Rama Llama Bang Bang

I was very happy with the kind comments I received on the Tiong Bahru Uncle photos as I thought they affirmed the refinement of my aesthetic and my maturation as a photographer and artist. My recent Tokyo holiday helped hone my eye even further, with the avant-garde sensibilities of the city inspiring me to envision the spaces of everyday life in new ways, and opening my mind to the nuanced dimensionalities of existence.


So, here’s my favourite thing I bought in Tokyo.

New Bathmat

Wallpaper* magazine, don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Tokyo: Day Two

In usual EPIC FAIL style, apart from never completing any travel blog series of entries I’ve started (or never even starting any at all, for Sarawak, Siem Reap and last year’s UK/Ireland) and wholly failing to write anything here about the awesomeness of my last three birthdays, my wedding or my honeymoon, I just realized while packing for tomorrow’s trip to Japan (to Kansai region and the Takayama festival this time), that for our February trip to Tokyo, I only managed to capture a few hours on the day we arrived!

So in a comically pathetic attempt to improve this record, I now present: DAY TWO of Tokyo!

We were lucky enough to be able to meet up with the closest thing we had to a local expert, our old hallmate Hsien Li, who was in Tokyo for a one year research stint.

After morning mass at the Franciscan Cultural Centre near Roppongi, she took us to Gonpachi, which, depending on who you believe, was either an actual filming location for the teahouse in Kill Bill or merely Tarantino’s inspiration.


Happily ensconced in our booth, we caught up with Hsien Li over nice inexpensive food (Frommer’s is so right when it says that from the outside you expect this place to be much more exclusive than it is) and lots of ocha.


Sated, we hopped on a bus to Shibuya, which is exactly what one expects it to be like from TV, and walked through it to Yoyogi Park. I tried out my A650IS’s swivel screen at a flea market we passed along the way.


The Sunday atmosphere at Yoyogi Park was great, with lots of bands strategically spaced out along the pathways, tinny-amp-sound-projection-length apart, some clearly dressing and performing to be noticed, others earnestly performing boy-band J-pop.


Tokyo’s rockabilly boys and girls were also out in force, and we joined their crowd of very entertained onlookers for quite some time.


Encircled by our gawking, they danced completely without self-consciousness, sometimes interacting with each other as they struck poses and whooped when a new favourite song started playing, sometimes absorbed in their own personal enjoyment of the music. It was pretty delightful to watch.


These rockabillies sure don’t do things by halves.


Hsien Li and Alec finally managed to tear me away from the rockabillies and we headed to the famous bridge where the Harajuku kids congregate. It’s an interesting experience being there, not quite like what I expected. I’d always assumed the sole motivation for dressing up like that and turning up there was to see, be seen, and pose for tourists, or else why not hang out with your friends somewhere more pleasant and spacious than the side of a bridge? But although they tolerate the crush of tourists jostling to photograph them, most of them are far more focused on their own little social groups and don’t play to the cameras at all.


Of course, I joined the throng of tourists too. This photo has garnered more views on Flickr than any other from my Tokyo set so far, probably because before a Flickr commenter informed me that the girl on the left was cosplaying the guitarist of Dir en grey, I just assumed the girls were gimps and tagged the photo accordingly.


Elsewhere along the bridge: a “Free Hugs” girl, a swarthy middle-aged man facing away from the pedestrians and into the road, blasting U2 on his boombox and screaming along in Engrish even though his voice was so hoarse it was nearly gone, another guy in his 20s/30s dancing wildly to music on his headphones which no one else could hear. Again, I know nothing about J-rock or cosplay iconography, so I have no idea who this girl on the right is. These living dead sure dress nattily though.


You’ve seen this one before, but I still love her so I have to include her here too.


It’s amazing how the tranquility of the Meiji shrine is only minutes’ walk away from the madness of Harajuku, in the middle of a forest. It was the first of many Japanese temples and shrines in muted green and weather-beaten wood that I soon realized I liked much better than their gaudy Chinese equivalents.


There was a wedding in process at the shrine. Although I’d initially thought none of my photos of the wedding procession would be any good because I was reluctant to charge forth and get too much in their faces, I somehow like how this one turned out, especially the beautiful expression on the bride’s face.


After this, we parted ways with Hsien Li, who had been a marvellous guide and incredibly tolerant of my incessant photo taking, and went to the Ukiyo-e Museum to try and understand what the big deal is about Japanese wood block paintings. Apart from the process of production, which clearly requires great skill and dedication, I unfortunately still find the aesthetic of the finished products rather unappealing.

Much walking, some gleeful cosmetics and toiletry buying for me, and a Maisen tonkatsu dinner later, we were ready to call it a night. But this first real day in Tokyo had done serious battering ram damage to the anti-Japan fortress I’d built in my prejudiced heart. The days that were to follow continued this assault. Oh and lastly, photoblogging a trip to Japan just wouldn’t be properly done without documenting some kawaii. We spotted this more than life-sized snow couple along Omote-sando. KAWAII!!!


Tokyo: Day One

I had jokes involving flying NWA, ghetto experiences, and “straight outta Chechnya”, but decided in an unusual fit of restraint that they were too lame to actually make. Let’s move on.


We used the N’EX with SUICA discount deal to get into Tokyo, and at the end of our trip, the airport limousine bus on the way out. A little pricey, but still the best compromise between cost and convenience for us this time.

