Wadamaru looks so promising. Located 10 minutes away from Shibuya station in a quiet, upscale part of town and up a flight of old stone stairs, Wadamaru has all the atmosphere you could want for an intimate dinner with friends or an exclusive date.
It's not very findable, perhaps intentionally. I had a map, but I needed it explained twice to me by the locals, and I've been doing this for awhile.
Wadamaru is an izakaya. The alcohol list is impressive, but since it was mostly shochu, and all in Japanese, I had to settle with beer.
The worst thing about Wadamaru is the service. I know a little Japanese, so I thought I could get by. However, the menu was handwritten and I don't know much kanji, so I had to ask for help. The waiter was very unhelpful, and only gave me recommendations after the third time I asked, in my best Japanese. I ordered Iwashi, thinly sliced sashimi with greens. My friend ordered the fish of the day. After waiting about 20 minutes, our dishes arrived. We thought they were appetizers since they were so small and expensive, and only realized after that there wasn't any more food coming. It was obvious that the two of us had wanted to order dinner, but the waiter didn't really care - I think he just wanted to get rid of us as soon as possible. After having spent 2,600 yen on these small plates, we decided to order the set meal, at 2.600 per person. Sorry, you have to have a reservation. What is the place?
We finished our beer, left, and had McDonald's that night.
The Sun Shine Star Light Dome is a planetarium in the Sunshine 60 building complex, east of Ikebukuro station. Careful: the entrance to the planetarium is marked by a tiny sign on the left hand if you enter the lower shopping mall from the street - I followed different signs around the building for half an hour before I finally found the right elevator.
The planetarium shows several different movies every day at different times. I decided to see "Astronaut. The tickets cost 1800 yen for adults.
The presentation started with a lesson in astronomy. Various constellations and zodiac signs were highlighted and given a 30 second background. I had fun trying to guess what they were saying in Japanese. The program continued with a retelling of the Japanese folk-tale "Tanabata," in which the characters are constellations, and the Milky Way is a river. The story of Tanabata is actually really beautiful and worth reading.
Things started to go downhill with the "Astronaut" movie. Basically, "Astronaut" is a badly produced documentary of a day in the life of an astronaut. The computer animated characters look rather dated and I got the feeling that the director's agenda was showing off what his latest software could do, rather than making something aesthetic or informative. "Astronaut" basically used the planetarium's projector as a half-hearted IMAX, leaving me with an upset stomach that afternoon. In addition, there are randomly inserted computer-generated psychedelic sequences inserted throughout the movie. Maybe they'd make more sense if I knew Japanese. Not recommended.
Pure what? Pure disappointment. I ventured into this star-crossed club the second Friday after it opened. They were still putting signs up. A few people had lined up at the door, which made it look promising. When the doors opened at 11:30, I paid 3,500 for the door fee and an open bar and got a pretty bracelet to go along as well. I waited around with my friends for a good hour, but the club refused to fill up. The inside is actually quite nice - a big disco ball, red velvet VIP rooms with windows looking over the dancefloor, a cool stepladder that climbs to the DJ's nest on a balcony. But these things don't matter much when there aren't any people around except a few older Australian businessmen drinking Heineken.
I have to admit that the open bar is a good deal though. They have a decent selection of beer and alchohol, and you are welcome to fill up your plastic cup as many times as you want throughout the night. However, they keep drinks pretty basic for the price level - they don't do anything fancy.
Pure might be passable if you just want to have a few drinks with friends, but don't expect any socializing or dancing. And anyway, unless you plan on drinking heavily, it's probably cheaper to try an upscale bar instead.
Cutie Relax is a "maid" massage parlor-you can get your hands or feet massaged by girls dressed up as 19th century maids. It's not something that translates well for Americans, but think of it as fetishism divorced from its sexual aspect (or perhaps repressed?). Maid characters appear frequently in anime and manga-innocent, submissive women who have great affection for their masters. Many Japanese men go to institutions like Cutie Relax to see these character in real life. Many come just to chat with the maids, who are usually just as enthusiastic about manga as the clients are.
