New Year in Tokyo II

Twice a year it is possible for the public to enter the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. This happens on the Emperor`s birthday on the 23rd of December, and on the 2nd of January when the Emperor gives his New Year`s greeting. Coming from a country that doesn`t have a monarch (despite being so close to the UK), I found this type of spectacle fascinating, and I think my coworkers found it amusing that I was so excited about it. Well it`s not everyday one gets to see an Emperor! The day after New Year then, Karen, her aunt and I joined the herds at the Imperial Palace to hear one of the Emperor`s speeches. He makes six speeches during the day, fifty minutes apart. We were aiming for the one at 11 o`clock but we feared that because of the crowds we wouldn`t make it in time. However, we were in perfect time, arriving ten minutes beforehand, which meant we didn`t have to wait around for long.

People handing out paper Japanese flags at the entrance to the Palace. I can`t remember having ever waved a national flag before (I`m not really a flag waver), but the flag rustled when waved, and I felt like a child with a rattle so of course I waved it like mad. The majority of visitors were Japanese, probably tourists having come to Tokyo for the holidays. We had to pass through security where our bags and pockets were checked and water bottles were confiscated, and we passed decked-out Imperial guards marking out the way. We arrived at a courtyard from which we could see a balcony where the Emperor would address the crowd. Everyone in the crowd had the flags, and when the Emperor and Empress, flanked by the rest of the Imperial family took their place on the balcony, the air was filled with red dots.

What I found strange was the vocal silence with which the crowd greeted the Emperor, I expected yells and cheers, but you can hear on the video that the only sound was the furious rustle of the flags. It was the same at the Noto Marathon, when although the Japanese supporters would occasionally clap and shout words of encouragement, my friends and I were the only once wooping and yelling and generally making a lot of noise in an attempt to cheer on the runners. They probably found it very distracting, actually.

The Emperor, a cute little old man, gave a short speech that I didn`t understand but which my friend loosely interpreted as conveying solidarity for the victims of the disasters last year and hope for the coming year. When the Imperial family went back inside we were quickly shunted toward the exit of the Palace, presumably to allow the next lot of people to come and take our place in the courtyard. It was strange coming out of the old-world tradition of the Palace and to be faced with a skyline of high-rise offices. It`s another one of those incongruities that makes Japan so interesting to foreigners.

We went back to Ueno where we were enticed into a Viennese-style café by the plastic cake models they had outside. I should make the remark that this is a very common way for restaurants to advertise their dishes. They are very convincing, to the degree that I find it very disconcerting when the dishes are displayed balancing on their thin edge, with their contents firmly glued to the centre of the plate. The café was gloriously kitch, as not having visited Vienna, this is exactly how I would imagine a café there to look like. There were electric candles everywhere and waiters dressed in tartan waistcoats. We sat upstairs by the window so we had a good view onto the street down below that had been so busy on New Years Eve. It had calmed down now so it was pleasant to people-watch from our vantage point.

We moved on to Ueno Park which has many museums on its grounds, but we just wandered around, discovering a Salvation Army performance and an antique market. Karen treated herself by taking the train home, but my other friend Liz and I were cutting costs by taking the nightbus which is about a third of the price. Our bus wasn`t leaving until about eleven o`clock that night so we walked around Akihibara, or Electric Town, which is known for its electronics shops and as a centre of manga and anime culture.

New Year in Tokyo I

 I flew back to Tokyo the day before New Year`s Eve, and it was a much more painful journey from Narita Airport to Ueno Station with my suitcase which had been half-empty on my way to Australia, and was then overfull coming back.  To make matters worse, my suitcase is the old-fashioned rectangular kind which is really meant to be carried, but also has wheels on one corner and a handle on the corner diagonally opposite.  This allows you to drag the suitcase alongside you by walking in a hunched manner, bearing most of the weight of the case, trying not to hit yourself in the leg with it and praying that the handle won`t break.

I met my friend Karen at the Station and we walked back to the hotel she was staying in with her aunt.  There were a few people from Ishikawa spending the New Year in Tokyo, so while we all did our own thing during the day (being spread out around the different areas in the city), we had all planned to meet up on New Year`s Eve.  Karen`s aunt took a day trip to Kamakura, an hour south of Tokyo, while Karen helped me colour my hair with some dye I bought in Australia.  We wandered around the market in Ueno which was chock full of people doing their New Year`s grocery shopping.  It had the same kind of frenetic activity as you might see on Christmas Eve in a supermarket when people realise they`ve forgotten the soft drinks or icecream for the Christmas dinner. 

Many different food shops were tucked into the narrow streets around the overhead trainlines.  The alleys were so narrow and there were so many people that there were two lines of people walking in opposite directions, effectively barring any way to cross the street.  Getting to the kebab shop on the other side required some planning.  Karen managed to dart through an ephemeral opening in the line of people, but I was too slow.  I allowed myself to be carried on with the current of people past the kebab shop until I seized the opportunity to jump into the queue on the other side which brought me back outside the shop when I was able to exit the queue and buy my lunch.

The sun was setting in a clear sky when we reached the Mori Tower in Roppongi. This houses an observatory and renowned museum on the top floors. Many of the museums in Tokyo were closed for the New Year season, but this wasn`t. There were two exhibitions on – one about an architectural movement called Metabolism, and one on the ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi. We bought tickets for the Metabolism exhibition but I planned on coming back to the Kuniyoshi exhibition on New Year`s Day. The time and weather were perfect for a view of Tokyo; we could see Tokyo Tower and out to the bay. Karen and I became separated in the exhibition as I always take ages wandering around museums, because I never realise how big they are. An hour after we had gone in, I got a text from Karen saying she was outside and that we should probably head back to the hotel to meet her aunt and get ready for the evening. To my dismay as I quickly exited the exhibition, I realised that I hadn`t even gotten through half of it! I went back on my own the next day to see the rest.

We met up with some people for dinner, and then met up with more when we went to Zojoji Temple near Tokyo Tower for midnight. The tower was lit up with its usual yellow light during the evening until it was nearing midnight and it went black. People at the temple were given clear, eco-friendly balloons to which they could attach a piece of paper with a wish written on it for the New Year, but unfortunately we arrived too late to get one. As the countdown began, glittering lights started to rise up the length of the tower and at the stroke of midnight the tower lit up with the year, the balloons were released, and the temple bells started ringing. It seemed strange that there were no fireworks, but in Japan firework displays are only held during the summer.

Afterwards we had intended to go to Ageha, the biggest club in Asia apparently, but we had learned earlier that day that admission would cost \8,000 and we weren`t so keen then. Having no plans, we wandered around the area, trying to find a bar with space, but to no avail. In the end we decided on karaoke, which I had not yet done since coming to Japan. Fun was had, though we did end up going to bed at a reasonable hour and missing the first sunrise of the year.

On New Year`s Day, after a hearty brunch of ramen, we went to Yoyogi Park in the hopes of seeing the Elvis dancers who usually appear there on Sunday afternoons. Alas, they must have taken New Year`s Day off, but regardless, it was pleasant to take a walk in the park. And our excursion wasn`t without its strange dancers, as amid the trees we came across a troop of people in fancy dress, practicing moves to a J-pop song.

Yoyogi Park is right beside the Meiji Shrine which is one of Japan`s most popular shrines, but we didn`t visit it because of the crowds; in the first few days of the New Year, over three million visitors come to the shrine. Instead we wandered around some shops in the Shibuya shopping area and then stopped for a drink in a café that had a good view onto a street that was lined with stalls selling festival food, like takoyaki (octopus dough balls), yakisoba (fried noodles) and okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes). While we were sitting drinking coffee and people-watching, we felt our building shake. It was as if a large passing truck was causing the vibrations, but we knew they were too strong to be caused by something like that. It was strange to experience an earthquake in the daytime, with nobody on the street paying any notice to it. Afterwards we went our separate ways and I went back to the Mori museum to visit both exhibitions, which I won`t go into here as that would need another post.

Above: Dangerous behaviour on the Tokyo subway platform
Below: Artworks dotted around the hotel I stayed at