Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An American Lolita in Tokyo: Monstrously Huge Trip Overview

Woo, sorry for that little unannounced hiatus! I was getting my shit back together here at home after returning from my trip and being a panelist at International Lolita Day in NYC (welcome, to anyone who's started following me from there!) This monstrously huge article is the uber-overview of my trip to Japan, a detailed write-up of everything I felt was worth talking about (things I wish I had known before I left or that I think will be helpful to anyone planning their own trip). I'll start with the itinerary, what we did and when, before going on to general information and impressions. The next post will be all of my outfit shots from my trip, and then the final post will be a follow-up Q&A based on questions or comments I receive on the first two posts- so if you have anything to say, say it here!

(note: Any discussion of money in this post will use yen as its currency. In order to keep from confusing ourselves during the trip, Stefan and I referred to our money in yen, instead of converting everything in our minds, so that's how I've continued to think of it. Plus, that way this information is more accessible to people besides Americans! An easy way to mentally convert yen to USD is to move the decimal point over, or remove the last two digits; this isn't exact anymore, and I wouldn't plan your trip around it, but for the intents and purposes of reading this article it'll help anyone who's confused. Alternatively, use a converter, such as www.xe.com.)

Itinerary:
Day One was spent in transit. We landed in Tokyo at 2 PM, and didn't reach our hotel in Hakone until about 9 PM due to navigating the public transportation system, fighting with our luggage, and getting some technical details about our return flight sorted out. We promptly fell asleep as soon as we were in the room, which is awesome, because it meant we had almost completely conquered jet lag and gotten ourselves into a healthier sleep schedule than we have even here.

Day Two was spent around Hakone. Hakone is an absolutely lovely area, full of natural beauty that I don't think I've ever seen rivaled anywhere else in the world. It's a smaller city, much more rural than Tokyo, which I chose kind of arbitrarily based on what I read about it at Japan Guide (a really indispensable resource, in my opinion.) We walked around the area our hotel was in (Hakone-Yumoto), which had a beautiful river and a quaint downtown area.

Day Three to Ten we were in Tokyo. We took the bullet train up to Tokyo then the subway to Ikebukuro to get to our ryokan, which was a really great place to stay. My brother had recommended it because all of the staff spoke English really well, as well as Japanese and often other languages too. The room was, as I had expected, tiny, but it was also cheap and served our purpose; all we had to do was sleep and keep stuff there.

In Tokyo, we went to Ochanomizu, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro (obvi, we were living there!), Akihabara, and, of course, Harajuku, with a few really short sojourns elsewhere (Nippori and Shibuya, I think). Surprisingly, the district that we went to most often was Akihabara, also called Electric Town, once the hub of Japanese geekery and "otaku" culture and now a slightly watered-down tourist attraction, but still pretty awesome. We also spent a lot of time in Ochanomizu, which is apparently considered the guitar mecca of the world, where I translated the purchase of Stefan's new ESP Horizon III guitar and totally leveled up my Japanese language skill set (funniest thing ever! I'll have to tell you guys about it sometime- the employees totally thought we were just stupid tourists until Stefan broke out the fat stack of bills he'd be paying for the guitar with). Our next-most-frequented was Harajuku. I think we went twice: once to scope it out, see what was in which shops, and again to pick up items my friends requested as souvenirs.

Details:
Money: Good lord did I spend too much. I didn't go much over the budget I set for myself, but I ended up having an extra $400 saved up of spending money, and I charged about $100 extra onto my credit card. About $150 or so of that were requests from friends, which I am now collecting back, so some of it went to that, too. As far as food costs, I'd say my original estimate was about accurate. Some days we went out for a nicer lunch or dinner, but we still rarely went over the estimates of 1000 yen for lunch and 1500 yen for dinner. Breakfast we could have done cheaply, but we usually spent a bit more than our allowance of 500 yen (our most expensive breakfast was 800 yen or so each because we went to a cafe). Our favorite spots for food were noodle or curry shops (be warned, ladies- you'll probably be the only women eating here) and convenience stores, at both of which we could easily get a full meal for under 1000 yen. In fact, let me just tell you about the amazingness of Japanese 7-11. The back wall of all the konbini (short for "convenience store") we went to were lined with refrigerated cases of freshly-made meals- everything from sushi and riceballs to beef curry and salads. An illustration:

My lunch our first day: cold soba noodles and green apple juice, about 400-500 yen:

 Shopping: My favorite place to shop was, of course, Harajuku. It's not exactly the mecca it used to be when Gwen Stefani brought it into Western eyes, since many alternative fashion brands have branched out (take the Marui Young building in Shinjuku, the biggest alternative-fashion-only mall I saw there), but it's still just so much fun to clomp up and down Takeshita-Douri, if for no other reason than to be a huge tourist. You can also trek up to Meiji Jingu, which is a beautiful shrine nearby. As far as Harajuku's must-sees: For lolitas, I'd say you absolutely have to go to La Foret and Closet Child. I did a panel on lolita in Japan the day after I got home, and I really should have retitled it "An Ode to Closet Child" for all the waxing poetic I did. I bought a velvet BABY dress, a navy plaid BABY blazer, and a light blue Angelic Pretty summer cutsew for a total of 16,000 yen, which I could have easily paid for the dress alone- and am pretty sure I almost did a few months ago. On my first excursion to Harajuku (the only one in which I bought things for myself), I spent around 30,000 yen and bought this:

Red velvet BABY OP (Closet Child)
Blue plaid BABY blazer (Closet Child)
Brown Bodyline bolero (BL)
Red Bodyline perfume bottles skirt (BL ~ ended up selling this to a friend because it's a bit snug)
White and blue bow socks (BL)
Three pairs of socks from tutu*anna
Lavender Sugar Pansy socks (Angelic Pretty Laforet)
Brown Angelic Pretty pochette (AP Laforet ~ Birthday present from Stefan)
Blue Angelic Pretty summer cutsew (Closet Child)
Brown floral maxi dress (Momo by Wonder Rocket)

 Another ridiculously fun place to shop was Yodobashi Kamera in Akihabara. Akihabara is kind of the electronics and geekery district, and Yodobashi is a mall that takes everything that genre encompasses and crams them into one huge, eight-floor mall. We made the mistake of visiting on a Saturday (completely by accident- our internal clocks were still suffering jetlag, so we thought it was Friday) - absolutely DO NOT do this! It was awful. There were so many people that we couldn't do any actual shopping and basically just spent the whole time fighting off anxiety attacks, haha. The lines were long, there were lots of people and loud kids running around, and it was just not a pleasant experience. Stefan went back a few days later and said it was much better. It was also in Akihabara that we visited Don Quixote, which I think is like a duty free chain store that just sells all sorts of random stuff- everything from international foods to make-up to otaku/geeky things. It reminded me of a Christmas Tree Shop on cocaine, for anyone familiar with that company. However, it was the only place in Japan where I found prescription-free circle lenses, and their Dolly Wink lashes were cheaper than at Yodobashi, along with an impressive spread of Japanese makeup brands like Kate. They have multiple locations around Tokyo, too, not just in Akihabara. 

Lodging: In Hakone, we had a beautiful, spacious tatami room. It had a table in the middle which we pushed off to the side at night so we could roll out our futons, which we then folded up and stored in the closet every morning. This is a very traditional Japanese-style room that is available in many hotels and is often cheaper than the Western-style rooms. This room cost (I think) 9000yen per person per night; that price included both breakfast and dinner but excluded internet (WiFi doesn't seem to be super common in Japan). Here's our room in Hakone...
(yeah, also, that's the Japanese definition of a "spacious" hotel room, haha!)

The dinner was "teishoku" style: they set out for us a multiple-course meal of traditional Japanese food (mostly different preparations of seafood and meat with soup, rice, salad, and stewed vegetables, served with iced oolong tea). The first night we got there, like I said above, it was around 9 PM. We had landed in Narita at 2 PM and had been traveling through Japan for seven hours (due almost entirely to our own stupidity and the pressing need to run around like headless chickens), and this was after the 15 hour flight which was after the 5 hour flight. We had been in transit for well over 24 hours, and so when we got to the hotel we weren't interested in doing anything but sleeping. When they asked if we were ready for our meal, I made it look like we were really hungry and said "Yes, please!" only to recoil in horror when I saw that they had laid out four tables of food for us. Get ready, this is the most disgusting you will ever see me look:

