Last April, in Tokyo, my friend Darren visited for one day.
His mom is Chinese, and he had gone on a fairly lengthy (by American standards) trip to scenic rural China with her; they were just in Tokyo for technically two and a half days or something like that as a layover sightseeing opportunity before flying back home to the Bay Area.
Some of you may or may not remember Darren from previous posts about Tucson, and San Francisco before that - those times and this one here are literally the only times we've ever hung out in person in over ten years of friendship. We met online through a mutual friend - who now tattoos full-time in Salem, Oregon - who lived in the same neighbourhood I did back in high school. I still had a magenta Motorola Razr at the time.
Darren generally knows what's up, and given one precious day, definitely wanted to go to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, just outside Tokyo. Luckily, he has a Japanese friend, Shiori, who not only bought tickets for all three of us in advance (so I didn't have to deal with it, yay - you can only do it on a machine in Lawson convenience stores and weekends are usually sold out months ahead of time) but who came up from Nagoya with them.
The Ghibli Museum is also situated in one of the best cherry blossom-viewing places in Tokyo, so I was like, great, two quintessential birds with one stone in this one day, bare minimum, during the best and most popular season.
Because it's on the same train line, I decided that we should also go to Koenji afterward for a little walk around and some vegan food, because Darren adheres as best he can to a vegan diet while travelling, and that can be almost laughably hard in Japan.
Anyway, onto the good stuff, the pics! Geeze, my 17 year-old self would have died
seeing how freaking quaint and archetypal this is right here, just this sign alone.
I actually Darren and Shiori to the museum the quickest way possible from our meeting point in Ikebukuro because the museum was like, "You had better be here and in line at least this far in advance, and if you're not, we won't let you in! Tick tock bitches!", and Shiori had been late.
We got to the museum and there was a long-ass line still waiting to get in well past the designated time, wrapped around the little exterior courtyard area and the building itself, and Shiori was like, "I think that's just the Japanese way of doing/saying things, they don't actually mean that" while I stared at the line, somewhat frazzled and sweaty.
But hey, at least we weren't late.
I see you in that porthole, mischievous soot sprites, up to no good, doin' dusty stuff
The exterior of the building is almost adobe-like in nature, wonky, haphazard, disjointed,
and a good example of the generally very weird, Japanese concrete architecture of the 90's.
Much of it is also below ground level, but not exactly underground, as you can see here.
My guess would be that this has to do with temperature regulation, because as I've complained about frequently, Japanese buildings almost never have central air, heating, insulation, or proper ventilation. Even in April, it was uncomfortably warm and stuffy inside the museum, so this isn't doing much to mitigate the poor construction standards at work, honestly, but it does look neat.
The interior courtyard
The thoroughly unspectacular café (of course that's Mei's hat, though, and now
the shape is like that of a saloon in the Old West, so it still gets cute points)
Just a little stained glass hanging spotted in one of the café's windows.. We didn't have anything, though, and I'm glad, because what we opted for later was waaaay better.
One of my two favourite things about the whole place was the stained glass on the two sets of main doors. For those who read this because they know me but weren't teenage weeb trash like Darren and I were (lol), this depicts the two little girls from My Neighbor Totoro waiting at a lonely bus stop on a rainy night (the smaller of whom is Mei, the owner of the aforementioned straw hat).
Princess Mononoke might be my favourite Ghibli movie; they all have at least a subtle environmental message, but that's pretty much the basis of this one, which takes place mainly at a 16th-century ironworks and the forested mountains surrounding it. Many of the backdrops are beautifully hand-painted, and the primordial, pristine forest scenes were inspired by Yakushima, a far-flung southern island that actually looks like that irl, and is in its entirety a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The antagonist is not a villain; she's a strong female character (standard for Ghibli flicks and one of the reasons they're so well-loved) and unlikely forward-thinking leader in her own time, who governs and defends the town and the smeltery while also sheltering lepers who have nowhere else to go. She can also use both a sword and a gun, and is kind of inevitably at odds with the powerful forces of nature surrounding her as she tries to carve out a self-sufficient bastion of civilisation in their midst. If anything, the monk the protagonist meets on his way to this woman and this setting is the real villain, if in a very indirect and nuanced way, because he proves to be both greedy and a coward. It's a very genuine, heartfelt mythological depiction of man's struggle to tame nature and/or find his place in it.
