Unlike in New Zealand, where I would rarely stay in a single place for longer than two weeks, Japan has a less spontaneous culture, resulting in me staying in a single place for much longer. I have already experienced a lot here, but it was only the beginning. Now, it’s time to get ready for…
And yes, I’m still in the right city, just like the Japanese people are still very Japanese.
As opposed to the weather, which quite frankly is not at all what I expected from Tokyo.
Slating rain and flurries of snow strike the city in a cold snap, causing many delays in the otherwise unflappable Japanese public transport system. Combined with the thin walls of Japanese houses, that makes the first weeks here in Japan quite reminiscent of New Zealand temperature wise. Fortunately, the temperatures slowly and steadily climb towards more tolerable values during March, until the point when I’m even able to go out wearing sandals and a T-shirt.
Anyway, to give you a better understanding of why such frigid temperatures are considered an abnormality in these parts, let us consider the overall latitude of Japan.
At 35.5° North, Tokyo is located at the same latitude as Lampedusa and Tehran, and at pretty much exactly the opposite latitude as Whangarei, New Zealand. As such, temperatures below 5°C qualify as arctic, actual snowfall is a cataclysmic calamity. But let us move on from that for now.
The everyday life here in Japan should claim a large amount of my time, especially with Japanese classes and work piling up on me. However, I still have enough time to fit in a couple of strays. Particularly, after having been in a number of separate places here in Tokyo so far in the line of work, school and just random visits to places…
…I decide to make it my goal for March to connect all those places by walking the distances between them, getting a good feel for the city as a whole in the process, and naturally also hoping to discover many Inari Shrines.
To give you a better understanding of the distances I covered on foot there, here’s a comparison of the general area with the other places that have been the centre of my life at one point or another.
Quite the endeavour, but also something that is attainable if broken up into parts. Altogether, I have five connections to make, and I begin with…
Connecting Stray #1: Koto to Kudan
The objective of this stray should be to connect Koto, the neighbourhood in which I live, with the Kudan Area, in which I would take my Japanese Classes. Since that would be quite the endeavour for a single stray – especially with me taking classes and working and all – I decide to split it into a total of three segments, which should add up and complete the connection.
The first of these segments should take me…
Segment 1-1: Crossway through Koto
The goal of the first leg is the station of Nihonbashi (日本橋 “Japan Bridge”). This should take me halfway through the Koto district, and into Chūō-ku (中央区 “Central Ward”). Now, I could go there directly, don’t pass go and don’t collect 20,000¥ as I pass…
…or I could take the scenic route, which would extend the stray to roughly 7kms, and take me about two and a half hours to complete, all in all. I’m sure you can guess which option I decided on.
Straying through the Back Roads of Koto, I soon enough arrive at my first shrine for the day, and much to my delight, it turns out to be an Inari shrine flanked by a pair of foxes.
A good chance, I figure, to take a family picture of sorts with my vulpinely gifted brethren.
As I continue on my way, I come across a bicycle parking lot in the shadow of the expressway. The sheer size of it tells tales of the popularity of the bicycle, or Jitensha in Japanese (自転車 “Self Revolving Wheel”).
From there, I continue north through the 木場親水公園 (Kibashinsuikouen, “Kiba Water Park”), not to be confused with Furuishibagawashinsuikouen ¬– we already had that one last time. Along the way, I come across a curious sculpture simply labelled 川並 (Kawanami), which I figure might be translated as “Lining up in the river” in this context.
One definite curiosity of this aquatic park are the little “stables” built in the middle of the river. I figure they must serve as homes to aquatic mammals, seeing as how some of them are covered by nets to keep birds away.
Also, just like in Furuishibagawashinsuikouen, there are murals drawn by children all over what would otherwise be boring concrete walls.
My next port of call is Fukagawafudodo (深川不動堂 “Deep River Steadfast Temple”), a big Buddhist Temple directly next to Fukagawa Park.
Now, before I continue, there is one thing I want to clarify for the rest of this blog. This symbol…
…is an ancient symbol associated with Buddhism and is used to denote Buddhist temples on maps among other things. It has absolutely nothing to do with a certain similar symbol used by some jerk about 8,000 years after its conception. Also, that other symbol is oriented counter-clockwise and rotated 45°. Or to make it short:
Anyway, with that being said, let’s now take a short tour of the temple, where chanted prayers are broadcasted from speakers to reinforce the ambience.
From there, I should one last Inari Shrine in Koto, where the foxes are encaged to prevent… vandalism I guess?
And then I leave Koto via the 永代橋 (Eitaibashi, “Eternity Bridge”) across the Sumidagawa, and enter the district of Chuo.
By the way, that tall tower in the distance? That’s the Tokyo Sky Tree. I wonder if my way will take me there eventually. If so, it would be only after the connecting strays, for the thing is a good distance away from the areas I visited so far.
Delightfully, the first Shrine I come across in Chuo is also an Inari Shrine with foxes watching over it. This one is the smallest such Shrine I came across so far. I wonder if it’s part of the property behind it, and if the people living there are the Shrine’s caretakers?
Apart from Shrines and Temples, there is also the occasional Buddha statue standing around at street corners, bridges and squares, often with a little offering and a straw hat to protect the statue from rain.
My final Shrine visit for the day should be one of those visits that is significantly more interesting if you understand a little bit of both the Japanese Language and Culture. On its own, the shrine is nothing notable – just another Shrine in the shadow of the expressway.
But since I’ve done my homework, I know that this Shrine is a special one. Unlike most other shrines, that are dedicated to a Goddess who is venerated all over the land, this one is a singleton, or at the very least a rare variety. You see, this shrine is dedicated to the Kabuto (兜), which is exactly the type of helmet you are going to think about when you hear the word “Samurai” or think of Japanese warriors in general.
Now, how does that relate to… well, to anything, really? Why dedicate a shrine to a helmet of all things?
At this point, let us recall that Shinto is an animistic religion, believing in a divine spirit residing in all things, so why not a helmet too?
And why a helmet of all things?
If you think about it, it’s actually quite simple: A helmet keeps you safe, it protects you and your loved ones, not only in times of conflict, but also at work during our modern age. In our western culture, we often see helmets only as disposable tools, whereas here, people respect the valuable service that helmets provide enough to build and maintain a shrine to this day and age. If you want to pray for safety at work, this would be the one place to come to.
And with that, this stray is slowly coming to an end, but not before I pass a Typical Tokyo Thoroughfare™ on a pedestrian’s bridge. At this time of the day, there’s actually not a lot of traffic, but it can get quite busy during the rush hour. The two lanes on the left with the toll booths lead onto the elevated expressway.
One third of the way has been completed. As for the next segment, this one should take me through the…
Segment 1-2: Imperial Garden
The second segment of the Koto to Kudan Stray would take me from the station of Takebashi (竹橋 “Bamboo Bridge”) to Kudan. The most notable thing about this segment should be that it would take me through the gardens of the Imperial Palace, which stands out as an island of greenery in the landscape of Tokyo’s concrete cliffs.
The entirety of the Imperial Palace is divided into four parts: Kitanomarukooen (北の丸公園 “Northern Circle Park”) and Kokyogaien (皇居外苑 “Imperial Palace Outer Garden”) are publicly accessible without any restrictions (in fact, major roadways run through them), while Koukyohigashigyoen (皇居東御苑 “Imperial Palace East Imperial Garden”) is open to the public with free admission from 9:00 to 16:00 or 17:00 (depending on the month), except on Mondays, Fridays and special occasions. The imperial palace grounds, finally, are not open to the public except on 2-Jan (New Year's Greeting) and 23-Dec (Emperor's Birthday).
I emerge from the bowels of the Tokyo Metro just outside of the east gardens, and my is it ever-obvious that this place used to be a fortress!
These days, however, the moat serves less as a defence and more as a home to water birds (and algae, lots and lots of algae).
I can see how it would have been an effective defence though, with the only accessway from this side being a narrow causeway with an easily disposable bridge.
That is also one of the place from where visitors can access the east gardens, given they don’t bring along bicycles, dogs, alcohol or drones.
For today, however, my way does not lead me inside, but rather north through Kitanomarukooen…
…where I pass a class of Japanese school children as they leave the Kagakugijutsukan (科学技術館 “Science and Technology Museum”) located there. This is actually a rather small museum with lots of interactive exhibits, directed to get children interested in science, so I guess school classes make out a large part of its patronage. By the way, children wearing those yellow hat is also a typical sight in Japan. You could call it the official children’s uniform because why wait until high school to properly integrate your offspring into society?
Eventually, I depart Kitanomarukooen through Tayasumon (田安門 “Field of Peace Gate”), an L-shaped double-gate complex that hints at the fact that this field might not always have been all that peaceful…
…and into Chiyoda-ku (千代田区 “Thousand Year Field District”), where I should be taking my Japanese classes, but more about that later on. For now, let us focus on the final segment of this stray, and this one is all about…
Segment 1-3: Connecting the Bridges
The final segment should span the distance between Nihonbashi and Takebashi, not necessarily in the most efficient way, but nonetheless.
I start at the iconic Nihonbashi, which used to be the point from which all distances to the capital were measured. Both metallic guardian dogs and dragons stand watch over this historic piece of architecture from the 17th century.
Not far from there, I notice a special type of building for the first time. These super-slim buildings that are less than 10m in width are not exactly common, but once you’ve first noticed them, you’ll end up seeing them all over the place. Who ever said a one-room-apartment couldn’t have windows to three sides?
Now, Quiz Time! What was missing entirely on the last segment?
The answer is: Shrines! For some reason, there were no shrines at all inside the Imperial Garden, or at least not along the route which I took. To remedy that, here’s the first shrine of the day: Tokiwa Inari Jinja(常盤稲荷神社 “Common Platter Inari Shrine”), a rare fox-free Inari Shrine, nested in an alcove between the houses that might have also fitted one of those super-slim buildings. Makes me wonder if that’s what happens to abandoned Shrine lots.
Not much later, I find out that just because I’m in Japan now doesn't mean I won’t occasionally cross paths with groups of Japanese tourists. I guess they really are a global phenomenon.
From there may way leads me over a… I mean through a… Ah, what the heck! Let’s just say: My way leads me throver a brunnel! Cuz why should I of all people stick to grammatical rules if the architects of this particular piece of infrastructure were evidently not able to decide between building a bridge or a tunnel. Also take note of the protective fencing that was apparently added to keep people from jumping from the bridge onto the brunnel. No no, if you want to jump, you better jump all the way down to the asphalt below!
At this point, I feel that I have to cut back on telling you about every single Shrine I come across. Partially because I’m sure not all of you are as interested in them as I am, but also because there’s a real lot of them, and not all of them are particularly noteworthy or have a fancy story attached. On this stray alone I should visit a total of 8 shrines and this should turn out to be not even close to later records. For those who do care (but don’t drink): I am maintaining a more detailed list of all fox shrines I come across on my strays on the Kitsuria Network.
One of said more notable Shrines I come across on this stray is Toyokawa Inari Jinja (豊川稲荷神社 “Bountiful River Inari Shrine”). This one is currently undergoing maintenance. However, as the caretaker notices me, we start talking, and although my Japanese is not the best, it is still enough to tell him about my interest in Shinto, Inari Shrines and foxes in particular.
Moving on, I make my way through the urban canyons of Chiyoda…
…and shortly thereafter pass by a bar with a very unique way of advertising. The catchy Japanese song playing at full volume in the empty street certainly caught my attention.
