Yanaka, Odaiba

And now for an unscheduled feature… I have returned to Japan! This is a bit of a different experience, because this time around (my third visit to this wonderful country) I am here for work -but I had a weekend before, and then afterwards I’m taking off on my own to unknown reaches. But first, let’s talk about a sunny Sunday in Tokyo!

This was the only full day of sightseeing I had in Tokyo -the rest of the week I’ll be working- so I wanted to cram in as many different things as possible, and of course when you’re returning to a city there’s always the struggle of wanting to return to your favorite places vs. wanting to see new things (see also: London). So here’s what I came up with.

I started with Akihabara, on a bright Sunday morning, mostly because I wanted to stock up on omiyage. This neighborhood specifically I have already covered twice on this very blog, and little has changed: the anime and electronics shops are still there, garish and bright and loud as ever, still crowds of locals and tourists alike rummaging for eccentric merch. The one thing that has changed since my first visit is that there were a couple of very standard, corporate cafés around that are either new or escaped my noticed. I was told later that Akihabara is starting to gentrify… I hope it doesn’t become another ghastly Leicester Square!

Anyway, I got my (some, anyway) omiyage, and then walked 10 min south to an amazing ramen restaurant, Kikanbo. It was recommended to me, and now in turn I recommend it to you. It’s specialized in spicy ramen, to the degree that their ramen all have two types of spice in it at the same time: chili pepper (which burns in your throat) and Szechuan pepper (which numbs your mouth) (piment et poivre, if the distinction is easier in French), and you can customize the level of spiciness of each type separately. On a scale of five from None to Oni (“demon”). I ordered the Medium level -not without some trepidation- and was delighted to find that it was truly medium, spicy but not uncomfortably so; more like a Madras than a Vindaloo, in terms of curry. Anyway, independently of the spiciness, the ramen are delicious in and of themselves, as they have a very appetizing smoked flavor.

After that, I knew what I wanted to do with my afternoon but I felt guilty about only seeing modern Tokyo, so I took a quick detour to Yanaka, a quiet neighborhood in Ueno, to see Tennoji temple (turns out it’s tiny, although beautiful and blissfully empty even on a sunny afternoon) and walk down Yanaka Ginza, a pleasant street with a lot of small shops and cafés. It’s a very different Tokyo from that of Shibuya or Shinjuku, less spectacular but also cozier and more welcoming. Here, like in most of Japan, waiters and shop attendants all speak to me in Japanese and didn’t bat an eye when I responded in kind (as the only concession, some do bring out the English menu for me).

Then, after a long train ride to Shinbashi, I took a long metro ride to Odaiba, my one true goal with this visit: it’s this large man-made island in the bay of Tokyo with a smattering of things to see that probably won’t crack your to-do list on your first Tokyo visit, but once you’ve seen all the main sights it’s a good way to spend an afternoon.

The first shock, right as I got off the train, was to discover a beach! A proper, long, sandy beach! In Tokyo! I didn’t know there was such a thing; I don’t know why, but it felt incongruous, with all the skyscrapers in the background, as if it was an oversight to leave a long stretch of land undeveloped. The beach, and the boardwalk next to it, make for a very pleasant walk, although I had to duck in and out of the shadows like a vampire because the sun was hitting so hard.

The second shock, as I arrived at the end of the boardwalk, was to run into a copy of the Statue of Liberty; for all I know it may be a to-scale replica of the one in Paris! How did it end up here? Did the French make a bunch of casts and send them out all over the world?

Turning inland from the statue, smack-dab in the middle of the island, is the Gundam mech. As in, a life-sized statue of the mech transformer robot from Gundam. I knew this was here, so I hesitate to call it the third shock, but still: it’s a life-sized mech!! How many of those have you seen?! It does not photograph well because it’s in a mall’s courtyard with street lamps around, but in person it’s pretty striking.

Lastly, as the sun was already setting, I finally made my way to the TeamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum. It’s a mouthful of a name, but it’s even more difficult to describe than to remember. It’s an exhibition, I guess, for lack of a better term, of light and darkness.

As soon as you arrive, you have to fork out ¥3200 (€26) for a ticket. It’s outrageous, yeah, but admittedly the experience is awesome so although I paid very begrudgingly (I wasn’t about to up and leave) after the visit I was glad I did. Once you’re in, you’re informed that the “exhibition” is not a traditional space with a path and that you may never find some of the rooms. Toodles!

I stepped through black curtains into a dark hallway -black walls, black floors, only the dimmest of lights- and started exploring around. I found a collection of rooms and corridors, each with its own light show using projections, cables, searchlights and everything bright that you can think of to create interesting or downright spectacular light shows.

Although the main, connecting areas are all well signaled and easy to find, it’s easy to miss some of the rooms that are only accessible through a nearly-invisible black curtain on a black wall. But it’s worth the effort of seeking them out. Because they’re the most impressive of all. There was one fully covered in mirror and full of cables that made it look like you were travelling through space.

There was a large room where powerful searchlights danced above us following the rhythm of futuristic synth music.

There was a room -the hardest to find, for me- that for sure you’ve seen pictures of if you’ve so much as looked in the direction of Instagram once in your life: the Forest of Resonating Lamps, a mirrored room full of lanterns that looks as though you were floating in the air during a lantern festival. 

Even though it’s impossible to find an angle without people in it, it still makes for beautiful pictures, and it’s a peculiar feeling to be inside.

All in all, it’s a very weird experience, and certainly not what I’d include in a first-timer’s list of recommendations; but something different and unusual is exactly what I wanted out of this visit, and that’s what I got.

It was night-time by the time I walked out (good thing the place is open until 21:30) and faced an hour’s train ride back to Shibuya, exhausted beyond words but very satisfied!

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