Monday, August 10th, 1998
Up I rose about 8:00 o'clock and, after watching cartoons for an hour and a half, checked out a little before ten. I carried my stuff straight over to Hotel I.B.A. where I already had reservations. It was, of course, far too early to officially check-in, but I was able to reconfirm the reservation and let them know I would be there tonight, and I was able to leave most of my stuff in safe keeping behind their counter as I headed back out to explore for the day.
My main goal for the day was to search more areas I hadn't yet searched, mainly with an eye out for more ATMs that will give me cash for my American ATM card... knowing of only one machine that will do this is just a tad limiting, eh?
My first stop was right across the street from the hotel itself, where there's a ten-foot tall Shinto shrine that I couldn't help but notice. It stands in a concrete structure only about five feet wide by four feet deep, and with a building on one side and a parking lot behind it and on the other side. A dozen or so red banners hang from it, as well as a number of red lanterns. I dropped a couple of coins and rang the bell to let the resident spirit know I'd left something. I hope I can learn enough someday to identify who or what each of these small shrines are built to honor... but it's going to take a lot of learning.
Anyway, from there I walked back in the direction of the Ikebukuro JR station, on a side of the roadway I had not yet explored. In the area immediately across the street from the hotel are a lot of residential little alleyways that quickly appear to remove you from a city to a more rural town area. Houses and apartments are separated by small mostly dirt paths just wide enough for two people to walk by each other, and plants sprout on the edges of paths and in the front of many of the small residences. The buildings quickly absorb the sounds of the city, adding to the rural illusion. I could have walked around there for hours, but I would probably have bothered the residents who don't see many tourists back in these areas... besides, there's definitely no ATMs or stores in the residential area. So I headed back towards the street to follow the main road again.
As I walked back, I couldn't help but notice a small statue in one of the parking areas for bikes... a wise little tanuki, an animal that is not quite a racoon and not quite a badger, and is attributed much the same magical abilities that kitsune -- foxes -- are credited with having. The tanuki figure was in a common pose: sitting up on its back legs, wearing a grass hat, and holding a bottle or fan in one of its hands [paws?]. Statues of tanuki, like this small one, are standard decorations in front of many restaurants, though I don't know why yet... I'm sure there's a story involved, if I can just track it down. Also, these tanuki statues always feature an enormous scrotum -- the statue looks like it's sitting on a balloon -- and again, I don't know why but I'm sure there a story involved; but it will probably be awhile before I have the nerve to ask anyone, eh?
UPDATE 2002: The tanuki statues always hold a bottle of sake. Learn more about tanuki... Click Here!
In this part of Ikebukuro, several streets are raised to the second and third story levels of the city to allow for faster traffic flow past the area... between the hotel and the station there is a massive six-way intersection that is in permanent shadows due to the raised roadway and the entrance and exit ramps that intersect with it above the lower intersection itself. One of these ramps descends down the roadway I'd just walked, connecting to the ground-level street just a little before Hotel I.B.A.. I cut across the six-way intersection, and then walked into the maze of streets that were between me and the JR station about a mile away. This area was mostly white-collar offices at first, but quickly became spotted with various small specialty stores: at first things like laundromats, convenience stores, and kitchen goods, but soon I found more specialized item shops... like a Star Trek book and memorabilia store.
Oh sure, it was selling other things too... but it was pretty clear that at least half the shop was devoted to every Star Trek item imaginable, no matter what series you like [or dislike]. They had action figures not only from the newer series, but also from the first series; these are toys that long ago became priceless collector's items in America -- the first dolls made of Captain Kirk, Spock, and "Bones" -- and they were hanging on display in front of me, priced at... ugh. Don't ask what they were priced at!
Now, I'm no big Star Trek fan myself; but I know what a market there is for this stuff at American conventions. I really have to wonder where the guy who's running the store got so much stuff -- posters, jigsaw puzzles, old luchboxes, etc. -- and why he would then be selling it. From how closely he watched my every move, I'd wager he'd had shoplifters before... and considering he wasn't paying half as much attention to the whereabouts of the several Japanese customers in the store, I'd say he's had foreign shoplifters before. I did my best to ignore his burning stare while being sure to not hide anything I was doing as I browsed and gawked at the bizarre collection of memorabilia. The back of the store was mostly old manga and resin model kits of various female animation characters, which sell well and for a lot of money in Japan; is this what supports the Star Trek portion of the store, or does the memorabilia have a large fan base buying it in Japan? I don't know... yet.
