Overwhelming the Senses in Rainy Japan
03.28.2013 - 04.04.2013 55 °F
Tokyo. I am currently looking out over the massive city of Tokyo watching the sunset near Mount Fuji from the 48th floor in the Midtown Tower. This city has been impressive on many levels: wonderful cuisine, efficient and comprehensive train systems, cleanliness, and cutting-edge technology everywhere. The city has a fast-paced pulse that sees you witness young professionals rushing to work (or drinking furiously until the wee hours after work) followed by you catching a glimpse around the next corner of an older woman in a kimono walking down the street reminiscent of an earlier time.
At times, Tokyo confused us with its two different subway systems (the Metro and Toei lines), but after a few inadvertent purchases of the wrong tickets (and some subsequent Japenglish conversions with the local police), we figured it out… but you can see why it might have been a little tricky:
Luckily, the week Ryan and I came was during the coveted cherry blossom season and right outside our hotel was a public park lined with the beautiful trees. We were in Tokyo for 6 days and we only had one sunny day. Fortunately, we did not send home our winter gear because it was chilly and rainy in Tokyo.
Our first day in Tokyo, Ryan and I went to the Imperial Palace and walked for several hours around the city. The famous cherry blossoms were in bloom and it made the views beautiful. We were struck with the impeccable cleanliness of Tokyo while walking around the city. There are recycling bins next to the many vending machines on the streets. It was a stark contrast to the trash that I saw on the streets and beaches in Cambodia.
Another slightly silly thing I want to point out about Tokyo is the toilet technology. I have never been to a country with such fancy toilets. One evening at a restaurant with friends I got anxiety because it was not clear on how to flush the toilet. There were ten different buttons with Kanji descriptions and no regular flushing handle. Thankfully trial and error worked, but seriously the toilet situation is the best in Asia. After spending time going through rural Cambodia, this was the space age.
Ryan and I were really lucky in Tokyo to meet up with an old friend of mine and her family. My friend Laura moved here with her 2 year-old son while her husband Jason was relocated to work in Tokyo for at least a year. We met them in their neighborhood, Roppongi, and enjoyed Okonomiyaki (pancake) Japanese food along with many Asahi beers. The giant pancakes were cooked on the skillet that made up the middle of the table where we were sitting. It was so much fun to catch up with an old friend and hear about their adventures as Gaijins (a non-Japanese person) in Tokyo. In addition to eating at the Okonomiyaki restaurant in their neighborhood, Laura made us an “American” meal with lasagna and apple pie for desert. It was such a treat to have a friend make us dinner one evening after travelling for months!
Over dinner, we mentioned wanting to get out and see some of the “quintessentially (modern) Japanese style” that we were sure were lurking somewhere in this behemoth town. Following Laura’s advice we went to Harajuku for the Sunday parade of fashion (and also spent a bit of time in the Meiji Shrine area). Harajuku was really entertaining and it seemed like the young population was waiting for their turn on the imaginary runway. Every Sunday the young fashionistas come out and showcase to the world what the new trends should be. There are also people dressed up in different costumes from anime, manga, comic books, and video game characters to name a few.
Right next to the happening fashion area with tons of stores and restaurants is the Meiji Shrine area. The area was wooded and once we made it to the shrine area we were able to witness a wedding procession walking through the courtyard. The parade of people walking to the shrine all had difficult shoes to walk in and the formal procession shuffled along slowly.
One of the main tourist attractions in Tokyo is the Tokyo Tower close to Roppongi; it is a retro icon for the city. Tokyo Tower is a red and white copy of the Eiffel Tower, and it tops its Parisian model by a couple of meters. The tower was built in 1958 and provides views of the entire city on a clear day. Next to the Tokyo Tower is the Zojo-ji temple that had many small jizo statues that capped in red bonnets and decorated with plastic flowers and windmills. The particular jizo statues at Zojo-ji served as memorials to stillborn children from their parents. The parents leave small offerings to remember their children and hopefully secure comfort for them in the afterlife.
Tokyo Foodie Update. When I think of Japanese food my mind immediately thinks of sushi, but that only makes up 20% of the cuisine of Japan. Tokyo has over 500,000 restaurants and the options are endless. Even though Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world, there is quite a range on food prices and we found it to be quite manageable for any budget. I got drawn into a McDonald’s advertising a green tea milkshake and seaweed/sea-salt French fries. I had not eaten at a McDonald’s in years, but I wanted to try the Japanese-inspired fast food version.
One evening Ryan and I went to Ganchan in Roppongi to try Yakitori. It was raining outside and other Yakitori restaurants were on a wait at 8:30 pm on a Tuesday evening with the patrons patiently waiting in the rain. The restaurant that had room for us fit about 12 patrons around the counter, 2 lively chefs keeping everyone entertained, 1 chef’s assistant and a surprisingly solid collection of American rock n’ roll cassettes/CDs from the 60s and 70s. Yakitori style involves cooking small portions of food on a skewer over wood coals (on a VERY small grill space). We ordered a set course, and sat back and enjoyed the subsequent ten rounds of delicious food presented to us. Some of the tasty items included: Asparagus wrapped in bacon, quail eggs, pork loin and basil, marinated chicken meatballs and wings, chicken skin, fresh shitake mushrooms, and a rice ball with a pickled cherry. Of course dessert included some green tea ice cream. The two-hour dinner was extremely enjoyable and tasty.
