Tokyo Adventures 2: Japanese culture past and present

Recently Tokyo was listed as the world’s largest Mega-city. I don’t think it takes a special list to understand that Tokyo is massive. One trip to the Skytree, the Tokyo Metro Government Building, the Daiba waterfront or the Mori Art Musuem sky deck and Tokyo’s size will become startlingly clear. This sprawling metropolis is a playground for the gastro-brave, the weird, the culture buff and the shop-a-holic. Tokyo is so massive that many of our trips there have been between other business so they don’t make for good chronological reading. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have anything worth sharing.

The crowd on a quiet day at Senso-ji

The crowd on a quiet day at Senso-ji

In the first Tokyo Adventures post I talked about finding western food and shopping for crafts and cosplay items. This set of adventures highlights the interesting dichotomy between Japan’s traditional culture and it’s backwards march in to the future.

Senso-ji & Skytree

Asakusa is by far one of the top tourist destinations in Tokyo. I won’t be able to share anything with you that isn’t already covered ad nauseum somewhere else. It’s no surprise that one of the top tourist destinations in the most populated city in the world is a little crowded. I was there on New Year’s Eve during the day which is supposedly off peak. I would hate to see what it’s like when it is peak season.

The main temple in Asakusa is called Sensō-ji and its large pagoda tower and main temple building are impressive and well maintained. Throwing a 5円 coin is considered very auspicious but all I had were 10’s. One throw for my wife and me! The immensely crowded thunder gate, which just got a new lantern, is at the entrance to Sensō-ji. If you were hoping to take that perfect picture of the bright red lantern looking all serene, you can pretty much throw that thought away now or show up at 5AM. On the bright side you will have many random Japanese people in your pictures and you can make up stories about them…

Asakusa is lauded as being one of the better preserved wards from older eras of Tokyo but for my money it just looked like Japan. Not to mention from Asakusa you can see the Asahi building, with its “golden flame” on top (we thought it looked like a golden flaming poo) and the Tokyo Skytree, which are both ultra-modern. The Sky tree costs a whopping 3,000円 to get to the top although it is the tallest tower in the world at 637 meters. We skipped it since the TMGB is free.

Not too far from Asakusa is Ryogoku. Right outside the station there are many Chankonabe restaurants. Chankonabe is basically “sumo food.” It’s a special kind of hot pot recipe that is basically a light stew. You can check out our Cooking in the shower recipe for Nabe here. To the immediate north of the station is Ryogoku Kokugikan and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The Kokugikan is still a functioning sumo arena as well as a museum of sumo wrestling. We stopped here for the Edo-Tokyo museum and a special exhibition of ukiyo-e artwork.

The Edo-Tokyo museum has a strange a ultra modern appearance but was designed to resemble old kurazukuri store houses from Edo period Tokyo. I thought it resembled a star destroyer. Anyways, the museum in and of itself was interesting as a survey of Japanese history. A majority of the display space is centered around Tokyo after the capital changed from Kyoto to Edo in the early 17th century. Attention is paid in the museum to just about every influence that shaped Edo into Tokyo from kabuki to rice production in the Kanto region.

We attended for a special exhibit of ukiyo-e 浮世絵 (pronounced: ooo-key-yo-eh) which translates to “Pictures of the floating world.” Ukiyo-e is more commonly referred to as “Japanese wood block prints.” The Edo-Tokyo museum had gathered together an entire retrospective of famous ukiyo-e from around the world and put it all in one chronologically ordered display. Hiroshige and Hokusai are easily the most famous of the artists but they were active in the mid 19th century. The floating world has been captured in Japanese art with roots all way back in the Heian period. The time line of ukiyo-e acts as a window to the development of Japanese culture, as the themes and subjects change based on the economic and social influences around them. The British Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the National Library of France all have massive collections of ukiyo-e. In Japan, the largest collections are at the Ukiyo-e Museum of Nagano and the National Museum of Modern Art – Tokyo. What made the Edo-Tokyo museum’s display so impressive is that they had gathered the signature works from all of these museums and many more and put them all in one exhibit. We were truly blown away by  the comprehensive collection of the “floating world.”

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the most famous examples of ukiyo-e

Spending the day in the past made us forget about modern Tokyo even though the building we were in looks like a spaceship from the outside. That same evening we spent some time Harajuku and the experience, while still amazing, couldn’t have been more opposite. Harajuku is the heartbeat of fashion culture in Tokyo and the bleeding edge of Japanese trends. Ultimately, Harajuku has become ultra popular with westerners, cosplay enthusiasts, fashionistas and artists because of the everything but the kitchen sink mentality of the district. The standard fare in fashion are there with Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and then there are stores that sell hoodies with faces on them, a t-shirt that just says, “Locality” and costume stores where you can get just about any female anime character pre-made, wig and all. Check out the Harajuku Tokyo fashion blog on Tumblr for a glimpse at some of the outfits you’ll see walking around. Also near Harajuku is Meijingu, or the Meiji Shrine which contrasts so heavily with the hustle and wild freedom of Harajuku, but remains just as much a part of Japanese culture.

Modern Japan is also closely associated with electronics, state of the art trains and robots. The Toshima ward which houses Ikebukuro and the flagship stores of Yamada Denki and Bic Camera is no stranger to technology. Toshima is also one of the most international areas of Tokyo with a high concentration of foreign born residents and the first ward to elect an openly gay assembly member. If two massive electronics stores weren’t enough, you can take the train to Shinjuku or Akihabara and see pretty much all the same stuff. In an area about 1/10th the size of Disney World in Orlando there are more than 260,000 people living and at peak hours more that 400,000 in the Toshima area.

Visiting Ikebukuro and the Toshima ward offers a little slice of everything from from modern art at the Tokyo Metro Art Space to Cafe Du Monde’s beignets to stores where normal size women can shop for shoes to the largest selection of laptops I have ever seen. I previously mentioned Sunshine city but Ikebukuro is so much more than that if you need to do some shopping in Tokyo. Although it isn’t as popular as Akihabara, Shibuya or Shinjuku, that you will still  have many intimate moments with store staff as you are forced to touch crotches to let other people by in the aisle.

Tokyo’s modern culture and history clash all over the city, the above is only a small sampling. A place where there are lines around the block on New Year’s Day at the shrine to burn offerings and where two eight story electronics stores next to each other didn’t stop a third store from going up across the street. A place where carrying a flip phone and a smart phone is no big deal. A place where repressed cultural norms lead to covering up the top half of your body, but still wearing the shortest skirts imaginable. The list of examples could go on and on as a very traditional society adapts, fights, struggles and moves forward in the largest megacity in the world.

Modern Tradition.

Modern Tradition.

One comment on “Tokyo Adventures 2: Japanese culture past and present

  1. […] We definitely brought some Tokyo flavor with Reverse Cinderella – Shoe Shopping in Japan and Tokyo Adventures 2: Tokyo: Past and Present. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s