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San Francisco Sojourn: Part 2

14 Feb

Day two of my trip to San Francisco would have me returning to the War Memorial Opera House for Program 2, a triple bill of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Yuri Possokhov’s RAku and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  This would be the moment I had waited for, a live viewing of Symphonic Variations, one of my absolute favorite ballets and it was only fitting to have it be the first Ashton ballet I ever saw live too.  However, with that being in the evening, what pray tell, would San Francisco have in store for me while I wandered around the city?  I started with a stroll through Union Square, full of shops that sold things with obscene dollar amounts and walked about seven feet into Chinatown before concluding I really didn’t want to be there (wreaked of the tourist trade), but no matter…I had purchased a tour for that afternoon to go to Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito, a rich people neighborhood near the aforementioned redwood forest (and Sausalito was lame…I don’t care if it’s home to celebrities in their multi-million dollar houses…there’s no point in driving through the area of Skywalker Ranch if you can’t go in!).

Yes, I did the unthinkable…I purchased a tour package.  In my defense, I only did so because it would have been impossible to get to Muir Woods otherwise (if you go in peak travel season, there’s a shuttle bus that goes there from downtown San Francisco, but peak travel season be not February).  I knew there would be some overly talkative tour guide, who would be sickeningly peppy and spew plenty of information that I would instantaneously forget anyway, but as a nature geek, I was desperate to see the redwoods.  The forest didn’t disappoint—you can never really conceptualize the magnitude of redwood trees until you actually see them.  However, that blasted tour only gave the group one hour to walk through the park, which was barely enough time to mosey along the regular trail, let alone walk the longer trail or hike the offshoot ones.  Someday I shall return, and enjoy the woods on my own terms!  Oh, and if you like to buy souvenirs, I thought the bookstore (located in the visitor center right next to the ticket office) has better books, postcards and even tote bags made from recycled materials.  The gift shop (which is separate, and slightly further into the park) had more of the touristy kind of crap that I hope I’ve made clear I don’t like.

I was hoping to find Treebeard and defeat the orcs. Photo ©Me

Anyway, time to talk ballet.  I was beyond giddy arriving to War Memorial that night, and something unusual happened in that there was a pre-performance lecture with San Francisco Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer for RAku, Christopher Dennis.  I’m going to hold off on discussing some of the points from that lecture (which I think is available as a podcast…somewhere) because it’s going to make more sense to lump it with my thoughts on RAku as a whole.  First and foremost is Symphonic Variations!  The moment I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for!  I couldn’t have asked the cosmic forces to align for a more perfect occasion.  The cast for Symphonic was Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez, Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla.  When that curtain came up…I almost fainted.  One thing that doesn’t come across in film or in photography of Symphonic is how vivid and luminous the coloring of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set is—it just radiates a chartreuse brilliance.

It was a pleasure to see Kochetkova and Nedvigin’s partnership revisited, though Symphonic is a piece where it’s not really appropriate to have a particular dancer or couple stand out.  Had I not seen them in Giselle the night before, however, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, so this is a rather contextual observation.  I do think Maria stood out just a little bit in the piece and embodied the Ashton style the most.  Gone were her romantic port de bras from the night before, in favor of straighter lines through the wrists and clarity in favor of softness.  It wasn’t as though she was overly conspicuous…Symphonic is like a dance of six pearls, and I’ll say that Maria was the Mikimoto AAA (which for your information, means it’s a unblemished and for white pearls have a hint of rose in its iridescent luster).  Overall, the ensemble gelled together wonderfully, though I have to say that one of the guys was borderline overly indulgent with his lines.  It wasn’t Nedvigin for sure, and unfortunately I’m not familiar with the company enough to know if it was Hernandez or Garcia Castilla but he was pushing it.  For example, there’s a moment where one of the male dancers has to do grand jetés to the right and left that land in arabesque between a pair of the female dancers, and then does a quick lift with one of them (rinse, repeat).  Now I am of the opinion that one has to move from the arabesque they land in and said dancer did that thing where he landed in arabesque and kicked his leg up just a little higher (common to do in when doing an arabesque in demi-plié) but the problem was that he barely made it to the little lift in time.  In the Royal Ballet video (which I’ve seen only a hundred million times), Ludovic Ondiviela moves from the arabesque he lands in and doesn’t have to rush to the next movement.  I know it’s nitpicking, but Symphonic does require a sense of purpose, but with ease throughout.

