Homogeneity is often associated with Japanese society, rightly so with ethnic Japanese making up 99% of the population and the cultural tendency to embrace collectivism rather than individuality. However, just as more and more youth strive to stand out rather than fit in, that non-native 1% works to make their adopted land comfortable for them instead of forcing themselves to assimilate. You will find many foreign dining establishments manned by people of that extraction, many of them halal, and hear any number of tongues mixing in with Japanese, their speakers sometimes switching between the two. In terms of representation (not accommodation, that’s entirely different), English speakers are a minority, dwarfed by Chinese, Korean, and many others. A classmate even told me that housing agencies frequently place members of the same ethnicity in the same area of Tokyo, generalizing and sticking all foreigners together the secondary method followed by dropping them off in all-Japanese neighborhoods. This classmate was surprised when she arrived in her first apartment to a slew of welcome notes written in Chinese and a stand on the corner selling dumplings she termed “the only decent ones in this entire country.” Of course tensions between natives, permanent residents, and tourists (especially tourists), but exchange generally has more pros than cons. See: Crepes from France! Curry from India! K-pop from Korea that in turn spawned J-pop while remaining popular itself! And many more imports I’ve enjoyed thus far. One example the outside making a place for itself inside Japan permanently is Yokohama Chinatown.
I was lucky enough to be able to make the trip out to Chinatown, in the far reaches of Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Kanagawa but still accessible by the same metro line I commute on, during the Lunar New Year celebrations. Torrents of people traversed a network of shop-lined, lantern-strung streets, with the occasional taxi struggling to cut through.
A street view.
Caroline at the gates.
Off the main drag was where the real spectacle occurred. Having survived many a parade in my day (baton twirling, no, not the cool kind with fire), I have to give major kudos to the pre-teens at the heart of the procession. Commemorating the New Year and welcoming good fortune in Chinatown involves lots of drumming and firecrackers to accompany the movements of a massive dragon puppet. The dragon puppet and its posse make their way up and down every commercial street, entering every business for at least ten minutes as tray-bearing waiters and harried shoppers swerve to avoid it.
A less active dragon overhead.
The dragon is manned in shifts, each pilot emerging just as sweaty as the last and shivering in the cold air. After three or four stops, the drumming was too much and it was time to move on.
Dinner was of course dim-sum and we lucked out in terms of cultural exposure in that the staff at the restaurant we ended up in spoke Chinese. (As well as Japanese and English; feel inadequate? I do.)
Close up and the big picture, minus dessert.
Our multi-course meal involved congee (a savory rice pudding), various dumplings, nikuman, eggroll, and a gelatinous raspberry concoction for dinner. The soy sauce was truly amazing, the richest I’ve experienced.
We lapped the main street a few more time, taking in a few alleys as well. The dragon procession was still in full swing when we finally left, right after I made a new friend!
The pose was his idea.
A nice break from the usual! I’ll definitely be heading back when it’s a little warmer and a little less deafening.
This past weekend was a long one, with an undergraduate holiday on Friday and Monday off for National Foundation Day. Many of my classmates took trips, both school sponsored and independently, to the mountains for a few days of skiing and sightseeing. Between spending the last week stressed about my lack of a debit card and my general scatterbrained state, I failed to realize this break even existed until Wednesday of last week.
Rather than scramble to find a bus ticket to and capsule hotel in Gifu or Nagano, I decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to get off the beaten path. I’d done Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, Asakusa, and a few smaller areas, most more than once, but I wanted something a little calmer, a little less geared towards consumers.
Turning to Google, more specifically the always helpful Tokyo Cheapo (although it is a little irritating to be standing in line at ” _______ ramen/tempura/sushi” behind twenty other foreigners and hear the site cited as directing them to the present location), I found my destination within minutes: Yanesen.
A portmanteau of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi, three interconnecting neighborhoods north of Ueno, Yanesen most closely resembles old Tokyo in terms of architecture and cultural life. Shitamachi, which literally means “under city” or lower city, is the style which characterizes Yanesen, and is opposite Yamanote, “mountain hands,” as a socio-geographic designation. The terms date back to the Tokugawa era, when the affluent, samurai class lived in the hills, hence “mountain hands,” while the artisans and merchants lived in the physically “lower” area, the marshland. The secular Yanaka cemetery, which takes up nearly all of 7-chome and is a quick walk up stairs from the Nippori station.
Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street, serves the center of all activity for the three neighborhoods, but it’s nothing close to Nakamise or even the alleys that surround my train stop in Kawasaki.
Stalls manned by a single vendor lined either side of the street, with no one calling out to potential customers or beckoning with flyers. Croquets and skewers of yakitori were cooked on demand at some of these stalls, for only a few hundred yen a pop. Menchi-katsu, a fried meat cutlet, is particularly relevant to the area as it was originated at one shop and then adopted by another shop directly across the street. For the sake of this post, I obviously partook in such delicacies, and feel that my inability to document this serves as a testament to their merit. (Look forward to a post about me developing gout and/or diabetes somewhere down the line!)
