A TOKYO STORY PART II - TOO HOT FOR ARCADES

 

 

I started the day in Akihabara, where searching Google Maps for somewhere to grab a coffee brought back an unhelpful flood of maid and animal cafes. The maids that line streets at ten yard intervals are one thing that distinguishes the area, each of them handing out flyers to anyone willing to pause for a brief second. Another thing is the sheer amount of shops filled with anime, gachapon, games, computers, and other electronics. From anime figures and body pillows to LED lights and second-hand computer components, you can find it all here. 

 

Like Harajuku, it felt like two specific groups of people were here; those who loved the culture, and tourists curious to see what it was all about. I walked down the main street, traffic flying by on one side, music and what sounded like fifty pinball machines blaring from the other, all the while trying to avoid decapitation by the sea of sunbrellas which whirled perilously close to my neck.


All around me the buildings looked like colourful boxes stacked together with toy trains whizzing past on the bridges overhead. The past couple of years had seen many smaller businesses close and crowds dwindle, but it was now very much alive, even in the sweltering heat of summer. The back streets and alleys were just as lively and colourful, entire buildings covered by giant posters advertising toys and manga, while maids stood on the corners looking uncomfortably hot, using their flyers as fans, and uncaring about what their jobs were anymore. I was sick in my mouth a little as a gentleman old enough to know better passed me with a maid in tow who looked no older than fifteen. 

 


I entered Super Potato, the number one place for retro gaming. It was quite small, but each of its three floors had something different. The nostalgia was strong as I poked through their Mega Drive collection, but left as the urge to buy a lot of stuff I didn’t need crept in. The top floor housed retro arcade machines, where I tried my hand at Street Fighter II. My pride took a hit with a series of short, successive, and comprehensive defeats at the hand of some local dweeb, who, after quickly realising I was crap, seemed to take some kind of sordid pleasure in toying with me. My forced laugh turned to a scowl as soon as I was out the door. 




Afterwards, I took a short stroll to the nearby Kanda Shrine. Founded over a thousand years ago, it has been rebuilt and relocated many times since, as is the case with most of Japan’s “ancient” structures. When it moved to Kanda, it was built with stone which helped to endure the bombings of World War 2. Before entering, I was forced to circle around a sizeable tour group wearing matching yellow t-shirts who were blocking the entrance, and hadn’t a single ounce of self-awareness between them. 

 

The shrine, with its faded green tile roof, bright red torii gate, and vibrant trees, stood juxtaposed against towers of glass and steel. It was that perfect blend of old and new that travel sites never tire of going on about. However, it wasn’t exploring the shrines’ many facets that excited me. It was seeing the exact model of Lamborghini Countach my nan had given me a replica of when I was a child pull up right beside me.

 

 

I followed the train line from Akihabara Station east, taking cover under the red bricks tunnels the trains ran along as it started pouring. Unsure of when it was going to stop and feeling a rumble in my stomach, I called into a small curry restaurant where I was the only customer. I ate at the bar in silence, and the rumble was replaced by the periodic shaking of trains going by overhead. 

 

The rain had mostly let off by the time I was finished, so I continued on under the grey clouds until reaching the Sumida River. A welcome breeze flowed alongside the water all the way past a smattering of joggers and an old man sleeping under a bridge. I rested for a bit, staring across at the not to distant Tokyo Skytree and drinking a bottle of water and Coke Zero in quick succession. It’s interesting how much you can drink without needing to use the bathroom when you’ve sweated out virtually all the liquid in your body. 


The combo ticket at the Skytree for both the Tembo Galleria and Tembo Deck cost ¥3100, of which I bought and can confirm is unnecessary unless you want to drink overpriced coffee with an admittedly pleasant view. There are quite a few observation decks in the city, and I would recommend going to at least one of them just to see how much of the land has been consumed by humanity. But you can see it for a lot cheaper and get just as nice a view as the Skytree. 

 

I headed back over the river to Asakusa. I’ve always liked this area. It was where I stayed on my first visit to Tokyo and felt like an old-fashioned and chilled place. It has since become very trendy, and with it the closure of many small businesses, causing it to lose its charm somewhat. I had another coffee at a little cafe, and when a man with short bleach blonde hair walked in, it took me a few minutes to confirm that it wasn’t Hitoshi Matsumoto. It certainly would’ve made this sentence more exciting if it was. 


Nearby was one of the city’s major tourist spots, Senso-ji. It’s Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple which sits beside a five-story pagoda and a long row of old-style shops that sell souvenirs, food, trinkets, and general tat. My efforts to inspect the temple in closer detail were dashed when it began lashing down again and the myriad of tourists took cover under its overhanging roofs. Its key features, though, I could see without too much issue from the newly vacated court. The Thunder Gate, which leads to the temple itself, was adorned with statues of the Shinto gods of wind and thunder, Fujin and Raijin, while on the opposite end were the Buddhist gods Tenryu and Kinryu. 

 


The giant red lantern ahead of me looked like it was being held up by the colourful umbrellas surrounding it. I took cover from the rain in a restaurant that I thought it was closed initially, peering through the opened paper door to the back to see an elderly couple sitting on a tatami mat eating their dinner. As the woman waddled out, I apologised several times while slowly backing out of the door, as ancient Japanese custom demands, but she insisted I stayed and took my order. She made small talk while her husband got back in the kitchen to cook, and I soon ate the most guilty meal of my life.


With dusk quickly approaching and the weather clearing up, I went to Ueno Park to escape the crowds and relax on a bench in the forest for a bit. Instead, I stumbled across food tents and a stage where a samurai dancing group performed for the Pakistan and Japan friendship festival. Despite the large gathering, I was able to find an empty bench with a pile of batteries and food packaging under it to rest on. This rest did little to give me the energy to keep exploring, but I did it anyway. Aimlessly meandering through back-streets as the sun set felt strangely peaceful. The pace seemed to slow right down, with the dog-walkers and locals as carefree as I was.

 


 


Eventually I rejoined the crowds, passing a man on a bridge with long, ragged grey hair, on his knees, one hand, and a stump in the still baking heat. He must’ve had a lot to repent for, I imagined. I found myself at Ameyoko, a lively shopping street that once served as a market for imported American goods following World War 2. 

 

There were all kinds of shops here selling clothes and sweets, and packed restaurants that spilled out into the streets. Finally, on the verge of collapsing, I spent the rest of the night out the front of Ueno Station, a large and open area that hovered high above busy roads. Business men in short-sleeved shirts stood around the stone table pillars that lined the walkway, drinking beer and talking inevitably about work. Towards the other end, a group of skateboarders zigzagged between commuters walking to catch the train home. I drank a Sapporo beer and followed suit.

 



The following morning, I didn’t feel like doing much that involved pushing through large crowds or checking out shops that blast your eardrums with five different songs simultaneously, so I spent the day in the financial district behind Tokyo Station. It’s clean, relaxed, nice to look at, but ultimately, as bland in character as any other financial district. You could say I felt slightly out of place amongst the designer suits and briefcases, with barely a tourist in sight until I headed over to the Imperial Palace. 

 

Leaving the featureless skyscrapers in my wake, the palace sat in a big open area with perfectly trimmed trees, and grass so pristine Rory McIlroy could sink a hundred foot putt on it. Unfortunately, the palace itself was closed, so I couldn’t see anything beyond the walls. I dandered around the outskirts for a couple of hours before heading back to the lifeless monoliths in search of a drink. It was an overly long search in which I finally concluded that rich people don’t use vending machines.

 

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