December 19, 2008

Mount Fuji From Afar

After yesterday's incessant rain, the skies were crystal clear today and from the park where I go jogging you could see Mount Fuji in the distance through the tangle of pylons.

December 18, 2008


After the relatively quite stop at Otsuka, I was looking forward to the next stop, Sugamo. This place is famous for two reason in Japan. Firstly, Sugamo Prison has a prominent place in modern Japanese history. Initially built in the twenties to detain political prisoners, it is better known for its use in the occupation period, when Japan was under US occupation, and the facilities were used to hold suspected war criminals, including former Prime Minister Tojo. The prison itself was located on the land which is now home to the Ikebukuro Sunshine Building.

However, Sugamo is now famous in contemporary Japan for a different reason. It is known as the 'Harajuku for grannies', with Sugamo Jizo Dori, a long shopping street that targets senior citizens, gaining fame nationwide.
In order to reach Sugamo Jizo Dori, you have to head north from the station along Route 17 for a couple of hundred metres, and you'll soon see a large sign over a street forking off to the left.

You immediately notice that shop after shop is full of comfy shoes, cheap clothes aimed at the elderly, shopping trolleys, walking sticks, hearing aids and more traditional groceries.
Part way down the street is Koganji Temple, teeming with people and full of stalls selling snacks, dried fruit and cloth for kimonos.

One of the most popular features is a statue of Buddha. People queue up for a long while, buy a small towel and then, when their turn comes, soak the statue with water and rub it down with the towel. Given the amount of time people spent rubbing the statue, I think the minimum wait would have been about half an hour.

Given the older clientele, there are lots of shops selling more traditional foodstuffs such as dried fish, fresh seaweed and rice crackers.

One of the most famous products you can buy are "aka pantsu", or red pants. They are said to improve your health due to the warmth of the colour, and also bring happiness and ward off evil spirits. All for just 500 yen or so. As tempting a product as it seemed, I didn't purchase any, because I had already donned my red boxers for the day as a tribute to the area.

I stopped in a noodle shop for lunch to have tempura soba, and I was clearly the only customer in the place below retirement age. That, in addition to being non-Japanese, meant I got the odd curious look, which is fairly unusual in Tokyo.

A small shrine on the quieter end of the street.

I worked my way back along the shopping street and back at the point where it joins Route 17, there is the Shinshoji Temple.There is currently some building work going on in front of the main building, but the grounds contain a few statues of interest.

I briefly checked out the area to the south of the station, but there is comparatively little of interest here for the casual visitor. A small sleazy street runs behind the main road near the station, and there are a couple of uninspiring urban parks, which are little more than open spaces with one or two trees and some public toilets.
There was, however, this great Marvel Comic style poster for a pachinko parlor.

If you haven't been before, the grannies' shopping heaven is worth checking out for the sheer novelty, but it'll be a few years yet before I think about going there for a regular shop.

December 17, 2008

If In Doubt ...

Cafe in Kunitachi

Books: Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

On my recent visit to Takadanobaba, I picked up a secondhand copy of Karl Taro Greenfeld's Speed Tribes, a collection of pieces about Japan's sub-culture. Written in the mid-nineties just after the economic bubble burst, the twelve chapters provide an insight into the lives of twelve different characters representing a broad spectrum of youth culture of the day. The characters include a member of the yakuza, a drug dealer, a member of the bosozoku (or bike gangs), an office lady, a right-wing nationalist, and so on.

The portraits are written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who follows the characters around and is aware of their thoughts and motives. This, combined with the fact that Greenfeld includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the book stating that the people agreed to talk with him on condition that the names are changed has led to heaps of speculation that the book is little more than a collection of fiction, and that the writer did not, in fact, meet up with these characters at all.

I would say that this is maybe taking the argument too far, but I'm sure that some of the characters are perhaps composites of a number of people he knew about or had come across during his time in Tokyo, and perhaps he took the liberty to colour in parts that were left blank. Does this matter? Well, some argue that it does, and that there is little in the way of solid support for what he says, though it is important to remember that a lot of these pieces originally appeared as articles in magazines such as Arena, FHM and so on. It is effectively a collection of journalistic pieces aiming to create an impression of Tokyo in that era, and shouldn't be taken as anything more serious than that.

For me, some chapters are much better written than others, though on the whole it warrants a read for those interested in more than the usual descriptions of Japan that focus on the more positive side of the culture. Interestingly, it is another book that has been optioned for a film, as with Tokyo Underworld, and it'll be interesting to see how it is adapted for the big screen.

A classic book about Japan? Maybe not, but entertaining it is.

December 15, 2008

Snap Happy in Shinjuku

Masaharu Fukuyama is a well-known celebrity who has made his name as a singer-songwriter, actor, radio personality and actor, and has been fairly popular for close to twenty years. At the moment in one of the walkways under Shinjuku Station (a prime advertising spot) there is an advertising feature sponsored by Citizen watches doubling up as a temporary exhibition of photos of a day in the life of the star. This Sunday fans were lining up to take snaps of the snaps.

December 14, 2008


Otsuka is just a short ride from Ikebukuro, and practically within walking distance from the Sunshine building.
It's a small station, with two exits, and I headed out of the south exit first. The first thing that struck me was that compared to my last stop on the line, this area was a lot quieter. Whilst there were an assortment of shops, bars and cafes and restaurants near the station, it struck me more as a residential area, with a fair number of high rise apartment blocks.
This stall in front of the station was selling nuts and dried fruit, both of which are very popular snacks.
There's no connection with any other train or subway line, but Otsuka does have its own tram stop on the Arakawa line, one of only two tram lines still operating in the capital.
This shrine was quite close to the station, though I forgot to take note of the name.

A private establishment on an ordinary street near the shrine with a name that almost wants to taunt the public with images of what happens inside.
After rejoining the main road and walking a few minutes I got the fairly ordinary Otsuka Koen, a park which features the above statues, an uninspiring fountain and some swings and things for children.
It also has this tiny shrine in one corner.

I had been wandering around for long enough to have worked up an appetite and as I headed back in the direction of the station, I came across a sign for a little basement restaurant serving Vietnamese food. It's run by three friendly Vietnamese women and the lunch set of spicy chicken pho, spring roll and salad was absolutely wonderful.
Having sated my appetite I headed back in the direction of the station with the intention of heading over to the north side of the station.
Painting on the side of an izakaya.
No expense spared on this bar sign!
Bar inspired by the sixties Catherine Deneuve movie.
Every now and then in among the fairly similar-looking concrete low rise buildings, you get a reminder of the Tokyo of the past, such as this wooden house. Sadly, a lot of these houses are likely to disappear completely in the next few years, simply because they weren't built to last.
It's closed on Mondays, but this barber seems to be the place to of you're looking for a Richard Branson hair-do.
Back near the station, the name of this restaurant caught my eye, though of course, not long having had lunch, I gave it a miss.

Compared to some of the other places I've seen so far on the Yamanote Line, Otsuka wasn't the most riveting place to visit, though I would certainly recommend the Vietnamese restaurant to anyone visiting the area.