Better late than never: A Trip to Tokyo

At the end of November/start of December myself and my friend Chase (whom you may remember from the Busan for Chuseok blog entry) visited Tokyo for a brief 4 days. The main reason for our visit was to go to the most recent installment of the Hostess Club Weekender festival. The main attraction at this year's festival was the recently reformed Neutral Milk Hotel, but there were several other attractive draws on the lineup including Deerhunter, Four Tet and Austra, so we couldn't miss out. Additionally both Chase and I had always wanted to visit Tokyo, so this seemed like an ideal opportunity.

We arrived at our hostel in Ikebukuro in the northern part of central Tokyo in the evening. The advantage of coming to Tokyo on a relatively short 2 hour flight and it being in the same time zone as Korea is that we didn't experience any jet lag. So, seeing as we weren't tired and we knew that the next couple of days were mainly going to be taken up by the festival we decided to walk around. We ended up walking about 7 or 8 miles through Tokyo that night. For the most part we tried to stay off of the main roads to see some of the quieter, more "local" parts of the city. We were bowled over by quite a few things, namely how one moment you could be in a built up, bright metropolitan are of the kind you'd see in a film like Lost In Translation, and just a couple of blocks later you could be in a relatively quiet residential area with only a few street lights illuminating the way, cats wandering around freely and just a few people wandering to their homes. Also, no matter where you went, even in these quiet areas, there were vending machines everywhere - I'm not sure why this stuck with me except that they came in handy a few times in our travels. Additionally, the difference between the different districts in the city was wild, some felt like the modern city we all expect Tokyo to be, some felt like a small Asian village, others had a trendy almost European vibe, and some were kind of a melange of all.

Unfortunately I didn't take many pictures on the walk that night but I've drawn a map of where we walked that night. Each spot is an area that we stopped and explored a little bit, and I've given my brief impressions of each one beneath. 

tokyo walk map.jpg

Ikebukuro: The first dot at the top of the map is the area where we were staying. This was a pretty cool area with lots of bars and restaurants, busy with young people without being too trendy or over expensive. The hotel (Hotel Sakura Ikebukuro) was good too. If I went to Tokyo again I would look into staying here again. Especially since there was a good English pub where we managed to watch the Arsenal match on the Saturday night.

Graffiti on the streets of Tokyo

Graffiti on the streets of Tokyo

Kabukicho: Heading southwards the second dot is Kabukicho, which is in the Shinjuku area. Shinjuku is the largest station in Tokyo, and is a very busy area at pretty much any time. Kabukicho is just about out of the way enough to avoid all the commuters, but is still very busy at is a popular area for nightlife. Here there were plenty of bars, both of the normal type and of the type where you might pay for entry to be able to enjoy the company of some women. We were also approached by many shady characters asking if we wanted to have sex with real Japanese women. We turned them down.

Shibuya: This next stop was a very up-market shopping area that reminded me of Kensington in London. Pretty much everything was closed by the time we got there but there were still lots of well-dressed young people milling about because there were many popular nightclubs in the area. We thought we might come back and check out one, but for the time being we continued on our walk.

The courtyard at Ebisu Garden, where the concert hall was

The courtyard at Ebisu Garden, where the concert hall was

Ebisu: Not far from Shibuya was Ebisu, where the festival was to be held, so we decided to go and check out the venue. The Ebisu Garden was a newly built, very posh complex with a large glass chandelier in the center and many bars and restaurants around. It was very pleasant and it was nice to spend time there over the next couple of days.

Roppongi: Our final stop was Roppongi which had been recommended to be as good nightlife by someone here in Daegu. When we got there it seemed a lot like Kabukicho, where we had stopped earlier, but not as interesting.

