This week, Sinister Grin Press began taking pre-orders for the limited, signed hardcover edition of my 8th novel, The Family Tree. I’m really excited about this release for a number or reasons, not the least of which being that I love the new cover — which is a great realization of the image idea I’d suggested to the book’s original publisher a couple years ago before the trade paperback edition was released.
On Monday, Sinister Grin posted a “making of” blog about the new edition of the book, which includes a glimpse into cover artist Zach McCain’s creative process in developing the cover. I love these kinds of “behind the scenes” things, and this one shows his first couple sketches and initial color version of the cover, before it finalized to become the cover below.
If you’ve enjoyed my work in the past, and love hardcover books the way I do, I hope you’ll take a look at this one and consider pre-ordering a copy. Sinister Grin will base the ultimate number of copies produced on the pre-orders, so if you’re going to want one in a few weeks… put your name in the hat now!
I was working in Los Angeles today when my wife Geri texted me from Chicago to let me know that amazing author, editor and all-round good soul Bob Weinberg had died. It has weighed heavy on my mind these past few hours as I finished my day working here.
Bob was one of the first and best writers I met on the “Chicago” scene when I first began publishing my own work in the ’90s. He was an inspiration, and I was privileged to design a book of his short fiction (The Occult Detective) for Twilight Tales and later to publish some of his stories on my own Dark Arts Books press (When The Night Comes Down). Bob was a prolific author, co-founder of Chicago Comic Con, and an editor who compiled dozens of horror anthologies with Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg in the ’80s and ’90s.
I always wanted to see Bob in person more than I ever got to and some day tour his home “genre museum.” Once when I did a library reading near his house, we had planned to do that… but then health got in the way. He lived just a few miles from where I grew up, and yet, somehow I never saw his fabled collection of books, posters, and horror/sci-fi memorabilia. And now never will.
I was honored to have been able to know him, and sign books near him more than once, including at World Horror Convention 2002 (where the first photo of us hails from – the other is from a panel at World Horror 2001). I will always remember him, and dream of Mars in his honor. When we land a manned mission there, I will speak his name.
What does that last sentence have to do with anything? Read Bob’s essay from just over a year ago called “A Dream of Mars” on his Facebook wall:
Rest in peace, Bob. And thanks for all the amazing stories. I’m glad to have known you, and gotten the chance to work with you, if even just a little bit.
THIS WEEK, my short story collection Sacrificing Virgins is on a 99 cent e-book sale on all bookstores. Yep, just a buck a Virgin! What a deal!
Seriously, this book includes the best short fiction I’ve written over the past 10 years, including some tie-in tales to my novels Siren, NightWhere and The Pumpkin Man… so I hope if you haven’t given it a read yet, you’ll grab a copy and check it out.
And if you have any friends on Facebook, Twitter, etc. who enjoy horror… I’d really appreciate any help you can give in sharing a link to the book to spread the word! Samhain Publishing rarely puts my titles on their catalog on sale, so I really want to make sure a bunch of people discover this book while it’s cheap over the next few days! Here are links to Sacrificing Virgins on a few stores where it’s available for a buck:
Sacrificing Virgins has had a bunch of great 5-star reviews over the past few months since its release. Here are a couple from Amazon and Barnes & Noble:
From The Horror Fiction Review
Wow, these are some excellent stories! Beautifully written, dark, evocative, spooky, sensual, each with its own unique blend of mood and emotion … disturbingly erotic, weird, powerful, mingling dread and humor … all with precise, intense effect. There are ghost stories, murders, infestations, a guy in love with his answering machine, revenge, deadly dunk tanks, twists, kinks, and shocks. What would you do if you found a beautiful body buried on the beach? If you thought you had a chance to bring a loved one back from the dead? If you got tired of the deal you made with the devil? This may be one of my toughest challenges yet in terms of trying to select my faves.
Love this book
It’s hard to even know where to begin while talking about Sacrificing Virgins by John Everson. I could easily write 500 words analyzing each of the 25 stories here, but the best way to experience this book is by reading it. One thing that I will say though is that this book is a template for what great horror stories should be. Sacrificing Virgins has moments that are shocking, violent and downright disgusting. These are all things that horror fans want but for me what makes a great horror story is characters that you care about and can relate to. Then you have to put them in a bad situation where it looks like they can’t escape…Every story in this book is a lesson on how great horror literature can be and it’s a can’t miss book for real horror fans.
Gotta love reviews like that!
So… there ya go. If you happen to have already read the book… please consider leaving a reader review on Amazon or one of the other bookseller pages (those reader reviews really do help convince other readers to check it out)… and if you haven’t read it yet… please give it a go this week!
