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Ameyoko Shopping Street

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On the eastern side of Ueno Park, in the streets around the elevated tracks of the train station, you’ll find the Ameyoko Shopping Street: a great place to come when you’re in the market for… well, anything. Fish, veggies, shoes, leather jackets and the discrete companionship of attractive ladies are just a sample of what’s for sale.

Ameyoko Shopping Street

Ameyoko is a fun place for those who enjoy being crushed half to death. When we visited on a Saturday evening, the density of the crowd was approximately that of a neutron star. As the market came into view, we were captured by its gravitational field and pulled helplessly toward the nucleus. Seconds ago, we had been in the safety of Ueno Park, but now we were caught in the dead center of Ameyoko, being jostled and shoved from left to right, blinded by the neon and deafened by the shouting of the vendors.

The true name of the market is Ameya-Yokochō, which means “Candy Shop Alley” and indicates the original focus of the area. Today, it’s been abbreviated to Ameyoko, and the mercantile focus has expanded. Over 500 shops compete for business, but there are easily enough customers to go around. We found ourselves darting into stores simply to take a break from the crowd.

In Japanese, Ameyoko’s name also works as a pun on “American Market.” In the post-war years, this was a black market where many of the surplus American military goods could be found.

We had just been enjoying the relative peace of adjacent Ueno Park, so Ameyoko was a shock to the system. Luckily, we were in the right mood, and found it exhilarating. There’s so much to see, and the food and clothing being sold here are cheap in comparison to other Tokyo markets. I’m glad I don’t have to do my day-to-day shopping there, but Ameyoko was worth experiencing at least once.

Location on our Map

Online Shop For Japan Pop Culture

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May 29, 2014 at 7:20 am Comments (2)

Other Sights in Kawagoe

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We had spent the morning admiring Kawagoe’s Edo-style kura-zukuri buildings and visiting the museums found along its main strip. After a long lunch, we felt rested enough to continue our exploration of the city.

Sights in Kawagoe

Our first stop of the afternoon was at Candy Shop Lane, where we sampled the famous treats of Kawagoe. The candy production based here kept Tokyo’s sweet-tooth satisfied during the lean years after the great 1923 earthquake. There are fewer shops today, but this lane is still filled with people selling traditional sweets like candied yams and red-bean cakes. We found a lollipop sculptor, who crafted an attractive (and delicious) flamingo for us. And by showering us with samples, a wily old woman guilted us into buying a couple bags of salty rock candy.

Sights in Kawagoe

We now made our way to the east, toward the former site of Kawagoe’s castle. Because of its upstream location on the Sumida River, Kawagoe was of great strategic importance to Edo, and the scene of many battles. After falling victim to fire, the castle was mostly demolished in 1870, replaced by public parks and sport fields. You can still visit the Honmaru Goten, which was the castle’s main residence. Today, it holds archaeological artifacts.

Sights in Kawagoe

For a better picture of life in medieval Kawagoe, we visited the nearby City Museum. Meant to resemble a modern kura-zukuri warehouse, this large white building isn’t particularly appealing from the outside, and we almost skipped it. But once inside, the museum does a good job of bringing the history of the city to life, with explanations of how the kura-zukuri were built, along with full-scale replicas.

Sights in Kawagoe

One task remained on our long itinerary in Kawagoe: the Kita-in Temple, to the south of the former palace grounds. Believed to have been founded in 830, the Kita-in was of great importance to the Tokugawa Shogunate. When it was destroyed by fire in 1638, a section of Edo Castle was transferred to Kawagoe to help with the temple’s reconstruction process. This is the only part of Edo Castle which has survived into the present day. It’s now home to a museum, although the exhibits are just a handy pretext for getting to see the interior of this historic building.

Also within the temple’s expansive grounds, we found a courtyard with a collection of 500 statues. Carved from stone a couple hundred years ago, each has a different posture and expression. Additionally, the Kita-in has a shrine for the spirit of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, a bell tower and a mausoleum which holds the remains of Kawagoe’s former lords, or daimyo.

Locations on our Map: Candy Shop Lane | Honmaru Goten | Kawagoe City Museum | Kita-in Temple

Hotels In Kawagoe

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May 28, 2014 at 6:34 am Comments (0)

A Trip to Kawagoe

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An hour to the northwest of Tokyo, Kawagoe is one of the more popular excursions from the capital. It’s known as “Little Edo” because it retains the distinctive kura-zukuri buildings which once lined the streets of the capital. We spent a day seeing the city’s sights.

