bigpumpkin in tokyo
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Friday, September 13, 2002
Wooo! Just had the most wonderful meal out with the guys we've been working with. The restaurant they'd picked was cool: it was kind of small but made optimum use of space by having some tables sunk into the floor and others on platforms above them, and played very groovy jazz. We were treated to a succession of Japanese delicacies, mostly fish - oh what fish! - but with plenty of exotic veggie things for me as well. I had strips of burdock root in batter, fried gingko seeds, black tofu (made with sesame seeds and served with wasabi), natto (the closest thing to cheese I've ever tasted - except for cheese, of course), seaweed flavoured with lime and chilli (and with the consistency of stewed rhubarb), and some fabulous baked aubergine for good measure. Tez had to be very brave, sampling sea urchin, squid, blowfish, clam, hachime (yellowback, we think) and various tuna dishes (raw, spicy and with miso), amongst other strange things.
We were also plied with drink - beer to begin with and then sake. And folks, I have a revelation for you: sake is delicious! Forget the stuff you may have had in restaurants in England; apparently they only serve it warm if it's the poor quality stuff. This was incredibly smooth and about as potent as a stong wine. Think I may have to buy some at the airport...
It turned into a very expensive meal in the end, but they wouldn't dream of letting us pay for any of it: one of the managers (Matsumo) came out with us and got a round of applause when he took responsibility for the bill. I felt very humble and very privileged, not because it was expensive, and not just because it gave us a chance to experience Japanese cuisine at its best, but also because it meant that we could talk with them and laugh with them and understand what makes them tick.
It's wonderful how much the Japanese relax when they've had a few drinks. It's not that they're all excessively formal and standoffish the rest of the time, although they do take politeness very seriously. It's just that when they're a bit tipsy, they stop worrying about causing offence and get on with the business of having fun. Kamito-san broke the ice by admitting that he had been worried about us, and thought that we might be having a terrible time, because he kept hearing us sighing from across the office. We laughed and explained that that's normal behaviour for us when we're working on a difficult project. I mimed banging my head against the wall and explained that this, too, was normal behaviour for me when I'm struggling with a particularly knotty piece of code. After that we talked openly of our feelings about the work, and our experience of Japan, and the experience of working with them. I hope we conveyed how much we'd enjoyed ourselves, and how rewarding it had been; they certainly made it clear how much they appreciated us and the work we'd done.
Now it's gone 1am, and I'm tired, slightly drunk and very happy. OK, so I have to get up in the morning and spend the best part of twenty hours travelling, but - heck! - I've had a wonderful trip, done a good job and now I'm going home. What a great end to a great trip.
Thanks for listening, folks; see y'all soon, I hope. And watch this space...

Thursday, September 12, 2002
Definitely spending too much time at work. Resorted to taking snaps out of my window again yesterday, but I'll try not bore you with any more photos of Ikebukuro by night - except maybe this panorama that I cobbled together. Had another top curry in 'Baba, with enormous naans that were light and fluffy and tasted like pancakes (according to Tez). We're going out to a Japanese place tomorrow night with the guys from work. I'm really looking forward to it: having someone to do all the communicating for you makes eating out a much more pleasurable experience.
Not long now!

Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Actually managed to leave by six o'clock today! Unfortunately, this meant it was rush hour on the train, but we survived the experience relatively unscathed. Undaunted by our nightmarish experience last night, we returned to the enormous Tobu/Metropolitan Plaza complex, determined to put it all behind us.
We'd noticed a sign yesterday, you see, that had piqued our interest. It purported to indicate the location of the Japan Traditional Craft Centre, which the guide book had recommended and had sent us to Shibuya to find. After that wild goose chase we concluded that the place must have shut down or relocated. Could it really have been right here on our doorstep the whole time?
Yes it could! This was exactly what I'd been hoping for: the real deal, and none of the tatty tourist-fodder and mass produced novelties that we'd seen elsewhere. There was everything from lacquerwork and ceramics to calligraphy brushes and handmade paper, and all of it was presented with information about the products and the regions where they were made. The entrance hall had a display of traditional materials, including samples of more than a dozen woods in their natural form, and the main room was an airy combination of gallery and shop. Needless to say, many of the goods on offer were very expensive, but there were items to suit every pocket, including our own.
Emboldened by our success, we dared to enter the vast domain of Tobu again, and found plenty more to ponder on their sixth floor. We also wandered around the other floors, incredulously taking in the endless square-footage of designer clothes and luxury nonsense. Vivienne Westwood flannels anyone? I was particularly intrigued by an large display of teaspoons, which included a mystifying diagram that seemed to be demonstrating the correct proportions required for optimum spoon-wielding pleasure. Each floor was approximately the size of a conventional department store, and there were ten or twelve floors. The shoe section alone must have been the size of about twenty normal shoe shops.
Finding this hard to believe? Take a look at this cross-section, from Tobu's compendious (but sadly incomprehensible) floor guide. And did I mention that there is another equally enormous department store called Seibu on the other side of the station? Or that their names are a bit of a local joke: they apparently mean East and West, but their actual locations are the wrong way round. I think the Japanese regard depatment stores as an art form; there are loads more scattered around Tokyo, but I don't think many of them are on the same scale as Tobu.
Still unable to contemplate eating in the Seven Hells, we opted for a more compact version of the ultimate eating experience on top of the Metropolitan Plaza building: Restaurant World. This wasn't nearly as scary, and we were eventually brave enough to enter one of the establishments, where I enjoyed a surprisingly nice salad (featuring slices of kiwi fruit) and a 'garlic pizza'. Tez wasn't so happy with his anonymous meat dish on a bed of rice, but it did at least look exactly like the plastic one that they had on display outside...