Here you can see the Spirit of the Forest, and one of the other little spirits only present when it is peaceful and healthy.
Here's another panel with a close-up of them. Yes, the Spirit of the Forest has a creepy weird human face. This same type of spirit, though a much, much more sinister version, is depicted very similarly in a recent and quite good survival horror movie on Netflix called The Ritual, in which a group of men goes hiking in the remote Swedish wilderness only to predictably get totally lost and find that a dark and horrible presence looms. I couldn't say whether this type of creature is originally Japanese or Scandinavian, but it would be pretty interesting and not entirely unheard-of if it ended up being both.
No poses, only childlike excitement
Okay but yeah now poses, and they do look nice.
The best-known attraction at the Ghibli Museum is the "life-sized" robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which I've honestly never really liked that much; it just never clicked for me.
But that doesn't mean I don't know the robot, because heck yeah I do, or that I don't think it's majestic and whimsical as fuck, because heck yeah it is!
You're not allowed to take photos inside the museum itself, but I snuck this one.
This also means, though, that I can't actually show you what my second-favourite thing was: the rotating projector lamp animations.
When I try to google for something similar I just end up with those little dome-shaped planetarium lamps for kids and Christmas decorations, but these were totally different. They played on their own at set intervals, I think (while the ones at the Disney animation exhibition I went to later that year with Rejon had little hand cranks). Imagine a long sheet of paper connected at the ends, looking kind of like an Ikea lamp, but with multiple layers, with images of much-loved characters all around, like the smaller Totoros carrying nuts.
When the lit, cut-paper panels rotate and the images on them blend together, it looks like the characters are moving. They walk, or jump, or swim, with just a little bit of a jerky effect, like a film reel. It's very charming.
There are also exclusive animated shorts played only on-site that vary by day or week (I think by day?), and the one we watched was of prehistoric Devonian era-esque sea creatures, like the ones from Ponyo.
It was a very satisfying, obligatory experience, and I was very grateful to Darren and Shiori for allowing me to tick this one off my Japan Bucket List (which Yakushima, among many other places, is still on, waiting now for some distant and uncertain future visit).
We'd had our fun and seen all there was to see, I got my postcards from the gift shop (they own me at this point, I don't own them), and it was time to set out Inokashira Park to enjoy the cherry blossoms.
We didn't make this. Somebody else made it. But I mean like, once again quaint and charming af, right? It was hectic and busy, yes, but a pretty perfect day.
If you look closely, you can see Darren becoming one with one of the
bigger cherry trees I've seen. Mind-melding, and the like.
Channeling those high school anime feels, looking wistfully skyward
And then there's me, with my face just looking puffy as hell.
Photos of cherry blossoms never fully do the experience justice. When there's a huge grove of them like this it's very dreamy, and the falling petals and flowers are meant to remind one of the frail beauty and brevity of life. That's why everyone gets so drunk under them, lol.
Speaking of Princess Mononoke.. There are some legit trees going on here.
I wanted to follow these steps down because it seemed like the way to go to reach this park's main attraction, the reason why it's such a scenic blossom viewing spot.
The artificial lake. That's the reason.
On this far end of the lake, we found a very retro little café, with a few old guys and young mothers sitting at the tables out front. I mean, look at this quaint, dated little restaurant hut - it was the perfect aesthetic follow-up to the Ghibli Museum.
Yes, I took a sneaky creepy pic of the waitress too, because she was also Showa-era-retro and adorable. Her loose earthtone clothing, the cotton apron, the zori sandals. I couldn't help myself. I'm not sorry.
We had sakura latte (with a matching marshmallow), green tea, and sakura mochi.
Inside those sticky rice balls is anko, sweet red bean paste. The sakura flavour itself is difficult to describe, and this year, I have been missing it, as I knew I would; wagashi or traditional Japanese confection was one of the things I unequivocally and consistently enjoyed about living there and knew for sure that I would miss. But anyway, it's an aromatic flavour, almost a little bit astringent or bitter, but soft, and only very slightly reminiscent of cherry.
After our idyllic tea and sweets break, we happened upon the shrine to Benzaiten, which looks especially impressive during this beautiful season.
