Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/26 - Day 10 - An Imperial Shrine, A Trendy Avenue, and A Faithful Dog

Sanma no Shioyaki - Salt Grilled Saury
Our first stop this morning took us along from Aoyama station, down a wooded avenue called the Icho-namiki, which is lined with beautiful Ginko trees. The trees are famous for turning bright yellow in the Autumn, but we caught them a few weeks too early and they were just barely turning to a light yellowish green. However, we ran into some food stalls on the way through, and one of them had something I'd been hoping to find on this trip - Sanma no shioyaki, or Salt grilled saury on a stick.
Saury is a small, sardine-like fish prized for its bitter innards. You eat it more or less whole, right off the stick, though I found the rib bones and the skull to be a bit too tough to actually eat. The rest of it however was really yummy, including those bitter innards, which were a striking contrast to the rest of the mild fish.
Our destination was the largest Imperial shrine in Tokyo, Meiji-Jingu. Meiji-jingu is a shrine dedicated to emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōkan. The original shrine was destroyed in the bombing of Tokyo and a new one was built in its place in 1958. The grounds are big and beautiful. Last time I was here, it was for New Year's, and there was a huge line of people that filled the path to the main building. This time, the temple grounds were blessedly clear. There were a few weddings going on, as quiet and austere as funerals at least during the part we witnessed - joke about marriage goes here. Also, and we weren't sure whether this was something special or whether it happens every Sunday, but there were a lot of people who had their kids dressed up in full kimonos to visit the shrine. Or maybe they were yukatas? I have trouble discerning the difference.
An austere wedding procession at Meiji-jingu shrine
After the main temple we paid the 500 yen a piece to walk around the gardens and visit Kiyomasa's Well, which is, according to countless blogs online, a popular "power spot" where guests can experience "positive energy." It is a very regulated power spot, as We waited in a short line and a guard barked requests to the visitors to stand in certain places. We were guided to stand on a pair of stones and look into the well. I can't speak for the positive energy, but the well itself is a natural swell spring surrounded by a metal ring and is visually underwhelming.
We had scheduled this part of our trip for Sunday because Yoyogi park, our next destination, is one of the places the hip kids in Tokyo hang out, and they do so en masse on Sundays. When we arrived however, there were signs saying that there was some sort of "emergency response" going on in the park, and that it was closed until further notice. Phooey.
Luckily the next spot on our self-guided tour was right next door - Harajuku. Harajuku is a fashionable district in Tokyo focused around youth culture and style. There are a lot of clothing stores featuring a wide range of styles, from gothic to punk to American street fashion, and lots of trendy restaurants and street carts.
Takeshita Avenue in Harajuku,
on a Sunday
We started are exploration into Harajuku on the narrow Takeshita avenue. (Yeah, yeah, it's only funny once, get it out of the way.) The avenue has a sort of sloping bowl shape, and standing at the top of it allows the tourist (every damn tourist, including us) to get a shot of the whole street, which straddles two major intersections.
I would be remiss in my duties as a food blogger if I didn't mention the crepe shops. Crepes, though they are not as big a thing as they were a few years ago the last time I was here, are a very popular street treat, especially in the Harajuku area. They do not mess around with crepes in this country - you can get a crepe piled with 3 completely unrelated desserts, all jammed together in a doughy shell. A popular topping on crepes is cheesecake - whole wedges of cheesecake, right inside the crepe.
For my part, I had a crepe with green tea ice cream, mochi balls, chestnuts and whipped cream, and Sean had one stuffed with cheesecake, whipped cream and caramel. Neither were particularly spectacular, but there was a crepery every 10 feet on Takeshita avenue, so maybe we picked a bad one. It sure seemed popular enough though. I'm told that the latest craze with the kids now is fancy pancakes. We'll try to get to that some time during this trip.
After Takeshita, we rounded the corner onto Harajuku avenue, where the street was blocked off in preparation for a Halloween parade. Despite our crepe sidequest, we were still in search of food, and our AirBnB hosts had recommended a gyoza place in Harajuku as a popular new watering hole. The name of the restaurant translated elegantly as "Harajuku Gyoza House" and we had one set of traditional fried dumplings and one set of a steamed ginger and onion variety. To be honest, trendy as the place may be, the dumplings were good, but they weren't spectacular.
On our way back to the station to our next destination we caught the end of Halloween costume parade thing. It was mostly kids and their parents. There were a few noteworthy costumes including a sort of terrifying Simpsons family, and even though they weren't in the parade, we saw a couple dressed up as Dr. Krieger and his holographic girlfriend from Archer. That made my day.
The famous statue of Hachiko
 at Shibuya Station
After Harajuku we took the subway to Shibuya crossing, one of the largest pedestrian intersections in the world, it is known as a pedestrian scramble crossing, in which there is a signal dedicated to walking traffic, which inundates the whole intersection at once in all directions.
Near the intersection is the famous statue of Hachikō the dog. Hachikō  was an Akita who famously waited for his master's arrival every day at Shibuya station, until one day the master died in 1925, and Hachikō continued to wait for him for eight years, until his own death. He became a symbol of fidelity in Japan, and a bronze statue was erected to him at Shibuya station in 1934 (it was later melted down for the war effort, and a new one was placed in the same location in 1948.)
Shibuya is another insane shopping and business district, and we stopped into at least one noteworthy store, Yamanote camera, which is a tech shop with floors upon floors of electronics. It is a visually overwhelming store, with banners and advertisements and barkers advertising individual products.
The Japanese seem to have a thing for quacky beauty devices, as evidenced by this particular gem we came across in Yamanote camera - it's a face firmer, and the method of activation is to put the device in your mouth, at which point it begins flapping up and down, and you clench for dear life as the thing tries to wrest itself out of your jaw. This, in turn, firms your chin. There were lots of things like this, and floors upon floors that we didn't even look at.
The last stop of the evening was Shinjuku, the central business district, where we went directly to the central park. We wandered around a bit, but to be honest were were both wiped out at this point, so our hearts weren't really in it. After a few minutes, we gave up and went back to the apartment.
Yakiniku on the grill
Dinner that night was at a Yakiniku bar, local to the flat. Yakiniku is grilled meats, served on a hibachi style grill, at the table. We were brave ordered an mix, which was supposed to consist of intestine, heart and other sundry bits. There was no heart. I know heart when I taste it; its a lot like chewing a rubber band. The other bits were fatty and flavorful. We also had a big chunk of marinated skirt steak, which, while good, was tough to eat because of all the connective tissue.
Home base and rest. Tomorrow we're going to Akihabara, the tech district, and then we're going to wing the rest of the day.

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