Baxley: The Sanja Matsuri Festival

Today was one of the most celebratory religious festivals of the year in Japan, the Sanja Matsuri festival (literally meaning “Three Shrine Festival”). It involves parading around the district of Asakusa with three mikoshi (portable shrines) representative of the three founders of the great Senso-ji Buddhist temple, and performers playing flutes, whistles, and taiko drums.

By Hunter Baxley Brave New World

By Hunter Baxley
Brave New World

Due to its importance in Japanese culture and worldwide popularity, hundreds of thousands of people were flooding the streets, which made navigation difficult as the day went on. Through the course of the morning, we had many snacks such as bananas on a stick to curb our hunger pains. Based on my observations, it seems that matcha (green tea) is as commonplace as flavors such as vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate.

As a keepsake, I was able to purchase a Japanese print on canvas-like material. However, as lunchtime approached, our group found it difficult to eat as lines extended outside stores. As a result, we unfortunately left the festival at around 1 p.m. and headed back to Shinjuku, our hotel’s district. We searched for a place to eat in the Odaikyo department store, a 13-floor building where prices for food became steeper the higher you went up. We eventually found a restaurant with reasonable prices and tried grated yam for the first time, which a few of us, including myself, made the impulsive decision to add to our white rice, which gave it the texture of grits and the taste of goop!

Several hours later, we went to Shibuya to have a full-group meal of Korean BBQ where many of us revealed that we were beginning to run out of steam and that tensions were running high due to the frustrations of using the metro system and the fatigue of walking to many different places.

Odaiba Island: Design Festa

Today, we visited the man-made Odaiba Island for the Design Festa, an annual festival that showcases the works and talents of many artists, designers, dancers and musicians.

There were several exhibits within the convention center featuring drawings, crafts, paintings (including ones that were being painted in front of you), photographs, and even animations. The works that stood out for me the most were blue monochromatic paintings dealing with nature, a Marilyn Monroe sketch as a succubus-like monster, traditional Japanese prints, and idyllic-fantasy drawings of different towns.

Overall, Japanese artistry is surprisingly full of the unexpected and the unpredictable, of suddenness and incongruous space, and of a mixture of the erotic, the sensual and the ordinary. However, it is worth noting that many of the dances were highly Americanized and mostly hip-hop, but still just as entertaining and artistic.

By around 2:30 p.m., all of us in the group were ready to observe the rest of the island, primarily focusing on finding the Gundam statue, which is arguably the islands most recognizable feature. Getting there was a journey, though, but there were several other features that made the walk more bearable, such as a chapel where a wedding was taking place, a luscious nature walk, and a colorful park appropriately named “Palette Town” with a Ferris wheel that appeared to be at least 100-meters tall.

By the time we made it to the statue, some of us humorously debated whether or not the end justified the means. On a more personal note, I was finally able to try onigiri (rice balls) for the first time! I am unsure as to what kind it was, but it seemed to have curry powder in the middle. Getting back to Shinjuku was an unexpected adventure, as while we boarded the correct shuttle, we boarded at a time in which it was going in the opposite direction! Fortunately, it eventually went in the right direction and safely arrived in Shinjuku, where our hotel shuttle bus conveniently arrived with virtually no wait.

Ueno Park Escapade

Today marked a rite of passage in our study abroad journey in that it was our first morning without Yumi-san, our tour guide, to direct us to the right locations, particularly pertaining to the metro stations.

But before we even arrived to the station, we were faced with a problem this morning that caused more worry than frustration. In all, there were nine of us who had agreed to meet in the lobby of the New City Hotel to leave for the Ueno Park Zoo, and most of us were prompt in coming down in time; however, a certain student was seen and left the hotel at roughly 9:30 a.m. to withdraw from the ATM and was nowhere to be found or heard from after 45 minutes.

