An Open Love Letter to Japan – Part 2

Well hey there! Figured I’d be a bit more sociable and come around a little quicker than usual. Work’s been (as usual) busy, but I’m just finishing up a 5 day vacation. I didn’t exactly travel very far, but managed to get a bunch of errands out of the way and get out here and there. You know, renew my visa, go to Disneyland, run to IKEA, read a book, that sort of thing. What the young, cool kids nowadays would call a stay-cation. Or so I hear.

But that was now and this is then! Getting back to our story from last time of living on memory lane, we last left off talking about the hostel I stayed at in Asakusa. Fortunately, I actually left the hostel and wandered around the surrounding area on a near-daily basis. I regret to say that I didn’t really head out far and wide, but I did wake up early every day and explored Asakusa, Ueno, and all they had to offer. I did make trips to other parts in Tokyo with a Japanese friend of mine (who I met through a pen-pal program), where we made it all the way out to Tokyo Tower, Roppongi, Odaiba and some other places. But we’ll talk about that when the time comes. Right now, it’s time to talk about…

Asakusa – Temples, Donuts and Ninjas

Asakusa is, as you may (or may not) know, famous for Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), which leads to Sensouji. The area is still very traditional in design and has a very Edo—old-style—feel to it. You’ll note that I didn’t say authentic, because it’s not by any stretch of the imagination. For reasons I’m still not clear on, Asakusa is very popular with tourists and foreigners. Obviously there are a lot of Japanese tourists as well, but it seems to have a lot catering to the foreign crowd. This means there’s a lot of English information and hostels, but also unfortunately reinforces the impressions of Japan that young, impressionable 18 year old Americans (me) have about Japan. Souvenirs consist of katanas and yukata (summer-time cotton kimonos) and, yes, ninja costumes.

Let me make something brutally clear: You will typically not find ninja costumes or goods in normal daily life in Japan.

I was pretty enchanted with the area, and went to go visit the temple every morning.

Sensoji Gate - 2004

Sensoji Gate – 2004

Sensoji Gate - 2013

Sensoji Gate – 2013

I don’t have any photos of Kaminarimon itself, but these are from a gate further in the temple complex.

Sensoji Area - 2004

Sensoji Area – 2004

Sensoji Area - 2013

Sensoji Area – 2013

I wish I could point at these and say a lot has changed, but unfortunately not much has. It’s clearly much sunnier in 2013 than it was in 2004, at least? Yes, I think we’ll go for that. One thing that I loved about the area so much is that not only was it a beautiful, sprawling temple complex, but it also has a market that opens up every day, selling all sorts of traditional* (see my ninja note above) souvenirs, old-style Japanese food, scrolls, and anything else a young, poor university-student Japanophile could want. I don’t have any pictures, unfortunately, but I loved waking up early every morning to see the shops open (jet-lag probably didn’t hurt).

Also, when the sun started the rise and you moved away from the temple-complex, you had a great department store nearby for all your shopping needs! 8.5 years later, I realize that Matsuya Department store isn’t really much to talk about, but it was amazing to me at the time.

Matsuya - 2004

Matsuya – 2004

Matsuya - 2013

Matsuya – 2013

I wish I got a shot from the front, but, ah well.. life is full of small regrets! Now, what made Matsuya so wonderful? Well, Japanese department stores typically have one of everything. This place has clothes on one floor, a book store on another, electronics on yet another, a super-market in the basement and a garden/play-land on the roof. Plus, it was all built directly into the train station. Coming back, it’s been renewed (it looks like it’s fallen on hard times) and it seems like the place has fallen on hard times, but I used to go there every day to buy food or just wander around and look at Japanese books and magazines.

And do you know where else I used to go everyday that was right across the street?

Mister Donuts - 2004

Asakusa Mister Donuts – 2004

Mister Donuts - 2013

Asakusa Mister Donuts – 2013

Mister Donuts!! I’ll be completely honest: I loved this place then, and I love it now. I’m not exactly sure what it is about this donut shop that I liked so much, but the atmosphere, donuts, and style just seemed nice. What I also find really amazing is that, surprisingly, the prices haven’t changed a whole lot in 8.5 years. I guess the donut economy is pretty stable, huh?

That’s not the same that we can say for certain other junk-food products, however, which has undergone some pretty dramatic changes.

Mountain Dew - 2004

Mountain Dew – 2004

Mountain Dew - 2013

Mountain Dew – 2013

Anyone who’s known me for a long time probably knows that I liked Mountain Dew quite a  bit back in my teenage years. I don’t really drink soda anymore nowadays (usually water or coffee, I guess?), but I did make a special trip out to a vending machine to get this picture (just for you!). When I first came to Japan, I had brought a bottle of Mountain Dew from America on the plane (left) and hunted down a Japanese can (right). It was branded as the “King of the Street” back then in Japan, probably because it wasn’t sold in stores and could only be found in some vending machines. The weird thing is also how… 1970’s it looked. I mean, look at it! Tell me that looks like a design from the 2000’s. The can was redesigned by the time I came back to Japan in 2008, and redesigned again recently. I guess it probably looks like the American-style now, though I don’t know for sure.

Fun Fact: Japanese Mountain Dew tastes different from American style, because they use tangerine for the citrus flavoring while the American one uses oranges. Now ya know!

That almost takes us all the way through my adventures through Asakusa, but unfortunately, it’s about time for me to go to bed. Next time, we’ll finish up some of the sites in Asakusa, and then branch out to some of the other places I went to in 2004!

Time to get ready for another awesome week!

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