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The Jimbocho Book District & Crime Museum

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If you like books, you’re going to love the neighborhood of Jimbocho. Hundreds of new and used bookshops line the streets of this district, dedicated to everything from manga to art, architecture, fashion and travel. The majority of the books are in Japanese, but there are plenty of foreign titles, especially in English and German. Even if you’re not in the mood to buy, just browsing can make for an entertaining afternoon. But there’s almost no way that you’re going to walk out of Jimbocho empty-handed.

Jimbocho Book District & Crime Museum

I first visited Jimbocho while Jürgen was out of town on a photography job. There could hardly be a better place to distract someone who’s feeling lonely. I spent all afternoon poking around shelves packed with used English books. I flipped through some pervy anime titles and found mint-condition copies of Sports Illustrated from the 1960s. I went up to the second floor of a shop specializing in rare tomes, and lost track of time paging through antiquated travel books with names like The War for Quito and The Empire of Japon (which is apparently how we spelled it back then).

Later, I sat down in the Schwarzwald Cafe to pore over my new purchase: a book about sumo wrestling, written in 1950. Found across from the bizarre silver-egg of the Jimbocho Theater, the Schwarzwald has a wall covered in cuckoo clocks and excellent espresso. Very cute and comfortable, but the German-themed cafe reminded me of Jürgen. Oh, that’s right. I was supposed to be feeling lonely, not having such a fun day out by myself.

Once Jürgen was back in town, we made a return trip. I had talked up Jimbocho, going on and on about the photogenic old bookshops, the narrow alleys, fun cafes and the restaurants. It can be dangerous to set such high expectations, but there was no need to worry in the case of Jimbocho. I knew he would love it, and he did.

Jimbocho Book District & Crime Museum

On the campus of the Meiji University, to the north of Jimbocho, we found a free museum in the basement of the Academy Common. It’s mostly dedicated to the university itself, but includes a permanent exhibit about crime and punishment in the Edo era. The torture and execution devices on display include an iron maiden and a guillotine, along with even more vile equipment. For me, the worst was a pole around which a criminal would be tied, in a kneeling position. Heavy stone slabs would be placed atop his thighs, one-by-one, until his legs had been properly crushed.

Crime didn’t pay in Edo. I’m firmly anti-torture, but even I can admit that the threat of leg-crushing must have been an effective deterrent. This was a fascinating and evil way to end our excursion to Jimbocho, which had immediately become one of our favorite Tokyo neighborhoods.

Locations on our Map: Jimbocho Station | Schwarzwald Cafe | Meiji University Museum

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Jimbocho Book District & Crime Museum
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July 5, 2014 at 9:59 am Comments (0)

In and Around Tokyo Midtown

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It surely won’t keep the title for long but the tallest habitable building in Tokyo is currently the Midtown Tower, part of the Tokyo Midtown complex in Akasaka. We spent a day checking out the sights around Midtown, including the National Art Center and the tranquil Nogi Shrine.

Midtown Tokyo

Built in 2007 for over three billion dollars, the mixed-use Tokyo Midtown complex provides office space for leading firms like Xerox, Cisco and Yahoo! Japan, as well as residential apartments for (it seems safe to assume) the ultra-rich. In addition, it’s home to the five-story Galleria Mall, the Suntory Museum of Art and Issey Miyake’s 21_21 Design Sight workshop.

We spent a long time inside the Galleria Mall, walking into a number of shops… nothing which we could afford, of course, but there was some neat stuff. Along with stores selling clothing and household furnishings, there’s a vinoteca dedicated to the wines of Frances Ford Coppola. Even though we couldn’t shop, it was fun to be around such luxury, and one of Midtown’s best attractions is entirely free. Out back, in the shadow of the massive tower, is a gently sloping park that has soft grass, upon which hundreds of people were lying.

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After resting in the park, we walked over to the nearby National Art Center, which also opened in 2007 and is among the largest art halls in Japan, with an ever-changing lineup of exhibits in its many rooms. But we were less interested in the art, than the architecture. The building, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, has a tilted, wave-shaped glass facade and an interior architecture that features huge, upside-down cones.

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Further north along Gaien-Higashi-Dori, we came upon the Nogi Shrine. This is the former home of General Nogi, who served Emperor Meiji throughout his reign. The General had an illustrious career, with victories against both the Chinese and Russians, but today he’s most well-known for a demonstration of ultimate loyalty. A couple days following the death of the Emperor, both Nogi and his wife committed suicide in their home; she by throat-slitting, he by seppuku.

