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Tokyo – Ikebukuro February 14, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo – Ikebukuro” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-H1

Ikebukuro is a somewhat forgotten city in Tokyo.  It is located on the north western edge of the Yamanote Line and isn’t as conveniently located as Shinjuku or as famous as Shibuya.  It is often known more as a transfer town where many people stop, do a bit of shopping, then continue home.  Ikebukuro is a major hub for people heading north-west towards western Tokyo and western Saitama.  Rail lines to the west spread out in similar fashion to Shinjuku and Shinagawa however they move more northerly.  While the town may be a transfer town, there are many things to see and do and a reputation that can make it feel like a younger sibling to Shinjuku.

There are many ways to arrive at Ikebukuro.  The most common way is to use the Yamanote Line, but there are countless other lines as well.  Ikebukuro can be split into 4 major areas.  The western side of the station is a quaint little town that is full of life and spirit.  Just outside the west exit is a public art space inside a park.  There are several sculptures in an open square along with the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space.  This is a large concert hall that has various concerts and performances all year.  It is also home to the largest pipe organ in Tokyo with free lunch hour shows.  Unfortunately, when I visited recently, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space was closed for renovations.  I’m sure it will reopen soon enough.  The west side is quieter than the east and not as built up.  There are various smaller shops and more tranquil parks in the area.  There are several ethnic restaurants that are there to please all tastes.  It is also home to a small outdoor goods section with a few shops specializing in hiking and camping gear.

To the north of the station is a small area that is akin to Kabukicho in Shinjuku.  It is definitely not as well known and in some ways a bit more dangerous.  Like Kabukicho, this district is home to many clubs, bars, and adult themed shops.  It is also home to various restaurants where you can get good cheap food.  Somehow bars and the seedy underground business go hand in hand.  I would guess that drinking and risky business really complement each other.  During the day, this area is probably not as interesting to most people; however it can give a glimpse into what happens in the area and the type of people who frequent it.  There is also a small bridge that crosses over the train tracks which provides a great view of Ikebukuro Station and how busy the station gets as the trains constantly enter and exit the station.  While Shinjuku and Tokyo have more trains running through the station, Ikebukuro has more chaos as tracks crisscross each other creating a spaghetti-like mess below the bridge.

The east side of the station is where most of the action is.  The area immediately to the east and up to Sunshine City is a very busy urban centre.  When visiting this area, you will feel that it is busier and more chaotic than Shinjuku.  This is due to the nature of the area.  There are relatively few tunnels connecting each area and the shops are all crammed together.  The main roads and crossings are always crowded and it can be difficult to stop and smell the roses.  People will push to get to their destination and people will also push to get you into their shops.  It can take several days to explore this entire region.  The usual electronic shops are rampant near the station with various fashion boutiques along the main street to Sunshine City.  Just before Sunshine City is Otome Road.  This is a small 2 block section full of anime and manga shops.  It can give Akihabara a run for its money but unfortunately due to the size of the area, it still pales in comparison.  The shops are relatively large compared to the small shops in Akihabara which make it much easier to find things.  The shops are also well concentrated in the 2 block section with almost nothing else beyond those blocks.

For those who want something touristy, Amlux is a Toyota showcase that is akin to Megaweb in Odaiba.  It is very similar with the one exception that you can’t easily test drive the cars.  It costs more money and requires early reservations to test drive cars in Amlux.  They have similar models on display and rather than a wide open space, all the cars are crammed into a typical office building.  They still have the same amusement style rides for kids of all ages, such as driving simulators, and a few race cars on display.  Megaweb is by far the better of the two but Amlux is still a great place to visit.  Connected to Amlux, and just across the street of Otome Road is Sunshine City.  This is one of the most famous building complexes in Ikebukuro.  It is home of the 60 story Sunshine Tower with an observation deck with spectacular 360 degree views.  Note that when I say spectacular, it’s mostly a view of Tokyo so don’t expect to see many mountains nearby or a lot of nature.  Expect to see a sprawling urban landscape.  The Sunshine City complex itself has lots to offer.  There is a basic shopping mall on the main floors as well as Namja Town, and Aquarium, and Planetarium at one end of the complex.  Namja Town is a theme park run by Sega Sammy.  It is geared towards children but they also have a few things for adults and couples.  Namja Town is well known as a place to enjoy gyoza.  Gyoza is pan fried dumplings and Namja Town boasts that they have the largest variety of gyoza for sale.  It can take a few days to try all of the gyoza available but it can be done.  Do note that there is an admission fee to enter Namja Town on top of the cost to purchase gyoza and play various games.  The aquarium and planetarium used to be very basic and standard fares.  They are undergoing renovations and will reopen this year.  The aquarium was nothing to celebrate before the renovations.  It was a small place that took only 20 minutes to walk through.  It was a very disappointing experience.  Unfortunately I can’t comment on how things will be after the renovations.

