Episode 23: Suburban Sojourn
After close to four weeks of cruising Attractions with a big A,
I thought it would be a refreshing change to go see some places
that are rightly ignored by all guidebooks.  And I already knew
where I was going, or at least how to go there: with the Toden
Arakawa line, Tokyo's sole remaining tram line and a true
masterpiece of mediocrity.  Lonely Planet says that the line
is "perhaps worth using for a trip to Zoshigaya", whose biggest
attraction is a cemetery with Lafcadio Hearn's bones in it.
As this sounded far too exciting, I decided to tackle the other
end of the line.

The LP says that the line starts at Ikebukuro and terminates at
Waseda.  Wrongo: that's just a 13-minute stretch at the end,
the line itself starts almost an hour away in the thoroughly
unremarkable neighborhood of Minowa.  (You know you're in the
burbs when the most exciting exit reference point found on a
subway sign is the local police box.)  After coming aboveground
and successfully resisting the temptation to grab a Naan Dog at
the Lotteria, I located the diminutive Minowabashi terminus and
boarded the tram.  The tram reminded me of Enoshima's Enoden,
a relic puttering and wheezing through people's backyards,
except the one-car tram is even smaller and considerably more
obscure.  Absolutely nothing of interest was visible during
the 30-minute journey to Sugamo and I wallowed in the Zenistic
sense of the suburbanality of it all.  (I think I just invented
that word.  All rights reserved.)

[Ed. Several weeks after my trip, I discovered that Tokyo's old
red-light district Yoshiwara is located -- surprise, surprise -- just
north of present-day Minowa.  Evidently the area still contains
Tokyo's highest concentration of "soaplands", but the subway map
didn't deem this fit to print.]

Sugamo ("Duck Nest"), on the other hand, was interesting, at
least relatively speaking.  On Saturday morning I had happened to
catch one of the millions of programs featuring people going to
bizarre places and eating bizarre things, all at the expense of
the TV company.  And in this program the guy* went to Sugamo,
which he also very aptly described as "obaachan no Harajuku".
Indeed: in Harajuku anyone over 20 sticks out, in Sugamo it's anyone
under 60.  And instead of Hello Kitty stores and idol posters,
stores in Sugamo specialize in things like tea, pottery, kitchen
utensils and fashions that went out of style in Harajuku sometime
before WW2.

* This is unusual.  Usually the hosts are girls, who are better
  at orgasmic noises and exhalations of "Oishiiiiiii!".

The program showed our... well, their hero going to a temple
where people were queuing up to ladle water on a Kannon statue,
and next to it a restaurant where people were queueing up to
ladle curry noodle soup into their own mouths, at a price of
1100 yen/bowl.  Now, my local sobaya-san dishes out his curry udon
for 350 yen/bowl, so this is obviously gourmet stuff -- except
that "gourmet curry udon" makes about as much sense as "gourmet
hot dog".  But I figured, where else can I spend 50 FIM on a small
bowl of curry noodle soup?  (This, mind you, is an attitude that
will be dangerous to your financial health if used too often here.)

At any rate, to find his way there, the guy had an impossibly
complex map, but I didn't have one and neither did I know trivial
details like the name of the temple, never mind the shop itself.
Once I did arrive in Sugamo, I consulted a map, which promptly
informed me that there are several dozen big temples in Sugamo.
Fine, I was in no hurry, so I set out for the one that was listed
first...  and lo and behold, before I even got there, I walked past
the right one.  The Kannon queue was there alright, and so was the
noodle queue, which turned out a bit longer than expected -- maybe
going there on a busy Sunday the day after the program aired wasn't
so smart.  As it was noon, I figured I'd wait a while and let the
queue dwindle, but after seeing everything there is to see in Sugamo
(which isn't much), including yet another temple that Basho went to,
and buying two pairs of chopsticks for 1200 yen (hint: that's
pretty bloody expensive for 4 slivers of wood), it was closer to 2
and the queue showed no sign of shortening.  So I sighed and took
my place in line.

Basho was here too

Notice the monk under the gate!
Half an hour later I finally got in, and like everybody else
ordered the famous curry udon.  Usually, curry udon consists of a
standard bowl of noodles with a dollop of curry plopped on top (much
better than it sounds!), but at Konaya, the udon is handmade (ooh!),
the curry is cooked for no less than 2 days (aah!), and instead of
dashi stock the soup broth is the curry sauce itself (iih!).
As Caesar would've said, "kita, mita, tabeta", and in retrospect
I am forced to admit that indeed, it was the best bowl of curry
noodle soup that I've ever spent 1100 yen on.  The staff was bemused
by the appearance of a gaijin and I was subjected to the usual
friendly interrogation.  So go ahead, take a peek yourself.
To get there, find your way to Sugamo station (JR Yamanote/Toei Mita
lines) and take the south shopping street to Kookanji/Takaiwadera (?).
Konaya is to your right in the alley immediately after the temple.

After all this excitement it was time to reboard the tram and
trundle on towards Ikebukuro.  Harajuku is for trendy stuff,
Shibuya is for young people, Shinjuku is for adult entertainment,
but Ikebukuro just is, a massive bastion of mediocrity.  Department
stores, bargain basements, record stores, sleazy hostess bars,
restaurants, all blended together into a gray mash with neon sauce.
Perfect.  After wandering aimlessly through a bunch of mediocre
stores, examining tea cans, lettered signs, incense holders, books
on Dutch architecture and similarly random things, I ended up in
the basement of a 100-yen shop.  And what treasures awaited me there!
For example, here's the text written on a single chopstick, sideways
and wrapping around.  Spelling errors and bizarre punctuation
carefully reproduced:

  capital of East Germany, said West Germany
  the official who spoke on condi-loads of refu
  anonymity     (TOUCH)   to Turkey.  (bicycle)
  of West German authorities be-noted that th
  heve the refugees inted to cross has promis
  were bound for East Berlin, the imately 600

I think this find provides conclusive evidence that the Hurmola
Hypothesis, "romaji is solely a graphical element", is correct.

Just the same, the best product I've found lately is without
a doubt yet another drink, elegantly entitled "foo".  Yes, all
lowercase, and with even a handy katakana pronounciation guide
included ("fuu").  The water within is not only carorii-ofu
(calorie-off) and yasuragi (tranquil), but sukkiri (refreshing)
due to its delicate remon and haabu flavors, with all of 1% real
juice.  In reality, both the appearance and taste of the liquid
within strongly reminded me of Tokyo tap water in a badly washed
bottle of Sprite.  No wonder it was on sale in a 100-yen shop.

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