It’s a grisly story (and one I don’t find particularly “honorable”), but today the shrine and its adjoining park make for a peaceful escape from the noise and tawdry luxury of the upscale neighborhood surrounding it.

Locations on our Map: Tokyo Midtown | National Art Center | Nogi Shrine

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June 29, 2014 at 7:45 am Comments (0)

Akihabara

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The great Mecca of otaku culture, Akihabara is home to innumerable shops dedicated to anime, manga, cosplay, trading cards and collectible figurines. The world’s first Maid Cafe was established here, and you can also find cheap electronics stores, grand arcades, multi-story hobby malls, and much, much more. It sounds wonderful, so we were surprised when we didn’t like Akihabara all that much.

Akihabara Tokyo

Akihabara was Tokyo’s original “Electronics Town,” where, in the post-war years, people could buy the newest household gadgets. It was also the first area in the city to embrace computing and so it became known as a place with a futuristic outlook. The young, geeky gamers of Tokyo congregated in Akihabara’s bars and cafes, and it developed into a natural center of otaku culture.

Otaku is a tricky term, which I’m not sure I fully understand. Basically, it’s the Japanese version of “ultra-geek,” referring to people who are maniacally obsessed with things like manga or cosplay. Like “geek,” otaku is a traditionally negative term which has come to be embraced by its community. Today, a large percentage of Japanese self-identify as otaku.

Whatever it is, we saw otaku culture at its strongest in Akihabara. We walked through the arcades where guys were playing insane games involving digitally-imprinted playing cards. We squeezed into stores to look at ridiculously expensive anime figurines, and marveled over the people actually buying them. We explored comic shops which spanned seven floors. We ambled down the streets, dazed, politely shaking our heads to every maid that tried to win our attention. Far quicker than than we had anticipated, we’d had enough: Akihabara is not for us.

I don’t know what went wrong! I consider myself rather geeky… I enjoy the occasional role-playing game, and could list off a dozen members of the Green Lantern Corps without blinking. But I’ve always kept my geekiest impulses under control, afraid what might happen should the flood gates open. In Akihabara, confronted with truly unrestrained geekery, I had solid proof that moderation is the best policy.

Akihabara Tokyo

There’s something cute about a maid cafe. There’s nothing cute about dozens of maid cafes. And there’s something downright creepy about hundreds of young girls dressed in suggestive costumes standing around on street corners. Same with the collectible card stores… who doesn’t like card games? They’re fun. But try visiting one of these shops where literally hundreds of various Magic-type card-battle games are sold. Where people will spend a fortune on a single rare card. There’s little joy to be found here, just obsession. After Akihabara, I wanted to grab a fishing pole and go sit on a lake. I wanted to spit in the dirt, and rub mud on my face.

Still, it’s a crazy area and maybe on a different day we would have enjoyed it. At any rate, Akihabara is worth seeing, and if you’re in the market for cheap electronics (or comics or games or maids), it’s probably the best place to go in Tokyo.

Location of Akihabara Station on our Map

Buy Crazy Stuff From Japan Here

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June 22, 2014 at 3:49 pm Comments (0)

Folding Paper at the Origami Kaikan

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Almost everyone knows a little about origami, the Japanese art of folding paper. But for a deeper understanding, we visited Tokyo’s Origami Kaikan (Origami Center) in Bunkyo, where we had the opportunity to learn at the feet of an ancient sensei.

Origami Kaikan

In its most pure form, origami is the art of folding a square sheet of paper. Swans, frogs and balloons are among the most well-known shapes, but there are artists who can fashion simple paper in unimaginable ways, using nothing but folds. Many architects study origami and incorporate its techniques into their designs, and it’s a popular diversion among mathematicians, who are capable of creating intricate models.

Origami has always appealed to me, but it wasn’t until we arrived in Tokyo that I allowed myself to delve into the art form. I bought a few books and stacks of paper, and created a bunch of animals and modular geometric shapes. There’s something entrancing and meditative about the process, and I suspect that I’ve found the hobby which will distract me in my old age.

Old age was certainly on my mind during our visit to the Origami Kaikan. While browsing books on the third floor of this multi-story center, we were invited to sit down at a table with a man who was over 100 years old. He was whipping out origami shapes with frightening speed, and we tried our best to copy his instruction. He spoke not a word throughout the session, though he did frequently grunt with impatience when we couldn’t keep up.

