Cabinet of Curiosities, and the Curiosity that it Tokyo

photo: The garden (or one of) in the Imperial Enclosure

a pond and a varied and beautiful garden

There was a sighting I wanted to mention from yesterday - on my walk to Sake Plaza, I heard rhythmic yelling and saw what appeared to be a schoolyard. I walked over, to find myself sharing a piece of fence with another couple of foreigners. We watched as the students tried to run around a track in groups of six or eight, each group stomach to back with their team-mates and with all their matching legs tied in step by a rope. All the left ankles roped in a line, each about 45cm apart, same thing on the right side. If you can picture what I'm talking about, you can imagine that it would take a lot of teamwork to move at all. I immediately reached for my camera ... and was warned off by the woman in the couple who pointed out a sign on the fence, in both Japanese and English, saying "no photos." The woman said "Never in all my life have I seen anything like that in America." Yup. She then added "The girls seem to be doing better than the boys," which struck me as fairly likely. Teamwork - essential, unavoidable teamwork - it's a Japanese thing. And possibly something our culture doesn't even understand.

Let's talk about vending machines. I made a note this morning that they were all cash-only, which wouldn't fly in North America. But, having thought that, I watched the machines today - and what do you know, they do take cards ... Suica cards. You know, the ones for transit? Which I think can only be charged with cash ... So as North America rushes to an all-credit society, the Japanese seem to be holding back.

After breakfast this morning I went to Kudanshita metro station to follow Lonely Planet's "Imperial Palace Grounds Neighbourhood Walk." Those palace enclosure walls are impressive as hell: tall, made of massive and well-fitted stone blocks, then backed by earthworks. And surrounding probably hundreds of acres of land.

A LOT of runners go through the Imperial Enclosure. One of them was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt. More bizarre was the Mario Kart people. It's a thing in Tokyo: you can dress up as a Mario Kart character, and drive a go-kart around Tokyo. The path obviously takes them through the Imperial Enclosure - and, as I learned later, also through Akihabara. Look it up on YouTube if you want.

Part way through the walk I got to the National Museum of Modern Art (oddly abbreviated MOMAT), which concentrates fairly heavily on Japanese art. Big line-ups for the current special exhibit, but walked right in for the permanent collection. Right time period for me, but wrong style: not much Impressionist stuff, not even much in the way of abstracts (another thing of mine). It was still good: there were some pieces I enjoyed, and I was definitely educated about Japanese art (which I admit to knowing very little about beyond Anime).

Then I entered another part of the Imperial Enclosure, where they checked the contents of my bag and gave me a plastic tile that I had to return when I exited the compound. What's the significance of this? Entry is free, and it seems there are better ways to do a head count ... That section, the Kōkyo-Higashi-Gyoen, includes some truly beautiful gardens, including an awful lot (according to the signage, 84 varieties) of irises, most of which were in bloom: it was a good time to be there. The water lilies were just opening up too.

photo: Irises in the garden in the Imperial Enclosure

purple and white iris flowers

Once out of the Imperial Enclosure, I went to the pleasant but not spectacular Wadakura Fountain Park, took a few photos, and headed to the fairly hard-to-find (again, up a floor - and not marked on the building inventory of businesses, had to ask at Tourist Info) "Intermediatheque." This is a fairly large space that draws its display from the University of Tokyo collections - across all departments, and a very long history. Imagine an old school "cabinet of curiosities," before they became a staple of travelling carnivals and turned more to the grotesque (and/or fake). Skeletons of fish, birds, a giraffe (that's damned impressive, never seen one without its skin before), a crocodilian prehistoric creature, weasels, ferrets, you name it. Stuffed birds by the hundreds, dozens of mammals, mathematical models, mechanical demonstration models from 1900, steam engine models, butterflies, snail shells ... They can't be said to have put together a collection with any particular aim, but what a joy it was to wander through anyway. Wish I'd gone to that last time I was here - I still would have gone back again! (No photos allowed <sigh>.)

Just down the street is the Tokyo International Forum, which appears to be a conference centre (currently hosting a conference on Diabetes). There are two buildings, one of which looks almost exactly the way you expect a conference centre to look: large, boxy, full of rooms and smoothly anonymous. But it's attached to another building in three or four places by glass bridges. And the other building is 150 metres long, seven stories tall, sketched out in glass, and almost totally empty. It's a huge, pointy-ended oval shape that contains a great deal of air. And on the far wall, occupying perhaps one tenth of this space, are more conference rooms. They seemed almost an afterthought. In a city where real estate is at such a premium, wasting it like that is just ... well, beautiful and insane.

