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Two nights in Tokyo
We arrived at Narita airport and blearily made our way through immigration and customs.
We were greeted outside of security by an associate of our travel agent. She whisked us outside to meet a driver who shuttled us silently from the airport to our hotel.
On the hour long drive in I fought to stay awake while watching motorcyclists split lanes as the landscape became more and more dense with buildings, cars, and energy.
The sun was beginning to set as we crossed the Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Bay into Chuo Ward, and finally to our hotel in Giza. We checked in, found our room, washed our faces, and immediately left again to find food and try to fight off jet lag.
We wandered up the closest major street past a tremendous Uniqlo flagship store, through crowds of impeccably well dressed people, found a bank, extracted some Yen, and made our way upstairs to a little Hot Pot shop for dinner. They were not expecting foreign tourists at this restaurant. Our intrepid waitress grabbed her phone and after a short comedy involving pointing and Google translating we found ourselves faced with a giant three-chamber pot of bubbling broth.
It was way too much food, but we powered through ⅔ of it, followed by 2 beers. We tried to walk around a bit more. Tried to stay up to 9 or even just 8pm. But jet lag won and we were soon asleep in our hotel. I was awake again by 1am. I tossed and turned. I fidgeted. I read. I went to the vending machine to buy a beer. Eventually I dozed off again.
We were both up well before breakfast was served, so we showered, dressed, and walked the early morning streets of Ginza. We went to explore a 7-11 and sample its wonders.
A 7-11 in Japan is nothing like an American 7-11, beyond the logo and the name. In Japan a 7-11 is closer to a New York bodega but cleaner than a hospital. The 7-11 was stocked with delicious foods both hot and cold, coffee, groceries, booze of varying strengths, and a quick replacement for your button-down shirt you may have just spilled coffee on.
We wandered some more, bought coffees, and waited for hotel breakfast to open.
I was reminded that not everyone has the same concept of “breakfast food” and was bemused with my surprise at seeing fish, vegetables, rice, and salad on the breakfast buffet. During breakfast I saw two gregarious Europeans speaking a language I didn’t recognize. An older man and a younger man. Father and son? Coworkers? Unclear.
After breakfast, we met our guide, Nobu. At the time we didn’t understand she was our guide. We thought we were getting our train pass sorted along with a brief orientation. Instead Nobu got our train pass sorted, gave us an education in the Tokyo subway system, and a tour of the city.
We emerged from the subway and crossed the street, passing under an enormous wooden gate. The city disappeared behind us and we walked on crunching gravel in a forest. We passed a display of wine barrels (to our left) and sake barrels (to our right) left in offering to the shrine were were approaching. The wine barrels were barrels but the sake barrels were wrapped in a woven straw covering and emblazoned with the marks of their distillers - bright, bright, loud, and colorful.
We passed a second wooden gate and stumbled into a small celebration of chrysanthemums - the flower appearing on the enshrined emperor’s family crest.
Some were great shrubs with tiny blooms, sculpted into a large leaf shape. Others stood tall and proud with a single enormous bloom on top like a fancy hat. The colors were creamy white, smoky lavender, and a sunny golden yellow.
Next bonsai miniatures representing the shrine itself and surrounding gardens. A miniature of a garden inside of the garden it miniaturized. I wonder if any of the miniatures themselves contained miniatures. Is it bonsai gardens all the way down?
We crossed a third gate into the shrine itself. We learned a procedure for prayer which involved tossing a coin into a large, grated, box; bowing twice, clapping twice. I assume clapping gets the gods’ attention. And the money? Why should gods answer prayers for free? I like these pragmatic gods.
As we left the shrine and returned to the city through the forest, my wife realized were in Harajuku, remembering an old Gwen Stefani music video. Indeed the kids were very cool.
We quickly popped into a department store just to get the feel of the place. The entrance was an escalator traveling up through a fractured mirrored explosion which looked like a special effect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Inside I found a fascinating little art gallery full of digital art printed and displayed on walls and easels, with a QR code linking you off to buy a print.
Harajuku is a district within the Shibuya ward. You know that intersection you see in movies? Where hundreds of people cross a busy street in all directions before giant, animated electronic advertisements? That’s Shibuya crossing, a nexus of commerce and fashion.
We clambered up many flights of stairs to reach Miyashita Park - a park built atop levels of shops, built atop railway lines, built above the ground. We strolled through the park on our way to the Shibuya Scramble Square - a giant building overlooking the park and the crossing, built atop the massive, underground Shibuya rail station.
