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From time to time the question arises in online discussion forums: what’s the best way to see a new city? Some travelers plump for hitting the highlights by whatever means necessary, jumping from site to site by train, plane, or automobile. That’s a very effective means of checking off a list of “top ten temples,” or whatever, and can be fun in its own way (ask me about my four-day, whirlwind tour of southwest Iceland last March). It’s efficient, which is why most guidebooks are organized around such a style of travel. There is, however, another way of travel, one which may add little or nothing to your bucket list, and for which there are few guidebooks, but may give you a better understanding of the place you’re visiting – and just maybe the place you came from. That’s to get off the train… and walk. Immerse yourself in one area. Walk its sidestreets and alleys. Linger at neighbourhood spots which will never make a traditional guidebook but say something authentic about the lives of the people who live there – even if this means not checking all the “Must Sees” on a list. As John Ruskin puts it,

There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

“Thought and sight,” not “pace.” These are the goals of Baudelaire’s flaneur or, perhaps, Will Self’s psychogeographer: a sensitive, intelligent observer of the genius loci, the “spirit of place.”

These are the travelers for whom the ebook Deep Kyoto: Walks is meant. Michael Lambe and Ted Taylor — webmasters, respectively, of the blogs  Deep Kyoto and Notes from the ‘Nog — share the spirit of the flaneur, the psychogeographer. As Michael Lambe writes in the foreword,

Walking will expand your limited horizons of here and there, to the living breathing streets around you — until they too become your home. Walking will expand your limited idea of self to embrace your wider community. Walking will help you to slow down and enjoy this moment now, wherever you happen to be.

Deep Kyoto is part guidebook (there are maps, endnotes, and an index of places), part anthology of literary armchair travel narratives. Lambe describes it as “an anthology of meditative walks,” written by long-term residents of Kyoto. As such, each essayist is attuned to “the living breathing streets,” the highways and biways, the world-famous sites and local neighbourhoods, of Japan’s ancient capital.

And Kyoto is a city “ancient and elegant,” according to Joel Stewart, author of the essay “In Praise of Uro Uro.” However, it’s also “a mishmash of architectural madness, from post-war era concrete buildings on up to recent prefabricated monstrosities made of plastic. It’s all over the place aesthetically… the whole chaotic collage of the city.”

The eclectic selection of essays in the book reflect the “chaos,” the “mishmash” of the city. The writers travel to ancient shrines and modern suburbs; back in time to Kyoto as cultural epicenter of an ancient civilization, and forward again to the present. Indeed, there are 18 essays in this collection, including some by notable contributors such as Pico Iyer and I’m not going to annotate them here – a more detailed description of the contents is available in the reviews of the book available on Amazon – see in particular Patrick McCoy’s June 9th review. An extract from Judith Clancy’s Epilogue “On Foot in the Ancient Capital” is online at the Deep Kyoto website. For now, I’ll leave you with the final words from Ted Taylor’s introduction,

Like the beauty of a Noh mask, Kyoto’s expression changes with subtle shifts in the light, shifts that occur with the walker’s every step.

Kamikochi in Golden Week

We took a chance and travelled to one of Japan’s premiere holiday spots during the busy “Golden Week” national holiday – and managed to have a good time doing it. The crowds thinned out the further we strayed from hotspots such as Kappa-bashi Bridge, and be arriving a day late and leaving a day early missed the worst of the crowded buses and trains. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring crampons and trekking poles to climb the still snow-laden trails into the mountains, but we managed to have a great two-day trek along the Azusagawa River which runs through the valley surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of Japan’s North Alps.

Taisho-ike Pond

The bus into Kamikochi makes a stop at Taisho-ike Pond.  The pond formed in 1915 after the eruption of Mount Yakedake, and even now under the clear shallow water of the pond you can see metallic browns and greens and blue sediments on the bottom. Unfortunately, glare from a cloudy sky made it difficult to get good pictures of the pond bottom without a polarizing filter. Still, the clear water, multi-colored pond bottom, and dead timber of the flooded forest at the base of snow-capped Mount Yakedake form a striking composition.

