Nearly a week into my Tokyo visit and I'd familiarized myself with the subway enough to visit most all the vintage toy stores I could find. Being able to navigate the city confidently on my own, to get a feel for the vibe of this foreign metropolis, was always my first priority. That done, it was time to start doing the tourist thing! I've got some pictures included below, but you can view my full modest Japan photo gallery on Flickr.
I started off by visiting the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which takes the visitor on a chronological journey through the history of the city from its origins in the feudal era as a fishing village (when it was called "Edo") up to its modern incarnation as the capital of Japan. It took me over two hours to get through, but then I read most every placard there was to read. Highlights for me included the origin of woodblock printing and the elaborate miniatures.
I sought out the Japanese Sword Museum because swords are awesome, especially samurai swords. It's not big, and there's not much in English, but I spent a good hour there poring over the two dozen swords and impressively-crafted accessories from the last seven centuries. It's a little out of the way, so I can only recommend this place if you really like swords.
I visited Senso-Ji, which is Tokyo's oldest temple and is the heart of the Asakusa district. I liked this temple a lot more than Meiji Jingu. It was much more lively and actively visited, with an ongoing Buddhist service as well as hundreds of people cleansing themselves with smoke and water before praying to the Bodhisattva Kannon. As with most temples, visiting Senso-Ji and all its surrounding smaller shrines is best done when you're in a patient, reflective mood. The long road leading up to the temple is also replete with shops, including a huge outdoor covered-ceiling mall. If you're looking for souvenirs, they're a little pricey here but you can find most anything.
Because it topped two online "must-see" lists as well as someone's personal recommendation, I made a point of waking up at 4am to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. This was indeed a highlight. Arriving at the wrong entrance, I dodged a chaotic slew of carts and trucks to accidentally enter the off-limits wholesale area. This part of the market, at least a city block in area, was littered with merchants selling seafood of every recognizable (and unrecognizable) kind. Eventually apprehended by security, I was directed to the visitor's waiting line where I met a world-traveling European artist named RafaŽl Rozendaal. He and I chatted up cities, music and art while waiting to be led to the tuna auction. Once there, we observed numerous merchants inspecting giant, frozen tuna, all open-mouthed with a unflinching look of surprise on their large tuna faces. After a lengthy inspection by the bidders, the various auctioneers ascended their boxes and rang their bells for nearly a minute before each launched into their own unique brand of inscrutable Japanese auction barking. "Kind of like Mike Patton," RafaŽl observed. Following this unexpectedly riveting performance, we exited past men cutting frozen tuna in half upon circular table saws to the market's peripheral sushi restaurants. While the most famous ones have a 1-to-3 hour wait, RafaŽl and I chose a busy but still welcomingly available restaurant where we enjoyed the absolutely freshest sushi meal of our lives. Amazed and well-fed, I was back in the apartment by 7am.
I did leave Tokyo once to visit Kamakura, which sits about an hour south by train. There, in a small suburb called Hase one can find the Kotoku-in temple, home of one of Japan's most famous icons: the giant Buddha ("Daibutsu") of Amida Buddha.
Seeing this was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. I'm really impressed by size, durability, and longevity, especially in man-made objects. Constructed almost 800 years ago, this statue used to be housed within a large temple hall -- several times, in fact. Twice the outer structure was destroyed by storms and rebuilt around the Buddha. Then in 1498 a tsunami washed away the entire temple -- except the Buddha. Since then it has simply stood in the open air. Impressive. It may be silly, but I developed a greater sense of awe and reference before this thing than anything else in my trip. Lots more photos in my Japan Flickr album.
Hase and Kamakura had a number of other great places to visit. Just a couple blocks from the Daibutsu is the Hase-Dera Temple, which features a 30-foot-tall 11-headed wooden statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon that was carved in the year 721 (I shit you not). Apperently it's one of the oldest surviving wooden statues and it is awesome. The temple also features a great high-altitude view of Kamakura and a cave that contains numerous statues chiseled out of the cave walls. This damp, dimly-lit cave had tunnels and rooms with ceilings so low I had to creep crab-like to get through it and see everything. Another highlight.
Back in Kamakura proper, after grabbing some lunch in a kaiten sushi restaurant ("conveyer belt style"), I strolled through the grounds of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (a very large Shinto shrine) to reach the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures. It's not very large, but this building houses some of the most expensive and important cultural treasures of Kamakura and Japan. Put more simply, there were a lot of really, really old and impressive statues and tapestries. The painted, glassy eyes of many of the statues were so real as to be unsettling, especially the Twelve Divine Generals. They were terrifying.
On the way out of Kamakura I made one last stop at the Enno-Ji temple which has only one room and one feature: status of all 10 Judges of Hell. Like many of the temples I visited, photos were not allowed inside, which is a real shame. These 10 Judges of Hell looked, well... very stern. I can only recommend this temple to people like me who are enjoy infernal things -- or people who like really angry statues.
Somewhat anti-climactically, the last cultural trip I made was to tour the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, we didn't get to go into any buildings, and most of the buildings we observed were constructed relatively recently. As such, I can't really recommend spending time on this.
But I know what you're really wondering.
Did I buy any Transformers after all?
Well, did I?
Yes. Yes, I did. I'll tell you about my foolish and wonderful acquisitions in my next and final Tokyo post.
On a completely unrelated note...
Look! A gumball machine that sells lingerie panties!