Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sayonara Tokyo!

This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

To use the same Hancock phrase, "it was raining in Tokyo", when we got there and to our hotel, the Imperial Palace.  A very nice hotel indeed.  We had a floor geisha!  She wasn't a real geisha though but it was a nice touch.

Still raining in Tokyo
As it was raining, walking through the Imperial Palace gardens across the street would have been miserable so we split up again with Viv and I heading back to the National Museum that had been closed the time we had tried to go before (it wasn't Monday today).  It was certainly big but compared to other museums I have been to elsewhere, it wasn't packed full of stuff that I'd expected and hoped it would have been.  Rather things were more artfully arranged.  Also sadly the signs on exhibits weren't that helpful either.  No descriptions or background of things, mostly the name of the artist or exhibit and the year in which it was created.  It made it rather tricky to get things in context but I think it goes something like this.

Shogun's armour

The emperors lost power in the 9th century AD when the warlords (Shoguns) took over.  The then emperor was a cypher who simply lost power and the successive Shoguns kept them that way for the next 1,000 years.  The Shoguns came to power by conquest so there were successive civil wars that wracked the country.  As they also kept the country closed to outsiders, there was very little progress so the sword wielding samurai remained pretty much the top of the tree in weaponry terms.  It was largely because of this closed nature and the Japanese habit of executing anyone unfortunate enough to land in Japan either by shipwreck or other means that the US became annoyed enough to sail a fleet into Tokyo Bay and forcibly open the country up by virtue of their weapons technology.

A different Shogun's armor
The exhibits in the museum were arranged chronologically throughout the various dynasties (I think of the Shoguns only as the emperors remained dynastically unchanged).  The early ones showed the similarity with Chinese art, calligraphy and other items - Japan doesn't want to admit it but they are simply offshoots of China that went their own way.  Over time this morphed away from Chinese influence to more home derived influences but there definitely seemed a divide between pre-1860 and post-1860 (when the US arrived) for the museum almost totally stopped at that point.

Gruesome mural!
Mind you I really like museums and I enjoyed this one too.  Even the gruesome screens.

We rejoined the party at a bar called Gonpachi - Izakat made famous (infamous?) in the Kill Bill movie.  Remember the seen when the girl in yellow (the hero) takes on 100 killers with samurai swords in a big room with balconies?  That was this bar.  No samurais tonight though although we did get to chat with the owner who found a table for us (as it was jammed) and brought us drinks.

Dinner though was simply wonderful.

Thelma and Gordon went off to an Italian restaurant somewhere nearby whilst Viv, Cat, Indy and I went to a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, a hole in the wall from the outside but a simple kitchen set up inside with 8 seats around it.  The maestro made up each course in front of us and kept them coming!

Each dish was small, maybe one bite, but really well put together.  My favourite was the sea urchin mashed up into some plain rice with salmon roe over the top.  Other people's was the tuna.

The maestro at work
I don't think I can ever eat sushi again.  This definitely spoiled me!

Next up was Abbey Road, a Beatles tribute band where we were able to sing and dance the night away to someone singing "All My Ruvving"...  Magnificent!

We had an early start the next day as Cat had organised a tour of the Tsukijishiju fish market with Koshiyi, our tour guide.  Cat found him by some obscure means which is quite often the best way as he was a start early before the rest of the tourists show up kind of guy, but we still had to wait till after 9 am for the biggest part of the market activity to be over before we were allowed in.

Tuna technology in action!  That's a 500,000 Yen piece of tuna by the way
Every big city has a place like this so it was great fun to check things out.  It wasn't quite an Anthony Bordain experience as nobody gave us any free samples unfortunately despite Koshiyi stopping to engage almost anybody in conversation with a fish implement in hand and messy apron on.  However that did mean we got to see some action.  Some veggie auctions and some serious hacking about of monstrous tunas stand out.

Being tourists though we still had to avoid the local market particpants who were in all probability sick to death of tourists standing in gangways gawping so still whizzed around on motorized dollies carrying boxes of this and that.  Those things can move!