Where else can you get a virgin for a buck?
A couple weeks ago, on April 13th, I flew to Amsterdam for a quick business trip. It was one of those “fly in, have a dinner, spend an afternoon, then fly home” trips… which are kind of crazy when you spend 18 hours in the air for less than 48 hours on the ground.
But I always try to make the most of these opportunities — you never know if you’ll ever get the chance again! So I didn’t spend much time in the hotel room.
It was an overcast morning when we landed, and the hotel didn’t have a room available yet, so I dropped my luggage with the bellman and went out and took a canal ride to at least get a glimpse of the city.
Saw lots of things I would have liked to have had the time to explore, from the Heineken Brewery to Ann Frank’s house… but I did stopp off for a couple hours at the famous Rijksmuseum, to see some classic Dutch paintings, including some original Rembrandts.
By the time I came back outside to finish the canal tour, the sun had come out, so I got a little glimpse of Amsterdam on a sunny day.
Then it was off to a business dinner (ironically, at an Indonesian place – so I didn’t try any Dutch food!) I stopped off after dinner at “Hoppy Days,” a little craft beer bar near the hotel and tried a local IPA – Hop Machine Extraordinary Ale. You have to keep your priorities in place when you’re on the road – hops before bed!
The next morning we rented a car and drove 2.5 hours to the city of Aachen, on the German border, for the main meeting of the visit. After an afternoon of discussions, we got the chance on the way out of town to stop at a 1,200-year-old cathedral built by Charlemagne (and what became his final resting place.)
It was late when we got back, but not too late to stop and buy a wheel of Dutch cheese before the flight home the next morning – my one souvenir of this trip. And after walking through the Red Light District (where the prostitutes really do stand in windows beneath red lights!) I had a nightcap at London Bridge, a British pub before bed. And that… was that!
It was a quick trip, but I still managed to see some things, try some beer and take lots of photos!
Vive La Covenant!!! Today marks the debut of my first novel, COVENANT, in France! Translated by Thomas Bauduret, Covenant was released today by Riviere Blanche Press, under the title LE PACTE DES SUICIDES.
If you are French, speak French, or know somebody that answers “oui” to the question “parlez-vous français?” please check it out here:
On Monday, March 14, 2016, I turned 50 years old. And for the past week, I have been showered with love and gifts from friends and family. It’s left me humble and happy in equal measures. I didn’t need the gifts (which were nevertheless awesome!) but it’s good to know that people care.
I have to be honest… I was not looking forward to turning 50 years old this week. There were moments a month ago when I wondered if I was actually going to make it to the big day. But I have to say, it wasn’t nearly as distressing to me as turning 40 was. I spent 20 years as a newspaper pop music columnist… and as such, I was entrenched in youth culture throughout my 20s and 30s. I also once entertained illusions of finally finding a group of musicians who would help develop the songs I wrote into songs heard on the radio by more than 5 people. So turning 40 was the hard one for me… because that’s when I really had to admit that I was too old to go anywhere in the music industry and I was starting to be visibly older than most of the people who were standing next to me at the concerts I covered for the newspaper.
But I’ve had 10 years to get over that… so this week? I enjoyed celebrating the new milestone, and didn’t get too maudlin about the grey hair that goes with it. Hell, I’m not dead yet, right?
The party started Monday night when I got home to find Geri and Shaun waiting for me with the kitchen decorated in balloons and a banner and a stack of gifts waiting. Geri bought me a gorgeous stainless steel cookware set that I’d been admiring in Sur La Table a few months ago. After saving all of my fiction/book income for six years so that we could rehab our kitchen last fall… now I finally have a great set of pans and pots to cook in it! After I opened their gifts, we went to dinner at J. Alexanders, a restaurant that I have picked for “special occasions” for the past 20 years… they have a moneyback guarantee on their prime rib, and for good reason. Their food is amazing.
At the end of the night, I went downstairs to my home bar and pulled out a bottle of Austral Yagan Dark Ale that I have been saving for a special occasion for the past three years. I packed it in my suitcase and brought it home from a business trip to Santiago, Chile back in early 2013. It seemed like as good an occasion as any to finally close the last chapter on that trip!
A couple nights later, New Order was playing The Chicago Theatre. I’d tried to get tickets on Ticketmaster when they first went on sale… and couldn’t get through their impossible online ordering system to get two seats.
And then after a bad attack in February, I ended up scheduled to have gallbladder surgery just three weeks before my birthday… so for a while I wasn’t even sure that I was going to be recovered enough for the concert anyway… I’d given up on going.