The Hotel Villa Fontaine Shiodome served our needs pretty well for the week, though if we were on a holiday we would probably have looked into ryokans instead. We found ourselves quite relieved to be in a more peaceful part of town than Shinjuku, yet still well located both for Alec’s work travel and my sightseeing. Except for far too little cupboard space, the room was comfortable, well decorated, had high-speed Internet, and was 5m from a vending machine selling 300Y-and-under beer. The price also included daily buffet breakfasts of salad, soup, a decent selection of breads and pastries, small sausages and hard-boiled eggs – not very elaborate but much more enjoyable for me than the boring continental breakfasts you get in European hotels/B&Bs. All in all, for what you get I think it’s great value for Tokyo, and I’d still consider staying there again (well up to three days anyway, can’t really afford more) even if I were travelling on my own dime.

On with the exploring:

The Shiodome area is full of showy, gleaming bubble economy era skyscrapers, with huge atriums and other large spaces heated uncomfortably warm even on a winter’s night. What we saw of the malls seemed pretty dead; we did see people walking in and between them, but couldn’t conceive how they could constitute enough traffic (on a Saturday night, to boot) to keep the places commercially viable. I know I’m making it sound really depressing, but the emptiness was actually a wonderful respite for us after a cramped uncomfortable flight and lots of hauling of luggage around crowded train stations where every escalator was going in the opposite direction from ours. Raised pedestrian walkways between the buildings take you off the roadside and glass shields along their lengths protect you from the icy winds. Every few minutes a driverless monorail snakes above you, announcing itself only very discreetly with a soft rush of air and muted light trails in your peripheral vision. In the photo, it’s that line of light in the top left.

But we were starving, so dinner took priority over exploring for the meantime. Lonely Planet was pretty useless for our immediate vicinity, so we just walked into the Pedi Shiodome skyscraper next to our hotel and did some walking, hemming and hawing up and down a row of about 10 restaurants, most of which served safe options we were already familiar with, and Komeraku (scroll down for it on that page) which looked cheap and cheerful but we’d never seen the food on its menuboard before. As we stood outside this one frowning and scrutinizing the pictures, its friendly waiter made the decision for us by coming and ushering us in.

I smiled nervously and broke out the “Sumimasen, nihongo ga hanasemasen. Eigo ga hanasemasuka?” my colleague had taught me, and luckily for us he spoke enough to guide us pretty well through a menu of mostly unfamiliar stuff. When he couldn’t think of the English for “ika”, he drew a happy squid on his order notebook. I understand from bento.com that what this place serves is chazuke, which the waiter described as “Japanese risotto”. We ordered set meals, where you choose whether you want pork or fish broth, and pick two toppings and whatever protein you’re in the mood for. Then you spoon some rice (it looked like long-grain, half-polished rice, and stood up to the broth well without getting all mushy) into a bowl, take your beautiful little soup kettle and pour in some broth, add your toppings, a sprinkling of seaweed and some absolutely wonderful crunchy bitty things that were at every table and gave you little explosions of crunch in each mouthful of soupy rice. It was unbelievably delicious, and for only about 910Y each! This remained one of our favourite meals from the trip.

After dinner we strolled aimlessly but happily around the neighbourhood, just enjoying its tranquility and the feeling of being back in a winter climate. I was also trying to familiarize myself with the new baby I bought just a few days before and my Velbon Ultramax travel tripod, which I’d shamefully not got round to using since Alec gave it to me for Christmas. The difference it’s made to my night photography is an absolute revelation – it’s coming on every holiday from now on! Unfortunately, my rather “experimental” photos during this first night when I was still learning aren’t really worth sharing, which is why this post is light on photos.

On the way back to the hotel, I snapped this ad for a TV series. Further research has revealed it’s based on a manga where the troubled boxing prodigy protagonist and the nun who tries to help him develop feelings for each other. Oookay.

Tokyo: Smoke Break

Back from Tokyo, and it was awesome! Unfortunately, immediately upon returning I have been catapulted into a work shitpit, so I can’t do much updating at the moment. In the meantime, maybe you might enjoy chilling with my Harajuku girl while waiting. I’m printing her out and sticking her to my wall at work this week to remind myself (a) that I was just on holiday, and (b) to breathe.

Harajuku Girl

Must Not Moon Yasukuni

Japan has never been high on my list of places to travel to, mostly because nothing I’ve ever seen or heard about it has ever really appealed to me. Everything I’ve seen of its cities in the movies looks dystopic and ugly and makes me want to hide in a corner, and the bizarro Japanese quirks that seem to fascinate the rest of the world usually just annoy me. I also have a larger political problem with Japan’s shifty stance on its wartime atrocities, which is probably the main reason my feelings about Japan have always been decidedly chilly.

And yet, I am going to Tokyo next week. Never underestimate the ability of a free hotel stay to triumph over my principles!

Alec’s there on work, so I’ll be exploring on my own the vast majority of our time there. If anyone has tips about how a non-Japanese speaker with a decent but not excellent sense of direction can best enjoy exploring Tokyo (and nearby places like Nikko, Kamakura or Hakone) alone in the depths of winter, please share. I’ve done a fair bit of reading up, but I’d be especially interested in hearing about any particular places, activities or meals that people found especially memorable, or anything that people would not recommend. So far, my plan A is to do totally cool edgy shit, transcending language and cultural barriers and finding a new enlightened understanding of this nation I have so long disdained. My plan B is to spend 7 days in Daiso, which would also be bliss.