Ikebukuro is a great place to visit, but to be honest, not an essential place to visit when visiting Tokyo.  If there is something specific you’d like to see, you should visit Ikebukuro.  However, there are other areas with more options.  Shinjuku has the Tokyo Metropolitan Towers which has a free observation deck.  Roppongi also has a similar observation deck for a fee.  Odaiba has Megaweb along with other interesting things.  Rather than going to Otome Road, you can visit Akihabara to see manga, anime, and electronics, or better yet, go to Nakano and see manga and anime.  If you happen to be staying in Ikebukuro, it is a good place to stay and explore.  If you are staying elsewhere, you probably won’t need to visit the area unless you have visited every other area ofTokyo.

Ikebukuro Information:

Ikebukuro (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3038.html

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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Living in Shinjuku June 1, 2010

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 “Living in Shinjuku” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-qa

In September of 2005, I arrived in Tokyo for the second time in my life and for the first time, I would live in Japan.  For the next five and a half years, I would live in a tiny apartment in Shinjuku.  Technically, I lived in Shibuya, but in reality, I lived closer to Shinjuku and I would later realize that it was impossible for me to explain where I lived if I said Shibuya.  Shinjuku was the best word to use and explained my location perfectly.

As I said, my apartment was a tiny 23 square metre apartment.  My bedroom itself was a paltry 10 square meters or 107 square feet.  Yes, it’s tiny. It cost me about ¥100,000 a month and I lived on a busy major arterial road.  Did I mention that I also lived with my girlfriend?  It was a cramped place that really wasn’t suitable for two people.  It was barely enough space for one, but it was home.  The apartment wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be just now.  While it was tiny, and it was expensive, the price of the apartment was mainly due to the location.  I was fortunate to live only 30 minutes away from Shinjuku, and that’s on foot.  I could easily find a great restaurant and getting out of town was easy.  Every weekend, I would walk into Shinjuku and enjoy the various shops.  It was busy, but not terribly so.  Over the five years, I got to know Shinjuku very intimately.  I know every corner and every path around the station.  Shinjuku Station is one of the most complex stations in the world, but for me, it is a simple place that takes but a second to get around.   If things did get too noisy, it wasn’t too hard for me to find a small quiet oasis just a month away.

The cost of living is not as high as you would expect.  Everyone says that living in Tokyo is very expensive.   For the first while, I would have said that’s true, but if you are smart and know where to go, you can live relatively cheaply.  The other advantage for me was that I lived in a tiny apartment.  It may be tiny, but the cost for utilities was equally tiny.  I was also very fortunate in that the quality of restaurants were very high.  You generally get what you pay for.  If I wanted to splurge and eat something nice, I could easily go to Shinjuku, or somewhere in my area to find something wonderful and romantic.  If I needed something dirt cheap, that was also available.  There were also a few grocery stores where you can get food at a very reasonable price.  Surprisingly, for such a central location, there were lots of options, but only a few that were worth a visit.  Thankfully, I lived outside the Yamanote line, which meant I had more choices.  Those who live within the Yamanote line are saddled with a cost of living that’s MUCH higher.  I was also fortunate that my favourite grocery store wasn’t such a major chain.  Major chains in Japan tend to have somewhat higher prices for some strange reason.  If you ever do decide to live in Japan, walking around the neighbourhood for at least a radius of 2km is necessary to find all of the cheapest places you need.

