Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An unexpected weekend.

I feel I should explain a few things real quick. First off, stores are a bit different here. There is this store near my house called Jusco. The first floor is pretty much your normal grocery store. Normal for Japan, I should say as you can buy all sorts of weird sea creatures and they have vats of fish and ice where you just pick the ones you want and go. But, that's not so unusual around here, I guess.

The second and third floors sell all sorts of daily odds and ends you might need. They sell clothes, umbrellas, bikes, televisions, fans, slippers, school supplies, a small pharmacy, extension cords, and well, a bit of everything. They even have all of your elephant washing accessories!

Next time you need to clean an elephant, pick up your supplies at your local neighborhood Jusco.

I should also mention that sometimes, not very often, but sometimes food is a challenge. I know I mentioned before when I went to a restaurant and the menu was entirely in Japanese, more specifically Kanji, the Chinese characters which are really hard to read as they're meaning based, not sound based. Earlier in the week, I went to a Chinese restaurant because I really do like Chinese food a lot, and I had the same problem as earlier. They didn't have a picture menu either, so I had to do the whole 'step outside and point' thing again, which while mildly embarrassing, certainly gave me great results.

While not the most filling meal I've ever had, damn was it good. It also made me happy to learn that the staff was mostly, if not entirely Chinese, just like any Chinese restaurant staff should be whenever possible.

Another thing I tend to notice is the cars around here. The selection and variety of Japanese cars I see here is quite amazing. There are very few Japanese cars that are the same models as American cars (as in I hardly ever see a Honda Accord, for example), and they have entire lines of cars not available in America. A very popular example is the Toyota Crown which is a completely different line of luxury cars by Toyota from the Lexus (also owned by Toyota). Speaking of Lexus, the other day I saw this on my way to school:

First off, what is that thing? Is it a large 4 wheeled scooter or a tiny, tiny car? Secondly, does it fold up? I couldn't tell. Finally, why does it have a Lexus logo? When I think Lexus, I think luxury car, not, um, that thing. All that being said, it looks like an ideal solution in Tokyo. Safer and more comfortable than a scooter and significantly smaller than a real car, I could see using this, especially if it holds two people.

Now that is all said, I'm going to talk about my weekend now.

Last weekend was a bit unusual. I wouldn't call it a bad weekend, but it certainly didn't live up
to the expectations I had earlier in the week. All the fun things I intended on doing didn't really pan out to be that great and all the stuff that I didn't plan on turned out the best.

On Thursday, two of my dorm friends were talking about this thrift store in Meguro. As I have stated my desire to find a cheap bass, I decided it would be interesting to check out. They warned me that it was hard to find, but common sense hasn't stopped me before, so off I went. I went to Meguro once to change trains and I walked around a bit, but it didn't really leave an impression on me. Now that I've seen more, I can say it's an interesting neighborhood.

So, I started wandering, and my friend was sure right. I couldn't find it. In fact, I didn't see much of anything. This caught my eye, though:

For that matter, it caught everyone's eye. A bright pink Porsche is probably the gaudiest car I've seen in this country, and like I said, there are a lot of different cars. I believe it was a left-hand drive car, which I see a lot.

It's hard to see, but there's a 'new driver' tag on the back of it. In Japan, when you fist start driving you get a magnet for your car that signifies that you are a beginner driver. I think it's actually quite logical. However, this does tell me that some girl (I assume) got their parents to buy them a bright pink Porsche just like Barbie as their first car. Wow.

Anyways, I couldn't find the shop, and I actually didn't find anything all that great or interesting in Meguro, except a road with a bunch of hotels, some love hotels some just regular.

Feeling a little bummed out, I returned home having accomplished very little and with no plans on a Friday night. There was a festival a few train stops down, and at first I really didn't feel like going. I heard people saying that the festival was highly recommended by our dorm manager Aki, which was enough to get me to go.

I was sure I glad I went.

My only regret is that I didn't bring my real camera. My phone did okay, being a phone, but dark pictures turn out pretty grainy on this thing.

I had only been to this neighborhood once before and all I did there is eat dinner and walk home. I originally thought it was a pretty lackluster neighborhood with nothing worth seeing besides a few restaurants and shops, but nothing really all that memorable. Friday night, I was completely proved wrong.

Once I exited the train station, what I remembered as an empty street was completely filled with people.

