Day 3 – The Ghibli Experience

One thing that struck me today is just what it’s like moving around in a city that houses as many people as all of Australia. Rush hour trains are full to bursting, the roads are thick with cars, and there’s still enough people left over for umpteen thousand people to get around by bicycle. We can expect to be passed by at least five bicycles per block while walking down the street, some of them at extremely close range. There are bicycle storage places – sort of like car parks, but with bicycles – big enough to hold literally hundreds of bicycles. There’s one just across the road from our hotel, in the space underneath a building. I really should take a photo of it… or check if I already have. Walking down the street involves keeping to one side of the often-narrow footpath, or learning to dodge quickly. Some residential streets don’t even have footpaths, just painted lines fencing off the sides of the one-lane (and usually two-way) streets.

Today we visited the Ghibli museum in Mitaka and the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art in Kiba. Breakfast had some slight variations from yesterday, though still on the same theme – James had a rice ball with what I think was an umeboshi (pickled plum), but it fell out and rolled across the floor before he could taste it. We caught the first trains today since our not-quite-successful trip on Saturday, and it all went off without a hitch, barring some confusion as to whether it’d be better to take the Express or the Special Express (the answer is the latter, but we didn’t reach that conclusion until it had gone). Getting to the JR Machida station involves crossing the railway lines just outside of the private-line Machida station. I’m getting the hang of walking across level crossings on a regular basis to get around in Tokyo, but today we managed to arrive just in time to have to wait for three trains – one pulling into the station, one pulling out of the station, and one that was waiting for the first two to get out of the way. Eventually the boom gates rose, and we headed across.

Today our Rail Passes were usable for the first time – entry to the station was as simple as showing the pass to the attendant on the extra-wide wheelchair/pram gate, and exiting was the same. It’s extremely simple, and gives us unlimited travel on almost all JR trains for two weeks. Confusing matters slightly, though, Tokyo alone has about five or six rail companies, and the rail pass only lets us use JR trains.

It surprised me how many of the stations on the way to Mitaka were adjacent to thickly wooded areas and mountains – I even spotted a shrine gate at the bottom of one of them. I very much wanted to hop off at every station and just take in the scenery, but we were trying to get to the Ghibli museum by 10, as we’d been informed they only let people in every two hours – at 10, 12 and 2. Occasionally even more interesting than the scenery are the people. Women in yukata, girls in sailor fuku and other types school uniforms, elementary school boys playing jan-ken-pon (paper scissors rock) to see who gets the last free seat – I even saw one man in black robes and a straw hat. Thing is, taking photos of people isn’t quite the same as taking photos of scenery, so I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

The Ghibli Museum is about 1.4km from Mitaka station, down this extremely serene street bisected lengthways down the middle by a canal, with trees growing thickly all around. Trouble was, all the trees were quite lovely, but made it tricky to actually photograph the canal. We reached the museum eventually, seeing foreigners all over the place – and the building itself was simply spectactular. The motto of the museum is “let’s get lost together” and the layout of it reflected that. It was kind of like Hogwarts – stairs and walkways all over the place. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside, but I took lots of them outside. Adding photos inline to blog posts takes me too long, but I will at least upload some to the photos section before too long.

The inside had a room filled with zoëtropes and similar devices, even a huge three-dimensional one featuring characters from Totoro dancing and playing around. The central core was three storeys tall, and had a huge propeller-fan from Laputa spinning at the top. The lower-floor had a cinema showing a short film – the particular film that’s shown changes every month or so, and the one we saw was A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail, about an old man and his wife helping the mouse in their house to win a sumo competition against other mice. Other rooms had mock-ups of Hayao Miyazaki’s office and animators’ work rooms, a catbus that kids could play around on, and the roof had a robot soldier from Laputa, as well as a huge brick from the Laputa castle itself.

