Friday, June 27, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuu

Field trip! Today was a trip down to Omotesando, because our professor wanted to show us the architecture of the flagship stores that line the streets of Tokyo's biggest brand-name boulevard. We met up at Harajuku Station first, though, because we were supposed to also pay a visit to the Meiji Shrine, the one where Evan, Xim and I got hilariously lost the last time we came here.

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It was a relatively cool day; the weather report said it would be cloudy with a low chance of rain. We meandered between other visitors and tour groups on the long gravel path up to the shrine itself.

Other visitors and tour groups not pictured.

Xim and I have visited Meiji Jingu before, but we must have taken a different path to the shrine, because this time we passed through rows and rows of barrels of sake:

Oh, for Pete's sake!

They were apparently gifts to the Meiji Emperor (whose deified spirit is enshrined in this place) from the many sake breweries in Tokyo. Facing them was rows and rows of barrels of French wine:

Japan really needs to start attending her AA meetings.

which were gifts from French wineries to maintain good relations between France and Japan. I'm pretty sure that there isn't actually any wine in those barrels - and if there were, I'm sure they're tapped dry by now - but I can't help wondering how good the aged wine tastes, almost a century down the line?

We arrived at the shrine itself, and there wasn't actually very much to see. Most of the interior was cordoned off since it was a sacred site (but naturally the donation box is outside the barricades). Aside from its size, the shrine was mostly similar to any other shrine I've seen in Japan. Maybe with a backstage pass to see the inner workings, I would be able to tell you more.

You can tell that I was very excited about discovering the panorama function on my phone.

It started drizzling somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, so we quickly headed back out and off to lunch.  On the way out I managed to spot some elusive shrine maidens:

Better you see them in the day, rather than at night when all you're armed with is a magic camera.

On the way out, we also managed to spot Yoyogi Park, whose entrance looks very forlorn in the middle of a weekday:

Rockabilly otaku are mortally afraid of schoolchildren.

And also of the Yoyogi Stadium, which has a lot of architectural features which I cannot remember right now. I just think it looks like a fish:

With the spine and the bones sticking out along the side, see?

There were a lot of old Olympic buildings in the area, from when Japan hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, and the story was told in the architecture.

It must have looked a lot less tarnished when it was first built.

The bridge is lined with the traditional Olympic sports.

We had lunch partially sponsored by the programme (up to 1,000-yen), so we ate in style at a Japanese pasta place (all Japanese pasta places are automatically fusion), also partially to wait out the rain. I had a delicious dish of mentaiko in cream sauce which I enjoyed so much that I forgot to take a photo of.

We next made our way to Omotesando and visited the famous Omotesando Hills, a huge shopping mall disguised as a three-storey low-rise but actually concealed half its volume underground; it's also extremely long, taking up almost a quarter the length of the whole street. I think our guidebook said something along the lines of the architect rolling up a long strip mall into a tightly confined space, but still giving you the illusion of the long boulevards. Almost everything is ramps:

Someone should release a whole bunch of rubber balls at the top.

Prof Jacobowitz also pointed out something interesting in the concrete walls. They were unpainted and not tiled, and he was saying that although steel-reinforced concrete was not new, what was impressive was the fact that the concrete was an even colour throughout, because different batches of concrete tend to have different colourations due to small differences in the mixture. And it was a testament to the perfectionism of the architect to maintain this kind of high standards. Cool stuff.

We passed a lot of other buildings, but my favourite was the Louis Vuitton store, not because of brand-name materialism but because the architect designed the shop front to look like a stack of luggage trunks:

You can't really see it, but it's there.
We got rained out again, so we hung out at one of the large staircase landings which supposedly had some architectural significance but it was just a nice place to sit down out of the rain.

Why don't you build covered walkways, Japan?

Our last stop for the day was the Prada flagship store, a little ways off the Omotesando main street.

This isn't it, but it's a cool corridor nonetheless.

I didn't take any pictures, because the shop owners didn't allow us to take any photographs. I often wonder about how the super-rich feel when browsing a store like this. Aside from the inch-deep carpets and the thousand-dollar shoes, and the sales assistants who are more like personal butlers. Is brand-name loyalty really worth that much? I don't understand it. I felt like they were going to scrub the floor after I left, making sure to buff out all the plebeian footprints I was leaving behind.

The day was officially over, but some of us had to head back to Waseda to attend a tea ceremony and yukata-trying session hosted by the International Community Centre at Waseda. On the way back though, Prof Jacobowitz brought us to a crêpe shop in Harajuku, which sold a variety of crêpes at about 500-yen apiece. I had an Oreo cheesecake with vanilla ice cream - it was amazing.

It didn't taste like crap at all!

The girls went to do some shopping so I split off from them and went to wander around the backstreets of Harajuku by myself. It was pretty fun; I saw a lot of interesting shops and crazy good graffiti. I also walked past a taiyaki shop and the salesgirl had twintails and she called out to me and I almost turned around and bought a taiyaki just because she was so cute but I decided that my stomach was too full after crêpes and didn't.

Guess I didn't heed the advice of the writing on the wall.

Steph and Nia were extremely late at Harajuku Station because they were shopping, so they told me to go ahead first. I took a train down to Waseda by myself, and navigated my way to a large room near the cafeteria, where I met Payal, who was there conscientiously on time. I managed to snag tickets to both yukata-trying and  tea ceremony, which was fabulous, because apparently you could only have signed up for one or the other.

Nia, jealous of my good fortune.

I was helped into my yukata bya Waseda student by the name of Kensho-san. He was very friendly and excited when I told him I was from Singapore. He helped me into my very martial-arts-looking yukata and then I had Payal help me take some pictures.

"Your waist is like a girl's!"

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Steph then proceeded to take many pictures of me in various poses, which I shall not recount here because they are too embarrassing. There is one, though, that is absolutely FABULOUS:

No, on second thought, I really can't do "coy".

(Photo credit: Steph)

I also got to try out a traditional tea ceremony. I was sitting right next to the tea master, or whatever you call him, and I noticed that he was very intense and concentrated (much like the tea, hahaha). Most of the ritual involves actually cleaning out the utensils used to prepare the drink. Since I was closest, I got the one specially prepared by the guy; the rest all had it made by the other members of the tea club (I assume they're part of a club). I was really annoyed, though, by the people on my left, who were all joking around and laughing and having a jolly time. It also irked me a lot that they were Singaporeans. I think I recognised one of them from the army, but I wasn't sure and he never approached me anyway, so.

I spent the night working on my essay and also packing hurriedly for my trip to Hiroshima the following day. More about that in the next post!

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