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Episode 10: Winter in Tokyo

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Coming back to Tokyo was a pleasure after Hokkaido, but alas, I have been forced to realize that winter is slowly but surely coming here too. It's now November, temperatures are approaching the 10-degree mark and leaves are changing color, no more going outside without a coat and I've been forced to turn on the heating.

I still feel that Japan "shouldn't be like this", since I've already experienced two summers, but this is my first winter here since the ripe old age of 5. But little tell-tale signs are showing up here and there: all the vending machines now sell hot green tea and corn soup instead of cold barley tea, oden (fish soup) stalls pop up like mushrooms during the night and disappear by morning, the plaintive call of the yaki-imo (baked yam) seller pulling his cart along echoes through the streets, even the lowly bowl of ramen noodle soup tastes so much better now... and while the amount of clothing padding the upper body continues to increase the poor trendy girls of Shibuya still refuse to add a single inch to their miniskirts (although this would admittedly double the length of quite a few of them).

Wintery skyline

Christmas at Shibuya 109

Mingeikan covered in snow
Another thing I wasn't expecting was the sheer amount of Christmas advertising everywhere, even the locker rooms of Todai's gym are decked with holly. Grinches complaining about the commercialization of Jesus's birthday in the U.S. and America ought to take a peek at Tokyo: here it's all snow, Santa Claus, reindeer, holly and happy little dwarves, just a generic winter holiday celebrated by eating Christmas cakes and getting drunk at the all-you-can-drink parties on Christmas eve.

Todai's fall season for Japanese classes started in October and I finally signed up. I introduced my matter with 「大変遅すぎます けれども、日本語の授業に参加したいのですが…」 and was immediately placed in Japanese 7, intended for advanced learners of the language. Oops. Oh well, all good practice for the Level 2 exam, which is breathing down on my neck with less than a month to go. One downside of my ever-increasing Japanese ability is that, now that I can understand most of the lyrics, I no longer find enka (演歌, syrupy Japanese popular music favored by the older generation) nearly as hilarious as I used to. Even Mori Shinichi's reworking of a certain Lennon hit fails to raise much of a chuckle:

寂しさで暮しててら (samishisa de kurashitetara)
living with this loneliness
涙よに強くなりなよ (namida yo ni tsuyoku narina yo)
never strong enough not to cry
yesterday, yesterday
帰らな日だけだ… (kaerana hi dake da...)
just a day that will never return...

But, on the plus side, a few select Japanese pop acts are starting to appeal. M-FLO rock! 「朝まで動かせこれ上げな…」 Not to mention the unique sound of Seksu Roba, whose eponymous first album with its reworkings of 60s TV show samples and songs like "Zero Gravity Miniskirt" and "Cha Cha on the Moon" has been playing on repeat for the past few days. (Try the conversions ks->x, r->l and b->v if the name doesn't make too much sense at first glance.)

I recently spent one weekend on the prowl in the downtown neighborhoods of Yanaka and Sendagi, now within walking distance of Tokyo University, and these days also inundated with gaijin tourists after Rick Kennedy spilled the beans in his "Little Adventures in Tokyo" (boo!). Yanaka is the heart of Tokyo's Shitamachi (下町, lit. down-town), the poorer working-class districts in the Edo days, and one of the very few places in Tokyo that managed to avoid the firebombing of WW2. The steamroller of Progress has still torn down almost all the old buildings in the area, but you can still spot the occasional pre-WW2 wooden shack, even the very occasional carefully restored/recreated traditional Japanese house. The results can be found here:

Facade, Nezu

Bicycles, Yoyogi-Uehara

Shop, Yoyogi-Uehara

Alley, Yanaka

Laundry, Yayoi

Chef, Yurakucho
See also http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/Japan/Tokyo/OldTokyo/ for the full set. Isn't digital photography wonderful? =)

Ed. Some people seem to agree, since the bike picture above won the Photo of the Week award at photo.net.

The other reason to go to Yanaka is Kanekichi Tea Merchants (金吉園), which proudly identifies itself as 「谷中老舗」 ("Yanaka's Old Shop"), and is in my humble opinion nothing less than the best tea shop on the planet. Kanekichi imports tea and utensils from all over Japan, prepares their own special blends, and sells everything at very reasonable prices (100g for Y400 and up). Try my own favorites, Yuki-no-ume (雪の梅) for a strong, sharp green tea (Y600); or Yanaka-midori (谷中みどり) for a smoother blend of matcha (抹茶, powdered tea ceremony tea) and kukicha (茎茶, tea plant stalks), Y600-1000 depending on the grade of matcha used.

And there's one more special winter treat coming up: evidently Hotel New Otani, one of the swankiest places in town, has an uncharacteristically reasonably priced fugu teishoku (pufferfish set meal) during the winter. Fugu, as you may or may not recall, not only looks like a spiky football but contains a particularly nasty variety of nerve toxin that still kills a few people every year, mostly inept fishermen or kabuki actors looking to spice up their lives -- and usually you have to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege of this Russian roulette, with normal prices Y10,000 and up. Fortunately, a local restaurant here in Komaba offers a cheaper variety of Russian roulette, called "Russian sushi". If you order it, you get 6 pieces of perfectly normal-looking tuna roll, and 5 pieces are indeed perfectly normal. The trick is that one of the six pieces is loaded with a sinus-searing wasabi bomb...

11: J3J Awards >>