Kawagoe

After taking the train to Kawagoe Station, we had to walk for twenty minutes to reach the historic center of town. At first, Kawagoe felt like any other Tokyo neighborhood: big buildings, pachinko halls, cellphone stores, and tons of people. But upon reaching the historic zone, the atmosphere changed dramatically. It might be overdoing things to say that we had been swept into the past, but certainly we were no longer in the modern day.

The kura-zukuri style of construction prominent during the final years of Edo is still evident in Kawagoe, and only in Kawagoe. Heavy warehouses of layered clay and plaster atop a wooden frame, and capped with thick tile roofs, these buildings were designed to withstand the constant fires which so plagued the capital. They’re definitely sturdy; I’m surprised more haven’t survived. We got a good look at how they’re built during a visit to the Museum of Kura-zukuri, found inside one of the kura on the main street of Chuo-dori.

We would enter quite a few kura during our day in Kawagoe. One houses the Kameya Sweets Shop, while another sells goods in a setting straight out of Edo, with the vendor and her wares standing on elevated tatami mats. This is Osawa Family House, which was built in 1792 and is the oldest kura-zukuri remaining in Japan. And then there’s the Yamazaki Art Museum. The exhibits are small, and won’t take much of your time, but the museum is worth visiting just to see the inside of the old warehouse.

Kawagoe

Although these kura-zukuri are easily Kawagoe’s most well-known feature, the city’s most emblematic structure is the old wooden bell tower in the center of town. The three-story Toki-no-kane was originally built in 1644 and is still rung four times a day.

By lunch, we had worked up a mighty appetite, and sat down at Kotobukian, where the specialty is green-tea soba. Each of us were served a wobbling tower of five stacked bowls, each filled with soba noodles and accompanied with a different condiment. This was a lot of food, but the noodles went down surprisingly fast and gave us the energy we’d need during the second half of a long day in Kawagoe…

Locations on our Map: Kawagoe Station | Museum of Kura-zukuri | Yamazaki Art Museum | Toki-no-kane Bell Tower | Kotobukian

Hotels In Kawagoe

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May 28, 2014 at 1:24 am Comments (3)

A Trip to the Kabuki-Za Theater

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Japan’s most famous cultural offering, Kabuki, is not an art form meant to cater to Western tastes. The performances can last all day long. The acting, done exclusively by men, is second-fiddle to the make-up and costumes. Monologues go on interminably. The music is strange and the dialogue is usually recited in an exaggeratedly affected, chiming manner. There is no earthly reason why Jürgen and I should have enjoyed it. But we did.

Kabuki Theater Tokyo

Kabuki emerged in the 1600s, and was originally performed entirely by women. These were often courtesans who might be purchased, and the shows were suggestive and bawdy. Kabuki was a natural fit in the red light districts of Tokyo, and drew audiences of every social class. Hoping to curb prostitution, women were eventually banned from performing, and acting duties were handed over to young boys… which did exactly nothing to curb prostitution. Performances were often interrupted by fighting in the audience over the affections of the most attractive young lads.

Soon enough, Kabuki acting became the exclusive domain of mature males, and the performances grew less ribald. It developed into an art form whose popularity spread like wildfire through Japan. Although the capital of Kabuki was undoubtedly the red light district of Yoshiwara (until the end of legalized prostitution in 1958), the most prominent theater has long been found in Ginza. The Kabuki-za was originally built in 1889, destroyed by fire in 1921, rebuilt in 1922, destroyed by the earthquake of 1923, rebuilt in 1924, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, rebuilt in 1950, destroyed in 2010 due to structural flaws, and rebuilt again in 2013. Phew.

So the theater has a history of 125 years, which just happens to be the exact length of a normal kabuki performance. These things are long, often lasting from the late morning until the evening. Mercifully, it’s possible to purchase tickets for a single act, which might be 90 minutes long. The procedure to buy single-act tickets is complicated but manageable. A good run-down can be found here.

Kabuki Theater Tokyo

But don’t buy single-act tickets! We did so, and regretted the decision as soon as the show started. Kabuki is bizarre, indecipherable, tiring, silly, often boring, and utterly awesome. From the moment twenty ladies-in-waiting appeared on the stage, we were captivated. The play we were attending, Ichijo Okura Monogatari, dealt with the loyalties of a woman who had married into a rival clan, but the plot didn’t matter at all. This was about the acting, the make-up, the costumes and the set design. It was a lot of fun, and we were upset that we couldn’t stay for the subsequent acts.

