ken-sama

A perk of being a long-term resident in a country that is currently sitting atop most lists for “cool vacay destinations in the world”, is being asked on a weekly daily basis:

“So… What are your Tokyo/Kyoto/Japan tips and recommendations?”

To which I politely smile and internally try to decide whether the person asking is mentally diminished or just hailing from an Internet-free country. Because all I hear is “Could you google Lonely Planet’s Top 10 List of Things to Do in Tokyo for me?”…

Since there is clearly no useful or interesting answer to that question, and since it is a lot easier to be negative than positive1, I instead decided to compile a near-exhaustive list of places and things that you should stay away from, when you visit Tokyo.

You will notice an important overlap with aforementioned “Top 10 Tokyo whatever” lists commonly found elsewhere, and there’s a good reason for that: these are mostly places that were interesting/special at some point long ago or fit well-enough in the trite “Japan-be-crazy-yo” narrative, to make them ideal candidates for lazy tourist guides and other lists catering to the lowest-common denominator.

Rule of thumb: if you are the sort of tourist who loved their visit to London’s Piccadilly Circus, Paris’ Champs Élysées, NYC’s Times Square or SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, this list of don’ts is emphatically not for you. In fact, you can even use it as a blueprint for your dream Tokyo visit. For everyone else, here you go:

Maid Cafés

aka Maido Cafés

Last cool/interesting: Never

Who goes there: 20% Japanese (otaku on the spectrum and/or sex-offence-on-minors-under-the-age-of-consent waiting to happen), 80% tourists that heard these things were super popular and cool in Japan.

Selling points: Bland overpriced biscuits served by pimply high-school students to awkward shut-ins and clueless tourists in a hastily-refurbished Akihabara apartment. Basically like Applebees, with more pedophilia and shittier food.

Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori

Last cool/interesting: 2004? 2001?… Whenever the dozen Japanese girls who used to buy their cosplay outfit there graduated from high-school.

Who goes there: 99% foreign tourists (about half Western tourists, convinced that the other Chinese/East-Asian half are authentic locals). 1% Nigerian guys pretending to be from Chicago to sell you authentic American hip-hop streetwear.

Selling points: Foreign otaku cosplay-freaks. Foreign tourists busy photographing authentic Tokyo cosplay-freaks who were seated a row behind them on the flight in. Souvenir shops for tourists. McDonald’s. Starbuck’s. Shops that sell wacky t-shirts that read “Stupid gaijin” or “Looking for Japanese girlfriend” in Japanese. Zero actual Japanese people cosplaying.

  1. Exhibit A: over ten years of writing on this very blog. []

This weekend’s ski trip went pretty damn similar to the last time I went skiing in Naeba. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The (unexpectedly) clear and sunny skies on our first day there made me wish I had not left my phone in the car. But since I did, you’ll have to take my word for it: the views from up there were breathtaking (and the skiing equally awesome).

Just like last time, weather went from great on Saturday, to increasingly windy and snowy on Sunday. Of course, frequent snow weather is a bit of a requirement for a successful ski resort. Unfortunately, in Naeba, it also means that all gondolas and a varying number of lifts stay closed: a lot fewer reachable pistes, a lot more queueing to get up there.

Nonetheless, both days of skiing were still absolutely brilliant: reasonably low amount of queuing at the lifts, overall decent snow and a few blissfully empty pistes (alongside some very crowded ones).

Judging by the pitiful state of my calves by day 2 (not to mention day 3, aka ouch-today), my body clearly does not think one ski trip every other year makes for a proper amount of preparation. That or I need to skip leg day less often.

Completely by chance, this year’s trip fell on yet another installment of Fuji Rock-affiliated “WeSky a GoGo” Winter music event. Their “event” package, including a weekend lift pass, sold for less than the pass itself, making it a no-brainer purchase, with everything else (DJ party entrance, onsen and a couple other things) as a free bonus.

This year, it was decided that our decennial International Family Gathering would take place in Japan: a beautiful small country located at near-equal distance from most family members.

It also has some delightful onsen ryokan, out in the mountains1, where you can spend your time dipping in hot water under the falling snow, warm yourself to the traditional Japanese-style fireplace in your room and eat yourself to death twice a day on an endless stream of local delicacies.

  1. not too far from our last incursion in Shinshu province []

In about ten years, Halloween in Japan has gone from a small foreigner-oriented Roppongi event, to a massive country-wide phenomenon. As far as Western holidays go, there are worse ones to import: any chance to dress up in silly outfits and go party it up with friendly strangers is good to take (the whole kids&candy part hasn’t really made it with the rest).

This year’s 31st being a Friday, helped reach unseen level of costumed street craziness in Tokyo.

Taking the title over skeevy Roppongi, Shibuya has now become a much bigger epicentre for Halloween revelry: I had never seen that many people in the streets there. Not during the World Cup, not during New Year’s Eve1, not ever.

