4 Days in Tokyo
Since Alex was away for the second week of his training/retreat, it made perfect sense to fly to Tokyo to join my old roommate Vi and his wife Harmonie on their tour of Asia. Alex left early Monday morning, and so did I. It took me an hour and 45 minutes to get to the airport (I REALLY miss our old five minute commute) and boy, were the lines for check-in and security LONG. Luckily, I made it to my gate just in time. After just a two and a half hour flight, I was in Tokyo! Surprising Tokyo Fact (STF) #1: Narita Airport has readily available free wifi, unlike the rest of Tokyo (as we quickly learned)…
After getting cash from the ATM (STF #2: Many places in Tokyo – such as the subway ticket booth- only take cash), I took the Narita Express train to Shibuya station (STF #3: It’s super expensive to get downtown from Narita airport) and walked to our hotel. Vi and Harmonie arrived earlier in the day, and had already checked in. Since I didn’t have lunch, Vi and I walked around Shibuya (it has the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, called a “scramble”, where traffic from all directions stops and tons of people walk across the streets in all directions). I bought a meat baozi from a department store (STF #4: Food in Tokyo department stores is delicous!) and some dessert. The whole area is just packed with people and stores, with peppy music blaring from traffic light posts and lights everywhere! Talk about sensory overload!
We decided to go to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku for dinner, and Alex’s friend Paul met us there. We were first ushered to a lounge area where scantily clad girls wearing kitten ears served us drinks, while a robot made his rounds (STF #5: Even though you’d expect Tokyo to have real robots, the robots at the restaurant were men riding on segways wearing robot costumes- they still looked like the real thing though). Then, we were sent downstairs to an “arena.” The TripAdvisor reviews were right- the “dinner” was barely edible. The only one out of the four of us to almost-finish his meal was Paul. 🙂 The SHOW was the weirdest thing I’ve EVER experienced. There was a drum off between a “red” team of girls (scantily clad of course) and “white” team. A girl ridding a dinosaur fighting a robot. Kungfu Panda fighting a robot. Robots fighting robots. Robots fighting girls. Girls riding a tank. Girls riding on top of giant robot girls. And of course, a laser show. Oh, and we were each provided with a glow stick. It was completely over the top. But completely AWESOME. I’m sure Paul will take Alex to the show when he’s in town…
After the show, since we basically hadn’t eaten dinner, we went to a yakitori (grilled food on skewers) restaurant. Paul told us he thought Japan was stuck in the 1990’s. It used to be the most advanced country, and now it’s been stagnant for years. STF #6: People still use fax machines- the vast majority of businesses in Japan rely on fax machines. You can read about it more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/14/world/asia/in-japan-the-fax-machine-is-anything-but-a-relic.html?_r=0. STF #7: People still use PAY PHONES. I passed by several phone booths where people were making phone calls. STF #8: People still use flip phones (not the smart phone kind). I haven’t seen this many flip phones since… like, 2006.
Tuesday morning, we woke up early to go to the world renowned Tsukiji fish market (most recently featured in the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”). We had heard that you have to get to the market around 3:30 or 4 in the morning in order to reserve a spot to witness the tuna auction. We weren’t that ambitious, so we arrived at 8:30, just when the market is opened to the public. I never knew tuna was such a large fish! We saw fishmongers chopping up tuna with what looked like samurai swords! By 9:30, the lines for the restaurants adjacent to the fish market were long. Since we didn’t know the difference, we picked a restaurant with a shorter line. I ordered a nigiri and sushi roll platter- and the sushi chef made it right in front of me. He would mold the rice, add a dollop of wasabi to “glue” the rice and then add a nice cut of fish. He’d then explain what the piece was (in Japanese of course) and place it directly on the table. Apparently, you’re supposed to eat nigiri with your fingers, not chopsticks! Everything I tried was DELICIOUS. Very fresh. I saw the chef take out a wasabi root and grate it to make wasabi (unlike most of the imitation “wasabi” you get in the U.S., which is just horseradish, starch, mustard and green food coloring)! Vi and Harmonie enjoyed their breakfasts as well.
We then headed to Asakusa Temple via the subway (STF #9: Subway transfers between lines are really expensive & STF #10: Even though two subway lines are “connected” on a map, sometimes, you have to exit the station, go above ground, and then walk 300 meters to get to the “transfer”). There was a long street filled with vendors that lead to the actual temple. The three of us got soft serve ice cream, and were surprised to learn that we had to EAT the ice cream directly in front of the store (we weren’t allowed to stray). We still don’t understand why… Once at the temple, we washed our hands with holy water, and threw some change into a copper vat as an offering. There were a ton of people burning incense, bowing, and clapping their hands (there’s a special way to pray that includes clapping your hands and bowing and then clapping your hands again).