The name of this bar (昭和大衆ホルモン, Shouwa Taishuu Horumon), translates into Showa General Public Hormone, and is a pretty adequate representation of the typical eclectic names of such establishments here in Japan.
My goal is not far away now. All that’s left is the way through a walking mall (naturally with its own set of shrines)…
And before long, I am within sight of the palace east gardens again.
With that, the connection is made, and this first stray comes to an end. I take a last good look at my surroundings and find myself admiring the perfect harmony of opposites in this particular location…
…before returning into the depths of the earth to take the Metro back to my makeshift home in Koto. Speaking of which, I guess it’s about time I tell you a little bit more about…
Living in Shiohama
I’ve stayed in dormitories in hostels during my year in New Zealand before, so I am not entirely unaccustomed to this. However, staying in a hostel for a few nights and being part of a sharehouse community are two entirely different things. For example, the community is divided into the more quiet underworld community, living in the dorms of 2F…
…and the more noisy overworld community of the double and single rooms of 3F through 5F, who routinely listen to loud music or watch anime at full volume at night.
I count myself among the denizens of the underworld, sleeping on a bunk bed in an 8-bed dormitory.
I soon settle on setting up Liete – my trusty Laptop – on the kitchen table, and before long everyone knows this to be my traditional seat. It’s actually funny how seating arrangements just organically evolve in an environment like this, and eventually everyone living in the share house ends up with his or her own place on the table.
Now then, where should I start? How about I begin with…
The Laundry Factor
Laundry in Japan is one of those things. For one, Laundry is traditionally done with cold water, which sort of results in my socks never really getting clean. Here in the Ooizumi Mansion, we have one coin-operated laundry machine (for 30 people) which washes a medium load in about 45 minutes for 200¥. We also have a dryer, but that one is not supposed to be used. Instead, we hang our clothes on the rooftop – a hazardous experience due to the treacherous omega-death staircase which has claimed many a victim, myself included.
Unlike in Germany, drying one’s clothes on the balcony is commonplace all over Japan. In fact, looking around, I get the impression that the primary purpose of balconies here in Tokyo is that of drying clothes.
I do my clothes with the “busy washing machine + rooftop at the end of treacherous staircase” combo exactly once before I decide to look for alternatives. Step one of my plan is getting a laundry basket at Ito-Yokado, which I can carry right out of the store after the clerks have marked it with a “Yes I’ve been paid for” sticker.
And then, I go on a quest to find suitable coin laundries in the neighbourhood.
Well, fortunately, I don’t have to go quite that far. In fact, there are four of them pretty close to the sharehouse, two big, two small. Prices for laundry vary between 200¥ and 400¥ per load, while drying is consistently 100¥ per 10 minutes (30 minutes usually do the trick of getting everything dry for me).
One of the biggest advantages of those is that they all have driers readily available…
…so you can get your entire laundry done in one trip and not have to risk breaking your neck getting up on the roof and back down again with a basket full of laundry. The Engrish in those Coin Laundries is amusing too!
Another is that they offer bigger machines, which is great for those days when I wash my linens. There’s no way those would have fit into the small machine back at the Ooizumi Mansion. Again, watch out for the Engrish!
Eventually, I settle on the smallest of them all: ホワイトコインランドリー (Howaito Koin Randorii, “White Coin Laundry”), which is literally just a small hallway with 7 washing machines and 4 dryers. However, it offers a variety of advantages that make it the clear winner:
1.) It is the closest, and walking there barely takes 10 minutes even with a basket of laundry.
2.) With only 200¥ for a normal load, it is definitely the cheapest of them all.
3.) For only 50¥ extra per load, you can actually get your laundry washed with warm water at this and only this coin laundry. Well, not hot water, but at least warm water.
Also, there’s some perks to hanging around for about an hour and a half while my laundry gets washed and dried here: In a small establishment like this, I see a lot of Japanese people come and go in that time. Most of them actually live even closer than me, so they just drop their laundry into the machines and then leave, returning once it’s done. My clear favourite of the people I encounter would clearly be the lady with the dog that I keep occupied while its owner gets her laundry done. And while I normally am not a fan of people forcing dogs into clothes, this one has so little fur that giving it an extra layer of warmth in these temperatures is absolutely justified.
Getting my laundry done is something that I usually do on Sunday mornings. With the entire process taking a little over two hours and me usually sleeping in a little on those days, that means after returning to the Ooizumi Mansion it’s usually right about time to…
Prepare for Lunch!
Or maybe, we should instead go over the…
I’ve already mentioned that most of my lunches tend to be noodles of some sort prepared in the frying pan with some sort of condiment, or cup noodles for that matter, and while that may seem rather one sided, it still allows for a lot of variation and surprises, one being Tanuki Udon...
…or as I like to call it: Pizza Soup. Well, actually, it’s Tempura, but the way it is being presented, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, especially after it’s been soaked in soup. Tanuki (Raccoon Dogs), by the way, are the counterpart to Kitsune (Foxes) in Japanese folklore…
…which probably explains why these two dishes stand right next to one another on the supermarket shelves.
Speaking of Kitsune Udon, the tasty Inari-Age that is a part of this particular meal has enticed my palate to such an extent that I simply had to try making it myself. The process is actually quite easy if you allow yourself to start from bland Aburaake: Take a cup of Dashi (出し “Fish Broth”), two table spoons Shouyu (醤油 “Soy Sauce”) and four table spoons of Sugar…
…mix it all together…
…and then boil the Aburaage inside, allowing them to soak up the liquid.
And ba-boom! Instant Stash of Inari-Age! The Inari-Age made this way can be stored in the fridge or freezer…
…and is enough to provide a tasty supplement for lunches for days to come. You can also buy pre-made Inari-age in the stores, but the home-made variant simply puts that one to shame.
One thing I definitely miss from home is tasty refrigerated pizza, and while such a thing does exist over here as well…
…well, let’s just say the less I say about it the better, and the fact that I have to prepare it in the microwave because Japanese Kitchens typically don’t have an oven doesn’t exactly add to the result.
On a more curious note, there’s this package of Unbelievably Fried Objects that I simply had to get.
It’s not just the name either. The mechanism is cool too: Since this is not a soup, you pur the boiling water in only to prepare the dish, and then drain it through an integrated grid in the cover that you only open prior to draining. Pure genius! And as a bonus, the instruction manual is illustrated and numbered so even I can understand it.
And since we’re talking food right now, might as well continue right to the topic of…
Dining without Mayo or Mochi
Being on a budget, I kind of have to watch my finances. As such, I don’t eat out a lot. Fortunately, groceries are obscenely cheap in Japan, that is after you’ve learned one important rule…
The reason for this is quite simple: Since appearance is greatly valued in Japan, farmers go to great lengths to make fruit that is going to be sold on display is absolutely perfect, such as growing trees in such a way that all branches are evenly spaced, setting up mirrors to make sure the fruit receives sun evenly from all sides, and even wrapping up every individual fruit in case of bad weather. Since this amount of effort is not needed for processed or canned fruit such as tomato puree or fruit juice, the price for those products differs by an order of magnitude.
But anyway, I eventually settle on eating out about once per week. The first such escapade leads me to Ita Yokado’s Food Court, where I somewhat hesitantly order a bowl of Ramen at the Ramen-Ya.
I am instantly supplied with yet another example of streamlined Japanese technology: A beeper that tells you when your food is ready for pickup. So I pick a seat in the foodcourt and wait for the beeper to go off...
…before returning to the Ramen-Ya and picking up my order: A steaming hot bowl of Shouyu Ramen (醤油ラーメン “Soy Ramen”). The spiral-patterned thingy is Narutomaki (鳴門巻き), a type of fish cake made from ground meat. The spiral pattern is fashioned after the tidal whirlpools near the city of Naruto, hence the name. By the way, the cooked egg in the soup is a really nice touch! I can only recommend to try this the next time you have soup. Normally, cooked eggs tend to be a bit dry, but the soup balances this perfectly.
The next time, I should be trying out something that I first tried in New Zealand.
And while it is way more tasty than the microwave pizza, I am not quite satisfied with it. For one, it is almost twice as expensive as Domino’s Pizza in New Zealand, and on top of that it’s not half as delicious. Oh well, at least the pizza box has the typical Japanese sophisticated design: The moment you open it it automatically folds itself into the shape of a plate. Makes me wonder if there are patents on these kinds of designs.
It should actually be over two weeks until I finally go out and eat Sushi at a typical Japanese Sushi-Ya. This one is also located inside the Ita-Yokado mall, and is apparently quite famous. The name of this particular Sushi-Ya is Sushi Zanmai (すしざんまい “Sushi Indulgence”).
The menu is also quite impressive: Tuna, Squid, Octopus, Salmon, Roe, Mackerel, Bonito, Shrimp, Crab, Prawn, Eel… pretty much everything that exists in the ocean also exists on this menu. However, among all of these choices, one stands out to me in particular, and so I absolutely have to try this Sushi-Ya.
One disadvantage of this being a popular restaurant, however, is that you have to wait for admittance. In some stores, this is simply settled by customers waiting in line. Here, however, there is a list, and a waiter will call out the names of those waiting once a seat becomes available.
Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long before I'm shown in. Now, how does this work? Unlike in Germany, where running sushi is more of a curiosity, around here it’s pretty much how the majority of Sushi-Ya work. You just pick the dishes (or drinks) you want from the conveyor and pay afterwards. Also, if you have your sights on something in particular you can just call out an order to the chefs working in the middle and they’ll have it prepared for you in no time. br />
At first, I am completely unfamiliar with that concept. Fortunately, a friendly Japanese man sitting next to me explains it to me, and even orders me a plate of tasty Inari Sushi.
Inari Sushi, like Kitsune Udon, is a favourite food of foxes since it also includes the ever-so-tasty Inari-Age. This time, the Inari-Age serves as a wrapping for rice, and the two go together perfectly!
The pricing system is also quite clever. Basically, instead of price tags, the colour and pattern of a plate determine the price of a serving. You keep the plates you eat from on a stack in front of you as a stack, and at the end that’s what you pay for.
Also, you get complimentary servings of Maccha (抹茶 “Powdered Green Tea”) if you can figure out how. And remember what I told you about drinks in restaurants last chapter? Since Sushi is a cold food, the complimentary drink is naturally hot.
The most pleasant surprise for the evening, however, comes when my amicable Japanese companion insists on covering the entire bill and won’t be swayed. I have heard of Japanese people generously inviting foreigners such as me, but to actually have it happen to me out of the blue like this is quite unexpected. As such, I leave the restaurant with the most positive impression of Japanese hospitality. My thanks to you, my Japanese benefactor! If you read this, let me once again thank you for your most generous invitation!
Another night, me and a friend from the dorm – Klaudia from Poland – go out to dine at Sukiya, a chain of restaurants selling Curry Rice and other food.
Curry Rice is one of these curiosities. In the western world we consider Curry an Asian food since it originates from India. However, in Japan, Curry was introduced by British sailors and was hence considered a western food. Ever since, Kare Raisu (カレーライス “Curry Rice”) has become an integral part of Japanese cuisine. Here at Sukiya, you can select not only from different types of Curry Rice, but also different sizes and compositions (such as less rice and more meat). Also, you may have noticed this by now, but one particularly practical peculiarity of Japanese menus is that they have pictures of their foods, making it easy to select your meal even if you’re not familiar with the language in a place that does not have convenient English menus ready. I am so going to miss this feature when I return.