After leaving that store, I stopped briefly at a used book store that was just a couple of blocks further along and in a triangular intersection... but it was mostly porn, so I didn't find anything I wanted. As I stepped out and looked up the street, I spotted something that explained the bookstore's contents; a pachinko parlour. Pachinko is an extremely popular form of gambling in Japan, and these parlours in Tokyo are often near red light districts... so the bookstore was specialized to books that would sell well to the sorts of people that frequent these sorts of places. I don't; so I headed down the third street in the triangular intersection to see where it led.
I soon found myself on the small road that ran alongside the train tracks that headed into the station. Looking across the tracks, I couldn't see much more than the fact that there are more tall buildings on the other side; the ground level seems to be substantially lower on the other side, and there's a wall of some sort across the distance that was filled by at least nine separate train tracks. I knew that I would have to explore the other side of the tracks sometime, eh?
At first, the buildings on the side of this frontage road were just residential, but I soon came to shops; they started around the same area that a walkway over the tracks ended on the road. The first store I saw was a sporting goods shop, and, being game, I wandered in to look around. It was a busy little place with everything from mountain climbing gear to scuba diving gear; and even though I didn't need any of that stuff, I found something I did feel I might need... a small swiss army knife that might prove useful for the later part of my trip, when I head for parts unknown and, presumably, less civilized.
Outside again, I found that the frontage road now turned slightly away from the tracks; in the ever growing space between the road and the fence marking the start of the tracks was a small park with a couple of trees and benches, and another small Shinto shrine. On the other side of the road across from this park were two love hotels, a convenience store and a couple of teeny-tiny used bookstores that I wasted a tremendous amount of time in; surprisingly, I didn't buy anything. What held my attention about these two stores was the fact that they possessed some surprisingly old books, and a tremendous amount of manga series I had never seen nor heard of before; I love discovering things like that!
There was also an "AM/PM" convenience store here [yes, the same 'AM/PM' convenience store chain as in the U.S.], which was good... it was now well past lunchtime! The store was full of teenagers lolling about the magazine rack, selecting food (there was a tremendous number of teenagers sitting around chatting and snacking outside), and playing with a machine that looked a bit like a video game, but wasn't. It took a little while, but I finally figured out what they were doing with it: buying concert tickets, from an electronic vending machine. I wondered briefly who they planned on seeing, but then my stomach reminded me why I came in to start with, so I picked up a bowl of hot soup and found a place to sit in the park across the street.
When I finished I visited the small shrine for a moment to look at it, then continued up the street which now had buildings on both sides. A short distance from the park I found a place called 'Dream Cafe'... according to its sign, it was a "manga restaurant". With no idea what this meant, but always interested in things to do with manga [Japanese comic books], I headed down the stairs to the cafe to see what it was; and I liked what I saw! It was essentially a manga library with food; order a meal or drink, pick a book, and sit and read as long as you like. I may be back, eh? But I had just eaten, and for today there was more exploring to do, so I headed back out.
Just a little farther and I found myself standing on the street just behind the closest end of the JR station; next to me was a tall store with a variety of currently "in" fashions, as well as a small video game parlor featuring a number of novelty photobooths. More interesting to me, however, was that next to this building was a busy pathway that appeared to go under the train tracks. A sign declared it the "We Road", and it was very busy indeed; the decoratively tiled interior was chock full of pedestrians and bicyclists going both ways. I just had to see where it went, so through I went... and popped out on the opposite side of the tracks.
I looked around a bit as I decided where I should head next; in one direction was the large mall that had to be this end of the JR station, which would also undoubtedly have a shopping and downtown area I had not seen before; in the other direction was a walk along the tracks towards the large road that went over them. Two things made my decision for me: first, my feet were starting to ache... and second, in the distance towards the road I could see a tower I've been able to see from just about everywhere in Ikebukuro and was curious about. So I headed for the road because it was both in the direction of the tower and in the direction of my hotel.
As I got closer to the road going across the tracks, the street next to me started rising up to meet it; soon I was on a walkway between a graffitied wall and a fence separating me from the railroad tracks. This walkway ended at a stairway that went up to the now higher level road, and a catwalk across the tracks for pedestrians; to my left was a double-layered bike park, stuffed full... a lot of people ride bikes to work, train stations, and school in Japan, so bike parks can be found stuffed into convenient corners all over the place.