I think the dancers absorbed the Ashton style pretty well, the only anomaly that really struck me as out of place was when the three male dancers have to tombé into an écarté derriere, and there was more distortion in the pelvis to get a higher leg than I think the Royal Ballet would allow.  This is something that’s always talked about in terms of the British style of dancing versus the American, so I’m going to try and illustrate it for those who are unfamiliar.  I’ve taken a couple of crappy screenshots from San Francisco Ballet’s website and YouTube, so bear with me with the low quality, microscopic photo to follow (just pretend like you’re in the nosebleed seats up in the balcony):

On top is San Francisco, on the bottom the Royal Ballet.

It actually wasn’t quite that pronounced with the cast I saw, but still noticeable. To me, the ninety degrees is more pleasing and makes more sense visually. Steven McRae (bottom right) was a bit of a bad boy though (Bobo, bottom center, is what I consider ideal). I know my critical eye here may seem unfair, so let me say this…I really, REALLY enjoyed the performance, and my observations didn’t hinder my ability to do so at all.  In fact, I would give my ever humbly biased opinion that the Ashton was the best danced piece of the night in terms of musicality and cohesiveness.  I would have given it a standing ovation had I not already been standing anyway (I had purchased a standing room ticket both nights in San Francisco)…unfortunately, it didn’t seem that the audience shared my enthusiasm.  The applause was tepid—though the more I thought about it, I’m not sure Symphonic Variations would ever bring the house down and receive thunderous praise, but a part of me was a little deflated anyway.  It would seem that America’s love for Balanchine simply inhibits an in-depth appreciation for subtler works like an Ashton ballet.  I don’t doubt the audience still found it beautiful in some way…just not to the extent that I do, and I  should never expect that of any audience.  I need to remind myself of that more often but I was prepared for accolades galore when Symphony in C would close the night anyway.

That would have to wait though, as Tomasson sandwiched the modernish RAku between the two neoclassical works, inciting the “Oreo cookie method.”  RAku didn’t have an official libretto, but the story was centered around the 1950 burning of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji 金閣寺), a temple in Kyoto, Japan.  In the story a nobleman or feudal lord and his wife reside at the temple during a time of war.  The nobleman is called off to battle, and his wife prays for his safety.  However, alone and unprotected, she is raped by a Zen priest and when the soldiers who accompanied her husband return, they return only with his ashes.  She is grief-stricken, and the Zen priest seizes the opportunity to burn the temple to the ground.  Logically speaking, I had a few problems with this because it was kind of an exoticized view with some historical elements but some inaccuracies, like how the samurai were largely gone before 1950 (Japan already had modernized warfare as seen in WWII).  However, Kinkakuji has been razed many a time, so I can ignore the dates and go with it…although I still didn’t entirely get the character of the priest in general; the motives for his actions weren’t made clear in the manner the rest of the story was.

Most of it was straightforward…it was a small ensemble cast of the nobleman, wife, priest and a handful of soldiers and the dancing had some modern aesthetics like flexed feet combined with martial arts and Butoh inspired movement.  RAku was quite innovative in that it employed an original score by Shinji Eshima, a bassist with the orchestra that plays for the ballet and opera, and I thought Eshima’s score was dark and provocative, with Japanese instrumentation and Buddhist chanting to boot.  The set was unique—a number of abstract white structures, some of which moved and had various images of the temple and different settings projected onto them.  This is where Christopher Dennis’s lighting design came into play.  The projected images would change for new settings, shifting seamlessly from one to the next, and Dennis added some effects like falling cherry blossom petals (very stereotypically Japan, and also a symbol of the samurai because cherry blossoms bloom only for a short time, fleeting, like the life of a samurai) as well as the flames on the temple later on.  It’s interesting because I found the set captivating but also distracting—it was quite overpowering, even taking away from the choreography at times.