In the end, I settle on a normal-sized cheese curry, to which we are served a complimentary cold tea. This one turns out to be some high-caffeine black tea blend that is not quite my case. However, the curry itself is absolutely delicious!
One important aspect of Japanese cuisine are Bento (弁当 “Lunch Box”). The English translation is not quite accurate, however. First, you can have Bento for any meal of the day, and second, the Bento is not just a snack, but can easily be a meal of hard-to-finish proportions. One thing that is always true for Bento, however, is that the food must be neatly arranged inside, and neatly wrapped on the outside.
Bento can be prepared individually, or bought in Konbinis or dedicated Bento-Ya. Conveniently we have one of those Bento-Ya that goes by the melodious name of Honke Kamadoya (本家かまどや “Main House Stove Lodge”) not even 100m away from the Ooizumi Mansion. I estimate that at least a quarter of its profits stems from people living in the Share House.
And so, one night I just up and get myself a tasty Bento from Honke Kamadoya, which turns out to contain apart from the advertised fried chicken and rice also servings of noodles, salad, mashed potatoes and ginger. It is a challenging amount of food, but eventually, I emerge victorious.
Finally, near the end of my stay, I allow myself the luxury of going out to eat Okonomiyaki with another friend from the Share House. Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a funny thing. The word itself means as much as “fry whatever you like”. In essence, it is a pancake of sorts that contains whatever you like, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.
The place where we go to get Okonomiyaki is located on the highest floor of Ita Yokado, and once again there is a list, and this time around, we have to wait quite long for admittance.
Now, the first thing you’ll notice in an Okonomiyaki-Ya is that the tables are sort of unusual and contain heating plates that are definitely not to be touched.
It is after ordering that the cool thing happens: You see, unlike in normal restaurants, the kick about Okonomiyaki-Ya is that the food is prepared right in front of you on the table by the staff. This is nothing for people with poor self-control – especially since you have to patiently wait between the individual steps of the preparation.
After already waiting outside the restaurant for half an hour, this is outright delicious savoury fragrant torture. But after fifteen more minutes, it’s finally ready. Mine even got an egg on top! From there on, you eat it by cutting of small pieces of it with the spatulas and putting them on a small plate before eating them with chopsticks.
Now if you are like me and wonder: “Just how do you eat an egg… with chopsticks?”…
…the answer is “Not”. My attempt of scooping the egg up on top of a fragment of Okonomiyaki only ends in it rupturing and spilling all over the plate. Fortunately, the rest of the Okonomiyaki proves adequate at sucking up the yolk.
In the end, we barely manage to clear our plates of this super-satiating meal and return to the share house stuffed and satisfied, which I suppose makes this a good time wrap up this section with some stories about…
Life, the Share House and Everything
All things considered, the Ooizumi Mansion is not the nicest place to live in. Certainly not the worst, but most definitely not the best either.
For one, it is lacking in facilities. Even though the World Unite office is effectively part of the Ooizumi Mansion, we still can’t do colour prints of our resumes or scan in documents here. Fortunately, that is one of the many things you can do at the nearby Konbinis, which have a printer/scanner just for this purpose. Even more convenient is the fact that this device actually reliably recognizes the right files on my USB-stick. That makes it more reliable than many home printers I’ve had the pleasure with.
Now, about the thing of sleeping in an eight-bed dorm… The good thing is that people do tend to be reasonably considerate. However, apparently using a smartphone or even a laptop in one’S bunk and consequently illuminating the entire room with the glare of its screen appears to be well within the bounds of what some people consider to be “reasonably considerate”.
Also, there is a complete and utter lack of privacy. If I want to be somewhere truly undisturbed, my two options are the toilet and the shower. I am not the only one who is bothered by this lack of privacy, and much like in New Zealand, it's not uncommon to see young couples snuggles up in the dorm beds. I suppose I can understand that for some of the colder days, especially on those times when the AC malfunctions and it gets cold enough that you need to wear a coat indoors. Welcome to Hotel New Zealand!
However, to compensate for all of this, the rent is spectacularly inexpensive. All things accounted for, I only pay a meagre 1144¥ per night here, probably the cheapest I’ll ever find on my trip. Nonetheless, I’d happily pay a bit more than that for better facilities and a bit of privacy.
But enough about that. Let us now proceed to…
Connecting Stray #2: The Minato Manoeuvre
My second stray should be a valiant attempt to connect my two separate strays in eastern and western Minato-Ku (港区 “Harbour Ward”) – specifically the neighbourhoods of Shiba (芝公 “Government Lawn”) and Minamiaoyama (南青山 “South Blue Mountain”).
I am saying “attempt” because despite my efforts, I made a slight navigational error, and thus only came within 100m of actually crossing my path as I intended. Nonetheless, I managed to cover most of the distance, and would eventually cover what little distance remained during a later stray.
The reason for this was that this stray wasn’t exactly planned, but rather happened on a whim. You see, originally I was only planning on getting my driver’s licence translated at the office of the JAF, the Japanese Automobile Federation.
Japan being as it is, just having an international Driver’s Licence won’t allow you to drive here. There are, in fact, a whole lot of different regulations for what overseas drivers need to do if they want to drive in Japan. Residents from some countries need to take a test or even show their skills on a training course. Fortunately, German drivers seem to be well-trusted over here, so all I have to do is take my German driver’s licence over there, pay a fee of 3000¥, and then wait for a couple of days. The only challenge is navigating through the Engrish signs and finding the right desk
Or so I thought! As a pleasant surprise, the Tokyo branch seems to be either very well-practiced at this, or maybe they don’t get a lot of requests at this time of the year. One way or another, they tell me I can just return in about two hours and pick up the translated licence. So with some time to kill I decide I may as well check out the nearby sights, such as Daitera Zoujou-Ji (大本山 増上寺 “Head Temple Rising Above Temple”), the main feature of Shiba Kouen (芝公園 “Government Lawn Park”) .
One particularly noteworthy feature here are the Sentaikosodatejisoubosatsu (千躰子育地蔵菩薩 “Thousand Healthy Children Rearing Kshitigarbha Bodhisattvas”), which are guardian deities dedicated to the health of children, or to watch over the spirits of stillbirths or miscarriages.
My next stop from there is Paris, where they apparently decided to give the Eiffel Tower a stylish new look.
Well, not quite. A glance on a nearby poster tells me that I am still very definitely in Japan. And no, despite what it may look like, the Eiffel Tower did not get stolen by pirates.
This is, in fact, the Tokyo Tower, one of about three dozen Eiffel-Tower replicas in the world. Its design is actually quite a bit different, but unless you’re intimately familiar with the structure of the Eiffel Tower, that fact only become apparent when looking at them side-by-side.
At 333m of height, the Tokyo Tower is not only the second-tallest structure in Japan (after the Sky Tree), but also the tallest free-standing steel structure in the world, narrowly beating the Eiffel-Tower, which is only 324m tall. For a moment, I am tempted to go up to the observatory deck, but then I learn that the observatory deck is only at a wimpy 150m, not even halfway up! That is nowhere near high enough to get a good overview of a city with as many sky scrapers as Tokyo!
It is at this point that I spontaneously decide to go for broke. I still have over an hour left, and by now I’ve already covered about a third of the way to the Minamiaoyama, so I decide that while I'm at it I might as well cover the rest of the way and complete another one of the connecting strays.
On the way there, I pass by another Buddhist temple, Hiroshisakaesanichijo (廣栄山一乗寺 “Wide Splendor Mountain One Power Temple”)…
…as well as what must have been the result of a budget cut for police stations.
For the most part I stick to the main roads, but even that does not protect me from running into drug dealers.
As a result, I quickly take to the back roads. At least there all I have to worry about is the occasional German snack bar popping out of nowhere.
Also, you gotta respect the laid-back work ethics of people in these parts.
Approaching Minamiaoyama, I run across a couple of nannies who have found a very efficient way of keeping the children entrusted to them all in one place.
The final leg of the trip should take me through the Aoyama cemetery, which is distinctly different from Western cemeteries, and yet somewhat alike.
By the way, during my strays through Tokyo, I regularly come across notice plates such as these. Those serve as essential guide posts in case of a Tsunami and are often found on particularly high grounds or Tsunami shelters.
Erroneously figuring that Aoyama Itchome Eki would be the station from which my other strays in this area (about which I will talk later in this chapter) originated, I proceed to that station, and from it ride the Toei-Oedo Line back to Akabanebashieki (赤羽橋駅 “Red Wings Bridge Station”), primarily because of its proximity to an Inari Shrine. Unfortunately, that Shrine is currently undergoing renovations, so the slender foxes watching over it have quite a bit of company.
Afterwards, I head back to the JAF office where I pick up the translation of my Driver’s Licence. This in combination with my German driver’s licence now enables me to drive here in Japan. Good thing I already got in some practice driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand.
From there, I head out south towards Mita-Eki (三田駅 “Three Fields Station”), past a place with a waaay too long name…
…and through one of the long straight pedestrian’s tunnels, connecting the stray on that end.
I actually took care of all this on a single morning before Japanese classes in the afternoon. Subsequently, I should make my way to the language school. So let us not waste any breath and continue straight to my experience of…
Learning at Kudan
The Japanese classes are take are at the Kudan Institute of Japanese Language and Culture, which is located near the northern border of Chiyoda-Ku. Kudan (九段) means as much as “Nine Stairs”, which could be a reference to the rather hilly terrain in this particular part of Chiyoda. Fortunately, the Institute provided me with a map of how to get there. I usually end up taking the Tozai Line from Kiba-Eki to Kudanshita-Eki (九段下駅 “Under the Nine Stairs Station”) and walking from there.
Before I start classes there, I am taken through an entrance exam to test my prowess, as well as how many of the 2000 “common” Kanji I have mastered.
Before I proceed any further, I suppose this is the right time to talk a bit about…
Kana and Kanji
Like many other Asian cultures, Japan does not use the Roman alphabet, but rather its own set of characters – or rather, its own sets of characters: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.
Hiragana are the most basic Japanese alphabet. In theory, you can write everything just with Hiragana. Hiragana are easy to recognise since they are curved and flowing. In total, there are 46 different Hiragana, with a number of simple and logical combinations and variations to make up for additional sounds. For example き (ki) and や (ya) can become きゃ (kya) if the や is written in subscript, and は (ha) will become ば (ba) through the addition of two little dashes called Dakuten and ぱ (pa) through the addition of a little circle called Handakuten. Also, ん (n) is the only lone consonant in the Japanese language. All other consonants always come with a vocal attached.
Katakana are basically the same as Hiragana, only they are used primarily for loan words, of which the Japanese language has many. It is necessary for the Japanese language to have an entire second alphabet for this because of reasons. Historically, the reason why Japan has both Hiragana and Katakana is that the elegant curved characters of Hiragana were used by women, while men mostly used the harp and precise Katakana. Over time, this evolved in the system of today.
And finally, there are Kanji (漢字 “Chinese Characters”). As the name implies, they were first imported from China, which happened around the 4 century AD. Before that, the people of Japan had no own writing system, but since they already had a language of their own, they needed to adjust the Chinese characters to match their language. Both Hiragana and Katakana were developed, as a result, as shorthand forms of the more complicated Kanji. over time, this evolved into the current system where Kanji are used for the roots of words, with Hiragana being used for conjugations and particles, and Katakana for loan words.
It may seem like overkill at first, and it certainly requires a lot of effort to learn. However, the ability to condense a 30-character string of words into just three characters – such as 数億円 (Suuokuen, “several hundreds of millions of yen”) – makes up for it, especially when put into the context of a time when paper was rare and valuable, and being able to condense information like this was a valuable asset.