Crowd was mainly Japanese, costumes were the usual declinations of sex, blood and cute cartoon characters. Usually all at the same time: from zombie sexy snow-white, to blood-drenched sexy teddy-bear. If originality was not always at its peak, the amount of effort (/money) put into it was undeniable. The bar-counter sociologists would have also noted a huge preponderance of group costumes.

Clockwork Orange in TokyoFor once, yours truly did put some efforts into that costume thing. The end result surpassed our expectations, mainly thanks to the magic of Internet shopping and Japan’s mind-blowingly fast delivery services.

We were expecting little recognition from the average Japanese Halloween partier (hell, even from the average mid-twenties Westerner), but figured the outfits would look weird enough as a group to make for a good costume anyway…

In fact, not only does Clockwork Orange has its fans amongst young hip Tokyoites, but the ones that are into it are really into it. Which lead to an uninterrupted stream of young Japanese devotchkas in various goth-y outfits stopping us, proffering their love for 時計じかけのオレンジ with much shrieking and asking for group pictures. You know you’ve been in Japan too long when you don’t bat a (long) eyelash at repeated mentions that Alex is sooo kawaii. Because nothing says cute, like cod-piece-wearing sociopathic rapist-murderers.

I expect there are now hundreds of pictures floating out there, featuring smily blood-drenched Japanese girls surrounded by creepily-dressed foreigners in vaguely threatening (and increasingly lewd as the night went on) poses. Which I realise sounds like the exact description of a Roppongi club on a Saturday night, but was actually a lot more wholesome (and fun) than that.

After spending most of the evening in the streets (and street-side cafés) of Shibuya, the late-night clubbing at Trump Room nearly felt dull by comparison: dark confined spaces probably aren’t the best place for watching cool costumes. But what wouldn’t a true droog do to dance on some Ludvig van, or whatever closest musical approximation they can find.

A jolly night all around and an unmitigated success. Except for the abuse of Milk Plus that lead to a rather tough morning the next day.

  1. To be fair, only very clueless foreigners still regularly show up there, clinging to the hope that there will be a countdown party. []

Between all the travelling abroad and domestic business trips, these past two years have been rather poor on domestic tourism. Something I set to correct last month, with an extended three-day trip to one of the many regions of Japan I had never set foot in.

Kiso Valley

After much poring over guidebooks, online forums and ryokan reservation websites, Kiso valley seemed to emerge as a good candidate for a region that was at once 1. reachable from Tokyo in a few hours, 2. offering preserved nature, picturesque views and some nice hiking trails and 3. not completely encased in concrete (cf. 99% of all popular onsen resorts in Japan) or overrun with tourists (ibidem).

According to the English Internet1, Kiso valley is either a wonderfully preserved piece of Japanese countryside with some delightful traditional villages, or an overrated tourist trap. As it turns out, both opinions were right, just not talking about the same part of the valley:

  1. In matters of nature-oriented tourism, I have learnt not to rely on the opinions of the average Japanese tourist. Even clueless Western tourists can at least tell the difference between a charmingly traditional town and an ugly 80s concrete monstrosity… []

  1. Buying a (simple) wristwatch is surprisingly difficult in the year 2014. Quite like pocket calculators and rotary phones, wristwatches have become the province of obsolete Forbes-reading execs… and people with a test to take. If you are between 25 and 60 and still own a wristwatch, you have a serious hoarding problem. Amazingly, even 100en stores do not sell these any more.
  2. The wristwatch is not really optional for the JLPT. Since I knew I would be short on time anyway, I figured I could wing it without one, and just go through as many questions as fast as I could. As it turns out, not only aren’t there any clock in the exam room, but the proctors make a point not to give any 5-minute warning before the time runs out (it’s in the test instructions). The first you hear of their voice, is to tell you to drop your pencil right this second (under penalty of elimination). This is how one ends up with over a dozen blank answers in their final sheet (where filling at random would have guaranteed at least a couple points).
  3. One can always make oneself feel better by telling oneself that they are not there to get the JLPT through cheap tricks and strategising. I’m still getting a wristwatch for next time.

Before repair: looks like it was attacked by a wild beast.Cat couldn't resist the temptation of a last few scratchesBit of water...... and it comes right off!Cats: not helpingFinal result!

It’s not that the cats specifically target the shoji… It’s just that said shoji happen to be just behind their favourite indoor climbing equipment (aka “curtains”). Not that these shoji were all that intact to begin with (couple small tears and a few individually patched cells, not to mention 30+ year-old paper).

Anyway, now that the household’s feline population has been taught to (mostly) stay away from curtains, I felt it might be time to get rid of the “just-survived-a-tiger-encounter” look of the bedroom sliding screens, while partaking in the time-honoured Japanese tradition of replacing shoji paper.

This time, however, I opted for the supposedly cat-proof plastified version, which comes with the added bonus that it is heat-reactive and can be applied with a press iron, without separate glue.