Lunch was a hot dog (such traditional Japanese fare… but the main cafe was quite crowded), and I bought a museum guidebook to make up for not being able to take photos. Then we headed off to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the Karigurashi no Arrietty exhibit (as I said yesterday, the new Ghibli movie based on The Borrowers – the name basically means “Arietty of the Borrowers”). We caught the train from Mitaka into Tokyo station (Super Express this time, yay) and a bus to the museum, using our Suica cards for the first time – ironically, we bought them for yesterday, when we didn’t use the trains at all. These days the Suica cards can be used on practically everything  – they’re pre-charged with some amount of money, then you can use them by simply passing your wallet (containing the card) over the Suica reader. You can use them on other train lines, buses, train station lockers, vending machines, photo booths, even internet shopping with the aid of a specially-outfitted laptop. Anyway, the bus cost 200 yen regardless of how far we were travelling.

Travelling through Tokyo proper was something altogether different from areas like Machida or Mitaka. Skyscrapers were everywhere, but they’d be interspersed by canals and rivers. Elevated train lines and roadways ran everywhere. Tokyo station has two levels of elevated rail lines, and even some underground. Many elevated roads also have two levels, and at one point, the bus we were on passed under an overpass and over an underpass at the same time. Once at the museum – the building itself was practically a work of modern art – we bought tickets for the exhibit and headed in. To say it was spectacular would be understating things. They’d actually built a huge human-sized version of the Borrower’s home under the floors, with drain gratings big enough to walk through, nails half a meter long, and a bottle of vodka three metres tall. It was so much fun walking through the rooms, crouching to fit into tunnels and trying to figure out what everything was supposed to be. I spent the whole time going “now THIS is contemporary art. Not that whole nails-in-a-plank-of-wood “art” we get in the Sydney MOMA.

Downstairs had floor plans of the exhibit upstairs and drawings from the movie. It also had other works by the same set designer – he also did set design on movies like Kill Bill and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence –  but I was less enthused by that. The special-exhibit entry also gave us free entry for the permanent exhibit, which was also quite impressive – two rooms had some incredibly well-done video-based art.

Once we were done in the museum, we headed over to the adjacent Kiba Park for a wander – it was huge, and full of people running, or riding bikes, or playing basketball, or walking their dogs. The middle of the park had this huge suspension bridge that passed over two roads and a canal – I’ll be including photos of that. The park also had markers set into the ground for a run 3.5km long all the way around the park, crossing the bridge twice. All I could think is that my PE teachers would have loved that. Them and their golf-course run, pssh.

We caught the bus back to Tokyo station and had dinner at a katsu-don (battered pork and rice, basically) place, which was pretty tasty. James had way too much fun with the assorted sauces and condiments he could add. I kinda thought the miso soup tasted a bit different – and was surprised to discover (when I’d emptied the bowl) that about five or six little clams were sitting in the bottom. Not the nori flakes I was expecting. We reserved seats on a shinkansen to get back to Shin-Yokohama (where we’d catch the train to Machida) in order to test how reserving seats actually worked. The attendant didn’t speak English, but with the help of my phrasebook we managed to get enough information across in order to reserve tickets.

What we didn’t realise was that the tickets he gave us weren’t for gaining entry to the platform – since we got the tickets with our JR passes, we still needed to use the JR passes to get in – but simply for designating which seats we’d reserved. I walk pretty fast, and by the time I’d grabbed the ticket out of the machine, I was already moving fast enough that I simply pushed straight through the security gates that abruptly closed to bar my passage before I realised they were there. Whoops. We showed our tickets to the attendant and all was made right. The shinkansen was pretty comfy – though this was a slightly slower and older Kodama-type shinkansen, and travelling inside Tokyo, it was still comfy, smooth and pretty fast. I went for a wander, and discovered the smokers’ car so thick with smoke it was difficult to see the other end. I’ve no idea why they didn’t just save on a cigarette and just breathe the air for their fix.

We arrived back at Machida without a hitch – a big difference from our first day, now that we know what’s going on – and wound up stuck at the level crossing waiting for another three trains to pass. Hah.

Tomorrow is Mount Fuji. We’re a shade concerned because we’ve still not been able to book a mountain hut to stay in, but we’ve basically decided to head up there and hope.

Today’s photo count: two hundred and eighty-three. Not bad, considering I couldn’t take photos inside either of the places we visited.

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