I headed up the stairs and found, much to my surprise, that the gigantic tower was now just across the roadway from the catwalk; I had known I was getting close to it, but I had no idea how close... the train tracks must turn off to either side of the factory attached to the tower. It must be at least forty or fifty stories high, far higher than any buildings in the Ikebukuro area; little wonder I can see it from anywhere in the ward! I still couldn't see what it was, but there was an entrance further along the road that cars were turning at... so I walked along, looking both at the tower and at the train tracks far under me as the occasional train rumbled by. The tower, it turned out, belongs to the "Toshima Garbage Factory"... it's the smoke stack for the incinerator, high enough that any actual smoke left after the incineration process will drift far away from the buildings and streets below.
The catwalk I was on, it further turned out, was the same walkway that ended on the street near the sporting goods store that I saw earlier... so I pretty much knew the way back to the hotel, which is exactly where I headed next; oh, my aching feet! It was around five, so I was now able to get into my room. The clerk said something was wrong but that they had corrected it; I really had no idea what he was talking about, but said "thank you" anyway and then headed up to the room they gave me.
Instead of a key, I was given a card that I was supposed to wave in front of a plate near the door to unlock it; it took a couple of trys, but I got it. The hotel was definitely farther from the station and cheaper than the last one I was at, but the room was bigger and nicer than the hotel I just left. I have a full desk to park my computer on, with plenty of room to spread my stuff out... I can stretch without hitting a wall or the bed! Lucky! [UPDATE 2002: Having been back to Hotel I.B.A. several times, I realize now the reason why I got such a big room... the 'problem' the clerk had corrected was the fact that all their single rooms were full, so I was given a double room for a single room price instead. At the time I wrote this trip up, however, I didn't know that; I just thought all their rooms were better!]
I peeled off my boots, took a nice long soak in the tub, then watched a little TV while I relaxed on the bed; there was a show with some of this week's top J-pop hits; I especially like a new song by Ayumi Hamazaki called "Trust"... I'll try to find the CD later. Anyway, around seven, I headed back out to explore a little in the cool night air and get some dinner. This time I headed up the street in the direction away from the JR station to see what there was to see. A short walk from the hotel I found a pair of train tracks cutting across the road, and a pair of small platforms on either side of the road. I wonder where this small train goes? Well, tonight wasn't the time to find out... I was hungry!
Japan has its own rock stars and top 40 charts; it's know as "J-Pop", which is short for "Japanese Pop Music".
A good walk further on, past a car dealership and a gas station, I finally found a small grocery store that I was able to pick up some food at... and some toys, based on some currently popular cartoons called "Pocket Monsters" and "Digital Monsters". It was right around eight when I left, because the closed sign went up while I was inside... so I munched on some snacks as I walked back because I knew it would take awhile. And since I was no longer worried about finding dinner, my mind started to wander and my feet wandered with it; and so, together we wandered down an alleyway that turned into a path between various small residences and then into a maze of small paths and streets. To confuse things more, this area was built on hilly terrain which now means that the paths are connected by stairways, and many of the roads head uphill or downhill... overall, it was a lot of fun to get lost in!
But being lost can only be fun for a little while, so I eventually stopped going in circles, and made a concentrated effort to head in a straight direction away from the road I was on earlier... and shortly came out onto a smaller, and friendlier looking, road. Friendlier? It was a nice little two lane road with street lights and no building taller than two stories on it... to my right, it forked. Up one fork was even more lights, and they had plastic flowers on them... a sure sign that there had been a festival here recently. The other road in the fork was headed more in the direction I needed, so I followed it instead.
The road soon came to a pair of train tracks that had to be the same tracks I had seen earlier, so I was getting close to my hotel. I crossed the tracks and followed the road until it came to a "T" intersection, then turned right once more to return to the road I had initially walked away from the hotel on, and soon made it back. Mental note: I want to return to the maze area and the festival road during the day sometime!
It was around 9:30 when I got back. I did a lot of walking today, but not much else. I also saw a wide variety of ATMs, but not a single one that would accept my American card. Heck, most of them required not only a Japanese ATM card, but also a bank book in which your transaction would be printed for you. I'll still keep an eye out for ATMs I can use, but I think I've seriously got to find a better way to get money when I'm in Japan, eh? Ah, well... one step at a time. Night.
On to August 11th, 1998
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