Manicured Gardens, Island Getaways, and Manga-Infused Maid Cafes – Further Explorations of Tokyo

Reflections of the city in the Kyu-shiba-rikyu gardens

After having explored the people-watching districts of Shibuya and the Takeshita-dori, having flashed your plastic around in the shopping havens of Ginza and Harajuku, having paid your respects and taken in the culture at the shrines and museums in Asakusa, Ueno, and Marunouchi, and having raised your glass to a hearty “Kampai!” with some new friends in the nightlife hubs of Shinjuku and Roppongi, you may be asking yourself how to spend your remaining time in the city.  Luckily, the list of potential activities for one to participate in here in Tokyo is long enough that is would take months or even years to exhaust them all, let alone the days or weeks than many visitors spend here.  With that in mind, and now that I’ve toured around a few of the more famous neighborhoods, I thought I’d get off the beaten track a bit and explore some of Tokyo’s other, lesser-known districts, to see another side of this mega-city.

For many, the first images that first spring to mind when imagining Japan are not necessarily the over-stylized ninja or samurai that we see in movies, the kimono-clad, white-faced geishas, the delicately made bites of sushi, or futuristic cities straight out of a science fiction novel, but that of obscenely cute, disproportionately built cartoon characters either batting their moon-sized eyes at your or godzilla-sized robots battling to the death — and if you are counted amongst that lot, then this next neighborhood is for you.

Akihabara, Tokyo:

The neighborhood of Akihabara, also known as “Electric Town” or “Akiba,” is the perfect place to channel one’s inner otaku (a geeky or nerdy person who shows obsessive interests in one topic), as this district is essentially the center of the universe for the manga, anime, and gaming cultures the world over.  Originally, Akiba began as a district that specialized in electronic goods (thus the Electric Town moniker), but it quickly morphed into a new setting — largely male-dominated, by the way — in which murals or posters depicting anime characters are plastered on every wall, shop fronts line the streets selling manga novels and small figurines, visitors try out their cosplay outfits (literally “costume play”), and girls dressed in maid outfits stand on every street corner passing out fliers to entice you into their cafe:

The main drag in Akihabara

A typical street scene in the area

The Kandagawa River the flanks the Southwest side of the neighborhood

An advertisement for a maid cafe, where young women dress up in French Maid outfits (often with accessories such as bunny ears or a tail) and serve the customers snacks, play games, take photos, or just generally ratchet up the cuteness level as much as possible.  Regardless of one’s opinion of these activities, the dozens of cafes here are insanely popular – so much so that they set time limits on how long one can stay in the cafe and still often have lines stretching well out the doors

Kagurazaka, Tokyo:

Take a turn towards the calmer side of life, the Kagurazaka neighborhood, in the Northwest side of Tokyo, offers a much quieter and more serene way to enjoy the city.  Away from the pulsating energy and modern influences of the city center, this area allows one to leisurely stroll the back alley and side streets, taking time to stop into one of my many temples and shines tucked away, to have a seat and sip on a cup of tea in a cafe, or to browse through the eclectic collection of shops and storefronts that pepper the streets.  This is the type of place that one would like to live — still close to all of the action in the city’s heart, yet away from the chaotic crowds and rush of commuters.

The Torii Gate at the entrance to the Akagi Shrine

The alleyways in side streets in Kagurazaka bring with them a great deal of character

Kichijoji, Tokyo:

Following in the same vein of the “great places to live in Tokyo,” another unique neighborhood is that of Kichijoji, to the far West side of the city.  Popular amongst the counter-culture (dare I say hippie?) youth, the area offers a variety of artistic and alternative shops and cafes, the likes of which would be harder to find in the heart of the city.  Additionally, the center-piece of the area is the Inokashira Park, complete with walking paths around a lake, its own zoo, and home to the Ghibli Museum (if you’ve watched much Anime, I’m sure you’ve come across the founder, Hayao Miyazaki).

The subdued and tranquil residential streets of Kichijoji

The in-your-face commercialism of the rest of the city doesn’t shine through much here, aside from this single street just as you exit the metro station

Inokashira Park in the heart of the neighborhood

A small temple on an island in the middle of the lake

O-mikuji: small strips of paper with random fortunes listed that are received in exchange for a small donation at many Shinto Shrines. If the fortune turns out to be a negative one for the bearer, it is traditionally tied a fence of wires strung between two poles, where it — alongside the other unforntuate predictions — creates a unique visual scene

Ikebukuro, Tokyo:

And to bring an end to the seemily infinite stream of neighborhood shots, I’ll finish with revival-in-progress district of Ikebukuro.  The main draw here is the commercial and entertainment sectors, as the area is littered with massive mega-mall complexes, such as the cheerily named Sunshine City, as well as the Toyota Automobile Complex, if you’re into cars.  Additionally, this area has also picked up the thread where Akihabara left off, and has become another anime and mange hotbed, this time specializing in girls comics and games.

Yep, another street shot — but in my defense, Tokyo is just such a photogenic city

The Otome Road has become the female answer to the male-centric Akihabara

While pursuing additional activities in Tokyo, I decided to derail the “simply wander around a new neighborhood” trend that I had been on and signed up for an informal class in Japanese Calligraphy.  Although the Japanese language can be written in either Hiragana or Katakana scripts, the most formal and artistic means is to use what is called Kanji — a script of largely Chinese characters that have been borrowed by the Japanese and can often be read several ways.  Although the translations can sometimes be difficult, Kanji also allows both an artistic flourish in the way they are written and clever word plays in the way they are translated.