Naturally, we began searching for the student by visiting the ATM and the stores surrounding the area (for the record, we as a group were not mad and were only concerned for the student’s well-being). After 15 minutes of searching, we assumed that the student had decided to go somewhere else and simply could not contact us. Either way, we missed the last morning shuttle and had to walk to the metro station, and since Yumi-san was courteous enough to show us the route from the hotel, we found the metro station with no trouble.

After a dozen stops, we arrived at Ueno Park, which is known for its many museums and even a few schools in addition to its zoological park. To be honest, the National Museum for Western Art was tantalizing as it had rare Leonardo da Vinci paintings that would only be in the museum until the end of May.

Unfortunately, since several of the students in the group had agreed to leave from the hotel at 4:30 for a baseball game, we had little time for diversions. Again, due to time constraints, we were only able to view half of the zoo before we had leave to ready for departure to the baseball game.

Shibuya-Harajuku

Today was relatively light in in terms of scheduled events, but very educational as we learned how to utilize the metro system in Tokyo. After a series of stops and occasional loss of balance, we arrived in the Harajuku district, lauded for its high-fashion stores.

Unfortunately, I did not get a good feel of the Japanese culture here as most of the stores were homogenized, international stores that seemed to worship the dollar. The closest thing I had to experiencing Japanese culture in Harajuku was when I ate rolled crepes — and that’s French cuisine! Nevertheless, I still enjoyed my stay in Harajuku and even stumbled across a few of the more ethnic fashion outlets.

Later, we visited the Shibuya district, its most distinguishing feature being the large crosswalk. First, I looked around an electronics store with listening stations for certain on-the-rise J-Pop artists and groups. I also viewed a comic store below and found Attack on Titan manga (including a volume with my favorite character on the cover not yet released in America) at a price that was less than half the cost in the U.S. Of course, it was completely in Japanese, so the only justification in buying some would have been as souvenirs, which I can simply wait when I’m home to worry about purchasing them.

Later, we stumbled upon a quirky hat store with a winding staircase, a compact pet store, yet another arcade center where I exercised a bit more self-restraint, and a nice noodle shop with an ordering vending machine outside the store.

It was neat to order from outside, give one of the waiters the ticket, and be able to leave once we were through (as we had already paid for the ticket). To conclude the planned portion of the day, all of us opted to go back to the hotel to rest. With our uncanny intuition and great sense of direction (with help from Yumi-san, our tour guide), we discovered the route to walking from the metro station back to the hotel, which is important to know now that we will have much more autonomy for the rest of the trip.

Leaving for Tokyo

Words cannot describe how excited I am to be finally leaving for the trip of a lifetime (except for the words I am writing now). It has been a long and grueling semester (23 credit hours including performing ensembles that I opted not to include on paper), and even though there is a writing component to the trip (this blog), it will most likely feel like an educational vacation.

If I could list the top events I’m most excited about, it would be the free time at the Design Festa, the walking tour of Akihabara, and the Wadaiko drumming lesson (as it pertains to my major). I am unfortunately a bit disappointed that we will be unable to make the Ghibli Museum, as I have always been a fan of his movies growing up.

However, I do plan to make a musical purchase of a marimba duet arrangement of three Studio Ghibli themes: Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. I plan to present it in a recital anyway to highlight my Japanese travels.

I am probably most worried about coming off as offensive or insensitive to Japanese social cues, as I use hand gestures to accentuate what I am saying and also tend to have a full-bellied, mouth agape laugh (things I’ll have to watch out for while I’m there).

I also have a slight tendency of being separated from groups whenever traveling, so I’ll have to be extra careful since we’ll be in Tokyo of all places.

Hunter Baxley, of Rockingham, is a rising senior at UNC-Pembroke, where he is studying music education and has been awarded the 2015 Presser Foundation Scholarship. His two-week trip to Japan that began May 11 is the conclusion of a class at UNC-P on Japanese culture.

Filed in: Arts & Entertainment, Latest Headlines, Opinion

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