Japan, Day 4: Imperial Palace and Akihabara

Today would be my day of culture and errands. I wanted to visit the Imperial Palace, and find a few things I needed: an AC adapter for my laptop (it was just too convenient to check the weather and change reservations from the laptop), and an extra SD card (I’d already burned through most of a 16 GB and all of a 2 GB card). I also needed extra cash; I’m used to operating mostly with cash and had already spent most of my initial $100 on tickets, meals, etc.

So I went downstairs, had my breakfast, and headed into Tokyo to visit the Imperial Palace.

Fortunately, Tokyo Station is right next to the Palace. Before I exited the station, I asked around for an ATM. I found it, but it didn’t accept VISA. Blast. I exited the station, and out of the corner of my eye noticed a currency exchange area. My heart full of hope, I entered, saw an ATM, walked up…and saw the VISA logo! Huzzah! Even better, this one let me withdraw up to $500. I took $300, figuring I’d be back in Tokyo in 4 days anyway and could fill back up if absolutely necessary.

Imperial Palace 1Then it was off to the Imperial Palace. Thanks to the maps posted everywhere in the station, I oriented myself and headed out.

I didn’t realize just how big the Imperial Palace is. I walked and walked and reached just one of the gates. Then I walked and walked to find an open entrance. The ones I could find were closed. Odd.

It took me far longer to figure out than you probably have. I got halfway around the palace before I found a sign informing me that the Imperial Palace was closed Mondays and Fridays. This was a Friday.

Well. By this point, I was close to the various cultural buildings near the palace, so I headed in that direction. Unfortunately, when I arrived I found zero English (other than the names of the buildings). So that was a bust. Fortunately, they’re all situated in a lovely area of cultivated forest full of quiet, well-manicured paths, so I wandered there for a while before heading back to Tokyo Station.

I’d been walking for hours; it was now noon. Tokyo Station is near the financial district, so I figured there had to be some good restaurants nearby. I walked parallel to the station for a while, and found an Italian restaurant. I figured the Japanese passion for noodles would combine well with this cuisine, so I went in, and was seated by a waiter who spoke excellent English. I ordered the special, and was rewarded with pumpkin soup that had a delicate flavor, a slice of bread that was so soft it was practically sponge cake, and spaghetti with broccoli and shrimp.

Only one problem: the shrimp were whole. They still had their tails, bodies, and heads.

So, er, I ate around the shrimp as they stared back at me, paid up, and left.

I decided to head up to Akihabara, buy the SD card and the power adapter, then head further north to Ueno to explore the culture there.

I hopped on the train, disembarked in Akihabara, and headed into the nearest electronics shop. Getting the SD card was easy, and the price was incredible: a 32 GB SD card for $14. The adapter was harder; I had to go to another shop, but found what I was looking for on the rack. I took it to the clerk, who asked if it was okay that it was an “exchange.” I said yes, then paused and replied, “exchange?” He held up a hand, then his hands flew over the keyboard. He turned the monitor towards me to show that he was using the keyboard on the register to type a question to me in English. I love geeks some times. I confirmed that it was what I wanted, and it was mine (again, cheap: $6).

Akihabara 2

Akihabara 2

I then wandered Akihabara. I discovered several legendary stores: Gamers (all 7 floors!) and Mandarake (6 floors). I wound up spending all afternoon poking through various shops and buying a few CDs. We’re talking whole floors devoted just to manga, or to figurines. I even poked my head into an adults-only floor, though it wasn’t exciting: cases of porn magazines, adult video games, and pillows printed with nude anime girls.

As I explored Akihabara and walked past the AKB48 cafe, I noticed a line forming. I stopped, took a few pictures, and waited to see what was going on. Unfortunately, it looked like the sort of thing geeks were standing in line for hours to attend, so after a while I wandered away. Good to know that stuff is true, too.

I also found Tokyo Anime Center. This is a small gallery devoted to showcasing art from various shows, and studios use it to promote upcoming shows. Hanging from the walls was art from Gundam Wing and the upcoming Gundam Gunpla series, plus a few Gundam models. Clips from various shows played on video monitors throughout the place. Nice, but maybe 10 minutes’ worth of material.

Next door was the Tokyo Anime Center shop, and this was actually more fun. It was stuffed with merchandise from all sorts of shows, modern and classic: Nadia, Totoro, Evangelion, Tiger & Bunny, etc.

By dinner time, I looked up at the station platform, and saw the the trains were packed. I started looking for dinner. After rejecting McDonald’s and KFC, I found a department store with lunch counters, where I bought an awesome little box containing half an egg sandwich, half a chicken salad sandwich, and…other things.

I took my meal to a small row of tables in the department store and sat down next to an older Japanese couple. It was here that I had my most uncomfortable experience so far. The woman kept staring at me. When I looked over at her, she’d look away, but as soon as I looked away she’d look back at me, slightly frowning the whole time. Maybe the frown was my imagination, but I felt judged the whole time.

The food tasted great, at least.

I headed back outside and up to the station, where it was now 5:30pm and the trains weren’t packed. Ueno was out of the question; my feet already complained. So I went back to my hotel, plugged in my laptop to charge, put my feet up, and prepared to rest for my next day: leaving Tokyo for northern Japan and the samurai town of Kakunodate.

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