Our sensei (or teacher) showing us the ropes

My first attempt at writing my name in Kanji. The teacher had to think about how to translate “Andrew” in Kanji for a minute, but she came up with these two characters, the first meaning “safe” or “calm,” and the second meaning “tide,” as in what comes in and out of the ocean.

Posing with the finished product

Additionally, in an attempt to both break up the endless rivers of glass and concrete and get back in touch with a more natural environment, I chose to seek out a few of the many gardens that are sprinkled throughout the city (and throughout Japan, for that matter, but the future destinations will have to wait for the time being).  But unlike the more free-flowing, helter-skelter gardens of the West, the Japanese gardens are a highly refined art, where the overall layout is meant to reflect a natural environment in miniature (though often this means a metaphorical interpretation rather than a direct copy) and where the placement of each individual stone or tree is highly scrutinized.  There are a variety of styles of gardens, too, ranging from karesansui — commonly known as “rock gardens” and featuring very little actual vegetation — to the the roji — gardens intended to give one something visual to admire while enjoying the tea ceremony.  Two of my favorite gardens in Tokyo — the Hama-rikyu and the Kyu-shiba-rikyu Gardens — which also happen to be only about a block apart, are more “stroll” gardens, where paths lead the visitor around deliberately designed landscapes.  Here area  few of the scenes that were laid out (including my opening shot above):

The Kyu-Shiba-Rikyu Gardens

Another angle from the other side of the lake

A small bridge in the Hama-rikyu Gardens

Along with trees, rocks, and lakes, the gardens also can feature various flower fields or patches, such as the one seen here

The Hama-rikyu gardens also had a small tea house in the center of its lake

The view over the garden from inside the teahouse

Shadows playing along the walking path

Kamakura, Japan:

When your energy reserves begin to drag and can no longer keep up the pulse of the city, when strolling through a garden no longer recharges your batteries, and when you simply need to get away from the urban metropolis, a great day trip is to the nearby town of Kamakura in the Kanagawa Prefecture, along the coast to the south of Tokyo.  Kamakura enjoyed its heyday as one of the early feudal capitals of Japan in the 1100-1300’s — during the time when buddhism was taking root in the area — but what remains today is largely a scenic, nature-oriented area, complete with hiking paths, a beach, a few islands to explore, and dozens of temples littered throughout as relics to the Buddhist past.  After an hour and half train ride, you’ll be smack in the center of the town of Kamakura, which has a few interesting sights, but for me, the joy came from stopping into temples as I hiked a few of the paths that snake across the area:

One of several hiking paths through the area, a great relief from the concrete confines of the city center

The Tokeji Temple

View over the coastline seen through a break in the foliage near a hilltop

Another of the main attractions to this area is the Daibutsu, or “Great Buddha,” which is made of bronze and stands nearly four stories high

If you forgot to bring your hiking shoes, however, there is a small electric train that will guide you around Kamakura (because let’s be honest, this is Japan, and there are trains to take you anywhere you want to go)

Off the coast near Kamakura, there is a small, but festive island named Enoshima that makes for a good half-day excursion, too.  After making it through the tourist shops selling their wares and past the crowded beaches upon exiting the electric train (shown above), it is just a short walk across a modern bridge to get to the island itself.  But the exertion doesn’t stop there, however, as the island is basically a huge, rocky hill with a series of temples strewn along the step-laden path up to the top.  There are a few great views to take in from the summit, however:

Looking out across the bridge towards Enoshima Island

The beaches surrounding the entire area really drive home the sensation that you’re out of the city

The beginning of the path up to the top (with Japanese schoolgirls optional)

The view back towards the mainland

Making it to the far side of the island is like stepping into a completely different environment, with rock formations, a cave system, and some very photogenic coastlines

The streets and walkways up and down the hillside

A solitary fisherman silhouetted by the sea

Although I haven’t yet finished my post on the food and drink around Tokyo, I couldn’t help but indulge in a specialty of the Enoshima Island: that of a small, white, bait-fish called shirasu that is boiled and served up on a bowl of rice.  Although shirasu can be found in other parts of Japan, only in Enoshima is prepared by boiling the fish and keeping them largely intact, as seen below:

A nice looking bowl of Shirasu

Surprisingly enough, Enoshima has its own beer, too — a malty hop-bomb that compliments the salty bait fish perfectly

After having spent a little over a week in Tokyo, I’m nearly exhausted.  However, I’ve still got another month to go here in Japan, with my next destination being the mountain hideaway of Takayama.  As mentioned previously, I’ll have a food and drink post out soon, too, but until then, I’ll leave you off with a few pictures from the Awa Odori Dance Festival — part of the Obon holiday and held in Yoyogi Park in Shinjuku (the main festival is held in the Tokushima prefecture, however), that I was lucky enough to witness while in town.  Until next time!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

2 Responses to “Manicured Gardens, Island Getaways, and Manga-Infused Maid Cafes – Further Explorations of Tokyo”

  1. As always, I am a little jealous of all the fun you’re having. I do have 1 question, why is all the water green?

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