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Tori No Iru Bird Cafe featured image

Wear the raincoat. No, not your own, use the one from the shop. You’ll thank me later.

The Tori no Iru Bird Cafe is a nice side-excursion from your trip to the Sensoji Asakusa Shrine. You won’t miss it–they have a large outdoor display and video monitor, and the arrow pointing to the basement cafe is easy to find.

Tori no Iru Tokyo Asakusa Bird Cafe Entrance

Once inside, the door-bird–some kind of burrowing owl–squawked at us, making for a unique sort of visitor bell. We turned over our jackets and bags to the staff, sanitized our hands and shoes for the safety of the birds, and went to go visit our avian friends!

The owls are the first birds you’ll see once you turn around from the counter. Most are of the small burrowing type, but there are a few medium-sized birds and one larger barn owl. Their area is a little darker, for their comfort. They seem amenable to being petted, so long as you don’t surprise them while they are looking at something else. If you ask, the staff will pick them up and put them on your hand for photos.

Owl Tori no Iru Asakusa Entrance

After that, it was time for the main event. the raincoats are right next to the door, and you do want to put one on. There be parrots beyond this point! After going through a short corridor, you will emerge into what amounts to a giant birdcage.

The birds at this bird cafe are not shy. As soon as we were inside, three parakeets landed on me, and a handful more on my trusty camera-woman. And keep your hood up–birds like long hair, earrings, necklaces, and any other bright and shinys that they can reach with their little beaks. Also, please be careful where you step–some of the parakeets like to walk on the floor, especially if they think you may have dropped something or mistake your shoelaces for worms.

Curious Bird at Tori no Iru Bird Cafe Asakusa Tokyo Japan

Making New Friends at Tori no Iru Bird Cafe Asakusa Tokyo Japan

And then I went and did it. On the far side of the entrance is a small table, upon which is a box. Inside this box, you can buy birdseed treats at 100 yen for a small plastic container. I moved towards the table–

And was immediately mobbed. Every bird in the room swooped down on me, Hitchcock-style. It took a few moments for me to have enough mobility to even open the box, put in the coin, and pull out a birdseed container. At that point, the birds turned into little flying piranhas, with two or three trying to pry open the container with their beaks while the rest jostled for position on my arms and head.

The parakeets and parrots were the most active, but they weren’t the only residents of the room. Huddled in the corner were a pair of ducks trying to sleep. A trumpeter horn bill blasted by, obviously on pressing business on the other side of the room. And in one corner a small, shy toucan delicately nipped the birdseed we offered.

Once we left the Parakeet Room, we were able to browse the wide variety of souvenirs available at the front desk of the bird cafe. I bought a little packet of owl buttons for my bag (500 yen).

Although the Parakeet Room was a lot of fun for us, we could see how it could be terrifying for children to suddenly have a number of birds land on them. Although the Tori no Iru Bird Cafe allows children of all ages, please be aware that the experience could be frightening for small children and possibly dangerous for the birds. Please look out for our new feathered friends at Tori no Iru!

Tori no Iru Bird Cafe Asakusa

English Site

5 minutes from Asakusa Station, Exit A4 or A5 (click on the pin to get directions via Google Maps)

Hours: Weekdays 13:00-20:00, Weekends 11:00-20:00. No reservation required.

Prices Per Person: 1500 yen for 1 hour, 1000 yen for 30 minutes, 300 yen for 15-minute increments. Half price for 4-6 year olds, free to age 3 and under. Souvenirs available.

“Why Go?”: See the owls, get mobbed by parakeets looking for birdseed!

February 18, 2016 0 comment
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Ueno Zoo is a top-notch Tokyo destination great for families and couples alike. It’s easy to get to, it’s not expensive, and they have pandas! The Zoo is also in Ueno Park, which is home to many of Tokyo’s other cultural attractions (such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum).

But what if you’re new to Tokyo? You don’t speak the language, you’re afraid of getting lost, and you’re not even sure if you can get tickets once you get there? Well, that’s where we come in! My trusty camera-woman and I went to the zoo and filmed the entire process. All you have to do is watch the video, and there’s no way you’ll get lost!

 

GETTING THERE

Ueno Station is on the JR Yamanote Line. Once you arrive at Ueno, you will depart via the Ueno Park Exit. Once outside, you will cross the street to enter Ueno Park proper. From there, the Zoo is only a few minute’s walk, and you will see the entrance almost immediately after entering the park.

GETTING TICKETS

The very front of the zoo has a number of electronic ticket machines, similar to the ones at the train stations. Here, you can select English (or a number of other language options) and buy tickets. Adults (age 16+) are 600 yen, Students (age 13-15) are 200 yen, and children 12 and under are free! After that, you get your ticket stamped, go inside, and get your English-language map of the Zoo. And now you’re ready for your day!

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Japan

…AND THE REST

Go and see the pandas right away. They are to the right of the Main Entrance Gate, and that line isn’t going to get any shorter. Beyond that, let your map and your interests be your guide. Don’t miss the Children’s Zoo–you may get the chance to pet some bunnies and guinea pigs!

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Japan

As you can see on the Zoo Map, the Zoo itself is split into East and West Gardens, connected by a bridge. Ueno Zoo can be quite a hike, so be ready with your water bottles and snacks. If necessary, you can rent strollers (300 yen) or acquire a wheelchair (free) at any of the entrances. If your feet get too tired, you can take the monorail back and forth between the Gardens (150 yen for age 13+, 80 yen for age 12 and under).

There are no language barriers at the Ueno Zoo–every exhibit, sign, etc. is subtitled in English. Even if you are struggling with the local lingo, you’ll find no problems here. And if you are studying the language, let the zoo help you learn the names of the animals in Japanese!

Jackass Penguin Sign Ueno Zoo Tokyo

Even better, the Zoo can be your gateway to the other attractions at Ueno Park, which are just as English-friendly and easy to get to. So don’t just sit home on another long weekend! Plan your trip to the Ueno Zoo today!

Ueno Zoo Information

Ueno Zoo (English site)

5 minute walk from Ueno JR station (click on the map pin for directions via Google Maps)

 

Hours: 09:30-17:00, closed Mondays (or Tuesday if Monday is a public holiday). Last tickets sold at 16:00.

Ticket Prices: 600 yen for adults (age 16+), 300 yen for seniors (age 65+), 200 yen for students (age 13-15, free if living in or attending school in Tokyo), Free for all children age 12 and under. Does not include concessions or souvenirs.

“Why Go?”: It’s an inexpensive, easy outing for families and lone travelers. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Not to mention pandas, and penguins, and lemurs, and…

Rhino Ueno Zoo Tokyo

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo Japan

 

February 11, 2016 0 comment
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Botticelli is putting on an exhibition. Well, not the painter himself–he’s long dead and still buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci (reputed to be the inspiration for titular subject of the Birth of Venus ) in Florence. But the traveling exposition of his works are on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

Mere steps from the Ueno Zoo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is the perfect denouement from a day in the sun with the lions, tigers, and bears. The Special Exhibits require you to purchase tickets, but the Citizen’s Galleries are mostly free (some may require a small fee, such as the ikebana exhibition I saw during my visit).