This was really crowded, especially for what I thought was just a sleepy little area by a train station. It's hard to make out, but you can see that down this road, there are stalls on both sides selling all types of food and toys or games for kids to play.

It was quite a lively happening.

If you've never been to a Japanese festival, there are a couple things I've seen with every one that I've been to. First off is the crowds. People love these things, and I'm seeing why. They're a lot of fun. Secondly is the food/beer. There is a lot of variety in the food available, ranging from very traditional fare, like takoyaki or octopus and squid on a stick, to very modern or foreign food like pita gyros and French fries. It was all good and just thinking about it makes me hungry. Thirdly, the music you hear is amazing. It's usually very high pitched wooden flutes and loud thundering drums. It can be heard everywhere and is truly amazing. If you check my one and only youtube video, you can hear it, but that doesn't express 1/10th of what it's like to be there.

I didn't understand the point of this festival, which is quite normal for me as I guess I just don't 'get' them. Does this stop me from enjoying them? Of course not.

Anyways, they had quite a few of these going around.

If anybody knows what's going on, feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

Anyways, we followed the food booths for a while, and we came across this bridge and a massive amount of stairs.

This place was certainly old. I have no idea how old, but I'm pretty sure it was pre-WWII, if not shortly after. These steps were not very flat and even, worn down after years of use it seemed. Again, I was there for a party, not a history lesson, so I was fine not knowing how old it was. I might find out later. You can notice in the above picture that half the stairs are completely filled with people and the other half they have those big lantern like things I showed before and people who were twirling these decorated poles with tassels on the end.

But what was at the top of these stairs? Considering this was a very unassuming neighborhood, I had pretty low expectations. When I got to the top of the stairs, I was absolutely blown away.

I've had very few moments of complete and utter shock and amazement in Japan. This most certainly was one of them. I'd compare it to Kamakura or Asakusa, but this was right in my neighborhood! Also, I didn't expect it at all, while when I went to Kamakura and Asakusa, I had an idea of what I'd be seeing. This is sort of like expecting to eat a modest fast food meal and getting treated to a 4 star gourmet feast.

Also, the crowd was amazing. There were SO many people! I couldn't believe it. And it seemed like everyone was having a great time.

Because it was so crowded, they let us in the main part of the building by groups. Seeing as how I normally can't take photos in places like this, and other people were snapping away, I went ahead and grabbed a few shots.

When I show you these temples and shrines from the outside, most of them have something like this inside. There usually isn't a room full of people, but this night there was. They were all chanting too. It was hauntingly beautiful.

In the picture above, the bottom center you can see the poster for this festival. The thing in the picture is what they were swinging around. I couldn't get a good picture, but that's what it looks like.

Well, it seemed like everyone went down the other side of this hill when they were done, so we followed suit.

These lanterns were quite atmospheric. It was pretty surreal and amazingly delightful. I didn't even notice I took a picture of that cute girl on the right. Hello!

Here are some more lanterns.

So, that was my Friday. It was quite an exciting and interesting time.

Saturday, I did my radio show, and I was absolutely determined to find this damned thrift store. After I got a map from my friend, I went back to Meguro, and I was very surprised as to what I found.

It seems that if I turned left instead of Right I would have found an exciting and vibrant neighborhood.

This place was really interesting. Not at all what I first thought. There was quite a large hill that I went up and down to get to this store. The walk was quite interesting.

Most neighborhoods I've been to seem to have some sort of theme. Like "This is the historic neighborhood" or "This is the fancy area". Meguro seemed to have no theme at all, with some really fancy shops next to some really old and dumpy stores. I think that added to it's charm.

As I was walking across the street I saw a Takoyaki stand. It seemed to have quite a large crowd around it, and upon closer inspection it had what looked like autographs from celebrities who have eaten there.

For those of you who don't know, takoyaki is essentially little balls of octopus and dough. I had a friend bug me about it because I haven't had any 'real' takoyaki since I got here, the closest being some obviously reheated balls at a cheap izakaya. I was about to eat here just to have the 'real' stuff, but I wasn't that hungry and honestly, I'm not a big takoyaki fan. At least not a big enough fan to eat 6 of them when I'm not hungry. Sorry.

As I kept walking down this strange, strange street, I see this:

What is that? Well I'm pretty sure it's a high school. I couldn't believe that a high school had such a dramatic entrance.

Well, after what felt like an incredibly long walk, I found the store. I always feel odd taking pictures inside shops, but to give you an idea, here's what the outside looked like.

