, Tsukiji has become so popular among foreign tourists that the market has had to institute new rules after some rather drunken unruly foreigners were seen driving machinery and even licking the prized blue fin tuna. Tourists are now banned from viewing the tuna auction, where the fish can fetch six figures.
Tokyo is truly one of the world’s great cities. Every time I go, I marvel at all the changes: new buildings, new restaurants and improvements to their already efficient transit system. This time I noticed something new that I hadn’t seen even last summer: sale signs and deep discounts, no doubt a sign of the recession. Like many destinations, now is a good time to take advantage of travel bargains and explore Tokyo and its surrounding areas.
Whenever I go to Tokyo, I usually stay in Shinagawa, a major spur on the JR Yamanote line. Shinagawa Prince (www.princehotels.com) offers a complex of hotels ranging from economic to luxury, and many shops, restaurants and even a movie cineplex. For me, it’s nostalgic, since I used to ride through Shinagawa every day to get to work, but it’s also convenient and not as hectic or congested as Shinjuku or Shibuya. Hotel Pacific Tokyo (www.pacific-tokyo.com) is another, upscale option in Shinagawa and just a quick walk across the street to the train station.
What’s new, Tokyo
The hostess at Ninja Akasaka (Akasaka Tokyu Plaza Bldg. 1F, 2-14-3Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 03-5157-3936) a theme restaurant in the ritzy Akasaka district, asked us to come in five at a time, which made me a little nervous. The theme restaurant resembles a ninja house from the Sengoku (Warring States) Period of Japan’s history and to enter Ninja Akasaka, patrons have to negotiate a maze of trick doors to find their darkly-lit table. The food, from ninja star-shaped crackers, to a lethally hot chicken is similarly themed and a ninja warrior will even come to the table to do card tricks. There are an array of course menus or an ala carte option.
More than before, Tokyo seems to be embracing and even encouraging its otaku (nerdy) side for visitors to see. A trip to a maid cafe in Akihabara (electric city) is probably a little advanced for casual fans of Japanese pop culture. At Café Mai:lish (www.mailish.jp) the waitresses all wear different variations of maid costumes, and they speak in a very polite, gentile manner as they serve tea, coffee and ice cream floats. Akihabara is still where you can find all kinds of electronic gadgets, as well as anime, manga and toys.
Shopping in Tokyo can often be an event by itself. Japanese Americans often find that Japanese can’t tell them apart from the locals when they visit. But if they just looked at our T-shirts and comfortable walking shoes, they’d know we weren’t part of the regular crowd. This is especially true for shopping. These aren’t Wal-Mart walkers. Whether in Ginza or Jiyugaoka, women dress up to shop and share a day out with friends. In recent years there have been new shopping centers added such as Roppongi Hills and Omotesando Hills, which cater to upscale shoppers with the latest designer labels and stylish restaurants.
One of the more interesting rituals is to be there for the opening of a department store. At Mitsukoshi’s Nihonbashi branch, the customers wait patiently for 10 a.m. When the time arrives, the workers greet all the customers with deep bows. In the store’s central hall, Gengen Sato’s Statue of a Celestial Nymph, a gigantic sculpture unveiled at Mitsukoshi’s 50th anniversary speaks to an opulence of an earlier era.
It seems Tokyo is large enough for every subculture to have its own district. Harajuku and neighboring Aoyama is still a hang out for teens and well-heeled foreigners. I’ve always been struck by the contrast between the insanity of the trendy Takeshita Dori and the serenity of Meiji Shrine, just a short walk away.
Another site nearby is Yoyogi National Gymnasium, constructed for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Tokyo is again in the running to host the 2016 summer games, competing with Chicago. I imagine if Tokyo wins the bid, there will be even more changes to this exciting city.
Day trip to Saitama
If Tokyo is constantly changing and evolving, then it takes getting out of Tokyo to see some of its origins. Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture is about a half hour train ride on the Tobu Tojo Line from Ikebukuro and offers a chance to see what Tokyo looked like when it was still called Edo. The city, home to 330,000, was a castle town and major commercial link to the capital during the Tokugawa Period.
Walking down the streets lined with beautiful clay-tiled merchant buildings, it’s easy to imagine another era. Overlooking the district is the Bell of Time. Enclosed in a three-story bell tower, it still chimes four times a day.
Many of the stores are still run by the same families and sell traditional foods and wares. In 1893 much of the town was destroyed by fire and the merchant houses which survived reveal many features designed to repel fire.
Ornate clay tiles adorn the kurazukuri traditional merchant buildings that line the main street in Kawagoe, dubbed a little Edo. The district has a quaint, nostalgic sense that even NHK has noticed. “Tsubasa,” the current NHK morning drama is set in one of the picturesque structures.
Kashiya Yokocho, a penny candy alley, in the center of the district, hosts small confectionary stores peddling candies and sembei crackers. The town is famous for sweet potatoes and Imozen, a popular restaurant, (www.kawagoe.com/imozen/konnichi.html; 049-243-8551) features a sweet potato kaiseki course menu in a tranquil setting.
The Narita-san Betsuin Temple features a flea market every 28th of the month with antiques, kimonos and textiles to browse. The flea market attracts bargain hunters looking for quality antique items at affordable prices on washi paper, woodwork and glass.
Kitain Temple (1-20-1 Kosemba-machi, Kawagoe City) was the birthplace of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. Today you can view what is thought to be the room where Shogun Iemitsu was born. In the sculpture garden in Kitain there are 500 statues of disciples of Buddha, that are both whimsical and almost supernatural. They were carved between 1782 and 1825 and no two statues alike. It is said that if you feel among the statues in the dead of night you will find one that is warm.
I walked through the statues and had to laugh. Some seemed to be sleeping and bored, some were in prayerful meditation and one was even picking his nose. How wonderful that in the midst of serenity there is room for earthy humor.
For more information on Kawagoe, visit www.koedo.or.jp/foreign/english/index.html. For information on Japan, visit www.jnto.go.jp.