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Posts Tagged ‘harajuku’

Prior to flying to Okinawa to begin my research year in earnest, I had a few days in Tokyo, mainly organized around the need to go in to Japan Foundation headquarters in Yotsuya for a one-hour orientation meeting, to get situated with paperwork and so forth. But these few days were also a good opportunity to see the city a little bit, catch up with some friends, meet (however briefly) a whole bunch of other grad students currently doing their research years as well – many of whom are staying in Tokyo, but many others of whom, like myself, left within the next day or two for Okinawa, Fukuoka, or Sendai.

And, while in Tokyo, of course I squeezed in a bit of history wandering. I don’t know how the blog posts will go from here for the remainder of this year. I would really love to keep up with writing about every place I visit, every thing I do, to engage with these things not only in the moment but also by writing about them afterward, and thus thinking about them a bit more, and also feeling I’ve produced something that I’ve shared – feeling that I’m contributing in some small way to informing or entertaining others, the Internet; that I’m doing public history, maybe, in some small and amateurish way, if that’s not too grandiose a thing to say about my ramblings on this little blog. But, then, of course, on the other side, as much as I would like to do that, blogging is time-consuming, and I just don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up, while also devoting appropriate levels of attention to my research, which is what I’m really here for, and what I’m getting paid to focus on. So, we’ll see. In the meantime, though…

The entrance to the PARCO Museum, done up for its first ever exhibit, “STRIP!”

I arrived in Tokyo on Monday night, Sept 12. On Tuesday, I skimmed briefly through the first ever exhibit of the newly opened PARCO Museum, an art space located on the 7th floor of the PARCO department store in Ikebukuro. Their opening exhibit is of drawings by mangaka Anno Moyoco, who I know best from her Yoshiwara-themed series Sakuran, which was turned into a live-action movie in 2006, starring Tsuchiya Anna and with rocking music by Shiina Ringo. There is so much going on in Tokyo at any given time – it’s awfully tempting to immerse myself in that art world, to become (again) someone well familiar with the latest goings-on, who has been to the latest exhibits, and who has real thoughts on exhibit design, aesthetics and artistic choices of the artists themselves, and so on and so forth. But, boy, that is a whole other ‘me’ yet; I would need three of me, three clones, just to be all the different people I want to be – the Historian / grad student / researcher; the art historian, museumgoer, art world member; the history nerd visiting and blogging about obscure historical sites; the culture nerd attending and blogging about and getting involved in festivals and performances… Still, I’m excited to return to Tokyo in a few months and get involved in all that again.

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the Anno Moyoco exhibit. I’ve grown so detached and distant from the worlds of anime, manga, and pop culture otherwise in recent years… The exhibit design was pretty cool, with walls and curtains and other elements evocative of the worlds or aesthetics of each of Anno’s different manga. While I understand the arguments for letting art speak for itself, I think that immersive exhibits are a worthwhile, impactful, experience unto themselves, and artworks in their own rights. And this one did a great job of that.

Screw Hattori Hanzô. Who cares? Totally over-hyped weeaboo bait. This here is a memorial monument (kuyôtô) for Tokugawa Nobuyasu, son of the great Tokugawa Ieyasu; poor Nobuyasu gets no attention, no recognition at all, and why? Just because he died decades before he might have ever gotten the chance to succeed his father as shogun? Feh.

Poking around Yotsuya prior to my meeting at Japan Foundation, I found my way to the small local temple of Sainen-ji 西念寺, where I grabbed some photos of the grave of Hattori Hanzô (“ninja” retainer to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who is probably a pretty cool figure, but who has been blown far out of all proportion by sammyrai geeks), and of a memorial stone (kuyôtô) for Tokugawa Nobuyasu, a son of Ieyasu’s who gets majorly short shrift and is treated as merely a footnote – if that – in the vast majority of scholarship on Tokugawa Ieyasu or the shogunate. Granted, he died some twenty years before the founding of the shogunate, but, still, he’s still a person, a figure, who had at least some significance. Doesn’t really deserve to be relegated to the dustbin of history just because he didn’t survive to be more explicitly influential.