Origami Kaikan

The lesson was in creating pencils, and we learned as swiftly as possible. Our first couple pencils were clumsily-done, but fortunately the learning curve wasn’t steep; this was a simple shape, with only a few folds required, and soon we were spitting out pencils like a factory. Master’s grunts gradually softened until they almost sounded like grunts of approval.

Origami Kaikan is listed as a Cultural Treasure of the Bunkyo Ward. It’s been in existence since 1858, when it was established as a paper-making center. Paper is still produced here today, and visitors are welcomed into the studio on the fourth floor, although it was closed during our trip. The Kaikan also puts on frequent origami workshops for specific models. These sessions are mostly in Japanese, but since you’re just watching someone fold paper, that’s not a deal-breaker.

Location of the Origami Kaikan on our Map

List Of Origami Books

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June 22, 2014 at 2:16 pm Comments (3)

Shopping Fever in Ikebukuro

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Along with Shinjuku and Shibuya, Ikebukuro is the third and northernmost of Western Tokyo’s great centers. Built around an enormous train station, this is yet another mind-blowing conglomeration of people, buildings, entertainment, shopping and chaos that could easily be its own city. And a large one, at that.

Ikebukuro Tokyo

Ikebukuro Station serves nearly three million passengers a day, but perhaps even more than transportation, the neighborhood is focused on shopping. The station is squished between two enormous malls: Seibu on the east, and Tōbu on the west. The electronics retailer BIC Camera also has its flagship store abutting the station, and an endless array of anime shops line the broad pedestrian shopping streets.

We didn’t plan on shopping during our initial exploration of Ikebukuro, but when we boarded the train back home, it was with a few bags full of goodies. We’re weak, but you try visiting a store like Tokyu Hands and walking away without making a purchase. It’s impossible! I’m not even sure how to describe this place, but everything it sells is everything you’ve ever wanted. Weird Japanese products, souvenirs, toys, household gadgets, luggage, clothes, and even a cat cafe are spread across seven unbelievable floors. When we finally escaped the clutches of Tokyu Hands, we were several thousand yen lighter.

Thanks to its wide streets, Ikebukuro feels less congested than Shinjuku or Shibuya and we enjoyed the vibe here. As the sun went down and the lights came on, we walked by a few anime shops. Ikebukruo’s Otome Road is a center of manga and cosplay culture, where some of Tokyo’s biggest anime stores are found. By this time, we had given up any semblance of self-control, and bought whatever anime merchandise caught our eye, however useless.

The night got expensive, but it was also a lot of fun, and we were immediately ready to declare Ikebukuro as one of our favorites neighborhoods in Tokyo. But for some reason, we never returned. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s probably for the best; our wallets probably couldn’t have survived another Ikebukuro-style bashing.

Locations on our Map: Ikebukuro Station | Tokyu Hands

Cheap Flights To Tokyo

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June 17, 2014 at 2:49 pm Comments (0)

Look at You! You Think You’re Ready for Harajuku!

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We knew it was going to be crazy. We’d seen pictures! We had read online accounts and talked to people who’d been there. Sure, Harajuku was going to be nuts, especially on the shopping street of Takeshita-dori, but we were ready. I mean, this is still Earth, people are people, and a crowd is a crowd. Am I right? It can’t be anything we haven’t seen a million times before.

Takeshita-Dori Harajuku

And then it was Sunday and we were standing at the top of Takeshita-dori, next to the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, looking down on a scene of absolute madness. In fact, this was nothing like anything we’d ever seen before. Why would so many people choose to congregate right here? Why does everyone need to shop at these stores, simultaneously? No, I’d never witnessed a crowd like this, and certainly not one with people clad in such bizarre fashion.

Once we manned up and dove into its midst, the crowd was less intimidating. It’s annoying to be jostled to and fro, but it’s significantly less annoying when the people jostling you are dressed as Vampire-Lolitas. Yes, you shoulder-checked me, but I see you are a Giggle-Kitten-Neon-Baby or whatever, so I suppose that’s fine. You could probably knee me in the groin, and I’d find it cute.

Well, further written description is pointless, as I’m sure that photos can better convey the ridiculousness of Harajuku on a Sunday. Both an absolute nightmare and an absolute blast.

Location of Takeshita-Dori on our Map

The Ultimate Tokyo Pop Culture Online Store!!!!

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May 8, 2014 at 9:49 am Comments (6)

The Architecture and Glamour of Omotesando

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The street of Omotesando-dori, leading westward to the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park, has earned a reputation as the Champs-Élysées of Tokyo. With haute couture brands like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton occupying architecturally ambitious buildings, and Tokyo’s most stylish citizenry stalking the sidewalks, a stroll along Omotesando-dori is both impressive and humbling.