We split up after in search of varying foodstuffs for lunch but planned to meet up later on at the national Sumo wrestling championships that were being held at that time. Cat had got 4 tickets together but as we were late in deciding to go, managed to sit elsewhere in the auditorium which was lucky as it was sold out.

We were getting pretty good at using the public transport by this point and had subway passes so tried to go everywhere by this means.  The equipment as you'd expect was new and very clean and everyone was really polite even when we somehow got confused or lost (not too often but it did happen).  One thing is that so many people where uniforms and it seems to me that they wear them with huge pride.  There's none of this 'casual Friday' stuff we have, its work equals uniforms.  Shirts were starched, trousers and hems pressed.  Everyone bowed.  Not subserviently but enough to be respectful and polite.  I was very impressed.  The pride in work carried through to the cleanliness and order of the public transport system.

The auditorium was in the Sumida Yaokan district and today was day 6 of 15 for the contestants.  The wrestlers fight every day so its a long drawn out event.  However the auditorium reminded me of a typical event arena; endless entrances, concession stands everywhere and long lines for the toilets.  As we took headsets, we were able to get a bit of a grasp of how things work in sumo. It really isn't just 2 really big guys thumping their thighs and then leaning against one another although to be fair if you didn't know what was going on, you could think that.

The commentators reminded me a little of the Test Match Special bunch.  A group of ex-competitors who knew what they were looking at and could articulate it to a bunch of no-nothing gaijin (we had the English version of course).

Sumo is divided in divisions.  This competition had two such divisions called Juryo (the lower level) and Makucchi split as much by age and size as by ability as during the competition you could get promoted or relegated, so poor performance today could mean being dumped for tomorrow.  For that is really how it appears.

The top guys have the razzamatazz attaching to them.  The wrestler parades, the big music and most importantly before the biggest match ups, the parade of sponsors who hire people to carry around large flags promoting this or that.  In Juryo, the auditorium is half empty and the bouts come and go pretty much unremarked.  Even the commentary didn't kick in until over half way through those bouts for that is how the day went -- about 20 Juryo bouts followed by the same number of Makucchi.

The average size of the Juryo wrestlers was 140 kg whilst for the Makucchi you could add anything up to 70 more kilos!  The biggest was a Bulgarian who was 6 foot 7 inches and weighed 208 kilos which I calculated was around 460 pounds!!  He was a monster although his opponent's canny tactic was to do the thigh thumping start up as usual and then when things kicked off, stepped sharply to one side whilst the Bulgar lurched forward and went straight out of the ring without touching anything or anyone other than the floor and maybe an usher or two.

Very ritualistic.  At the start and end of the Makucchi bouts, all the wrestlers troop on and circle the piste (think round wrestling ring without corners and those stays that stop people lurching out.  Here almost everyone lurches out) and probably do something with religious overtones (think Gladiatorial 'we who are about to die salute you') before trooping off again.

Before each bout, the competing duo come on in turn, stomp around a bit, sprinkle rice on the piste (again tradition but the stadium hires people to come on and sweep up all the time) and then go through the getting ready bit which looks similar to a front row bending down for a rugby scrum except that there's only one wrestler, not the entire front row.  That's when they do the thigh slapping and stomping regimen before turning around and wandering off again.  The preamble can take 5 minutes each time and it is pretty similar except the big bout when one of the competitors did it 3 times and the favourite did the sumo equivalent of nearly spitting the dummy (according to the commentator) and himself nearly stomped off.  The bout itself (as was the case in the main) lasted all of 10 seconds as one or the other got on top (literally) or one may slip over.  In any case, any slight deviation means toast.

