I still can’t believe the precision timing of Japan’s weather. It’s almost like the seasons ‘know’ when their time is up, and switch shifts overnight. Since the first day of spring, it has been noticeably warmer every day. There has been some spring rain and some spring wind, and sunshine. I guess I should stop being surprised, this is Tokyo after all.
Today I visited Asakusa to see a special celebration held for Hina Matsuri- the ‘doll festival’ or ‘girl’s festival,’ held every year on the third of March. I wasn’t sure what regular Japanese people do on this day, so I googled the festival and found that there would be a special event near the Sumida-gawa (Sumida river.) Here, visitors could set paper dolls into the river, in the hopes that the dolls would take away bad spirits and worries. I took the train to Ueno, then the subway to Asakusa. When I walked up the steps to ground level, I was faced with the pride and joy of the the Asahi building. This giant golden statue sits on top of the building, and is supposed to be beer foam, but is is commonly referred to as the ‘golden turd.’
I found the site of the festival easily enough, and was instantly greeted by some school-aged kids handing out packets of tissues. These tiny packets of tissues are a common form of advertising in Tokyo, and are handed out on virtually every street corner. I usually try to make eye contact with the people giving them out, in the hopes that they will think this gajin is worth advertising to, because these little tissues come in handy. I didn’t even have to try today. Pretty much every kid wanted to give me a packet, and I couldn’t refuse their cute calls of ‘onegaishimasu!’ I ended up with both pockets stuffed to the brim with tissues, as if I were a hoarder.
When I first arrived at the site, there were a few family groups writing on the little paper dolls, which they would later set free in the river. They then began to form aline along the edge of the railing, leading down to the water. Within half an hour, the line and grown to 10 times the length, filled with excited little kids and camera-toting parents.
And that’s when the kimono girls arrived.
Firstly, a few camera buffs crowded around the makeshift ‘stage’ area, but before long there were hoards of them, and the crowd control people made a little barrier for them to all stand in front of, so they didn’t obstruct food traffic behind. I was allowed inside the barrier, which I thought was strange, as I wasn’t a high-brow media person, but I soon realized that any old person with a camera (or even just an iphone) was allowed in. Firstly, the two winners of ‘Miss Kimono 2013’ made a little speech each, then posed for the hundreds of zoom lenses in front of them. Then three maiko (apprentice geisha) came onto the ‘stage,’ and the camera people went into a frenzy. The poor girls! I thought the crowd of ‘media’ and hobbyists was so funny. There’s a photo below.
After some more speeches were made by organizers and other important people, everyone did some deep bowing, and then moved down to the water’s edge. It was time to release the dolls! Some children had been specially selected to go on a boat in the river, and set their dolls into the water via a little slide. The whole crowd had to count down, and triumphant music was played as the first child released his doll. It was all very epic. Below you can see the ramp, with a doll boat being released, as well as some of the dolls floating down the river. They lasted for about 3 minutes each before the paper became soggy and they started to disintegrate, or got caught in the wake of the boat’s motor and sunk.
When I was heading away from the river, a Japanese guy stopped me as asked if I would participate in his photography project, called ‘Beautiful Name.’ All I had to do was write my name on a big piece of paper, and have a photo taken with it. He instructed me to ‘smile like a child,’ which is why I look like a retarded chipmunk. My writing is also relly bad because my fingers were numb from cold and couldn’t hold the texta properly. You can see this guy’s collection of people and names here.
After all that excitement, I headed towards Sensoji, the big temple that is in every review or article about Asakusa ever written. I’d been there a few years before, but thought it might be a good place to get some postcards, as it is the most super-tourist place I can think of in Tokyo. The street leading up to the temple is lined with hundreds of stores selling all kinds of trinkets, t-shirts and ‘real kimono.’ There is also lots of little food stalls selling cakes, rice crackers, and Japanese sweets- a lot of them are made on the spot.
I wondered around the area for a while, exploring the other side of the pagoda, as well as some of the backstreets surrounding the shrine. I saw a lot of pop-up food stalls, selling everything from okonomiyaki to weird American hotdogs on sticks. There was also a guy selling these ‘choco bananas,’ which looked a little bit too fluro to eat…
After a while I decided I could do with some lunch, and I we getting really cold, so I thought eating would be a good warm-up strategy. I felt like hot noodle soup, so I wondered around looking for a soba store. I accidentally stumbled upon a really cute looking one with no English menu. I peeked inside, and there were a lot of people eating there, so I decided it must be ok. I stepped inside, and everyone in the restaurant looked at me as if they’d never seen a foreigner before (strangely enough, Asakusa is swarming with gajin.) I asked the owner if they had sansai soba, as I couldn’t spot it on the menu, but they didn’t have it. So I ordered kitsune soba, which is soba in a dashi broth, topped with inari tofu and leek. It was delicious and warm, and the inari had absorbed the flavour of the soup.
