Tokyo, Day 3: Drunk on anime, art and a killer view

Totoro and friends!

Once we booked our flight to Japan in January, my husband went about searching for tours and events where he could geek out to his anime-and-manga-loving heart’s content. As luck would have it, we were going to be in Tokyo during the annual International Anime Fair. To be held in Tokyo Big Sight, it was also a chance to see Odaiba, a waterfront island city in Tokyo Bay made on reclaimed land. Packed with malls, amusement centers, theme parks, and architectural wonders that make it look like one big futuristic, though odd playground for the Japanese. We got a glimpse of it (along with the view of the harbor) riding the Yurikamome line, an un-manned train that goes from Shimbashi Station (where we got on) to the island.

Tokyo Big Sight, the site of the Anime Fair, reminded P of Voltes V’s Camp Big Falcon

While we would read later on that this year’s fair was scaled down compared to previous years, for Tokyo-International-Anime-Fair-virgins such as ourselves, we were still more than impressed with the sheer size of the exhibition hall and the many booths that had their anime titles—both old and new—on display. Large inflatables of Pikachu, Doremon, Detective Conan, Totoro and a few other popular anime characters hung over the jam-packed space of kids and grown-ups (including my husband), all thrilled to check out their favorite anime.

It was the shiny life-sized armor suits from the adult-geared tonkusatsu or live action series GARO, which has “Knights” fighting to save humanity from “Horrors” or demonic manifestations, that got P all giddy. C, who went with us, introduced us to a large, seated inflatable of Anpanman, a superhero popular among children whose head is made of bread filled with bean jam that can be replaced with a newly baked head. How awesome is that?

One of the installation art pieces at the Roppongi Crossing 2010 exhibit

After all the crazy, cool explosion of anime, we headed to the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills for a look at contemporary Japanese art scene and the view I had wanted to see on our first night in Tokyo. C actually wanted to take us to the more manicured Shinjuku Gyoen for more cherry blossom viewing after the Anime Fair, but the temperature had dipped, so he suggested we were better off staying indoors. To a museum, perhaps? “We could go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum or Tokyo Tower?” I offered, peeking at the items in my itinerary, which were becoming more like suggestions rather than set-in-stone activities. But C said he had a better idea, where we could get art and a killer view in one place.

In a heartbeat, P and I agreed. Me, the girl who liked to make lists and follow them according to plan. Sure, C was the Tokyo resident and it was only natural we relied on him on where to go, but I was also starting to realize that it was surprisingly exhilarating to not follow the plan and not always know where you’re going next.

Cityscape of Tokyo at dusk

The exhibit at the Mori Art Museum was entitled “Roppongi Crossing 2010: Can There Be Art?” A question posed to a diverse set of artists and answered (obviously in the affirmative) with arresting photos and videos, innovative installations, sculptures and other forms of visual arts. But the most breathtaking vision you can see from the Mori Tower is the vastness of Tokyo dotted with city lights in the bluish cast of dusk.

Before I raised my camera to take a picture, I stopped and just looked: this city, one of the biggest in the world, stretching out to the horizon in a seemingly endless flicker of lights. So this is what happens when you don’t always follow the plan and see where the day (or in this case, a friend) takes you. You get pleasantly surprised and a knockout view. Years back, while a friend and I sat in front of an open field and the conversation turned personal, she asked, “Why is it when faced with something vast before us, we can’t help but look inward?” I didn’t have an answer then. Faced with the sheer size of a bustling city, or a mountain range, a canyon, an ocean, we get to see just how small we are and have to wonder where we fit in all this. It was time for a drink.
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Tokyo, Day 2: Sushi, sakura and Shibuya

Sakura!

Waking up before 5 a.m. during one’s vacation is never an easy feat. Especially when you’ve spent the night before stuffing yourself until past midnight. But we had to if we wanted to see the action in Tsukiji Fish Market. Known as one of the world’s largest fish market, it handles over 2,000 metric tons of fresh seafood every day. It’s also become a tourist attraction—much to the supposed chagrin of the workers there—for the tuna auction held every 5:30 in the morning. But first we had to get there on our own.

It was a Friday and C had to go to work. My husband and I were not going to smoothly maneuver our way around Tokyo’s busy stations the way we did last night—with our very tall friend as our guide. He took our map of Tokyo Metro and told us where we should transfer and what train we should take. We had to take the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya, from Shibuya take Hanzomon Line to Aoyama-itchōme, and from there take the Oedo line and go down Tsukijishijo. As much as I would end up loving the efficient train system of Japan, on that first morning, I suddenly missed the simple linear MRT and LRT lines of Manila. Being the designated navigator of the entire vacation, I was furiously taking notes. My husband kept asking, “Do you get it? Do you know it na?” I suddenly had a flurry of images of fighting couples in Amazing Race.

