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Tokyo Sky Tree March 27, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo Sky Tree” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Nv

Tokyo Sky Tree is the newest landmark in Tokyo.  It is a culmination of planning and building that spanned over 5 years.  Tokyo Sky Tree was officially unveiled to the public when the designs were published at the end of 2006.  Tokyo Sky Tree is currently the tallest tower in the world and second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa.  Sky Tree was built because of the rapid growth of skyscrapers in Tokyo.  In the past, Tokyo Tower, which stands at 333m, was the tallest structure in Japan.  With an ever changing landscape and advances in technology, Tokyo Tower was quickly becoming a regular structure rather than the tall tower that was needed.  Tokyo Tower is a fully functioning TV Tower that broadcasts terrestrial television and radio programs across Tokyo.  With the large towers in Roppongi creating greater problems for Tokyo Tower, the need for a new taller structure was conceived and Tokyo Sky Tree was built.

In 2008, the ground-breaking ceremony for Tokyo Sky Tree was held and the pace of construction has been furious.  Like many buildings, the foundation is the hardest part of any construction.  It took almost one complete year before the foundations were finished and the main structure could begin to be built.  From that point it was very noticeable that Sky Tree was growing daily.  It took two full years to reach a height of 600m and aside from a few moments where the tower seemed to stop growing for a month or so, it was very easy to see progress being made to the external structure of the tower.  Tokyo Sky Tree is topped by a large antenna that stands 36m tall.  The 36m tall antenna was built inside the base of the tower and jacked up to its final position.  It was about 10m from its final resting height when the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake struck.  Thankfully the main structure held up and the tower structure was completed soon after checks were made along the entire tower.

There is a lot of symbolism and technology within Tokyo Sky Tree.  The first aspect of Tokyo Sky Tree is the shape.  While most pictures will show a circular structure, it is far more complex than that.  The design was created to start as a triangular base as it slowly transforms into a circular design by the time it reaches the observation decks.  The triangular base was designed to minimize the effect of shadows on the surrounding area.  Whether this is true or not is unknown by myself as I don’t have the means to test it out.  The next piece of technology is the use of old technology.  It is often promoted by the designers that Tokyo Sky Tree was built using old ideas with modern technology.  Utilizing the ancient designs of pagoda in Japan, they created a centre column with the structure hanging from it at the top.  This allows the centre column to “float” independently from the outer structure and help protect it from catastrophic failure in the event of an earthquake.  Of course this is using modern upgrades to the design and modern technology and materials.  The final symbolism in the structure is the height.  Tokyo Sky Tree stands at 634m tall.  634 can also be read as “mu(tsu) (6), san (3), shi (4)” or “musashi”.  Musashi is the old name of the region.  Musashi Province was an area that encompassed Tokyo, Saitama, and part of Kanagawa.  It can easily be thought of as the entire region that also includes Chiba.

The official mascot of Tokyo Sky Tree is Sorakara-chan.  Sorakara-chan can be loosely translated as the girl from the sky.  The simple backstory of Sorakara-chan is that she found Tokyo because Tokyo Sky Tree was able to cut above the clouds and shine very brightly.  You can already find her items and souvenirs at the base of Tokyo Sky Tree before the tower has even been opened to the public.  It is a typical marketing ploy by the operators of Tokyo Sky Tree and she will definitely make money for them.  Tokyo Sky Tree is not just a TV tower.  It is also a full scale shopping complex.  The main floors are occupied by Tokyo Solamachi.  Tokyo Solamachi is the name of the shopping complex that occupies the main building at the base of Tokyo Sky Tree that stands a mere 7 stories tall.  Tokyo Solamachi isn’t very special as it consists mainly of a typical shopping mall but they have added a dome theatre and aquarium to the top floors.  It will be the focal point for the entire neighbourhood and create a bit of competition for neighbouring Asakusa and Kinshicho.  It is unlikely that the new area, coined “Sky Tree Town” by the developer will take off immediately.  It will take time to build up but it will be very popular once it opens in May.