After deciding to see the Old Master, I passed the giant silver ball and descended the escalator to the Inner Court and Museum entrance. Once inside, you’ll see the Museum Shop directly across and the information booth to your right (where English maps and pamphlets are available). And beyond that, the ticket counter and the Citizen’s Galleries await.

Beyond the Special Exhibitions, the Museum also has space for local art schools, calligraphy shows, and more obscure showings. These exhibitions are free to the public, so use the opportunity to take in the works of a local artist or practice your kanji-reading skills. Be sure to check the schedule on the Museum’s home page to see what’s on display. And who knows? You may run into a future Old Master exhibiting his or her works.

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Ueno, Tokyo

Kanji Display, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum Art Museum, Ueno Tokyo

 

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Information

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (English website)

Location: Ueno Park (click on the pin for directions via Google maps)

Hours:

   – Daily: 9:30 – 17:30 (last admission 17:00)
   – Fridays: 9:30 – 20:00 during Special Exhibitions (Last admission 19:30)
– Special Exhibitions and Thematic Exhibitions are closed Mondays (except national holidays,    when it closes the following day instead). The Museum is closed every 1st and 3rd Monday of month (except national holidays, when it closes the following day instead)

Estimated Price: Free! Entry fees apply for special exhibits. Museum Gift Shop, Cafe M, and Restaurant IVORY available.

Free entry, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Ueno Tokyo

Free Entry

“Why Go?”: Free entry for Citizen’s Gallery and Public Exhibitions, low price for Special Exhibitions.

 

January 30, 2016 0 comment
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devilcraft pizza tokyo japan

“So why do we keep doing all of this devil-themed stuff?”

“It’s just advertising. The Devil is an iconic figure associated with temptation and pleasures. Seven Deadly Sins, right? Good food, good drink, good (and perhaps naughty) times. Using the Adversary’s icons are just a shorthand for all of that.”

“What about angels?”

“Their iconography is a little different. They’re associated with comfort, stability, and being good boys and girls. You know, like those figurines my grandma keeps in her curio shelf. Not exactly themes that sell beer and pizza.”

“There’s plenty of nice things that use angels in advertising! Like…” her brow furrowed. “Toilet paper! And that sponge cake!”

My mouth activated before my common sense did. “The Victoria’s Secret Angels!”

Mrs. Winston’s eyes narrowed. Date Night was not off to a good start. Also, cross Lust off of the Seven Deadly Sins list for that evening.

——————-

Like all forms of damnation, DevilCraft Hamamatsucho is easy to find. Just use the Yamanote line to get to Hamamatsucho station and go out of the South Exit, and then the Kanasugibashi Exit. Directly after exiting, turn left and follow the train tracks all the way to the end of the street. When you run into the My Basket grocery store, turn right. It’s only a few meters away.

Rise Well Storefront, Hamamatsucho, Tokyo, Japan

DevilCraft is in the “Rise Well” building, and the restaurant-pub is underneath the building’s huge logo. They have their own pitchfork-in-a-red-circle near the door, but you’ll already know where you are. You’ll see the crowd. Fortunately, we had called ahead to make reservations, otherwise we would had nothing but Envy for the people already inside. Both Japanese and English is spoken at DevilCraft, so we had no problem communicating over the phone or for the duration of our visit.

Immediately inside are a handful of tables and a bar in front of a glorious wall of beer taps. The day we went, DevilCraft had 21 different drafts available, and we aren’t talking about the same beers that are on tap everywhere else. We’re talking about drafts such as my first selection, Superfuzz Blood Orange Pale Ale. An American pale ale from Seattle, Superfuzz had just the right amount of orangey-taste, not too fruity. The missus had a pint of the Hitachino Nest White Ale, a Belgian White brewed in Ibaragi. Japan. Nice and light, a perfect beer for a hot day.

While drinking, we perused the food menu. DevilCraft specializes in Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas. These aren’t the flat, circular pies you get through delivery–deep-dish pizza means layers of pizza goodness stacked one atop the other, like a cake made of meat and cheese and tomato sauce and maybe some of that stuff that vegetarians eat. I was already feeling the stirrings of Greed.

DevilCraft Hamamatsucho, Tokyo, Japan

I had already seen a few of the other patrons eating. The couples had small (I wouldn’t say “personal-sized”) pizzas, and groups had the larger sizes. They had the Big Cheese, Abe Fromans, and the Veggie Works. But I knew what I wanted.

“A Large Meatzza, please!” Of course! Pepperoni and salami! House sausage! Extra cheese!

“This can’t possibly be healthy.”

“So? This isn’t a health food place. Besides, clogged arteries kill you at the end of your life, when you’re ready to go anyway. I refuse to die with a mouthful of bean sprouts.”

After polishing off our starter beers, we started looking around for recommendations on the second. One of the owners, Paul, just happened to be nearby, so I asked him. “With a Meatzza? An IPA,” he replied. “An Indian Pale Ale is a good match for the saltiness of the meat.” Keeping with the theme, I went with the house-designed Evil Twin, while the missus (not being fond of IPAs) went with a Blonde Ale from the Diamond Knot Brewery in Mukilteo, Washington.

We chit-chatted with Paul for a little bit. DevilCraft’s Hamamatsucho location is actually their second restaurant (Kanda being the first), and that very day they were celebrating Hamamatsucho’s second anniversary (the Kanda location has recently celebrated its fourth year). Not a bad run for three guys who aren’t even from Chicago.

Paul drifted away to check on the kitchen and talk to the other customers. At the same time, our Meatzza arrived not in a cloud of brimstone, but rather in a blast of steam and drool-inducing meaty aroma. It was immediately evident that I wasn’t going to be able to pick this pizza up by the slice and eat it. Oh no, this sort of pizza was made for the (conveniently available) knife and fork.

DevilCraft Hamamatsucho Chicago-style pizza, Tokyo, Japan

One cut, one fork-lift, and one bite later, and I was hooked. Paul was right on the money with the IPA recommendation–it matched perfectly to the meaty, gooey-cheesy goodness that satisfies the carnivorous pizza-fan’s cravings. It was so good, I started searching the walls for the fiddle of gold (or at least a pie-pan of gold) that DevilCraft’s founders must have won from Old Scratch’s Pizzeria.

And the crust? Oh, man. You know how sometimes, when you order a pizza, and everybody eats slices, and then crusts are left behind? Pizza places have tried to solve this for years by rolling cheese into the crust, or providing dipping sauces, etc. DevilCraft solved the problem in a straightforward fashion–they made the crust so damn good that you won’t let it go to waste. You will eat it. You will take someone else’s if they don’t guard it carefully. I guarantee it.

DevilCraft Hamamatsucho Chicago-Style Pizza, Tokyo, Japan

Halfway through this eating experience, we ran out of beer again. So we had another one, because I am a conscientious reviewer. I had the A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Wheat IPA out of the Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, CA; my wife shifted down to the half-pints and selected the Ursus Americanus from Poulsbo, Washington. Honestly, the lengths we go to for accuracy and completeness.