Once we got to Sangenjaya Station we headed to the ticket counters. There are maps on top of the vending machines dispensing the tickets in all the stations in Tokyo indicating the stops and the fare, but for a few seconds I could only stare at it blankly. Wondering what it all meant. When in doubt about the ticket fare, C advised us that we could just buy the lowest priced ticket and check the difference at the fare adjustment machine on our destination station. It also sounded complicated, but it was a problem we could figure out once there. After getting our tickets, we were faced with the dilemma of what platform to take. “Do you know where to go?” My husband asked. To the left or right? I approached the uniformed train station employee by the manned gate, showed him the map and asked, “Shibuya?” He pointed to the platform on the left and bowed.

“Domo arigato!” Two of the four Japanese words I knew. I would be uttering them every time whenever I’d show my map to a train station guard throughout the trip. It only didn’t serve us well once when I was faced with an intercom and the Japanese at the other end couldn’t point to where we were supposed to go.

Finding our way to the Tsukiji Market

When we finally got out of Tsukijishijo Station, it was the same problem. To the left or right? This time there was no uniformed train station employee to ask. I looked at my notes and 19-page itinerary, where I had included directions and a map. I also looked at the print-out I had of a DIY tour of Tsukiji Fish Market. The main entrance of which is supposedly in front of the Asahi Shinbun building. From where we stood, I couldn’t see the Asahi Shinbun building. Wasn’t Tsukiji Fish Market just above the Tsukijishijo Station? I was stumped. We paced up and down the block, not sure at what street we should turn to. Then my husband spotted a couple of Caucasians with cameras hanging down their necks heading down the street on our right, next to a gasoline station. “Let’s just follow them.” And so we did. The street was lined with a few carts and parked delivery trucks. Save for some Styrofoam boxes stacked in a pile, it was very clean like many of the streets of Japan.

In the Inner (Wholesale) Market

Then slowly the market revealed itself. Forklifts and motorized carts started rushing past us and it’s your duty to get out of their way. We entered a large warehouse, which turned out to be the market’s famed wholesale area, and there it was—stall after stall of every fresh seafood known to man. Those huge tuna being sliced with large band saws. Boxes of crabs, oysters, shrimp. In some stalls, prime tuna cuts were encased in a glass display like the precious commodity that they are. I felt like I was going around a museum. Each stall an installation art, with its prized seafood and workers performing their routine quietly, precisely. Fellow tourists taking pictures, observing, gawking, resisting the urge to touch the sea wonders.

We didn’t reach the famed tuna auction, but we decided to have some sushi for breakfast. As our friend reminded us before leaving his place, “Eat only in the restaurants with the long lines!” Judging by lines, Sushi Dai is probably the most popular sushi bar in the market. It always has a long line of people waiting to be served. And the wait can take an hour or two. But we here hungry and we had to meet some other friends to go to Ueno Park. So we simply parked ourselves in front of the counter of one of the eateries at the outer market. It served 11 types of sashimi, including maguro (tuna), ebi (prawn), ika (squid), fish eggs, sake (salmon) and uni (sea urchin) on top of a cold bowl of rice. Though bleary-eyed the entire morning and feeling a bit disoriented, the hot tea and the cold, raw seafood roused and reminded us of where we were: In Tsukiji, Tokyo, having sashimi. How could the day get any better?

Tsukiji breakfast: a bowl of rice topped with different kinds of sashimi

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Yay, Japan! Day 1: Bright lights, big city, big appetite

We all have it. That place we all dream of going to. Its image tacked on our walls or saved as a seductive screensaver. It is on top of our vacation list, our places-to-see-before-we-die list… we’d sneak it in every list we have if we could. We have never been there, but somehow we’re convinced that simply walking along its streets, tasting its thousands of flavors, or watching everything unfold before us in one of its street corners will be the most divine experience we can have. For me, this place was Japan.

Childhood anime love, Astro-Boy!

I don’t know when my love affair with this country started. Perhaps it was all those years of watching Voltes-V, Astro-Boy, Shaider or BioMan as a child. Or watching those afternoon documentaries on RPN-9 in the 1980s on Japanese life and culture that appeared either stuck in the past or way ahead of the times. Or finally discovering the sublime Hayao Miyazaki anime? Or maybe it was when I met my husband, whose shared fascination for everything Japanese fed my own wanderlust. Japan was both baffling and beautiful and I knew I had to see it for myself.

We also knew that if my husband, P, and I were going to go to Japan, we had to see Tokyo for its sheer size and penchant for the futuristic. We had to see traditional Japan, which is best seen in Kyoto. And we had to see both against a backdrop of beautiful cherry blossoms. After getting our visas in January, we booked our tickets for end of March to early April, sakura season.

The Golden Temple in Kyoto

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