But the Chicago Theatre is one of the best venues in the city, and I’ve wanted to see New Order since I was in college… so… when my recovery went well, and I found that there were still some good re-sale tickets available, on the night before the show, I took the money my dad sent me for my birthday, and bought a ticket on Stubhub (Geri couldn’t go at that point). Best decision I’ve made in a long while. I got a 12th row aisle seat and was nearly in tears when they played “Your Silent Face” early in the show, from their Power, Corruption & Lies LP, a disc that defined college for me.
I posted a YouTube Playlist with a handful of the songs I recorded at the show that night. You can watch them here.
It was an emotional night for me that came at just the right time – reliving the music of college and beyond, while realizing just how far the world (and grey hair) has moved on since the days when I first fell in love with that music. I took some time after the show and sat at the Elephant & Castle across the street from the theater to have some bar food and a beer for dinner. In those moments, I wished that I could press the rewind button, both to watch the concert again, and to go back in time to those days when I still thought I might “be” something. A rock star. A writer for Rolling Stone or Spin. An award-winning novelist… Ok. So I did get somewhere. But I still want to see one of my books adapted on the big screen!
Anyway… it was a good night for contemplation and self reflection.
And you know, the musing on 50 was way easier than the fist-in-the-face that 40 was. It still smarts though. Who wants to be old? Who wants to be beyond their prime? Sure, there are years left (hopefully) and lots of opportunities still. But there are also many that are gone; things that can never be now that the river of days and weeks and years has swept them away. That was driven home during the New Order show when I looked around and saw virtually everyone there was over 40. And Bernard Sumner, the lead singer? Looked like Jedd Clampett without the hat. Jeez. When did we all get so old? When that music first caught us, we were young and vibrant and looking ahead at a world of possibilities. Now we’re paunchy, balding and looking at our 401Ks with trepidation.
Life’s different now.
But it’s not all bad. The up side of being on the second half of life’s pendulum is that you’ve got a lot of experience. And usually more cash (and credit) than when you were 20. I worry about the future… but maybe not as much as I used to. And you know, I can decide to splurge and spend money on scalper’s tickets to New Order. Or go out to eat three times in a week to celebrate my encroaching age! I couldn’t have done that 30 years ago.
On Friday, Geri and Shaun and I picked up the celebration again, and went to Nevins Brewing Company, one of my other favorite places (best burgers ever!) for dinner.
And that was just the prelude to Saturday night, when a couple dozen people took over an exceptionally long table at the Hofbrauhaus in Rosemont, IL to really pull out the stops for my big 50th Birthday Celebration. I’ve been to the Hofbrauhaus in Cincinnati and Las Vegas, and to the original one in Munich (one of the highlights of my life, honestly). It was good to introduce some of my friends to one of my favorite places. And we had a great time.
Early on, someone bought me a shot… which at the Hofbrauhaus means you have to bend over and get a paddle to the ass after downing the liquor. I took my shot and my punishment, and then enjoyed a stein of Dunkel while standing on chairs to toast with the German band.
The table was a cross-section of the relationships of my life; Geri and Shaun were there, of course, my dad and stepbrother and his family were there, and Geri’s dad and sister Jill and their spouses came. My friend Larry, who has been with me since high school was there with his life partner, Lisa… Dave Benton, one of my longtime writing pals from Wisconsin drove down… and my more “recent life” friends from my current neighborhood, Brad Czernik and Chris Brook and their wives came out.
There was much food, and frivolity… and at the end of the night, I decided to give the Stein-holding contest a go. It’s a Hofbrauhaus tradition: A bunch of guys all stand at the front of the band stage and hold out heavy, full mugs of colored water (they wouldn’t waste beer!).
The deal is… if your elbow bends… you’re out. I’d done it once before a year or two ago and placed 3rd. This time around, I reached 3rd again… and at that point was thinking that I wasn’t going to get farther again.
But then the guy to my right gave it up. I suddenly had renewed hope. It was just me and the guy to my left… but he looked rock solid. I could feel my whole arm shaking like crazy, but I did NOT bend. I would not give in… It was a battle of wills that I really didn’t believe I was going to win but…
All of a sudden guy-on-the-left let his arm drop and voila… I was the victor… and winner of a big glass Hofbrauhaus Chicago stein (which is a nice match for my Cincinnati and Munich steins!) Credit it to aged determination over youthful braun.
A perfect end to a perfect evening.
But now the party’s over.
A week of dinners and 5-0 birthday cards and balloons and all the rest have run their course. I wish the balloons said 3-0… but they don’t. I’m a little slower than I was a decade ago. I don’t have the manic energy I had when I crisscrossed the Midwest on book tours back when Covenant and Sacrifice and The 13th came out in mass market paperbacks seven and eight years ago. But… there are still things I want to do. Books I want to write. People I want to spend time with.