While Tokyo Sky Tree itself is complete, the entire structure and Solamachi won’t be open to the public until May 22nd, assuming there are no last second delays.  It will be a very popular destination at first and there are sure to be lines to go to the observation deck and lines to get into the shopping complex for the first year or so.  Whether or not it will give people enough reason to keep visiting is anyone’s guess.  It is likely that the complex will do well into the future.  It has the potential to draw a lot of people to the tower as it is located just a stone throw’s away from Asakusa.

This is the first in a series of posts about Tokyo Sky Tree.  To read more, please head over to Tokyo Sky Tree (Opening Day)

Tokyo – Akihabara (Redux) March 20, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo – Akihabara (Redux)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Na

I have previously written about Akihabara and focused a lot on what is available in the area.  2 years ago, I moved to Kinshicho which is just a few stations away from Akihabara.  I have had a chance to learn more and more about Akihabara as well as understand the area in a different light.  In the past 2 years since my original post about Akihabara many things have changed, yet many things have remained the same.  It is still a mecca for geeks and electronics lovers everywhere and it continues to evolve with time.

Akihabara will always be a mecca for geeks, even though the current mayor of the district is trying to push them out.  There are several new large buildings that focus more on businesses, but a lot of the side streets are still filled with great little shops to “get your geek on”.  A lot of the really old shops that added character to Akihabara have closed down and new larger versions have recently popped up.  While the character of Akihabara is modernizing, it is modernizing in a good way for tourists now.  A lot of the new buildings are occupied by various larger model and anime shops.  The older buildings were a bit of a hazard due to their age and lack of upkeep which created a dingy look.  While the gentrification of Akihabara is continuing, in my opinion, the original culture is trying to fight on.  While many of the porn shops and shady cafes are gone, many of the original electronics and shops are consolidating into larger outlets.  Some of the large buildings with dozens of micro shops are rebuilding in smaller and taller buildings.  The variety of stores appears to be improving a bit and tourist friendly big box retailers are moving in slowly.  Like the stories in many manga or anime, the geeks may have been knocked down but they still try to maintain their own culture within Akihabara.

Akihabara is quickly becoming known for AKB48.  AKB48 is a huge all girl pop idol group that was born in 2005.  The founder of AKB48 wanted to create “an idol you can meet” situation when he created AKB48.  AKB48 stands for AKihaBara 48.  Originally, he envisioned 48 girls in the group.  At times, there were less than 48 but due to the popularity of the group it now stands at over 50.  The group has become so popular that they spawned sister groups across Japan as well as one group in Indonesia and another one being developed in Taiwan.  AKB48 is also one of the most recognized and top selling groups in Japan.  The group started off very humbly and in the past 3 years have exploded beyond their imaginations.  They are seen on TV at almost all hours of the day.  The most popular girls are on primetime TV while the B and C list tend to dominate late night TV with cutesy programs.  They tend to promote the fact that they are young, and at ages ranging from 13 to 29, they play the part very well.  In the beginning, many thought of the group as a type of soft kiddie porn due to the way they dance and dress.  Today, they are now part of Japanese pop culture and integral in how Japan is viewed from outside.  It is unlikely that they will go away soon and they will continue to expand.  From what started out as a single theatre has now grown to include a new venue where you can eat at their cafe, see their museum, buy fan items, and watch past concerts in a new small theatre.

Themes are a new trend in Akihabara.  A Gundam Cafe had opened since my last post about Akihabara.  It is a very popular cafe where fanatics of Gundam can enjoy a Gundam themed coffee.  In fact, all of the food and drinks come with a Gundam theme.  The cutlery, dishes, and even tables have Gundam themes.  When entering the washroom, you will be greeted by the most famous Gundam of all.  You don’t have to wait in line to enjoy the food as you can purchase some items at the store.  The store itself is pretty small with only a few, yet exclusive, items for sale.  While the Gundam Cafe itself is pretty popular, there are other theme attractions in Akihabara.  I mentioned that maid cafes are popular, and they continue to be so.  Maid cafes come in all shapes and sizes with various costumes.  If you aren’t happy with the French maid, or the Japanese style maid, you can always go to one where the girls dress in other costumes.  They are harder to find and just as expensive as a normal maid cafe but they tend to be very popular.

