Monday, 20 December 2010

Day 8: Inside the City of Cloth

‘Inside the City of Cloth’ is probably the best title I came up with, as a modification of the final track of Katatonia’s ‘Viva Emptiness’ album. That said, this is the only section that was actually difficult to write, and has had to go through three drafts. I’m still not really satisfied with it, but I can’t imagine it’ll get much better with a fourth draft.

I met my expectation of being the first to wake up on the morning of Harajuku. I was pretty excited at the plan I had for today, thinking that the combination of Harajuku and Shibuya might even surpass Akihabara. I awoke at 7:00, a full two and a half hours before anyone else got out of bed. I filled the time by bringing my notes up to date, doing hygiene-related things and reading. Once everyone else was fully awake and we had eaten breakfast, we headed off at around 10:30.

Harajuku is the centre of fashion in Tokyo, and especially popular on Sundays. Japan-guide and Wikitravel, the two sites that I had made the most use of in my planning, had described it as being a popular location for cosplaying and for dressing in extreme fashions, such as gothic lolita. As everyone who knows me reasonably well will be confused at this point by why I was interested in fashions, I should probably clarify. As far as I am concerned, Japanese women are far more attractive than English women; I was a lot less excited at the prospect of looking at the clothes than I was at looking at the girls wearing them.
The Takeshita-dori, Harajuku 
Arriving at Harajuku station, we orientated ourselves and then set off. We headed first down the Takeshita-dori, which was easy enough to find, and incredibly crowded. Despite being one of the most popular streets for clothes shops, it wasn't terribly wide, and fairly difficult to move (the fact that there didn't seem to be any particular system of keeping on one side didn't help), and we therefore moved down it at a fairly slow pace. I didn’t mind at all, however – it gave me a good chance to look around at both the attractive female population of Harajuku and into the windows of the huge numbers of clothing stores. We eventually emerged onto the Omotesando, the largest street in Harajuku.
Smorking is naturally forbidden.
Surprisingly, so is the usually legal shoplifting.
It was at least pleasantly cool walking down the Omotesando, as trees grew over the paths on either side, providing some measure of shade. We decided to give KiddyLand, the huge toy store across the road, a miss, and instead headed for the Oriental Bazaar, a shop that, according to my research, sold traditional Japanese things that made good souvenirs.

The Oriental Bazaar sadly turned out to be the most awful shop we entered on our trip. It had a polished look with a high ceiling and stone floor that was clearly intended to appeal to westerners. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if it had been set up by an American. Indeed, other than the shop assistants, the only people in there were western tourists, all buying their 'traditional Japanese' souvenirs (miniature swords and dolls and so on) that had presumably been manufactured in some third-world country. Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, and perhaps I shouldn't judge the place too harshly (my friends all bought things from there), but (as melodramatic as it sounds) it was almost as if this shop was personally insulting me. I had spent a very long time meticulously planning a trip that was unique to us and didn't follow any preset routes, and I had felt so far that I had experienced Japan in really quite a special way. Entering the Oriental Bazaar, it seemed like someone somewhere had decided every tourist wants pretty much the same things out of their trip to Japan, and wouldn't it be a bright idea to package those things up and sell them in a shop built to resemble a western department store. Considering the amount of time I've spent on this paragraph trying to explain properly why that shop left me feeling so dead, it still feels rather incoherent, but suffice to say, I didn't want anything, and I was very glad to leave.
The Oriental Bazaar. Ugh.
Coming out of the Oriental Bazaar, we headed back up in the direction of the station. By the time we arrived, I was wondering if I had made a mistake in my research. Other than gawping at pretty young women, one of the main reasons to come to Harajuku had been to see cosplayers – people who dress themselves up as musicians and characters from film and anime. Whilst ‘dressing up’ in the UK is often thought of as a children’s activity, in Japan it is often considered more of an art form, with people putting incredible amounts of care into extravagant clothes and make-up. The sites I had researched had implied that while extreme fashions could be seen everywhere in Harajuku, the cosplayers tended to gather around a certain bridge. Unfortunately, the station bridge (where I had thought they would be) yielded no results, but we crossed it in any case, and headed into Yoyogi Park, the large green space across the railway from Harajuku.

The first thing that met our eyes upon entering the park was a sign telling us which way the nearest temple was. We considered looking at the temple, but I was rather determined to find the cosplayers that I had been looking forward to, and so we instead set off in the other direction.

Thinking I must have been mistaken about the station bridge, I was convinced that there must be a bridge somewhere where the cosplayers were gathering. There were a few small ones over the road, but none of them were covered in cosplayers, and probably unlikely to be the ones we were looking for. We found a Sri-Lanka festival, at which we stayed for no longer than five minutes, and a rather impressive fountain that shot jets of water high into the air. By around 13:00, our stomachs were growling from walking around all morning in the heat, and we decided to abandon the search. Irritated with myself for not doing the research for Harajuku properly, I got out my directions for my recommended place for lunch, which was an okonomiyaki restaurant. For once, everyone agreed to go with my experimental option rather than seeking a safer alternative, and we headed back in the direction of the Omotesando.
The Yoyogi Park fountain

Passing back out of Yoyogi Park and over the station bridge, we finally saw them: two girls dressed in brightly coloured yukata with face masks. Apparently, cosplayers aren’t morning people: the station bridge had been the right one, but we had just been too early for anyone to be there.