So it’s time now to get on with the next decade. I hope I come out the other side of the 50s in better shape than I did the 40s (which I ended with first hernia surgery and then 12 months later, gallbladder surgery!)
One thing’s for sure… no matter what we do while above ground, we’re all going to end up in the same place… below ground. I intend to drink a lot more beer, hear a lot more music and enjoy a few more landmark birthdays before the Reaper comes for me.
Cheers! Or… to stick with the German,
“Zicke zacke, zicke zacke, hoi hoi hoi!”
Fans of the “Creature Feature” movie genre and European horror from the ’70s and ’80s, in particular, are no doubt at least vaguely familiar with the Blind Dead series of films from Spanish director Amando de Ossorio.
I have a huge collection of Euro-horror DVDs and have seen the Blind Dead films referenced for years in various descriptions, comparisons and reviews, but only this month did I finally buy and watch them over the past two weekends. And I got the cool “Coffin Collection” from Blue-Underground to do it… highly recommended! Aside from the four films, it includes a short documentary DVD and a nice 40-page booklet about the films.
The original film, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD introduced the bloodthirsty, cowled skeletal Knights Templar who were blinded and killed centuries ago for their perverse bloody crimes… but now rise to seek the lives of those who stumble upon their abandoned monastery. The first film (watch the original Spanish version, not the shorter English dub!) is a wonderfully slow-building horror film, and the first “rise” of the ghoulish knights from their graves is perfectly shot.
De Ossorio hit upon this film just as horror in Spain (and around the world) was taking off. Paul Naschy and Jess Franco were already brand names in Spain producing independent horror films despite the repressive political regime, and De Ossorio’s creepy knights soon put his name alongside theirs as the Blind Dead became popular worldwide. They were an original creation — not quite zombies, not quite ghouls or vampires or mummies… but with elements of all of those film monsters. They were familiar, yet different… and they sparked a chord. Over the next four years, de Ossorio would shoot three sequels, and all of them are worth seeing for old school horror buffs. While they repeat certain situations (women end up raped or molested and seem to get their heels caught in stairways and rubble while trying to escape a lot), they don’t, thankfully, stay in the same locale and repeat the same film. The skeletal knights of each film appear in markedly different situations, (one assumes these were various separated segments of that original condemned group?) and even the story of how their eyes were blinded changes by the movie. There are no continuing characters besides the knights — it’s as if the director hatched four completely different stories that just all happened to include the same monster.
The first sequel, RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD focuses on a rekindled love between a woman about to be married into “privilege” and a wanderer who comes, not quite accidentally, to her town. I loved this setup because for once, the female lead is not some young, beautiful nubile thing with great lungs, but rather, an older, gone-to-seed woman who has some real issues to confront. Not your usual choice for a horror lead.
The love triangle here lends a different focus to the film, which is plotted very differently than the first movie — it drops the “slow build tension” of the original in favor of a constant action format. Here the knights return on the night celebrating the anniversary of their deaths to take revenge on the town. Ultimately, a cast of oddball, at-odds characters are holed up in a church trying to find a way to escape. I loved the ending on this one, which brings back some of the spooky atmosphere factor of the original.
The next sequel, THE GHOST GALLEON, goes in yet another direction. This time around two models are cast adrift on the ocean as part of a publicity stunt, and stumble on a mysterious ghostly ship adrift in fog (where there should be no fog). The girls disappear into the bowels of the ship separately, and then their eventual rescuers spend the second half of the movie trying to dispatch the knights without much success. This film probably has the worst flaws of the four — there’s a segment where a woman is manhandled and tied up to prevent her from going to the police… until the stunt models are returned. Well… why WOULDN’T she go to the police once released, regardless of the return of the models, for the abuse she suffered? And there are a couple of really bad “toy ship” camera shots (imagine those early Godzilla movies with the toy trains crashing). Obviously, the effects budget was minimal. But the ghost galleon is really creepy-looking for most of the film and there is some genuine eeriness.
The final film, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS is probably the darkest one in tone — when a young doctor and his wife arrive to take over a doctor’s practice in a remote ocean-side town, they are not welcomed by the close-mouthed townfolk… who are in the midst of a weeklong ritual to sacrifice their young women to the knights… who come each night to accept their “sacrificial virgin” victims in exchange for not decimating the rest of the town.
