Monday, January 31, 2011

Above the maddening crowds

Shinjuku as seen from Mori Tower.
              I have been to the Mori Tower in Tokyos Roppongi neighborhood before, but I wanted to go back over break because I learned about the Sky Deck. In Japan almost all of the various towers, sky scrapers and observation platforms are enclosed, unlike the older towers and cathedral view points in Europe.

               Now, enclosed or not the view is pretty spectacular. However, the glass can make for a difficult environment for a photographer. Colors are altered, reflections appear, and sometimes you start to zoom in and thunk, the lens hits the window!
Yokohama rises in the distance.
              Standard admission to Mori Tower gets you access to a standard enclosed observation deck and an art museum that offers rotating exhibitions. Once you reach the heights you can opt to pay an extra 300 yen (about 3.50 US) to ascend to the roof. The view is actually a little bit worse up there, with parts of the building blocking you from looking straight down.

Shibuya from above. If you zoom in, you can see the iconic 109 building.
              That is more than made up for with the glorious feeling of standing in the open so high above one of the greatest metropolises in the world. Despite the fact that I was up there on January 1st, the weather was bright and clear, and could even be described as warm. The opportunity to walk out on the roof of a 781 foot skyscraper is fairly unique, and one that I heartily recommend, despite the extra cost. 

A vertical panorama of Tokyo Tower.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Years in Tokyo: Odaiba

I spent the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 in the heart of Tokyo. While there are few major tourist sights there that I have yet to see, one can always find something interesting to do there.

One of my goals this trip was to visit the O Edo Onsen Monogatari, which is in the southern district of Odaiba. Odaiba is an artificial island in Tokyo Bay with a number of museums and attractions including the Tokyo Maritime Museum and the Tokyo Big Sight conference center.

The O Edo Onsen recreates, in unironically cheesy fashion, the feel of a street in old Edo. After you enter and pay, you select a design from a number for brightly colored yukata to wear on your trip back in time. A quick change later and you are surrounded by gaudy yukata, a painted sunset ceiling, and a plethora of shops and restaurants with overpriced goods. 
There is an outdoor footbath open to both sexes, and of course the standard segregated baths. They had a variety of indoor baths, outdoor baths and a sauna. The overall experience was enjoyable, though certainly very commercial.

Also on the island is a mall complex complete with Ferris Wheel. I was there on a pretty clear day, so it was a no brainer to ride the wheel to the top and get a view of the city. 

I even managed to glimpse Mt. Fuji, which has always been notoriously shy; I rarely get much more than a glimpse of Japan’s most famous landmark.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gunma Flower Park

Gunma prefecture has a fair number of rural tourist traps left over from the bubble, and one of them is quite close to me. The Gunma Flower Park is just a few kilometers up the road from Ogo, along the slopes of Mt. Akagi.


While I am sure it has proved less a draw than the owners may have hoped, the Flower Park does offer a beautiful setting to enjoy a botanical garden. Facing one way you have the volcanic bulk of Mt. Akagi, facing the other you can see across the northern reaches of the Kanto plain, and the urban areas of Maebashi and Takasaki.

Since I was there in fall there weren’t many flowers at the Flower Park, so the best part was the observation deck. Both days were quite clear, and you could easily see the skyscrapers of Tokyo, some 100 kilometers distant. There are coin operated binoculars too, which really threw the buildings into sharp relief.

Similar to the Denver Botanical Gardens, there is a cluster of green houses with more tropically oriented plants. The green houses function both as a repository of interesting plants from places like the Philippines, Thailand and Mexico and as a place of refuge from the biting Gunma wind.

During my second trip to the park I managed to catch a glorious sunset that covered everything in the most amazing light. I was sporting my telephoto lens at the time, which made for an excellent combo of good light and good glass.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Red Wine, Yellow Sun

For reasons unknown to me, the Japanese adore the Beaujolais Nouveau. Like so many things from other cultures, they have seized on the first wine of the season and made it their own. Around here there is a family run winery in the city of Ashikaga, in Tochigi Prefecture. Every November they hold a harvest festival. Your entry fee gets you a bottle of wine, red or white, a glass and a bottle opener. Then its up to you to sit back, enjoy music, conversation and sun and just relax under the vines.

Though of course some people relaxed more than others. I myself found the moment rather culturally surreal. Here I was drinking red wine, with a good German bratwurst that I was eating with chopsticks. Now THAT my friends is multiculturalism at its finest.

The weather was glorious, sunny and warm, and the wine and food were both delicious. The weekend was a ton of fun, and is exactly the sort of event that anybody can enjoy. Even non-drinkers, as there is sparkling grape juice available for those who are not fond of wine. For anybody that finds themselves in Japan in  November, seek out the Coco Winery in Ashikaga. Even if you go alone, you'll make plenty of friends before the day is out!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The sun sets on 2010

As the fall winds cleared the summer haze, Gunma was treated with some amazing sunsets. All through October, November and December I have been treated to spectacular vistas on my drive home after work.
There is no doubt that the end of 2010 has hit me hard. Japan is a wonderful country, but the heart of the foreigner experience remains that of a stranger in a strange land. Couple that with working and living in a small farming town, and the sense of isolation can be near overwhelming at times. 

Which isn't to say all is gloom and doom. As I meet more and more people from across the prefecture, I have made ever more lasting friendships. As well, the teachers and students are more often looking at me as a teacher and colleague than as "that weird foreign dude".  At one of the ubiquitous end of the year parties (忘年会 bounenkai, literally "forget the year party") one of my principals told me that he though I was a good ALT, and that the students loved me, which is always nice to hear.

As always the new year will bring all new challenges, experiences, and more. On the horizon are hints that life may be getting better, so like everybody else I'll play my hand and see how many chips I end up with.

And in the meantime, I'll take more photos, travel more places, and blog about it all, hopefully in a more timely manner than of late.

Here's hoping for a healthy, wealthy, and wonderful 2011 for all involved!