DevilCraft Hamamatsucho, Tokyo, Japan

What? Were they good? Well, what do you think?

And soon, the Meatzza was all gone. But in its place, I felt the warm glow of that most divine of post-meal sensations–Meaty Satisfaction.

——————-

“Hold on,” I leaned against the wall, panting. My belly was already distended, and the walk back to the train station wasn’t helping. “I think I hurt myself.”

“Of course you did,” my wife replies. She leaned against the wall next to me. She was trying to look stern, but I could tell that it was taking all of her willpower to keep her hands away from her stomach. “You had three beers and four slices of your own, and then you finished off one of my slices!”

“Oh, so now it’s on me? It is not my fault that you can’t hold up your own end of a meal.”

After a few minutes of groaning and cursing our own Gluttony, we resumed our penguin waddle back to Hamamatsucho station. Hopefully, we wouldn’t drop off into a Slothful pizza coma on the train and end up doing circles on the Yamanote all night.

—————–

Whether you miss it from back home or want to show your Japanese friends what great deep-dish pizza is like, you can’t go wrong with a DevilCraft pie and a craft beer. But be warned! You may want to bring your big boy pants to this meal, because you’re going to want to let a little out after a pizza this good. DevilCraft can take Pride in being on my “must go back to” list. Call ahead and make a reservation–if you take my seat, you’re going to get a bit of my Wrath (I did it! I got all Seven of them in one article!).

DevilCraft website (English) – http://en.devilcraft.jp . Directions to the Hamamatsucho and Kanda locations are in the sidebar. Operating hours, lunch and dinner times vary by location. Also has the current beer listing!

DevilCraft on Facebook

————————

Derek Winston is retired from the US Navy and currently attends college in Tokyo. If you see him on the street, approach with caution; there’s no telling what you will end up talking about. It might be safer to limit your exposure by contacting him at derekrwinston@gmail.com. Might be.

September 29, 2015 0 comment
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Matsuri Featured Image, Tokyo, japan

If you’re in Japan for any length of time, you’ll see it. Period costumes. Beautiful ladies in equally-beautiful kimonos. Perhaps someone dressed as an oni, scaring children into behaving. Packs of drunk Japanese people in festival clothes yelling, bouncing, and carrying some huge object down the street. And streets lined with food booths. You’ve wandered into the middle of the big street fair/party known as a matsuri!

Everyone seems to be having a good time. But what about you? Finding yourself in the middle of all of this might be a bit awkward. Is there something you should be doing? Or maybe something you are supposed to be wearing? Are you supposed to help with carrying that huge object?

Don’t worry! I’ve been to more than a few matsuri, so I can help! So let us eat, drink, and be fat and drunk, because it’s time to get in on the block party to end all block parties! And if you’re lucky, you might even get press-ganged into carrying a mikoshi!

Portable Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

In this article, I’m going to use my local dual-matsuri as a guide. The Kita-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Shinagawa Shrine) and the Minami-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Ebara Shrine) combine yearly to form one giant sprawling matsuri (hereafter called the Shinagawa Matsuri) for everyone to enjoy!

 

What is a Matsuri?

Matsuri” is just the Japanese word for “festival.” As opposed to holidays, matsuri are not held on specific dates throughout Japan–each neighborhood schedules and holds their own matsuri. Matsuri are usually held anywhere from late spring to fall, and it is possible to attend several matsuri throughout the year.

There are many large and famous matsuri. The larger festivals are usually visitor-friendly, but you should go with a Japanese friend in order to get the full experience. But the smaller ones–that’s what we’re getting at. No big touristy stuff for you!

Matsuri Preparation

Not all matsuri are the same. Yes, there are common elements, but thinking that each one is a carbon-copy of the other is sort of like thinking that Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day are all celebrated the same way. Each neighborhood does their matsuri their own way–what may be a central element in one festival may be completely missing from another. Even for the smaller ones, having a Japanese friend (preferably a local) will help you navigate the peculiarities of a matsuri.

But even if you don’t have a Japanese friend, don’t worry! Matsuri is a fun time, and everyone is in a good partying mood. If nothing else, you can always come sample the food booths and people-watch. Just be friendly and not only will you have a good time, you’ll probably make new friends!

Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

The Mikoshi

Many matsuri are centered around neighborhood Shinto jinja, or shrines. During the Shinagawa Matsuri, mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines that look like miniature temples) are carried throughout the neighborhood. Shrines house the kami (gods or spirits) for the duration of the festival, and the locals celebrate matsuri by carrying the shrines through the streets, drumming and chanting and bouncing the whole way. In between bouts of eating and drinking, that is.

Portable shrine, Tokyo, Japan

And for the Shinagawa Matsuri, “portable” is used in the very loosest sense of the word. These shrines are huge and very heavy, and they require a dozen or more people to carry. And you could be one of those people!

 

Getting Dressed for the Occasion

If you’re just going to matsuri to people-watch or for the food booths, you don’t need to wear anything special. You can come just as you are! You’ll see plenty of adults and children (and more than a few pampered dogs) in festival clothes or kimonos, but it’s not required.

Kids in matsuri clothing, Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to help carry a mikoshi, you’ll have to get dressed for the part. Please note that you cannot just jump into the mikoshi-carrying mix–if you want to participate, let someone in festival clothes know (either through your own language skills, that of your Japanese friend, or the tried and true “point at my own chest and make the up-and-down shoulder-lifting motion”). If it’s okay, they will likely lend you a hanten (a light jacket) to wear.

If you are really lucky, you may be able to borrow a full set of festival clothes, called matsuri-issho. These clothes consist of a light jacket (known as a hanten), a pair of trousers, an undershirt, and a pair of tabi boots. The hanten is held in place with a sash, and there is a small man-purse (or just a purse, for the ladies) for your money. I live in Shinagawa, so I bought my own set of matsuri-issho (pictured). But if you’re just visiting, a borrowed hanten or matsuri-issho will be just fine.

Matsuri-issho, Festival clothing

Carrying the Mikoshi

Now that you are properly attired, get ready to get in there and lend your back to the cause! A few cultural notes–

  • Be sure to ask before joining a mikoshi carry in progress. Most matsuri are rather casual affairs, but some mikoshi have significant religious significance and are not to be touched by outsiders. In truth, there are very few mikoshi under that sort of restriction, but it pays to be sure.
  • In the past, women were strictly forbidden from touching certain mikoshi. This is not completely true today; some places are fine with it, some places are not, and other places allow women to touch some shrines but not others. As always, check with the locals before touching a mikoshi.
  • Other traditions may apply in different areas. My wife remembers a time when people were not allowed to look down at a mikoshi (“looking down on a god from above”) during the Shinagawa Matsuri. Windows over street level had to be closed and bridges over rivers were cleared when a mikoshi passed underneath on a boat. Other locales may have similar traditions, so please be observant and do as the locals do.

Once you get in, brace yourself! Mikoshi can be very heavy. Most people simply shoulder the load, but I always wuss out and use a towel to cushion the wooden beam. Also, you want to stand as straight as you possibly can and keep the wooden beam on your shoulder. Not only is this the easiest way to carry your part of the load, it also prevents back injuries. This may be easier said than done–I am 5’8″, which is about average Japanese size. If you’re one of those really tall people, make sure you get in next to people who are about your size.

