Little ashes: Shinjuku and Skytree

Little ashes: Shinjuku and Skytree

Today I crossed west, to the metropolitan mammoth of Shinjuku. By a quirk of public transportation, distance as-the-crow-flies tells you little about what parts of the city are “nearby” in terms of travel time. It cost me less trouble to leapfrog across the city center, then back again north for a visit to Tokyo’s most extravagant shopping mall, than riding directly south to Odaiba yesterday.

I thanked the city planners, because my engagement this morning demanded timeliness: a performance of Cinderella by Japan’s national ballet.

(a step away from Shinjuku Station)

The scale of Shinjuku suits all my vague imaginings of Tokyo’s extreme urban development (though I’m told that the city is comparatively empty this week, with most locals away on vacation). The dynamic energy doesn’t preclude fun: dead ahead, you can spy Godzilla menacing us from behind the cinema.

My plan on paper allowed a quick bite at a quaint ramen shop, but after two failed efforts (first because my notes led me to an unsavory part of town, then because the landmark Omoide Yokocho alleyway [pictured right] had all but closed its doors for the holidays), I settled gratefully for the nearest 4-star suggestion on Google maps. The kind welcome and steaming bowl of noodles soothed my frazzled nerves; I rallied in time to catch the metro to the New National Theatre.

Other than a few extra checkpoints reminiscent of airport security, and the inescapable masks, the performance favored us with a taste of cultural life before lockdowns. Elbow to elbow, we applauded the dancers’ leaps and pirouettes, with a burst of enthusiasm for the glittering fairy godmother. The antics of the ugly stepsisters (played by men) underscored the prima’s grace, while the prince commanded the stage with every entrance.

I wondered whether it’s typical to omit the stepmother entirely, or perhaps it suits Japan’s commitment to filial piety that the hapless father featured in a sympathetic role instead? Either way, it was a treat — ballet has always delighted me with its unashamedly splendid costuming and unhurried celebration of ornamentation. This performance lavished an entire act on the ball, with more reason than most productions for eking out extra dances wherever they might be indulged.

Even with five full days to spend in Tokyo, my wishlist is rapidly proliferating beyond capacity. Some hasty calculations, and a chance to have dinner with my cabinmate from the retreat, whisked me away from Shinjuku after the show. I caught the train to Tokyo Skytree, a glittering edifice to rival Tokyo Tower. With a metro stop planted in its basement, it invites visitors to thirty-one floors of shopping and dining.

You could wander for days in there, from character-themed cafes to designer labels, with entire shops dedicated to strawberries, or hair pins, in-between. I lingered among the Studio Ghibli merchandise, pleased to find even less popular movies represented, like my favorite Castle in the Sky. After searching in vain for the dessert buffet (a casualty of COVID lockdowns?), my friend and I supped on soba noodles and kurage (Japanese-style fried chicken) at the food court.

We rounded off the evening with my first visit to karaoke in Japan. Though the concept initially struck me as dubious — sing songs in a darkened room? — the experience lived up to the billing: We giggled our way through Taylor Swift and hit our stride with Disney’s Aladdin. By good luck, my friend picked a song that has haunted me in Japan, bending my ear in retail outlets with no possibility of learning its name.

Now I can share it with you: If you’d like to hear a Japanese chart topper, try “Lemon” by Kenshi Yonezu. One more reason to practice my hiragana sight-reading!

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