The next morning we ambitiously woke up at 3 AM and traveled to the Tsukiji fish market in hopes of being one of the first 140 people allowed in to witness the tuna auction at 5:30. The Tsukiji fish market was definitely a highlight of our trip to Tokyo. We arrived to the venue at 3:45 AM in the rain and promptly joined the line of other serious early morning tourists. Our punctuality paid off because we were given vests to wear for the first tour starting at 5:25 AM to watch the Tuna auction. Admission for tourists to view the auction is on a first come first serve basis. Any visitors attempting to watch the auction after the first 140 people have been admitted are denied admission and sent home (around 4:00). In the first group there were 70 tourists including us that were shuffled into the auction room to watch the giant tunas get sold from 600,000 Yen to 1,000,000 Yen or up to $100,000 USD. Of course with everything else in Tokyo, it was very organized. The fish were laid out according to size in neat lines. They were huge! The prospective buyers cut small sections off the fish and tasted and felt the consistency between their fingers. I have no idea how to tell what a tuna is worth; there was a lot going on at the fish market that I did not understand.
So naturally, at 5:50 AM it was time to go get a sushi breakfast after we were ushered out of the auction area. There were lines 20 people long waiting outside in the rain of the well-known sushi establishments before 6 AM. We chose a restaurant where we could sit down immediately and were not disappointed. The quality of the fish was unbelievable. The fatty Tuna (toro) and sweet shrimp melted in my mouth. The yellow tail, salmon, mackerel, squid were all top of the line. Any other sushi meal I have in my life will not compare to the unbelievable quality of the sushi at the fish market.
After our early morning adventure, I opted to go back to rest up at the Ritz while Ryan wanted to travel to a small town a couple hours away called Nikko to experience some history. In addition to catching up on my sleep, I wanted to hang out with my friend Laura and her son Drew for a few more hours before we had to leave Tokyo. Tokyo was our final splurge of Marriott points. We cashed them in to stay at Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo midtown, and I wanted to enjoy it before we dropped back to hostel status!
(from Ryan) After leaving Margaret behind in Tokyo, I ventured out into the madness that is several connections on Tokyo’s two subway systems followed by a two-hour trip/nap (thanks to our 3am wake-up call) to Nikko, Japan. After a 30-minute stroll through the center of Nikko and a quick stop at the Shin-kyo Bridge I arrived at my targeted destination: Tosho-gu Shrine.
Tosho-gu is a Unesco World Heritage site built originally in 1617 by Tokugawa Iegaru, the first of Japan’s shoguns. Initially, the shrine aond surrounding buildings were modest and understated, however once Tokugawa Iegaru’s grandson came into power in 1634, he renovated the existing buildings and built many more in an over-the-top memorial gesture to his deceased grandfather. Interestingly, he was able to finance all this extensive work by cleverly levying heavy taxes on rival lords (daimyo) in the nearby areas. Taxing the daimyo in this manner not only paid for the massive construction job, but served another purpose by creating financial parity amongst these lords at a time when violence among them was threatening to destabilize Japan.
A series of impressive worship halls, belfries, drum towers and tombs awaited me once inside. Among my favorite were the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys carved into the side of the royal stables (a testament to the three major principles of Tendai Buddhism), the Yomei-mon (or Sun Blaze) Gate with its immaculate wooden carvings, the “Roaring Dragon” hall and the numerous drum towers scattered among the grounds.
After finishing my tour of Tosho-gu, I made my way over to the neighboring Futaransan-jinja and Taiyuin-Keibyo complexes. Futaransan-jinja predates Tosho-gu having been built in 782 by Shido Shonin while Taiyuin-Keibyo is the mausoleum of Japan’s third shogun (and the builder of Tosho-gu) – Tokugawa Ietmita. Among the highlights of these locations were the ornate carvings at Taiyuin-Keibyo dedicated to the gods of Wind (green) and Thunder (red). After the over-the-top style of Tosho-gu, it was nice to spend some time in environments with a more traditional feel to them.
On my walk back through town, I stopped at a local art gallery where a guy from Nikko painted a personalized piece of “Dragon Art” for our home back in Atlanta and enjoyed sharing some stories with him about the town I’d be bringing his work back to. Finished in Nikko, it was time to hop a ride on the Tokyo-bound Ginza line to meet back up with Margaret (stopping briefly in Tokyo to snap a few pics of the Skytree at night).
... Together again after a whopping nine hours without one another’s company (somehow, our longest time apart in 3+ months), Ryan and I took one last stroll through the cherry blossoms near our hotel before calling an end to our last day in Tokyo. Sayonara, Tokyo! Arigato gozaimasu! Thank you very much!