The biggest problem for me and my apartment was the noise.  My balcony was adjacent to a major street. There were cars on the street at all hours of the day.  Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and even gas vans would blast be my apartment at all hours with sirens blaring.  In Tokyo, the gas company has the same status at times as an emergency vehicle.  I believe this is mostly to prevent major explosions from a pipeline, especially with buildings packed so closely together.   In the beginning, it was very cool to be able to hear all of the strange sirens of Japanese emergency vehicles, but after a year, it did get annoying.  By far, the most annoying sounds were the loud scooters, bosozoku bikes, and decotora.  Bosozoku are a type of teenage motorcycle gang, which is like recruitment to the Yakuza, but that’s not always the case.  They have very distinct bikes with no mufflers.  Their trademark is to ride around and make as much noise as possible.  While coasting to a stop, they will rev their engines as loud as possible, even though it does nothing but hurt the engine.  The decotora are trucks that have paintings on the side and hundreds of flashing lights.  Think epilepsy inducing strobes.  These trucks are usually okay, but at times, they add noise makers that “pop” as they use the engine brake.  It was the loudest engine noise you could ever think of.  I did get used to the noise, but it didn’t help me to get a good night sleep either.

While the street was a pain due to the noise, it was also a blessing.  I had one of the best views of Shinjuku.  I could look out everyday and see the Tokyo Metropolitan Buildings.  Each night, the buildings would be lit up and the colours would change every so often.  It would sometimes change due to a specific event, such as women’s day or earth day.  It was very nice.  I would also be able to see the changing skyline as new buildings would be built.  During a few storms, I had the privilege to see lightning and rain falling down as if God was angry at the world.  It was an amazing site, and living somewhat high above the street gave me a great view of things.  I even had a view of a major highway construction project that has lasted well over my 5 years at this apartment.  When I moved in, they were in the process of building an underground highway.  When I left, they completed the highway, but they were still doing the arduous process of fixing the roadway itself.   They were placing all of the overhead wires underground and beautifying the entire street.  Alas, I believe it would take another 2 to 5 years to complete everything.  I guess I may never see the final product.

One of the toughest things to get used to was the lack of greenery.  While the area was super convenient, it was also lacking trees and shrubs.  There were several parks in the area, but none of them were within a short walk.  The definition of a park is very different in Tokyo.  A park can be nothing but gravel paved into a square which is only good enough for a game of catch or other simple small area sports.  There were no chances to play touch football or even futsal.  It took a couple years before I was used to this.  It was also impossible to get out of town easily by car or on foot.  The west side of Tokyo is a large metropolis.  The north and west sides are much easier to get into the countryside.  This was part of the reason I sold my motorcycle last year.  The only consolation prize was that it was extremely easy for me to hop onto a major train line, or even get to the Shinkansen to get out of town, but that usually left me in a similar looking area, a major city.

All in all, living in Shinjuku is great.  I loved it and I will definitely miss it.  I wish I could continue living there, forever, but the cost and size was too much.  I found a great place on the other side of town, and now I get to start over again.  I’ll be learning more and more about the east side.  Over the next year or so, expect more information about eastern Tokyo.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Subways of Tokyo March 23, 2010

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

Riding a train in Tokyo can be a very challenging thing.  The first thing to do is understand the basics on how it works.  To do this, you need to look at a map.  Follow this link and you will get an idea on the basics of getting around in Tokyo:  http://www.tokyometro.jp/global/en/service/pdf/routemap_en.pdf . From this map, you need to understand a few things.  First, look for the black and white line that generally runs in an oval shape in the middle of the map.  It can be difficult to notice as it’s not meant to stand out.  This is the Yamanote line.  It’s a general boundary between central Tokyo and residential Tokyo.  From here, you will have to look at the legend at the bottom right.  The four lines on the left, “A-I-S-E” are for the Toei Lines, and the ones on the right are for the Tokyo Metro Lines.  This is very important.  Both Toei and Tokyo Metro operate subways within Tokyo, but they are not the same company.  Going from one company to another requires a transfer, although you will receive a discount for the second leg of your journey.  This can make a simple cheap trip into an expensive one.  I highly recommend getting a “Welcome to Tokyo” Handy Map from Yes! Tokyo.  These are large, scale, maps that show you relative distances between different subway stations.  This can help you save money by walking up to 300 metres to the next station, rather than transferring.