And this was after putting a dent in it. It was also then that I realized that... I don't really like traditional Japanese cuisine very much! This was an awful time to realize this, when I was forcing myself to eat as much of it as possible in fear of insulting our hosts, and it's possible that I barely fought off a total breakdown from stress XD;


Anyway. The point is to contrast this hotel room with the room in Tokyo, which was:
So small I couldn't even get a picture of the entire thing! As you can see, it was big enough for our suitcases and our futons, and that's basically it. Mainland Japan is a pretty cramped place anyway, where people rarely even have backyards, but in Tokyo space is a premium and as a rule you will get much, much less than you'd pay the same amount for in other places (even within Japan; when I went in high school, my hotel room in Kyoto was about the size of a standard American hotel room). We didn't have a closet in Tokyo, and the one in Hakone was tiny and more of a coat-closet than anything else.

However, the ryokan catered to foreigners, so there were plenty of people for us to chat with in the lounge as well as a staff that spoke perfect English to assist us. It was inexpensive (around 6500 yen for two people per night), and they had a kitchen for us to use as well as a pretty big flat screen to watch TV on (there was also free wifi in the lounge; there were technicians there our last few days wiring the rest of the hotel, too, so they may have expanded that by now). We met a wonderful couple from Adelaide, Australia, who said that if I'd like to take a weekend there when I study abroad in Melbourne to shoot them an e-mail. So sweet!


Speaking of speaking English, how did we do with the language barrier? I noted that almost all of the signs in Tokyo were in English as well as Japanese (and Korean and Chinese, in a few places!), so it is totally possible to get around without speaking a word of Japanese. That being said, I cannot recommend it less. If you can, you should take a few practical Japanese classes and learn the writing system, at least hiragana, katakana, and a few simple kanji; at least enough to read some signs and ask for directions, because the information on the signs is not always translated perfectly. However, all of this is only if you are staying within Tokyo or maybe another large city, and even then only in the touristy areas of the city. The further you get to the coutryside, the fewer signs there are in English, so be wary of that when you're planning your trip.

This paragraph is probably time-sensitive for the next few months, but I feel like a few words devoted to the tragedy in Sendai are needed. Our trip at the end of May was completely uncompromised by the effects of March's tsunami and earthquake. I can't speak for anywhere besides Hakone and Tokyo, but there was no damage, no food shortages, not even that much inconvenience that we faced. The only things I noticed were: due to power shortages, the city wasn't as bright as usual, in that there were fewer street lights and neon signs lit up; for the same reason, many escalators were down; and there were fewer other tourists (or at least, there were fewer non-Asian people around. I know that sounds kind of racist, but there are very few white or black people in normal times, and that number was only a tiny fraction of what it usually is). In that same vein, I noticed something really surprising: I actually got less attention walking around in lolita than I did walking around in normal clothes. The only thing I can think of it that they assumed a white person wearing Japanese fashion is more likely to be a permanent resident, and they really had no idea why anyone would come to Japan right now for tourism (the latter half of which I was actually told, basically point-blank, by a businessman I was chatting with).

But what about lolitas in Japan? I didn't have many run-ins with Japanese lolitas; the ones I did speak to were very polite, but not terribly friendly. It wasn't like in America, where I feel like our interest in this strange, obscure fashion lends itself to a nature comradery and makes us more likely to want to be friendly with other lolitas than we probably would be with normal people (in public, at least). This could also just be a difference between Japanese people in general compared with American people in general, as in Japan friendships are seen as a much more serious relationship than I was raised to think of them as (I'd love to hear how non-American Western lolitas feel about this, especially those with experience with Japanese lolitas!) As far as Western lolitas in Japan, I used the lolitasinjapan livejournal community and arranged a meeting with three different girls, all of whom were incredibly sweet and not at all internet stalkers, so I really recommend it for anyone who wants to get together with shopping buddies. It was really awesome having someone to show Stefan and I around the areas I was unfamiliar with.

I guess I can't really think of anything else to say... I feel like there's so much more I should be talking about, but I just can't think of it! So, thank you all for waiting while I took my much-needed break, and again, please let me know in the comments section what you'd like to hear more about and I'll do my best to answer all of your questions!

(part of the Lolita on Location series)

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