Unfortunately, RAku was not my cup of tea (ceramics aficionados will get that pun)…this is not to say it wasn’t danced well because Lorena Feijoo delivered a heart-rending, emotionally charged performance that had the audience holding their breath.  She was at times poetic, and at others an utterly destroyed shell of a woman.  I guess for me the piece oscillated too much between realistic and abstract, but here’s the thing…the San Francisco audience ate it up!  They gave it a standing ovation and loved it!  I was really surprised because new works can be risky (which is why I thought Tomasson put it in the middle of the program) but it really paid off this time.  The lack of enthusiasm for the Ashton I could have foreseen but it never occurred to me that the audience would love Possokhov’s ballet to the degree that they did.  Regardless of my feelings towards RAku, I do think it’s a wonderful thing when new work is being done, and Possokhov did what many in the ballet world crave to see, which is commission new scores from contemporary composers and do a narrative ballet.

Closing out the program was Balanchine’s Symphony in C, or as I like to call it: “the C-bomb,” because it’s as if Balanchine drops bombs on stage that explode into dancers (especially in the fourth movement) and before you know it, you have a horde of forty dancers moving in lattice patterns and trying quite successfully not to collide into one other.  It’s one thing to have a corps de ballet stand in a semicircle like in a classical Petipa ballet, occasionally changing patterns while the main couple dances in the center, but the fourth movement of Symphony in C has everyone really dancing and moving by the end and it took a mastermind like Balanchine to organize it into something that can function.  Balanchine’s choreography for this ballet is somewhat simple but BIG…huge penchées, extensions, big jumps from the men (and when it isn’t big, it’s very small…like a million tendus for the corps!) and has the kind of virtuosity many audiences can appreciate.  It also has a very pristine quality to it, and is thus one of my preferred Balanchine ballets.  I find it less…harsh, and less “New York” than some of his other work.

I have to admit, a lot of it is kind of a blur, especially because Balanchine reprises all of the earlier movements in the final one, so that’s the one that tends to leave the lasting impression.  However, special kudos to Sofiane Sylve who was absolutely luxurious in the adagio second movement and the young pairing of Nicole Ciapponi and Lonnie Weeks, both corps de ballet members but in principal roles as the featured couple in the fourth movement for their electrifying performance.  All of the dancers from the principal couples to the wonderful corps de ballet attacked the maliciously fast footwork with the appropriate aplomb and made it look very easy.  In the fourth movement, when all of the dancers conglomerated onstage, Sylve got a chance to show off some of her allegro work and I think her pirouettes had just a little more sparkle than her peers.  Also, there’s a moment where the twelve men burst into soaring, unison jumps and there is something so gratifying about that that I can hardly put it into words.  It was all very classy (I loved the costumes—white tutus for the women and black leotards and tights for the men) and thrilling to watch.  Symphony in C, like everything else I saw in San Francisco was something I had never seen live before and I think it has worked its way into my pantheon of ballet favorites.

This is actually Houston Ballet, but here’s a taste of the C-bomb:

Now here’s the shocking news…the audience response was rather subdued!  Whatever a hair above tepid is, that’s what Symphony in C received, something just a notch above the Ashton, with no standing ovation.  I thought for sure the largest scale work and finale of the evening would get the most applause but not even the C-bomb got the audience to its feet.  I was flabbergasted—I couldn’t believe RAku was the one to steal the show (and I am very hard to surprise!) and it’s not that it didn’t deserve it, after all I’m just one balletomane but I clearly had no clue as to how things would turn out.  Maybe audiences can appreciate ballet outside of Balanchine after all (even if it isn’t Ashton, and even if I still think it should be!).  I feel like there’s a lesson in cultural anthropology in there somewhere that I’m completely unwilling to extract at the moment.

So friends, I left San Francisco with a lot of food for thought and obviously, the experience was beyond worth it—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I really hope to see the company again sooner rather than later, but I’m perfectly content and grateful for the opportunity I had this past week.  Hopefully you’ll consider making the trip to San Francisco yourself, and I have to say, their Program 4, an All-Tchaikovsky bill with Theme and Variations, a world premiere work by Tomasson, and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams looks positively delicious!