There was a group of three men and three women sitting opposite me, who were all overly amazed that I could speak Japanese and eat with chopsticks. They all wanted to speak to me, and all wanted to take my photo whilst I was eating. They took a few when I was smiling awkwardly with the bowl of soba in front of me, then they asked me to eat, and snapped away happily whilst I tried not to look like an idiot, or get noodle all over my face. It was the strangest thing ever. What are they seriously going to do with 30 photos of an Australian eating soba? They seemed to enjoy asking me questions, anyway. And when I say they all took photos of me, I meant they all took photos of me. Every single one of them had a camera pointed my way. All this fuss cased the store owner to start calling me ‘moderu-san’ (model.)
So after that strange experience, the fanclub left, all wishing me good luck and a safe journey (kyoskette kudasai!!) and I was left to finish my buckwheat tea and pay for my meal. The owner kept talking to me, and I told her that that was pretty strange. She asked me if I was scared, and I said no. She had bright purple hair.
Next, I headed back outside and wondered around some more. I ran into a lot of little food stalls that I would have loved to eat at, should I not already have been full of noodley goodness. Is it weird that I want to go back to Asakusa just to eat lunch? I found a vegetable man that I want to try (man is a steamed bun, not an actual human), as well as a lot of freshly made wagahi, and amazake (the sweet hot sake I tried in Kamakura.) I also came across this street food that I have never seen before- the “okonomiyaki bar.” I guess it’s just an okonomiyakai compressed into a square and served on a stick, but it looked pretty strange. People seemed to be enjoying it though.
After wondering around for a while longer, I came across a mini department store, where I had a look at all the levels. I paid particular attention to the shoe store and the book store, but bought nothing. At least I know I can get shoes in my size in Japan. I wasn’t even the biggest size! I was headed towards Kappabashi-dori, which is a street filled with kitchen supply stores. But I couldn’t find it, which is how I ended up at the department store. But as I was looking on a map to find a nearby subway station, I spotted the street. So of course I had to explore.
Kappabashi-dori is definitely the place to go if you need anything to do with food, kitchens, restaurants or plastic food models to decorate your newly opened store with. The whole street is lined with these stores, and each store is literally bursting at the seems with goods. There are stores for plates and bowls, deep-frying equipment, plastic packaging (yes, an entire store just for this), chef uniforms, and anything else you could ever possibly think of. Even if you can’t think of it, they have it.At the top of the street is this giant chef head, who will ensure your safety and prosperity when buying goods from his kitchen themed stores.
Ok, I made that up.
Lured in by the exciting bargin bins outside, I went into a plastic food store to have a look around. This store had every kind of food, replicated perfectly in both colour and scale. There was sushi, sandwiches and noodles that defied gravity and had chopsticks suspended above, as if an invisible person was about to slurp them up. The plastic replicas are actually really expensive, and cost so much more than the real version of the food. One piece of nigiri sushi was almost 1000 yen! For a bowl of tempura on rice, you’re looking at about 9900 yen!
At the end of the street, I found another area map, which said it was only 1.5km to walk to JR Ueno station. That didn’t sound that far. I originally planned to catch the subway back to Ueno, then walk from Ueno back to the apartment, as I did yesterday. But and extra 1.5km wouldn’t make that much difference. It started to spit as I crossed the road in the direction of Ueno, and I began to wonder if walking back was really that smart. But the ‘rain’ only lasted a few minutes. It took about 10 minutes to get back to Ueno, where I bought a mushroom, carrot and burdock root dish to have with my dinner. Then I walked all the way back home, stopping at the cheapo Lawsons to buy broccoli and eggs. So I walked all the way from Asakusa to Arakawa. I didn’t feel wrecked when I got back, which was good news for my hike next month. But I did think about that hike whilst I was walking. I think I need to do some ‘training’ before I go. A practice run, of sorts. I might load up my new backpack with everything I would take to Kumano Kodo, and walk around with it all day. To get a ‘feel’ for the weight of what I’ll have to carry. I’ll need to walk for 5-8 hours every day on that pilgrimage, and there’s no giving up half way and catching a train if I get tired. I think it’s going to be hard. I think it’s going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I’ve been through year 12.
My tiny fridge is stuffed full of vegetables and little bits of random side-dishes, so for dinner I made a huge vegetable stirfry, using up a lot of loose ingredients, as well as the rest of the bibimbap that I’ve bee trying to get rid of. I fried an egg to have on top of it, and had it with the side dish that I bought at Ueno station. Neither bowl looks very good, but they were both delicious!
For dessert I tried this mini pudding thing that looked cute. It was vanilla and kind of coffee flavour, and came in a mini cup with a handle. Cute! The coffee beans on top were actually coffee bean shaped chocolates. The whole thing was about the size of a golf ball.