Fortunately I know a little Japanese, so I was able to ask my maid about her customers as she gave me a hand massage. Apparently a lot of foreign clients come to the store-Americans, Chinese, Singaporeans-which can lead to awkwardness because of the language barrier-the conversation is almost the main point of the experience. Be aware of this before you try one of these stores.
Although Cutie Relax is truly just a maid massage parlor-the rooms half curtains that fall halfway, and a sign insists that no illicit activity happens-I couldn't help but associate the store with its surroundings. It's upstairs from a dirty used electronics store and past a grungy corridor of sex shops-I definitely did not feel comfortable.
Given its prime location in the brand-new Crossfield building in Akihabara, an anime mecca, Tokyo Anime Center is singularly disappointing. First of all, it's really small. One have of the room has a large screen television and a few tables and chairs, presumably for conventions or anime viewings. However, there are only chairs for 20 or so people. A glass case displays a few character sketches in the process, and a roll of film. Otherwise, the "center" sells tacky anime memorabilia - Ichigo's costume from "Bleach" for 12,000yen, special edition soda cans displaying anime characters, plush dolls, and t shirts. Not recommended.
Mandarake is a manga chain. The Shibuya location is the largest, I think. Unlike the Shibuya store, the Ikebukuro store is smaller, does sell figurines or collectibles, and sells shonen ai manga almost exclusively. Shonen ai style manga focuses on romantic relationships between young boys, aimed at a female audience. If you know what you are looking for, I'm sure that the Ikebukuro Mandarake has a great selection of shonen ai, but if you are a casual manga fan and want the manga store experience, I'd definitely recommend going to the Shibuya location instead.
Tsutaya is a large multimedia chain in Japan. It mainly sells DVDs and music, but it also rents music CDs for 300-400 yen a pop, something you don't often find in America. The ethics are shady, but apparently Japanese music lovers copy rented music to their harddrives with impunity. Only trouble is, you have to be a permanent Japanese resident to get a rental card. Passports or visas won't work on their own. However, when I lived in Japan I used my friends card to get what I wanted.
Tsutaya sorts most of their items by alphabetical order in Japanese, which can be a royal pain if you don't know the language. English isn't spoken either.
Having said this, if you have access to Tsutaya it's very convenient, ubiquitous, and well stocked.
Suitengu is a Shinto shrine for the goddess of maternity, although I only found that out by Googling the place after I went there. There's very little information about the shrine, and none in English, so there's not a whole lot for a tourist to do except look at the temple structure. I don't find Japanese jinjas nearly as interesting as, say, Roman or Greek temples because Shinto shrines tend to be newer (they're typically built from wood, not stone) and have less history behind them or written on their walls. Perhaps this is my Western education speaking, but I don't find the minimalist, abstract decorating of jinjas as interesting as statues and carvings of Greek battles that actually happened.
If you still want to go, you can buy delicious senbei (Japanese rice snacks) and Shinto charms at Suitengu. Also, there's some sort of dog shrine that seems exclusive to the place. You can buy prayers for children, and special maternity clothing too. I'd rather visit Kamakura or Yasukuni jinja, simply because of its current political significance.
Oribe Style is a modern, Japanese furniture store. There's also a small tea/shochu cafe inside the store, although the cafe customers didn't seem to be shopping for furniture. The styles are fairly conservative. I was looking for an oak dinner table; prices hovered around 180,000 yen. Oribe also has quite a selection of inexpensive place settings, etc.
I wasn't very interested in the store because there was no English brochure or price table, besides price tags of the floor models. The store worker was not particularly helpful, and offered to sell me catalogs of tables for 1,000 yen each.