Thinking about following New York City Ballet to Tokyo? More almost helpful travel tips

9 Sep

As I sit here anxiously waiting for the season premiere of Glee (and dreading, thus avoiding the premiere of SYTYCD), it looks like ballet companies are continuing with Asian fever, as NYCB will be heading to Tokyo in October to present a bunch of stuff.  I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing NYCB live, and although this needs to change someday it’s fair enough to say that a plane ticket to Tokyo is a LOT more than a ticket to New York.  Anyway, they’re presenting three different programs:

Program A:

  • Serenade – haven’t seen it, bitter about that
  • Agon – seen it on video
  • Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – saw like a minute of it in The Turning Point
  • West Side Story Suite – seen the movie dance, but not this version

Program B:

  • Concerto DSCH – never seen it
  • Barber Violin Concerto – never seen it
  • Tarantella – saw it on YouTube before the Balanchine Trust got to it
  • Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.2 – never seen it

Program C:

  • Walpurgisnacht Ballet – never seen it (apparently, this one is replacing Grazioso)
  • After the Rain – never seen it
  • Dances at a Gathering – never seen it
  • Symphony in Three Movements – never seen it

So if I were me (and I am) and had to choose one night to go, it would probably be Program B.  I don’t really know why, since Program C contains all works I’ve never seen, but the music for Program B seems to be the best suited for my tastes (Barber, Tchaikovsky, Gottschalk and Shostakovich makes for a good night!).  Not that any of this matters since I won’t be going anyway…so on to something more useful.

As I did when I heard ABT and SFBallet were going to China (read that entry here), I shall now write some slightly more useful than useless travel tips for going to Tokyo.  I actually spent a year living in Tokyo and I ADORE the city.  Whereas China is a country of fast paced hustle and bustle, Tokyo is laid back.  My kind of place…most of the time.  There are of course things that drive me crazy, in particular many may notice the snail pace at which Japanese people walk.  They take these itty-bitty steps and kind of mosey along, never in a hurry to get anywhere.  Which is fine and dandy since I consider myself to be on the slow side, but people in Tokyo are fifty times even slower than I am.  You see, the people of Japan love all things cute and for some bizarre reason, walking pigeon-toed is part of that aesthetic (why Fosse isn’t more popular over there, I’ll never understand), hooking an umbrella on one elbow and a huge unwieldy purse on the other.  As we all know, walking pigeon-toed is highly impractical and will drag a gait down to a laborious shuffle.  And when you have legions of these pigeon-toed walkers, a five minute walk to the closest train station becomes a trek where you are forced to hobble with the herd.

However, on the topic of public transportation, the trains are A+ in Tokyo.  It does take some time to get used to though, because the train map is considerably complex, and one must also take into consideration that the train lines lay on top of the subway lines, which have their own separate map.  Navigating the maps can prove to be difficult, although in my opinion navigating the stations themselves is worse.  Tokyo station is this massive who-knows-how-many-floors subterranean fortress, but luckily you probably won’t go there.  Now Shinjuku on the other hand, is a nightmare.  When I first arrived in Japan I had to go to Shinjuku many times for foreigner registration and stuff, or even just hanging out because there’s a lot to do there, and I would get lost every single time and sob hysterically to confused policemen as I tried to ask for directions.  Shinjuku and I have a better relationship now, but it is one that has had its fair share of trials and tribulations.  Needless to say, when you become comfortable with the trains in Tokyo, you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something in life. 

Night view of Tokyo from Sunshine City Observation Deck.  I'm really proud of this picture, so mock it and I'll pull your hair.

Night view of Tokyo from Sunshine City Observation Deck. I'm really proud of this picture, so mock it and I'll pull your hair.

 (P.S. All pictures in this entry were taken by yours truly!)

As for some of the major tourist attractions in Tokyo, don’t bother with Tokyo Disney.  If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park before, they’re all practically the same.  The only differences are that Tokyo Disney has a different arrangement of rides compared to the other parks.  There is a park exclusive to Tokyo, which is Disney Sea, and at first I thought people were saying Disney C, which made no sense, but eventually I figured out the land and sea connection.  My stupidity aside, Disney Sea has some unique features but nothing to write home about.  The nice thing about the Tokyo Disney parks is that they’re VERY clean and well maintained, as is all of Japan.  In fact, walking around in public, it is extremely rare to see a trash can (there are recycling bins for plastic bottles though).  Any trash you create, you must carry with you until the opportunity to dispose of it presents itself, so keep this in mind as traverse the streets of Japan.  My last thought on the Tokyo Disney parks however, is to let it be known that if you go as a couple, even if you’re just platonic friends, Japanese people will assume you’re on a date, because Disney is apparently a place to date.  Me and my quasi-wife Erina had no idea, and after our excursion all of our friends kept telling us they didn’t know we were dating.  Neither did we.