So much for the background knowledge, now join me for some…
The students of my class range from a wide variety of countries. We have Americans, Koreans, Mongols and quite a bunch of other nationalities.
Naturally, there are a number of rules to be followed in class, the most important (and most frequently broken) being: “Don’t speak English”. Since we’re all here to learn Japanese, it’s expected that we only talk in Japanese during class time. A challenge, albeit not one I am facing for the first time – having spent half a year at an US high school during 11th grade, I am already quite familiar with this sort of situation, and the learning experience that comes from it. However, much to my dismay, I appear to be one of about three people in the class who actually follow that rule, and the teachers are not at all strict about enforcing it, thus making it pretty moot.
Speaking about teachers, allow me to introduce: Hamamura (浜村 “Beach Village”)-sensei, teacher of Japanese classes on Wednesdays. Sensei (先生 “teacher”) is the typical suffix that is added to the names of teachers, just like さん is added behind the names of people of same rank, and さま after names of people of higher rank.
Fujisawa (藤澤“Wisteria Swamp”)-sensei, teacher of Kanji and Japanese classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Kobayakawa (小早川 “Small Fast River”)-sensei, teacher of Japanese classes on Mondays and Fridays.
One thing I don’t get about the syllabus at all is why we have three different teachers for what is essentially the same class. I for one can’t make out the slightest difference between the three teachers’ classes. The only class that is distinctly different is the Kanji class which we have for the first part of the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There, we five new Kanji each day, adding up to a total of ten Kanji per week.
You may be able to tell by know that what I have not quite enrolled in is not the beginner’s course. With my 5 years of previous experience in Japanese from a colourful mix of sources (that drove the teacher trying to evaluate my skills into despair when she tried to ask me which book I learned from), I am partaking in an intensive course for elementary level II, which roughly equates the level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 4 (JLPT4). And let me tell you, that course IS intensive! While classes only last for four hours and have breaks in between, afterwards we usually get a mountain of homework easily keeping us busy for another one or two hours each day. For my part, I take care of those each evening after class in the study area on the 8th floor of the Kudan building.
But it’s not all about learning the language – after all the Kudan Institute of Japanese Language and Culture has culture written right there in its name. As such, they regularly organize extracurricular activities such as flower arrangement, cooking classes, tea ceremonies and exhibits on Japanese dolls.
I actually try to enrol in an octopus cooking class, only to find that it’s already booked out. Instead, I take an interest in the Disaster Response Training Programme offered by the Chiyoda City Office. That, however, should turn out to be…
A Disastrous Disappointment
The day begins with a lovely case of one of those rare occasions when the Tokyo Metro has a rather serious malfunction. Due to reasons which I can’t make out, the trains don’t run but the legions of people streaming out from Kiba-Eki are pretty much a dead giveaway.
What to do? Since all I know is that the Tozai Line is not running. I eventually decide to walk to the nearby Monzen-Nakacho-Eki and take the Oedo-Line one station to Kiosumi-Shirakawa-Eki (清澄白河駅 “Serene White River Station”). From there, my plan is to take the Hanzomon Line to Jimbocho-Eki (神保町駅 “Spirits Protection Town Station”), which is also near the Kudan institute, and walk from there.
Or so I thought, for upon entering a train of the Hanzomon Line, the fact that the train adamantly refuses to depart the station causes me tore-evaluate my original thesis of just the Tozai Line being affected. With no way of knowing which rutes might or might not be affected, I eventually choose to hedge my bets on staying in the train, and after 15 minutes of inaction (which in terms of Japanese punctuality is a delay of cataclysmic proportions, and a number of board members likely had to commit Sepukku over this), the train final deigns to move.
I barely arrive in time at the Kudan Institute, only to find that I am the first of the group to actually arrive, so devastating was the blow to the Tokyo transit system. After another 15 minutes of waiting, our group finally departs with only 6 of the 10 people that had originally registered for this event. This time, we take not the Metro but the Train to the nearby Ochanomizu-Eki (御茶ノ水駅 “Tea Water Station”), which is not to be confused with Shin-Ochanumizu-Eki (新御茶ノ水駅 “New Tea Water Station”). Interestingly, the train is almost completely empty. With the chaos claiming the Metro, I would have imagined a lot of people would have taken the train instead, or could this paralyzing catastrophe really have ebbed away that quickly?
Afterwards, we hurry to the location where the Disaster Response Training will be held. There’s a slight drizzle in the air, but that certainly won’t stop us.
The Disaster Response Training consists of an exciting combination of lectures and life action exercises including extinguishing fires, first aid, and a fully functional earthquake simulator. Unfortunately, all of this is cancelled due to what might actually be able to pass as rain according to certain definitions, and instead we just get the rainy day programme, which basically consists of a Japanese guy doing Powerpoint-Karaoke in advanced Japanese with us neither being able to understand or read 90% of what he tries to communicate.
Oh well, at least the TMPD SRT (Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Special Rescue Team) has something more ostensive prepared, and so I actually end up learning several makeshift ways to prepare an arm sling and a stretcher right then and there. Here’s hoping that I won’t actually ever need that knowledge.
Still, I kinda expected more from this event, but at least we get a free stash of emergency rations and a survival handbook each. Here’s hoping I won’t need them either.
With that, this event finishes about two hours early. Oh well. With some time to spare, I decide to walk back to Kudan since it’s not that far away and the weather is really not all that bad.
I start with taking a good look at the actually quite impressive Waterras building which housed the event in its foyer.
Now, I am not entirely sure what company this building belongs to, but based on the name and all the hydropolic architecture around, I’m pretty certain it has something to do with water.
Anyway, this short impromptu stray should soon take me to something that is quite rare here in Tokyo: A Christian Cathedral by the name of Toukyoufukkatsudaiseidou (東京復活大聖堂 “Tokyo Resurrection Cathedral”).
Christianity has had a hard time in Japan: Originally arriving in Japan during the 16th century through Portuguese missionaries, Christians were actively persecuted starting in the 17th century, and eventually a decree outlawing Christianity was passed under Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was only when freedom of religion was officially introduced during the Meiji Restoration in 1871 that Christianity was legalized again. Today, Christianity is still a rather minor religion, amounting to no more of 1% of the population, and while churches exist, they usually are nothing like the iconic landmarks we have around in Europe.
…with exceptions, as can be seen with the Resurrection Cathedral. One particularly nice touch of this obviously Russian Orthodox Church (as one can tell from the Suppedaneum cross above the portal) is Jesus holding a Japanese Bible, which holds the Japanese version of the opening words of the Gospel of John: Taisho ni gen ari, gen wa Kami to tomo ni ari (太初に言有り言は神と共に有り “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”).
And since we are technically still in a chapter about learning, let me use this splendid example to explain how Japanese text is being read: Instead of reading rows from left to right and progressing from top to bottom, the Japanese language is read in columns from top to bottom progressing from right to left, so here is how you have to read the book in Jesus’ hands:
A little further along the way, I come across a cute little shrine at the back of a company building that is not marked on any map. Maybe it is a private shrine of that company?
Subsequently, I run into another typical Japanese curiosity: We already covered that for some reason Konbinis of three different chains can co-exist and even flourish within 50 meters of one another, and apparently that principle also extends to Guitar and Ukulele shops, which I realize as I step foot into a district that seems to be dedicated exclusively to such shops (Hint: If you want to prank someone, tell them to meet you in front of Guitar Planet near Ochanomizu-Eki.
Afterwards, I climb one of the hills of the Kudan area, and get a good view on the railway canyon, as well as yet another of those cute super-slim buildings.
This is actually one of the few above-ground railway lines cutting through the city of Tokyo, and the route of the Chuuou Line, which is the most central line of all. Apart from that, there’s also the Yamanote Line, but that one runs more around the city in some sort of elongated oval. One notable thing about the railway lines is also that their trains always have the same colour as the line, so for example, the trains of the Chuuou Line are always Yellow, and the Trains of the Yamanote Line are always green.
After that, I quickly arrive back at the Kudan Institute with time to spare, so I proceed to unpack the Bento, which was also part of the spoils of the Disaster Response Training. Much to my delight, I soon find out that it contains tasty tasty tasty tasty Inari Sushi, which I devour with delight.
But following that, it’s back to studying, after all, I gotta prepare for some…
There are two tests to be prepared for: A Kanji test, and a final test, both of them taking place near the end of the semester. It is during these times that the work load becomes abstruse. In order to master all I’ve learned so far, I regularly spend eight hours or more per day studying between regular classes, homework and test preparation.
The Kanji tests takes place on 7-Mar-2018, and as fate would have it we are only told the exact time and place, as well as the test material on the day before, resulting in me putting in intense cramming sessions that night and the following morning. My efforts are rewarded with success, and I pass – barely – with 88% where the threshold is 85%. That means you can make a maximum 7 mistakes, since each mistake costs you 2%, so only 2 mistakes more and I wouldn’t have passed. Now one common theme about Japanese schools is that the test results are posted publicly for everyone to see. Hooray for peer pressure!
As a result, I receive a neat certificate attesting that I can now officially read and write 120 Kanji. That puts me at about second-great elementary school level if we account for the Kanji that I know in addition, but that were not covered by the test, like 狐 (Kitsune, “fox”) or 鸞(Iuan, a mythical Chinese bird, and yes, I learned that particular Kanji for fun because at 30 strokes, it is the Kanji with the single highest stroke count still in official use).
The final exam is on 14-Mar-2018, the day that Stephen Hawking died – a fact that a fellow student discloses mere minutes before the test commences. Hence, I call out to the class to dedicate this test to the memory of Stephen Hawking, may his genius live on forever! The entirety of the final exam is divided in three parts: First, we have a listening comprehension exercise where Japanese conversations are played from a CD and we have to pick the correct answers from a sheet (like, “Which watch did Mr. Tanakalook at in the shop?” or “What did this phrase mean?”). After that, there is a long written part of the test stretching over 8 pages, interrupted by individual interviews as the third part: During the test, we are called out one by one to participate in a short oral examination during which we have to show that we can hold our ground in everyday situations. In the end, the time is just barely enough, and I am in the middle of re-reading my answers and spot a mistake at the very last second when the teacher tells us to stop writing and hand our papers in.
Both tests are actually just a bit unfair, which I guess is another trademark of Japanese culture. In the Kanji test, for example, there was one word that was never covered in class or the book, and when another student complained about it the teacher just replied: “Ah, but that’s okay, after all you only need to have 85% right, so you can still pass if you don’t know that Kanji”. As for the final exam, I did mention that people were pulled out of the test for an oral examination lasting about 10 minutes. Now, after the test was finished, there were still people who hadn’t had their oral examination, so those people had an extra 10 minutes on the test. Had I had 10 extra minutes, I would have been able to finish reviewing my test and maybe carve out some extra points. Again, people complained, but the teacher just shrugged, saying: “Ah, but the oral examination does not take that long, so it’s okay.”
But anyway, I passed with 79% where 60% was required, so all is good I guess. In fact, much to the surprise of everyone, even the teachers, each and every last student of the class passed! I chalk it up to the spirit of Stephen Hawking guiding all of us through this test we dedicated to him. As a result, I get another fancy certificate attesting to me passing the intensive course…
…and also as a report card containing both my test scores (right) and my performance in class (left), as well as written notes from the teachers in the bottom right corner. I especially love how Kobayakawa-sensei drew a little fox for me.