For anyone looking to visit these sites yourself, Hattori’s grave and Nobuyasu’s memorial stone are just around to the side of the main hall. As you enter the temple’s main plaza, just walk straight and a bit to the left. I was wandering around in the cemetery itself, trying to look around for them, and got chastised. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last – I do my utmost, of course, to be as respectful as possible towards the fact that it’s an actual cemetery, and I hope that people (Japanese mourners, temple staff) see that; the vast majority of the time, in my experience, people associated with the temple understand and appreciate that people like myself are interested in these historical spots, and they are almost always plenty willing to guide you to the right place. But, yeah, it’s a balancing act. Some temples have signs pointing you in the right direction; some don’t, and so you just try to be as respectful as possible while trying to find what it is you came there for.

I then took a very brief run through the Fire Department Museum, a surprisingly large (seven floors of exhibits?) museum, with free admission, that stands adjacent to the Yotsuya Fire Department. Didn’t really have time to engage properly, but just ran through taking photos of the displays on Edo period firefighting; I’ll come back to these at some point in the future and read the labels I photographed, and learn a tiny bit more about how Edo (Tokyo) functioned at that time. I really love museums like this, because they just have so much stuff, and they just put it all out so nonchalantly. Can you imagine ever seeing more than one or two or three Edo period firefighting-related objects on display at the same time at the Metropolitan Museum, or LACMA? Can you imagine actually learning anything of real volume, real extent and consequence, about early modern Japanese firefighting, at the Freer-Sackler or the Museum of Fine Arts? I know that for the average general American museumgoer this is all terribly obscure. But it’s not so exceptionally obscure, is it, really? You don’t have to be a super crazy deep “history of firefighting” nerd to be interested in this stuff – all you have to be is someone who’s heard of it and wants to learn more; someone with an interest in Japan, or in premodern societies more generally, curious about how fires were fought – for example – prior to the advent of modern techniques and technologies. All you need is to take it that one next step – from having ukiyo-e woodblock prints of firefighters because that’s “art”, and perhaps a fireman’s robe, because that’s “textile art,” and taking the next step to include a historical fire-fighting tool – even just one – so that museumgoers can learn something not just about the art and the artist and the aesthetics, but also about the subject matter itself. What was life like in Edo? How did the city work?

Following my Japan Foundation orientation, around 4pm, I then met up with some friends for happy hour (and what for me was a very late lunch, which is actually about the time I normally eat lunch) in Harajuku, followed by some brief clothes shopping adventures. I don’t know if I was just tired, or because I’ve just finished packing up my entire life back in California and thus am particularly keenly aware of how much shit I already own, or because for a change I know I’ll actually be back here for a many-months-long stay and so there’s no need to go crazy right now today, but somehow the whole Harajuku thing just wasn’t grabbing me that night. In a few months, after I’ve gotten a better sense of what clothes I do and don’t have, what styles I’m yearning for, and so forth, I’ll come back and I’ll buy all the things.

Wednesday saw more general random history wandering. I was meeting up with a friend in the Akasaka/Nagatachô neighborhood, so while I waited to get together with her, I found my way to the ruins of the Akasaka-mitsuke, the approach to the Akasaka Gate of Edo castle. Marky Star has a wonderfully thorough explanation about mitsuke and so forth here, so I won’t bother to rehash that. Still, it was neat to see some stonework surrounding a small former section of the castle moat, along with its associated bridge (Benkei-bashi) – to get some sense of what had once been there, much more so than if it were just a few stones and a marker saying “you can’t see anything at all, but just imagine…”

Adjacent to this is a massive, shiny, very new-looking residential+shopping complex, which we are told stands on the former grounds of the Kishû Tokugawa Kojimachi mansion. Here too, while there is less explicitly to be seen of anything surviving from that time (such as a gatehouse, for example), I was happy to see as many plaques and markers as I did, explaining even just a little bit the history of what once stood there. For a moment, I got mixed up and thought this was maybe the Kishû Tokugawa Akasaka mansion which in the Meiji period became the temporary imperial palace for a time, but later in the day we visited the far more famous Akasaka Palace, and I was reminded that that was built atop the former site of the Akasaka mansion I was thinking of – and so the one more immediately adjacent to Akasaka-mitsuke was a separate mansion.

Incidentally, directly across the street from the Akasaka-mitsuke ruins I could see (across the street, in the distance, behind serious gates) the official residences of the heads of the two Houses of the Japanese Diet (i.e. the two houses of parliament). Had I taken the time, I could have easily sought out the Diet Building, the Prime Minister’s residence, the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party, and so forth, all of which are clustered right around that neighborhood.

Instead, I poked around in a slightly different direction, walking left instead of right, or something to that effect, and happened upon a building associated with the Korean royal family, who in Japan’s Imperial period were incorporated into the Japanese European-style peerage/aristocracy, or kazoku. Not something I think the Japanese government or whoever are necessarily trying to hide, per se – that the last members of the Korean royal family were present and resident in Tokyo in the 1900s to 1940s – but just a corner of the international history that just doesn’t pop up so much on the Japan side (of course, this is quite prominent in Korean history); empire is one thing, but what happened to the royal family, as individuals, where they lived in Tokyo, and so forth, gets brushed aside in the face of the much more boldly and starkly obvious issues of Empire and imperialism and colonialism – political history and all of that. Still, I think it fascinating, the place of Koreans, Ryukyuans, Chinese, within Japanese culture and history.

What’s today known as the Classic House at Akasaka Prince, standing on one portion of the former site of that Kishû Tokugawa Kojimachi mansion, seems to be the restoration of a residence constructed in 1930 for the last Crown Prince of the Korean Kingdom; this 1930 building seems to have replaced one built in 1884 for Prince Kitashirakawa by Josiah Conder – arguably the most significant architect of the Meiji period, or at least the most widely featured in introductory Japanese Art History survey textbooks.

So, that was pretty cool. Meeting up with my friend, we then poked around Hie Shrine for just a bit – they were having a gagaku concert and some kind of festival procession the next day in conjunction with Mid-Autumn Festival and also the 300th anniversary of the accession of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, all of which sounds quite exciting but I won’t be able to attend.

We then made our way to the Akasaka Palace – the more famous one, built in 1909 on the former grounds of the Kishû Tokugawa mansion which had been appropriated and modified to serve as a temporary imperial palace from 1873 to 1889. Whereas I imagine the 1870s-90s palace to have been largely unchanged from its architectural style, layout, construction, character as an Edo period daimyô residence – wooden construction, tatami mat flooring, shôji and fusuma screens for walls, ceramic tile roofing, and all the rest – the Akasaka Palace built in 1909, the one we know today, is a glory of Meiji architecture, in a Neo-Baroque style inspired by palaces of Germany, Austria, and France. Originally constructed as a residence for the Crown Prince, it has since the 1960s (if not much earlier? I’m not sure) been used to provide lodgings for top-level visiting foreign dignitaries, such as heads of state. Sadly, we failed to consult any public opening schedule or public tours application process ahead of time, and so were only able to see the palace from a distance, from outside the impressive gates. Kind of like visiting the White House. But that’s fine.

So, that’s it for Tokyo for now. Just a few scattered adventures, and now, off to Okinawa. I expect I’ll be doing a lot of exploring and adventuring in Okinawa – historical sites, traditional arts performances, museum exhibits – so, watch this space. Then, in the spring, I’ll be back in Tokyo, and the more mainstream Japanese adventures will continue.