Next, we went to Kappabashi Street, which is known for fake food (for display). After wandering around there, we wanted REAL food, but ate a bunch of delicious junk (cream filled croissant, in my case) from a department store, instead. We wandered around Akihabara, which is the district known for its maid cafes. There were girls in maid outfits on every street corner, beckoning for us to go to their cafe. (I unfortunately didn’t get any pictures because the girls were all wearing signs saying “No picture.”) We wanted to check a map and also figure out where else to go, so we needed wifi. What we found instead was an internet cafe (STF #11: Yes, Tokyo still has internet cafes, where you pay to use a computer, what year is this, 2000??) but we went to a normal cafe instead (with NO wifi).
After heading back to Shibuya, we found a highly rated (and cheap) ramen place, called Ichiran. We had to order from a machine (luckily the buttons had pictures) and fill out a made-to-order form (thankfully they had them in English). How cool is that? We could specify how well cooked we wanted the ramen, how we wanted our scallions sliced, etc. We had to enjoy our ramen (very tasty, the “secret sauce” was amazing) in individual booths, where we could hear slurping sounds (it’s actually impolite NOT to slurp, that means you don’t find the food good) coming from booths around us. We then headed to the Metropolitan Government building for a great view of the Tokyo skyline from the 40th floor AND it was FREE!
We slept in on Wednesday morning, and had brunch at a nice French bistro (caffeine and carb overload- all you can drink coffee and all you can eat baguette with nine different types of jam). We went to the Imperial Palace grounds to walk off our food coma. Apparently much of the palace was destroyed by fires in the 1800’s and then some more was destroyed during WWII. All that we could see was one temple and a castle moat, since the public isn’t allowed into the actual palace. I was expecting something similar to the Forbidden City, but was disappointed. We then walked back to Tokyo Station, rumored to be the ONLY place that sells the weird flavors of Kit Kat candy. STF #12: Kit Kat bars are supposedly (hey, I heard this on NPR while I was driving, it must be true.) a “big thing” in Japan, where you can walk into any convenience store and stock up on strange flavors like wasabi or soy sauce or green tea. STF #13: After walking into a dozen 7 Eleven’s and other stores, all we found were dark chocolate and strawberry. But after some research (i.e. google), we found that people had success with Kit Kats at Tokyo Station. We spent the next half hour wandering around, trying to find the elusive Kit Kats. We FINALLY found them- but they were 800 yen for a small pack. And there were NO variety packs. So Vi, Harmonie and I bought three packs (citrus, strawberry cheesecake, taro) and divvied them up equally. No one was brave enough to invest $8 in a pack of the wasabi flavor. No one.
After that, we ate at another ramen place (there was a whole alley of ramen restaurants with machines to order from), before heading to… a Cat Cafe! Now, Alex and I have a very friendly (albeit stupid) cat at home, and I can pet and feed him for free (well, we have to buy his cat food), but cat cafes are a big thing in Tokyo. So, we forked over the $10 per person and spent an hour with 53 cats. Let me tell you, 53 cats do not make the cafe smell good! At first we were having trouble getting the cats’ attention. They did not want to be petted. But we came during a good time (dinner time) so we could feed the cats kibble. I was able to get cats to eat out of my hand (which Noodles will not do, at least not for dry food). I left the cafe feeling slightly guilty, like I had cheated on my cat. Haha.
We had soba (buckwheat noodles), also ordered from a machine. The sauce/soup was just soy sauce and water… I think we all preferred ramen over soba. Paul was at a Swedish/Japanese mixer at a bar in Shibuya that night, so the three of us went to meet up. There were a few Americans there, but mostly Japanese and Swedes. It was really nice to meet some new people, but more importantly to witness Paul after consuming a handful of beers and no dinner. 😀 (I think Paul may be visiting us in Seoul over Thanksgiving- which is in a couple weeks!)
Thursday morning, we checked out of our hotel. Despite the drizzle, we walked through Yoyogi Park to the Meiji Shrine. This shrine was built in the Shinto era, so it looks much different than the Asakusa shrine that we had visited on Tuesday. There were very tall “gates” called torii that led to the Shrine. It was very peaceful and much less crowded than Asakusa. Apparently if you go during the weekend, you’ll witness traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies at Meiji. We purchased lunch from another department store (I had more sushi) before picking up our bags and heading to the airport.
It was great to be able to spend a few days in Tokyo with Vi and Harmonie, and also to catch up with Paul! Sayonara!