Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ryogoku: Edo-Tokyo Museum (& Sumo)

Ryogoku lies on the east side of the Sumida River, an area of Tokyo were we never went before. It is known as the Sumo-district, with the famous Kokugikan Sumo Stadium, various sumo stables (were the professional sumo wrestlers live and train), and restaurants selling typical Sumo food.

We, however, did not travel to Ryogoku for the Sumo attractions, we wanted to visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum (Edo Tokyo Hakubutsukan). We had already visited the branch location: the Edo-Tokyo Open Air museum, in the Westerns suburbs of Tokyo in March and very much enjoyed that trip. Therefore we were very much looking forward to visit the permanent exhibition at the main museum in Ryogoku.

The building of the Edo-Tokyo Museum

The museum is easily recognizable, as it is housed in a futuristic and unique building. It's already very impressive to walk up to the building, and enter through a very long escalator in a big round tube.
The museum itself shows the past of Tokyo (formerly known as Edo) in a very interesting and interactive way. It shows very detailed how life in Tokyo used to be.

Model of old street in Tokyo

Model of an amusement district next to the river

Model of an amusement district next to the river

Many of the items on display are (life-sized) models of items, vehicles, figures, shops and stores and make it very interesting to see how Tokyo was in the past. There are quite a number of interactive models, were moving displays give you a view on the inside, or show what used to happen in various situations. For example, you get to see the inside of a former Kabuki-theatre, with a detailed show on how special effect used to be carried out. The theatre of the museum (of course in old Edo-style) holds various performances in the weekend, showing traditional Japanese entertainment.
It was truly a very interesting trip and museum, and we would definitely recommend the museum to people who are interested in the history of (life in) Tokyo.

Display of Kabuki actors and atributes

Model of Western style house (for foreign visitors) located in the floor, the roof of the building would open to you could see the inside!

After we visited the museum, we took a walk around Ryogoku. There are two very nice parks in the area, Yokoamicho Park and Kyu-Yasuda Teien Garden (with a splendid view on the new Tokyo Sky Tree!). We also walked by the Sumo Stadium and discovered that there was actually an event going on that day.
That day the national competition for junior high school students was held in the Sumo Stadium. Therefore entrance was free to the public. It was our first visit to the Kokugikan, and our first time to see sumo live, so it was very interesting to experience!

The sumo hall in the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium

Young sumo wrestlers about to start their game
The sumo wrestlers were still very young (somewhere between 12 and 15 years old) but most of them already had the characteristic body of a professional sumo wrestler, while others were still skinny and looked like they would be better suited to take part in the long distance running competition. Some pro's were also enjoying the tournament but we suspect they were scouting for talent at the same time. Regardless of who won the championship, the true winner was the McDonald's across the stadium. Everywhere wrestlers were building their body power with some good old Big Macs :).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cycling to Inokashira Park & Zoo: part II

Located in Inokashira Park is the Inokashira Park Zoo, a relatively small zoo which houses some animals you don't regularly see in a zoo. The zoo is mainly aimed at exhibiting a variety of Japanese species. That means there are no lions or tigers, but mainly indigenous animals such as birds, fish, squirrels, swans, cranes, deer, monkeys, raccoons, etc.

The zoo is divided in two areas by the main road that leads to the Ghibli Museum. The main area is home to all the animals that walk, crawl, climb, dig or fly. The second area is for all kinds of aquatic/swamp creatures.
After parking our bicycles we bought two tickets and entered the main zoo. One of the first things that struck us was how open and green the zoo was. The Mitaka neighbourhood is known for its green atmosphere but the zoo was really amazing. We took a walk and came across a huge guinea pig farm. Instead of putting the fuzzy critters behind bars, kids were allowed to pick them up from a huge 'container' - for lack of a better word - and gently pet them. There must have been hundreds of guinea pigs because every kid was holding one and still there were more eagerly waiting to be cuddled. Ultimate guinea pig cuteness!

We strolled around some more and came across one non-Japanese animal: a huge ancient Asian elephant called Hanako. She was brought from Thailand to Ueno Zoo in 1949 when she was two years old but in 1954 she was relocated to Inoshikara. She wasn't very sociable so living isolated from other elephants was the best option. With 65 years, Hanako is Japan's eldest living elephant. She might not look like a young lady any more but she seemed very happy and active in her old day. She has lost most of her teeth, so her carers feed her small sliced vegetables, or easy digestible dumplings.

Asian elephant Hanako

Hanako shows the signs of old age, and walks around slowly
After that we visited the bird house. Upon entering the bird house visitors are being cautioned to keep the doors closed at all times. Visitors to the bird house are literally visitors. You enter their territory and they freely fly all over the place. Small ones, but also huge jungle birds. Incredible. Even more incredible is the bird house itself. It looks like a post apocalyptic factory hall that has been reclaimed by nature. Vines and tropical plants are growing everywhere: around the balcony, on the stairs, round the windows. Birds are in the tree tops but also walk the ground, sit on the railing, or hop on the stairs. It feels very surreal to walk around in this environment but it's a creative way for a small zoo to attract visitors.

The outside of the bird house
Inside the birdhouse

But, the most fun place we visited was definitely the Trail of Squirrels. It's exactly was the name suggests: a lingering path through bushes and trees where squirrels dance around your feet. They play, frolic, fight and jump around while you try hard not to step on their furry little tails. Not that you would, they're just too fast! Once again it doesn't feel like your in a zoo, it's much more like you're visiting the animals. You have to be courteous and polite or else they'll bite ;).