If you love slow-building, old-school Euro-horror — which despite the “slow” factor was typically a bit edgier than American productions of the same period (hence, the heavily edited versions of a couple of these films when they were imported) definitely check out the Blind Dead collection if you aren’t familiar already. The coffin set also includes a documentary on Ossorio which is short but enlightening. If you’re a “behind-the-scenes” film buff like I am, it just makes you wish that more attention had been paid to archiving his films and his story before his death in 2001. Check the set out here:
TO CELEBRATE Valentine’s Day weekend, my 10th anniversary collection, Vigilantes of Love, is just 99 cents this weekend on Amazon!
Vigilantes of Love was originally released by Twilight Tales Books in Chicago back in 2003, and the current expanded edition was reissued with an updated cover from Dark Arts Books in 2013. The book contains 21 short fantasy and horror tales and is perfect for Valentine’s Weekend, with fantasy stories that celebrate love and horror stories that warn of the dangers in lust.
One of the stories — a great read for Valentine’s Day — is available as a free read on my web site. You can check out “Hard Heart” here.
Grab a copy of the full book on Amazon here:
Reader Reviews say things like:
“…a mixture of macabre, eerie, fantastical and just plain good…”
“…full of magic. Some of it gentle, some of it dark, but almost all of it lyrical and affecting!”
“…a mixture of macabre, eerie, fantastical and just plain good…”
“…full of magic. Some of it gentle, some of it dark, but almost all of it lyrical and affecting!”
… “Thought provoking… really outstanding stories!”
LAST MONTH, Sinister Grin Press began taking pre-orders for the limited, signed and numbered hardcover edition of my 7th novel, the spider-fest, Violet Eyes. This is a special limited collector’s edition of the book, and will only be available on an order basis, so if you want a copy, sign up for it this week — the order period is almost done — Sinister Grin will stop taking orders on January 31st and the book will be shipped in March.
Reserve your copy of the Violet Eyes hardcover at http://sinistergrinpress.com/
This is the first hardcover release I’ve had since Bad Moon Books unveiled the limited edition of NightWhere in 2013, so I’m looking forward to holding a copy in my hands. I’m actually signing the signature sheets on my desk right now so I can send them back to the publisher this week! (See pix below)
In addition to the novel, the Sinister Grin edition of Violet Eyes will also include the expanded prologue story, Violet Lagoon as an extra. Violet Lagoon was originally intended to serve as the prologue to this book, and was published a couple years ahead of the novel. But it ended up too long to be a prologue, so when I finally wrote the novel, I used pieces of it, but not the whole thing. That original novelette will be included in its entirety in this edition.
Check it out, only at http://sinistergrinpress.com/
This continues the story of my Asia expedition begun in An Asian Expedition Part 1: Seoul, Korea.
A little thing? Sure, but it’s only the 2nd or 3rd time in 30 years of flying that I’ve ever been in one of those cushy cabins! The airline upgraded me (I have no idea why) when I got to the gate, so I had more leg room than I am tall, and a reclining seat that would have served as a bed. If only I’d had that on the previous 13-hour trip from Chicago! Talk about pointless luxury for a 90-minute flight!
It was a little decadent to be served orange juice before the flight took off and to watch how attentive the stewardesses were to the businessmen in the front cabin though (they took the suit jacket of the man next to me and hung it somewhere, returning it to him at the end of the flight. Nice.)
After the short plane ride from Seoul, I made it through customs and a 45-minute cab ride without any problems and checked into my hotel just after lunch. It was a hotel in Shibuya, a restaurant and nightlife district of the city. The hotels near the university where I was working that week had been sold out, so I had decided to stay in a spot in a part of the city that sounded like it would be fun in my off-time.
The lobby and adjoining restaurant looked small but nice. My stomach sank, however, when I opened the door to my room at the Tokyu Rei Hotel.
If I’d had sinful space on the flight over (and in my previous hotel), this was the reverse. The room barely could contain the bed and a wall-length shelf that the small flatscreen TV and a bunch of advertising flyers sat on. There was no closet. The window to the street was covered in a wooden “door” that slid open on a track. I immediately opened that for the rest of the trip so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic. I’ve been in closets bigger than this room. And the bathroom was even worse… the entire thing, floor to ceiling, was covered in hard plastic (do they just hose it down after each guest?) and the toilet was wedged into a corner. Damn. I’ve been in Motel 6’s that were swankier. After the luxurious InterContinental Coex in Seoul, this was… depressing. Especially since I was going to be there four nights. I texted a picture to Geri and she said “it looks like a prison cell.” That’s exactly what it felt like at that moment.
I didn’t have time to stew on it though, because as soon as I unpacked, it was off to a business meeting and subsequent dinner. When I returned to the room a few hours later, it was night, and I quickly changed clothes and went out to explore nearby Shibuya… and my depression at a crappy room faded.
Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in Tokyo (it’s listed as a “thing to see” on all the tourist lists), was hopping.
Just a block from my hotel, the city was alive with neon and throngs of people. J-pop music blared from giant TV screens on the buildings, and teens and twentysomethings moved in and out of the nearby Taito Arcade next to the big Bic Camera store. I walked a couple blocks and entered a busy pedestrian street that went from restaurant to bar to restaurant to clothing store.
My faith was restored. I may not have gotten the best hotel room, but this was exactly where I wanted to stay. Shibuya is definitely one of the beating hearts of Tokyo.
Smiling, I followed my phone’s GoogleMaps guide until I reached a British pub I’d heard of, The Aldgate, and walked up the stairs to find myself in a classic British-style pub with British bartenders and Bass Ale on tap, as well as some local brews. My first beer in Tokyo was a London Calling cask IPA from local Sankt Gellen Brewery. I settled in with hops and my laptop to catch up on email and Facebook for a couple hours. And had a plate of British chips with malt vinegar. I’d found a comfort refuge spot for the next couple nights!
The next day was a long one, 12+ hours on the clock, but when it was done… we were done! My business in Asia officially ended Friday night around 7 p.m., but my workmate and I had agreed to pay for a couple extra hotel nights on our own, so we were staying until Monday. We actually had Friday night through Monday lunchtime to explore Tokyo. And over the next 60 hours, we covered as much ground as I think humanly possible.
That weekend I bought some nifty cords and an anime doll of hologram star Hatsune Miku in Electric Town, had a decadent steak dinner and visited a microbrew pub in Roppongi, stopped at the inpsiring Meiji Shrine and grounds, hung out in fashionable Harajuku, ate amazing sushi in the Tsukiji Fish Market, snapped photos of the city from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building lookout station in Shinjuku, spent an afternoon around the big Buddhist temple / market area in Asakusa and walked around the grounds of the Imperial Palace (the actual palace was sadly closed). I got to be quite adept at deciphering the Tokyo subway maps and figuring out how to vault from one end of the city to the other using foreign coinage (which was quickly in short supply!).
On Friday night I did some people watching on the crowded streets and had dinner at a small Japanese / Vietnamese restaurant on the second floor of a busy street. It was hard to settle on a restaurant there… many of them are very small, and there were several Korean barbecue places (I’d just come from Korea, and was looking for a more Japanese experience). Plus, many of the restaurants are on the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings, so it’s hard to tell from wandering the street where to go. If I ever go there again, I will do a lot more Internet stalking to choose my restaurants (though the food that night was good.)
After dinner, we tried to stop by the Aldgate, which was packed, so instead we headed down to the Hobgoblin, another British pub in the area. Sadly, they were out of their flagship Hobgoblin Ale! But their Hobgoblin “light” wasn’t too bad.
HARAJUKU / MEIJI JINGU SHRINE
First stop on Saturday, after an egg sandwich and coffee at a Pronto – a chain of cafes there, was the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.
Just a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel, we cut through Harajuku and stopped at the small Togo Shrine there before heading towards Harajuku Station and the large Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine area.
I’ve been curious about Harajuku ever since I heard the Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” song.
So it was a kick to finally walk through the street that day and a subsequent night and see some real live Harajuku girls dressing up in wild costumes and parading about. The morning we walked by, there was a line that stretched down a whole block for a fashion store that was about to open with a big sale. Fashion capital, indeed.
Once past Harajuku, the Meiji Jingu Shrine park was thronged with people. We walked around the grounds first which would have been far more impressive if we’d been there in the spring or summer; the area was originally cultivated for a queen, and apparently has flowers everywhere in season. While the trees still had leaves while we were there in January, there were no flowers. Though I did get to kneel and dip my hands in a sacred spring.
The shrine itself was much larger than the one I’d seen in Korea, and had dozens of vendors selling prayer sticks and poems. That was one interesting thing about all of the shrines I visited in Seoul and Tokyo – there were always people selling prayer sticks and satchels that held small prayer scrolls at all of them, no matter how small the venue.
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
After visiting the gardens and the shrine, we took the Toei Oedo Line train to Tsukiji and walked around the famous wholesale (and retail) fish market of Tokyo.
There were several blocks of vendors, some selling packaged freeze-dried fish goods, others selling fresh, others selling trinkets and kitchen pottery. And interspersed with those were lots of sushi joints.
