Sunday, 15 February 2004

Out and about

Wednesday was a national holiday last week, Constitution Day or something, so all had the day off. I decided to take thursday and friday off as well to give me a bit of holiday and to do some serious study. In the end I did a bit of study for the mba, a lot of study of the grape and went out for a couple of day trips with the Guru, something we haven't done for a while. First up was...


Which is a jolly nice place and to be honest I would prefer to live there rather than Tokyo, or Kawaguchi, but have never had the opportunity. Anyway we visited a place called Daska (lit. 'big world' (?)). This is the kind of recreation thing that the Japanese love. It is based on a Chinese trading enclave and features period Chinese costumes, artifacts and, most importantly I guess, lots of restaurants selling small, over priced portions of Chinese food. The best thing about this recreation is that the powers that be decided that the best place for an artificial chinatown would be slap bang in the middle of the real Chinatown.

No really, and here is this week's point (I have them sometimes), the Japanese, in my humble opinion, don't like things they can't control and so, at the first opportunity, try to remake an idea they like but in a way they can control. Thus they love the idea of Chinatown, especially the food and the cheap goods (2 level bamboo steamer plus metal boiling pot for 3000yen - bargain) but they don't like the fact that it isn't Japanese and therefore aren't in control of it, so they make their own version right next to the original.

Another example to consider is the Seagaia resort in Miyazaki, Kyushu. A huge indoor, artificial beach was built, complete with wave pools, real sand and one of largest retractable roofs (at the time) so if the weather was nice, which is most of the time, the visitors could sunbathe on the artificial beach but with real sun. Seagaia was built, as you have probably guessed, right on a perfectly nice and respectable beach (in the picure in the link, it is the stadium looking thing above the tall hotel building). The problem with it was that it was miles from anywhere so no-one went there and it is slowly going out of business. Ah-ha, you may say, proves that they aren't really interested in these things then are they? But if that is true, where did the billions in planning, funding and contruction come from? Someone with an awful lot of influence thought it was a good idea.

So why have a dodgy, uncontrollable real beach, prone to weather and bad things like that when you can have a purpose built beach that a little man with a computer has complete control over? Same with Chinatown. Why go to the real thing, where people speak funny, you may get ripped off and the back streets are dirty, smelly and full of bustle when you can go to Daska where everything is clean and tidy and safe? A no-brainer, I think, to your average Japanese.

I think this is also manifest in things like bonsai and Japanese gardens, where control of form and nature is more important to aesthetic beauty than the wild lines of real nature.

So anyway we went to this Daska place and were quite disappointed, so went out to the real Chinatown and wandered around for a while, bought the steamer and a few other things and then wandered back to the bay area. The walk along the bayside is most pleasant indeed, through a park and then into the old warehouse district, which has now been renovated into a shopping and eating centre. (To get to Chinatown in the first place we used the new subway. Chinatown is a really inconvenient 15 minute walk from the bay, so what better way to connect it than spend billions on a six minute subway extension? On its opening day the new subway drew in half a million punters! Roppongi hills (more of which later) only had 330,000 visitors on its opening day, and it is a huge purpose built shopping an eating heaven in the middle of Tokyo. Japanese must love their trains.)

The warehouse area is a really well done, lots of little shops and restaurants to wander through, and original iron girders with 'Middlesbrough' stamped on them, which pleased me no end. The only downside to the place is that there are large open spaces between the old warehouses which the planners have filled with nothing, so we have wide expanses of pattened concrete. On a sunny February afternoon this was no problem, but come August it will be like an oven. A few trees would not go amiss, to break up the expanses and provide a bit of cover, but trees feature rarely in Japanese architecture, which is a shame as when they do appear, they always look exceptionally fine.

That was Thursday, on Saturday we went to...


But the only reason we went here was that Saturday was the opening day of 'The Return of the King' which we just had to go and watch - good valentines movie, you see. We queued for 2 hours and still weren't at the front, but we did get good seats and personally I thought it was a cracking 3 hour flick with a really bad last 30 minutes or so. Completely butchered the ending, the Shire was even lightly scrubbed, let alone scoured, which seemed to betray one of Tolkien's most important themes. Having said that the film was long enough so I'm not sure an extra 20 minutes would have been acceptable. Anyway, battle of the pelennor was awesome, the Frodo/Sam bit reasonably well done (except when Frodo tells Sam to bugger off, where was that from?) and Gollum stole every scene he was in. So I think a 7 out of 10 for this film and a 9 out of 10 for the series as a whole.

Which only leaves Sunday, which was...

Roppongi and Roppongi Hills

Today was our third wedding anniversary so we wandered into Roppongi for a pleasant lunch and chance to have a nose around Roppongi Hills, the new shopping place mentioned earlier. We found a nice little French restaurant in an out of the way back street that was most pleasant and even looked a little authentic - really old rather than pretend old, and served up a decent bit of scran with a pleasant drop of plonk too boot. Afterwards we had a short walk around the streets of Nishi Azabu, which is dripping in cash and full of lovely looking little bars and eateries, a place I could live if I won the lottery, twice.

Onto Roppongi Hills. This is a huge place, full of offices, hotels, residences, shops and food places. It was built by a chap named Mori who has a vision to encourage real people to live and work in the centre of town. A noble venture as Tokyo has a dearth of people actually living in its middle. So he has created this place with 4 enormous tower block right in the beating heart of the metropolis. Shame that rents start from about 1.5 million yen per month, but it is a nice idea (and therein is the reason no-one lives in the centre of Tokyo, too damn expensive. Anyone with a bit of sense can see this, so forward thinking boroughs try real experiements, like giving free municipal health care to kids so as to encourage families. Mr Mori obviously doesn't live in the real world of real salaries, silly bugger).

The other problem is that the whole place just feels artificial. Walking around with the Guru we saw plenty of places to buy a new handbag, pair of shoes, horrible item of clothing that only the filthy rich would wear, but nowhere to buy a book, or a chair, or a lettuce. It is a place you can visit, but as a place to live, I don't think so - and nor did the Guru. So, great date place, bit of window shopping, go to the Virgin cinema to watch the latest flick and then visit one of the many nice restaurants, but I think Mr Mori's vision is not going to be fulfilled here.

Again it sort of ties in with this week's point - Roppongi Hills is an artificial town, rather than going to Ginza or Shinjuku, where you have to walk to so many different places to shop, eat, watch, consume, come to RH where you can do it all under one roof. Much easier, much more convenient and much more under control.

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