So we decided to head back to Kabukicho to finish out the night. My phone had died at this point so figuring out how to walk there was out of the question. We caught the subway and were there in no time. We started out in a fairly quiet bar with some beers and I had some edimame. We then decided to try one of those bars with female accompaniment, since when in Rome yada yada. Unfortunately somehow we ended up in probably the worst one in the whole area with three unattractive middle aged women (none of whom were Japanese) hounding us to buy them drinks, which we resolutely refused to do, despite their constant pestering. We pretty much wanted to leave as soon as we came in, but since our entry fee had included unlimited free drinks for an hour we tried to stick it out for as long as possible. When two very drunk middle-aged Japanese businessmen who were much easier targets for the affections of these women came in, the two slightly more attractive ones left us to attend to them. We were left with the one who was the ugliest, most annoying and worst at English. We managed to deflect her constant begging for wine for 45 minutes by claiming to be extremely poor teachers. Finally when we'd had enough we fled.

By that time it was getting fairly late and we decided to head back to our hotel via taxi. Which dropped us off nowhere that we recognised. We tried walking around using the map from the hotel, while I cursed my phone's shitty battery, having no luck in figuring out where the hell we were. In the end we ended up catching another taxi and had at least a 10 minute ride back to the hotel, so we can't have been too nearby anyway!

Another thing of note from our time in Tokyo was that it was just about the build up the Christmas (November 29-December 2 we were there). The Japanese had gone all-out for the festive season, which was both a blessing and a curse. On the bright side there were beautiful decorations everywhere, very classily done, that made the sights all the more memorable. On the other hand, there was Christmas music in the air, everywhere, which really started to grate fairly quickly.

The next day we headed back to Ebisu for the first day of the concert. Rather than catch the train all the way we alighted at Shibuya and walked the remainder. We stayed off the main road through Shibuya this time and enjoyed the very trendy side streets with lots of boutique type shops and canals that sort of reminded me a little of Amsterdam.

Okkervil River

Okkervil River

By the time we arrived at the concert we had missed the first band Temples, which we didn't really mind since we didn't know them. (I have now heard their album and it's really great so I'm kind of annoyed we missed it.) Instead our day was opened by Spanish synth-pop band Delorean who were fantastic and completely filled the 2000-capacity auditorium with their dreamy sound no problem. I was impressed that even this early in the day the room was already packed - the Japanese are renowned for their die hard fandom and this proved it. The next band up were Sebadoh, whose brand of 90s stoner garage rock was enjoyable and energetic, but pretty much all blended together in an hour-long set. Penultimate band of the day was Okkervil River, one of my favourite bands ever. Although I'd already seen them multiple times I was excited to see them yet again because it would be the first time to hear them play songs from their new album The Silver Gymnasium (which placed in my top 50 albums of 2013) and I suspected that they would be killer live. My suspicions were correct; over the year Okkervil's live show has morphed from alt-folk to full-on rock and their set certainly played into that, with singer Will Sheff lapping up the limelight. Of the new songs "Stay Young" and "Down Down The Deep River" were incredible. From the old crop "Black," "For Real," and "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe" were as brilliant as ever.

Finally it was time for Neutral Milk Hotel. And, as much as everyone had enjoyed the bands prior, it was clear that this is what everyone was here to see. The band released two classic  albums in the 90s and promptly split, with singer Jeff Mangum becoming a recluse for over a decade. In the last few years he came out of hiding and started to tour solo, but what everyone's been dying for was this full renuion to take place. And, since we don't know how long it will last or if it will ever happen again everyone was ready to make the most of this experience - this is why Chase and I HAD to come to Tokyo to see this.  From the moment the band took the stage the whole place was alight. Neutral Milk Hotel famously don't like people taking pictures and after the first song Mangum made an announcement to the effect "please put your cameras away, let's just enjoy this moment together in real time." And we did most heartily. The crowd was bobbing along to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea classics and the merriment was palpable in every person in attendance. Everyone was in full voice for "The King Of Carrot Flowers," "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," "Oh Comely" and pretty much everything else. The band themselves were in extremely high spirits and played several songs from their catalogue; not just their two albums but b-sides and one-offs like "Engine" and "Ferris Wheels On Fire." My favourite song of theirs, "Naomi," was aired around the middle of the set and was breathtaking. The whole experience was extremely uplifting and easily stole the prize as my favourite live show of 2013. If I get another chance to see them I will grasp it with both hands, but if I don't I will cherish the memory of that night for a long time. 