And with that, it is time to wrap up my time here at the Kudan Institute of Japanese Language and Culture with…
A Fitting Finale
After all that pressure is over, I take some time to visit the nearby Yasukuni Jinja (靖国神社 “Peaceful Nation Shrine”) – after all I don’t know if my path will ever take me back here again after the course finishes.
This shrine is dedicated to those who gave their life for Japan, those fallen in wars. There is actually some ongoing controversy about the fact that 1,618 class A, B and C war criminals are essentially deified here due to this rule. As a consequence, no Emperor of Japan has visited Yasukuni Jinja since 1975, but anyway…
Shrines come in three sizes: Shed-sized, house-sized, and mega-freaking… oh, sorry, did I already use that joke during this chapter?
Be that as it may, it doesn't change a thing about the fact that Yasukuni Jinja is on a a completely different level from all the other Shrines I’ve visited so far. For starters, the main approach to the Shrine is already half a kilometre long, leading through a total of three gigantonormeous Torii, as well as a lavish gatehouse.
In its entirety, Yasukuni Jinja covers about 9 hectares of land right there in the heart of Tokyo.
That includes the Main Shrine…
…the Sacred Pond Garden…
…a little park area…
…and space for such things as memorial statues honouring horses, dogs and carrier pigeons.
Also, there just so happens to be a “Your First Shinto Ceremony” workshop of sorts going on.
Following that, it’s time to commence the final day at the Kudan Institute, where the end of the term is properly celebrated with a feast that actually is a proper representation of modern Japanese culture: Okashi (お菓子 “Traditional Japanese Sweets”), Sushi and Pizza Hut pizza.
And with that, my time at the Kudan Institute is over. However, my study of Japanese still continues. For one, I have learned solid basics now that I can build upon, and for another thing, among the teaching materials I got from the Kudan Institute is a book about Kanji that we finished barely halfway, so I continue to work on it whenever I find the time so that I might one day be able to best Japanese elementary school students!
Now then, after all that learning, it is time to stretch my legs a little, so I go on my next big stray which should lead me…
Connecting Stray #3: Over the Rainbow
My plan for the third connecting stray begins to crystalize when I learn that the Rainbow Bridge is actually open for pedestrians, and soon enough I have resolved to walk right over it to connect my strays in Odaiba with those in Minato.
Now, one funny thing I should point out here is: A small part of Odaiba actually belongs to Minato-Ku (just like an even smaller part belongs to Shinagawa-Ku), so technically the entirety of this stray is once again in Minato.
Anyway, the first part is getting there, and on a whim, I decide to take the opportunity to hitch…
Another High Ride
The last time I came to Odaiba, I took the automated Yurikamome Line across the Rainbow Bridge. This time around, I instead ride the fancy automated sky bus from Toyosu-Eki all the way to Odaiba. Getting in at the final station has the advantage that the car is still mostly empty, and I can easily secure myself a good spot to observe from. By the way, the different-coloured seats are for elderly and disabled people.
Soon enough, the vehicle departs, and I consequently get a chance to see the remainder of the 15-minute-long futuristic track weaving between the tall buildings. Also note how each of the stations has its own particular “coat of arms”.
I eventually get off at Daiba-Eki, which just so happens to be the stage of a quest that should turn out to be a good deal more complicated than initially anticipated. Ladies and gentlemen, I give present to you a tri-Tail studio production:
I know there’s a shrine around here, I just don’t know exactly where. After much looking around, I eventually find my first hint inside the Aqua City shopping mall.
Looking at back at it later, I should realize that this poster told me exactly where I needed to go, but right now, all I see is an arrow and Kanji that are too complex for me to read. So, I go on a wild goose hunt around the mall, that should even take me into the sinister depths of THE RESTAURANT ZONE.
Passing through caves, monasteries and medieval German city streets within a matter of minutes, I realize two things:
1.) Japanese People must be really into theming things up.
2.) The Shrine I’m looking for is obviously not in this area of the mall.
Eventually, as I explore the higher levels of the mall, I find a clue that I might finally be on the right track.
As it turns out, they actually built a Shrine on the freaking roof of the shopping centre because why not?!? But come to think about it, it does make sense in a way. Inari is the goddess of prosperity, so why not have a Shrine dedicated to her in (or on) your shopping mall?
The fact that it is an Inari Shrine quickly becomes apparent through the foxes guarding this place.
So my search is crowned with success, and I am not only rewarded with yet another shrine, but also with a great view of Tokyo Bay, Rainbow Bridge with its long approach, and the surrounding area.
And after this little side tour, it’s finally time for me to make my way…
Across the Bay
To get to the bridge, I walk along the now bicycle-festival-free beach of Odaiba.
Soon enough, I arrive at the pedestrian’s entrance to Rainbow Bridge, or レインボーブリッジ (“Reinbooburijji”) as it is called in finest Japanenglish.
It is actually allowed to take your bicycle across the bridge as long as you don’t ride it. And since the authorities obviously don’t trust people to just push their bikes, every bike is outfitted with a custom “trolley” of sorts that makes it possible for the bike to be pushed, but not rode.
Like all good things, Rainbow Bridge is divided into three parts: The eastern approach, the main suspension part, and the western twirl. The eastern and western parts are built entirely on concrete stilts, while the main suspension part is supported by two mighty anchorages and two main towers, spanning a total length of 570m. Counting both the eastern approach and the western twirl, Rainbow Bridge is almost 3km long.
As for me, being a pedestrian means I could skip the entire twirl section and part of the eastern approach, so it would only be about 1.8 km. Still, that’s probably the longest distance I’ve ever walked on a bridge so far, and it begins with me walking the already long eastern approach.
I am soon faced with a choice: Should I take the northern or the southern route? North would mean I’d get a good view on the city, while south would probably give me a better view of the bay an Odaiba.
Eventually, I decide in favour of the southern route…
..and consequentially get a great view on the Daiba Peninsula which I visited several weeks ago as well as the curiously shaped Fuji TV HQ in the background.
Beyond that, the view doesn’t seem too interesting however, with mostly freight ports to be seen on the southern side. Fortunately, I get one last chance to change my choice as a path opens up beneath he bridge, allowing me to cross over to the northern side.
So now that I'm on the northern side, not only do I have a better view on the city, but also on the bridge itself. Note that while the western main tower and anchorage are standing on solid ground, the eastern main tower and anchorage are constructed in the middle of the bay, just short of the main navigational channel.
After about 15 minutes of walking, I finally reach the eastern main tower, which towers above me to an impressive height of 126m. With the roadway itself being at only 52m, that means the towers still reach another 74m into the sky.
It also means that I'm now on the main span of the Rainbow Bridge, where I notice that the management has made a by Japanese standards rather feeble attempt to have the bridge live up to its name.
By the way, here’s a bit of detail about the Rainbow Bridge’s double-deck construction, which features the toll road on top and the regular road below, with the Yurikamome Line in the middle and the walkways to the sides.
As I reach the midway point, I get a great view of the Tokyo skyline, as well as the Tokyo Tower and the Sky Tree in the distance.
And then, there’s that bus driver who seems to have taken the whole “full tour of the bay” thing just a titbit too literally.
But don’t worry, this is actually just one of these fancy boat-busses for tourists, such as the Sky Duck which we observed roosting in Shinonume Unga during the last chapter.
And before I know it, I'm already all the way across. The western end of the walk across the rainbow bridge is actually the western anchorage. Since that one is standing on solid ground, it doubles as Rainbow Bridge’s main entrance for visitors, and thus is a little bit more fancy than the eastern entrance.
I take one last look at the impressive structure of the Rainbow Bridge towering above me…
…and then I push onwards, for there is more that awaits me, namely…
More of Minato!
At this point, I could just go directly to Mita –Eki and complete the circuit, but since it’s such a nice day and for once I don’t have any pressing concerns, I decide to take the scenic route and stray around Minato for a bit.
Be it by chance or fate, my route leads me across another Rainbow Bridge, like, right away, only I find that this one is disproportionately more deserving of the name despite being a few orders of magnitude smaller.
Much like Kiba, the coastal part of Minato is a landscape of artificial islands and channels.
It is at one of those channels that I run into another of Tokyo’s trademark transport trajectories: The Monorail, which connects Haneda Airport with the central city. As a few trains pass by I make a mental note that I’ve got to try this one of these days.
I also pass by some roadworks, and while it may seem like the Japanese are using a disproportionately large number of people for this, you’ve got to hand it to them that unlike in Germany where I could point out a number of roadwork projects that have been ongoing for longer than I have been travelling, roadwork projects that interfere with active traffic rarely last longer than a day here in Japan. They just get it done.
By the way, that’s not a low-clearance underpass…
THAT’S a low–clearance underpass!!!
This one passes beneath the main railroad tracks, and it was very clearly not made for people of western stature such as myself.
Nonetheless I decide to brave it, crouching inside where several Japanese people can just walk normally. I even encounter a few cars passing through this rather long underpass.
Once on the other side of the underpass, I am on traditionally solid ground again. It is easy to tell so through the presence of Temples and Shrines: All the areas that have been relatively recently reclaimed from the sea barely have any Shrines and Temples on them. The Aqua City Inari Shrine was a rare exception to this, and apart from that one, there is not a single Shrine or Temple on all of Odaiba, as well as many other of the newer islands of Koto, and neither did any of the islands of Minato. It is only now that I start coming across Shrines and Temples again.
The steep hills are another dead giveaway, and all of a sudden I am reminded of my visit to Wellington a year and a half ago, a beautiful hilly city with lots of staircases such as this (see Book I ~ Chapter 8 ~ Straying in Wellington)
It is at the crest of this hill that I come across a true architectural long-term project: Arimasutonbiru (アリマストンビル, “Arima Stone Building”), which is a truly self-made house that a passionate architect has been working on with his friends, without the aid of heavy machinery or professional companies, even going so far as to use a special self-made concrete mixture. This project has been under construction since November 2005, even earlier than Berlin Brandenburg Airport. This is going to be an interesting race to see who will finish first: An architect working on building a steel-concrete house with his friends in their spare time or a regional government building an international airport working full time with the aid of several big construction companies. And while we’re at it, we might as well throw in the question if I’ll be able to monetize on any of my creative works before wither of these two things happens.
From there on out, all that’s left is a tour of the Shrines of this part of Minato…
…and with that, the third connecting stray comes to an end. Next, let me tell you about my experience of…
Working at Shibaura
As I mentioned during the last chapter, I had a preliminary interview at a local job agency called Hello Work. Now it is time to follow up on that. While I’m still attending the Kudan Institute, I have a job interview at a restaurant named L’AS in Minamiaoyama, which should be the reason why one of the nodes for my connecting strays would form in that area. The place turns out to be a little hard to find, but I eventually manage to arrive at the right building.
I have a job interview with a nice Japanese lady. Naturally, the interview is on Japanese, and while it turns out to be quite a heck of a bumpy ride indeed, we still manage to achieve successful communication, and I get the job.
The job is not at that place, however, but at the central kitchen, which is located on the other side of Minato, near the harbour, in a district by the name of Shibaura (芝浦 “Harbour Lawn”), that consists mostly of reclaimed land and artificial islands (which would explain how another of my nodes ended up in that area).
Due to my still learning Japanese at the Kudan Institute at this time, my options for shifts are a bit limited, and I decide to take a late shift after classes. That means after classes end at the Kudan Institute at 17:00, I have an hour to eat a bite and get mail tail halfway across the city to work. The eating is the easy part of this since I can just grab a sandwich or hot dog at a Konbini and eat it while walking to the station.
