Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ikebukuro - Part 1

A segment of Ikebukuro station can be seen in the distance at the end of the street. As always, bigger versions of these pictures can be seen by clicking on them.

The first time I came to Japan was in 1988 for a one-month vacation. I met my husband for the first time at Narita airport and then spent 4 glorious weeks living with him in his small apartment in Kita-senju (Adachi-ku). At that time, I had him as a guide to help me find my way around the train stations as well as to navigate the streets and shops. He'd been in Japan for about 9 months at around that time so he knew the ropes relatively well.

Ikebukuro was my first Tokyo "stomping grounds" where I had to explore and cope without the aid of my husband as that was where my first job (with Nova) was located. Kita-senju was pretty small potatoes compared to Ikebukuro and my initial week or so was very intimidating, particularly in regards to dealing with the station which is vast, huge, and had very little English on the signs at that time.

Initially, the station was a very overwhelming and incomprehensible place to be and I remember getting frantic at least once because I thought I was hopelessly lost. If you've never been in one of these town-size stations, you can't know the fear you feel when you are new to Japan and go out the wrong exit and find yourself some place you've never seen before. I believe the time this happened to me, I walked around the entire station in a sweaty panic.

The present location of the Nova Ikebukuro branch (just in front of the station).

Back when I worked there, the Nova Ikebukuro branch was quite a bit further from the station than it is now. It's been located relatively near one of the exits for quite some time but I used to have to take a 6-8 minute walk to reach the former location. During my first year in Japan (and in Ikebukuro where I worked for around a year and a third), it was a pretty interesting place to explore during lunch hours because there were so many places to shop and some decent restaurants. However, I took baby steps at first for fear of finding myself wandering around and unable to return to the school in time for my next lesson.

There are certain things about Ikebukuro which I remember well because they stand out as part of the character of the area. One was the great volume of "love hotels" (pay by the hour places for trysts). Ikebukuro always felt more "industrial" to me than places like Shibuya and Shinjuku. I think part of the reason for that was most of the buildings were big face-less boxes. It's not that there aren't a lot of these types of buildings in the more "glamorous" parts of Tokyo but rather that those areas tend to punctuate the landscape more frequently or vibrantly with buildings with more stunning architecture or features comparatively-speaking.

Another thing I recall very well was the somewhat grubby look of many of the back streets around the areas my coworkers and I frequented relative to some other districts in Tokyo. Again, a lot of parts of Tokyo look rather dirty and run-down but the side-streets of Ikebukuro seemed to have more of it, particularly the little off-shoots of the area around Sunshine City and the heavily-trafficked shopping street leading up to it. I'm guessing part of the reason it looked a bit nasty at times was that there were so many people around and the foot traffic wore down improvements and people left trash around because there are no garbage cans on Tokyo streets.

One thing I do recall favorably is that, unlike Shibuya, the crosswalks and streets were wider or at least felt it because they weren't usually chock-a-block with people. For some reason, I also vividly recall crosswalks under raised highways like the one pictured above. I guess part of the reason must be I used to walk under one all the time when I worked in Ikebukuro and the other part would be a memory of how relatively long the hike across the street was relative to similar crossings in other parts of Tokyo.

To be continued in Part 2...

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