A few other things might happen during your stint as a porter of the gods. At the Shinagawa Matsuri, people yell, “Washoi!” when carrying the shrine. The closest translation to English would be something like, “Heave ho!” and is used as encouragement to your fellow mikoshi carriers. Feel free to join the chant!

Another thing you may encounter is a difference in mikoshi-carrying styles. The Shinagawa Matsuri uses the Jōnan-style carry, in which mikoshi carriers lift from both the parallel and perpendicular beams that support the mikoshi palanquin. The mikoshi generally travels forward, but often stops and bounces, moves from side to side, and sometimes may go backwards. In other places, you might encounter the Edomae-style carry, in which the mikoshi carriers stay on the parallel beams and move forward at a measured, marching pace.

There are other styles, but these are the two most commonly seen in Tokyo. I am looking forward to one day seeing a Kenka Matsuri, such as the one in Nada. Kenka means “fight” or “conflict”, and in a Kenka Matsuri, mikoshi shrines “fight” by crashing into each other. Exactly how this honors the gods is somewhat mysterious, but it appears that even spiritual beings enjoy a good demolition derby. You may want to stay away from these; people get injured and even killed while participating in a Kenka Matsuri.

Another thing that might occur is something I call the “bouncing challenge.” In the bouncing challenge, the person on the other end of your beam will bounce his end up and down, which will cause your beam to smash up and down into your shoulder. This is painful! The only thing you can really do is hold on tight and keep your shoulder to the beam to lessen the impact. Once they stop, you can respond in kind, but you may want to consider that you might not know that other person, nor how they will take a dose of their own medicine. Best to just leave well enough alone.

Finally, you do not need to carry the mikoshi for the full duration of its travel. You can take breaks, rotating responsibility for the load with other participants. Just be sure to give nearby revelers an indication that you intend to bail–it’s considered bad form to just leave your part of the carry without warning, suddenly shifting the weight to someone else’s shoulders. Once you’re out, you can rub your sore shoulders, walk along for awhile and then rejoin, or move on and do something else. If you borrowed a hanten, be sure to return it before you leave

 

…and the Rest of It

Even if you don’t get the chance to carry a mikoshi, there is still plenty to do at a matsuri. There are lots of people to see, kimonos to admire, and many kinds of carnival-style games for children and adults. Street entertainers perform at some matsuri–I have seen trained monkeys, taiko drum players, Vegas-style street magicians, and even a karaoke contest. Stick around and watch, and have some coins ready for when the hat gets passed around.

And then there is the food. There are so many good things to eat during matsuri, and you’ll want to try them all. You can choose cultural favorites like chilled cucumbers or grilled squid on a stick, old standbys like karage (fried chicken) and shaved ice, or even chow down on imported ideas such as pizza pockets and cotton candy. My personal favorite is the yakkitori-style meats, such as steak and salted pork. And you can wash it all down with one of the many nearby beer stands.

Matsuri food stalls octopus, Tokyo, Japan

Octopus, Matsuri food stall, Tokyo, Japan

Meat on a stick, Matsuri Food stall, Tokyo, Japan

So there you have it–a basic how-to guide for enjoying a mikoshi matsuri in Japan! There may be regional or neighborhood differences for each matsuri, or maybe even a restriction or two. But matsuri time is supposed to be a good time, for both the locals and for visitors. So get your pocket money and your camera ready, get out there, and have a great time!

Shrine during a matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

 

August 28, 2015 0 comment
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In modern Western culture, owls have a reputation for wisdom. Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, took the owl as her personal symbol. In the original Clash of the Titans, when Perseus needed a companion, her owl Bubo (or at least the steampunk robot version of him) was sent to be his advisor. Out of the many downfalls of the remake (and there were many), the most egregious was that they dissed the original Bubo.

But it doesn’t stop there. Mensa, the international high I.Q. society, uses the owl as their unofficial symbol; it is sometimes used to mark the location of their meetings to newcomers. Owl, the blowhard counterpart to Winnie the Pooh, provides the services of a straight-man in E.E. Milne’s classic stories. In the comics, Batman himself battled the fiendish Court of Owls at the beginning of the New 52, and they nearly brought down the Caped Crusader. And there was (the second) Owlman, who stole the girlfriend of a god in the Watchmen comics (we do not speak of the movie around here).

But what of the actual animal itself? Have you ever held one? Have you ever seen one up close? Ever had one steal a lollipop from you under the guise of some scientific experiment to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center? Well here’s your chance!

Getting In

Fukuro no Mise is one of the best-known animal cafés in Tokyo. It is also difficult to get into. You cannot call ahead or make an appointment online. You can only show up early and hope that you can get in one of the waiting list slots. Only ten people are admitted into the café each hour.

 

I arrived one hour and fifteen minutes before the opening, and line was already long. Forty-five minutes prior to opening, the staff began accepting reservations. I was able to get in the second group, so I only had an hour to wait. I had to pay immediately (2000 yen per person) and the lady put my name down on the wait list. She asked me if I was sure–if I didn’t come at least fifteen minutes after the appointed time, I would lose my spot, and there are no refunds. I confirmed that I would return, so she told me to come back five minutes prior to my scheduled appointment.

 

But Once Inside…

The first thing I saw when I went inside was the semi-circle of larger owls. Owls, like cats, seem to regard humans with poorly-disguised contempt. I understood why visiting was limited once I was inside. The entire café is very small, and is dimly lit for the comfort of its feathered residents. As expected, it is decorated in owl motifs–pillows, lamps, and the pictures adorning the wall were all things Strigiforme. Even the TV was playing Harry Potter.

The drink counter is in the back, where I was invited to sit. Perpendicular to the counter was another row of owls, all much smaller than the ones at the door. A small Spectacled Owl named Dave started mean-mugging me as soon as I got close. I was the last person to come inside for this group, and the only available seating was next to him. His head bobbed and swiveled as I passed. His chest puffed out, and his little white mustache bristled. He was adorable!

Besides Dave, the owls were disinterested in my arrival. The hand-sized burrowing owl right next to my seat woke up long enough to watch me sit down before nodding off again.

Drinks are included with the cover charge, unless you want something a little stronger (beer and wine are available for another 200 yen). But why would you? That’s not what you’re here for.

An Owl-Handling Tutorial

The first ten minutes of the visit consists of a handling tutorial. The spoken instructions are in Japanese, and there is a sheet written in English for tourists. The rules are easy; allow the staff to help you pick up and put down owls, touch them on the head and back only, and make sure the flash is off on your camera (and no videos, please). Also, there are a few residents who should not be touched.

The day I went, one owl was taking the day off and another was cranky because he was on a diet (“eats like a bird” apparently didn’t apply to that guy). Another no-toucher is Amachan, a blind spectacled owl who lives by the door and becomes frightened if people touch her. Please respect the birds and do not touch them if they have been placed off-limits.

