It’s huge. Once arriving in the airport, that’s all I could think. After looking at the subway map for over 20 minutes while thousands of passenger’s on their way to who-knows-where breezed by, I knew this was going to be quite the experience, especially considering I was snorkeling just a day prior and now it was below freezing.
We were unprepared. No place to stay and not even the first inkling of what to do, where to go, or how to get there. Luckily, we stumbled upon an information center in the airport and after about 45 minutes of Japanglish had ourselves a hotel booked between Ueno and Asakusa, and about seven maps, manuals and whereisits in our pockets. Ok, now how do we get there? The subway map looks like a 3 year old had a field day on the wall with all 64 crayons. Trying to ask passers-by was futile as our Japanese was even worse than their English. Well, back to the information booth for our answer and we were on our way. Roughly two-and-a-half hours later we were at our stop. I am not kidding when I say Tokyo is huge.
Asakusa and Ueno
The one thing we did know about Tokyo was that is was expensive. Our hotel proved us right. For $50 a night we got to sleep in a closet-sized room that was a bed, living room, kitchen and tv room all in one. In a great neighborhood, the hotel was authentic Japanese-style and given the circumstances of our budget, we were more than happy with this accomodation and stayed 2 nights. They even had a green tea machine that kept you humming along as long as you liked.
We compiled a list of all we wanted to accomplish while here:
Sumo training for Jason
Have an authentic meal with a family
Drink at the top of the Hyatt
Shinjuku and Shibuya
Osaka and Kyoto Sidetrip
Onsen (hot baths)
Tsukiji Fish Market
Izakuya (drinking with businessmen…sakebomb!)
We also immediately contacted some folks off of hospitalityclub.com and put some emails out to friends that had been here for advice. A big thanks to Chris and Ryan for the info! That night we walked around our neighborhood and found a restaurant in Asakusa where we dined on soups, salads and rice and topped everything off with some green tea ice cream. A great start to the trip and I really liked the idea of using chopsticks at every meal. Walking back to the hotel, the wind whipped up and had us running just to stay warm. We watched Japanese television in complete amazement and laughed ourselves to sleep as we realized that communication here was going to be a challenge.
The following morning we completed a self-guided tour of Asakusa, trying unique foods most of which we didn’t know until later what they were. We sipped on sweet sake to keep us warm and passed the famous Kaminari-mon gate into the shopping district. An ultimate market with gifts, souvenirs and food, it leads to the Kannon temple where locals worship by first breathing in incense, washing their hands and mouths with what I would consider holy water before proceeding into the temple to pray, donate and ask for blessings. We continued our walking tour past street performers, shops and restaurants, stopping along the way for more snacks.
Central Tokyo, Imperial Palace and Ginza
A subway trip to Central Tokyo and then Ginza, we realized how impeccably clean the city is and noticed everyone seems to be very conservative and well-kept. High fashion would be an understatement and every outfit was unique. It’s not like everyone is shopping at Gap or Banana Republic.
First we walked through the Imperial Palace but were unimpressed. You can’t even see the palace and it’s not exactly the right season for a stroll through the park. On the west side of the park is the National Theatre where we wanted to see Kabuki. After stopping in, I realized we were thoroughly underdressed for the occasion as women were wearing Kimono’s and men were in either authentic dress or suits. Thirty minutes later, another language barrier resulted, and we were on our way to the Kabuki-za Theathre in Ginza for a show that, we learned, was to our standard.
Stopping for a Japanese-version of fast food in Ginza, we had soba noodles, curry and a rice dish with pork. I as so happy to see that we could at the very least get cheap food here.
You can’t take photos during the Kabuki and to save money we purchased only one English translator headset for the show. I let Erin listen as I wanted to try to figure it out on my own. That bright idea lasted for about one minute and soon I was leaning over to have her whisper what was happening. To be honest, even in English, it doesn’t make much sense. However, it’s a depiction of a time that existed long ago. The Edo (Tokyo’s original name) period lasted for over two-and-a-half centuries ending in 1868, and during this time there was no Western influence whatsoever. All that I considered Japanese; temples, pagoda’s, kimono’s, kabuki, sumo, music, modern language, art, class, etc. was developed during this era and still is a major contributing factor to the society that exists today. I realized that this is why they say if you ever want a true culture shock, come to Japan.
Our Japanese Host
Checking email, we learned we would be able to stay with someone in Tokyo. The next day, we took the subway there and after 2 hours were at the home. No one answered but we were instructed to just come in. We felt a little uncomfortable about this, so we rang, knocked, and called hello before entering. Figuring no one was home we dropped our bags and began writing a note that we would return that night when what we thought was a closet door opened quickly and out popped the head of Yuji, our new host. Apparently he had been out until 7am the night prior (subways shut down from 12 to 5:30am so going out is usually quite the event) showing another guest around town. We agreed to meet up for sushi dinner near his house later that night and made our way down to Shinjuku, one of the Times Square look-a-likes that are so common in Tokyo.
It is exactly as you’d imagine. Big, bright, tons of people, giant building, advertisements everywhere, and as mentioned, well dressed people everywhere. Electric, as they say here. Walking around in amazement at the sheer magnitude of everything including more people than you really care to be around all at once; claustrophobics should seriously steer clear of Tokyo, maybe Asia altogether. We were on a mission for more Japanese food and, fueling my addiction, had some more soup. The restaurant was amazing, and probably the most authentic we’d been at. In the window they are tossing around dough to make their own noodles. Add fresh fish, octopus, shrimp, veggies to this with some broth and you will see me smile from ear to ear.