Shinjuku alleyway of good eats

Shinjuku alleyway of good eats

On the way out of the venue we got to talking with a Singaporean girl named Deborah who is currently in Tokyo studying. She's also a long time fan of Neutral Milk Hotel and had had her evening/week/month/year/life made by the performance. We got to talking about all manner of things. It was still fairly early in the evening so we decided to all grab dinner together in Shinjuku. We wandered around for a while unsure of where to eat until we found a quaint little alleyway with many small eateries stashed on either side. They were mostly packed but we managed to find one that could accommodate us and we ate our fill of katsu curry.

After dinner we bid farewell to Deborah. Unfortunately she wouldn't be attending the second day of the festival, but it would not be the last we would see of her.

From Shinjuku Chase and I decided to continue to indulge our penchant for walking instead of using the (rather confusing) subway system. Since we had had a long day of standing up and we were on full stomachs we walked slower than the night before, stopping often to take in various scenes. Once again we avoided the main roads as much as possible and got lost in the various little worlds of the Tokyo resident. The narrow roads and boxed-in houses gave off an unmistakable aura of life, despite the quietness and emptiness. We probably saw as many cats as we did people in some areas.

By the time we got back to Ikebukuro we were just in time to catch the second half of Arsenal beating Cardiff in the local British Pub. That closed at 2am and we wandered around for a little more. I was then feeling a little bit peckish and wanted to indulge in one of the things I was most excited about in visiting Tokyo: sushi. The map acquired from our hotel indicated that there was a 24 hour sushi place nearby, which we promptly tracked down. 3am was great time to be there as it was not busy at all and we could sit at the bar and watch the individual pieces being hand-made right in front of us. Although I went in only wanting a few pieces to satisy my craving, the whole vibe, spirit and of course the delectable taste kept me going back for more orders, and I probably ended up eating maybe 10 different types - all of which were incredible.

One of the more exquisite pieces - eel if memory serves

One of the more exquisite pieces - eel if memory serves

By the time we got back to the hotel to go to sleep it was beyond 4am.

Me and Chase in the Ebisu Garden courtyard

The next day we woke up fairly early and headed straight down to the festival because we wanted to catch the first act of the day, Austra. Their grand and very impressive performance was very much worth the small amount of sleep that we'd managed to get in. The second act of the day was Omar Souleyman, whose brand of Middle Eastern house music is interesting, but can never become much more than a novelty for me. Live this is even more the case as Souleyman just wanders the stage with two dance moves when not singing: clapping along and raising his hands into the air. His keyboardist/backing track player is even less animated. So, after 10 minutes of this we were fairly bored and decided to walk around in the sun instead.

We came back in time for Four Tet, who took to the stage next, and his set was absolutely stunning. An hour of unbroken music, blending songs from his whole discography which took the audience through periods of outright dance music and through more interstellar, cerebral passages too. His hour seemed to fly by much too quickly. The penultimate act was Juana Molina, who neither Chase nor I were familiar with. But, the quirky Argentinian singer songwriter was certainly entertaining and fostered a festive atmosphere in the crowd with her idiosyncratic songs and humorous inter-song talking.

The headliner of the second day was Deerhunter, one of my favourite bands of all time and the act that I've seen more than any other in the world (this being my ninth time, and third in 2013). Despite having seen them so many times before I was as excited as ever because I know how incredible a live band they are, how funny a front man Bradford Cox is, and that they might pepper in some old classics to spice the pot. And, it was Chase's first time seeing them so I was excited for him too. They did not disappoint on any front. The band roared and swaggered through a powerful set; Bradford Cox was in fine form wearing a bleach-blonde wig and talking about how the anus cleaning jet streams in Japanese toilets feel like "being rimmed by an angel"; and the band threw in some songs I haven't heard them play for a long time (or EVER in the case of "Earthquake") such as "Rainwater Cassette Exchange," "Helicopter" and "Nothing Ever Happened" (BPM's number 1 song of its lifetime). It was a mighty way to finish the festival.

