Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tokyo: September 25, 2011

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There's something wonderfully enticing about Japan, even with the undercurrent of separation and loneliness that seems to shimmer just under the surface veneers.

The week before my flight, Tokyo had been hit by Typhoon Roke, and the long-range forecast had called for rain to continue during my visit; but luckily, the weather prognosticators were incorrect. On this bright morning, the crows outside my window were excitedly chatting back and forth across the gleaming manmade chasms of this part of town. Black harbingers of the work day, crows seem to have replaced the rooster. The roosters must have been either eaten or zoned out of the city, allowing the ubiquitous carrion crow to swoop into the time-honored position of herald of the sun, especially in the metropolitan Tokyo area.

Last night, I came to the conclusion that time was passing and I needed to start checking things off of my shot list. So today, I was heading one stop south on the JR Yamanote train line to Harajuku Station, to visit Meiji Shrine. I had read somewhere that on Sundays, there is a good chance to witness a portion of a Shinto wedding, and that was a big item on my list.

At Yoyogi Station, I used my Suica Card, for the first time, to get through the turnstile. I found the platform for the southbound train and waited, along with a lot of Tokyoites out for a little recreation on their day off. In a little over 10 minutes, I had arrived at Harajuku and made my way out of the station, which is only a hundred yards or so from the south entrance of the shrine.

Meiji Shrine was built at the turn of the last century to house the deified spirits of the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. He was enshrined for leading Japan out of its feudal era and into the modern age and westernization. Completed in 1921 and bombed into oblivion during WWII, it was reconstructed in 1958. The shrine is situated in the middle of 150 acres of evergreen forest, containing over one hundred thousand trees of various species, donated from every part of Japan.

This Shinto shrine is very popular with the Japanese people, especially during the New Year's celebrations. During the Hatsu-mode festival (on January 1), two to three million people make their way into the park to make their obligatory "first visit of the year." During this time, the shrine has its own train stop, and the priests actually use traffic signals to direct the massive crowds.

The majestic Tori, at the entrance, marks the beginning of the transition from the profane to the sacred. It's also the place where lots of tourist groups form to begin their visit. Once on the gravel path, it takes a while to get to the inner buildings, but it's a way of clearing the mind as you trudge along. The sound the gravel makes as it accommodates your weight is almost like a chorus chanting an absolution as you make your way to the holy of holies.

As you approach the offering hall and inner shrine, you need to stop at one of the holy-water fountains and purify yourself by rinsing off your hands and rinsing out your mouth. Nowadays, most people just wash their hands, choosing to forego the rinsing-of-the-mouth part of the ceremony.

Luck struck just as I was leaving the fountain. A wedding party came through the shrine gate, heading toward an area set aside for formal wedding photography. As discreetly as I could, I made my way over and began to shoot. The wedding photographers know their business: arranging the party so that everyone is in the correct position and as flawless as possible; making sure that ties are straight; and if anyone's coiffure needs a little smoothing, one of the team is there to make sure that there won't be any blemishes in the final image that commemorates the merging of two families.

I move back over to the forecourt, hoping to use the open doors of the gate as a pictorial window into the shrine. For the next 20 minutes, I stand there, hoping the crowds will thin out a little and allow me a couple of seconds to make the shot. Unfortunately, there are so many visitors I can't get a composition that I feel fits the bill. Walking away, I shoot some details of the structure and grab a no-looking shot of the inner shrine (they request that you don't photograph it, but so many Japanese were disregarding that plea that I felt licensed).

Turning around, I found another wedding procession making its way through the gate. It's like seeing the past come to life. They looked wonderful in their traditional costumes, and the proud fathers were just beaming, glowing almost as much as the bride. As the procession disappeared into the inner sanctum, I noticed the first wedding couple standing alone near one of the exits. I approached them and they graciously agreed to pose.

After I completed photographing them, I walked back to the inner courtyard, where a third couple had emerged from the sanctuary. The wedding procession moved across the inner court in a time-honored cadence on a traditional path that would serve as the foundation for their life together. I moved over to grab a few more shots. Again, the wedded couple was radiant in their traditional guise, beaming with happiness. I assumed they were relieved that the complicated ritual was nearing an end and that their life together was beginning. I was feeling very lucky to have witnessed this glimpse of Japan's past.