After the tutorial, it’s owl-time! Three staff members circulated through our small group, putting owls on people’s outstretched arms. As birds, none are particularly heavy, not even the larger ones. I held several owls, and their talon grip on my hand was not strong, as one might expect. Even the large horned owl I held was like holding any other bird on your finger. The one possible exception might be the barn owl. I did not hold him, but the people I saw who did wore a thick glove.

Making Owl Friends

At the front of the café, staff members helped patrons hold the larger owls in a falconer’s pose, or you can opt to have one put on your shoulder or head. I passed on the chance to have an owl crap in my hair (“owls cannot be toilet-trained,” said the note card). The staff was also better able to attract an owl’s attention for pictures, given their propensity for turning their head the other way as soon as a camera came out.

About ten minutes prior to the end of the hour, we were invited to sit back down. The staff passed out gifts (also included in the price of admission), after which they thanked us and sent us on our way. There were other items for sale (jewelry and such), so ask a staff member if something catches your eye.

Animal Welfare

Given Japan’s “casual” attitude towards animal welfare (people here still buy dogs and cats from pet stores and “puppy mills”), questions as to the owls’ welfare dominate online discussion.

As far as I could tell (given an hour to observe), none of the owls were being mistreated. Yes, they are lashed into place with a little bit of room to move, but it was no different from the way you would tie up a dog or put a bird in a cage. Mention was given to flight training (the reason the one owl was on a diet, according to its card), but that occurred elsewhere–the café was definitely too small for an owl to get very far. I love animals too, and I would certainly object if I saw evidence of one being mistreated, but I also understand the realities of domesticated animals. In my opinion, the owls looked clean and well-cared for.

Other Helpful Tips

My group consisted entirely of adults. Fukuro No Mise does not allow children under the age of two, but it would probably be better not to take children under age ten here. Some children are obviously more sensitive than others, but I know more than a few kids who consider WHACK-WHACK-WHACK as an ok way to “pet” a dog. We don’t want to hurt our feathered friends, do we?

Fukuro No Mise has an English speaker on Fridays (a Hawaiian, given the number of times I saw “Mahalo” on the written materials), but the staff that was on duty while I was there were able to understand and speak English. There are also many signs in both Japanese and English, which was very helpful.

Fukuro no Mise is a great place, but it might be a bit difficult to get to for visitors. Luckily, Harajuku also has an owl cafe. Let Voyagin help you book your reservation at the Lovely Owl Cafe!

 

Owl Cafe Fukuro no Mise Tsukishima

Check out the Owl Cafe Fukuro no Mise Ameba Blog (via Google Translate)

Nearest Station: 6-minute walk from Tsukishima Station exit 10 (click on the Google Map for walking directions)

Hours of Operation: Wednesday and Thursday 2 p.m. – 6 p.m., Fridays 2 p.m. – 9 p.m., Saturdays 12 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sundays 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.. Arrive early to get a slot!

Price: 2000 yen per person

August 8, 2015 0 comment
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Odaiba Onsen Featured Images, Odaiba, Tokyo

Onsens in Japan date back thousands of years. Thousands of these hot springs can be found throughout the country, but the cultural barriers to entry can seem high to outsiders. Where do you go? What do you do? Do you really have to get naked around a bunch of strangers?

Never fear! I have been to several onsens throughout the country, and in this article I’ll show you the do’s and don’ts of the onsen experience. For this article, I use the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo. Not only is it a great onsen, it is easy to get to from any number of local train stations and hotels.

And should you decide to visit the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Voyagin can help you out with a discount!

A Note on Tattoos

Japanese people have an aversion to body art due to its long association with criminal elements. Some onsens outside of Tokyo allow them, and others will allow you to enter if you have some way of covering them up (usually with a flesh-toned bandage).

The Oodeo Onsen Monogatari does not allow tattoos at all. Yes, they are aware that not everyone who has a tattoo is a criminal. Your tattoos may very well be innocuous (your kid’s names, etc) or have some deep, personal meaning. But sorry, you will not be admitted. Please do not be the ugly foreigner who shows up and makes a scene by arguing with the staff.

NOTE: I have heard that some people have gotten around this rule by covering up with a t-shirt or leggings, but you will still not be able to get into the baths. And if you can’t go to the baths, why bother going at all? Also, I don’t know what happens to you if you get caught, but I’m sure it will cause quite a bit of embarrassment.

 

Money Matters

Onsen trips can be expensive. The Oedo Onsen Monogatari has a reasonable price of entry (2500-2900 yen per adult, 1000 yen for children ages 4-12, under 4 is free), which includes the bath, the yukata robe (more on that below), towels, and facility usage. But that’s not all–there are plenty of good things to eat and drink, games for the kids to play, and wonderfully relaxing massages.

You do not carry money at Oedo Onsen Monogatari–they have a computerized system that keeps track of your purchases via a barcoded bracelet that you will receive once you go inside. Therein lies the danger. Since money isn’t changing hands, you may have no idea how much you have spent until you get to the checkout counter. For your estimation purposes, my last trip with my wife and son cost 12,000 yen (baths, food and drink, etc). Make sure you have enough to cover your trip!

 

Other Things To Consider

Medical conditions and pregnancy. If you have high blood pressure, are pregnant, or are otherwise susceptible to high temperatures, complications could arise from using the baths. Please check with your doctor before you leave home if you are thinking of going to an onsen.

Bring a change of clothes. You will want clean underwear after you leave the baths, and clean clothes to change back into once you leave the onsen.

Know your height in centimeters, so you can get an appropriately-sized yukata (below).

 

The Oedo Onsen Monogatari Experience

Once you enter the onsen, you have to take off your shoes and place them in one of the lockers to the left of the entrance. You can wear socks if you want, but make sure they are clean and not-holey ones. Keep the key, so you can get your shoes back at the end of your visit.

Next, you will check in at the service desk. Here you will give your credit card number and you will receive a barcoded bracelet that doubles as locker key and wallet. The barcode bracelet is used to pay for food, drinks, and other extras inside the onsen area.

The third step is to get a yukata from the counter. A yukata is a thin robe, worn with a sash, which you will wear for the duration of your trip to the onsen. As it is with the case of tattoos, this is not negotiable–this is what is worn inside the onsen area. Go to the counter and choose your size (in centimeters), a pattern, and one of the sashes. Oh, and make sure you get one that is the correct size. Too long and you are wearing a wedding gown that trails everywhere. Too small, and everyone will wonder where the flood is.

 

Wearing Your Yukata

At Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are separate changing rooms for men (blue curtain) and women (red curtain). The changing room is essentially a locker room. Find the locker that matches your key, and you will be ready to change into your yukata.

Wearing a yukata is just like wearing a bathrobe. When you put it on, you will cross the left side of the robe over the right. Ladies have additional strings on the inside of their yukata in order to prevent “wardrobe malfunctions.”

Why is it left over right? Well, the explanation I got was that swordsmen drew their katana with their right hand from their left hip, and having your yukata on right-over-left could possibly entangle your sword hand, which would likely get you killed.

“But I don’t have a sword,” I said. “Also, I’m left-handed. If I did get into a quick-draw-and-slash contest, I would be just as screwed.”

