We were a bit nervous to visit Tokyo. We weren’t even going to go to Tokyo, but Steve really wanted to spend a night near Mount Fuji so we made the plan to visit Tokyo afterwards, which is nearby. We didn’t end up going to Fuji, but Tokyo was definitely still happening. We were worried because everyone we had met in Japan had warned us that Tokyo was chaotic and a ‘crazy place’. So, we envisioned streets with thousands of people, train cars packed like sardines, and noise to burst ear drums. We were picturing Times Square in New York, magnified by 20 percent or more. It turned out that, though Tokyo may be crazy and hectic to the people of Japan, to some well traveled Americans, who are used to big cities, Tokyo was quite peaceful for such an immense city. The skyscrapers jut into the black night sky, and bullet train tracks loomed high above our heads, weaving in and out of buildings, but even on a busy Saturday night, in an area with many clubs, bars and restaurants, there was still a sense of organization and calm. The streets were wide, allowing you to see the stars, and the sidewalks proportionally wide, so you could walk side by side without a problem. Plus, the culture of the Japanese people is to respect others and their space, so you never felt like you were being crushed.
But, let’s back up a little bit. The Shinkansen ride from Kyoto to Tokyo was a treat. We bought bento boxes for lunch, along with an array of sweets to keep us busy. They went well with our Asahi Super Dry beer. The Bullet Train takes you through some interesting countryside and towns. We eventually came upon Mount Fuji. Though it was mostly obscured by clouds, Seth and I caught a glimpse of its snowy top during a break in the clouds. It towers above the mainly flat countryside surrounding it.
After a mix up with hotel recommendations and dollar conversions, we ended up staying at a pretty posh hotel in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Apparently the Ginza area is the place known for upscale shopping, bars, clubs, and restaurants. Most importantly, it is about a five to ten minute walk from the Tsujiki Fish Market. This is the famous fish market in Japan that has the large tuna auctions in the wee hours of the morning. Our new friend, Kazuma, met us at our hotel at 3:50am to escort us to the market. We were there by 4am and we were one of the last few of people to make it into the first group of 60 to view the auction. We stood in the ‘holding room’ until about 5:30am until they herded us over to the auction room. It was eerily quiet as we entered, aside from the shuffling of tourist feet on cold, wet cement. All around our little path through the center of the auction room were large frozen tuna, with potential buyers inspecting the little flaps cut on the tails. Eventually a bell began to ring and one or two at a time auctioneers began selling off the fish. I couldn’t follow much other than the body language, and that meant watching for people who slightly raised their hand while the auctioneer did his bit. At the end of a round of auctioning, men in tall rubber boots would mark the sold fish with some kind of red ‘paint’ and another would take a large hook and drag it away.
Afterwards was the best part ever. We made our way to Kazuma’s recommendation sushi restaurant. We waited in a line for about 20 minutes before being ushered in to a narrow room with a sushi bar. This was to be my best sushi meal of my life. I doubt I will ever be able to duplicate that experience. Daiwa Zushi had fish as fresh as you can get it, if you are not living on a fishing boat. The restaurant is in the fish market and it was about 7am. If I could have that sushi for breakfast on a regular basis it would be amazing. The pieces of sushi that surprised me were the squid (ika), sea urchin (uni), and salmon roe (ikura) sushi. These are sushi I’m not normally a big fan of. Squid sushi is usually quite chewy, but this was crisp and buttery, and so delicious. Though the sea urchin was still not my favorite, it was obviously quite fresh and had less of a stinky sea water taste. The salmon roe had the greatest difference in flavor of any salmon roe I have ever had. I frequent some pretty awesome sushi bars in LA and normally salmon roe tastes like little capsules of thin ocean water. These had a more viscous texture and a salty, yet sweet, flavor. It was so good I was tempted to buy a carton and eat it with a spoon!
Kazuma was not done with us yet, oh no! He was nice enough to shuttle us all around Tokyo. Throughout our stay he was such a great host, always making sure we were having a good time. That day we ended up going on a walking tour of Tokyo, it seemed. We walked around Harajuku to see all the weird fashions, and they were quite odd. I don’t know if you would call all of them fashionable. It was kind of how you see photos or video footage of runway models and think, “yeah, but there’s no one in their right mind who would wear that in public.” Well, we were all wrong. The people who hang out in the Harajuku area wear those crazy outfits.
We also made it to the Shibuya intersection. It’s right next to Shibuya Station which is Tokyo’s busiest rail line. All the lights at the intersection turn red so people can cross at any angle. It was interesting to watch the ebb and flow of the traffic.
That evening we went on a cruise of Tokyo Harbor. It was a very nice view to watch the sun set on the water with the Tokyo skyline in the background.
That night Kazuma took us to eat yakitori. He wanted us to try yakitori style food, and while we were there try some yakitori’d organs. And he wanted us to meet some of his friends. Well, we did all of it. Though we tried a bunch of organs (heart, liver, tail, spleen, skin) the tastiest was the cartilage. I think I’ll stick to meat from now on. The best part was talking with Kazuma and his friends. It was interesting to begin to get a picture of young Japanese people and exchange stories about life and traveling.