However, if finding the L’AS was already hard, then finding the central kitchen ranks somewhere between “Nightmare” and “Lunatic”. Since this is at a point in time when I still don’t have my SIM card – and as such no mobile data – I can’t look up the place on my smart phone, and even though I had the location stored on G-Maps in advance, Google trolls me by saying it can’t connect to the server and deletes the location which I had literally on the screen. So, I am left stranded in the middle of Shibaura with only an address and knowledge of how atrocious the Japanese address system is.
Eventually, I manage to find the right building by a combination of me having memorized the rough location and puzzling out the address system. I even stopped by a Koban, but as my luck would have it the policemen were out, and since I already was late for work at that point, so I didn’t exactly have time to wait around.
But that shouldn’t be the end of it! That building being a nondescript office building, I have absolutely no idea where I have to go, and there’s no reception to ask. Also neither of the signs there read something convenient like “central kitchen” or “L’AS”. In the end, I am following the one clue I have of it having to be somewhere on the third floor, and let my tail guide me down a dark corridor to a door from behind which I can hear voices and the sounds of activity. I gather up all my courage and knock…
And fortunately it turns out to be the right place. I apologize for being late – on Japanese, mind you – and gear up for work in “sterile industrial kitchen gear”.
The work there is… well, I don’t want to say “excruciatingly monotonous”, but it is really, really hard to find a different adequate description for measuring 4 grams of grated cheese (day 1) or 2 grams of croutons (day 2) and packaging them in small plastic bags for 4 hours at a time with minimal conversation and interaction with co-workers.
Work finishes at 22:00 at night, and since now I'm no longer in a hurry, I can take my time on the way to the nearest station to admire the beauty of the city’s lights reflecting in the channels of Shibaura.
Since I work on a rotating ledger, I only learn the day for my next shift on short notice, which is why I don’t suspect anything bad when they tell me that they’ll let me know about my next shift per mail since they have not yet fleshed out next week’S ledger on my second day there. However, after not hearing back from them for four days, I start getting suspicious and write a mail to the manager. The response that I get reads like this:
Which roughly translates as:
Continuing to work at the Central Kitchen has become difficult.
I apologise for any trouble this causes you.
Please tell us your bank account details so that we may adequately compensate you for the time you worked for us.
With very sincere greetings…
I must say, that was the very most polite sacking I’ve ever had, and while I am naturally a bit annoyed – mostly about the fact that they didn’t tell me why – it’s also kinda hard to be too upset about not being able to hold this position for long. Also, it’s not the first time I’ve been fired from a monotonous job (see Book I ~ Chapter 11 ~ Christmas in Christchurch), so I don’t waste a lot of time worrying about it, and rather continue on with…
Connecting Stray #4: The Shibuya-Shinjuku Sunset Stray
At a duration of 9 hours and a length of 15kms, this should clearly be my longest stray so far, and while there certainly would have been a more efficient way to do this… well, you know how I am. =^,^=
As I start off on the stray, I take some time to listen to the songs of the local birds which are once more somewhat different than those of both Germany and New Zealand.
My first milestone for the day is Nogi Jinja, a Shrine Complex dedicated to General Nogi Maresuke (乃木 希典, “From Wood, Rule of Hope”), a prominent figure in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. It may not be quite as big as Yasukuni Jinja, but is still features an impressive array of main buildings, side shrines and gardens.
Following that, I come across Tenso Jinja Ryuu Tsuchigami Akemiya (天祖神社 龍土神明宮 "Ancestral Sun Goddess Shrine Dragon Earth God Radiant Shrine"), which I believe is the best possible example of Japans dual traditional-modern nature, where you can make the transition between “modern city” and “secluded shrine” in less than a minute.
Following my visit to that shrine, I take a short break to appreciate the most curious piggy-bank I’ve ever seen…
…and then proceed to attend a concert of Japan’s notorious “screaming” birds.
These can be found all over the place in Japan, but this is the first time I encounter them in a place where the noise of traffic does not drown out the melodious sound of their voices.
Continuing from there, I should come across all manners of curiosities, such as Demmers Teehaus (Demmer’s Tea House), a wall with a zipper, a boutique named “Maison Kitsuné” (which regrettably does not sell anything fox related at all) and a Hello Kitty Café.
Naturally, I also visit quite a number of Shrines and Temples on the way, if only to give my regards to the foxes that may or may not reside there.
As I cross over into the district of Shibuya, things almost instantly get a good deal livelier.
One of my destinations here is Cat Street, a sort of walking mall backstreet with limited traffic that I’ve been wanting to check out of sheer curiosity. Regrettably, it turns out to be little more than a name and even cat-themed shops and images are a regrettable rarity here.
Also, I am not sure if this journal standard is going to attract all that many followers. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that it was probably the result of alcohol-driven development.
The next shrine on my list turns out to be one of those tricky ones.
Eventually, I figure out that there is a stair case leading up to the roof on one side of the building, and after climbing it I find the first shrine that does not have foxes or the traditional shrine guardian dogs, but rather wolves watching over it. The name of this Shrine is Miyamasu Mitake Jinja (宮益御嶽神社), which translates to Advantageous Sanctuary of the Sacred Mountain Shrine.
As I return back to road level again, I walk right into a game of Mario Kart.
Those racers are actually not an uncommon sight on the streets of Tokyo, and one of their routes even leads them across Rainbow Bridge. Fortunately, they don’t have Bob-Ombs and Blue Shells in this version of the game, and it’s also less of a race and more of a driving in file.
Afterwards, I finally arrive at the fabled heart of Shibuya, featuring the statue of Hachiko (ハチ公 “Eight Son”), the faithful dog, who always waited for his master at Shibuya Eki. Even after his master died in 1925, Hachiko continued to wait in front of Shibuya Eki every day for nine more years until his own days were up, and thus became a paragon of loyalty and fidelity not only to the people of Shibuya, but all of Japan.
These days, it’s all but impossible to get a good look at the statue because people are literally queuing up to get their picture taken at the Hachiko Statue.
And then, there’s Scramble Crossing. Not just a scramble crossing but the Scramble Crossing. The busiest crossing in the world, up to 3000 pedestrians can cross over in a single minute-long scramble, and while it’s not quite that busy right now, it’s certainly busy enough for me!
And then there’s the “109 Shibuya” mall, which apart from being a masterpiece of customer-flow direction is also a prime advertisement spot due to its location at the fork one a major traffic route, meaning that all drivers coming from the direction of Shibuya-Eki will be looking directly at it. The number “109”, by the way, is a popular form of Japanese word play called Goroawase (語呂合わせ “Sound fitting”) where characters that are usually pronounced with certain sounds are fit together in a way where they may not necessarily make sense when read, but their sounds if spoken out loud create a different word. In this case, the pun is that “10” (To) and “9” (Kyu) together result in “Tokyu”, which just so happens to be the name of the company running the mall (never mind the fact that the proper way to read it would be “Hyakukyu” (hundred nine) or that most Japanese actually call it “Ichi-Maru-Kyu” (One-Oh-Nine)).
But that’s not all! The Tokyo underground malls – while not quite as extensive as those of Shinjuku – are still quite impressive, and one can easily cover a full kilometre down there without ever seeing the light of day.
Also, there’s a stand down there where you can purchase special fruit drinks for 5000 ¥ each Sunday, which will slightly raise one of your social stats… oh wait… wrong game. Forget what I just said.
And then, there’s this guy.
This statue named Moyai does not actually come from the Easter Islands, but rather from Nijima Island, and was given to Shibuya as a gift in 1980.
By now, I am quite parched. Fortunately, with so many vending machines around the only real difficulty is deciding on what to get. Eventually, I decide on a bottle of Lemon Squash for only 100 ¥, which turns out to be a bit sticky, but otherwise delicious (unlike some of the other drinks I have tried in Japan up until now).
My next milestone is Yoyogi Kouen (代々木公園 “Hereditary Tree Park”), where the preparations for this year’s Ohanami (お花見 “Cherry Blossom Viewing”) are already well underway. Having heard stories of how full and loud this can get, I make a mental note to avoid this and other popular Ohanami spots during that time.
It is also here that I realize that the crows in Japan are actually freaking big. So far, I’ve only seen them from a distance, but now I finally get to put them into relation.
Anyway, next on the list is Meiji Jingu (明治神宮 “Bright Reign God’s Palace”), which is another one of those really big shrines. This one honours Emperor Meiji – who modernized Japan during the Meiji Restoration – as well as his wife, Empress Shoken (昭憲 “Shining Law”).
Unfortunately, it’s quite the popular location, so there are a lot of people around, and there’s nothing of the calm an peaceful atmosphere I enjoy at the other shrines to be felt here.
…at least not at the main shrine. Fortunately, the extensive ground of Meiji Jingu include mainly woodlands, and while the main roads are hopelessly overcrowded, the side paths are almost completely devoid of people, allowing me to regain a good dose of serenity.
One more curiosity of this place I feel I need to pick out are the Fuufu Kusunoki (夫婦楠 “Married Camphor Trees”). These trees have been venerated as Shinto deities for a long time since they grew so close together and are joined by the roots. Surely it is no coincidence that the Shrine to Emperor Meiji and his Wife was erected literally right around them.
Not much later, I finish the connection in front of a Famires called Denny’s, where I had dinner with a friend some weeks ago.
What’s a Famires, you ask? The term is short for “Family Restaurant”, which as its simplest is a family-friendly western-style restaurants, unlike the typical eastern style eateries. You see, one thing that is quite different in the Japanese culture is the approach to eating at restaurants. Unlike in the Western culture, where it is usual to take one’s time in a restaurant, everything has to happen fast in a Japanese restaurant. The esteemed customer quickly gets his food, quickly eats his food, and then quickly vacates his seat to make place for the next customers, who are often already queuing up outside.
In a Famires, however, customers are invited to take their time. In exchange for this “luxury”, the prices in such places are a bit higher, since the proprietors have to invest in more floor space to handle the same daily throughput of customers as their eastern-style competitors – and floor space in Tokyo is expensive.
Anyway, I’m not done yet. Since the sun has not yet set, I can actually accomplish the bonus-goal which I set for myself, and which includes this building in Shinjuku.
At 243m of height, Tokyo-to Chousha (東京都庁舎 “Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office”) – or Tocho for short – was at the time of its completion in 1990 the tallest building in Japan, and held that record until it was succeeded in 1993 by the Yokohama Landmark Tower. Up close, they giant monolithic structure is even more impressive.
So why am I here? Well, you see, unlike most other high buildings and towers in Tokyo, admission is actually free in Tocho. Even better, since I come at a good time, I barely have to wait at all to get into the elevator to the observation deck at floor 45, which is located at a whopping 202m, that’s over 50m above that of Tokyo Tower, and I would have had to pay for that one! So how do they monetize, you ask? Well, for starters, it’s a government building, so they don’t really need to make a profit of this, but the fact that the interior of the observation deck is pretty much filled with restaurants and merchandising stores also suggests an alternative hypothesis.
But I have not come here to look at the merchandise. As I look out of the windows I am for the first time realizing the sheer dimensions of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area: The city stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions, limited only by the sea and mountains on the distant horizon.
The view into the other direction is not much different in that regard, yet the skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo quickly form a cliff to block the vision even before the humid air can shroud it. Once again, I am grateful I did not pay to get up on Tokyo Tower, since I can now clearly see from my current vantage point that I wouldn’t have been able to see very far from there at all.