In some ways, I suppose two girls was a bit of a weak offering compared to the mass of cosplayers I had been expecting. Even so, I was very glad that we had found what we were looking for, and that a fault in my planning hadn’t caused us to miss anything exciting – indeed, glad enough that I took out my camera for the first time on the trip and got some photos of them, one of which is displayed below. I stood around watching them for a while, but was quickly forced to give in to the requests to get going, and relinquished my gaze on the brightly coloured couple for the much less important business of finding somewhere to eat lunch.
The station bridge cosplayers
In Sakuratei, everyone cooked the food themselves on hot plates in front of them. Although it was an okonomiyaki restaurant, they also had a few other options, such as yaki-soba. Yingke, Mark and I went for the former, whilst Henry ordered the latter. We waited for a short time, and were then brought a bowl of ingredients. There was only room on the table for two people to cook at once, so Mark and I went first, and attempted to follow the instructions which would allow us to turn our assortments of interesting meats and vegetables into edible food.
Partially cooked okonomiyaki
(mine is the one on the left, pre-flipping)
My portion of okonomiyaki included vegetables, bacon, seafood, egg and sauce, and in theory, was meant to end up as a sort of pancake. Whilst Mark commissioned Henry (who had experience working in a restaurant) to flip his pancake at the required times, my determination to cook my own got the better of me, and I ended up with something resembling an explosion. Even when broken, it was delicious, however. After having eaten, Mark and I settled down to wait for Yingke and Henry. I would like to think that Yinke was only completely successful at producing a perfectly round okonamiyaki because he had learned from my mistakes, but perhaps he was just not quite so badly co-ordinated. It took us almost two hours to eat and, when we had finished, we headed back towards the station.

We found the ¥100 shop on our way back to the station, and looked in briefly, but didn’t stay long. The main purpose of £1 shops (and therefore the main appeal of ¥100 shops) is for people to impulse buy things they don’t actually have any use for because they are cheap. Whilst the store owners had managed to grasp the concept of filling a shop with things nobody in their right mind would want to buy, the idea of pricing everything at ¥100 seemed to have been beyond them, and indeed, we didn’t manage to find anything at all that was exactly ¥100. Slightly confused, we exited the shop, and headed back towards the station to catch our train to Shibuya. We had another glance at the station bridge on the way, but there wasn’t much else. The girls who had been there earlier had moved down the street slightly, and there was a cluster of people dressed in gothic clothing on the far side of the bridge, but no more cosplayers. Had I been alone, I would have hung around the station bridge longer in the hope of seeing something else interesting, but I felt that I had already asserted my own desires enough for one day, so I didn’t make the suggestion. We moved back into the station and used our Pasmo cards again to get us onto a train to Shibuya.

At around 16:30, we arrived in Shibuya. Other than generally looking around, our main objective was to go to a Mahjong parlour. I had picked out Shibuton as one that was fairly beginner-friendly (assuming that we were beginners by Japanese standards), and we were able to find amongst the high-rise buildings that made up Shibuya without too many problems. The parlour itself was rather smoky, but otherwise had a nice atmosphere. We were brought drinks shortly after sitting down while an assistant tried to explain non-verbally how our automatic table worked. We eventually got the hang of things, however, and once he saw that we all knew how to play, he left us to our game. It was the best sort of game we could have had - long and dramatic. There were a good number of big hands and two one-shot tsumos. Mark, Henry and I were all in the lead at some point. Yingke who had had rather a run of bad luck, pulled himself back up into second place with a dealer limit-and-a-half (worth 18,000 points) in South 4. Fortunately, I was able to win a quick, cheap hand and end the game with myself in first place before he could combo more than once and rack up any more points. (I apologise for the fact that those last few sentences will have been almost complete gibberish to anyone who doesn't play mahjong.)
A starting hand heading for toitoi, yaku-hai, dora 4
for a limit and a half? Not bad...
Even with the help of the automatic tables, which dealt and shuffled for us, our game took almost three hours. We were charged ¥6000, which seemed a bit steep, but we didn't really complain. When we got back outside, it was around 20:30, and night had fallen. Shibuya is one of Tokyo's main nightlife districts, and looked much more dramatic after dark than it had during the day. The streets were illuminated by dozens of neon lights and crowded with young men and women. Rather than the nightclubs, however, our destination was Sweets Paradise, an all-you-can-eat restaurant which has a few savoury dishes, but mostly specialises in cakes. It didn't look like a very easy route on the map, but we got there quickly enough, and paid our ¥1500 entrance fee.
The crossing outside the Shibuya 109 building
Sweets Paradise was decorated in a red and pink colour scheme, and for a moment, we were worried that it might be a repeat of our evening meal in Osaka. We found out quickly that the groups of people there were a mix of genders, however, and, feeling more comfortable, we headed over to pick up plates. I managed two large plates of noodle and rice dishes, before moving on to cake, of which I managed slightly more than two more plates. There was a fantastic variety, including some delicious chocolate and coffee cakes and one bright green one that tasted absolutely disgusting. After two plates of cake, the usual all-you-can-eat conflict set in, where I felt like I really should keep eating to get my money's worth as far as possible, but couldn't quite bring myself to transfer any more food from my fork to my mouth.
Part of the incredible selection of cakes
at Sweets Paradise
When Sweets Paradise closed at 22:00, we headed back out into Shibuya. It was even livelier than before, and I tried my best to take in all of the sights and sounds of the packed district before we reached the station again and embarked on the long train ride back to Minowa. My friends and I were separated on the train on the way back, as we were all tired enough to accept the free seats distributed around the train, even if doing so meant depriving ourselves of each others’ conversation. This did, however, give me the chance to use my MP3 player for the first time on the trip. I had been rather neglecting music so far (indeed, I think the first few days in Japan were the longest I have gone without listening to music in several years, which speaks for itself). Even so, rather than going for my usual power, progressive or black metal, I listened to some Olivia, the only Japanese artist I have any music by, which matched the mood rather well.

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