Friday, September 12, 2014

Shinagawa, A Thousand Year Old Port

12 September 2014

Our flight from Seattle to Japan was long, but uneventful, which is always a good thing when flying.

We arrived in the late afternoon, did the normal immigration, customs, luggage collection, and figured out how to catch the train from Narita Airport to Tokyo, or more specifically Shinagawa (pronounced shih-na-GAH-wa, though I've also heard shih-NA-gah-wa).  In the middle of our hour-long train ride, it began raining, harder and harder, until the rain was streaming down the windows in sheets.  By the time we reached the Shinagawa Station the rain had stopped, but we later saw on the news that the rain continued in many areas and created flash floods!  I'm glad we managed to avoid that, we saw images of people walking through water up to their waist - not sure that would work with rolling luggage!

Anyway, our hotel is very nice, and we have a decent room though a bit small - but such is life in Japan, and especially in Tokyo, where real estate is at a premium.

Our hotel is part of the Shinagawa Seaside Forest.  Not that it's a forest, really.  More of a business park along one of the canals from the bay.  There are various businesses, a huge department store, all kinds of food stores and caf├ęs, a clinic, a pharmacy - and our hotel, with the lobby on the 16th floor.  We're not sure what is between the businesses and the hotel, since the businesses seem to stop at about the 4th floor.  Other businesses?  Professional suites?  Computer designers or programmers?  We have no idea, and haven't found a building directory.  We go in through the hotel entrance, and just go straight to the 16th floor.  It is a little strange.  But it makes it very easy to get around, as well as for meals.  Besides, how can you not like a complex with a flower clock?

So, our town - Shinagawa is the first post town on the ancient Tokaido road, and flourished as a port city for at least one thousand years.  It still is a major port, as you can see from all the shipping containers and cranes that are visible from the hotel windows.

Tokyo, the capital, is inland and much larger.  But Shinagawa has retained much of the small-town atmosphere as well as many temples and shrines, as well as being located by the bay.  We just missed a temple festival (it was last weekend), but there's a different festival with fire walking later on in the month - we'll see if we're around for that.  

Before I describe what we've been doing and what we've seen, I need to say something about the manhole covers.  As many of you know, I really like manhole covers - they tend to be ignored by most people, but many places have decorative manhole covers that are representative of the art, culture, history, heritage, or resources of a particular area.

So apparently some Japanese government official came up with the idea of having art competitions for manhole cover designs, in order to promote awareness of the necessity of drainage and sewer systems.  Or the taxes to pay for such systems.  Anyway, now it has become a hugely prestigious thing to have your design selected.  And towns vie to have the most decorative and beautiful manhole covers.  I'll get more information and share this - but I'm so excited and thrilled to be in a place that appreciates the art of manhole covers, and has worked to really create more and more artistic covers.  (And you know I'm going to run around collecting photos of all the various designs we see!)

I also liked the variations on a theme for the manholes in our area around the business park.  Same design but different sizes, or with color-coded dots in the center, presumably to indicate what kinds of pipes are running below the surface.  No idea, really, I'm just guessing.

Anyway, we've done some walking around, although between the rainy weather and our colds, we've spent more time inside than out.  But we're also planning our travels around Japan, so that always means computer time.

So, as part of the Shinagawa Seaside Forest, there are trees lining the streets, flowerbeds scattered around the business park, the flower clock, and a few "forests" that are more like little groves of trees.  It isn't exactly a forest, but there are at least some plants around.  I liked the trees with the camouflage-looking bark - no idea what they are, though the leaves are similar to maple leaves in shape.  But very weird bark!

There are also signs around that show the elevation of the land, as in 1.8 meters (under 6 feet) above sea level.  At first glance I thought it might be a tsunami warning sign, but it's an elevation sign.  However, given that we're so close to sea level, in a way this does let us know that we need to be aware of tsunamis, since we're so low in elevation.  Sort of a warning in a polite and obscure way.  

Of course, we have no clue what it says in Japanese - maybe it really is saying "tsunami warning - you are only 1.8 meters above sea level here."  We can only go by the English part of the sign.  

We're in our usual off-the-beaten-path kind of location; there are few people who speak much English in this area, even in our hotel.  And our Japanese is minimal - hello, thank you, excuse me, good night, and a few food items.  That's about it.  Which of course makes things more interesting, and more authentic.  But it also sometimes makes it more difficult to figure out what is going on.  

So.  On to food.  Always interesting to see the foods of other parts of the world.  We've found the supermarket is one of the best spots for food - there's a tempura bar, where you pay per item, and can choose various fish and vegs, as well as giant prawns, all nicely battered and fried.  There's also a katsu bar, the panko-crusted and fried items.  Sushi is a popular, and this is only a fraction of the kinds of sushi available.  Also sashimi, though I'm not sure if all the lovely freshly sliced fish is for sashimi or if some of it will be cooked.  But it all is sliced and arranged in little trays, with various garnishes.  Because you wouldn't want to make an ugly display.  Or have the meat or fish just plopped into a boring green tray, the way we do in the US.  Each tray is a little decorative styrofoam tray, because pretty is important in Japanese culture.  This is the country where a garden might be a lawn of raked gravel with a few specially selected stones.  There's a different esthetic here, and everything is part of that esthetic.  So you have grocery items served on decorative styrofoam trays.

And gorgeous fruit - I couldn't believe the size of these grapes, they were bigger than cherry tomatoes, almost the size of small eggs!!  HUGE grapes!

Okay, when most people think of Japan, they think kimonos.  Yes, the kimono is the national dress of Japan.  Not that you often see women wearing kimonos on the street.  Kimonos are reserved for special occasions.  Weddings, festivals, special holidays - that's when women wear kimonos.  There are special kimonos for men, but they aren't as decorated or colorful as the kimonos for women.

The department store here at our complex has a huge selection of kimonos, all on display.  It wasn't clear if these are to be bought or rented - there was a sign mostly in Japanese, but "rental" was in there too, so I'm not sure if one could rent a kimono for a special occasion.  

In the information about the festival last week, the brochure indicated that the first night includes a parade of women dressed in beautiful kimonos.  So that might be why there was this gorgeous display in the store, with items to be rented. 

Most of the kimonos were folded, but several were displayed on special racks, with suggested obis nearby.  There is an entire series of considerations  when a woman chooses a kimono, obi (sash), and the braided cord to hold the obi - her age, the season of the year, the occasion, her complexion, her personality, her body size and type, whether she wants the obi to contrast or match the kimono colors, on and on.  It really is very complicated.

But the construction of the kimono itself is very simple - the fabric is in a long roll, always of the same width, and each part of the kimono is simply a length of fabric cut from the roll.  The front and back are constructed from two panels, side by side.  Each sleeve is a panel folded over, sewn on the bottom, then sewn to the shoulder of the garment.  The neck is a folded over piece of fabric sewn in place.  The only measuring is for length.  (It's almost like origami in fabric.)  And there is no closure - the obi and cord hold the kimono closed.

Anyway, we'll continue to explore Tokyo, plan our tour around Japan, and try to see and learn as much as we can in our time here.

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