At this point the Tokyo subway app on my phone that's been so useful up to now showed its true colours. I was at Tokyo Station and wanted to get to Akihabara: it told me to take one line two stops, change to another line, go two more stops, then walk about five minutes (because it didn't make it quite to Akihabara) - and it would cost ¥280. This ignored the JR (Japan Rail) Yamanote line entirely, which runs directly north of Tokyo Station to Akihabara: two stops, for ¥135 - and more importantly, no changes and a lot less hassle. So now I know: whoever makes that app works for the subways and doesn't work for JR ... The Yamanote line is slightly expensive by distance, and not technically a subway (it's a raised or ground level rail line), but it does a loop right around the centre of the city and is incredibly useful. Ignoring it is stupid.

In Akihabara the flashing lights and screaming noise quickly sent me on my way. I saw it last time, and despite being a geek, I didn't love it then either. It caters to geeks, in almost every form: computer, Anime, gaming. (And the Mario Karts go through it.) But I didn't feel the need for gaming figurines, and I've already mentioned my doubts about buying computer tech in Japan.

I went to the nearby and very weird Maach Ecute mall, built in the former Manseibashi railway station: the hallways you walk run right through the shops, and the only division between shops is the short low corridors of the old station structure. I found my way upstairs, where I discovered that the half-life expectancy of a café in Tokyo is about two years - as the trainspotter's cafe N3331 recommended by LP had been replaced by the <something> Fish Café. But there was still a public glassed-in, open-topped space (with plants and benches) to sit and watch the metro trains cruise by on both sides. So strange, and yet fascinating.

I walked over to the Jimbōchō area to fulfill another important food appointment: I really wanted to get a Japanese curry before I left. One of my favourite meals of my last trip - which I don't think I even wrote about because at the time it seemed like a cop-out - was in a mall, at a Japanese curry chain restaurant. I really love Japanese curries: they have all the flavour of an Indian curry with none of the heat. It's not that I mind the heat, it's just a different way of handling curry, and I like both. So I went to the LP-recommended "Ethiopia." Like the ramen shops, you order from the vending machine just inside the front door. No English so I went by the pictures, and compared to the pictures outside that had at least one line of English description ... Ironically, going with an independent restaurant recommended by LP may have been a mistake: they used some spice (cumin or coriander seed I suspect) in noticeable quantities, a flavour I wasn't expecting. Don't get me wrong, it was quite good: it just wasn't exactly what I'd hoped for (which is the wrong attitude to take with you when you're travelling).

I've been giving a lot of thought to my ambivalence about this city. One reason for my frustration with the place may have to do with money: it's a very expensive city. In my mind, I tell myself I'm okay with the cost: I'm travelling, it's fine. But I suspect my subconscious is counting pennies and getting totally wound up. (If you're wondering, Seoul is noticeably cheaper.) But I don't think that's the whole story. It's a huge city and the tourist sites are scattered far and wide which means I ride the metro more and walk less, and even when I do walk I cover proportionately less of the city. And that means I get less of a feel for the city. But I've done more walking in the last couple days, and most of the time it feels like walking kilometre after kilometre of Bay Street in Toronto: business buildings with no personality or sense of place. Where are the neighbourhoods, the places people live and eat and play? Akihabara is a "neighbourhood," if by that you mean an area defined by a common purpose - but it has no sense of community, everyone is a visitor come to shop. And maybe it was that thought that led to this next one: it seems like no one lives here, they're all just visitors like me. They commute in to eat and shop, and then leave again to go back home - because home isn't here. (There wouldn't be school yards if no one lived here.) Which makes me think of Seoul again: the area my hotel was in was incredibly vibrant and alive. It had a strong sense of place, an energy, and I loved being there. I felt - at least a little - like I knew the place. Tokyo is all disconnected in my head, a bunch of tourist sites that are nominally in the same city. But there's no sense of cohesion, no sense that it's one place or even has a personality.

All of which means that when I leave tomorrow, I won't miss it much. Seoul I'd return to in a heartbeat: Tokyo has so many more tourist sites and fascinating things to see I haven't yet managed to fit in, and yet the city itself doesn't appeal to me. I have no clue if this will make sense to anyone else - and I'll understand if it doesn't, because I'm still not sure it makes sense to me.