The next day we let Kazuma sleep in. He had shown us around for close to a full day and we needed him to rest up! Anyhow, for those of you who know me, you know I’m a bit of a Disney fan. I was quite tempted to visit the Tokyo Disney park. I wouldn’t have gone to the Magic Kingdom, because it’s about the same wherever you are, but they have a second park called Tokyo Sea. But, that wasn’t on the agenda. What was on the agenda was hitting up the disney store just off the metro line to the Disney park. I found some pretty kick ass pins for trading when I get back to the US. Something interesting I found out was that pin trading was banned at Tokyo Disney because the traders were going overboard and were clogging up pathways and foot traffic couldn’t pass. The Japanese are collectors, so I see how this could have happened. There weren’t many pins, but of the ones that were there, I purchased many of them. Watch out Disneyland, here I come! And I’m armed with Tokyo pins!!
We met Joan, Steve, and Kazuma back at the hotel, then made our way to share a delicious lunch of BBQ eel over rice. Man oh man that was good. After we were sated with our sea snakes, we went to collect our fast pass like cards to visit the Tokyo Sky Tree (speaking of Disneyland…). But, we couldn’t make our way in just yet, so we went to the nearby Asakusa temple area. The Asakusa temple is surrounded with shops and we browsed the stalls on our way. The temple was nice to see, but the highlight, kind of, was getting our fortunes. You pull a stick out of a metal canister and pull out a fortune from a drawer with a number that matches your stick number. Though Seth and Kazuma received ok fortunes, Steve got the winner, and Joan and I didn’t fare so well. The fortunes were painful, but we tied our bad fortunes to a metal pole, gave an offering, made a prayer, and washed away our bad fortune with incense, therefore leaving the bad fortune behind. We were able to leave with a clear conscience.
It was time to make our way back to the Sky Tree. At 634 meters tall (2,080.05 feet), the Tokyo Sky Tree is the second tallest building in the entire world, and the tallest freestanding broadcasting tower in the world. The viewing deck isn’t exactly that high, but we were as high as we’d ever been while being anchored to the ground. It was pretty spectacular. And the night view of the city was amazing.
That night Kazuma had more festivities planned. Joan and Steve called it a night after a long day, but Seth and I headed out to an izakaya, or traditional Japanese pub. Apparently it is quite normal for people to meet up at an izakaya after work to eat, drink, and complain about their bosses. We were there to eat, drink, and just have a good time! Kazuma wanted us to meet more of his friends, and once again, it was really nice to meet with them. The food was different and quite tasty, especially because we weren’t eating mainly organs, though there was some cartilage.
The next morning we bid Joan and Steve a bittersweet farewell. It was nice to spend time with them, but they were missing home. Afterwards, we met up with Kazuma to make our way to a party he was throwing for us. Though it was a party partially for us, it was, also, a Halloween party. We spent the evening with Kazuma and his costume clad friends. There was beer, a DJ, and Seth taught some Japanese girls how to make takoyaki. The majority of people at the party happened to be international students studying in Japan. We met a few people from California, Texas, Russia, Germany, China, and more. It was really informative to get their respective insight in living in Japan, a country so different from their own, and ours.
The next morning it was time to say good bye to Kazuma. We really hope that someday we can show him the same hospitality he showed us while we were in Tokyo. He really was a great friend to us.
At the train station we bought some delicious munchies for the ride and headed back to Osaka for our last night in Japan.
We stayed in a different area of Osaka, but it was nice to see a different part of the city. Our hotel was nice too. It was like a little apartment, and we were able to use the laundry machines downstairs. It’s such a plus when a hotel has laundry access. Though washing clothes in the sink will get you by, there’s nothing better than machine washed clothing with detergent rather than hand soap or shampoo.
We were intent to find the okonomiyaki restaurant that Minako had taken us to, but it turned out that we were mistaken on its location. But, thanks to CNNgo.com, Seth found a great place where we had our last okonomiyaki, at least for a while. We, also, made sure to grab some takoyaki, so that we could burn the roofs of our mouths off before we left for Thailand. But, it was so good!
The plan the next morning was to make it to the airport three hours before our flight so that we could get a final Japanese meal, and do a little shopping in the airport. We even had our meals picked out. Seth wanted omrice, which is a perfectly cooked omlette over rice, doused in a clear, salty, clean tasting sauce, while I was looking forward to oyako (literally translated to parent and child), which is eggs and chicken over rice. So, we arrived to the airport three hours early only to be told that our flight time was bumped up, and we had to make a mad dash to the plane. Therefore, we had to forgo breakfast and shopping. This put a real damper on our morning. Luckily they feed you on the plane. Sadly, it was the smallest meal yet. Though we were left hungry, they gave us booze, so that helped. We finally landed in Thailand..