Welcome to Aggrabah...city of mystery...

Welcome to Aggrabah...city of mystery...

Anyway, there’s also Tokyo Tower, which has some great views, but there’s really nothing else to do in the area.  Despite the fact that it is indeed taller than the Eiffel Tower, it doesn’t stand out amongst the skyscrapers.  The Imperial Palace is somewhat close, but that’s off limits to the public, so you can only admire it from afar (And should you choose that adventure there is nothing else to do in that parking lot).  So neither are really on top of the list of my recommendations, but if you want a “traditional Japan” fix and don’t have the funds to take a bullet train to Kyoto, Asakusa right in Tokyo is the place to go.  ‘Tis a temple with a lot of traditional shops, snacks, and things to see and do.  Blow smoke in your face, tie a prayer thingie to a tree, that kind of stuff.

Asakusa...this is the postcard shot EVERYONE takes.  The lone white person is my friend.

Asakusa...this is the postcard shot EVERYONE takes. The lone white person is my friend.

This is all you can see of the palace.  Now you don't have to bother with going.

This is all you can see of the palace. Now you don't have to bother with going.

FOOD.  Food is the best thing about Tokyo, and there are many goods to be had.  Here are some of my favorites:

Okonomiyaki – a pancake-ish thing that has cabbage, meat, and all kinds of different things in it.  The rough translation of okonomiyaki means “cooked to your liking” so whatever toppings you want in it you get.  Then you shmear it with the tastiest Japanese-ified Worcester sauce and Japanese mayonnaise, sprinkle it with dried bonito flakes and dust it with seaweed (nori).  Sounds crazy, but we LOVE it, and most of the time you’ll cook it at the table with friends.  It’s a good “gab over dinner” type of food, and my favorite restaurant for this in Tokyo is called Sakuratei, hidden in the heart of the fashionable Harajuku district.

Okonomiyaki – a pancake-ish thing that has cabbage, meat, and all kinds of different things in it. The rough translation of okonomiyaki means “cooked to your liking” so whatever toppings you want in it you get. Then you shmear it with the tastiest Japanese-ified Worcester sauce and Japanese mayonnaise, sprinkle it with dried bonito flakes and dust it with seaweed (nori). Sounds crazy, but we LOVE it, and most of the time you’ll cook it at the table with friends. It’s a good “gab over dinner” type of food, and my favorite restaurant for this in Tokyo is called Sakuratei, hidden in the heart of the fashionable Harajuku district.

Sushi, although more specifically kaitenzushi.  “Kaiten” means rotating, and “sushi” changes to “zushi” when in a compound word.  Don’t bother with fancy shmancy sushi places, because kaiten is the way to go.  It’s cheap, it’s fresh, and it’s absolutely more fun to do.  You get charged by the plate, and the color of the plate will indicate the price.  You can also order more of something you liked, although a word of caution…you see, my voice is kind of week and doesn’t carry well so I’m used to people not being able to hear me, and so one time I kept ordering hamachi (yellowtail) thinking the chefs couldn’t hear me, but the next thing I know and twenty plates of hamachi are coming down the belt.  Oops.

Sushi, although more specifically kaitenzushi. “Kaiten” means rotating, and “sushi” changes to “zushi” when in a compound word. Don’t bother with fancy shmancy sushi places, because kaiten is the way to go. It’s cheap, it’s fresh, and it’s absolutely more fun to do. You get charged by the plate, and the color of the plate will indicate the price. You can also order more of something you liked, although a word of caution…you see, my voice is kind of weak and doesn’t carry well so I’m used to people not being able to hear me, and so one time I kept ordering hamachi (yellowtail) thinking the chefs couldn’t hear me, but the next thing I know and twenty plates of hamachi are coming down the belt. Oops.

Yakitori, which means “cooked bird” and it’s mostly chicken, but not always.  There’s asparagus, meatballs, even cheese wrapped in bacon, and it is UTTERLY delicious and probably my favorite thing to eat in Japan.  Observe friend Nanna here, enjoying a yakitori of some kind…in response to this picture she said “You know I’m a lady, I like my meat.”