Another problem with single-act tickets is that the seats are found way up at the top, in the theater’s worst section. From this height, you can’t see much of the detail in the actors’ expressions, nor the intricacy of their dress.

I didn’t expect to enjoy Kabuki anywhere near as much as I did. It’s hard to describe what’s so great about it… and when I try explaining it to friends, they look at me like I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy! Kabuki really is great, although you probably won’t believe that until you see it for yourself.

Location on our Map

(Unfortunately, the Kabuki-za is very strict about their “no photography” rule, so we weren’t able to get any pictures of the performance itself. You’ll have to see it yourself!)

Cheap Flights To Tokyo

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May 27, 2014 at 5:16 am Comments (2)

Zojo-ji and the Shiba Garden

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Today, it’s hidden in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower, but the temple of Zojo-ji was once among the grandest in Japan. This was the Tokugawa clan’s favored place of worship, and the resting place of many shoguns. We visited the temple on Buddha’s birthday and, afterwards, took time to check out the nearby Shiba Detached Palace Garden.

Zojo-ji

The fact that we were visiting the Zojo-ji on Buddha’s birthday was a coincidence. (Until Buddha accepts my friend request on Facebook, I can’t be expected to remember his birthday.) But we lucked out: April 8th is one of the few days in the year when the temple opens the doors to the Tokugawa Mausoleum, where six shoguns are buried. It’s always fun to enter a place that’s normally off-limits, so it hardly mattered that we couldn’t read the names on the tombstones.

When the Meiji Empire came into power, the Zojo-ji found itself in a precarious position, thanks to its importance to the hated Tokugawas. The new emperor began promoting Shinto over Buddhism, and forced the temple to relinquish over 90% of its land, dispersing thousands of the monks who lived there. In a brazen show of disrespect, the bones of the buried Tokugawa Shoguns were disinterred and moved to a tiny plot in the corner. Furthermore, the temple was targeted by newly-empowered Shinto hardliners, who set fire to many of its buildings.

But although the Zojo-ji has lost its former grandeur, it still manages to impress. The main hall, a 1972 re-construction of the original, is massive and minimalist, with a beautiful golden shrine in the center. Behind the hall, there’s a cemetery which has the Tokyo Tower for a backdrop. And to the side, in front of the Tokugawa Mausoleum, are hundreds of Jizo statues lined up in a row. Decorated with bonnets, flowers, toys and even winter coats, these are dedicated to unborn children.

Takeshiba Pier And Shiba Gardens

After scarfing down a quick lunch of noodles from one of the stands which surround the temple, we walked down the street, past the World Trade Center, and into the Shiba Detached Palace Garden. Like the nearby Hama Detached Palace Garden, this was private land until the Meiji takeover and the fact that it’s been preserved in the middle of an area of such transformative growth is remarkable. After paying a small entrance fee, we walked along the park’s looping path, past an archery range, around a pond and over a couple hobbit-like hills.

Takeshiba Pier And Shiba Gardens

The Shiba neighborhood of Tokyo has a lot to recommend it, and a carefully-planned day spent here can be rewarding. Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum in the morning. Then Tokyo Tower, after which you’ll have time to get to your lunch reservations at the tofu restaurant Tofuya-Ukai. After a tour of Zojo-ji and the Shiba Gardens, you’ll be tired, but perhaps you can manage a quick jaunt to the Takeshiba Pier to see the boats leaving for the Izu Islands. Finally, you can take in the sunset from the World Trade Center’s observation deck. That sounds to me like a perfect day in Tokyo.

Locations on our Map: Zojo-ji Temple | Shiba Detached Palace Garden

Framed Tokyo Photos

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More Photos from the Shiba Gardens and the Takeshiba Pier
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May 27, 2014 at 1:22 am Comment (1)

The Tokyo Tower and the World Trade Center

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Although it’s been unseated from its position as Japan’s tallest structure (and, at 333 meters, is positively Lilliputian in comparison to the new champion, Oshiage’s 634-meter SkyTree), the Tokyo Tower remains a popular tourist attraction. Modeled on the Eiffel Tower and painted bright orange, the tower has been a part of the city’s skyline since opening in 1958.

Tokyo Tower

Our reaction to the Tokyo Tower was mixed. It’s a shameless copy of the much grander Eiffel Tower, but still an impressive sight. Maybe it’s the bold orange color which contrasts so strikingly against the normal steel gray of the city’s skyscrapers. Or maybe it’s the weirdness of seeing the Eiffel Tower in Japan. Regardless, we consider the Tokyo Tower to be one of the city’s coolest structures.

