24 July 2009

Shopping, eating, and two kinds of beautiful women.

Friday, 11.37pm

Today started out messy but ended up really terrific.

After three solid days of Japanese ancient culture (two in Kamakura, and yesterday’s trip to Asakusa and Ueno Park), I decided that I needed a bit of modern Japanese culture. So, instead of doing more history, I thought I’d go shopping, to get a feel for modern Japanese people and catch a glimpse of the world-famous Tokyo design sensibility.

First stop was Roppongi, which is well known as a hedonistic center.

Bars, restaurants, and strip clubs are all over the place. I found some really beautiful design (clothes, furniture, art), but most of it was, alas, not Japanese. In addition to the heathen scene, Roppongi is also becoming a high-end-retail center, so there were lots of boutiques from NYC, Paris, London, Germany. The Japanese stores I went into were disappointing, except for a gourmet food shop that reminded me a lot of Balducci’s near Lincoln Center.

Also, it was rainy. And warm and humid. So, I’m walking around a disappointing area, and I’m wet, hot, and sticky. PLUS, I couldn’t find the one store I was looking for. Not a good start to the day.

Disappointed, I moved on to Shibuya, which is a combination of Times Square and soho:

Lots of shops, both big and small. Big chains (Claire’s, Tower Records, HMV, multiple Starbucks – including one in the photo above). I found some nice things to buy in the shops. Also, I found the Tokyo Apple Store! While at Shibuya, the sun finally came out, making my wet clothes hot AND wet. Mmmm. Fortunately, the sun didn’t last for long, and by the time I left Shibuya, the rain was back.

From Shibuya, I went up to Harajuku, which caters to a teenage clientele:

I found some more gifts, and a Japanese toy store (Japanese-designed toys were on my list of things to investigate). Also, I found this sign:

Interestingly, right below it, a man was boasting very loudly about how smorky he was. Out of nowhere, the cops came and hauled him off.

From Harajuku, I zipped up to Ikebukura to meet Sou for dinner again. He suggested that we go to a street festival in Shimbashi. That sounded good to me – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Anthony Bourdain, it’s that the soul of a culture can be found in its street food. Sou and I headed to Shimbashi, where we ate bits of everything. In honor of Aunt Laura, here’s a collection of the goodness:

Small fish (6” or so), fried whole, eaten whole:

Fried squid:

Some sort of starchy potato-like thing, served with spicy mustard:

Chicken with a teriyaki-like sauce:

Soft-shell crabs (about the size of my fist) and grilled tuna:

Shark, sardine, and green onion fritters:

One thing we didn’t have was Ayu, these medium-sized fish that were grilled whole, head-down, over a charcoal grill:

After dinner, Sou and I wandered to another part of the festival, where there was dancing and music. I just intended to record the event, but Sou decided that I should learn the dance. He found a nice lady to teach me the dance, which was basically a 30-second loop of the same dance. She said I danced well. Here is her (on the left), me (second from the left), and some other women after the dance:

Accompanying the dancing was recorded music and live taiko drumming. There was one drum, but there were four drummers (it looked to me like a grandpa and four older grandchildren). Sometimes they took turns drumming (each for about a minute at a time), and sometimes two played at once. Here are two of the drummers:

I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the four drummers were women. Beautiful, strong, focused, intense women. Sou says that until about 10 years ago, taiko drumming was male-only (sushi-making too), but that now women are starting to make significant inroads into the field. Taiko drumming is very athletic. The sticks are huge, the drum has major rebound, and the performance generally requires some extra-musical flourishes (stick twirls, flips, poses, etc.). I met some of the drummers after the event was over, and Sou took a photo of us.

Another thing that happened at the festival was a beauty pageant. Here are the winners – a totally different kind of beautiful women:

After the festival, Sou and I had a cup of coffee and then boarded the train. I had a great time with him, it was nice to have some social time after a few days on my own in a strange city.

Now I’m back at Ian’s apartment, trying not to distract him from his work. I think I ate a bit too much fried food, so I’m trying to placate my stomach with some diet coke. Ian and Reiko and I are hanging out again tomorrow – not sure what we’re doing yet… but I’m sure to write about it!

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