steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

梅雨 Diary - Downtown (24-25th June)

So far this diary has been a bit thin on mentions of actual people – but they do exist here in Japan, and I’ve been hanging out with quite a few of them, primarily Miho (who’s my sponsor here and has helped me in all sorts of ways), her assistant and student, Mikako, and her ex-student Satomi. (Satomi and Mikako I met two years ago at a conference in Worcester, which is how I came to have this Japan connection in the first place.) I haven’t yet had occasion to photograph any of them, but if you’re interested here are Mikako and Miho at Miho’s house last year, and here I am with Satomi earlier the same day, enjoying a hanami picnic. Natsukashii indeed – for now the rainy season has arrived in water as well as words, and I write this to the free-style jazz tom-tom of heavy rain bouncing into an avant-garde architectural feature from the mid-1920s. Reminiscing, as is proper in these conditions, I reflect on the vagaries of fate, which made a wayward railway ticket machine in Newcastle-upon-Tyne its instrument to bring me to Japan. For, had said machine not double-charged Satomi for a ticket to the conference in Worcester, I wouldn’t have helped her get a refund over the phone; she wouldn’t have mentioned me to Miho, Miho wouldn’t have discovered our shared research interests, and so on. (The refund came through, too, just six months later - which is the real miracle.)

Unlike my previous visits to Japan, this isn’t simply a tourist trip. For the first three weeks, at least, I’ve several jobs to get on with – so I suppose I won’t be blogging the days when I just sit in my room or Miho’s office preparing lectures or comparing The Borrowers with the UK and US dubs of Arrietty (my task of the moment). So far, I haven’t visited a single shrine or temple. Still, even ordinary life comes with its fair share of firsts. I’m enjoying listening to Japanese radio, and I’ve finally mastered the art of opening an onigiri with aplomb. Meanwhile, this is a view of my home as seen from Miho’s sixth-floor office:


If you have a machete, feel free to hack your way through to my front door and say Hello!

On Saturday I made a trip to Shinjuku – only twenty minutes on the tube, but a world away, in the the privy chamber of Tokyo’s pumping heart. This was where I’d spent my first ever day in Japan, mostly getting lost in Shinjuku station (the world’s busiest, or so I’ve read). This time, as an old Japan hand, I only had to stop and ask directions twice before I found my way to the Keio Department store. I was there to have tea with Yasuka, whom I’d met at Clémentine Beauvais’s York conference back in May. We had a good chat (where I was pleased to find a natural occasion to slip in the expression “kuuki wo yomenai”, which I’d been dying to do for some time); but here I’d like to record a culinary first: kakigoori (or shaved ice). It’s very much a summer treat, so I’d not had the chance to eat it on my previous visits, which were in spring. I went for matcha flavour, tricked out with adzuki beans. Yummy to eye and tongue alike:


(It has to be said that Yasuka’s choice was pretty lush, too.)

Yasuko Shirasu in Keio Depaato, 24 June 2017

Afterwards, I admired the hugely expensive clothes, kitchen appliances, etc., on Keio’s many floors, and played the “Irasshaimase!” game. You know those thrillers where people have to thread their way through a room without tripping any of the laser alarms (always coloured bright red for your convenience)? The “Irasshaimase!” game involves seeing how far you can walk through a Tokyo department store without triggering an "Irasshaimase!" from any of the assistants (“Irasshaimase!” being the welcome accorded, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to any customer who strays into their field of vision). My record so far is 20 metres. I don’t really mind being greeted, but like many Westerners I’m never quite sure how (or whether) to respond. Should I ignore the smiling assistant entirely, as many Japanese seem to? It certainly appears to be going too far to say “Thank you” or “Hello”, unless you’re seriously considering taking the relationship to the next level and buying something. In between lies a sickly repertoire of half-smiles, half-nods, subliminal body-swivellings and other such awkwardnesses, the mastery of which my nation has made its own.

I worked most of Sunday, but in the afternoon declared “No more - I must abroad!” and, having got a taste for urban living, tubed me to Ikebukuro (literally “Pond Bag” – no, I don’t either). I was particularly interested to see the street known, so NHK World had informed me, as “Otome Road”, the female answer to Akihabara, where girl geeks gather to buy figurines, cosplay, check out the latest manga, and perhaps be treated like a princess at the Swallowtail Butler café (Otome Road’s equivalent to Akihabara’s maid cafes).

Advert for Swallowtail Cafe, Ikebukuro

Perhaps four o’clock on a rainy Sunday afternoon wasn’t the best time to visit this demi-monde, but Sunshine City was still busy despite the rain:


(I like this couple the best.)


Otome Road took some finding, even though I picked up a map (two, in fact – in English and Japanese) at the nearby Tourist Information, on which it was clearly marked. When I reached the area where I believed it to be there were, indeed, drifts of teenaged girls, all dressed to the nines (Lolita fashion was their key note), but no lively street of shops that accorded with my mental image of the trendy Otome Road. I asked a couple of the girls and got blank looks, and it was the same story with the assistant in the combini next door. Eventually, someone pointed me down a street that did indeed have some otaku-ish shops here and there along one side (the other side was just car parks and offices) – and that, it appears, was Otome Road; but it seemed awfully thin pickings, compared to what their male equivalents have in Akihabara. (I was later told that “Otome Road” [Young Woman Road] is the term used by male otaku, not by the otome themselves – which perhaps explains the blank looks.)

Eatery of the day: Brasserie Edible. I do admire an establishment that doesn’t oversell itself:

Tags: voyage to japan, 梅雨diary
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