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Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe

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“This is fun,” I said to the girl working at the cafe, raising my voice to be heard above the squawking. “But it would never be allowed in America!” She looked at me, baffled, and asked why not. At this moment, there were six parakeets on my head, and bird poop was running down my shoulder. Something was pecking at my neck and, in the next room, people were petting an eagle. I considered explaining, but decided against it. Regarding animal cafes, the rift between our cultures might be too wide.

Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe

We had visited a dog cafe in Busan, and cat cafes have become popular in a few European cities. But Tokyo always enjoys taking things to the next level. In addition to dog and cat cafes, this city has cafes dedicated to goats, turtles, snakes, rabbits… and owls. We showed up at Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe, not long after it opened to the public.

On entering the downstairs cafe, my first thought was “This place is tiny,” followed immediately by “Holy crap, that’s a huge eagle!” It was right next to me, definitely within pecking-distance. My primal instinct ordered me to flee, but given the size of the room, there was nowhere to go.

In a cage in the corner, we found two fluffy baby owls, just one month old and already quite large. Above them sat a couple full-grown owls, and we were encouraged to go ahead and pet them all, including the babies. I hovered my hand above one owl, trying to pet her, but she kept a steady eye on my fingers, pecking whenever they came too near. Eventually she calmed down and I was able to scratch the back of her head.

Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe

This was already crazier than any other “cafe” I’d ever been to. But now we passed into the larger “parakeet room” and the crazy level went from 10 to WTF?!? Flying around wildly were over sixty squawking parakeets who, from the moment we entered, were fighting with each other for the honor of perching atop our heads. Those who couldn’t find room on our heads contented themselves with our shoulders, arms and hands. One feathered fellow, who I never actually laid eyes on, nestled into a comfortable position at the back of my neck, which he would occasionally nibble.

The girl working in the cafe put a container of seeds into my hand, which I appreciated because I had just been thinking that this needed to get even more insane. The birds immediately recognized the container and dove for my hand, trying to pry the lid off. “You can pet them,” said our guide, as though this were something I had the slightest desire to do. Instead of petting them, may I wring their necks?

May I run screaming from the room?

Asakusa’s Owl and Parakeet Cafe is hard to classify as “fun,” and it’s certainly not a cafe in which you’d want to drink coffee, but it’s quite an experience. How much you enjoy it depends entirely on how much you love birds.

Location on our Map

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Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe
Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe
Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe
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Asakusa’s Owl & Parakeet Cafe
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May 5, 2014 at 10:19 pm Comments (5)

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

Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
Attack on Titan!
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April 18, 2014 at 3:06 am Comments (4)

Asakusa Amusements

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Its reputation as the pleasure center of Tokyo has long since faded, the Kabuki theaters have relocated and geishas mostly vanished, but the northeastern neighborhood of Asakusa still boasts a few worthwhile attractions apart from the temple of Sensō-ji.

Asakusa Tokyo

From the late nineteenth century until the 1945 firebombing of WWII, Asakusa was where Tokyo came to relax. All manner of fun could be had here, from naughty red-light pleasures, to family-friendly entertainment like dancing and recitals. In 1890, the Ryounkaku (Cloud-Surpassing Tower) was built here. With twelve floors and the city’s first elevator, it was by far the tallest building in Tokyo and instantly became a favorite tourist attraction.

Asakusa was hit hard by Tokyo’s twin twentieth-century disasters. During the Kantō Earthquake of 1923, the Ryonkaku was just the most prominent of the many buildings destroyed. And after the firebombing of the Second World War, it never managed to recover its sense of glamour. Today, Tokyo’s youth shun Asakusa, preferring instead to congregate in newer neighborhoods to the west such as Shibuya and Shinjuku.

Asakusa Tokyo

But there’s still plenty to do here. After visiting the Sensō-ji temple, we couldn’t resist checking out the nearby Amuse Museum. It was a promising name, so we bought tickets without bothering to check what might be inside. Turns out the Amuse Museum focuses on the most unamusing topic imaginable: fabric. Which is actually pretty amusing.

The main exhibit in the Amuse Museum was about enormously heavy Japanese coats called boro. In the lean years following the war, and especially in remote areas like Aomori, women would craft boros by stitching together whatever scrap of fabric they could get their hands on. They could be worn during the day, and at night entire families would disrobe and crawl together into one, to conserve body heat. This was just one of the museum’s fascinating exhibits, and from the rooftop deck, we discovered a great view of the Sensō-ji. To our surprise, the Amuse Museum had lived up to its name, after all.

Asakusa Tokyo

On the western side of Tokyo’s oldest temple, we found its oldest amusement park. Hanayashiki was built in 1853, and is still in operation… though the rides have thankfully been replaced since then. Hanayashiki is the quintessential Tokyo amusement park: bizarrely compact, squishing a bunch of attractions into a tiny space, and expensive. Entrance is 900¥ and, on top of that, each ride costs extra.

Asakusa Tokyo

We ambled farther west, along the Shin-Nakamise covered market street, sampling both Meron Pan (poofy, melon-shaped sweetbread) and a sweet, warm rice drink called Amazake. In these areas, Asakusa feels older than many of Tokyo’s other districts. I don’t mean “very” old; the buildings and houses here date mostly from the 1960s and 70s. But in ultra-modern Tokyo, that qualifies as ancient.