Mos Burger is interesting. It tries to be a notch above McDonald's, and it is: there's a little more variety, and its a lot c leaner. However, don't think you are getting a traditional hamburger. Mos is a classic instance of "washoku" - foreign food that has been imitated by Japanese and undergoes a unique transformation in the process. I ordered two burgers (together the size of a U.S. quarter pounder); a "teriyaki burger" and a "Mos Cheeseburger." These items were in katakana on the menu - there's no English, but you can point to pictures and the guy will understand.
The teriyaki burger was OK - a normal burger with a sweet sauce. A little too much mayo for my taste. The Mos Cheeseburger had some weird onion sauce that really didn't appeal to me, along with too much tomato. I had to ask for ketchup for my fries, and I received cocktail sauce.
There were more healthy alternatives on the menu as well - fruit parfait, salads, and the like.
If you want American style cheeseburgers in Tokyo, I'd recommend Becker's or Freshness Burger. If you want to try washoku burgers, go to Mos.
I wasn't very impressed with the Tokyo Metro Museum of Art, or "Tobikan." For starters, their website only has one page of English - you can't easily see what's being exhibited at any given time. When you get there, the English is very patchy as well. None of the guides or staff speak English, and did want to experiment with my admittedly poor Japanese either.
Be careful, buying tickets can be confusing. I thought I was buying a pass for the entire museum, so I didn't really mind shelling out 1200 yen, but it turns out that I had only paid for the special exhibit - 19th century Russian oil paintings. I could have paid for additional tickets for other wings of the museum, but by that time I wasn't really in the mood.
There is very little explanation on the exhibits, either in English or Japanese. No brochures, tours, etc. I got the feeling that Tobikan is aimed at more serious, Japanese art students, or at least the better informed. I'm not an art critic, so I felt a little lost and didn't really know what I was looking at.
Summary: If you enjoy art and there's a particular exhibit you're dying to see, go to Tobikan. Otherwise, it's better to skip it and head over to the more interesting Tokyo National Museum at the other end of Ueno Park.
Ueno Royal Museum has an extensive, (very) contemporary Japanese art collection. Most of the installations were created in the last 5 years, and range from oil painting to video to sculpture. A large portion of the art has strong traditional influences, so it was really interesting to see what modern Japanese artists were doing with their cultural heritage. For example, one artist used the ukiyo-e style to depict modern objects like motorcycles and airplanes, in a traditional landscape setting. A lot was quite avant-garde.
The staff are pretty strict about pictures - I was accosted immediately while trying to snap a few, and the woman even told me to put the pen I was using to take notes back in my bag.
If you're passing through Tokyo or are interested in traditional Japanese art, I would recommend walking over to the Tokyo National Museum. However, if you want to see what's happening in the Tokyo art scene in the last 5 years, you may be interested in Ueno Mori,
No photos allowed, no English brochures or guided tours.
I was greeting by a small line when I walked up to this small, tastefully decorated Ramen shop; always a good sign. Unfortunately there is no English menu, but when in doubt, ask the server at the door to guide your hand to the “Ramen” button on the ticket machine. After paying and waiting for a seat, you are escorted into a tiny eating area, seating maybe 8 people max. The high point of this particular ramen shop is being able to watch three chefs stir up your ramen three feet in front of you.
Inside as well, the decor is quite trendy, evoking '90s era Northern Californian wine bars.
The ramen isn't anything special ? the broth is interesting, if a little heavy, and those still expecting a healthy dose of vegetables in Japanese lunches will be disappointed again.
I felt some pressure by the servers to finish my food quickly, because a line of people stood just outside waiting for my seat. Not a bad experience, but I probably won't be going back. Apparently the ramen suits Japanese palettes more than mine.
Lunch costs abouts 1,000 yen.
Paddy's has a very limited clientèle - British, Irish, or Australian businessmen and the occasional Japanese co-worker they bring along. I think it's fairly decent pub if that's your scene; it's not my scene.