Yakitori, which means “cooked bird” and it’s mostly chicken, but not always. There’s asparagus, meatballs, even cheese wrapped in bacon, and it is UTTERLY delicious and probably my favorite thing to eat in Japan. Observe friend Nanna here, enjoying a yakitori of some kind…in response to this picture she said “You know I’m a lady, I like my meat.”

Shabu-shabu!  Fun to say and delicious to eat.  The Japanese equivalent of Chinese hotpot, except I never got sick eating shabu-shabu.  The broth is different, and you get all kinds of different vegetables like daikon radish and enoki mushrooms, and thinly sliced beef.  You also get an assortment of tasty dipping sauces to enhance your dining experience.

Shabu-shabu! Fun to say and delicious to eat. The Japanese equivalent of Chinese hotpot, except I never got sick eating shabu-shabu. The broth is different, and you get all kinds of different vegetables like daikon radish and enoki mushrooms, and thinly sliced beef. You also get an assortment of tasty dipping sauces to enhance your dining experience.

Indian food.  One of my favorite things about Tokyo is the abundance of Indian restaurants.  This is where Indian Friday began its glorious tradition.  I recommend going for lunch because that’s when they usually offer all you can eat naan.

Indian food. One of my favorite things about Tokyo is the abundance of Indian restaurants. This is where Indian Friday began its glorious tradition. I recommend going for lunch because that’s when they usually offer all you can eat naan.

 Not pictured is yakiniku, or “grilled meat” which is actually Korean if I do say so myself.  It’s mostly beef, marinated in a SEKRET sauce, and you grill it yourself at your table.  Shin-okubo is the Koreatown of Tokyo, and although you may get approached by missionaries, it is the place to go for good old fashioned yakiniku.  Oftentimes lunch specials will be all you can eat as well!

To go with food, you must also drink.  Vending machines are everywhere, and as I said before recycling bins for plastic bottles are the only form of waste receptacle you will find in public.  Japan is not really a place for 100% juice, and what you’ll often find are 2% juice + flavored sugar water drinks, so I would stick with tea if you’re looking for refreshment.  As for nighttime activities there are many izakayas (kind of like a sit-down bar…literally, you sit on the floor) which is great for a group of friends looking for drinks and eats.  Also plenty of bars everywhere, as the Japanese do like their alcohol, as evidenced by the abundance of alcohol in every convenience store.  If you’re looking to extend your nighttime activities into the wee hours and do some dancing, Shibuya station will be the starting point of your journey, as all the good clubs and bars are around there (don’t bother with Roppongi…it’s snobby and expensive).  No need to worry about the walk of shame either…Japan is an INCREDIBLY safe country (no guns) and even women can walk around by themselves at night and not have to worry.  In fact, many intoxicateers will simply sleep outside of train stations to wait for the first morning train, and are never bothered (My friends and I would actually find a 24 hour McDonalds and get a cheeseburger or five).

Friends at an izakaya.

Friends at an izakaya.

A night under the stars in Tokyo.  Don't worry, they were there before our dinner and after.  I told you Tokyo is perfectly safe!

A night under the stars in Tokyo. Don't worry, they were there before our dinner and after. I told you Tokyo is perfectly safe!

As for shopping…lots to buy!  Harajuku is the fashion district, a labyrinth of clothing shops and crepe stands.  Crepes are actually the only food you will ever see Japanese people eat in public, while walking.  In Japanese culture, eating while walking in public is simply not done…you should always sit down.  But with crepes, it’s perfectly acceptable and you can choose a more savory crepe with a hot dog or tuna salad inside of it, or a sweet one with ice cream or custard topped with syrup, fruit, or nuts (mine was always strawberries with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.  I know…boring.).  I always enjoy a good trip to Harajuku and you’ll see some “interesting” characters dressed in strange garb…I don’t even know how to describe them, and unfortunately I have no pictures, but people watching is a cherished pastime while travelling these streets.