I’ve enjoyed sushi for quite a while now, but until Tokyo, I had always been a sushi baby — mainly, I’ve always stuck to some kind of roll – my tiny hunk of raw fish always shielded by a blanket of rice and well-seasoned with soy and wasabi. When we finally stopped for lunch at the fish market, I decided to go ahead and get the “large hunks of fish” style sushi. Hunks of fish that sat on rice, sure, but the rice wasn’t going to hide the taste of that fish like a California roll does.
I worried a bit that each different slab of fish was finally going to hit me with a “fishy” taste, but none of them did. The meat was creamy and rich, some lightly seared which gave it a “grilled” flavor, some not. And we were warned to avoid the soy sauce — the sushi chef had already lightly seasoned various types with soy and/or wasabi… and it was true.
The taste was perfectly balanced. Exquisite! I was instantly converted and before we even left the fish market, I was looking forward to having more!
There was a small shrine at the edge of the fish market which we stopped at briefly before heading to the train for our next destination.
It was late afternoon when we left the fish market, but we figured we could get in one more stop before returning to Shibuya. We decided to head to Akihabara, home of Electric Town, a huge shopping district for video games, electronic equipment (I bought a couple ipod/iphone cords and chargers) and anime and manga merch. I figured the place wasn’t going to pull up the carpets at 5 p.m., and I was right — the streets were full of people.
I spent a lot of time in a store with hundreds of anime-oriented figurines and ultimately bought my Hatsune Miku figure there… not realizing at all that she was the representation of one of the most bizarre music phenoms ever — a music company sampled a woman’s voice and used it in music creation software… which has since led to more than 3,500 songs being created using the voice, as well as spawned a 3D holographic character (Hatsune Miku) who has opened for Lady Gaga, and is currently touring North America!?!
My iPod charging cable was dead, so I found a replacement that also serves as a battery pack, which was pretty cool (never had seen one of those before for an old-school iPod.) And I got a fancy recharging cord there for my iPhone while I was at it.
All along the strip of shops, there was J-pop blaring out into the streets, which added to the energy. Usually with female singers, the music was electronic and catchy, and belatedly, I used my Shazzam iPhone app to figure out the name of one of the bands. I wish I’d done that earlier, because there were some crazy catchy songs playing while we were there.
But thanks to Shazzam, I now have a new favorite act — Silent Siren. And the start of a J-Pop Playlist on YouTube!
I stopped at a few anime and electronics shops, and probably could have stayed there looking at all of the neon and dolls and electronics all night…
But after a day of walking for miles, we decided to catch the train back around 7 p.m. so we could eat dinner in Shibuya.
Back at the hotel, I was determined not to wander cluelessly looking for food as we had the night before. The concierge gave me a tip on a good restaurant row, on the 7th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie, a building a couple blocks away, so we stopped in there for dinner and I enjoyed a beef pot and pot stickers with the local Suntory pilsener beer. It hit the spot after a long day!
Way to Play!
One of the cool things I noticed in Japan is that their entertainment centers are on multiple floors. The building across from our hotel had bowling alleys on three floors, plus a couple floors of arcade, a billiard floor and a table tennis floor. Plus Karaoke. It was fun to go up and down the elevator and check out the action on each level!
It was a long day, but I packed a lot of sights into that Saturday! At the end of it all, I stopped back at the Aldgate to refresh my “Western” batteries, and watched a little soccer with a Baird Jack The Ripper IPA.
A View From The Top of Shinjuku
Sunday was slated to be the warmest, sunniest day of my trip through Asia – with temps in the low 50s. So that was the day to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where there is a free observation floor. At first, it appeared that we wouldn’t be able to get in to the building — all the visible access doors were locked. But then after circumnavigating the whole building, we found a sign for the observation deck pointing to a stairwell down. After walking through an underground garage area, we arrived at an elevator to the observatory (travel lesson #1: never give up!)
Visibility was a little hazy, but I had a nice coffee and cake while overlooking the city there. And got a distant view of Mount Fuji!
I also found a Studio Ghibli display at the gift shop there, and broke out the credit card for Shaun. We have watched most of the Studio Ghibli movies of Hayao Miyazaki together, and I’d hoped to go to the Ghibli Museum while in Tokyo (unfortunately for me, it was sold out for the weekend).
After the lookout station, we walked across the bridge to Shinjuku Central Park where a martial arts exhibition was going on.
And found yet another shrine — the Kumano Shrine:
Then it was time to hop the train to our next destination — the old town temple district of Asakusa.
Sensō-ji, Buddhist Temple
While it was a little difficult figuring out the subway system given that most of the signs are in a foreign language, we had our only major subway gaffe of the weekend leaving Shinjuku. First I misread Google Maps and walked past the underground subway station… and then managed to get on a train going the opposite direction. But … this time Google Maps clearly demonstrated my error, and after hopping off the train and walking to the other side of the station, we were at last on our way.