Deerhunter strutting their stuff and closing out the Hostess Club Weekender

Chase, Deboarah and Me in front of a giant christmas tree at Ebisu Gargen

Chase, Deboarah and Me in front of a giant christmas tree at Ebisu Gargen

Earlier in the afternoon we'd messaged Deboarah to see if she wanted to hang out again after the show, and it turned out that she did, so we met in the courtyard outside the festival hall. She had suggested visiting a traditional Japanese bath house since it would be fun, interesting, and open late. We thought this sounded like a good plan so we were happy to go along.

We caught the train all the way out to the East of Tokyo, more or less to the shore line to go to the bath house. 

It was about 11 by the time we got there, but the place stays open until 7am so we would have plenty of time. Even though it was late on a Sunday night I was surprised that there were still a lot of Japanese people around, and even some families with fairly young children, although they mostly seemed to be on the way out at that point.

The bath house was quite different and much stranger than what I'd expected. Before entering we had to strip entirely and change into just a thin robe, which was actually pretty comfortable. The main area inside seemed like a fairly old and low-budget knock off of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, with wooden furniture everywhere, statues of pirates, cats and dogs (which were extremely annoying; the dog barking sound drove us nuts after five minutes, while a cat was wagging a mechanical tail that seemed not to have been oiled in centuries and screeched horribly with each wave). There were also some small arcades, restaurants and shops, which were pleasant.

Chase and Deboarah in the restaurant area

Chase and Deboarah in the restaurant area

Our first priority was to eat, since we were starving, and we each got a nice Japanese meal. We sat around the table talking for quite a while after we'd finished eating - which turned out to be a problem. We had intended to go to the foot baths after eating, but little did we know that they were closed off at midnight and we'd sat around talking for too long that we missed it. We tried to sneak in, but unfortunately it was not possible. We decided to explore elsewhere and found some quiet rooms with dozens of reclining chairs, many of which were occupied by people in deep sleeps - so we didn't want to disturb them with our talking. We decided to hang out in the main area on some soft mats and drinking their free tea for a while.

Eventually we decided to go and try the main baths for a while, since we had paid to come in after all. We had been averse to doing so because the men's and women's were separate (due to the full nudity required inside) but we couldn't go the whole night just sitting in the communal area. Chase and I had a fun time in the baths, being amused by the old men who were sat stone asleep in some of them. We entertained ourselves by enjoying the jacuzzi-type ones that you could lie back in, paddling around in the warm baths and also daring ourselves to become immersed in the ice cold bath for as long as possible before scampering back across to the nice, warm 40 degree ones. (Which was horrible, but a fun challenge.)

We stayed in the baths for about 45 minutes. Afterwards we were fairly refreshed, and I was starting to get sleepy. In fact I did fall asleep on the mats for a little while while Chase and Deborah continued to explore. At 5am when the trains back into town had restarted I decided to find my way back to our hotel to get some decent sleep while the other two stayed on until closing.

At around 10am, just before we had to check out, the others came and woke me up. We packed and left just on time.

We still had an afternoon to do something before we had to catch our flight, and there was still one main thing that I wanted to cross off the list. If you are regular readers of this blog you will know my penchant for animal cafes, having been to both cat and dog ones in Korea, and I had found out that in Tokyo the newest trend is owl cafes. After doing some searching on the internet and trying to decode Japanese I managed to figure out where we needed to go to visit one.

On the swings in the playground

I dragged the other two, who were both unsurprisingly rather sleepy, all the way across town to Kiba in the East to visit the owl cafe. Unfortunately, when we got there it wasn't yet open, so we had to wander around for a while. Fortunately it was beautiful day, and yet again we were in another new area of Tokyo that was most unlike the others that we'd already visited.