If you’re looking for more high end shopping, try Ginza.  Japan is known for its pearl industry, more specifically the Mikimoto brand.  Lucky for you, I once watched an entire 20/20 special (or something like that) on Mikimoto pearls and their grading system.   Their finest pearls are graded as a triple “AAA,” and are white with a slight rose finish to the iridescent luster.  Pearls of course come in various colors, and Mikimoto has a fine selection of white, champagne, pink and probably black as well, but if you’re in the market for black pearls the best hail from Tahiti (don’t ask me why I know that).  Fascinated by the Mikimoto brand, my friend Liz and I would peruse the display cases and of course I took a few photos (with their permission of course!  Although the store clerks happily obliged, I could sense the confusion in their replies).  We even asked if Liz could try on one of the necklaces and I snapped a photo of that too.  But check these puppies out:

Over $10,000 on the left and a cold 5 on the right

Over $10,000 on the left and a cold 5 on the right

And of course there are all the “cute” things in Japanland, home of Hello Kitty.  My friend Liz here stands in a little shop, next to a display of hand towels, each from a different city in Japan.  Japan is very into things that are exclusive to various regions, like certain fruits or cuisine.  The best part about going to Tokyo is that you don’t have to go to all of the other cities to try “Hokkaido special melons,” “Nagoya special misokatsu,” “Nakatsugawa sweet marron,” “Okinawa pineapple,” etc. because pretty much all of it is available in Tokyo.  So try some green tea chocolate from Kyoto or an Osaka style okonomiyaki and buy yourself some souvenirs that are supposedly exclusive to these regions.  Who’s to be the wiser?  (Besides me)

Hellooooooooooo kitty!  (and beware of stray cats in Japan...they yowl and have gang wars and fight crows.  I wish I were kidding)

Hellooooooooooo kitty! (and beware of stray cats in Japan...they yowl and have gang wars and fight crows. I wish I were kidding)

Unfortunately, NYCB will be in Tokyo in October, and Japan’s iconic cherry blossom festival is in early spring.  But October is a great time to see the leaves changing colors, which you can see at Japanese gardens or take a train ride an hour or two out into the mountains for actual wilderness.  In my first Japanese culture class, my professor told me that in Japanese gardens the keepers will often rake up the leaves, select a few choice ones and “scatter them with intent” so that the garden still maintains some sense of naturalness.  Although judging by the effort, it just seems tedious to me.  Anyway, because chances are you won’t be in Japan this coming spring, I don’t mind sharing a couple of my cherry blossom (sakura) photos with you.

Shinjuku Park, Tokyo

Shinjuku Park, Tokyo

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Ueno Park, Tokyo

And last but not least, I shall tell you about my FAVORITE thing to do in Japan, which is purikura (short for “print club,” with a Japanese accent).  They’re like photo booths and you can find them at arcades and “UFO Catcher” places (the Japanese equivalent of claw machines where you can catch stuffed animals and plush toys), but are infinitely superior in every single way.  It’s an actual experience…there’s better lighting, different backgrounds, sometimes a “blue screen” like a movie, and other camera effects.  After the pictures are taken, you go around to the side of the machine where your pictures will pop up on a screen and you can use a touch screen to select the pictures you want, write things in, add borders and various stamps, make them glittery etc.  Then the machine prints out a sheet of your artwork with an adhesive backing for you, and the Japanese are always sure to have a table nearby with a pair of scissors so you can cut the pictures apart and share your sticker pictures with friends.  I was (still am) OBSESSED with doing this.  It’s super fun and cheap entertainment (400 yen per shoot).  Although, guys should be aware that groups of men are not allowed in the photo booths by themselves.  Apparently Japan was having problems with perverts taking pictures from underneath girls’ skirts while they were in photo booths, and you know how it goes when it takes only one person to ruin it for everyone else.  So now, men can only enter photo booths if they are with a girl (girls can of course enter by themselves).  Sexist and unfair, but it is what it is.  Besides, if you look like a foreigner, you can pretend that you can’t read, go in and get away with it anyway.  Regardless, we’re talking some high tech stuff here…you can even have the machine e-mail the pictures to a Japanese mobile phone, which I did and now share with you:

Work it work it!     Good times...

In short (or not), I love Tokyo, miss it very much and could go on and on but won’t (I didn’t even begin to talk about the bakeries!).  Instead, I shall leave you with a picture that I took at the Nagoya Aquarium for your amusement.  Plus Glee is starting and I need to wrap this up!

I want one.

I want one.