“Shut up and put it on right,” was my wife’s answer.

There is another reason. Wearing the yukata right-over-left is reserved for the dead at their funeral. No one will actually think that you are dead, but it is a social faux pas. On the other hand, you now know how to identify Japanese zombies should the dead rise during your vacation. If you forget which side goes over which, there are plenty of signs in the changing area to remind you.

Traditionally, people wore nothing at all under their yukata, but modernity has allowed for some modifications. First, you will wear underwear beneath your robe. Ladies, a bra is also appropriate. If you like, you can also wear a t-shirt and socks with your yukata. If you intend to go to the baths immediately, put on your fresh gear. You don’t want to take a bath only to put your dirty underwear back on.

Also, there is a small pocket on the inside to keep your cell phone or camera. You can take a camera inside the onsen, just be mindful of where you are taking pictures. In the common areas, it’s ok, but (for obvious reasons) no pictures are allowed in the locker rooms or bath areas.

 

To the Baths!

First, please refrain from taking a bath when you are dead drunk (see sign).

Thank you for not embarrassing the rest of the visitors. Now lets get to it.

Once you leave the locker room, you enter the common area, where all of the food booths, games, etc are located. Oedo Onsen Monogatari is built like a miniature hot springs town–in other onsens, all of these food stands, bars, games, etc. aren’t this close together. To get to the baths, go left and follow the signs.

Older onsens were mixed-sex bathing, but those have fallen out of fashion. Oedo Onsen Monogatari splits the baths into men’s and women’s sides. For this portion, please realize that I am a guy, so I only know what’s in the men’s baths. (My wife assures me that it is essentially the same over on their side, but you never know…)

After entering the bath area, you will first enter another locker room. Right inside the door you will receive two towels–one small, one large. With these, choose a locker and strip down. Everything goes into this locker–your yukata, underwear, socks, cell phone, and even your bar code bracelet. You cannot wear any clothing at all in the onsen–no shorts, no swim trunks, whatever. Naked as the day you were born, as the saying goes. The locker has a key on a plastic band. This goes around your wrist, and is the only exception to the “total nudity” rule.

The larger towel you got at the entrance also goes into the locker, because it is for drying yourself off after you get out of the bath. The smaller one (a washcloth, for Americans) is what you take into the onsen with you. If you are modest, you can use it to block the view of your junk, which no one cares about anyway. If you want to go like a native, you’ll use it to wash your face and dry your sweat in the baths. Please do not dip this cloth into the bath water–it is considered unsanitary to do so. While in the water, you can put it to the side or fold it up and put it on your head, just like in the cartoons.

 

Once Inside the Baths…

The first thing you do in the actual bath section is to take a shower. It may sound odd, but the purpose of the onsen is to relax, not bathe. You are going to soak here, and hopefully not in a bath of oily scum left by previous bathers. Inside the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are two options. Once you enter, there is a traditional “bowl bath”, in which you simply douse yourself in water. If you look behind you, there is a Western-style shower. Either way works.

If you are especially grimy, please use one of the shower stations that are on the left side of the indoor section of the baths. The stations all come with a stool, body soap, shampoo, conditioner, and a bowl and shower head combo. Get your pretty man on! Just make sure you get all of the soap off of your body before going to the baths. That’s another faux pas to avoid.

After that, there are several pools to choose from. They vary in temperature, as per a nearby thermometer. There are baths, and there is even is a whirlpool. Not bad, right? Be aware of the temperature and don’t force yourself to get into a bath if it is too hot.

And once you are there, relax. Nice, isn’t it? Some people bathe alone, and others gather in groups and chit-chat. If come by yourself, you will probably stay that way. One time during one of my earlier trips, some guy sat next to me to practice his naked English, which was rather awkward. But that was just that one time, out of dozens of trips.

 

Nude in the Great Outdoors

After your initial stride into the waters of a Broader Mindset, see if you can go outside. Yes, there are bathing pools outside, along with benches and other spots where you can lie down and flap about in the breeze. The high wall surrounding the area protects your privacy, and will protect the general public from your bad jokes (Q. Why did the bald man go outside at the onsen? A. He wanted to feel the wind in his hair). You can soak in the outside pool or take a nap if you like. Beware of sunburn on your sensitive bits.

Once you are done soaking, take another shower at one of the shower stations before exiting the bath area. You’ll leave the onsen feeling fresh, relaxed, and very clean. Time to see what else is here!

 

The Foot Baths

The foot baths at Oedo Onsen Monogatari are outside, in the Japanese gardens. Here, there is a long, winding walking pool. If you are feeling bold, hike up your yukata and wade right in!

I have to admit, this is not my favorite thing to do. The water is nice, but the walking path (both in the water and on the dry parts of the path) are studded with rocks. The rocks are supposed to “massage” your soles, for increased blood circulation or some other ancient Eastern medicine reason. I think that the larger rocks are ok for this, but walking on the smaller rocks is like finding missing Lego while going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Painful! Overall, I’d rather just sit on one of the benches that line either side of the pool and dangle my feet in the water.

There is another peculiar pool in this area, full of tiny fish. For a fee, you can soak your feet in this pool, and the fish will eat the dead skin off of whatever they can reach. The very idea sorta grosses me out, but some people seem to like it.

The Rest of Your Onsen Experience

The Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a great place to go for your first onsen experience. It is foreigner-friendly and easy to get around. All the signs are duplicated in English, and most of the staff can help you in areas related to their expertise.

There are lots of things to eat and drink. Just about every Japanese dish is represented here at one food stand or another, along with desserts (I liked the strawberry ice topped with condensed milk). We went with a group and had lunch with them (pictured), but you don’t have to do that. Just find what you like, point at the menu, and use your barcode bracelet to pay. Easy!

And there are other things to do. Near the bathing area is the spa, where you can get everything from a massage to skin exfoliation to a reflexology treatment. There are plenty of carnival-style games for the kids (and me, because I like throwing ninja stars). There is even a reclining chair area for you to take a nap, in case all of that relaxing wears you out.

And don’t forget to go to the gift shop before you leave!

In Short…

Going to an onsen is one of those “very Japanese” things to do, and will make for a great story when you return home. I used the Oedo Onsen Monogatari as a template for onsen trips–if you go somewhere else, the particulars may vary, but probably not by much. Also, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is inside Tokyo and is easy to get to through any number of methods (see below). If you are staying at a hotel, they can likely arrange a trip for you. Highly recommended!

Still not sure if you want to go to Oedo Onsen Monogatari? Maybe Voyagin’s discount can help you decide!

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Oedo Onsen Monogatari Location Information

Website (English) | Facebook (customer reviews and photos)

Access: There are multiple ways to get to Oedo Onsen Monogatari, best explained at http://daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en/#access

Hours of Operation: Open 7 days a week, 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m (next day), last entry: 7 a.m.

“Why Go?”: For a relaxing soak, good food, and an unforgettable experience!

Click on one of the tags below to find other experiences in Tokyo–

July 17, 2015 0 comment
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“LINE?” I asked. “The app? They have a store?”

“Yes they do,” the missus replied. She was on it, chatting with several of her cousins. The familiar tone of messages sent and received came fast and furious. She laughed at a sticker emoji that someone sent.

