21 June 2012

Japan Day 7: Shibuya

I was up 4:30 again, but T was able to snooze a little longer; he’s finally getting onto Japan time, just as our trip is wrapping up!  Spent some time this morning chatting with Mom and Dad via Skype.  Here in Akasaka, we have complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi in our room, which is quite nice and kind of makes up for the fact that we have smaller accommodations in general.  It’s comparable to NYC size hotel rooms (maybe a little smaller) but far cleaner.
Snacking on some rice crackers in the room, we weren’t too hungry for breakfast.  So we headed straight for the Metro to Shibuya.  Described as the spot for young people and the origin of many fashion trends, we were excited to see what Shibuya had in store for us.  The forecast had called for rain, and we were hoping for the drizzle variety we had experienced in Disney Land.  It was just starting to drizzle as we entered the station, but was drizzle/raining by the time we got to Shibuya.  

ICN: Here in Tokyo, people seem to be very used to this drizzle rain.  It is a warmer rain than we are used to in DC.  The rain gear here is not only more stylish, but also more functional than what we are used to seeing also.  The majority of people have big, clear umbrellas, which make looking up at buildings far easier – important in a city full of skyscrapers!  We spied a fair number of Hunter rain boots, but also a variety of rubber/plastic flats which could pass for non-rain shoes.  Few people wear raincoats or jackets, in favour of stylishly printed ponchos or simply using a giant umbrella.  The shops sell all kinds of umbrellas; tiny portable ones with cute handles through golf sized ones.  While we saw many people with the portable variety hanging off their bags, in practice, we saw more big, full size umbrellas open.

Our main target in Shibuya was Tokyu Hands.  Billed as a “creative life store” on tourist websites, this 7-level store had a very clever, split-level style layout.  Each “floor” consisted of 3 separate split-levels.  After shopping the first 2 mini-levels, we were feeling hungry.  As seems to be the norm for these giant department stores in Tokyo, we found a café on the top floor.  Here the specialty is sandwiches and café drinks.  T chose the sandwich of the day set, which consisted of a sandwich, fries and drink.  I just got a sandwich and ordered it on sesame bread.  The sandwiches were sealed on the edges, sort of uncrustable style, but with the crust still on.  T ordered an iced coffee with his set and we tried out the omnipresent gum syrup and found it sweetened the coffee perfectly!  A far better sweetener than the granulated stuff we have at home; this doesn’t need to dissolve and sweetens cold drinks much better!  Oishii rating for everything we ordered: !!!! (especially the sesame bread – which was full of toasted, black sesame flavor!).

Well re-fueled, we decided to explore the store top down.  The rest of the 7th floor was called “Science Base” and offered a variety of actual science lab type items.  They had gardening supplies, beakers, litmus paper, scientifically accurate models of all sorts of things and also these super tiny paper scene creation sets.  ICN:  These department stores all have a sort of museum-like feel to them.  Each area has a very well curated feeling and though we can’t read them (yet!) many of the display items seem to have some sort of description available to educate shoppers as they peruse.

We passed through a pet care floor (we’ve seen maybe a handful of people walking small dogs the whole time we’ve been here, but fish and hermit crabs seem to be the pets of choice given the amount of stuff available for them).  Making our way through several floors of hobby and crafting materials, we (I) was amazed to see that the raw materials can be pretty pricey.  I thought this interesting given that so many Japanese mothers make things for their families and craft as a hobby.  Still, all the materials put together are cheaper than buying the finished product and unique-ness seems to be very important in this city of 36 million people.

We made our way through the home goods and stationery floors and back out onto the street.  Having spent 3 hours in Tokyu Hands, we headed back in the general direction of the subway eki mostly because we didn’t have any other planned places to visit.  We stopped in shops here and there, absorbing all the Tokyo fashion.  

We found a store called ArtOn where you pick from a huge catalogue of designs, pick a shirt (or bag or hoodie or dress or lunch bag) and they print it for you right there.  Lured in by a ninja squirrel design, we decided it was too cool to pass up and chose a ninja squirrel design for T.  A little pricey at ¥2500, it was worth it to see how quickly and precisely the shirts are made.

Starting to get a little hungry for lunch and also wanting to get in out of the rain (the rain itself was not as bad as dodging the zillion umbrellas), we stopped at a noodle restaurant.  Here, you order by making a selection at these machines outside the shop.  They have big overhead signs which depict and describe each meal so that you can more accurately make your selection.  The machine takes your money and returns a tiny slip of paper, which you bring inside.  Inside, a waitress/hostess behind the continuous bar points out empty seats, takes your tickets and brings you water.  Less than 10 minutes later, your giant bowl of piping hot noodle soup appears along with whatever side dishes you ordered.  T ordered udon with sides of gyoza and rice, while I had cellophane noodles.  I didn’t order a side of rice, but got one anyway after the waitress saw me eating some of T’s.  On a rainy day anyway, this noodle place was packed.  The soup was delicious like something Mom or Naboo (grandma in Shanghai-nese) would make for you.  It was full of veggies, had some super thinly sliced meat and had a healthy amount of oil on top (the good kind that lets you know that a bowl of soup is really homemade and good).  Oishii rating: !!!!(and an extra ! for the comfort food factor).
Having nommed on the noodles for nearly an hour (the bowls were that big!), we visited a giant clothing store called Shibuya 109.  There are actually two separate Shibuya 109 buildings; one for men and one for women.  We only made it through the women’s one before we starting to get tired and being sensorially overloaded.  Each little 20 square foot boutique-like area was blasting its own American/British pop tune and emitting its own (luckily pleasant smelling) scent.  After 9 floors, we were ready to head back to the hoteru for a rest.

On our way to the subway eki (station) we spotted a fabric store and had to go in; this was the first one we’d seen!  Even this little place (clearly family owned) was 5 (small) floors; jam-packed with fabrics and notions.  We were too engrossed to remember to take photos, but we did buy some fabric and now I will have to think of something really perfect to make with each piece.  The display system is interesting enough to note.  Because of the limited space, they have ~1.5m cuts of fabric folded up into maybe 5cm wide little rolls.  These rolls are draped over rods which hide the bolts stacked behind them, not only cleverly displaying far more fabric than lining up the bolts would allow, but also protecting the bolts from the elements (the store is open on the first floor).
On the subway back to the hotel, we stopped at a Kinokuniya mini grocery (more like convenience) store inside the Omote-sando eki (station) for some night-time provisions/dinner.
Back at the hoteru, we relaxed for a while and then started to feel like we were getting a second wind.  [Sightseeing in the rain was definitely more tiring than on a nice day.]  We decided to go back to Harajuku to see how it looks at night and pick up some more omiyage (souvenirs for people at home).

We arrived in Harajuku around 7:00pm, to find many of the shops already closed.  The big-box type stores were still open, including the giant Forever 21 and American Eagle Outfitters.  We headed for Daiso, which I’d remembered was open until 21:00.  After Daiso, we went to Tokyu Plaza, the giant mall just across from Harajuku eki.  Though the signs said it was also open until 21:00, individual shops were closing by 8:30.  We made a few quick selections and headed out.  Almost out of the store, T realized we’d left our umbrella on the top floor.  Being just a few minutes to 9, the escalators were already roped off.   We cleverly took the elevator up and found a security guard locking up the various little boutiques.  Using our poor Japanese and translate app, we were able to explain about the umbrella and the guard went to ask the clerks who were closing up the registers.  Amazingly, they had already picked up the umbrella (it had been maaaybe 5 minutes?) and put it in the back.

Having successfully regained our cool, clear umbrella, we headed back to the hoteru to pack and strategize for our last half day!  

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