Kamikochi

Azusagawa River

At times the river flows past gravel bars and standing forest…

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At other times more “through” than “past”…

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Myojin-ike Pond

The view of Mount Myojindake from our room at the Myojinkan inn. Mitsuru Nashida-san, the master of the inn, told us that the area around Myojin-ike Pond is the “original” Kamikochi resort – people have apparently been visiting for millennia. The Tokugo-toge Pass climb starts here; Nashida-san warned us off attempting the 3 1/2 hour climb without crampons and trekking poles to handle the snow.

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Early risers visit the pond and its waterline shrine at dawn to catch the sunrise. We settled for an afternoon visit…

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Japanese Macaques

Saru, Japanese macaques, live wild along the river. Locals and visitors do a good job of not feeding the animals, so the troops of monkeys we saw were quite indifferent to our presence.

Kamikochi

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Mountain Cherry Blossoms

The blossoms are still on the trees in late April; they close up during thew cold nights and re-open in the heat of the day. (For the record, the temparature dropped down to near freezing at night, though during the day it got intoo the 20s – that’s Celsius).

Mountain Cherry Blossoms

View from Kappa-bashi Bridge

The main tourist area of Kamikochi clusters around Kappa-bashi Bridge. Hotels and cafes line the riverbank; tents sprout like mushrooms on the open lawn of a campground. There’s a picnic-y, day-trippy, fun-for-the-whole-family kinda feel to the place.

Kappa Bashi Bridge

Resources

Kamikochi is well on the beaten path, even in spring, and there’s plenty of travel information available online.

Introducing Kamikochi at Lonely Planet

Kamikochi Travel Guide at japan-guide.com

Kamikochi at Hiking in Japan

Back at the turn of the last century, during Japan’s Meiji Era, the Anglican missionary Walter Weston popularized Japan’s mountains for people back in Europe. His travel guide Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps (1896) is available for free online from archive.org.

Jon Gunnar's Solfar Sun Voyager, Reykjavik

Jon Gunnar’s Solfar Sun Voyager, Reykjavik

Back from Iceland… I’ll be posting images and text from the trip on my *other* site, Exit Booted. Or you can go straight to my twitter stream to check out some of the great pictures I took of this fantastical landscape in winter… @tokyoaaron.

First thought, on being back in the Big Sushi: Iceland really is a magical, fantastical place of fire and ice, and of supernatural beings. But so is Japan. We had a great trip, and I do plan to return. But it’s also great to be home, and I look forward to exploring more of Japan again…

If you wanna know, I haven’t left Japan or given blogging on Big Sushi, Little Fishes or anything. This year, instead of our usual spring trip to somewhere in Japan (Kanazawa, for example, or Ishigaki-jima), R. and I are headed to Iceland – home of Bjork, Sigur Ros, and fermented shark meat. In fact, we haven’t even left yet but I’ve already started posting about the trip on my other blog, Exit Booted. You can follow our preparations and adventures there! Takk! (“thanks,” in Icelandic).

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Shinjuku North Side: Kabukicho; Golden Gai; Hanazono Shrine; Skyscraper District

Almost two decades ago, I landed in Japan on what was to be a three-year overseas adventure from my home in Canada. I’m still here, but that’s another story…. Those first days in-country, while my then-partner — I’ll call her Achan — attended orientation training at the Keio Park Plaza hotel before being posted to rural Hokkaido to help “internationalize” the countryside (but that’s still another story…) I spun out a jet-lagged fugue through the neon canyonlands and narrow sidestreets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me. Minus the hair. And Scarlett Johansson.

After three years Achan returned to her family in suburban Calgary. After another year, in central Hokkaido this time, I relocated to Tokyo for some big-city adventure.

Now, thirteen years later, I live in a comfortable if un-cinematic neighbourhood in west Tokyo. Every day, on the commute, I pass through labyrinthian Shinjuku Station.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” to paraphrase The Naked City. And more than three million of them pass through Shinjuku each day. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Shinjuku Station as the“world’s busiest station”. Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest: Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.”

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An introduction and Brief Guide to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai

(Update: I’ve posted an updated version of ‘Down the Rabbit Hole,’ with pictures, at my other blog on medium.com)

Tokyo has more than its share of popular nightlife areas. Shibuya draws the club kids. Roppongi caters to the international crowd. Kabukicho is the largest blue-light district in Asia, a disconcerting mix of hostess clubs, brothels, and straight-up bars and restaurants.