Inokashira Park had also been on my Tokyo-specific List of Many Things I Really Wanted to Do, but Hannes wasn't feeling it, because our only chance to go together would have been on a weekend, and honestly, the crowds are pretty miserable and ridiculous in the big parks while the cherry blossoms are in bloom (which is another good reason to get completely trashed in order to have fun). There are also millions of annoying, clueless tourists on top of it; I could understand why he thought he wouldn't be able to enjoy it. The sheer density of the crowds and awfulness of the commutes in Tokyo really got to both of us a lot.
But anyway, I told a few of the business clients I worked with about this, that I hadn't ever actually been out in one of the swan-shaped paddle boats that are so popular in Japan (and Korea) and that I wanted to try it for blossom viewing with my boyfriend in Inokashira Park.
They said, maybe don't. Well, I mean, no, it's fine, but some people say it's bad luck. So, you know, if you're superstitious, watch out.
Benzaiten is the Japanese name for the Hindu goddess Saraswati, and even though she has this beautiful shrine dedicated to her, apparently seeing happy couples in swan boats all the live-long-day really pissed her off at some point, or something, because local legend has it that she has jealously cursed the lake, fating couples who dare to go out and enjoy it to break up.
-dramatic revelation score-
If that stops anyone, though, you wouldn't know it. It's a massively popular spot.
Look at this fucking water wheel right here.
It looks like we're deep in the wild mountains somewhere.
Ah yes, and now we've reached the main part of the lake - swan boats ahoy!
He was still in wistful anime high school boy mode lol
There you go, that's the classic scene, the image you'll find on travel and tourist websites.
I like this more candid one, it's cute.
Oh, right, and I spotted a manhole cover I hadn't seen before.
Because I know everyone cares about that, hah.
I'd been excited about trying this vegan washoku, or traditional Japanese-style, restaurant, and unsurprisingly, for around $11, you get very little food, and it takes the friendly old man who runs the place forever to prepare it. He seemed surprised that he had any customers but was very nice (which is definitely not always the case).
It was really good, but we were still hungry after. The only flavouring is also soy sauce - that's what these thick slices of lotus root and radish are soaked in - so like virtually everything else in Japan except a lot of those aforementioned traditional sweets, it isn't gluten-free. (I glutened myself like crazy in Japan, having no other option, and was often sick, inflamed, and having difficulty breathing x_x)
Here's the lovely owner. Shiori ended up treating us, too, which we really appreciated!
The place is called ぽれやあれ, romanised as 'Poleyale'.
There are lots of cute little places selling sweets, accessories, and handmade items in this popular hipstery neighbourhood, but unfortunately, many of them were closed and silent on this weekday afternoon, though that wasn't totally unexpected.
The cat gallery, though, is always a necessary stop, and it was also open.
The cat gallery has never failed me. It is good and pure.
Each time I visited I took a few pictures of the small paintings that caught my eye,
because they are ever-changing. Do you think that's a massive electrical outlet, or that those cats are the size of peas?
At the end of the street the cat gallery is on is a wagashi stand I really like, called すずくら (read 'Suzukura'), and we were lucky enough to get ourselves the freshest strawberry daifuku I've ever had for only 200円 apiece, with a whole strawberry inside, which doesn't usually happen, either. They were delicious.
Darren wanted something more savoury, so I recommended the mochi balls with salty black sesame paste, which I also really like, and which are also, once again, flavoured with soy sauce (-muffled sounds of wheezing and acid reflux gurgling between bites-).
Swag. Shiori, in the typical Japanese way, brought us omiyage, or souvenirs, from Nagoya - pretty coin purses and one of those city-specific Hello Kitty phone charms, of which there are hundreds. Sort of like photos of the manhole covers, it's one of those little things you have to make a decision about wanting to collect or not early-on, and stick to it. Japan just gets you like that. Too much novelty goodness, I tell you!
And of course, the video clips of the park.
We did a lot in one day, right?! I think I had to leave them in order to go to work that evening, if I remember right, which was the other reason for pushing them to hustle and plowing through a bunch of things, but Darren had shown me (and my mom!) such a great time in San Francisco several years ago that I was determined to guide him around some of the best spots in Tokyo, and make his one day there as great as it could be. He and Shiori had a great time, too, and I was glad.