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Rising Monkey 2012 Part 1: East Tokyo

Tokyo skyline, plus its latest addition, as seen from the restaurant at Dai-Ichi RyogokuMay 18-21

"Meanwhile, The BBG is already drawing up lists of places she wants to visit in 2012. How could I possibly argue with that?" - Rising Monkey 2010g, posted 31st May 2010

And as predicted, here we are. Or, more accurately, there we were. What with one thing and another - mainly an unpredictable work schedule, plus the usual chaos of the London Film Festival - it's taken nearly seven months to assemble this writeup of our 2012 trip to Japan. But finally, here it is.

Over the course of four posts (not counting the other two you may have already read) you'll hear about what The Belated Birthday Girl and I got up to in late May and early June of this year. As you'll see, Tokyo plays a large part in our adventures, but it wasn't the only part of the country we visited.

Our journey starts in a fairly roundabout fashion this time, flying from London to Tokyo via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. I've always enjoyed Cathay's huge selection of on-demand entertainment, but I'm too knackered during the London-HK leg to watch much of it at all. On the shorter hop to Tokyo, I stay awake long enough to catch one of the Chinese films they were advertising during my Shenzhen visit last year, Tsui Hark's Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate. Here's how late this article has been: in the seven months that have elapsed since I saw Flying Swords on the back of a plane seat, I’ve attended a UK press screening of the film in proper 3D, and written about it for Europe’s Best Website. So I won’t bother reviewing it again here.

Once we're on the ground at Haneda - a new experience for both of us, as Tokyo's 'other airport' used to be for domestic flights only until a couple of years ago - then it's a monorail and a couple of trains (planned as ever using the new and improved Hyperdia) to our first hotel, the Dai-Ichi Ryogoku. A plush Western-style joint, its main attraction at this particular point in time is that it offers rooms overlooking the Tokyo Sky Tree, the new 634m TV tower scheduled to open just three days after our arrival in town. In fact, its opening was one of the reasons why we'd chosen to be in Tokyo during late May.

I hope you're not expecting a writeup of what it's like to go up Tokyo Sky Tree, because you're not going to get one, at least not this year. We knew all along that tickets for the opening week were going to be tough to get hold of - they were only allocated by a ballot, which attracted 700 times more applicants than tickets available. But as foreign tourists, we weren't even allowed to take part in the ballot, which was only open to owners of Japanese credit cards. For some weeks after finding that out, every time I saw the happy smiling face of Sky Tree mascot Sorakara-chan, I had an irresistible urge to give her a good slap.

But thankfully, the Sky Tree opening isn't the only reason we're in Tokyo. Aside from the rather fine view of it we get  from our bedroom, our hotel is also conveniently positioned for the Ryogoku Kokugican, Tokyo's grand sumo arena. We've watched the sumo live in Japan before - once in Fukuoka, more recently at the Kokugican - and we keep relatively up-to-date with the results back home, thanks to Goo Sumo's terrific online coverage. But this weekend, we have a chance to catch something we've only previously watched on an internet stream: the final day of a 15 day tournament.

Tickets for many popular events in Japan are difficult to get hold of if you don't live there: for example, a Tokyo Jihen gig two years ago, or Sky Tree admission now. So it's nice to be able to report a rare example of the process being made a lot easier. does exactly what it says on the URL - it allows you to order tickets for any sumo match, via an English language website run by Jeff, a gaijin now living in Tokyo. Send him the cash in advance through Paypal, and he'll make your reservation for you on the day booking opens. Tickets for the May 2012 final went on sale on a Saturday in April: by Wednesday of that same week, they'd arrived in London via express post. It's a terrific service, which gains much from the personal touch: Jeff even meets us in the seats on the day, to check that everything is OK. (Good thing too, as a couple of young scamps have left their junk on our seats to try and nick them, but he soon sends them packing.)

Your ticket entitles you to a full day of sumo: from the 8am start when the youngsters get their first airing, to when the big boys have finished their championship games around 6pm. We decide to roll up around noon, pick up supplies (a couple of bento lunches and a CD single we've been promising ourselves for ages), and settle in for the arrival of the juryo class wrestlers around 2pm. The juryo is sumo's second division, and it's interesting to note how several years of intermittent sumo watching has changed our attitude to them. Up until recently, we'd always thought of it as consisting of wrestlers who were on their way up, who could eventually be promoted to join the premier league makuuchi who fight in the 4-6pm primetime slot. But it cuts both ways: it's also the home of wrestlers who used to be makuuchi, but were demoted for not being good enough. Suddenly I realise the appeal of this part of the day – it’s where you can see former favourites like Takamisakari, who are still wildly popular with the crowd despite not being in the top flight any more.

But it’s the makuuchi that people have really come for. Obviously, when we booked for this final a couple of months in advance, we had no idea what state the tournament would be in by its final day - on several recent occasions, the champion has been in an unbeatable position long before day 15, killing all the suspense. But it's quite the opposite today. With all the major players out of the running due to injuries and poor form, three rikishi on 12 wins, and three more on 11 wins at the start of the day, there was the outside possibility that we could end up with a six-way tie for the final result, one that had to be resolved before we went home that night.