As the sun begins to set, the silhouette of Fuji-San (富士山 “Wealthy Scholar Mountain”) towering into the clouds is outlined against the shining horizon. I am reasonably sure that it is the left of the two tall mountains in this picture, which would make the closer mountain to the right Mishoutai-San (御正体山 “Honourable Truth Mountain”).
Due to Japan being a humid country, it is actually quite rare to get one of those famous clear views of Fuji-San. But then again, with them being so famous, I don’t really need to see it in person if all I need to do is enter “Fuji” in any search engine and get instantly flooded with results.
That being said, it goes without saying that my bonus-goal for this day was not to take a great picture of Fuji-San. Neither has it to take panoramic pictures of the metropolis (although that’s a plus). My true bonus goal for this stray has been to get here in time to take a picture of the Eternal City and the mountains beyond precisely at the time of sunset.
Well, actually not quite. Since I’m already up here and since I cleverly picked the North Tower which is actually open until 22:30, I figure I might as well stick around for a bit, rest my weary feet, and then take a picture of the Shining Metropolis at night, lights stretching to every horizon.
Afterwards, it turns out that the real test of patience lies in getting down again, since there’s actually quite a long queue of people waiting to be stuffed into a rather cosy elevator.
Though it is already pretty late by now, and I am exhausted from the long stray, I still find it in me to visit the last few shrines on my list in this part of Shinjuku – which turn out to exude quite a different flair this late at night…
…and then I finally allow myself to return to the Ooizumi Mansion – exhausted, but accomplished. Time to get some well-deserved rest. After all, henceforth it is my plan to continue…
Working the World Away
After the smashing success of my last job I waste no time in looking for a new one. Using the job section of the Tokyo part of craigslist, I quickly find an interesting offer for a position as a bicycle courier. The wording is a bit strange, and the application procedure goes suspiciously fast, so I am a bit uneasy as I go to Ebisu-Eki (恵比寿駅 “Blessings of Longevity Station”) where my contact intends to “pick me up” as he called it.
I wait for a full hour, but no one shows up. Well, to be exact, a lot of people show up and leave again since this is a freaking train station, but being the fox that I am I stand out among them like a burning peacock at a penguin family reunion. Due to the kinda sketchy nature of this particular job offer, I'm only half-disappointed, and end up ignoring any further messages from this particular employer.
Next, I audition for a position as an English teacher for children at a place called GnoKids. Jobs for English teachers are typical jobs for foreigners in Japan, and don’t have that good of an image. Even so, since I enjoy working with children, I decide to give it a try.
This time, the application procedure takes longer: I have an interview after a week, but although that interview went reasonably well, I should never hear back from them again.
So, what do now? By now, it’s already mid-March, and Julia, the program-coordinator from World Unite paints a grim forecast by saying it’s unrealistic that I’ll find a Position for just one month here in Tokyo – after all, I intend to continue my travels after the end of Golden Week at the beginning of May.
Fortunately, I have a backup plan! Having worked at a software development company called Netfira during my stay in Munich, I was able to prove my worth to them to a degree that they agreed to continue to employ me during my stay in Japan. Even up to this point, I have already worked one day a week for them to balance my expenses. Now that my scheme to find employment in Tokyo has failed, I crank it up to 3 days a week, and spend those days working on my trusty laptop Liete from the Underworld Kitchen of the Ooizumi Mansion in Shiohama, Tokyo in Japan for a the German branch of a company that’s originally from Australia. Now that’s what I call multinational collaboration!
And as by the rules I laid out for myself during my time in New Zealand, I allow myself one serving of snacks and drinks for every completed day of work. I quickly find my favourite drinks, but chips should remain one of those strangely lacking aspects, since most brands of chips are rather bland. It’s almost as though the companies are afraid that people might not like the flavour, so they decide to put in as little flavour as possible. Also, keep in mind that this is Japan, so naturally the contents of a bag of chips is only half of what you’d get in Europe – that is unless you specifically go for the Big Bag.
So, this whole “Job in Tokyo” business did not turn out quite as good as I hoped, but oh well. At the very least, I have a steady income, and it’s not like I would have learned all that much Japanese in my job in the silent kitchen… or as an English teacher… or as a bicycle courier for that matter. So, with that level of fail achieved I instead dedicate the free time that comes with my three-day, high-paying software development to learning Japanese on my own and exploring Tokyo. Speaking of which, it’s time to talk about…
Connecting Stray #5: Closing the Circle
By this time, I have already connected all my strays so far.
However, it is not yet a circle.
I really like circles.
So, it goes without saying that I should also attempt to close the gap that remains between Kudan and Shinjuku. And just like the very first Connecting Stray, this should take me several days. But this time, it’s different.
Day 1: A Stray Too Short
My first attempt to stray from Kudan to Shinjuku actually happens even before Connecting Stray #3, but alas, it should remain as of yet woefully incomplete due to my old enemy: Time.
Nonetheless, it’s a start. And this start starts with a trip across i-i bashi (or Aiaihashi if I am to transcribe it from the Japanese Hiragana), which is a little pedestrian’s bridge across the northern part of the Nihonbashi River…
…followed by a trip over a pedestrian’s bridge across a major traffic thoroughfare. I especially like the signage that’s painted on the road here, which I think might mean as much as “No acute-angle right turns into the diagonally merging road from 8:00 to 20:00”. Not a conundrum I’d like to have to ponder at 50 km/h.
Next up, theirs is this very ironically named apartment building, that looks very much like a place I would not like to live in. The murderous spiral staircase in the Ooizumi Mansion is already bad enough for my taste.
The first Shrine I should come across on this stray is actually a pretty famous one: Tokyo Daijingu (東京大神宮 “Tokyo Great High Shrine”) is said to bring romantic good fortune to worshippers, and is consequently quite well-attended.
Personally, however, I do prefer the little back-road Inari Shrines.
As I approach the valley of the Kanda River, I also come across the modern Nihon Kirisuto Kyoudan Fujimichou Kyoukai (日本基督教団 富士見町教会 “Japan Christ (=基督”Fundamentals Coach”) Religious Organisation Fuji Viewing Town Church”), or UCCJ Fujimicho Church for short.
And while we’re talking about religious buildings right now, I’d also like to mention the resplendent Zenkokuji (鎮護山善國寺 “Tranquil Safeguard Mountain Virtuous Country Temple”), a magnificent Buddhist Temple I would come across in Kagurazaka (神楽坂 “Gods Music Hill”) later during this stray.
But that would only be later during this stray. For now, my way leads me across the Kanda River Diversion Channel. This channel – which is as of yet incomplete – is planned to eventually extend all the way to the sea through and underground channel and help combat the historical problem of flooding. So far, it is merely serving as a reservoir. However, since its opening in 1997, it has already proven its worth on several occasions, and the Kanda River has not flooded a single time ever since.
On the other side, I come across an interesting monument that I'm sure my more mathematically apt friends will be able to make sense of.
And only then it’s time for me to climb Kagurakaza, and go see Zenkokuji.
Another thing I observe on the Gods’ Music Hill is a mong watering… his temple.
I'm sure there’s a perfectly legit reason for this. I could very well imagine it has to do with the Shinto principle of purity.
Anyway, moving on. As I continue my trip through the narrow streets of Kagurakaza…
…I come across a map that’s literally set in stone.
After that, I have time to visit a few more Shrines, and I actually manage to get all the way to Kagurakaza-Eki, which is about a third of the way to Shinjuku.
From there, I need to scramble, since tonight I’m set to meet with Estragon, a fellow furry from Germany who has been on the road for a while, so I take the train from Kagurakaza-Eki, transfer at Takadanobaba-Eki (高田馬場駅 “High Field Horse Riding Ground Station”), and wait for him at the very aptly named Pokémon Corner in Shinjuku.
And in case you were wondering about at what opportunity I visited the Denny’s in Shinjuku that I mentioned earlier: This is when.
I also mentioned that these Famires are a bit expensive. Here’s the proof: This is all I get for a whopping 1600¥.
I mean, sure, it’s tasty, but for that same price, I could get four servings of Kitsune Udon at an Udon-Ya with complimentary Macha, and each of them would be equally tasty and more filling.
Afterwards, I return back to the Ooizumi Mansion, taking a detour through the gardens of Ita-Yokado, where the fountains, lakes and cascades are lit in a beautiful azure light tonight.
I might not have been able to connect Shinjuku and Kudan today, but I should eventually be back to complete…
Day 2: The North Shinjuku Crescent
It’s almost two weeks later, and not until I’ve completed all other Connect Strays, that I finally get around to walk this last segment into existence.
It begins with me finally finding a little Inari Shrine in Kagurakaza that I couldn’t locate two weeks ago, and seeing how small it turned out to be that’s absolutely no surprise. This one is easily the smallest Inari Shrine I’ve seen so far, and during my last visit I was probably standing within a metre of it on the other side of the fence, not realizing the little concrete cube was actually the Shrine I was looking for.
From there, the way is pretty straightforward for some time, leading down the main road of Yokoteramachi (横寺町 “Sideways Temple Town”). Now, I know streets don’t have names in Japan, then I bet this one would be Yokoteramachimichi (横寺町道 “Sideways Temple Town Street”).
Eventually, however, I diverge from the beaten track to explore the cute little alleys…
…and as a result find a number of hidden Shrines and Temples, not all of which appear to be still in use.
Most notable of these is Suikouji (瑞光寺 “Congratulating Ray Temple”), not because of its architecture, gardens or graveyard (though each of those are definitely notable on their own already)…
…but because of its side Shrine, which breaks the current record for the number of foxes at a shrine by a factor of 3!
As I continue my stray on this day, I am starting to get quite thirsty. Fortunately, I come across a park where I can quench my thirst at one of the fountains that are usually found in public parks like this. At first, I am not quite sure how to operate this model, but before long I have it figured out. You gotta be careful with these, though: Sometimes, they can be a bit stuck, and if you turn them to far you can easily get a 5-metre-fountain of water that rains back down on you.
By the way, I am sure that many of you think about blossoming cherry trees when you think of Tokyo. This popular image is actually only accurate for about two weeks in spring, at the time of the Ohanami, when the cherry trees are in full bloom all around the city. It is sometimes referred to as Japan’s fifth season, and the weather reports in spring always include the current state of the “Cherry Blossom Font” as it moves over Japan from south to north. Since this font has fully Tokyo engulfed Tokyo by now, cherry trees all over the city are flaunting their pinkish-white petals.
Next, I come across Itsukushima Jinja Nukebenten (厳島神社抜弁天 “Rigid Island Shrine Path to Benten (goddess of arts and wisdom)”), a curious little shrine located at a fork in the road with lots of flowing water and even fish in a pond. I imagine this might once have been the location of a river.
Also, it looks like I'm not the only critter straying around and exploring Shrines and Temples today.
My last Shrine before closing the circle should be Nishimukiten Jinja (西向天神社 “West-facing Sky Shrine”), a tranquil Shrine with extensive gardens, but not overly crowded with people.
Now all that’s left is the way through Shinjuku, Shinjuku (the heart of Shinjuku, so to speak, which means “New Dwelling” (新宿), by the way), which leads me past another amazing instance of “The English Language is sexy! So let’s rape it!” …
…as well as the coolest bicycle lane I’ve ever seen…
…and then I’m back here again, and the circle is complete!
Just in time too! For there is one rather important event that I’ve been wanting to attend today, and with the grand circle enclosing an area roughly 46km², it’s now time for…
Also Day 2: A Celebratory Ceremony
A few days ago I came across this notice on the way to the Kudan Institute.