I was addressed in English by a genial Australian (of course there's a token attractive Japanese bartender as well). My friend and I ordered a Tequila Sunrise and a Martini respectively, and we felt our manhood implicitly challenged because we could have been the only people in there not drinking from large containers of Guinness and remarking on the cricket game on the TV.
Cocktails are 800-1,000yen; beer as cheap as 500yen during happy hour, which ends really early at 7pm. I'm not going back, at least until I'm forty.
The Amlux Toyota showroom is designed for potential buyers. It has five floors with an impressive selection of all of Toyata's lines on display - sedans, SUVs, vans, etc. The first floor is more of a traditional showroom, with flashy Formula One models and short movies about production and safety. This place would be great for interested buyers, but it's not really entertainment. All five floors are well-staffed, but no English is spoken and, surprisingly, there are no English specs on the cars.
I wasn't very impressed with Katsuya. Katsu is ubiquitous in Tokyo - you can find it on pretty much any street with widely varying prices and quality. I found Katsuya to be expensive for such low grade Katsudon - my bowl was soggy and not very flavorful. Lunch prices are between 800-1000 yen - you can definitely get the same stuff cheaper if you look hard enough.
Although there's no English, there's a machine with pictures - you insert your money and punch a button for a food ticket.
All the seating is at a bar, so it's not really suitable for family or dates. The clientele are exclusively slightly overweight businessmen who look rushed.
Like Ishimaru, LAOX is a large duty-free electronics department. LAOX has large home theatre, TV, and cell phone departments, frequented by American tourists. The place isn't especially remarkable though, especially since next door Ishimaru has far more selection. Sure, it's duty-free, but are you really going to ship that flatscreen back from Japan?
The science museum, inside Kitanomaru park, is packed with 5 levels of exhibits. Some example themes include "illusion," "mechanics," and "future scope." The museum is aimed at a younger audience (6-12 years), although parents will find some interesting exhibits on ABS braking or aerodynamics. Entrance fees range from 200-600 yen per person. This museum is quite interactive, but I think has less actual content than U.S. equivalents I remember visiting when I was little. The English brochure provides a basic floor guide, but I was not impressed with the rest of the English instruction. No videos had an English option. I spent some time in the "electric town" exhibit, which had an operable x-ray machine, tesla coils, and a moving model of a hydrogen atom. Unfortunately, although there was plenty of explanation in Japanese, the English was patchy and not sufficient to understand or operate the exhibits. I just watched other people and amused myself with a solar powered fan. The museum has lots of guided demonstrations happening throughout the day. If you want to experience a certain one (want to control high-powered laser, anyone?) you need to pick up a brochure at the museum (the website, http://www.jsf.or.jp does not display demonstration times). Other highlights include race-car simulators (now rather outdated when compared with the latest video games) and bicycle museum (miscellaneous bicycles and parts with Japanese explanations). If you don't know Japanese, you'll probably find this museum rather frustrating.
You can see the Telecom Center (not to be confused with Fuji Television) from the Yurikamome line servicing Odaiba. It's an upside "U;" a building with a whole in the middle. The 21st story is an observation deck open to the public. I payed 500yen into a machine to enter. Although it was already 11pm, there were a few couples taking in the city sights, in addition to a sizable bar. I was alone, so I busied myself watching containers being unloaded at the shipping yard below through a telescope - quite interesting. The observation deck can handle quite a few people, and there are lots of tables if you want to read a book or something. Pretty low key.
Odaiba Park runs along a cape that stretches from the bay to the shopping centers. Part beach and part forest, Odaiba Park is a popular couples' place after dark - there are plenty of benches, and, unfortunately, mosquitoes. Apart from the dull highway noise from Rainbow Bridge, Odaiba Park is pretty quiet. Red lantern boats cruise by during the summer time.
Although it's quite dark, I felt very safe at the park, even in the middle of the night. There's a police box nearby, and everyone else seems harmless. By American standards this park isn't all that incredible, but in Tokyo you take what you can get.