Unfortunately, visiting its observation deck isn’t all that great of an experience. The view is nice, but the observation deck is always crowded, and more than a little annoying. Besides, when you’re inside the Tokyo Tower looking out, the best-looking building has effectively been removed from sight.

World Trade Center Tokyo Video

For a superior view, walk to the nearby World Trade Center. It’s not as tall as the Tokyo Tower, but the observation deck at the top of this building is cheaper to visit and much more serene. The huge windows are spotlessly clean and you can sit at them for as long as you want, without impatient tourists trying to shove you aside. You’re even allowed to bring in your own food and drinks. And there, in the foreground, is the Tokyo Tower in all its bright orange glory.

Locations on our Map: Tokyo Tower | World Trade Center

List of great hotels in Tokyo

More Views from the Tokyo Tower
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More Views from Tokyo’s World Trade Center
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May 21, 2014 at 8:52 am Comments (3)

Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum

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There was a time when one could see the entirety of Tokyo, or Edo as it was then known, from atop Atago Hill. Today the view is obscured by a wall of skyscrapers, but climbing the steep hill is still worth the effort, thanks to the presence of the Atago Shrine and the adjacent NHK Broadcast Museum.

Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum

I’m not a religious person at all, and not affiliated with any sort of church. However, if there were some sort of Global Anti-Atheism Law which forced me to choose a religion or die, Shintō would be a contender. I decided this while strolling through the gardens of the Atago Shrine. All I’d have to do is occasionally visit a beautiful park like this, wash my hands, and clap a couple times? I might already be a convert!

Atago Shrine is nice enough to make anyone a believer. A tiny oasis of peace in the middle of the city, it’s the kind of place whose existence hardly seems possible. At the bottom of the stairs, there’s Tokyo, with its attendant traffic, noise, and stress. And at the top, another world. There are woods, fountains, guardian statues and, in the koi pond, hilariously frantic carp crawling over each other in pursuit of food.

Thanks to the view it once commanded, Atago Hill has seen its share of history. It was here that the Tokugawa Shogunate peacefully surrendered to the Meiji Empire. The looming war was likely unwinnable, and looking out over his threatened city prompted the shogun to raise the white flag. “Honor in the face of defeat” would prove a popular mantra at Atago. After Japan’s capitulation in World War II, ten military commanders chose the hill as the site for a ritual suicide.

Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum

Having finished up at the shrine, we turned our attention to a more modern religion: television. NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, runs a free museum in the building where the country’s first television broadcasts went out. Spread across four floors and focusing on the early days of the technology, it was more entertaining than we expected it to be, with interactive displays and frequent appearances by Domo, NHK’s lovable mascot.

Locations on our Map: Atago Shrine | NHK Broadcasting Museum

Get Your Own Domo-Kun Mascot

Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
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Atago Hill and the NHK Broadcast Museum
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May 18, 2014 at 11:29 am Comments (2)

Japanese Baseball and the Yakult Swallows

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Sumo wrestling might be the country’s most traditional pastime and soccer is gaining ground every year, but Japan’s sporting obsession has long been baseball. I always love a trip to the ballpark, so we visited the Meiji Jingu Stadium for a match between the Yakult Swallows and the Hanshin Tigers.

Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo

In Japanese baseball, the strike zone, field and ball are slightly smaller, and games that reach the 12th inning deadlocked end in a tie, but otherwise there are no real differences between Japanese and American baseball. Quite a few US players finish their careers in Japan, and of course, Japanese players occasionally “graduate” to the MLB. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Hideo Nomo are a just few of the famous athletes who’ve found success in America.

At Meiji Jingu Stadium, I almost felt as though we were attending a minor league game in the States. The crowd wasn’t as large as I had expected. In fact, the majority of seats were empty… maybe because it was an unimportant early-season game, or perhaps thanks to the rain. Or it could be that the Swallows aren’t that popular. The cheering section for the visiting Tigers was notably larger and louder than that for the home team.

So, we were not happy during the first couple innings. The rain had started with the first pitch, and our view in the lower outfield was obstructed by a fence. But eventually the weather improved. We dug into the sushi and beer we’d brought with us, and started loosening up. And then the Swallows scored and the fans surrounding us, who had been singing and clapping without pause, pulled out tiny umbrellas which they waved about wildly. Apparently, nothing says “Go Swallows” like dainty umbrellas.