It was moving on towards mid-afternoon, and I too needed to move on. My next stop was Takeshita Street. It's Tokyo's most fashion-forward shopping area; supposedly very similar to Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue. It was easy to locate, being that it dead-ends into the train station's northern-most exit. A signage arch and wall-to-wall young people announce that you are there.

After cruising up and down the street, I was disappointed. There were lots of sundry shops, doing good business, but no in-your-face storefronts flaunting the work of young fashion designers. I was looking for something exciting, some new, unforeseen innovation that would further my faith in man's constructive rebellion; a flag in the sand, announcing their intentions to perpetuate progress by reshaping the norm into their irreverent vision. I spent an hour traipsing up and down, but nothing on this visit gave me pause. I gave up and took the train one more stop south to Shibuya.

Shibuya District is another of Tokyo's major entertainment and shopping areas, very popular with the affluent young. The premiere rendezvous spot in the area is the statue of the faithful dog Hachiko. Located in the forecourt of the train station, this bronze statue attests to the devotion of a white Akita dog for his dead master. Unfortunately, today the area around the statue is a designated smoking area, which means that often you have to view the statue through clouds of cigarette smoke, and to a dog-loving westerner, this seems to be an affront to the memory of this most loyal canine. I held my breath and took a few shots and then crossed the intersection that you see in all the photographs and movies that fronts this area. I crossed it with what seemed to be millions of others, looking for some side street that might hold something interesting to photograph.

I strolled the streets looking for a particular pork ramen shop that I had seen a snapshot of. An hour later, I gave up and took the train north back to my hotel, after making a stop at 7-Eleven to gather dinner.

At 7:30 I headed back out to Kabukicho, looking for targets of opportunity.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tokyo: September 24, 2011

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All materials including photographs are ©2011 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios. 
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As usual, in a new place, I had a somewhat restless first night. I woke at 2:30 a.m., then again at 4:30, and finally at 6:15 I gave up and got up. The first thing I did was to open the window. I was more than surprised to be greeted by a murder of crows, on the next building over, serenading the city as it came to life. In the distance the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower held sway over the sky line.

I welcomed the hot water as it cascaded over my head and down my torso; without a shower in the morning I never feel fully awake. Dressed and loaded for bear, I was out the door by eight.

Down at the desk I got a safety deposit box and put in my passport plus my emergency cash. I also checked my computer in for the day and found that there was a Currency Exchange Machine in the lobby. I changed a hundred and got better rate, 76 yen to the dollar (the extra 3 yen was a moral victory at least).

I had a map to a local Denny's but had difficulty in locating the restaurant. It seems that the city streets are laid out in a very counterintuitive manner, so after plodding around for a while I gave up the notion of having a "Grand Slam." 

I was right next to Yoyogi Station, so I availed myself of the opportunity to purchase a Suica card. I have a translation program on my Mac and used it to print out phrases that I thought I might need. In the customer service office I pulled out the "I want to buy a Suica Card" sheet and showed it to the JR representative. He smiled, nodded and asked for ¥2000 (about $26.32). I asked (or more accurately pantomimed) that I wanted to add additional money to the card, but he shook his head and pointed out into the station proper, where I could use one of the machines to add to my card up to 18,000 yen ($231).

Travel Tip: I highly recommend the Suica card. Very similar to Hong Kong's Octopus Card, it's a prepaid travel pass that makes using the trains and metro system a breeze. Just swipe the card and you're on your way, no need to spend time trying to figure out which ticket to buy. It's really a time saver and alleviates a lot of stress, plus you don't need exact change.

Travel Tip: Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world, with an average of over 3.5 million people passing through it each day. It can be very complex and confusing. I found that by using Yoyogi Station, just a few block to the south, you save a lot of time and don't have to deal with the ebb and flow of the massive crowds.

According to the internet there are more than a thousand McDonald's franchises in the greater Tokyo area, and I think that might be correct because there seems to be one on every block. After I had gotten my Suica Card, I walked across the street and got a sausage sandwich. Unfortunately I pointed to the wrong picture and got a bacon, egg and cheese McGriddle and a small Coke (and when they say small they're not kidding). I found the McGriddle part of the sandwich was not to my liking.