Walking about twenty minutes away from Yanaka Ginza, down Sendagi 2-chome, will bring you to the Nezu shrine.
One entrance, parallel to a drug store and Subway-wannabe sandwich shop.
The big picture, the honden or main hall.
Torii! Just when I was starting to envy my friends in Kyoto for their pictures of the Fushimi Inari shrine!
Passing through arch after arch can get a little disorienting.
Built in 1705, Nezu predates the already antiquated architecture of surrounding Yanesen. It brought a smirk to my face to see so many people jogging, dog walking, and self-sticking in such a serene enclosure. I’m sure the sight of my bleach blonde head elicited a similar response from others, especially considering I had only counted half a dozen foreign faces throughout the whole of Yanesen. Interestingly, the few locals I interacted with responded to my garbled Japanese with perfect, barely accented English.
I’m sure even more anachronisms will be apparent after a second visit but for now I’m glad to have devoted a chunk of my sprawling weekend to going (somewhat) back in time.
If you go out alone and don’t take a mirror picture, was it really worth going out at all?
When people talk about Tokyo, expense is a recurring theme. You hear about $6 cups of coffee, two-year minimum leases, and the absence of tipping as that has already been factored into the cost.
However, this is not as black and white as many outsiders think it to be, and in many cases the excellent service (as a hardened barista, this is especially astounding to me) compensates for any overages. And the city itself, with temples, shrines, markets, observatories, and plenty of opportunities for comfortable people watching, will keep you entertained for a few hundred yen, if that, a day.
Due to a debit card snafu, I found myself living on only a few hundred yen a day for the last week. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (though I did walk through several parks since they were free) but it wasn’t half bad. And, as I’m privileged enough to have a place to sleep and Netflix to entertain me in off hours, I never once came close to breaking TUJ policy and seeking out employment in a hostess club.
Tuesday through Friday, my lack of funds was not an issue. Classes kept me occupied for most of the day, I had stocked up on rice/eggs/cabbage previously so my only task was reconciling with eating rice/eggs/cabbage twice a day, and the conbinis on every corner provide a slew of tasty, semi-healthy options for snacks.
Okay, aside from the salad, not very healthy. Remember, I was in crisis. Expect more about conbini later on.
My cell phone bill was due but with my old card out of business, I ended up having to borrow some money to pay in person. The company was very understanding and I ended up only having to pay half, which left me with more wiggle room.
The weekend could have been bleak with so little in my pockets and so much free time ahead of me, but I lucked out. Saturday was setsubun, the day before the first day of spring which calls for mamemaki, literally ‘soy bean scattering,’ to ward off evil spirits. My aforementioned benefactor (thanks, Caroline!) and I set out for Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, about an hour and a half away with most of the trip covered by our commuter passes, to get in on the action. Let me tell you, it sure beat spring cleaning!
The temple grounds and surrounding areas were bustling, vendors beckoning passersby with bright signs, kimono-clad locals roaming amongst those of us bundled up in parkas, and rickshaws coasting the calmer side streets.
Cleansing smoke in a packed crowd.
Koi enthusiastically waiting for spring.
True window shopping on Nakamise street as performed by Caroline.
I ended up splurging on food but with three days of thriftiness and a few hours of walking behind me, it was well earned.
Ramen and matcha gelato; egg included, b.y.o. pasty hand.
We made several laps of Sensoji, capturing pictures from every angle and stage of lighting. A sudden drop in the temperature and a rise in actual Buddhists present, steadily replacing tourists, indicated that it was time to leave.
With 1,000yen left and no clue when my card would come, our Sunday plans were even more low-key. Our commuter passes give us access to thirteen different stops at no cost so we set out to explore a few of them. Our neighborhood, a transportation hub, is mainly apartment buildings, housing young couples with small children and sometimes a grandparent, all desensitized to foreigners. A few stops ahead, at Tamagawa, this was not the case. Houses with gates and gardens surround an empty station and a lush park, couples were usually childless, fretting over small dogs rather than strollers. The next stop made, at Senzoku, had considerably less green space and more traffic than I’ve seen so far. We spent a little time exploring the sprawling streets, also lined with more houses than apartments, few people in sight, before proceeding onward. Fudomae, our final detour, was the most familiar with lots of English signage and fewer stares. After ambling around a shrine that was particularly popular with stray cats, it was time to head home.
In order: a shrine at Tamagawa, “Engrish” at Senzoku, and a camera-shy cat at a shrine at Fudomae. All credits to Caroline.
Aside from my cell phone bill, I managed to make it a week on just over 2,000yen/$20 dollars. And with no harm done to my mind, body or Instagram feed. The moral of the story is that for a supposedly expensive city, Tokyo can be pretty cheap…for a college kid, with no real responsibilities.