Needless to say that this instantly caught my attention, and I took a picture of it to decipher at the institute. With my current Japanese Skills I can figure out the following things:
1.) It’s an Inari festival
2.) It’s on the 27th of March at 3PM
3.) It’s at White [something] Inari Shrine
Unfortunately, that crucial last missing Kanji is the perfect example of why Kanji recognition apps are useless: The Kanji is easy to recognize if you’ve learned it, but just by seeing it written (especially in a stylized way like here and generally in 75% of the places really), there’s no way you can enter it into any tool that I know of in a way that will let it recognize the Kanji.
However, since I was still attending the Kudan Institute at that time, I was able to ask Kobayakawa-sensei for help, and naturally she could easily recognize it, having learned that Kanji (which is 菊 “Chrysanthemum”, by the way) in 7th grade. Knowing that much, my next target for today is clear: Attending the ceremony at Shiragiku Inari Jinja (白菊稲荷神社 “White Chrysanthemum Inari Shrine”).
In order to get there in time, I take the Oedo-Line from Higashi-Shinjuku-Eki (東新宿駅 “East New Dwelling Station”) to Iidabashi-Eki (飯田橋駅 “Meal Field Bridge Station”), and then walk through an underground tunnel that ends up taking me about as far away from the right exit as I can possibly get.
Good thing I still have like, what, 15 minutes to get to the Shrine, which includes actually finding it since this is one of the Shrines that I already walked by twice without actually being able to locate it. Fortunately, this time around there are a lot of people and flags around, so I actually am able to locate the narrow gap between two buildings which marks the entrance to the Shrine.
I arrive just in time. The Shinto Priest is already present, along with about two dozen other attendees who interpret my interest the right way, and liberally offer me a position right at the front.
And thus it happens that today, on 27-Mar-2018, I attend a Shinto Ceremony for the first time in my life, and at an Inari Shrine too. This ceremony is to renew the blessings of the Shrine, and although I can barely understand anything, I can pick up a few words here and there from which I can interpret that the priest is asking Oinari-sama (which is the honourable way to address the deity Inari) to watch over and protect this area. Subsequently, every attendee – myself included – would lay down one of the shoots at the altar and offer up a short, silent prayer to Oinari-sama.
Afterwards, all attendees are invited to a small communal drink of sake (which I respectfully decline, since I still don’t drink alcohol), and I even get to talk a little bit some of the Japanese attendees. I have heard people say that “Ich liebe dich” is for some reason the one German phrase that every Japanese person can say, and indeed, upon revealing that I come from Germany, it doesn’t take my conversation partners more than 3 seconds to proudly utter that phrase in somewhat shaky, but comprehensible German.
And with that, I return back to the Ooizumi Mansion feeling quite accomplished. Not only have I completed the circle, but I have also played my humble part into restoring the blessings of the land and deepened my understanding of Japanese culture. And speaking of which, this is the perfect cue for me to present you with some…
There’s certainly no shortage of unusual stuff around here in Japan. One of the first oddities I come across is the fact that in Japan it is apparently generally accepted that tired drivers can just pull over to the side of even major thoroughfares, put on the hazard lights, and have a quick nap while the motor is still running – be it as a quick nap at noon or at night.
However, it’s even more hilarious if it’s not sleeping drivers but a sleeping motorcyclist holding a tablet.
One cute thing I see quite often is the cute logo of the Kuroneko Yamato Unyu (クロネコヤマト運輸 “Black Cat Yamato Delivery”), Japan’s N°1 delivery service, similar to DHL in Germany.
And speaking of cats, there’s actually a place at the promenade of one of the channels where a kind person feeds and cares for a glare of local strays. I have dubbed it “Katz Korner”.
One of these days, I actually go down there myself to introduce myself to the strays who – while shy – are still exceedingly cute.
Staying on the topic of cute critters: I’ve already mentioned Tanukis a while back, and statues of them can often be found in front of restaurants and stores as messengers of enjoyment and good fortune. One striking feature of them which may seem odd or even offensive to western travellers are their freely displayed large scrotums. This is a comical exaggeration that began during the Kamakura era, although it has its origins in the fact that actual male Tanuki do have disproportionately large testicles for animals their size.
Next, there’s this really Japanese selection of bakery brands that I should have seen coming, but didn’t.
Well, I guess it’s just an unwritten law that Japanese marketing has to be adorable, bright and colourful, no matter whether it is for a bank or an amusement park. Not necessarily a bad thing if you ask me.
In fact, the Japanese culture is so infatuated with adorableness, that there are pets-to-go shops selling puppies and kittens. I think that’s about the point where we cross over from “cute” to “questionable” in my book.
Equally questionable – although on another level – is the obsession of the Japanese government to create jobs for everyone, which goes so far as to hire people to stand in a straight tunnel and tell people to continue walking the way they were going…
…or workers standing by completely arbitrary barriers around light posts to make sure absolutely no one walks into them.
By contrast, the traffic regulator trios at the pedestrians’ crossings seem exceedingly useful. They must be the next higher rank of hierarchy after “Barrier Bystander” and “Straight Path Guide”.
And speaking of crossroads: Some of them have a really sparkly way to announce their presence, which I figure must be so that drivers don’t accidentally overlook a small crossroad in the narrow alleys.
Staying on the roads for a bit, these things are something you’ll see quite a lot: They are turntables for cars, and can be found in front of garages and car rental stations all over the city to ensure the esteemed customer does not have to worry about reversing out of a driveway. It’s probably an asset for road safety too, albeit a costly one.
And how, do you ask, do you account for gas stations in a city where space is this valuable? Well, for one you can simply get rid of the obstructive and space-consuming gas pumps by hanging them for the ceiling (apparently, staff to operate those is cheaper than floor space)…
…or you can just build an entire freaking skyscraper on top of the gas station because why not?
One other interesting thing – which I would expect to find at a gas station, but actually notice standing around just at the side of the road in Shiohama for no apparent reason – is this free air pump for wheelchairs and bicycles. It’s only this one specimen though: I shouldn’t find any others like this anywhere else in the city.
Speaking of rolling chairs: The service that is offered to wheelchair users at train stations is truly admirable. A station attendant will be there to assist them getting on the train, and communicate the wheelchair user’s destination to an attendant of that station, who will then be waiting to help the wheelchair user get off the train.
Another admirable thing is the length some neighbourhoods go to recycle used goods.
Back on the topic of marketing: This peculiar Ramen-Ya sign sure caught my attention.
And while we’re talking about the topic of the bright and colourful, might as well throw in this rack of assorted fluff.
By the way, we all know the concept of outer packaging: Something that is sold in a store being packed in a bag that holds the actual product. Well, Japanese people take this concept a step further by adding the outer-outer packaging (or maybe the inner-packaging?) meaning that for example in a bag of cookies, every single cookie is individually packaged again. Yay for extra plastic garbage! And to add environmental insult to injury, plastic garbage counts as burnable under Japanese legislation.
Finally, one thing that gets installed in the Ooizumi Mansion near the end of my stay there is this little nice gadget of vanity incarnate: We now got our very own flush sound simulator! If it were me, I would have installed a WiFi repeater instead. Maybe then we finally would have gotten reliable internet in the Underworld Kitchen.
Now, let us close this chapter with a picture of glamorous Shinjuku at night (featuring Godzilla)…
…and continue on to the part about me…
Wrapping it all up
As my stay in the Ooizumi Mansion finally nears its end, there’s one more bureaucratic necessity to take care of: I have to un-register at the local city office. Now, I could just take the direct route there and get there in maybe 25 minutes, or…
Well, at this point I don’t think anyone will be surprised about my choice of scenic routes anymore, and so I depart on one last stray through the streets and nobly blooming (cherry) blossoms of Koto.
Naturally, I once again planned my stray to take me past a maximum of Shrines and Temples…
…and the parks I pass through are finally starting to look like something now that spring has arrived.
To be specific, my way leads me through Sendaiborigawa Kouen (仙台堀川公園 “Hermit’s Pedestral Moat River Park”), which not only has beautiful hydropolic architecture…
…but also organically interweaves a scenic bicycle lane with the walking paths in a way that is neither obstructive nor obnoxious.
Then there’s a tarn teeming with turtles and tadpoles…
…and also a little obstacle course, which I happily challenge. This time around there’s even water below to make it more interesting.
This billboard with the names and descriptions of indigenous birds is another thing I come across, and while my Japanese is not yet good enough to figure out which of these is the Screaming Bird, I at least learn that sparrows (which are indeed the very same species we have in Europe) are called “Suzume” (スズメ) in Japanese.
There’s also an area where Sakura (桜, the cherry trees) is in full bloom, and some people have chosen this secluded spot for a more quiet Hanami.
This park is actually more of a park complex, and so Sendaiborigawa Kouen eventually fades gradually into Yokojikkenkawa Shinsui Kouen (横十間川親水公園 “Sideways Ten Spaces River Water Park”)…
…which has its own interesting combination of lake, mill, turtle pond and rice field exhibition.
Afterwards, I arrive at the city office, which is actually quite full considering that it’s a Thursday afternoon.
Once again, I have to fill out a “no chance if you don’t speak Japanese”-form. Fortunately, an attended helps me, and my Japanese turns out to be good enough to understand what I need to write into each field if it is expressed in clear terms as opposed to complicated formal language.
And then, after barely two hours of filling out forms, waiting, going to the counter, waiting again, and finally going to another counter, I’m done here and can proceed to return to the Ooizumi Mansion. Once again, I choose a route that should lead me through scenic parks such as Kiba Kouen…
…over beautiful channels…
…and inadvertently also past this quite funny instance of Engrish.
Afterwards, it’s finally time for me to pack up. This one time, I should actually take one extra basket of goods with me since I'm just switching from one share house to another, and I should soon enough learn that one extra basket is all it needs to push my luggage over the limit of tolerability.
With that, I am all set to go, time to look at…
The Road Ahead
My original plan to remain in Tokyo for three months remains as of yet unchanged. In fact, since I have by now made plans to meet up with my best friend in May in Tokyo and travel up to Sapporo together, it’s even more set in stone than ever. So for now, I am merely moving to a different share house while still staying in the Radiant Metropolis. As such, my move involves mostly the metro, and fortunately I have chosen a time on the weekend and after the morning rush hour when the trains are pretty much empty.
As such I have no problem taking off my luggage and sit down, which my body greatly appreciates, for my arms are about to fall off. Even switching hands regularly, the basket ended up being the bale that broke the fox’s back.
Anyway, the first order of business is getting to Shinjuku and checking in at the office of Sakura House – my new landlord – to take care of the formalities.
Afterwards, I ride the metro through half the city again to the district of Taitou, where I move into my new share house, the Monterosa Building.
My move was motivated by a multitude of reasons such as atmosphere, facilities, and the fact that the Ooizumi Mansion was populated almost exclusively by Germans, giving me absolutely zero opportunity to practice my Japanese. The main reason, however, was the lack of privacy, which is hereby remedied for I rented myself a relatively affordable single room. It may not be anything special, but it is mine and mine alone, and after sleeping in a dormitory for almost two full months, this level of peace, quiet and most importantly privacy seems like paradise.
This new place should soon become the first place I’d actually call my home here in Tokyo, as well as the base for many new and exciting strays and adventures. And if you are looking forward to read more about them, then be sure to stay tuned for the next chapter of the Travelling Fox Blog.