Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

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Friday, August 7th, 1998
I woke up around 7:00am, mainly because I'm not accustomed to the time difference yet. Since I was up so early, I took the opportunity to get some pictures around Shinjuku and to hunt down the shrine I remembered being in the middle of it. The streets were completely empty... stores generally don't open until 10:00-11:00am, so things were quiet as I got myself re-aquainted with an area I had last seen eight years previously, in 1990.
My plan for later was to head for an out-of-the-way ward of Tokyo called Hibarigaoka to see if I could find a hotel there. Hibarigaoka is far enough away from tourist areas that any hotels there should be reasonably cheap, and I had some other reasons for wanting to head there; but that was later. For the moment, I was happy to be in a fairly familiar area of Tokyo with no one I had to talk to (though I knew I would have to force myself to talk with people later).
Some sights were familiar; there were plenty of large crows picking at the garbage from the night before, dancing around squawking. It's little wonder that ravens are a common symbol in Japanese myths, movies, and comics... even during the day, when the streets are full, a quick look up will usually reveal a crow or two sitting on top of a nearby building, just waiting for an opportunity to grab a quick snack. Other sights were definitely new; one of the nicer surprises was a nice green walkway between two blocks that wasn't there when I initially visited Shinjuku in 1990.
I found the shrine I was looking for also; it's called Hanasono. It was about the same as I remembered; the main change over eight years was that a small sub-shrine that used to house a gigantic phallus (a favorite for those trying to get pregnant, I was told by a teacher) had now become a shrine devoted to kitsune -- fox spirits. Foxes in Japan have much the same sort of reputation that coyotes have with Native Americans; they're crafty and tricky, with amazing powers of illusion and transformation with which to fool any hapless human they so choose (a common trick is to serve the victim a wonderful gourmet meal, and to reveal it's actual nature -- horse dung -- after a couple of dishes have already been served). I can only imagine that the small shrine is here to try to placate some troublesome foxes; even now, houses in rural Japan are occasionally abandoned because of fox spirit hauntings (cheap land if you can find it!). [UPDATE 2002: I've learned recently the reason fox statues are on shrines; it's because foxes are often used symbolically as messengers between humans and Shinto deities. Their on the shrines so they can take your requests to the proper deity!]
Anyway, having satisfied my need to re-establish a sense of place, I headed back to my hotel to try their breakfast... which was surprisingly good, considering how bad the rest of the hotel was. The waitress was confused at first; she walked out to answer the bell, saw me, walked to the front desk to ask if the gaijin -- foreigner -- was a guest, and wandered back not sure how to take my order. After a few trys I remembered how to say breakfast (it's 'asa-gohan'), and from there it was easy. Actually, once she knew I could speak a little Japanese, she quizzed me to see how much I understood and encouraged me to take my time answering. Thanks to her, my first real attempt to use the Japanese I've been learning wasn't really all that scary... and, as I said, breakfast was good. I love fish and barbequed squid in the morning!
After that, it was time to move on. I got my stuff together, and headed out to the Shinjuku JR Station (JR = 'Japan Railways') to try and remember how to get to Hibarigaoka; it wasn't on any of my English maps, so I was following eight year old memories. It was easier than I thought it would be though... once I reached Ikebukuro Station, I remembered that Hibarigaoka (which translates as 'Hibari Hills') was on one of the larger private railways, the Seibu line. I got the ticket, and headed back to one of my favorite places in Tokyo.
For those of you wondering, Tokyo is separated into several wards... this is sort of the same thing as New York being broken into Manhatten, Queens, the Bronx, etc. Basically, back when Tokyo was established as the capital -- back when it was a town called Edo -- it had dozens of other small towns around it. As Edo expanded into the city of Tokyo, all these small towns were absorbed into it as the wards. This is one reason why the roads in Tokyo make no damn sense... every time you enter a new ward, you get the road layout that the original town had, no matter how badly that meshes with the wards around it.
Hibarigaoka ward is more like a small town than the other places in Tokyo I've been... other than two or three tall buildings near the train station, there's nothing taller than three stories, and these get fewer and fewer the further away from the station you get. It doesn't offer much by way of shopping... so why, you ask, was I so set on finding a hotel there? Two reasons: first, it's where I stayed with a host family in 1990, so it's familiar and full of good memories. Second... used book stores. For those of you who don't know it, I'm a book hog; and Hibarigaoka's used book stores have low prices and a wide selection of used manga -- Japanese comic books. So I wanted to crash nearby so I could spend a couple days hunting out some good books.
But it wasn't in the cards... as it turned out, Hibarigaoka has only one hotel. And that is a love hotel, which is great if you're only staying for about four hours with a "close friend". Love hotels are a place where couples who couldn't normally get enough privacy to be together can buy that time... however, that didn't help me, so I was back off to Ikebukuro ward after buying some books.
I wandered around Ikebukuro looking for a business hotel (this is what I should have been asking after in the first place), and, after finally finding an ATM that would give me money using my American card -- I'd been trying every ATM I saw -- and wandering through what seemed like an endless red light district, I found a good place: Hotel Theater, so named because it was built above a movie theater. It seemed a little expensive still, but it was cheaper than the previous night's hotel, and the room was nicer. Add that it was in a major shopping district that I'd seen a few game and comic shops in while wandering, and it was a winner. I checked in for a three night stay, hoping that would be long enough to figure out where I was going next.
After I dumped my bags in the room, I set out to explore the area... only to find that I had actually been here once before, though I didn't remember it at first. Mainly, I'd visited the eight story mall called "Sunshine City" in 1990, when it was featuring a big promotion for the then-new Ultraman Great TV series (yes, I am a geek). Since that time it has had half each of two stories converted into an indoor amusement park called "Namjatown"... this place is strangly amazing. It's a bit like Disneyland if you scruched it into a space a sixth it's size and enclosed it. There are a few rides, but the real popular amusements were variations on the virtual pet idea... people were wandering around holding electronic birds and cats, trying to find the electronic bathrooms and restaurants for them, and letting them talk to other electronic animals being carried around. You earn a score based on how well you care for it, and if you complete a set series of tasks: for your trouble, you get a certificate saying how well you did. I couldn't see this taking off in American amusement parks, but I've been wrong before, eh?
I'm guessing that Namjatown is a subsidiery of Namco, a big producer of electronic games in Japan, because there's also a big games parlor full of various Namco games and photobooths on a different floor of Sunshine City. I didn't drop any coins in them because most required a friend or two to really enjoy, like the horse racing game which allowed up to four people to race against each other... you have to sit on a fake horse and rock it back and forth to make the horse on the screen run. People play this? (In public?)
The more interesting game to my mind was the one that had an excercise bicycle that you pedaled; on screen the character was flying a foot-pedaled helicopter, so not only did you have to keep pedaling to keep the poor pixelated fool flying, you also had to lean the bike forward, backwards, and side to side to make the bike in the game fly up, down, and back and forth through a variety of courses. I suspect the real fun is in watching someone else poop themselves out playing this game instead of doing it yourself, eh?
Anyway, after spending 2500 yen [about $20.00 US] and several hours, I headed back to the hotel to crash for the night while looking forward to a leisurely day of window shopping tomorrow.

On to August 8th, 1998

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