Tuesday, September 10, 2002
Leaving work late is starting to become a habit. Crashed out on the bed as soon as I got in, until Tez knocked on my door and reminded me that we hadn't eaten anything yet. Wandered aimlessly around, looking in vain for a restaurant with any signs of English on the menu. There seem to be any number of Italian restaurants around here, but sadly Tez didn't fancy repeating that culinary experiment. The guidebooks kept wittering on about the huge number of restaurants on the top seven floors of the gargantuan Tobu department store (think of a particularly scary version of Harrods, but the size of an entire shopping centre), so we felt compelled to investigate.
Even finding a lift to take us up that high was a major challenge, and when we did we soon wished we hadn't. There was an annoying bloke whose job it was to control the lift, stopping at nearly every floor so that he could lean out and wave to let people know that the lift was there. When we eventually arrived at the eleventh floor (bottom level of the restaurant section) we realised that we had, in fact, entered our own private hell. It was arranged in increasingly frustrating levels of restaurants, starting with about 5 or ten to a floor, and steadily decreasing in number as we ascended. None of them had English menus, and most had the scary plastic food in their windows. We made it to the fifteenth floor before abandoning all hope. "I don't like to admit defeat", I said to Tez. "But I'm defeated."
Escaping from this diabolical place was even worse than going in, with another painfully slow ride in the lift depositing us in the basement, from whence we struggled to escape. Our initial attempt was foiled because the department store was in the process of closing, so many of the exits were shut, but we eventually won through to the train station (which is really just another part of the Tobu Empire, as is our hotel) and freedom! Desperate for food by this stage, we made our third visit to Malay-chan, where the excellent food was sadly marred by poor service and lumps of meat in my supposedly vegetable curry.
Can I come home now please?

Monday, September 09, 2002
Kamito just sent me a top link, which explains (in rather entertaining English) some Japanese beliefs and customs. Check it out! I'd also like to draw your attention to the link at the top of the page. I won't normally be clogging your bandwidth up with advertising, but this is a worthy cause, I think.

It felt like I was going to achieve absolutely nothing for most of the day, but things picked up at the end, so we went out with Jeff after work to celebrate with another curry. Mine was essentially pureed spinach with bits of paneer and some chilli powder in it, but the naan was great and I pinched Tez's salad (he wasn't going to eat it anyway) for a bit of texture.
Miraculously, I don't seem to have burned too much in the sun yesterday, but I do have a number of insect bites, which have been driving me mad for most of the day. It's been raining for most of the day again; obviously the gods of tourism were smiling on us at the weekend, but saw no reason to continue putting themselves out once we went back to work. And who can blame them?
It is going to cut down on the number of interesting photos, though. Here a few more from the weekend to keep you going. This illustrates just how close to central Tokyo the Imperial Palace gardens really are, and here is a tour guide leading a big group of vistors past one of the guardhouses; note the convenient dual functionality of umbrellas. I mentioned other statues in the Imperial gardens, didn't I? Oh, and I also wanted to show you another shot of the moat.
I was quite taken with the wall that surrounded the gardens at Korakuen, which was made of individually shaped stones, most of which had a small symbol carved into them; the mark of the mason, maybe? The lotus plants were so cool that I feel compelled to show you more of them, and you probably won't object to seeing another nice bridge, now will you? What about another tree? Too many? The white skies that you can see on a lot of the pictures (like this one in the Imperial gardens and this at Korakuen) should give you an idea of just how bright it was yesterday; it wasn't just me being inept with my complicated new toy.
Hmmm... better think of something else to talk about tomorrow. Any suggestions?

Sunday, September 08, 2002
After a mad dash back to Asakusa for some last minute gifts, we set a course for the heart of Tokyo: the Imperial Palace. Actually, most of the huge Palace grounds are off-limits to visitors, but that still leaves three large parks and gardens, two of which we visited. The only thing we hadn't really taken into account was the weather. Oh, we were well prepared for rain, which is what all the forecasts were predicting, but we weren't at all prepared for the blazing hot sunshine, and ended up getting well and truly toasted.
We entered via the Tayusu-mon gate in the north, and immediately ecountered the enormous Budokan Hall, which was swamped with people attending a New Year Rally (whatever that is). We spent some time chasing crows and I finally managed to get close to a dragonfly. I also spotted a duck, which appeared to be having a conversation with a fish. There were more museums for us to ignore and random statues to gawp at, but we soon decided to move on.
The Higashi Gyoen Gardens were more impressive, and as we entered we also had a good view of the huge stone walls and moat that surrounds the entire palace area. The first things that we came across were a curious-looking concert hall, built to celebrate the Empress' 60th birthday, and a remnant of the original Edo period fortifications. There was plenty to see: lots of trees, of course, some of them odd-looking or a bit out of place; also ponds and other water features; lamps, buildings and other cool stuff; plus three of the original guard houses, once home to hordes of samurai warriors.
Our appetite for gardens thoroughly whetted, we went in search of more greenery on the way home. The walled gardens at Kirakuen were unfortunately located: right next door to a gigantic Tokyo Dome amusement park, which had hordes of people queuing to get in. Despite having this intrusive monstrosity looming over them, the gardens were very beautiful and well worth the modest entrance fee. There were the remains of a temple scattered throughout the grounds, as well as interesting buildings and other artifacts. The garden was on various levels, featured a large lake and had numerous bridges (like this and this), and other water features, including a pond full of lotus plants. As with the Imperial Gardens, the emphasis was on trees rather than flowers, but when the trees are in blossom, it must be a riot of colour.
We returned to the fantastic Akiyoshi yakitori bar (see previous post) for our tea, and then downloaded the photos that Tez has taken with his new camera onto my PC. We're both very pleased with our new toys, but we're still learning how to make the most of them, I think. We've certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so this weekend!

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