The judges in their huddle
Only on one occasion did the 4 or 5 judges (all ex-sumo champions) get hauled into the ring for a discussion about a knotty one.  It seemed to me that one guy held the other by the throat but one other guy fell out of the ring.  The one I thought would win was non-Japanese (there were Turks, Indians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese and any central Asian nationality you could think of) however the judges disagreed and awarded it to the local boy who had seemed to have been unceremoniously dumped out of the ring.  The loser wasn't happy at all about this and the commentator didn't help much other than saying it must have been the winner's under arm shoulder slap and choke hold that tipped the balance.    It reminded me a little of an early Iron Chef competition on Food TV when a US chef took on a Japanese chef in a cook off with turkey as the common theme.  The Japanese guy won with his rendition of turkey sushi winning the day (forget salmonella!).  Home court advantage indeed !!

Fantastic experience though.

Our final day thankfully was lovely and sunny so the Imperial Palace gardens beckoned.  They were across the street from the hotel, so just a short walk away.  A little curious though as the 'gardens' themselves weren't that garden-y if you get my drift.  Rather wide boulevards with grass and trees leading up to the palace gates.  Very big of course but in terms of spectacle and beauty...

Keep off the grass!

However it was really nice to wander around in the sunshine and that's pretty much what we did all day as one of the key aiming points was that street corner which you see on all travelogues or movies about Tokyo -- an immense crossing with thousands of cars and billions of people.  Its called Subiya.

This really is the downtown of Tokyo.  The subway empties out onto a square which then leads off in many directions with large shopping streets everywhere.  No wonder it is busy.  Having waited there a while, I think I've figured out why there's so many people crossing the street at once.  Its the traffic lights.  Because there's so many roads fanning out from the square, each light takes its turn for each exit so that by the time all have had their turn, there's a billion more people waiting to cross the street.  The layout reminds me of Piccadilly Circus somehwat except with billions more people wanting to cross the street, any street.

Subiya Crossing

Viv, Cat, Indy and I found what turned out to be our last ramen noodles and deep fried pork chops at some upstairs hovel nearby (just great of course!!) after which the entire party tramped all over finally finding of all things an upstairs record shop that had a couple of Talbot Brothers vinyl records (!) that Indy bought.  What would take Bermuda's 1950's crooners to Japan for goodness sake? Mind you I found several of the records I have, the most expensive by a street being an LP by a band called Patto that everyone has forgotten about (if they ever cared in the first place, that is) which was on sale for $35.  I'd bought it for $1 when the Music Box sold their entire vinyl collection back in the 1990's. It actually wasn't worth $1 in my book, proving of course that I know nothing!

The last ramen...
We wandered through the funky people district before ending up at our journey's end, which was the 5.15 pm performance of Robot Wars.

Yes that's right, you heard right.  Robot Wars.

Located next to the central train station, this is right in the middle of sleaze town. The Paradise Club was next door just in case you got bored with fighting robots, large reptiles and woodland nymphs.  Oh yes, I forgot the snakes, sharks and marching band too...
This is Japan remember so you just had to have fighting robots with Godzilla thrown in too.  Add woodland nymphs and a story line to make you cringe and there you have it.  Robot Wars.

First though, we had a drink in the anteroom where a group of robots (alright, people dressed up like robots) played lounge music.  Kenny G, that sort of thing.  Not even some blood curdling heavy metal but... lounge music.  Talk about weird.

The lounge.  Very refined.
Then we went down 2 or 3 flights of stairs into a long room where we sat in 5 or 6 rows -- we managed the front row -- and drank beer and ate pop corn whilst we waited.

First came the story line and the nymphs.  Then came the bad robots, followed by the good robots and the very large reptiles that were helping them all ridden by woodland nymphs dressed very skimpily.

Apparently good won out over evil but I don't want to go into too much detail as it would spoil the thrill when you go... because if you go to Tokyo, you MUST go to Robot Wars.

Indy heard about the place from an Anthony Bourdain TV show...
You MUST also go to the weird tea house, the Japanese Alps, travel on a shinkansen, enjoy an onsen experience, eat ramen noodles at a hole in the wall, drink sake whilst eating grilled gizzards, watch sumo, take in a baseball game and of course... climb thousands and thousands of stairs to visit endless temples and shrines.

This was a fantastic trip!! Only sad it had to end...

Sayonara Tokyo... and Japan!

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