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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tokyo in Five Days - Day 2 (Part I) - Ikebukuro

If you followed the first day's itinerary, you might find waking up a bit difficult, but slam back a canned coffee from your nearest vending machine and strap on your comfy shoes, because today's itinerary involves quite a bit of walking. Oh, sure--curse my name. You'll thank me later. Why am I doing this to you? Simple--physical exertion is one of the best ways to jetteson jet-lag.

Wake up as early as you can to get started on your day, because there might be a wait for the showers. Be sure to wear sunblock, because Tokyo's UV index can be pretty high, and, out of courtesy for the people around you (and other foreigners who have to live with the impression you make), deodorant. This may seem like a "duh" sort of thing, but you'd be surprised how many people let it slide just because they're on vacation. If you picked up a pack of deodorant sheets from the convenience store yesterday, slip those into your bag--you'll thank yourself later.

By now, you probably know how to get to Asakusa station from the hostel. If not, just ask your friendly Sakura Hostel staff-member for a quick refresher. If you're hungry, trot on over to the convenience store and peruse the prepared foods area. (Hint: sandwiches are a breakfast food in Japan...who knew?).

If you're up for adventure, grab a couple of random Onigiri (rice-balls), but be sure you get the ones in the triangular package, since they have this brilliant form of packaging that separates the crispy seaweed wrapper from the rice, for that coveted CRUNCH.

Remember, kids: there's no excuse for soggy nori. ;)

After the konbini shuffle (the moment of awkwardness after the clerk puts your receipt on your palm, followed by a neat stack of slippery change on top of the receipt, leaving you with the following choice: A) set down your bag and wallet so you can take your change out of your other hand and put it away with the eyes of all the customers behind you boring through the back of your head or B) attempt to tip the precarious stack into the change slot on your wallet without spilling any of the coins. With the eyes of all the other customers on you. Waiting. Judging. This is more difficult than it sounds.), hop on the Ginza line to Ueno, which is roughly four minutes away, and transfer onto the JR Yamanote line heading for Ikebukuro

It's time to hit the concrete jungle.

There are TONS of things to do in Ikebukuro, and it can get a bit overwhelming if you don't know where to start. My suggestion? Sunshine City. This "City within a City links a block of buildings, among them the Ikebukuro Prince Hotel, the Culture Center and a shopping complex. The centerpiece is the 60-storied Sunshine 60--so tall they installed in it one of the fastest elevators in the world. The ground on which the Sunshine City now stands was once the notorious Sugamo Prison where Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, war criminal of WWII, was hanged." (travel.yahoo.com)

There you go: shopping, tourism, and history all in one. There's an aquarium, an observation tower, and tons of quirky stores. If you love Hello Kitty, head to the basement for a sight so pink it would make Paris Hilton bleed out the eyeballs. This is a great place to grab a custom souvenier, like one of the hundreds of cell-phone straps or pens with themed Hello Kitty charms, or an iPhone case encrusted with colored crystals in the shape of Kitty-chan's face. I am not even kidding.

If you prefer culture, check out the Japan Traditional Craft Center for gorgeous displays of ceramics, lanterns, dolls, woodcarving, and a host of other lovely and delicate arts. (MAP/DIRECTIONS)

 Whatever you decide to do this morning, you'll probably be starving by noon. I suggest taking a look at this awesome reference website. Bento.com offers not only reviews and MAPS to restaurants all over Tokyo, it also categorizes them by area and style.

But I gotta say, if you're going to be in Ikebukuro, you CANNOT LEAVE without going to Milky Way. I have been known to base an entire day's worth of trips around this single restaurant.

The shop is well-known to any high school-aged girl who frequents the shopping centers of Ikebukuro, but I've met businessmen who adore it just as much. It's an ice cream shop and cafe with an astrology theme, and though there's guaranteed to be a line, it's usually not too bad. You'll get in faster on a weekday before school lets out. Try to snag a window-seat so you can observe the flocks below. Ikebukuro has just as colorful a populace as Shibuya! It's about a five-minute walk from the station, and you can find a map here.