Typically, going from A to B is fairly simple.  You can easily use only one company and reach your destination.  The only problem is that it requires a little planning.  The private railway companies, excluding Japan Railways, created their own travel website that will help you get from A to B using any of the lines in Tokyo.  Of course, they are biased towards their own lines, but you can easily choose price, speed, or transfers as how to sort the options.  The link is provided below.  Depending on your hotel, if you have internet, it’s a good idea to use that website to plan how to get to various places in Tokyo and how to get back.  While it isn’t necessary, it can help you solve many problems.  There are a few places in major touristy stations where you can find terminals with the same program in place.  If you are completely lost, go up to any ticket gate, point on the map, and ask the station staff.  Locals can help too, but they tend to be very shy and freeze up when spoken to in English.

The next step is to actually buy a ticket.  For this, you need to know how to use the machine itself.  In most major stations, they have touch screen panels and button panels.  The touch screen panels are the easiest as you can select “English” and work your way through it.  The basics are, find the fare, select the amount, and put your money in.  Some of the machines, especially the push button ones require you to put your money into the machine first, before you can select the fare.  If you want to buy two or three tickets at a time, there is a button, usually on the left, next to the screen.  The pictures are very simple and easy to figure out.  If you made a mistake, you can either go to another ticket machine, or press the red cancel button.  If you are still completely lost, usually there is a small white tab covering the help button.  Press this button if you need help.  Do be aware that help can come from within the walls!  In the past, I had accidentally pressed the button, and a small panel in the wall next to the machine just opened up.  I nearly jumped back 3 metres.  It was terrifying, but funny at the same time.  You may want to push it just for fun either way!

Once you do have your ticket, you can go straight into the gate.  Be sure to keep it until you exit.  When you exit the system, the gate will just keep your ticket.  If you didn’t purchase enough, don’t worry, there are always machines at every gate where you can add more money to the ticket, or you can head straight to the attendant who will tell you, or rather show you, how much you have to pay to get out.  Do be aware that if you leave too quickly, the paddles, which are around thigh height, will close and you might take a tumble.  This has happened to me many times.  If you are transferring between companies, you might have to physically leave the station and re-enter a few hundred metres away.  This takes a little extra care.  Be sure to look for the “orange” gates.  These will let you exit and enter at the next company’s entrance.  Again, don’t forget your tickets, or you’ll have to buy a new one.

Finally, be aware of joined lines.  Many of the subway lines connect to commuter lines.  If you aren’t careful, you can end up traveling from one end of Tokyo, to the other, and out into the suburbs.  Only a handful of lines actually do this, but when they do, it can be very confusing, in terms of costs.  If you fall asleep on the train itself, you could end up over an hour away from your destination.  Thankfully, to return, without exiting the system, is free.  If you are worried, and want the simplest method of travel, the Yamanote line is probably the best bet.  It may not be the quickest mode of transportation, but it is by far the easiest.  Coupled with the Chuo line, traveling between places can be cheaper than the subway.  Plan wisely and you can save a lot of money.  If you plan poorly, just enjoy the ride and call it an adventure.

Subways of Tokyo was my initial thoughts about the train system in Tokyo.  To read more about trains, continue to Trains in Tokyo – Redux.