“I don’t get it. It’s a free app, right? You can get stickers, I suppose. But what could they offer that justifies opening a store in Harajuku?”

****

As it turns out, there is a lot more to LINE than just an instant messenger service. The characters featured in the app’s free “stickers” (small bits of artwork that the app’s users can insert into their chats) are so popular that they have spawned their own line of merchandise. On the mobile app, a user can purchase virtual “coins” in order to get premium stickers, themes, and related applications (such as the Disney TsumTsum application, a match-three game which has its own series of mini-cartoons that play on the Disney Channel in Japan). From the application, you can also make international phone calls, call a taxi, or even attach a credit card to the account to make use of LinePay, the app’s new mobile payment service.

The app’s success has spun off into the “Line Offline” cartoon, which follows the adventures of Moon the Salaryman and other LINE characters (you can watch the first episode in Japanese). The popularity of the characters led to the opening of the LINE Friends stores, which feature character merchandise and even exclusive app stickers that you can only get by visiting the store.

****

The Harajuku LINE Friends store was the first LINE store in Japan, and it’s easy to get to. Once you leave Harajuku station’s Takeshita-Guchi exit, cross the street and wade through the super-kawaii!!! crowds on Takeshita Street. If you manage to get through without getting too much fashion on you, you will make it to the other end of Takeshita where it intersects with Omotesan Street. Use the crosswalk to get to the other side of the street, turn right, and keep walking. In about 250 meters, you will run into Brown and Sally.

Brown the Bear is LINE’s primary mascot. He stands next to the door, with a yellow duck named Sally on his head. There are several other characters related to the LINE app inside the door–Brown and Sally again, as well as Leonard the Frog, Edward the Worm, and Cony the White Rabbit. Stop and take a picture with your favorite!

The upper floor is long and narrow, and features dozens of items emblazoned with the LINE characters. Buttons and stamps are up front, along with the cute school gear for kids to show off to their classmates. On the wall on the right hang sweatshirts of the different characters, and you can pull the hood up to wear froggy eyes or a duck bill. If you’re looking for something relatively inexpensive to give the LINE fan in your life, this floor probably has it.

At the opposite end of the store is a giant stuffed Brown, sitting in FAO Schwarz fashion, ready for pictures. Go ahead and give him a hug. I did, once I made sure no one was looking. Also in this area are a number of framed artworks called “Memories of Brown,” which are apparently scenes from the cartoon. My favorite was the one where Brown, his expression unchanged from his normal small-eyed, unsmiling stare, punches a crab man in the face. I’m sure there’s a great story behind that altercation.

Next to the giant stuffed Brown is a set of stairs leading to the lower level. The downstairs section of the LINE Friends store is a little more upscale–dishes, models, and other fancier merchandise. Fancier prices, too. But even if you’re just window-shopping, you can visit Brown’s Room at the back, featuring the bear relaxing in his chair. On the wall behind him are a number of smaller Browns, each wearing a different outfit. Judging by the reactions of the girls snapping picture after picture, this was the cutest thing ever.

Summary: If you are a fan of all things LINE, this is a must-stop during your trip to Harajuku. If you are a fan of the application, you can stop by the register to collect one of the exclusive virtual stickers that you can only get at the store. Be sure to break them out during your next LINE chat, so everyone knows that yes, you were fashionably there.

Location: Omotesando St., Harajuku

Hours: Weekdays 11 AM to 9 PM; Weekends and Holidays: 10 AM – 9 PM

Website (English): http://fs.line.me/en/#index, or on Facebook (Japanese) at https://www.facebook.com/lfs.harajuku?ref=ts&fref=ts

July 4, 2015 0 comment
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Entrance to Star Wars: A Vision in Mori Art Museum, Roppongi, Tokyo

“We’re going to see Star Wars:Visions at Roppongi Hills!” I announced.

The three young boys accepted this news with little enthusiasm. “I don’t like Star Wars,” said my younger nephew.

“I do!” said his older brother. “The raccoon and the dumb tree guy were really funny!”

“That’s not it!” my son interjected. “I saw the movie last week. It was just like the LEGO Star Wars video game! I mean, it wasn’t as good, but…”

This might be a little more difficult than I thought.

—————————-

We took the #96 bus from Shinagawa, which for 210 yen will put you right underneath the Roppongi Hills Shopping Center. You can also take the train (one of the Roppongi exits puts you right on the center’s grounds), but now that the warmer weather is here the scenic route isn’t so bad.

Roppongi Hills is taking full advantage of the event. Several stores are offering Star Wars-themed merchandise, from the obligatory t-shirts to the LEGO Clickbricks toy offerings to the artsy umbrellas at Hanway. There was also a ROOTOTE stand, where you can custom-design a Star Wars tote bag for 4000 yen. The missus got one of the Millennium Falcon, but only because there were no Han Solo designs. “He’s so handsome!” she said.

Not far from the ROOTOTE stand is a display of stormtrooper helmets, as modified and decorated by local art students. The interpretations range from the lazy artist calling it in and drawing numbers on the helmet to the guy who turned his into a split watermelon. A nice thing to spend a few minutes on, but that’s not what we’re here for, is it?

Case of helmets, Star Wars: Visions Mori Art Museum, Roppongi, Tokyo

Star Wars:Vision Helmet by Dixie Wu in Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan

At the Mori Art Museum Tokyo City View entrance (at the West Walk), you will pass the nice lady and go up to the third floor for tickets. From there, you will be ushered to an elevator, which will zoom you to the 52nd floor. Be sure to swallow, or your ears will start popping around the 30th floor.

And you’re there! The first thing you will notice is the impressive view of the Tokyo skyline. The walls are actually floor-to-ceiling windows, through which you can take in the excellent view. At various points around the floor you will be able to see Tokyo Tower, the Skytree, Yoyogi Park, and other notable landmarks, all from this awesome bird’s eye view.

View of the Tokyo skyline and Tokyo Tower from Mori Tower in Roppongi, Tokyo

I was prepared to be wowed, and the entrance to the exhibit looked like my expectations would be fulfilled. The first thing I saw was the gigantic model of the Death Star hanging from the ceiling. This was the Return of the Jedi version, the almost completed yet “fully armed and operational” battle station, surrounded by scale models of Empire and Rebel fighter craft engaged in small-scale dogfights. Underneath the model was the man himself–a life-sized statue of Darth Vader, emerging from his meditation chamber.

Entrance to Star Wars: A Vision in Mori Art Museum, Roppongi, Tokyo

Death Star at Star Wars: Vision at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Past that was the entrance to the exhibits themselves, and that’s where we saw it. “No photography beyond this point! No touching the exhibits!” the sign said, along with the obligatory Japanese lady repeating it over and over. They meant it, too. Throughout the rest of the exhibition, there were no shortage of staff members saying the same thing to anyone who even looked like they were reaching for a camera. So if you want to take pictures, you better get one with Darth Vader right at the entrance. Like a certain rougish smuggler, I was getting a bad feeling about this.