Asakusa Tokyo

Our final stop in Asakusa was at the Taikokan Drum Museum on Kokusai-dōri. We were all alone inside and, after glancing over our shoulders to make sure nobody had followed us, we grabbed sticks and started playing on the antique drums which had been collected from around the world. Soon, a horrified-looking employee entered and snatched the drumsticks away from us. “No, no, no” she admonished. “This is how!” And then she unleashed a brutally awesome barrage on the taiko which we had been gently tapping. She gave us the sticks back, and had us try again. This was great fun; it’s the only drum museum I’ve ever been to where you’re encouraged to play on the exhibits. Actually, it’s the only drum museum I’ve ever been to, period.

Locations on our Map: Amuse Museum | Hanayashiki Amusement Park | Taikokan Drum Museum

Weird Gadgets From Japan

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April 3, 2014 at 8:50 am Comment (1)

Sensō-ji Temple

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Tokyo’s oldest temple is the Sensō-ji, constructed in the year 645. Like almost everything else in this city plagued by earthquakes and fire, it’s been rebuilt multiple times, but has always been an important place of worship.

A visit to Sensō-ji begins through the Kaminari-mon, a large gate protected on either side by wooden representations of the gods of thunder and wind. Past these formidable guardians is the Nakamise-dōri Shopping Street. The vendors of this teeming market sell every kind of souvenir imaginable, from key chains to ninja costumes, as well as a wide variety of traditional sweets, treats, teas and ice cream.

It may seem strange for the path leading to an important temple to be so secular and commercial, but that’s because the rulers of Tokyo haven’t always looked upon Sensō;-ji with deference. During the Meiji Restoration, officials made a concentrated effort to reduce the influence of Buddhism, and encouraged the city’s seedier elements to set up shop in Asakusa, and particularly along Nakamise-dōri. The street became a home to prostitution and gambling, which wasn’t entirely troubling to the temple’s monks, many of whom reportedly enjoyed exactly such vices.

Nakamise-dōri has cleaned up its act considerably. Today, the most sinful thing being sold here are taiyaki, delicious fish-shaped cookies filled with chocolate. It’s not a bad idea to eat a few, because you’ll need the energy while visiting Sensō-ji. The temple is huge, with grounds that include multiple shrines, the Hondo (main hall), a five-story pagoda, statues, gates, a museum and even a Japanese garden.

Let’s have a word about that garden. After an hour spent walking around the Sensō-ji, we’d had enough of incense and crowds and were preparing to leave. But then we saw a sign advertising the “Temple Museum with Attached Japanese Garden,” in a building near the western exit. Having just completed a comprehensive exploration of the temple, we agreed there was simply no space for a garden. “It’s going to be a few plants in the corner… max.”

The museum was magnificent, much better than expected, with wood carvings and scrolls, along with paintings of samurai and strange demon gods. And then we emerged into the garden. I still don’t understand it. The place was huge… a real park! A long circular path led past a pond, a tea garden complete with monk serving tea, into a forest (a forest?!), and over hills. By the laws of reality, this park should not have been possible. It’s like we stepped out of the museum, into some sort of pocket universe.

Lending credence to my outlandish theory was the fact that, although the crowd in the temple had been borderline outrageous, and despite this being the Sensō-ji’s most beautiful corner, the garden was nearly empty. It can’t have been the museum’s extremely reasonable entry fee scaring people off. No, the likeliest answer remains a disruption in the space-time continuum. Good luck finding the garden yourself, because it might not really exist.

Location of Sens?-ji on our Map

Weird Kit Kat Flavors From Japan

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April 3, 2014 at 3:04 am Comments (3)

The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji

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Nakamise-dōri, a pedestrian shopping street which leads directly to the temple of Sensō-ji, is always busy, but today it was packed. All eyes were cast upwards as a 60-foot dragon wound its way through the air, above the crowd. It was March 18th and Sensō-ji was celebrating the Kinryu no Mai, or Golden Dragon Dance.

The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji

Way back in the year 628, two brothers found an icon of the Boddhisattva Kannon while fishing in the Sumida River. They were non-believers and threw the icon back into the water. Soon thereafter, it appeared once more in their nets. They discarded it again, and when the relic showed up a third time, they figured that it must be some sort of sign.

They went to their chief, who listened intently to the story and decided to honor the miraculous icon by building a new temple, the first in the village which would later become Tokyo. When the figure was enshrined, Kannon herself was said to have descended from the sky in the form of a golden dragon.

It’s this legend which the annual Golden Dragon Dance seeks to recreate. We followed the weaving creature down Nakamise-Dōri and into the courtyard of the Sensō-i, where the real dance would begin. Seven younger guys holding sticks managed the dragon’s twisting, fluid motions, while an older man wielding a staff pranced in front of the beast, shouting at it. I’m still unsure whether he was supposed to be commanding, communicating with, or fighting the dragon. Regardless, it was an entertaining show.

Location on our Map

Framed Photos From Tokyo

The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
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March 30, 2014 at 8:03 am Comment (1)
Asakusa's Owl & Parakeet Cafe "This is fun," I said to the girl working at the cafe, raising my voice to be heard above the squawking. "But it would never be allowed in America!" She looked at me, baffled, and asked why not. At this moment, there were six parakeets on my head, and bird poop was running down my shoulder. Something was pecking at my neck and, in the next room, people were petting an eagle. I considered explaining, but decided against it. Regarding animal cafes, the rift between our cultures might be too wide.
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