An often overlooked area of Akihabara, even by me, is the Kanda Myojin.  It is a very important shrine in Tokyo.  It is one of the 10 most important shrines in Tokyo.  They were selected by a past emperor of Japan and it is considered a small pilgrimage to visit all 10.  Kanda Myojin is one of the ten but it is a little off the beaten path.  It is located roughly an equal distance from Akihabara Station and Ochanomizu Station.  It is a little easier to reach from Akihabara but you must pass through a small residential and business district.  Most of Akihabara is centred on Chuo-dori and Kanda Myojin is about 5 minutes from Chuo-dori.  It is also easy to be lost on the way to Kanda Myojin but once you are there, you are rewarded with one of the nicer gems of the city.  Kanda Myojin is actually more well-known among locals as being a popular place for weddings.  It is a little expensive but compared to Meiji Jingu, nowhere near as expensive.  There are a few various sculptures in the area and it is worth a visit if you are living in Tokyo, but in reality, if you are pressed for time, don’t bother with it.  Just enjoy yourself in Akihabara and think about doing a pilgrimage in the future.

Akihabara continues to evolve with the atmosphere has changed only a little in the past 2 years.  It will take a lot more time to know whether or not the area will completely lose the atmosphere that once inhabited the area.  It is not the same as before but it isn’t completely different either.  You can still find almost everything you can imagine and the area is upgrading the buildings slowly.  The old run down stores that looked like they would crumble in a serious earthquake are, for the most part, gone.  They have been replaced by several new buildings that have been repopulated by shops that are similar to the original shops in the area.  It definitely feels cleaner but at the same time, some of the character of the old dingy shops is gone.  In fact, some of the small shops have probably closed for good due to the economy and the changes in Akihabara.  I doubt all of them will go away but I feel that things can never return to the technological and otaku heave it once was.

The Akihabara series continues with Akihabara – For the Civilized and Akihabara – For the Eccentric.

Tokyo – Daimon March 13, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo – Daimon” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Mz

Daimon is an area that is fairly unknown to a majority of tourists in Tokyo.  It is better known as Hamamatsucho or even Shiba.  Being Tokyo, many neighbourhoods are so close to each other that it can be difficult to distinguish between the different areas.  This is one such area.  Stretching from the east side of Hamamatsucho Station all the way to Tokyo Tower, the Daimon area is not the most entertaining areas but one of the secret gems of Tokyo.  For those with little time, there is no real reason to visit, to be completely honest, but if you have the time, you will be rewarded with beauty and tranquility that is not found outside of the area.

Daimon itself is a very bland area.  It is a modern symbol of how most of Japan’s cities look.  It has the appearance of being a small city in Japan with rows of boring rectangular buildings.  In all directions you look, you will find it difficult to tell where you are unless you can see Tokyo Tower.  Adding to the blandness is the fact that the area around Hamamatsucho is very busy transfer point as it is the end station of the Tokyo Monorail which runs to Haneda Airport.  The east side of Hamamatsucho is the home of the Kyu Shiba Rikyu Gardens but unfortunately I haven’t visited that area yet but I hope to do so in the near future.  The garden is considered the most beautiful in Tokyo and must be worth a visit.  I often just head straight from Hamamatsucho Station to Zojoji which is just a few minutes on foot.

Zojoji is a very beautiful Buddhist temple located near the foot of Tokyo Tower.  It is a large complex that houses one of the most tranquil temples in Tokyo.  I have visited many temples and shrines but Zojoji is one of the few inviting temples that encourage people to go inside and pray.  In some temples and shrines, the prayer area can feel a bit strange as the doors may be closed, or the setting can feel a little less inviting.  It is worth the time to just sit down and soak up the atmosphere inside the temple itself.  It is a very quiet atmosphere where you can only hear the various prayers people make as they throw their money into the collection boxes.  As I mentioned in a previous post about the best temples and shrines in Tokyo, Zojoji is one of the most picturesque.  With Tokyo Tower in the background, you can really get a good sense of history and modernity.  The surrounding grounds are also interesting with a small hall adjacent to the main one.  Behind the small hall is a mausoleum for some of the members of the Tokugawa shogunate, one of the first shogun clans to rule Japan.  They are revered in Tokyo and I would say one of the most, if not the most important clan in Japanese history.  Unfortunately you do have to pay a small fee to enter the mausoleum grounds itself.