Omotesando Tokyo

After exiting the subway station, we started our exploration by walking along Aoyama-dori, which intersects Omotesando at one of Tokyo’s busiest intersections. We passed the United Nations University (apparently a thing that exists), and came upon a drab building called the National Children’s Castle. Not just the Children’s Castle, you see, but the national one. Of course, we couldn’t resist going inside.

Omotesando Tokyo

Built in 1979 to commemorate the International Year of the Child, the National Children’s Castle is designed to be a paradise for kids. Grand playrooms with slides and ropes. A multimedia library with hundreds of individual viewing booths. Full-floor nursing stations. A stage where music groups perform to wobbling toddlers. An arts studio. A pool. A gym. Even a hotel. The place was packed full of screaming kids, finally given free rein to go as bonkers as their little hearts desired.

We returned to Omotesando-dori with splitting headaches, and now had to contend with the mind-blowing architecture of this sloping, tree-lined street. Some of the highlights include the bubbling glass facade of the Prada shop, the crisscrossing concrete supports of Tod’s, the sleek black hourglass shape of the Hugo Boss store, and the classic Beaux-Arts facade of Ralph Lauren.

The people strolling along Omotesando-dori are just as bold and other-worldly as the architecture. We brushed past supermodel-level beauties, and watched suave playboys emerge from Maseratis. These were people who shop at Dior, because that’s simply where they shop. As one particularly immaculate guy passed us, I said, “Every individual thing he’s wearing costs more than everything I own, put together.” Jürgen didn’t laugh, because he knew I wasn’t joking.

Omotesando might refresh your envy of the upper crust, but not all of the shops are exclusive. For instance, there’s a popular toy store called Kiddyland and even a McDonald’s. And the Harajuku Mall, with its striking shattered-glass entryway, has stores with prices that are more down-to-earth. So you can go shopping on the cheap and then, when nobody’s looking, transfer your Uniqlo items to a Prada bag and strut down Omotesando-dori in style.

Locations on our Map: Omotesando Crossing | National Children’s Palace | Harajuku Mall

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May 6, 2014 at 9:25 am Comments (3)

The Plastic Foods of Kappabashi

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Perched atop the Niimi Building, the giant head of an Italian chef welcomes visitors to Kappabashi-dōri, where Tokyo’s restaurants come to buy the things they need to run their business: chopsticks, cups, bowls, knives, takeaway containers, and naturally, an infinite variety of plastic foods.

Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo

We’ve come to truly appreciate plastic food and, when deciding between restaurants, will always choose the one with the most plastic food in its windows. No, it’s not some disturbing new diet. It’s just that, in Japan, menus tend to be written in Japanese and only Japanese. (The nerve!) Not only are these plastic foods the only way for us to know what’s being offered, they’re also a convenient way to order. Rather than looking up the translation for “Curry Noodles,” we can drag the waitress over to the window and point.

On Kappabashi-dōri, we discovered the stores from which Tokyo’s restaurants buy their plastic foods. More than mere marketing tools, these fake plates of spaghetti, tonkatsu, sushi and cakes are vibrant works of art worthy of admiration. Ice cream, sashimi, hamburgers, overflowing mugs of beer… it all looked so good, I had to constantly remind myself that “This is plastic, plastic, plastic,” lest I succumb to a futile feeding frenzy.

It’s not all plastic foods on Kappabashi-dōri. There are other stores selling every kind of kitchenware you could want, from ceramic plates to tea sets, all at bargain-basement prices. This is an area meant for restaurants to buy in bulk, but unlike at Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market, visitors are more than welcome to browse and make their own purchases.

Location on our Map

Buy Fake Sushi Here

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April 18, 2014 at 3:06 am Comments (4)

Tokyo Station and Marunouchi

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When Tokyo Station opened in 1914, it served four trains. But just like the city itself, the station has grown a little. Today, the sprawling station in the middle of the city serves an almost incomprehensible 3000 trains, every single day.

Tokyo Station

The classic, red-brick western facade of Tokyo Station was designed by architect Tatsuno Kingo to evoke Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. Although it was boldly European and cutting-edge when constructed, today it looks positively quaint among the skyscrapers that surround it. But if it’s “modern” you’re looking for, just walk around to the sleek, steel-and-glass, eastern half of the station, built to accommodate Japan’s famous Shinkansen bullet trains.