Playing with branches and leafs
Running and jumping around

Taking a rest

On to the second area of the animal park: water creatures. We crossed the bridge to the water area and saw some kids standing around plastic water tanks. Young at heart as we are we went to take peek too. It was like the guinea pig petting farm only this time with mini lobsters! Scary but cute in a strange way. Inside the aquarium house you could pet some more animals. Like fish! Hold your hand in a certain angle in the water and the fish come rushing over. Apparently that's how they are fed everyday.

Laurens holding a lobster
 The aquarium house showed cross sections of rivers and swamps in Japan. Very impressive. The rest of the second area was mainly populated by a variety of ducks and automatically lead to the Inoshikara Park itself. We had a something to drink and moved on to leisure in the park.

Turtle in the aquarium house



Monday, August 13, 2012

Cycling to Inokashira Park & Zoo: part I

Last weekend we decided to make another cycle tour this time to Inokashira Park and the Inokashira Zoo, located in the West of Tokyo. We had already seen the park when we visited the Ghibli museum (located in the same green area), so we knew it was a great place to spend a warm summer day. This time we also wanted to visit the zoo in the park.

But the day already started with a big adventure, cycling so far out of central Tokyo. Luckily the area was (just barely) covered on the last pages of our Tokyo map book, so we approximately knew where to go. The day started out cloudy, which was fortunate, since we didn't have to sweat in the burning sun and could just calmly find our way through the streets of Tokyo. Still we packed lots of drinks to fight off the intense Tokyo summer heat.
We passed Ikebukuro Station, and travelled west. We saw Tokyo change with every street we passed. The metropolis gradually becomes a quiet residential neighbourhood: less shops, restaurants, people, subway exits and so on. Suddenly green and wide lanes appear with lots of trees and parks. Though the regular big city liveliness is never really far off. Surprisingly impressive if you consider we were 18 kilometres west of the Tokyo centre. Almost an endless city without borders (at least as far as we can cycle, that is)

The Inokashira Park is a beautiful park, with a lovely lake, much greenery and tons of benches to enjoy the nature, take a rest, and eat some icecream (well deserved after such a long bike ride :)
We decided the rent a cute boat, and enjoy Inokashira Park from the water

Of course, one of the main reasons for our trip was to visit the Inokashira Zoo. A visit we enjoyed very much and we will cover in the next update. So, be patient :)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Japanese summer & Aikido midsummer training

Japanese summer has many great things: summer vacations, big sales in the department stores, fireworks festival, and icecream! Unfortunately there are also some downsides to the Japanese summer: big cockroaches, too many mosquito's, the incredible heat and humidity. Temperatures over 30 degrees, very sunny, and very sweaty humidity. The kind of weather in which you prefer to just stay in front of the ventilator all day, or visit somewhere with air-conditioner.

However, this is also the period that the Aikikai hombu dojo organises the yearly Aikido mid-summer training (暑中稽古, Shochu-keiko). This year it was from July 30 until August 8, and it basically means that in order to participate you have to take minimal 1 training each day in that 10-day period. In the intense summer heat...

 It was really really warm to train. Even waking up (really, really) early and taking the morning class could not help to avoid the heat. We are still deliberating whether the mid-winter training or the mid-summer training is the most hardest, toughest training period. Training 10 days straight in extreme weather is a challenge, even if we normally already train 5, 6 times a week.
Maybe the biggest challenge was for our washing machine, who had to work overtime to clean all our gi's and aikido-equipment. :)

But, despite of the heat, it was real fun doing it together with everyone from the dojo. And, of course, all for the reward: you can be proud of your name displayed on the wall among those who successfully completed the mid-summer training. 
You will also receive your mid-summer training perfect attendance certificate, as proof of all the sweat you poured in the dojo, and a traditional Japanese commemoration towel.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hanabi-season: Sumida River Fireworks

Summer in Japan is the season for fireworks, fireworks and fireworks! Almost every weekend there is a fireworks festival somewhere! The fireworks are really beautiful, last for one to two hours, and are perfect for a night out. Last Saturday we visited the yearly Sumida River Fireworks, at Asakusa.

The firework-show was great, and nothing like we have seen seen before. The bursts were big, in many different shapes, and in a great variety in colours. A true spectacle. Another great part of the fireworks is the festival that is organised around it. Lots of food stalls around the streets, and people dressed in pretty colourful yukata (traditional Japanese summer clothes).

Not surprisingly that a lot of people came to visit the festival, estimates say that around 1 million people visited the area around the Sumida river in Asakusa for the festival. Meaning it is very crowded, and you have to be really early (or pay a lot of money) the secure the best viewing spots The festival is also broadcasted on TV, so those who don't want to be stuck in a crowd can watch the live broadcast.

For those who couldn't come to the festival, and didn't see it on TV: please enjoy some of our video's :) 

At the end, all those 1 million people have to get back home. Resulting a very long queues in front of the train and metro-stations, but everyone can actually board their train in a calm and orderly fashion. It's truly amazing how the Japanese seem to have mastered standing in line, with no troubles or irritated people (even when a lot of people seem to have had a little too much to drink..)

We are looking forward to the other firework festivals this summer!