After I finished breakfast I consulted my pocket map and began to trek over to the skyscraper section of Shinjuku. I was looking for Bic Camera and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. My itinerary called for me to hit the camera store first, but halfway there I found signs directing me to the Metropolitan Building. I hung a left and walked five or six more blocks to the east. The "Observation Deck," on the 45th floor, is free, but there's always a line. It takes a while to get your turn to be squeezed into the elevator with 10 or 12 other individuals and be whisked up, to get your opportunity to observe.

It was a clear but somewhat hazy morning. This observatory is great place to see the city from above, but not the best place to photograph it. There are massive reflections everywhere, and the best views (of Tokyo Tower and downtown) are usurped by a restaurant. You need to be a patron if you want to photograph in that direction.

The day views were just so-so, and I decided that I'd do better if I came at night. As I was standing in line for the descending elevator ride, I noticed that they had a souvenir stamp that you could use to denote your visit. I availed myself of the opportunity by annotating my journal.

Once down, I walked back the way I came. It was a bit cooler than I would have preferred, especially in this section of the city. Skyscrapers always disrupt the normal air currents, creating wind-tunnel effects that can chill you to the bone, even on warm days.

At Bic Camera, they have a special counter for English-speaking customers. I told the representative that I was looking for a Fugifilm Finepix X100, and he found it for me immediately. The only problem was that it was $400 more than I could purchase it for in the U.S. All the cameras there were more expensive, by about 30%, than you can get them for at home. What a disappointment! I took the rep's card and headed back to my hotel.

I had an appointment with Tatsumi Orimoto at 1 p.m. I'd first met Tatsumi in the early 1970s at Chouinard's Art Institute. We were there the last year it was open; the next year, I headed to California Institute of the Arts and he'd headed to New York City. I was sitting in the lobby when he arrived at 1:30, late as usual. We hadn't seen each other for over 20 years but there was instant recognition when he came through the doors. We left looking for a cheap place to eat.

There seems to be a one restaurant for every single person in Tokyo. They are everywhere. One out of every three ground-floor establishments seems to be either a snacking, dining or drinking concern. I can't see how there is a large-enough customer base to keep them all afloat.

We found a place where Tatsumi could get soup and went in. We had to sit at the counter because we needed to be a party of three or more for a table. I sat down and he went over to the ticket machine to purchase food vouchers. A lot of lower-end establishments have vending machines that display the bill of fare. You decide what you want, insert coins and it dispenses a ticket that you then give to your server. I guess it's a way for the owner to keep his employees honest. Tatsumi passed over our tickets to a very slight young woman and within five minutes our food had arrived. I had some weird fried rice with some cheese sauce unmentioned on the menu, and he had some very hot soba (noodle soup). Plus, as he observed, I had to have my usual "girly" cola.

He wanted to show me around Kabukicho, which is Tokyo's red-light district and all-around place for "company men" to relax. It's also the place for unwary "gaijins" (foreigners) to get ripped off. It is supposedly run by some very tough Japanese, Korean and Chinese gangsters. As you enter the district, there are audio warnings playing, from the local merchant association, letting you know that visitors must beware (i.e., settle on a price before sitting down or you could end up paying a lot more than you than you think is fair).

Tatsumi is an internationally recognized performance artist, especially in Europe. He spent a lot of time there drinking ale, and that has contributed to him coming down with gout. Last month, he told me, it was so bad he had to use a wheelchair to get around. He was better now, but still couldn't walk for long distances without resting every now and then. We spent a couple of hours in Kabukicho with him pointing out the sex shops (whose signs appear innocuous to westerners, who are unfamiliar with Japanese fetish vernacular) and the dark-suited Yakuza who directed their operations. I kept trying to photograph people but they were uncooperative, and Tatsumi advised me not to push it. 

We had a late-afternoon snack at KFC and then walked back to Shinjuku Station, where we agreed that I'd meet him on Wednesday in front of the statue of Hachiko (faithful dog) in Shibuya Station. From there we'd go to his home in Kawasaki City to have dinner with "Mama." He disappeared into the bowels of the station after giving me instructions on how to get back to my hotel. And to my surprise, after following them, I found the hotel in the same place I'd left it. Once assured of its location, I then turned around and continued to explore for another few hours.