Information:

Tokyo Metro:  http://www.tokyometro.jp/global/en/
Toei:  http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/english/subway_op.html
Tokyo Metro’s Guide to the Subway:  http://www.tokyometro.jp/global/en/service/using.html
Toei’s Guide to buying tickets:  http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/english/subway_buy.html
Tokyo Transfer Guide:  http://www.tokyo-subway.net/english/
Tokyo Subway Map:  http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/english/images/pdf/rosen_e.pdf

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Tokyo (Harajuku) [Part I – Shrines, People, and Shopping] September 29, 2009

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 (Harajuku) [Part I – Shrines, People, and Shopping]” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-gb

Harajuku is a place where you can see almost everything Tokyo has to offer in a small compact area.  You will be able to see the old Japan, namely Meji Jingu, one of the quietest and biggest shrines in Tokyo.  You can also see almost every type of fashion that Japanese boys and girls love.  You have the goth lolitas, cheap and trendy, hip hop, and expensive and glamorous.  Harajuku was popularized in Gwen Stefani’s “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” album that was released in 2004.  This included four back up dancers of Japanese descent who dressed in a stylized Harajuku style.  While their style is far from what you’ll see in Harajuku itself, Harajuku’s fashion can easily be said to be the inspiration to the Harajuku Girls fashion.

If you head to Harajuku, I’d recommend going early and having a nice walk around Meiji Jingu.  It is a long walk from the station to the main temple, but it’s much better in the morning when it isn’t too hot.  The opposite can also be said about the temple in the winter time.  Going in the afternoon when it’s a little warmer might be better.  It’s best to avoid this temple in the rain.  I will write about Meiji Jingu in greater detail in a future post.

Most people who visit Harajuku go for one major reason.  They want to see all of the goth lolitas.  Several years ago, there were lots of people in Harajuku that dressed up in gothic style clothes, or even as lolitas.  It’s not uncommon to see people in maid outfits as well.  If you do a search for Japanese Punk, or Goth music, you can see a sampling of what some people wear in Harajuku.  By and far, the biggest name in Japanese Punk, although you could say glam rock or “visual-kei” is Gakt.  He is a very eccentric man who is a bit of a narcissist.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen too many people dressed up in Harajuku.  I’m guessing that the police have cracked down and forced them to find a new place to hang out.  They may have also been pushed out by the tourists and their inability to just enjoy themselves.  I would imagine that there are still many of them hanging about around 5pm on weekdays, and in the afternoons on the weekend.  You may even be lucky to find a few people with signs promoting “Free Hugs”.  This was a popular thing to do for these kids a few years ago, and a few people still do it.  Today, I tend to notice more foreign people dressed up as goth lolitas rather than Japanese people.  If you are still interested in looking for these people, the best place to see them is on a small bridge leading to Meiji Jingu.  If you don’t see many people, aside from the tourists, you came at the wrong time, or the wrong day.  Diligence is very important if you must see them.

The most famous street in Harajuku is Takeshita Street.  It’s located in front of the Takeshita Exit from the station.  This street is about 400 metres and closed to all traffic.  At all times of the day, this street is crowded.  On weekends, you’ll be lucky to move up or down the street without breathing down someone’s neck.  It’s a very hectic street that isn’t for the light hearted.  However, this is the centre of the teenage fashion in Harajuku.  You’ll be able to see everything from maid outfits, to S&M style clothing, and even some cosplay outfits.  One of the more famous things to do is to line up and buy a crepe.  Being the teen heaven that it is, crepes are the perfect date food, or just a nice desert with friends.  It’s far from the French version of crepes.  These crepes are a little heavier, rolled with lots of cream and stuffed with a few pieces of fruit.  You can also buy savoury crepes with ham, lettuce, or even cheese.  If teen fashion isn’t really your thing, but finding a good deal is, look north along Takeshita Street and somewhere along the middle of the street, you’ll find Togo Shrine.  This shrine, in and of itself, isn’t that important.  However, if you are there on first Sunday of the month, it’s worth a short visit to see the flea market.  It is famously known for selling antique furniture, but you can also find a lot of interesting old things that aren’t priced at flea market prices.  Do feel free to bargain, but don’t expect them to do too much.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_Shrine (About Meiji Shrine)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harajuku_Girls (Information about Harajuku Girls)

This is Part I of a II part series.  For more on Harajuku, continue reading Part II.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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