Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: Ueno

The first hotel we stayed at was in Ueno, "the cultural center of Tokyo." Ueno's main attractions (several temples and other old structures, various museums, and the zoo) were all located in one big park (Ueno park) next to the station, making them all easy to get to, but hard to decide where we wanted to go (we could have easily spent a couple days just going to the museums).

We discovered a free English tour guide service, and a nice woman gave us a personal tour of the park (no one else showed up). We learned about the battle that took place there a century and a half ago and saw a temple gate perforated with holes from bullets and cannon balls.

At the museum of Western art we saw a great exhibit of Edvard Munch paintings, and several Rodin sculptures, including one of the three original casts of his Gates of Hell.

The museum of science featured a special "Robot" exhibit that had, among many others, a robot that you could ballroom dance with and a robot that played the theme song to "Totoro" on a trumpet. They also had a display of "old-fashioned" robots, containing gears and springs instead of microchips. These were some of the most impressive, I thought. There was one, a delicate-looking painted Buddha-like doll with a calm pleasant smile, that could draw an arrow from a nearby quiver, leisurely nock it to his bow, and release it, hitting the center of a target. The highlight, however, had to be Asimo, Honda Motor Company's talking, walking humanoid robot, who was apparently designed for the sole purpose of getting his groove on:

OK, he also walked, ran, served coffee, and kicked soccer balls. Just imagine, in the future we won't need to bother with such menial tasks because we will just get a million-dollar robot to do them for us! And just like all Japanese robots, he spoke with that abrasively high, childlike voice that is the standard for all female customer service workers and public announcers in Japan, presumably because it sounds polite and nonthreatening. We can rest assured that these robots will never turn against their masters and enslave us all, because they all sound like three-year-olds.

The zoo was fun. It wasn't markedly different from zoos in the states. Here are some highlights (Thanks goes to Jon for the photos):

I especially like the last one of the seal. There's just something very human about the way he's leaning against the wall with his head cocked, like a guy soaking in a jacuzzi.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: Overview

When winter holiday rolled around, I chose to stay in Japan, intent on getting to know some of the more distant parts of this country. Tokyo was an obvious choice, if not my first, but it turned out to be the best compromise between someplace warm, fun, and affordable to travel to, and it was a blast! Caito from Noshiro came along as my travel buddy, and in Tokyo, we met up with Jon from Honjo and his friend Kisa. We were there for four and a half days and saw a lot in that time. So much so, in fact, that I think it's best if I write about it over a series of posts.

And this right here is the Japan Railways Seishun 18 ticket, the cheapest way to travel locally for anyone living in Japan (if you don't live in Japan, you can buy the even niftier JR Pass). This ticket gives you five days (consecutive or no) of access to all regular trains in Japan. The downside, of course, is that you can't take any of the express trains or Shinkansen (bullet trains). For us, this meant that it would take two days to travel to or from Tokyo, but we didn't mind. The countryside views as we crossed the "Japanese Alps" were beautiful, and in all, we each paid about the equivalent of $100 for a round trip to and from Tokyo.

Tokyo is huge. It's effectively twenty-three independent cities in one, each with it's own unique attractions and atmosphere. There are more than 8 million people living in the city itself, and as much as 30 million in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world with a fourth of Japan's entire population.

I've decided to divide up my posts based on the different areas we visited just to make it easier on myself. Up first will be Ueno and Asakusa.