We patiently queued for an elevator to the 14th floor where we could peer down out of large windows at the streets below and out across Tokyo. Nobu pointed out on the horizon where we had been earlier in the day. Here on the 14th floor, by the giant windows looking out over the city, was another art gallery. This gallery had contemporary pop art of different flavors in modest sizes. Perfect for your tiny Tokyo apartment.
Art seems to be integrated into shopping life here. Not in a chintzy mall-art way, but real art in real galleries which just happen to be in shopping centers.
We made our way down the elevators and then down the escalators onto the subway platform. When a train arrives a happy little tune plays over loudspeakers. Each time I boarded a train, I felt like a Mario Brother completing the next level.
Outside the thunder gate of the Sensoji Temple we saw teenaged tourists in rented kimonos pretending to be Japanese for a day while their friends took photos. Through the gate we wandered through a mob of visitors down a long shopping thoroughfare leading to the temple. The shops were decorated for fall with boughs of colorful leaves.
This template is another quiet oasis in the city. Not a forest, but a quiet park with a stream hosting koi. We watched the fish, watched the teenagers at their impromptu photoshoots, and contemplated the buddha’s smile.
Feet swollen and bellies empty, we made our way to the former Tsukiji fish market. We said our goodbyes to Nobu and went searching for lunch.
The market has relocated to another part of the city, but what remains is a network of tiny little seafood restaurants. Most places were closed this late in the afternoon, but got lucky in finding an oyster shack that was open for maybe another 30 minutes. They took pity on us and served us a medley of steamed shellfish and draft beer.
Fed and happy we took the subway back to our hotel. At this point I’m starting to feel confident on the train. Arriving at our station I boldly and accidentally picked the perfect exist which dropped exactly where we wanted to be. I’ve got this.
Back at the hotel, we washed our faces and napped for a bit. I changed into more comfortable shoes and checked our itinerary. Next we are meeting up with a street food tour. We are given instructions to meet by a train station, near a taxi stand, in front of a Shake Shack.
We arrive early to meet our guide, Makoda, her assistant, and a pair of older folks from Northern Ireland. Well he’s from England, but lives in Belfast now, he explains. They are a new couple. He’s retired, she’s not. They are adorable. Next who should appear but our breakfast colleagues - the older and younger man with the inscrutable language. The language is Dutch and they are a Belgian father and son on vacation together in Japan.
Makoda explains the rules. We are going to visit three izakaya and then perhaps a 4th secret place. Then we are off. We wander through side streets and around corners and find our first bar. It’s 5pm, early for a place like this. These places open for dinner and stay open late. I suddenly realize why this works. The tour guide gets to show their guests something uniquely Japanese. The guests spend a bunch of money on food and beer, and then everyone is out of there before the real customers show up. It’s brilliant.
As we enter the bar, Madoka points out the large fish-print on silk outside the door. This is exactly what it sounds like. You catch or acquire a remarkable fish? You want to remember that moment. So you ink up the fish with sumi ink and press it, like a ridiculously huge rubber stamp, onto a silk flag. The image that is created captures fins, scales, and eyes in sharp detail at staggering full size. And then you get a calligrapher to write your menu on it.
This particular izakaya has a special license which allows them to buy fish directly from the fish market. They butcher their own fish, which is not very common. This means they can also serve a dish which is not very common. After an enormous tuna has been broken down for sushi and cuts to be grilled you are left with enormous vertebrae with meat clinging too the bone to tightly to be cut away with a knife.
So you hack out a vertebrae and throw it on a tray with some fresh, real wasabi and some soy sauce plus three sharp clam shells to scrape the meat off and some tongs to hold everything down while you work. The tuna is tender and mild with the slightest hint of the ocean and mineral. It’s amazing.
Our next stop is a gyoza shop. We learn that gyoza dumplings are adopted from China (and actually considered Chinese cuisine) but the Japanese innovation is to fry them. I’m pretty sure someone in China has fried a dumpling before but I’m not going to argue. We are seated on tatami mats with our feat dangling under a table set deep into the floor. Our Irish friends (correction, English, lives in Belfast) are relieved they don’t have to sit on their knees.
As we get to talking, we get around to what I do for a living, which I explain quickly and pivot to talking about art. Peter (the Englishman living in Belfast) asks “so what do you think about NFTs?” Is this a trap? I say they are hot garbage and quickly, and hopefully humorously explain that they mainly exist to sell more crypto currency and are of no real value and can’t really work as a authentic digital asset. Peter is a retired software engineer and this pleases him.
After gyoza and more beer we replaced our shoes and tottered down the steep stairs back to the street. Off to our third location - a collection of izakayas all smashed together. After mishearing the word “lively” from our guides as “library” the Belgian father (whose name I never learned) joked throughout the night that this was the best library he’d ever been to.