To the south of Zojoji is Shiba Park.  It is not a very popular park and very often overlooked by most people.  Most tourists will cut through Zojoji to head directly to Tokyo Tower.  I prefer a small stop in Shiba Park as it is somewhat of a unique park in Tokyo.  The entrance makes the park look like a very small park.  It is an open field with trees in the back.  What is hidden is a large mound with stairs heading up the mound at the back of the open field.  Few people, aside from the locals visit this area.  It is a wonderfully quiet area with mostly local tourists exploring the area.  There are a few monuments in the area but for those longing for some nature, specifically a forest like feeling, this area is perfect.  With trees blanketing the entire hill, you will be hard pressed to find a lot of natural sunlight as the trees filter out most of the sunlight.  There are a lot of interesting corners of the park that can be explored.  It won’t take a long time to explore the entire park but it is worth it if you have the time.

Flanking Zojoji are two hotels.  The Prince Park Tower is located to the south of Zojoji on the west side of Shiba Park.  It is a tall modern tower that is a nice hotel to stay in, albeit somewhat less convenient than many other hotels.  There is a small open field located next to the hotel that is a nice way to cut through to Tokyo Tower rather than going through the main route next to Zojoji.  On the north side of Zojoji is the Tokyo Prince Hotel.  This is one of the most written about hotels in Tokyo.  Various novels that are set in Tokyo often use the Tokyo Prince Hotel as one of their locations.  While it is often referred to in various novels, it is also well known for its swimming pool.  In the summer, the pool is open to the public for a fee and it is one of the most popular swimming pools in the city.  This is mainly due to the good views of Tokyo Tower next to the hotel itself.  Unfortunately, for a regular tourist, this is probably not an important place to visit and the building itself is architecturally boring.  The area itself is more important than the hotel but for the curious, there is no harm visiting the hotel itself.

Aside from Zojoji and being a way to access Tokyo Tower, Daimon is not really an important place for tourists to visit.  I feel that it is a very nice hidden gem in the city and worth a visit for Zojoji alone.  It doesn’t take a long time and you can easily visit Tokyo Tower at the same time.  Combining it with an afternoon trip to Roppongi can help as well, and Tokyo Tower is pretty well connected to other areas of Tokyo via the Tokyo Metro System.  It can be difficult to choose but if time is on your side, make plans to visit the Daimon area.

1 Year Later March 6, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “1 Year Later” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Nm

Almost 1 year has passed since the earth moved, literally.  I feel like a broken record as I mention the huge earthquake that occurred off the coast of Miyagi on March 11, 2011.  The tremor was felt almost all over Japan and the tsunami that followed cut a swath of destruction from Chiba to Aomori.  To give you an idea of how far that is, in 2007, I rode my motorcycle from Tokyo to a location near the northern point of Aomori.  It took me over 12 hours of riding on mostly highways at around 100km/h.  Of course I had breaks but the distance was roughly 700km or so.  It is almost unbelievable to imagine so much land was washed away due to the tsunami.  The following days after the earthquake was a tense one as people realized just how bad the earthquake had been and the realization of how many lives were lost and the time it would take to rebuild.