In the end, it isn’t quite the pileup that it could have been. The six contenders are gradually whittled down one by one: the most spectacular upset is the defeat of Kisenosato, soundly beaten by Baruto in an uncharacteristically aggressive fashion. We end up with a single playoff match to decide the champion: two lower-ranking rikishi, Kyokutenho and Tochiozan, both there simply because they’d steadily racked up the wins and never had to play against any of the top-flight wrestlers. This is what we’ve paid to see – two weeks of sumo hanging on the outcome of a single fight.

After all the buildup, the explosive few seconds of actual combat results in the 37-year-old Kyokutenho (positively ancient in this sport) taking the trophy, to the delight of the crowd. And, as hinted some time earlier, we get to sing along with the Japanese national anthem during the trophy presentation ceremony. (See video above, noting that the guy who's horrendously out of tune all the way through it is not me.) Still, everyone acknowledges that this is a fluke result, and history would go on to prove that: Kyokutenho was bumped up the rankings after his win, only to suffer an ignominious 2-13 defeat in his next tournament.

Baruto bento boxOh, sure, it would have been much more fun if there'd been a six-way tie at the end, and we'd had to watch them all fight each other to decide an ultimate winner. But that would have taken ages, and by 6pm we're already pretty hungry. The souvenir bento boxes (choose the one with your favourite sumo wrestler on the front!) are all well and good, but we're ready for a proper sit-down meal by the end of the presentation ceremony, and we've arranged to meet The BBG’s pals Miki and Taeko for dinner. So, as ever, here she is in the first of her foodie reports for Japan 2012.

There are lots of places to eat in the evening around Ryogoku, particularly useful for getting dinner after an evening watching the Sumo. Given the proximity to the Kokugikan, chanko nabe is popular, and last time we were here, that's what we had, but there are other options. Our friends' first choice turned out to be closed for a private party - probably related to the final night of the Sumo - but they quickly settled on an alternative.

Tsukiji Nihonkai was more izakaya-like, serving a wide variety of dishes and drinks. The only downside of being taken there by Japanese friends was we never got to see an itemised bill, so I can't actually tell you what we had in any detail, nor how much it cost. But the food was delicious and the upside of having locals choose for us meant we had dishes we would otherwise not have tried. There were definitely interesting uses of such ingredients as natto, wasabi and mountain yam, and unusual parts of a chicken (that one was definitely for Spank, not me!), as well as good examples of more standard dishes such as grilled fish. The atmosphere was also lovely. Definitely another good find by our friends.

(In case you're interested, the chicken dish was coricori, so-called because it has chewable bones, and that's apparently the noise they make when you bite them.)

After several beers and lots of nice food on Sunday night, you’d think that would be an excuse for a bit of a lie-in on Monday morning. Wrong. Because the sumo final described above is merely the first of a perfect storm of Tokyo events which fixed May 20-27 as the week when we had to come. And we have to set the alarm for 6am so we can see the eclipse.

Not a total eclipse like the one we saw in Shanghai in 2009, of course. There's not much chance of catching that sort of thing again for a while now. But an annular eclipse is a much more frequent happening – once a year, as the name implies. (I’m just going to leave that previous sentence there on the offchance that a lazy schoolchild will end up quoting me in a badly-researched science essay.) And on the morning of May 21st, we have one lined up that's theoretically visible over Tokyo.

We don't have an astronomer in tow like we did last time, so we have to make our own preparations. Initially, we consider finding a viewing spot close to the hotel, but nowhere nearby really works: there are two parks and a river within walking distance, but all of them are too heavily surrounded by high-rise buildings to really make it work. And then we realise that we're living inside one of those high-rise buildings – the much-touted Sky Tree view from our bedroom also gives us an excellent perspective of the sky around it, and we don't even need to get dressed to see it.

So room 2234 at the Dai-Ichi Ryogoku becomes our base for eclipse viewing. Armed with two pairs of Vixen commemorative eclipse viewers (purchased for us by Miki and Taeko from the good people at Bic Camera), we set up our various bits of photographic equipment in the bedroom, while leaving the telly on in the background to catch the coverage on NHK’s breakfast programme. Based on her previous experience of eclipse photography, The BBG sets herself up in a chair by the window, sticks her home-made filter on the end of the camera (the same fliter she used in 2009), and rattles off a series of hand-held shots.

The results? We've assembled them into the short video embedded above. The BBG's a little irritated that her pictures at the peak of the eclipse aren’t quite as sharp as the ones either side, but I think she's got some terrific photos in the set. And we also remember to take time out to see the event itself with our own eyes during those crucial five minutes and 45 seconds of annularity, getting an astonishingly good view from our room. That's two eclipses we've witnessed now: hopefully this won’t become a habit, as it’s a rather expensive one.

We celebrate with breakfast at the hotel, and then that's when the day really starts...

[next: May 21-28]


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