On the way back to Yuji’s we learned the hard way that we had yet to master the intricacies of the subway system. New lines and old lines and multi-destination lines and limited express lines and about a million people may have been the problem. Thankfully we finally got back on track and Yuji was waiting for us in the station when we arrived, unfashionably, 90 minutes late. He led us to his favorite sushi spot where we met with two of his guests (he hosts A LOT of people), one from France and the other from France but living in Japan. Yuji brings so many traveller’s here that the owner’s gave us the royal treatment including free beer and sake and after removing our shoes, we climbed into the recessed eating area. The sushi was amazing but Erin and I were still a little full from our soup feast earlier in they day, so we ate sparingly. I tried Shell Liver and some other local fish that I cannot remember the name of. Mostly though, it was great conversation with new friends, sharing tales of travel and adventure.
We returned to Yuji’s home and after some more chatting, and some food prep for Yuji’s cooking, made our way to bed. We would ultimately stay here for the rest of our trip in Tokyo.
Shibuya, Yoyogi Park, and Yuji goes Wild in the Kitchen
The next morning we went to Shibuya, a similar neighborhood to Shinjuku, yet a little younger. We walked around Harajuku, and Yoyogi Park before entering the Meiji Temple. Here, they had these wooden blocks that people could buy, write a prayer on and then hang them for the priests to “bless.” Well, since we don’t really buy into “pay for pray” we just had a nice look and noticed everyone was writing that they wish for health, happiness and love. We decided, while hugging and sneaking some smooches to say what we wished for and what we loved, but within seconds a police officer came over and “broke up” the embrace. Apparently, public displays of affection aren’t allowed here. So, we let go and decided to leave the temple where we could hug and hold hands in the free way we are accustomed to in the U.S.A. So funny! Many seem so up tight and conservative here…even on the trains, which are completely packed and you could hear a pin drop!
We returned to Yuji’s where he cooked us an unbelievable 5-course meal. As an appetizer, we sampled some of his homemade cheese and began with a salad topped with a fresh orange-syrup, garlic and onion dressing. Then we moved to a simple but delicious onion soup. The main entree was pan fried chicken thighs topped with a sauce consisting of blueberries, soy, honey (and vinegar?) and some fresh rice. The dessert was an orange-infused chocolate served in a halved-orange, a la mode. I couldn’t believe how good this meal was and counted my lucky stars that we had met such a great host and an even better cook (which I’m not supposed to advertise.)
With our new French friend Line, we went to Odaiba to find an authentic Japanese-style Onsen, or hot baths. The girls were able to go together so I had my own unique, naked experience.
First, you get to pick out your own robe, so I chose the baddest, meanest looking warrior and made my way to the locker. After stripping down, I went to the outdoor foot baths where you walk over rocks are strategically placed to massage certain pressure points in your feet. This was a painful experience but eventually it started to feel good.
Into the main bath area, I read what would be the last sign in English that said “do not walk soaking wet in the locker room,” and accordingly I dropped trough with towels in hand and followed the custom of getting a shower before entering the pools. Sitting on a stool, you dump hot water all over yourself using a bucket and lather up before rinsing in the same manner. Then it’s off to the pools, where I can honestly say, I’ve never felt more eyes on me at once. Since I don’t speak a lick of Japanese, let alone can I understand what even one character says, I just tried to follow what everyone else was doing. I made my way to the hot tub area with jets and settled in for a nice soak, leaving my towel and small towel lying on the high wall, but noticed that no one else was carrying their large towel. So much for walking in the locker room soaking. Most men would wrap the short towel like a bandana, fold it neatly and place it on top of their head, or even more likely, hold it in front of them while walking around. Well, while dipping in the hot tub, both of my towels were taken by crew so I guess I was on my own. Eyes were always upon me but eventually I just didn’t care and had two nice hours of some much-needed relaxing. I strut my stuff back and forth, from salt pool to cold pool, milk bath to super-hot bath, regular bath to sauna before retreating back to the locker where I motioned for the towel attendant to bring my soaking wet, white-behind, another large towel. Afterwards, I was so completely exhausted that I fell asleep in the lobby waiting for the girls.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The next morning, we bid farewell to Yuji while he was teaching his weekly English lesson (he speaks 6 languages, maybe more) and made our way to the Tsukiji Fish Market with one mission in mind; the freshest sushi we may ever find. We found it after walking around lost for an hour in a side-alley. It was like heaven. Bar after bar after bar of sushi restaurants lined up, each offering pretty much the same thing. I ordered a bowl of maguro sashimi (tuna) over rice, which came with Miso soup and tea. This dish alone would cost over $20 in San Francisco and it was only $7 here! The maguro melted in my mouth like a stick of butter and I was in complete heaven.
There was no better way to end our trip to Tokyo. Although unable to complete our entire list, we were happy with what we saw. Staying with Yuji was a definite highlight, and although a “trivial” time, we learned more about Japan and it’s culture because of him. Thank you Yuji for everything. Your hospitality was second-to-none and we are so fortunate to have been able to meet you during a time when you didn’t have to work so much! Until next time…
Off to Hong Kong…