My own personal ordeal was somewhat well documented on this blog and I had made updates to travellers when asked about Japan.  It took roughly 6 months for Tokyo to return to complete normalcy.  For the first two or three months Tokyo was a very different city.  With infrastructure being damaged in an area just east of Tokyo, several roads, water mains, and electrical lines were cut.  It didn’t take long to fix everything and the speed at which things were repaired was amazing.  After the earthquake and over the summer, Japan had to institute energy saving measures which made the Tokyo a very dark place, relatively speaking.  Tokyo is usually a bright and vibrant city but from spring till summer, the city was very sombre.  It didn’t take long for people to return to their normal routines and people seemed to quickly forget about the people in Tohoku.  Similar to the events of 9-11 in America, after a week or so, the public starts to turn its attention to regular non-essential things.  In Japan, you can easily see news programs repeating information about the troubles and hardships the people in the eastern Tohoku region are experiencing.  It is a terrible situation for them that will last years if not decades.  In the past year most of the east coast has been cleaned up and only sorted debris remains in some places.  Recently the final evacuation centre closed and most of the people displaced due to their homes being washed away have been placed in various temporary homes.

In the past year I have also come to envy and silently commend a lot of people whom I have met in the past year or so.  A lot of the people whom I have met have made trips up to the Tohoku region.  I have seen one person make a trip almost every month.  It is amazing to see how many people from Tokyo made a trip up to Tohoku in the months following the earthquake.  I would see pictures on Facebook that would highlight their personal trips up to Tohoku and the challenges they had.  Some drove, some took trains, and many took buses.  The main clean-up took roughly 6 months, if the accounts from my friends are any indication.  There are still mountains of garbage in the destroyed towns that need to be removed and disposed of but they are at least sorted and awaiting incineration, burial, or recycling.  It is an unfortunate situation to see in the news recently that many cities and people all over Japan are against the disposal of the waste.  While most of it is safe with no radiation, NIMBYism has been rampant and it has been difficult for municipal officials in other regions to convince their residents that the waste is safe.  I have even heard of pleas from a few mayors from the tsunami ravaged areas pleading for people to understand and help out so that their cities can begin the process of rebuilding.  Without the ability to remove the waste, the area cannot rebuild.

With the spring approaching in Japan, it is hard to imagine how Tohoku can move on.  There are various documentaries and news stories starting to be shown on local TV to remind people of the problems that are still affecting the people on the coast however I fear that the general public is now turning their focus on nuclear energy and the problems in Fukushima.  I remember passing by an Occupy Kasumigaseki camp in Tokyo in early January.  Kasumigaseki is the neighbourhood where the Japanese national government is located.  It was a very small camp with less than 20 people, by my crude estimate.  Most of them wanted to remove nuclear energy from Japan.  There have been various demonstrations over the past year against nuclear power and they continue to be present.  There are a lot of open meetings for various government officials at all levels as well as for TEPCO.  Most of these meetings have been fairly boring but the news programs are sure to show the outbursts of residents at each of the meetings.  While I can’t understand everything that is being said, many are angry at the inability to go home, the thought of burning trash with a potential to have a trace of radioactive material on it, or the idea of restarting nuclear reactors in Japan.  It seems as if nuclear energy is dead in Japan and only time will tell if this is true, but for the people in Tohoku, it is a shame that the general public is no longer trying to help them rebuild. (Note:  This is just a perception that I have from watching various media.  I doubt people don’t want to help rebuild Tohoku, but their focus is more on the nuclear issues that the future of the devastated towns.)

Personally, I am also a victim of forgetting.  I have been busy with various work activities and I haven’t been able to sit back long enough to think about the people in Tohoku.  It is an unfathomable job to rebuild the entire area if they even want to.  I really hope things get back to normal for everyone.  I have the luxury to enjoy living in Tokyo where things are virtually back to normal.  Aside from a few reports in the news reminding people about the dangers of a potential future earthquake and meeting up with friends where we sometimes bring up the earthquake again, there are few points where I even think about the earthquake last year.  It is a shame that I haven’t helped Tohoku enough and I do regret not doing my part.  That is the problem of living a relatively busy life.  I hope I won’t be too busy to take a minute out of my supposedly busy life to reflect and pray (to whatever god/spirit is out there) for the people of Tohoku.  I hope you will also do the same this Sunday.

1 Year Later is part of a series of posts following the earthquake in Japan.  Please continue reading the following posts in this series:

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