Madoka led us back, back deep into the network of bars to find her boss drinking a large table. She greets us and jokes about her giant beer “be sure to ask for a small”. Madoka is lively, fun, and charming. Madoka’ s boss is a party monster. She apparently turned that skill into a business.
Small plates arrive. A yam gratin, fried shrimp in mayo, chicken karage, a small tower of marscapone cheese mixed with daikon radish. There are interesting cocktails - shokudō and soda topped with a scoop of lemon sorbet. Party fuel.
By now the Belgian father is dialed up to eleven. He is charming, charismatic, and funny. He wears an open collared shirt, with a strange wooden necklace. He flirts with every woman in that special way that only a charming old man can get away with. He has a perfectly trimmed white mustache. He is the anti-Poirot.
We learn he is a diplomat and has travelled to 274 countries. He is dating an American woman from Missouri. He is an absolute character and his son has a lot to live up to.
Our final secret stop is fancy ice cream. The shop is brilliant white tile an spotless. The flavors are milk, matcha, black sesame, apple sorbet, and toasted brown sugar. You choose three and a perfect pie-chart of ice cream is packed into a small paper bowl. You eat with a wooden spoon. Green tea arrives in a small cup which prevents brain freeze and cleanses the palate for the next bite.
We say our goodbyes. Madoka asks where we are headed. She gives us directions back to Shibuya Crossing. It turns out we are right on the train line and can basically follow it right to the station, which is right by the crossing. A few blocks away from the ice cream shop and the streets get quiet and residential. A few folks here and there, but mostly quiet and dark. And safe? So safe. I don’t feel this safe walking in my own neighborhood at night. What are we doing wrong?
As we get closer to the train station, there are more lights and more people. People in costume. It’s Halloween. We see lots of cat ears, french maids, police girls, bunny boys, some superheroes, a couple of Jokers, and some unaffiliated clowns.
The crowd packs into the crossing. Police are there to direct and navigate. Whistles blow and the mob surges into the street to...get to the other side? We push through the crowd for a bit, enjoying the people watching, the costumes, and the mad crowds. Soon it’s all to much and we snake our way into the train station and escape to our quiet Ginza hotel. We slept like drunk rocks. Tonight, at least, jet lag was cured.
In the morning, we lingered over breakfast at our hotel, packed, and brought our luggage downstairs. Hotels in Japan have a very affordable luggage forwarding service. For about ¥3000 ($25) you can send your luggage along ahead of you so you don’t have to wrestle with it on the train. Pack an overnight bag and off you go, light as a feather.
We had some time to kill before the train, but not too much time. We found our way to a coffee shop where we could grab a snack / early lunch just in case the train did serve food. I had a latte and a little egg sandwich. In 7-11 and other stores with pre-packaged foods you will find these heavenly little egg sandwiches. The whitest, softest white bread, crusts removed, holds crushed semi-soft boiled egg mixed with Japanese mayo. The sandwich is cut into triangles, stacked, and wrapped in plastic. It’s the best thing in the world.
Afterwards we found our way to Tokyo Station to find train. Our short journey to Tokyo Station a stressful comedy of errors. I have been relying on Apple Maps so far with good results (I know, I know, I hate Google). Siri failed me.
Yesterday when our guide, Nobu, took us by Tokyo station to exchange vouchers for rail passes, we took a circuitous shortcut in the underground subway stations to avoid a stalled train line. When we emerged into the daylight, Tokyo Station stood before us clad in red brick.
When I tried to navigate us there, I got very close on the Ginza line, but Siri kept trying to direct me to the dead center of the railroad platform, and not the entrance to the building where humans go. Siri can be very literal. After wandering cluelessly, we finally caught sight of the station and made our way there. Once we arrived we stumbled around trying to understand the dizzying collection of trains.
Our reservation provided train line, car, and seat number, but not which track or which train. We finally figured out that we were taking a Shinkansen or bullet-train and not a standard commuter train. From there everything was easy.
It is considered impolite to eat food where food is not served. So munching down on a snack on a short commuter train is not a good look. But Shinkansen trains have trays, cup holders, and vendors with little carts selling drinks, beer, snacks, and even lunch.
There is a special kind of lunch bento you get for the train called ekiben - the word is a portmanteau of the words for “train station” and bento. Most have grilled or fried fish, rice, and maybe a pickled vegetable. Some may have a small sushi roll. There are fancy shops which sell elegant ekiben in little wooden boxes with restaurant quality food, and simpler cheaper featuring simpler, inexpensive ekiben in a little plastic tray. I suddenly regretted my egg sandwich.
Our bullet train arrived with its long snout leading into the station. We boarded and glided silently out of Tokyo to Kanazawa.