Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

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Streets of Tokyo

January 8th 2019:

Good reading at the cafe

In the morning, went to find some of the places related to Katsushika Hokusai’s life, having had the fun of printing one of his most iconic works the other day. It turned out that Hokusai’s grave was in a neighbourhood very close to my hotel, so after a February Café cheese toast I wandered over – took a little tracking down, as GPS can’t say which side street you should use to access the site from!

It was nice to walk the little backstreets of Asakusa for a change – too often travelling between the landmark spots relies on either metro or the wide main streets. Hokusai’s grave is in a small temple courtyard, very simple. The weather had been so unseasonably warm of late, the tree at the gateway was actually bearing blossom already. As I walked on, happened upon the Pelican bakery that provided the café with its awesome bread.

Next stop was the Hokusai museum in the Sumida neighbourhood where the artist lived all his life. He was so dedicated to his art and spent so much time on it, he would no concern himself with trivial things like house cleaning. It’s said that when the house became too dirty, he would just move – and that he had lived in around 90 different places in his 90 year life. I like him even more now.

Walked there along the banks of the Sumidagawa, some nice reproductions showing how it would have looked in Edo times. The museum was very impressive – the general exhibition showed just how prolific he had been as an artist, including whole books of sketches about how to draw – some read like guides to modern cartooning, and indeed Hokusai is viewed as the creator of manga which ultimately became the Western cartoon tradition.

A while ago, I had found an interesting story in the Japan Times, about an architect and academic that led walking tours of Tokyo’s forgotten landscapes. As Tokyo evolved from the Edo era town into the massive metropolis we see today, parts of its topography have been preserved, with steeply sloping streets showing where rivers once ran:

“Yet a closer look at the topography of the yamanote turns up a more complicated picture: The yamanote itself is perforated by rivers that run toward the bay and rivulets that end in swamps and pools. The result is an undulating unevenness, a series of hills and valleys. It’s a topography that sets Tokyo apart from other Japanese cities, and most cities in general.”

So I decided to follow one of the routes mentioned in the article.

Steep streets

Steep street down from Shinanomachi station led into a quiet little neighbourhood. The river was still there – just buried, you could occasionally hear rushing water as you passed manhole covers. Long winding route before finally a steep ascent back onto one of Tokyo’s main streets.



Decided I couldn’t leave Tokyo without a visit to Akihabara. Came in via a Metro station I wasn’t familiar with, and on the walk over to Hitachino Nest Brewing Lab happened across something I’d read and seen video about – the creepy vending machine corner!

A street corner, with a whole cluster of the ubiquitous vending machines seen all over Japan. But actually inside the dingy corner building as well as outside. At first they seemed ordinary enough, with the usual drinks. Then a row of toy trains on the top shelf of one…. Large plastic beetles in cans… the cans of food (soup and oden)… and finally the boxes. Many, many boxes, each with what appears to be a short story on the outside, and no indication of the contents. One YouTuber dared to try one out, and found that it just contained a box of vegan crackers. Weird? You betcha!

Some excitement on the next street, as the driver of a lorry carrying a shipping container realised in time that he was about to drive under a railway bridge which would be too low for his load… cue lots of police and traffic cops running around excitedly.

Hitachino beers awesome as ever.

Last orders at Campion Ale. Got chatting to a couple of guys, Alex from England, George from Romania, both studying Japanese at a language school. Alex’s girlfriend has been working in Tokyo for a while, so he’s decided to move here as well, 6 months in. George just wanted a complete change of scenery after working in Israel, looking to work in the same design related field once he has enough Japanese under his belt. Like the couple I met in Aso, this is more food for thought. Need to hit those Japanese textbooks once I’m home and start seeing what the possibilities are.

Walked about 14km today. Legs a little tired to say the least…

Enoshima: Rush hour and bird bandit.

January 7th 2019:

(C)rush hour

So, today was time to head to the coast and see if I could get some Mt Fuji viewing in. Headed out early to face the joy of rush hour in Tokyo – had to let 3 trains go by before getting on one, though the locals happily cram themselves in until the doors could only just close.

View from the air

Changed trains at Shinagawa, for the service down towards Kanagawa. Was the train late? Nope, still showed as the 9:11 even though it left at 9:17. Changed onto the Shonan monorail at Ōfuna Station, second time riding this one. Suspended monorails are good fun – gliding along above the level of the traffic, with great views off to the mountains to the west. Arrived at Enoshima station, strolled down and across the bridge to the island itself. Had to chuckle at the signs telling you to beware of hawks (a particularly nice specimen pictured on top of a street lamp), turns out I was laughing too soon…

Ice cream spotted

Wasn’t in the mood to climb all the steps up to the top of the island, luckily for a modest fee you can ride a set of escalators past the shrines that take you most of the way there. Along these were sets of adverts, and one kept catching my eye – the current seasonal ice cream flavours, one umeboshi (pickled salted plums) and the other apple + camembert cheese. Decided this would be a good idea after some Fuji watching.

Sadly – no Fuji today, clear skies locally but over towards the mountains the clouds thickened in just the right (or wrong) spot to hide the key player. After surveying the beautiful views for a bit, decided ice cream was in order. At the counter, they helpfully pointed out another of the warning signs, this time mentioning kites instead of hawks, and cautioning that they were ‘looking to steal your food!’. Wasn’t going to be outwitted by a birdbrain, no sirree.

The apple + camembert was really nice, good combination of sweet fruit and creamy cheese (not an overpowering blue cheese flavour). Parked myself by a railing right next to a palm tree, figured the birds wouldn’t risk flying that close. Had finished most of the ice cream above the top edge of the cone, when I heard a whooshing noise and a powerful downdraft of air hit my head – and the whole top section of the cone disappeared, carried away in the beak of a big bugger, must have been a metre wingspan easy.

Looking around, he must have made a pinpoint bombing raid, dropping low between palm trees behind me – most impressive. Had to admire my winged bandit.

Walked back down the stairs past the shrines to the shopping street at the bottom. Having been done out of part of my ice cream, decided to try a local speciality – octopus senbei (crackers). Octopus was dredged in cornflour and a light corn batter, then placed on a two sided hot press that had a mechanism to clamp it down really tight. Over the cooking time the chef would crank this tighter and tighter, until you could hear a squealing noise as the water in the octopus was instantly turned to steam. End result a light cracker a couple of millimetres thick, crunchy and absolutely delicious.

Print with woodblock

Rode the Enoden (Enoshima electric railway) up line 4 stops to Fujisawa then all the way back to Kamakura. Main line train back up to Asakusa. Chilled out at the hotel for a bit, then went to Mokuhankan and spent far too much money on prints.

Decided I’d have an evening cruise so rode ferry Hotaluna (the sister ship of the Himiko we rode on our first trip here) down to Hinode pier, then local Metro to Odaiba. Primary reason was to visit Toys’r’Us, to track down a limited edition Lego set only released in Asian countries (Japan, China etc) to celebrate New Year.

Learned that they have a Statue of Liberty there…

Metro onwards to Shinjuku to my favourite dinner spot there, salted salmon set for dinner.

Tokyo: Towers and Art

January 6th 2019:


Found a little café near the hotel (February Café) – cinnamon honey toast to start the day. The archetype of bread used for ‘morning service’ – thick sliced, pillowy, snow white. Apparently from a little bakery called Pelican, an Asakusa landmark for 75 years, their bread is in high demand each day. Toast it, then add cinnamon, a layer of sweet whipped cream and some rock sugar – wow.

It me!

Hopped the Metro over to Daimon station, and walked via the grounds of Zojoji temple to Tokyo Tower. An impressive landmark, the tallest in Tokyo until the Skytree took the top spot – and built in only 18 months. Great views, and a ‘hidden room’ experience as you head to the ‘top deck’ viewing platform – a mock up of the library room shared by the instigator and the architect of the tower, where you learn a little about the history of the building in between changing elevators. Another one ticked off that towers list!

Could have walked up the 600 odd stairs to the main deck level – but thought better of it, and walked down instead. Great way of seeing the interior of the tower structure.

The shop

Back to the hotel for a bit, then walked into Asakusa for my afternoon experience. David Bull is a carver of woodblocks used to make ukiyo-e, traditional Japanese woodblock prints. He’s been in Japan since the ’80s, I’ve seen him present a few of the Journeys in Japan programs on NHK World, and on the flight over I happened to see a documentary about a video gamed themed series of prints that he produced along with an American illustrator, Jed Henry. Ukiyoe Heroes was a very successful Kickstarter project back in 2012, and I decided I needed a few of these prints in my life.

So when I saw you could visit his shop Mokuhankan for a print party – signed right up!

A small group of 5 of us worked through the process of printing our own small version of Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’, a print many people will recognise. David and his assistant Kawai guided us through the steps of inking each block, aligning the paper, and using a ‘baren’ to rub the washi paper against the block. David is a force of nature – extremely animated and enthusiastic about what has been his life’s work, great fun session. And the print turned out OK as well!

Stopped off in a little sake shop for a quick taster on the way back, then snapped a couple of shots of the local landmarks.

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