Still, in the twelve-plus years I’ve lived in Tokyo, it’s to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai I go to meet interesting locals and, increasingly often, tuned-in travellers.

Since the 60’s and 70’s, writers and filmmakers such as Yukio Mishima and Yasujiro Ozu have haunted these narrow alleys. In the 1980’s, Wim Wenders shot scenes for Tokyo Ga in La Jetee, a bar devoted to movies, and still a favourite of cinephiles.

In fact, most of Golden Gai’s bars have a theme. There’s karaoke, of course, most visible at Champions, a popular first — and last — stop for many visitors. They start to spill onto the flagstone path by nine, and some stay until the first trains pull out of the nearby stations around dawn. At other places jazz remains popular, while Hair of the Dog has an extensive collection of punk and ska from the 80s. Still others cater to patrons with a passion for photography, exploitation films, or plastic models. At Tachibana shinryoushitsu, “Tachibana’s diagnosis room,” a cosplay nurse serves drinks with names such as “enema” and “speculum” from beakers amidst a cabinet of curiosities of medical charts and anatomical models. Another, the two-storey Albatross, has kept the red plush walls and chandeliers of its former incarnation as a brothel.

Maybe the setting explains Golden Gai’s unique fuinke, “atmosphere.” To enter the Gai is a little like discovering a secret garden or falling down a rabbit hole. A treed path lined with Peter Pan-like statues of cherubs riding dolphins and snails leads off neon-lit Yasukuni-dori and the red lights of Kabukicho. This isn’t Kansas Shinjuku any more, Dorothy-san.

No neon or — at least until recently — touts accost the visitor. Japan’s bubble economy, which transformed the surrounding area into an international-style city of wide roads and highrises, skipped this warren of six narrow lanes. In fact, the locals fought to keep it that way. Back in the 80′s, when developers razed the student ghetto and working neighbourhood of nearby west Shinjuku, locals took turns guarding Golden Gai from developers.

Maybe that’s why Golden Gai has a reputation for being closed to outsiders.

Times are a’changin’, however. Now visiting pop culture luminaries such asTim Burton and Quentin Tarantino have been spotted in the area. Whither go our pop stars, so follow we: Golden Gai has earned entries in recent editions of Fodors, Lonely Planet, and a plethora of websites. Heck, even CNN ran a service piece on “the five best bars in Golden Gai.”

“Down the rabbit hole,” maybe, but not exactly off the beaten path any more…

Truth is, the scene in Golden Gai has changed a lot in the last couple of years. More visitors have discovered the place and some, at least, of the establishments in the area are courting new clientele. Tokyobling, a popular blogger, recently called it “One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo”, which sounds about right. This hasn’t “ruined” the place in my opinion, though twenty-year regulars may disagree.

What this means is that you should feel totally comfortable and confident visiting Golden Gai. While there are still many establishments that still cater to regulars, others are happy to host the international crowd.

Golden Gai may now be on the itinerary of every hipster visiting Tokyo, but it still offers a unique Japan experience. Perhaps not for much longer, though: a recent story on japantoday.com suggests that redevelopment plans for the area might once again be in the works… maybe in time for the 2020 Olympics.

Check out my most recent gallery of pics from Golden Gai on the Medium.com post!

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Niigata Dec. '14

Yukiguni “Snow Country”

Tokyo may be generally mild, dry, and sunny in winter, but it comes at a cost to its neighbours: much of the snow that crosses from continental Asia bumps up against the mountains of central Honshu and dump their burden on the Sea of Japan side of the island. Niigata, where R. is from, lies within this yuki guni,”snow country.” In fact, the novel Snow Country by KAWABATA Yasunari is set in the mountain resort area of Yuzawa. Each New Year, R. and I pass through on our way by Shinkansen to coastal Niigata. The change from the balmy Kanto plain to yukiguni is always dramatic as the shinkansen exits a tunnel from Kanto and enters mountainous Gunma prefecture. The photos taken from the train are of Gunma and Niigata, both coming from and returning to Tokyo.

This year, 2014, Niigata has had a particularly hard spell of snowfall. In fact, the day after we arrived blizzard conditions kept us holed up for most of the day at the home of R.’s parents. We did manage a walk later in the day, however, and these are the town and castle pictures in this set.

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