Ready to walk off all those calories? I thought not. But we're gonna do it anyway.

Check back soon for Day 2 (Part 2)!


Do you have other recommendations for Ikebukuro? What restaurants or shops or attractions did you love? Anywhere to avoid?

Monday, June 6, 2011



The July darkness is heavy and humid, the scent of sun-baked grass, smoke, and river-water threading through trees and silent people. Festival drums, muted by distance, beat faster and more joyfully than the hearts of those ankle-deep in silt, knee-deep in night-black water.

Lamps, warm and white-gold, slide away from outstretched arms, gently bumping their way down a glassy ribbon of water. One-by-one they glide and turn, flame-brightened paper gradually yielding to the river, succumbing with a wisp of smoke, as fleeting as memory. They are a fairy-train, slowly vanishing into the darkness; the stars of the Milky Way gradually winking out; fireflies disappearing with the encroaching autumn. They are spirits - returning to the world of the dead.

Those left on the river-banks gaze out after the illuminations, secretly hoping their own will burn longest, disappear last. As some glowing flames gutter and acquiesce to the embrace of the river, their watchers slip away from the bank. Others remain until the last light gutters, imagine the hiss of the ignited wick meeting water and the disintegration of the taut rice-paper.

It is Toyo Nagashi, the penultimate celebration of Obon.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the Obon celebration, which takes place every year in the middle of July. It is a Buddhist festival honoring the spirits of the dead and, similar to South America’s Dia de los Muertos, it is a time for family and friends of the departed to gather and honor their ancestors by cleaning the family grave, giving offerings of food and prayer, and celebrating with song, dance, and carnival-like festivities.

A few weeks ago, I learned that my friend Momoko passed away in a car accident. Since I was in America and she in Japan, I was not able to attend her funeral, and though I plan to visit her grave the next time I go to Japan, I want to honor her in any way I can. This July, JTA is heading to a Bon Odori festival in our state, and I thought I would use this opportunity to explain a bit about some of the beautiful cultural rituals associated with Obon.

The origin of Obon surrounds the plight of a Buddhist disciple, who peered into the spirit-world and found his mother’s soul suffering in the realm of the hungry spirits. Following the advice of Buddha, the disciple left an offering for the Buddhist monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and they saw the release of his mother’s spirit. Upon reflection of his mother’s kindness, and out of joy for her spirit’s release, he began to dance. This dance is the origin of Bon Odori, the traditional dance performed at the Obon festival.
Bon Odori comes in many styles depending on the region. A few examples include the fishermen’s dance to Hokkaido’s popular song “Soran Bushi” (featured in San Nen B Gumi Kinpachi Sensei 5-7) and Shikoku’s famous “Awa Odori” or, “Fool’s Dance” (below).

Other iconic celebrations, including Kyoto’s Daimonji bonfire, which takes the shape of “Dai/Oh” (the Chinese character for “big”) and lives up to that name by taking up a large part of a highly-visible Kyoto mountainside. Even in the spring and winter, the mountain wears the scar of this annual ritual and has been an attraction for tourists Japanese and foreign alike.

Picture courtesy Kyoto Shimbun

However, the most easily-recognizable ritual for consumers of Japanese media is probably Toro Nagashi. Family and friends of the departed place a candle inside a paper lantern and float them down a river. Always performed at night, this is usually the penultimate moment of the ceremony, and symbolizes the spirits’ journeys back to the world of the dead. As the vessel sinks and the light is extinguished, the soul is said to return to the spirit-world.

When I attend the Bon Odori festival this year, I will be thinking of Momoko, and if there is no Toro Nagashi at the Bon Odori festival, perhaps a few of my friends and I will do one of our own.

What other cultures have traditions like Obon and Dia de los Muertos? What are some more traditions associated with Obon? In what ways do people all over the world honor their passed friends and family? What other Japanese festivals are you interested in attending?

Opening photo by NakeBenihime.