Across from the station’s classic facade, is the neighborhood of Marunouchi. Meaning “Between the Moats,” Marunouchi literally occupies the area which lies between the two artificial moats that once protected the Imperial Palace. In the days of the Shogun, this was home to the more trusted and important lords, but with the rise of the Meiji Empire, the space was given over to business interests. Today, it’s one skyscraper after the other, each with its own shopping complex and set of restaurants.

During our time in Tokyo, we toured most of these skyscrapers, usually on the hunt for lunch. Each has a wide variety of restaurants, which almost always offer some sort of lunchtime special. Our favorite was the Kitte Building, which opened in 2013. Here, you can find a number of excellent places to eat (don’t pass up the okonomiyaki at Restaurant Nana), a dazzling line-up of shops can suck up hours of time, and the sixth-floor garden provides one of the best views of Tokyo Station.

Locations on our Map: Tokyo Station West Entrance | Kitte Building

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March 25, 2014 at 9:19 am Comments (4)

The Ginza Stroll

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Ever since springing to life in the seventeenth century as home to the city’s silver-coin mint, the central district of Ginza has been among Tokyo’s most popular places to shop, see and be seen. We spent our first Saturday in the city walking along the joyfully car-free street of Chuo-Dori, watching people, and popping into some world-famous stores.

On weekends, traffic on Ginza’s main artery of Chuo-Dori is prohibited, allowing walkers to enjoy what’s become known as the Hokoten, most frequently translated as the “Ginza Stroll”. Filled with massive Japanese department stores, buildings blazing the emblems of international brands like Hermes, Chanel and Apple, as well as smaller boutiques, Ginza is a shopper’s paradise. Most of the people who are out and about, though, seem content to window-shop. That suited us fine; the few times we bothered to look at price tags, we were left both terrified and impressed.

On weekends, traffic on Ginza’s main artery of Chuo-Dori is prohibited, allowing walkers to enjoy what’s become known as the Hokoten, most frequently translated as the “Ginza Stroll.” Home to towering Japanese department stores, international brands like Hermes, Chanel and Apple, as well as smaller boutiques, Ginza is a high-end shopper’s paradise. Most people seem content to window-shop, and that suited us fine; the few price tags we looked at were terrifying.

Ginza was destroyed by a fire in 1872, a few years after the new Meiji Empire had assumed power in Japan. In contrast to the deposed Tokugawa shoguns, who had kept Japan insular, Meiji sought to usher the country into modernity. With this in mind, the task of rebuilding Ginza was given to an English architect, an outreach to foreign expertise which would have previously been unthinkable. With red brick buildings and streets lit by gaslight, Ginza soon found itself home to foreign shops, and rambling along its streets to examine the curious fashions of Europe became a favorite pastime of Edo’s well-to-do residents.

This was our first excursion into central Tokyo, and we were still overwhelmed by the scale of the city. Ginza did nothing to alleviate our stress. We spent hours inside giant department stores like Matsuya and Wako. We donned 3D goggles and played the newest PlayStation inside the Sony Building. We admired pearl necklaces in the Mikimoto shop, which was founded by the father of modern pearl cultivation. We ducked down back streets, browsed book shops, ate pastries and found rooftop gardens from where we could look down on the madness of the Ginza Stroll.

As dusk fell, we grabbed a seat at the Lion Beer Hall, established in 1934 with the mission of introducing a German drinking atmosphere to Tokyo. Apart from the immaculate, bowing waiters who showed us to our table and the presence of some decidedly Japanese items like Pickled Fish Guts on the menu, the German vibe was surprisingly authentic.

The full list of experiences we had during this single day in Ginza could go on for pages. And the number of things which are possible to experience in the neighborhood must approach the infinite. Ginza certainly isn’t among the most traditionally Japanese spots we could have picked for our initial excursion, but its size, wealth, action, strangeness and cosmopolitan flair offered a nice introduction to Tokyo.

Location of Ginza Crossing on our Map

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March 14, 2014 at 7:44 am Comments (2)

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The Jimbocho Book District & Crime Museum If you like books, you're going to love the neighborhood of Jimbocho. Hundreds of new and used bookshops line the streets of this district, dedicated to everything from manga to art, architecture, fashion and travel. The majority of the books are in Japanese, but there are plenty of foreign titles, especially in English and German. Even if you're not in the mood to buy, just browsing can make for an entertaining afternoon. But there's almost no way that you're going to walk out of Jimbocho empty-handed.
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