The Asakusa area is right near the Sumido River, and is a major shopping area, as well as the home of one of the more famous Buddhist temples, the Sensoji. Out of the entire week, this turned out to be the most crowded place I went. The street that led to the temple was lined with shops selling all sorts of toys, food and other merchandise, and you could barely move right or left to move towards a shop if you wanted to. The street was a solid mass of people.
The area was filled with old architecture and once inside the temple grounds, there was an avenue of street food vendors. I tried what I later found out
(thanks to Loren Rhoads) was a okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake omelette that included flour, shredded cabbage, shrimp and pork belly.
I also had some gyoza – Japanese pot stickers.
There was a ceremony going on inside the temple itself, but I braved the throng and got a quick peek at the entryway. The public was not allowed inside the building itself.
There was a group of kids practicing martial arts near a small shrine nearby, as well as a woman showing off a trained monkey!
And who can resist a trained monkey?
On the way back to the train, I bought another Totoro stuffed animal for Shaun (a Miyazaki character) and posed with a welcoming kitty!
For our last night in Tokyo, we decided to visit another nightclub district. After the craziness of the past 36 hours, things turned out to be a bit slow there on a Sunday night. And after searching for a good restaurant, we ended up deciding to see what the Japanese would do with a “Western” steakhouse. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was definitely the fanciest room and pricetag of any of our meals in Asia… but my lobster bisque and petit filet was definitely good!
After dinner, we walked around the club district a bit, which is filled with Nigerian guys trying to lure men into hostess clubs. It was truly annoying, as they will follow you for over a block, ignoring your increasingly aggravated declarations of “I’m not interested” as they implore you to “just take a look” at their club. After having read about many instances of business men getting a mickey in their drinks and their credit cards charged to the hilt in Roppongi, there was no way I was walking into one even to look.
Instead, I closed the night with a Kanagawa-brewed Brimmer Pale Ale – clean but robust with just the right amount of hop bitterness – at the Two Dogs Taproom, a little microbrew place that obviously caters to Westerners (they had Japanese micros, but also taps from U.S. breweries like Left Hand and signs from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing (where, ironically, I just was a couple months ago!) Had to love their tap wall — which was completely “tiled” in pennies!
Last Look: The Imperial Palace
Monday in Japan was a holiday, so I knew the Imperial Palace was going to be closed, but took the subway there anyway, after a coffee and scone across the street from my hotel. I figured there was bound to be something to see.
For awhile… I feared that I was completely mistaken. While there was a flea market going on at the perimeter of the palace, and a marathon filling much of the sidewalk around the place, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is not one of those palaces that you can see for miles.
For one thing, the place is surrounded by a moat… but there are also hills and hedges and stone walls on either side of the moat. The place is completely shielded unless you can actually gain admittance to the inner grounds. So I never actually saw one inch of the palace itself. I did however, get to see the gardens on the outskirts (which would have been more impressive in the spring or summer, I’m sure). And there was the remains of some old guard posts, as well as a small bamboo garden.
After hanging around the Imperial Palace area for a couple hours, it was time to return to Shibuya. I had just enough time for a last dose of sushi before leaving Japan, and I wasn’t about to miss the chance. I stopped at a “sushi go-round” restaurant, where the chef stands in the middle cutting fish and filling plates that go around a track that runs around the bar where the customers sit. Each plate is color coded, based on the cost of the sushi, and you just keep grabbing plates and eating what you want until you’re done… then the waitress totals up the cost of your stack of plates.
I ate my fill, largely of a nicely wasabi-ed whitefish variety!
And then… it was time to go home. While I hated to leave the throngs and sushi of Shibuya behind, I was more than ready. It was an exceptionally long week. I saw a lot of things, but still only scratched the surface. I loved the politeness and manners of the culture — it’s a small thing, but everywhere I paid with a credit card, it was handed back to me with two hands, as if it were a gift offering. People appeared helpful and friendly, if not well-versed in English. And while our hotel room was not what I had hoped for, the staff at the hotel itself were wonderful – going out of their way to help us with our bags, and taxi and restaurants.
I wish we could have gotten out of the city to places like Kyoto or Mount Fuji… or even poked into Tokyo Disneyland, which I passed on the way to the airport. But I was happy I at least got a couple days to bounce around and see all of the things I did. From the Shibuya to the Fish Market to Harajuku to the Akusa Temple… it was all an excellent adventure. And with a direct flight, that 11-hour flight home seemed like a breeze compared to the 18-hour commute that started the trip to Seoul the week before!
Here are a few more pictures from the trip: