Jun 28

Demystifying Tokyo’s Pop Culture

Evidence of Tokyo’s exuberant pop culture is everywhere we look: kids posing in the flamboyant costumes of their favourite manga characters; enormous posters advertising the latest anime release; colossal neon-lit department stores dedicated to comic books, video games and toys; girls wearing cheeky get-ups to attract the geeky boys to the maid cafés…

To help us make sense of it all, we consulted a couple of locals who are authorities on everything from robots to monsters, Tokyoite Hiroko Yoda and her partner, American-born Matt Alt. The husband-wife authors and translators run a company specializing in the production of English versions of Japanese video games, comic books, and literature and have written books on pop culture subjects, including “Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan”, “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide” and “Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws”, due to be released in September. Hiroko and Matt also write for CNNGo.com.

Tokyo’s pop culture in a few words?
Hiroko: Cute, grotesque, funny!
Matt: Robots and monsters!

Japan is perceived as traditional and conservative. Explain its vibrant, youthful pop culture.
Hiroko: I think it’s a misnomer that Japan is a “conservative” culture. It may be conservative in official sorts of settings but when it comes to personal interests, private time and entertainment, all bets are off. Japan has had a thriving popular culture for hundreds of years, since the Edo period (17th century). Back in the 19th century, there was a fad for Japanese woodblock prints throughout the world. So “pop” culture isn’t necessarily new here.

What’s ‘otaku’ culture and where can we get a taste of it?
Matt: ‘Otaku’ may be increasingly a dated term, but the culture of pop-culture worship it spawned is most definitely still relevant. The term first surfaced in the 1980s as a way for fellow manga- and anime-obsessed fans to address one another. Literally it’s just a politer-than-polite, almost passive, way of saying ‘you’. The otaku scene is hugely consumer-driven so the best places to experience it in Tokyo are where otaku traditionally shop: Akihabara and Nakano, for starters.

And ‘otome’ culture?
Matt: Otome culture is an offshoot of otaku culture – it’s about female otaku and their interests, which often (naturally) differ from those of men. There is actually a street in Ikebukuro called ‘Otome Road’ that caters to them.

Top 3 pop culture experiences in Tokyo?
Hiroko: My recommendations tend towards the historical, places like the Tanuki Temple on the backstreets of Asakusa, which is devoted to the animal-yokai of the same name, or climbing nearby Mount Takao, which is famed as home to the Tengu, another type of mythical creature.
Matt: If you have even the slightest nerdy bone in your body, I recommend a shopping trip to Nakano Broadway. It’s a shopping complex that has basically been invaded and re-invented by otaku. It’s filled with comic book, toy, and anime stores.

What are the differences between ‘anime’ and ‘manga’?
Matt: Anime is ‘animation’. Manga are comic books, though ‘graphic fiction’ might be a better way of describing them, as manga aren’t necessarily for kids. Japanese anime and manga have a unique style and flavour that sets them apart from animation and comic books of other countries, and that’s precisely why they’re so popular around the world today.

Where can we learn more about anime and manga?
Matt: You could do worse than visiting Akihabara, which is filled with anime and manga shops. In particular, the Mandarake Complex store is a single towering building filled with anime, manga, and their assorted merchandising. You could spend hours browsing through its many floors of products.

If we wanted to explore anime, where would we start?
Hiroko: A safe bet for anime are the works of Hayao Miyazaki. They tend to be whimsical and family-oriented without being saccharine sweet. “Spirited Away”, “The Princess Mononoke” and “My Neighbor Totoro” are all classics.
Matt: For something a little edgier, the science-fiction epics “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell” are excellent introductions to anime style. In the US, for instance, many bookstores have sections devoted to them where you can browse, flip through, and find ones that appeal to you personally.

How do ‘kawaii’ fit into the scheme of things?
Hiroko: Kawaii, cute mascots and characters, are everywhere in Japan. They’re part of the fabric of Japanese society here. We go into a lot of detail about it in our book “Hello, Please!”

And ‘yokai’?
Hiroko: Yokai, monsters, are the mythical creatures that have populated generations of Japanese folktales. They’re the things that go bump in Japan’s night.

Can these be traced back to Japanese traditions?
Hiroko: They’re very much a part of Japanese culture. Some are directly related to actual religious or cultural concepts. Others are like explanations for then- inexplicable natural phenomena. But most are more like old wives’ tales with faces. They’re the pop characters of a bygone age – superstitions with personalities!

The kids in the outrageous costumes?
Matt: You mean the ‘gothic lolitias’ you see around the station? It’s basically ‘cosplay’, which is usually applied to people who like to dress up like their favourite anime or manga character. But it also applies to people who wear elaborate costumes of any sort, like the gothic types that populate Harajuku. Those people are sort of the fashion side of the cosplay phenomenon.

Where can visitors to Tokyo see it? And should they participate?
Hiroko: It’s a pretty inclusive sort of thing. I don’t think anyone would have a problem with someone dressing up. But it isn’t cheap, especially at the higher levels. The costumes can be quite elaborate. So it isn’t the kind of thing you can just whip up out of your closet. There are stores that supply the people who enjoy cosplay and provide the special things they need.

Explain the ‘maid cafes’.
Matt: There’s a type of establishment in Tokyo called a ‘Hostess Bar’, where salarymen drop by for drinks and to flirt with the female staff who serve them drinks and conversation. The maid cafes are essentially an otaku version of that.
Hiroko: The maid outfit is a big motif in a lot of anime and manga. It’s sort of a fetish thing. Maid cafes originally sprang up as places where lonely otaku could talk to the opposite sex about the things they liked: anime and manga. But now they’ve transformed into a big subculture in and of themselves.

Japan’s obsession with toys? Should adult males really be collecting dolls?
Matt: Hey, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But I’m biased. I love robot toys!
Hiroko: It’s true. I have to keep reminding him we don’t have any more room for robots in the house.

And Japanese games?
Matt: There used to be a thriving video game arcade scene here. But now that there are powerful home game systems like the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, the need to go to arcades has dropped drastically. Most people play online, at home. But there are definitely still arcades out there. Shibuya and Shinjuku have more than a few.

Pachinko parlours? The locals seem pretty addicted to them!
Hiroko: Pachinko is a form of low-stakes gambling. It’s like a vertical pinball machine, where the object is to get the balls to bounce off of pins and into little holes. The machines pay off in more balls, which you can exchange for various products. Or you can go out back and exchange them for money, which is technically illegal but ignored by the authorities. Pachinko parlours tend to be really noisy and incredibly, incredibly smoky places so I avoid them like the plague.

Best souvenir?
Hiroko: Plastic sushi from Kappabashi street, Tokyo’s kitchen supply district!
Matt: A tote bag with a parasite motif from the Meguro Parasitological Museum!

You can also read Hiroko’s stories at CNNGo.com and Matt’s writing at his blog AltJapan.

Jun 28

Tokyo Take-Homes: Quintessential Keepsakes

I don’t need to give you ideas as to where to find beautiful, locally made take-homes in Tokyo – although it’s a task I’m very happy to take on! – as there’s no shortage of lovely stores selling even more enchanting souvenirs, or omiyage in Japanese, all over Tokyo.

For me, the most quintessential Tokyo mementoes are things like pretty chopsticks, elegant handkerchiefs, delicate coin purses, colourful washi paper, traditional cloths (as pretty as they are, they’re often used for washing dishes, wiping up messes and drying bodies!), and floral-patterned ‘insulated bottles’ (thermos flasks).

Department stores such as Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, and Matusya are all great places to find gorgeous gifts, and our friend Yuto recommends Oriental Bazaar, which is fantastic for kimonos, yukata, dolls, woodblock prints, ceramics and antiques.

My favourite one-stop shop is Tokyo Hands, a terrific place that sells everything from kitchen goods to wet weather gear for monsoon season. They produce an excellent brochure, aimed at visitors directing you to the best floors for souvenirs which you can pick up from the information desk on your right as you enter the ground floor Shibuya-ku store.

Tokyo Hands is where Terence finally found his canvas knife case and a replacement meat thermometer (he accidentally left his in some lucky holiday rental kitchen somewhere) and I found my Kurochiku drink warmer (I’ve always wanted one), pictured above.

I usually only do one or two ‘Take-Homes’ posts per destination, but shopping is so fabulous in Tokyo that I still have two more for you to come, in addition to the previous one on Supermarket Souvenirs. Look out for Stationery Souvenirs and Kitsch Keepsakes for Kids.

Been to Tokyo? What’s your idea of a quintessential souvenir and where did you buy it? We’d love to know.

Jun 28

Why would you cook in Tokyo? A Guide to Where We Ate.

Tokyo is the first destination of our grand tour where I haven’t cooked. If you’ve been to Tokyo, you can probably appreciate why. If you haven’t, then read on…

One of the huge advantages of staying in a holiday rental over a hotel is having a kitchen to cook in. For us, cooking isn’t about saving money, although that’s obviously a bonus, but is more about being able to visit local markets and buy and cook fresh produce, and being able to cook the dishes I’ve learned to make from locals (from Marrakech to Puglia), from chefs (in Barcelona, Paris and Kotor) and at cooking schools (from Venice to Paris).

Occasionally we’ll also do a bit of entertaining, whether it’s to cook dinner with or for new friends (in Ceret, Sardinia and Puglia) or hold a party or two (in Dubai and London). But mostly, food is another avenue way to get beneath the skin of a place and its culture.

So when I first laid eyes on the compact, well-equipped kitchen in our Tokyo apartment, I had all intentions of making some Weekend Eggs and doing a Tokyo edition of my series on The Dish. That was until our third day in the city when we realised that eating in Tokyo is such a treat that we were never going to do much more in the kitchen than make tea or coffee or mix an evening drink.

In the mornings we’ve found that we’re often not hungry as a result of some late-night nibbling, whether it be yakitori or a long evening at an izakaya (Japanese bar), and due to the worst jetlag we’ve experienced in many years, coupled with late-night drinks and conversation, we haven’t exactly been up at the crack of dawn. Of course the crack of dawn appears to be 4.30am judging by the light coming through our windows.

Breakfast doesn’t seem to be a big deal for the Japanese either. The local favourite of rice, some fish, and a raw egg was one of the dishes that I could have done, but that wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste for my Weekend Eggs, would it? There’s an omelette dish called tomago yaki, but it’s generally made in a special cake-like tin and is sweet – not really breakfast material in my opinion. So, no Weekend Eggs from me this destination.

And with the definitive plate for The Dish for Tokyo, where do we start? Gyoza? Udon? Soba? Yakitori? Sushi? Oden? Shabu-Shabu? Tonkatsu? Tempura? Truth be told, I would have had a hard time making one of these dishes for less than you could buy them in any one of the dozens of dedicated eating establishments that specialize in them – not to mention making them as good as the local chefs do, even the humble ones.

To do a sushi ‘cooking’ course when you won’t be buying fresh from the Tsukiji Markets every time you attempt sushi seemed futile and ultimately frustrating – it takes years to learn the art of sushi making, even buying the fish from the markets is an art, although I didn’t do too badly prepping tuna sashimi at Enrica Rocca’s cooking school in Venice recently.

Plus there are so many different styles of food to try in Tokyo that as it is we have had difficulty getting through them all. One thing I desperately wanted to experience, braised pork belly, hasn’t appeared on any of the menus in the places we’ve been to and we’ve been kept so busy eating as it is, I haven’t had time to seek it out.

Compounding this predicament (ah, the problems of travel writers… you feel sorry for us, don’t you?) has been the enormous selection of delicious take-home snacks in the supermarkets. Lara has consumed so much dried fish products she has started to meow.

So I make no apologies. I’m guessing it could take months of living in Tokyo before I’d be craving something that wasn’t from the Land of the Rising Sun, because the cuisine here offers so much variety.

Having eaten so well in Tokyo, I’m now going to find it hard to eat Japanese food outside Japan. I want to return and eat more, not try and replicate it at home. Is there a greater compliment to a cuisine than that?

To prove my point, here’s a sampling of some of the meals we’ve had within walking distance of our apartment:

Izakaya On our first night we went out looking for noodles, but came across Nogizaka Uoshin, an izakaya with an emphasis on seafood. The seats were milk crates topped with cushions, the diners were all locals (most on an after-work eating and drinking marathon), and the affable staff had the day’s specials handwritten on paper signs stapled to their t-shirts. It was rowdy, it was fun, the seafood was fast disappearing from the open display at the front counter, and we were in heaven. Sashimi, oysters, tempura… we couldn’t have had a better welcome to Tokyo. Another night we tried an ‘upmarket’ izakaya called Takewaka. Every single morsel of food that hit the table was sublime from the little appetisers to the eel, from the octopus to the fish skewers. Sigh.

Ramen On one late start to the day we were headed to our favourite burger place (period; this is our favourite anywhere in the world), Mos Burger, when we saw a local noodle shop and ramen specialist called Kohmen, packed with slurping diners. We couldn’t resist and had some fantastic food. The basil gyoza and little succulent pork appetisers were brilliant and the ramen soups – ladled out of enormous pots – were stunning. The ramen may have come from a chain (they have three places) and might not be from some famous noodle king, but damn it was amazing.

Sushi & sashimi Another morning we decided we didn’t really need to try a crazily-priced sushi place (where the set menus can easily pass £100 without drinks) and decided to try a local eatery that we’d noticed was very popular with workers for lunch and locals for dinner. While the tuna was transcendent, everything else was merely great, but as we left they were filleting whole fish for dinner service – that’s what you want to see! It turns out that the place, Itamae Sushi, is considered great. They are actually originally from Hong Kong and they’ve made the news a lot in Japan with their bids at Tsukiji Markets for whole tuna. That explains it!

The thing is that all of these places are within easy walking distance of the apartment. There are so many outstanding spots to eat in our neighbourhood that I could easily spend a month having lunch and dinner here and not walk through the same restaurant doors twice.

Is it any wonder I didn’t want to spend any time in the kitchen? Would you? How many trips to Tokyo do you think it would take before you might be tempted to cook in your own kitchen?

Jun 27

Akasaka & Other Tokyo Neighbourhoods

As part of our quest to get beneath the skin of places we’re visiting, this year is about exploring neighbourhoods, rather that ticking off sights. We won’t be going to see the Imperial Palace (we visited it on our first trip years ago), just as we didn’t see the need to climb the Eiffel Tower again in Paris. And we don’t feel like we’re missing out on anything either. We’re very content just to kick back in our own and other Tokyo neighbourhoods. This is a rundown of the ones we like.

Our apartment is located midway between Akasaka and Roppongi. While Roppongi occasionally appears in Monocle and Wallpaper – Tyler Brulee has called Roppongi’s Zen-like Tokyo Midtown a model mall development – Akasaka rarely gets a mention in magazines and with no notable sights to speak of, appears on very few guidebook contents pages. Akasaka is as local as ’hoods get and that’s just the way we like it.

On the road that connects Akasaka with Roppongi, there are countless restaurants of every kind and a dozen mini-marts, and in Akasaka itself, just a 10-minute stroll away, the streets are jam-packed with izakayas (Japanese bars), fast food places, karaoke spots, pachinko parlours, boutiques, and golf bars where mad-keen golfers practice their swing.

Aside from a tiny Korean quarter where there are BBQ restaurants and grocery shops selling kim chee, and a couple of British-style pubs where expats like to down beers with their Japanese co-workers (as we did one night while we watched the World Cup), there are few foreigners around. Instead, the streets are relentlessly busy with office workers hurrying to and from work, to the ramen, soba and sushi restaurants for lunch, and to the countless bars for drinks after-work.

After dark, it’s mostly locals eating out and spilling out of the izakayas onto the semi-pedestrian streets, and government officials and businessmen ‘entertaining’, and the streets teem with taxis waiting to ferry inebriated drinkers home when they’ve managed to miss the last train home for the night. It’s a fascinating neighbourhood.

A ten-minute hike up the hill in the other direction, Roppongi is a different story. Here, the swish shopping mall developments of Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills dominate what was once Tokyo’s party heart. The main street is still lined with glass towers boasting floor after floor of restaurants, izakayas and “badd girl” bars, but the sleek Roppongi Hills and Zen-like Midtown have gentrified the area somewhat. But at midnight the touts would have a different opinion of just how gentrified it is.

While worlds away from Akasaka and Roppongi, laidback Yanaka, with its tranquil leafy streets lined with old, low-rise, wooden houses, is an endearing place and our next favourite neighbourhood. Yanaka epitomizes what Tokyoites call a ‘shitamachi’ neighbourhood, one that is charming and traditional, where life carries on as if it did a century ago. (Asakusa, although a lot more touristy, is another one). As most of the lanes are too narrow for cars, people ride bicycles and water their potted plants outside their doors on what is essentially the footpath. The retro vibe of the area is appealing to Tokyo’s hipsters who are moving in to open tiny bars and boutiques selling vintage clothes, as well as art and crafts.

The quintessential ‘shitamachi’ neighbourhood with atmospheric laneways lined with antique wooden houses, Asakusa remains charming even if it teems with tourists (local as much as foreign) on weekends. While people come primarily to worship at the dramatic Kannon Temple, they also head here to shop for red bean buns and rice crackers (as well as souvenirs), on Nakamise Dori, the little street that takes them there. The more interesting shops, specialising in everything from pretty fans to handmade hairbrushes are to be found on Denboin Dori and its sidestreets.

Between Denboin Dori and Hanayashiki Amusement Park (Tokyo’s oldest), are dozens of cheap izakaya and yakitori places that are packed with locals on weekends who are here for the off-track betting (which explains why the horseracing is on most televisions). Most places don’t have English language menus but you can always point. It’s loads of fun. The Amusement Park and surrounding lanes are where you’ll find most of the cosplay action now the scene has mostly moved on from Harajuku.

Shinjuku, Shibuya & Harajuku
With their neon lights, narrow lanes and crowded streets, Tokyo’s buzziest neighbourhoods must be Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku. There’s no denying you’ll bump into foreigners, expats and tourists, but each of these ’hoods still remain as local as they come. Shibuya and Harajuku are shopping meccas for Tokyo’s youth (as is adjoining Aoyama, where you’ll find our favourite mall Omotesando Hills), while Harajuku is also home to the tranquil Meiji shrine, and Shibuya boasts scores of izakaya, bars, clubs, and love hotels. Shinjuku is the place to head for yakitori in the atmospheric alleyways beside the railway line, and drinks until the wee hours in the Golden Gai quarter, but more on that in another post.

Jun 25

Local Knowledge: Yuto from Tokyo

We normally leave our Local Knowledge post (interviews we do with locals who have helped us get beneath the skin of a destination), until the end of our two-week stay in a place, however, we thought we’d move this one to the front of the queue as it dispels a lot of myths that seem to exist about Tokyo and its locals.

Tokyo locals aren’t friendly, we’d heard. “They’re shy, so they won’t make an effort to speak to you,” said one person. “They’d rather you just go away, because they get embarrassed they don’t speak English,” said another. “They actually don’t want you here at all,” said one long-term expat.

Had the Gods heard? Because every day in Tokyo has brought myriad encounters that make myths of this advice.

At the Nagasaka Metro on our first day a businessman offers tips and assistance with buying the best train tickets. As we study our map having taken a wrong street returning home one day, an office-worker offers to assist, going as far as to walk us down the street from which he’d just come to show us the right way home.

One night, looking for an Akasaka restaurant with signage only in Japanese, we ask staff at a soba restaurant to point us in the right direction; instead, the kimono-clad woman slips on her wooden shoes, grabs a parasol, and gestures for us to follow her – in the rain, to the next block, and down another lane – to our restaurant.

Another evening, we’re standing outside our apartment block looking at a map and discussing the best route to take, when a young couple asks if we’re lost. We’re not, but we accept their advice and – as they turn out to be so lovely – their offer to show us the best way to our destination, a 15-minute stroll away.

“We’ve just had a big dinner and need a walk,” they insist. But as we walk and talk, we discover that over their meal, the young just-married couple – the wife, Kazuki, a marketing and sales executive, and her husband, Tetsu, a restaurant manager – had just made a resolution to help foreigners who look like they need some help.

“We were talking about how we see so many tourists in Tokyo who look a bit lost, and they seem too shy to approach Japanese. As we’ve both travelled we know how the foreigners must feel, so we decided that we would help anyone who looked like they needed it!” We’re lucky to be the first.

And then there is Yuto. We meet Yuto Yamada, who looks like a hipster out of a Wong Kar Wai film, and his friend at a smoky yakitori place down an atmospheric alleyway beside Shinjuku railway line. Heavy metal music is blaring, the owner is sporting an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt and, fittingly, the patrons are drunk or well on the way to it. Of course, there is no menu in English and we have to wait for a couple of guys to stumble off into the night to get a couple of seats.

We sample a few skewers before Yuto, offering to translate our order to the yakitori guys, recommends the raw liver in sesame oil – one of the main dishes he comes here for. We take it as a test of our ability to fit in, which we relish. The dish is delish and you can tell we’ve earned their respect a little. Yuto explains that he and his friend are graphic designers and that they consider this place to be the best on the strip of yakitori joints. It’s certainly the most fun!

Yuto has lived in New York, where he worked in a clothing store while learning English. He admits he’s shy, but it doesn’t stop him from helping us and offering advice, asking whether we’ve done this or that – “Have you been to Shibuya? What about Harajuku?” he asks. We exchange cards and the next morning he emails us: “It was nice meeting you guys last night. I checked your blog. I like your photography. Did you go Tukiji fish market? I forgot to tell you last night. They have a best sushi in Japan. If not, you have to check it out in the morning.” It makes sense to invite him to be our Local Knowledge person.

When we arrange to meet Yuto to shoot his portrait, he suggests midnight at a Shiubya club where he’s heading to meet friends. Terence refuses to ever enter a nightclub again with a camera, so we suggest midnight outside at Shibuya crossing instead, seeing Shibuya is one of Yuto’s favorite hang-outs.

An hour later, a little damp after our shoot in the rain, we’re perched on stools, digging our toes into shagpile carpet as we down beers and potent caiparinhas amidst the retro red interior and mirrors at Yuto’s favourite Shibuya bar, Insomnia Lounge.

What do you most love about your work as a designer?
I can earn a living with my art work at the same time that I can make my clients happy.

Why should travellers visit Tokyo?
In Tokyo people can experience a mix of new and old stuff in a crazy big city. In every season there are different ways of enjoying Tokyo. Stay longer and you can really do lots of things and see so many places.

3 words to describe Tokyo?
A big city, a crowded city, and a city that never sleeps.

And the people of Tokyo?
Cool, busy, and original.

Top recommendations for visitors?
Visit Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills just so you can really check out the concrete jungle we all live in here in Tokyo. Go to Shibuya, which is the best spot to hang out for shops, izakaya (bars), clubs and more. Spend some time in Asakusa, which is one of Tokyo’s most traditional places with temples and old shopping streets.

Best souvenir from Tokyo?
Some Japanese incense or a green tea set. They’re both cheap and useful. You can find these and other great souvenirs at Oriental Bazaar at Harajuku.

Must-do eating experiences?
Visit Tukiji fish market, where you can eat the best sushi in Tokyo and you can see how the local fishmongers trade seafood, especially tuna, early in morning. Go to an Izakaya, a typical Japanese bar where you can eat and drink a wide range of typical Japanese food and sake or beer. Shinjuku has many great Izakaya bars. Eat Ramen, Japanese noodle. All Japanese people love Ramen I think, and the noodles at every Ramen shop have a different taste.

An essential thing to know before coming to Tokyo?
The trains don’t run 24 hours and the taxis can be a little bit expensive so you need to plan your arrival and plan how you’ll spend your evening.

Most important phrase to learn in Japanese?
Kanpai!! of course, especially for people who like to drink. It’s the Japanese toast like ‘cheers!’

Any other advice?
You can visit Tokyo anytime, but the best season to visit is in April because it’s cherry blossom season. The city is beautiful and local people party under the cherry blossoms.

Yuto Yamada

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