It was crammed with all sorts of used goods. They had used clothes, collectibles, toys, electronics, tons of used records, CDs, and porn. It was quite surreal the amount of crap they had for a store that wasn't that big. What they DIDN'T have is a used bass, as my friend had stated. Oh well, I kind of wanted to go back to Shimokitazawa anyways in hopes they'd have one, so I headed back.

As it always seems, now that I knew where I was going, it didn't seem that long of a walk after all.

I did see this on the way back.

Yup, that's a tank full of Fugu, also known as blowfish. They are considered a delicacy in Japan and are quite expensive. The main reason for this is is they contain a large amount of poison and can be lethal if handled improperly.

I also saw this site on my way back to the station.

I liked this view.

Another incredibly bizarre thing I saw was these machines right here:

There were 4 Playboy electronic poker machines, looking like they were from the late 80's. What the hell were they doing here? For that matter, what the hell were they doing anywhere outside of Nevada? Why were there 4 of them? Were they for sale? I couldn't find a price, and since gambling is quasi-illegal here, I don't see much use for them. Well, it's not worth pondering too long. Off I went again.

I am a little hesitant to write about my adventures in Shimokitazawa. One of it's unique charms is the lack of tourists. It seems like even Tokyo people don't know much about this gem of a neighborhood. I'm afraid that the more people find out about this place, the more crowded and homogenized it will become.

That being said, I know my blog isn't THAT popular, and I am really fascinated with this place, so I guess I can say more.

Saturday night in Shimokitazawa seemed very energetic and lively. I had a great time wandering the streets and enjoying the energy. I kind of wanted to get a drink and interact with the locals, but I wanted to buy that bass, and I had no idea when they closed.

I went to the shop around 6:45 and they were still open. I don't know how I missed it before, but this shop had a polar bear in the corner. By that I mean a real stuffed polar bear. It was huge and kind of scary and sad at the same time. It looked quite old so I'm sure it was killed and stuffed a long time ago. Anyways, I wasn't there for a polar bear, so I got my crappy bass for 6300 yen (about $53.50) and a crappy amp for 2525 yen (about $21.50), and headed home. The bass had no case, which for that price is no surprise, but it made my trip home quite awkward and uncomfortable.

It also killed any chance I had at hanging out, as I'd have to lug around a bass and amp where ever I went. I did get to see this incredibly fun band playing underneath the train station. I was going to buy a beer, but instead I got their CD.

Their name was F hole Rag Orchestre. Their website with non-blurry pictures is at

They had a banjo and a trumpet and an upright bass among other things. They had quite a fun sound, and I'm glad I picked up their EP.

Anyways, after lugging my new prizes home, I got a chance to soak in what I just purchased.

The amp, as previously stated, most certainly is crappy. I mean, it gets the job done and I think I paid a fair price for it, so there's not much I can really say about it.

The bass on the other hand, I'm actually quite impressed with it's quality.

For those of you keeping score at home, this is a Aria Pro II RSB series bass from 1986 made in Japan. After a little research, Aria made guitars and basses and were most famous for high quality knock offs. they're still around and they still make instruments, but they are not now, nor were they ever very well known. They apparently make good instruments and are way above the quality of the shit you'd find at Wal-Mart around christmas. For the price I paid, I was expecting a functional piece of garbage, but instead I got a fairly high quality instrument.

Oh yeah, and I know it only has 3 strings. I strung it around left handed and one of the strings wasn't long enough. The other 3 are pretty old and beat up, so I'm planning to buy a new set this weekend.

After I got back, I bumped into three friends who were on their way to the festival I saw yesterday. Although I was there yesterday and I had spent hours walking, I was hungry and the thought of festival food made me salivate, so I happily joined them.

But I wasn't exactly as happy to eat octopus on a stick as my companion was.

The candy apple was tasty, though.

I must say, I love the look of my friend in the background. It's simply classic.

The fair was much more subdued on Saturday and there were no people beating on drums or giant floats. Just people wandering the streets enjoying themselves.

While walking up the previously mentioned ancient stairs, I caught this really cute girl making a cotton candy mustache.

If you're reading this and this is you, say hi. Let's hang out.

Well, that pretty much was my weekend. Sunday I spent trapped in my room studying for midterms and playing on my new 3 stringed friend.

I thought I would end on a cute note, as this was the most adorable thing I've seen in a long time: A kid in a bear suit at the festival.