We ended up wandering through a park until we reached a playground where we watched some adorable young Japanese children play, and we waited for our own turns on the swings - which were worth the wait.

After hanging around there for a little while we headed back to the owl cafe, which was now open, and already very busy. In fact the cafes are so popular that they have been known to have lines outside to get in. This is also largely due to the fact that they are very small and have limited space. When we got there we managed to get the one remaining unused table, which was fortunate.

The way the owl cafe worked was quite different to the cat and dog ones that I'd been to. Whereas in those ones the animals are free to roam around as they please (and have ample space to do so), in this cafe the birds were mostly kept in cages in which they could be viewed. There were not just owls but many types of tropical birds, but they seemed to have rather little space in which to move around, which was not nice to see. There was once bird outside of the cages in the middle of the cafe, which you could go and pet and hold.

The main attraction, the owls, got their own room with windows all around which put them on display to everyone in the cafe and to all those passing on the street. This is probably not idyllic for nocturnal creatures, but it's pretty hard to tell what they're thinking. And it certainly didn't take away from their majesty or cuteness in the case of the smaller ones. After enjoying your drink and after you have paid you are allowed to have five minutes in the owl room where you can pet and hold them, and generally just behold their splendour.

 

A gallery of a few more pics from the owl cafe:

Finally it was time to begin the long journey back to Korea. Google maps had kindly informed us that there was a bus that we could take to the airport that departed not to far from the owl cafe and was much cheaper than the train that we had caught on the way into town. We headed over to where the bus would be leaving and found we had a little time. So we took the opportunity to wander around yet another interesting area of Tokyo and say our goodbyes to Deborah.

Finally we boarded the bus and on the way out of the city to the airport I looked out over the buildings the whole time. I was blown away that for the whole ride, as far as my eye could see, there were endless buildings and residences clustered together and my mind boggled at how many people must be out there. It made me realise that there's so much more to discover about this amazing city, and I would definitely like to visit there again some time soon.

 

Thanks for reading! And thanks to everyone who kept pestering me to do this, it makes me feel good to know that people care and are interested. Hopefully I'll get one done about the snowboarding trips that I went on done soon too.

 

-Rob

 

Quick note/plea: Althought it's been over two months since I last posted a Korea diary entry, this site hasn't been completely lifeless. I put a lot of effort into compiling and writing up my favourite albums of 2013, so please check that out here if you have any interest.

 

Currently Reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville - Newsflash from 1851: This book is amazing. But it's also very long and strange. Sometimes he'll go on for chapters about the best depictions of whales in history (this having been written before the advent of photography), or the types of rope used on whalers, or deep into detail about how a killed whale is stripped of its blubber. The writing is always divine, but sometimes the subject matter can become a bit too dry. However, when he sticks to the main plot about the Pequod and its crew I'm always fully engaged and excited to see what will happen.

 

Currently listening to:

Warpaint - Warpaint - The long-awaited second album by the all-female Californian quintet is dark and sexy, and it took me a lot of listens to actually get into it, surprisingly. It benefited from coming out at the start of the year when there's not much else around to hear, and from the fact that I was reviewing it for The 405, so I continued to listen ,and when it finally clicked - oh boy did it click. The front-runner for my favourite album of 2014 so far - but there's so much potentially great stuff just around the corner.

East India Youth - Total Strife Forever - Although the title amuses and annoys me in equal measure (it being a play on the Foals album title Total Life Forever), the music within is unequivocally very interesting. Surprisingly it's mostly electronic instrumental tracks, with vocals only cropping up every so often. The tracks take several different tacks, but blend together very well into a mighty fine debut album.

Slint - Spiderland - Since there's not been too much great yet in 2014 it's been an opportunity to go back to some old stuff. After hearing the amazing Lance Bangs on The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast talking about Slint and a documentary he's made about them, I thought I should go back to this album. And, I am finally completely hooked by it; its dark, menacing guitars, brilliant storytelling, great dynamics and just overall uniqueness. I love it.

 

A song for this blog post:

Neutral Milk Hotel - "Naomi"