The atmosphere inside the stadium improved with every inning, and by the time the Swallows had secured their 5-2 victory, we were in great spirits. Five runs meant five miniature umbrella dances, and it’s impossible to remain grumpy in the face of such joy. In fact, by the time we left, we were already looking forward to our next trip to the ballpark. In a few weeks, we had plans to visit the Tokyo Dome and root on the Yomuri Giants.

Location of Meiji Jingu Stadium on our Map

Compare It To The Baseball Culture In South Korea

Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
Yakult Swallows at the Meiji Jingu Stadium In Tokyo
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May 16, 2014 at 12:25 am Comments (2)

Dinner Behind Bars at Alcatraz E.R.

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It’s safe to say we’ve never dined in an atmosphere remotely similar to that of Shibuya’s Alcatraz E.R. The name says it all: this theme restaurant is meant to emulate the experience of eating inside the blood-spattered emergency room of a high-security prison. Have I mentioned that Tokyo is a little strange?

Alacatraz ER Restaurant

Theme restaurants are all the rage in Tokyo. People will line up to eat in places dedicated to topics like ninjas, vampires, Alice in Wonderland, maids, robots and butlers. And, of course, the emergency rooms of prisons.

After stepping off the elevator, we pressed a big red button smeared with bloody hand-prints in order to open the door of Alcatraz E.R. A woman dressed as a nurse-waitress-torturer greeted us and led us to our table, which was within a prison cell. We walked past grisly scenes of bloody emergency room madness, including mutilated corpses who’d been interred in the floor, and were locked into the cage where we would be enjoying dinner.

Dinner Behind Bars at Alcatraz E.R.

The menu is hilarious, with intestine-shaped sausages served in bedpans, sexually-deviant cocktails and weird culinary experiments like bright blue curry. We ordered a lot, and were enjoying fried chicken when suddenly the lights in the prison went out. Warning signals flashed red down the corridors outside our cell, while blood-curdling screams blared over the intercom. The inmates were loose! We sat silently, until noticing a silhouette in the cell with us. From what I could discern in the strobing red light, he looked rather like a murderer. Jürgen unleashed a wail of terror, the likes of which I’d never heard from him before.

It was quite a night, and not too expensive. I had expected the food to be over-priced to compensate for the show, but that wasn’t the case. Even the drinks were reasonable, and the cover charge was only ¥500. You might want to stay away if you’re afraid of the dark, or prison, or masked men suddenly standing next to you in your prison cell, or evil nurses forcing you to drink from decapitated heads, but otherwise a night out at Alcatraz E.R. is a lot of fun.

Location on our Map

More Strange Stuff from Japan

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Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
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May 15, 2014 at 9:35 am Comment (1)

The Parasitological Museum of Meguro

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It’s not the best place to take a date, nor would you want to visit after eating a large meal, but the Parasitological Museum in Meguro makes a wonderful excursion for when you… I mean, it’s fun if you’re in the mood for… Or, it’s interesting for those who… You know what? I’m drawing a blank. I can’t think of a single non-creepy reason to visit the Parasaitological Museum. Unless you’re a professional parasitologist. (Even then, the very fact that you’re a parasitologist is kind of creepy.)

Parasitological Museum of Meguro

We had spent the morning viewing cherry blossoms along the Meguro River. So lovely! And then we had eaten a large meal of udon noodles. Mmm, those were good! Minutes later, I’m in front of a formaldehyde tank, looking at a tapeworm that measures 24 feet in length. And now, the questions start: what exactly are we doing here? Why are there so many other people? Is that thing an engorged tick? What’s that tickling in my stomach? Oh god, can worms really do that to a human brain? And can I be entirely certain that all of those udon noodles were actually udon noodles?

This is one of the most horrifying museums I’ve ever visited. Horrifying and fascinating. Privately founded in 1954 by a doctor, Meguro’s is the only Parasitological Museum in the world, with over 300 disgusting little (and not-so-little) specimens on display. None still alive, thankfully. The focus is on human parasites, with information about their life-cycle, reproduction methods and habitats. Very few of the exhibits have English translations, but I wasn’t too disappointed by this. Seeing the worms which might be crawling around inside our bodies is bad enough, without having to know exactly what they’re doing to us.

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-We also visited this strange museum: The Phallological Museum In Iceland

Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
Parasitological Museum of Meguro
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May 15, 2014 at 8:07 am Comments (3)

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