Darth Vader at Star Wars: Visions, Mori Art Museum, Roppongi, Tokyo

The art itself was wonderful. The walls were covered in artwork from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (http://www.lucasmuseum.org). Much of it was interpretations of events in the series itself, along with aspirational pieces (girl stormtroopers) and even a few paintings of major characters in Ye Olde Portrait style. My favorite was the portrait of an unscarred Hayden Christensen in his Darth Vader costume, helmet at his side, with Mustafar’s fiery landscape in the background (none of which makes any sense if you think about it for a second).

Also present were props from the movies. One room contained replica lightsabers; another was full of mannequins wearing the costumes of characters from the movie. Yet another room featured dioramas and models from famous battles, such as Hoth and Naboo. Throughout the exhibition, screens endlessly looped pivotal scenes from the films. It was around these screens where I kept finding my son and nephews.

Once I thought about it, I can see why they weren’t interested. Yes, the Mori Art Museum is an art museum, not a playground. There are no interactive exhibits, nothing to play with or sit on or climb on or have your picture taken next to. Nothing but some dumb pictures and costumes for some old movies that their parents and grandparents liked. To our generation, Star Wars was a touchstone of popular culture. To them, it’s just another option in the seemingly endless parade of entertainment possibilities, no different from any of the other superhero movies that come out every year. To them, it was just like visiting–well, a museum.

At the end of the tour was the obligatory gift shop selling the various franchise-related tchotchke, including prints of some of the artwork featured in the exhibition. Outside were two coin and medal machines. A couple of guys were feeding them money as if they were Vegas slots, probably with the same goal in mind.

Summary: If you are an older fan, Star Wars: Visions offers an interesting perspective into the art that helped to shape the series. For children, it’s something you must endure so you can have McDonald’s for lunch. Really, would it have been too much to ask to allow people to take pictures of themselves next to mannequins of their favorite characters? A shot of me and my best bud Boba Fett would have had a long tenure as my Facebook profile pic.

Mori Art Museum, Star Wars: Visions Roppongi, Tokyo

Tokyo Skyline, Mori Art Musuem, Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan

Location: Roppongi Hills Mori Art Museum City View (Roppongi Station). The exhibition is open 1100-2200 daily (last admittance 2130) until June 28th.

Prices: Adult advance tickets can be purchased at convenience stores and other ticket outlets for 1500 yen. For reasons I do not readily understand, adult tickets are the only ones that can be purchased in advance in this manner. At the counter (third floor of the museum), prices are (in yen): Adults 1800, High School/College Students 1200, Seniors 1500, Children 600.

Website: Google Translate page at http://translate.google.co.jp/translate?hl=en&sl=ja&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.roppongihills.com%2Ftcv%2Fjp%2Fsw-visions%2F.

Looking for other ideas on fun things to do with kids? Check out Derek’s article 36 Hours in Tokyo: Kids in Tow.

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Derek Winston is retired from the US Navy and currently attends college in Tokyo. If you see him on the street, approach with caution; there’s no telling what you will end up talking about. It might be safer to limit your exposure by contacting him at derekrwinston@gmail.com. Might be.

 

 

May 17, 2015 0 comment
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Wa Space Exterior, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan

The 4% iron mix is important. When fired, the clay piece will take on a gorgeous black and gold color, becoming a suitably striking plate upon which to serve sushi or other delicacies. Nearby is another of the artist’s works, a bowl with a similar mixture of clay and copper. This one changed color to a mellow light green when it was fired.

Clay artist and potter Kei Kawachi shows me several of his other pieces. The glossy ones are fired and glazed, he explains. The others pieces are matted, suitable for everyday dishware. In fact, that’s how he uses it; he shows me pictures of plates he has made, laden with his wife’s cooking. Beautiful and practical, as can only be expected from the man whose mugs have been declared “superior tools for everyday living” by the Foundation of Craft Centre Japan.

Pottery at Wa Space, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan

Nearby, yuzen artist Itsuko Kasahara’s creations are on display. Yuzen is the art of dyeing designs into kimonos, but she is not showing kimonos today. Rather, the bolts of cloth are delicately inked with traditional designs, as yuzen artists have done for centuries. Kasahara prefers flowers and other pastoral scenery, but does not limit herself to them–one of her other major pieces depicts scenes from The Tale of Genji, a Japanese folk tale.

Yuzen and pottery are just a few of the many things that are promoted by Wa Space. Since their opening in 2012, they have hosted events ranging from sumi-e (ink wash paintings) and DIY/recycle artists at their space in Akasaka, to bazaars at the Tokyo American Club. Wa Space’s staff has traveled all over Japan, searching for traditional craftsmen in order to feature their unique creations at their gallery. “It’s all about developing relationships,” says Matthew Ketchum, the Wa Space’s PR representative. “Most of these craftsmen don’t want to work with you if they don’t know you. So we go out into the rest of the country and meet people, make friends, and hopefully they’ll introduce us to other artists.”

Artisan goods at Wa Space, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan

Although they do sell decorative items, most of the pieces available from the Wa Space are of a practical nature. “Modern simplicity that can be readily integrated into your life,” is their motto, and it is reflected in their product selection. Matthew shows me a number of designs, ranging from the simple practicality of a clay sake set to intricately ground and layered kiriko drinking glasses. A nearby section features hand-dyed noren from Studio Garaya of Tochigi prefecture; a glance in the other direction reveals the soft glow of the chochin lanterns from Suzumo, far from their origins in Mito City in the Ibaraki prefecture.

But adhering to principles of modesty and simplicity doesn’t mean that the present and future are ignored in favor of the past. Another display contains the works of an artist who makes decorative cases for iPhones and iPads, and yet another shows travel coffee mugs designed for our on-the-go modern lifestyle. The inclusion of these modern pieces may give an observer pause, but it fits Wa Space’s philosophy of understated beauty matched with practical use. If you use an object in your daily life, shouldn’t it be elegant as well as functional?

Pillows at Wa Space, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan

In a time of big city lights and electronic distractions, the Wa Space finds a place for those objects whose refinement allows them to fit in any era. Whether you are looking for graceful decorative art for your home or for an elegantly functional souvenir of your trip, the Wa Space can help. And even after you return home, you can look back at their website, and see who they have met since you left. Wabi Sabi style is a bottomless pool—much beauty remains to be created and be discovered. And if it comes from Japan, you can be sure that the Wa Space will eventually find it.

 

Pottery at Wa Space, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan

Glasses at Wa Space, Akasaka, Tokyo, Japan

 

Handmade goods at Wa Space, Akasaka, Tokyo

Artist Kei Kawachi (Japanese)
FB: https://www.facebook.com/kei.kawachi
http://kawachikei.jimdo.com

Itsuko Kalahari’s
Website: http://itsuko.sakura.ne.jp

Wa Space Location Information

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Online Store

Nearest Station: 6-minute walk from Akasaka Station (Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line) (click on the Google Map for directions)

Hours of Operation: By appointment only. Make appointments via this link.

“Why Go?”: Traditional gifts and home furnishings created by Japanese craftsmen!

For more shopping options in Tokyo, follow one of the links below–

April 11, 2015 0 comment
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