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I’m staying with friends in Tokyo for a few weeks – it’s amazing to be back in Japan, and I’ve certainly gone through numerous emotions and trains of thought about being here again, but rather than ramble through all of that, I’ll try to put that aside and talk about just one or two things, for the moment. My friends live in a pretty quiet, out of the way neighborhood, so even though I’ve been here a few days already, today was my first real trip into the city, in a sense. I was thinking of checking out Shimokita or Jiyûgaoka or something, and maybe another day soon I will. But today, I’m glad I decided to go to Harajuku and Shibuya – in a sense, it really doesn’t feel like you’re in Tokyo, or like you’ve come to Tokyo, done Tokyo, had the Tokyo experience, until you’ve gone to one of these major areas (e.g. Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Akihabara) and felt the energy.

Harajuku certainly doesn’t feel the subculture hotspot it once was, and I don’t think that’s an accident of the time or day that I went, or the weather. Compared to ten years ago (when I first came to Japan as a study abroad student), there are markedly fewer people in goth-loli, punk, or other fashions that stand out dramatically, and fewer shops specializing in such things. And that’s certainly unfortunate in various ways. But, on the plus side, the area is still very vibrant, very active, and which one short strip along Meiji-dôri is now dominated by utterly mainstream Western chains such as GAP, Forever 21, and H&M, the smaller, Japanese, shops along Takeshita-dôri and in the adjoining backstreets are still selling Japanese street fashion sort of things – meaning, the sorts of things that the average hip, stylish, young Japanese guy or girl would wear; not ordinary blah t-shirts and jeans, but something with style. And, while we’ve certainly lost (or are losing) something in terms of the spectacle and the experience of Harajuku in that sense of the decline of the area as a punk/goth-loli hotspot (I wonder where they’ve all gone), it’s actually become an excellent spot for me to do clothes shopping, as much of what’s on sale is now a lot tamer, more wearable (for me, in that sense of it not being so out there, so boldly punk or goth or whatever), and more affordable, while still being distinctly fashionable – these are things that not only fit me well and look good on me (I hope), but which I can feel special about owning and wearing, that when people back home ask, and even if they don’t, I’ll know that I bought them in Tokyo, and that I am in whatever little way connected to the Tokyo fashion scene, or whatever. Plus, things just fit me better here; the average target customer is shorter/smaller, and the style is slimmer.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was glad that I decided to go to Harajuku & Shibuya today, because you can really feel the energy of the city. Not just that it’s busy, or crowded, but there’s a cultural energy, a feeling of the experience of this place, this very central, happening, place, a place you’ve heard of or thought of or imagined, and now you’re experiencing it – and, a place that is very much a center of activity, of the latest trends, of events, etc. Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most happening cities in the world. It’s a city of neon lights, crazy crowds, fashion, art, electronics, incredible design, excellent food… and especially in contrast to the experience of other parts of Japan, it’s in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, moreso than in a quiet, out of the way residential neighborhood, that one really feels that.

Today, in the course of just one day, I saw the grave of a famous major Japanese historical figure, visited several Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple, poked around a whole bunch of Japanese fashion stores, enjoyed a genuine authentic Harajuku crepe (with matcha ice cream. yum.), discovered an entire two-story store devoted just to Evangelion goods (and I’m assuming this is here for just a limited time, making the experience of the shop itself, as well as all the goods, though I didn’t buy any, an even more special experience), saw a couple of young guys playing music outside Shibuya Station, heard/saw a couple of giant soundtrucks pass by advertising the Les Mis movie and blasting “Do You Hear the People Sing?“, heard and saw a political soundtruck, with candidates shaking hands and shouting slogans, rode the Yamanote, and poked around the giant Tsutaya at Shibuya Crossing, getting a brief glimpse at what music & movies are cutting-edge new and popular in Japan.

Yappari, it doesn’t feel like Tokyo, it doesn’t feel that one has truly returned, until one goes to these big-name, vibrant, active, and, yes, obnoxiously crowded, areas. But, therein lies the energy, the beat of the city, that I have missed so.

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