It’s become very fashionable for people to describe Tokyo as a hectic, crowded place absolutely teeming with people and positioned squarely in the future. A host / author / blogger / yelper goes to dinner at the fighting robot cafe and then to a pachinko parlour and then maybe eats some fugu before passing through Shibuya crossing at rush hour on the way to Kabuki-cho, the frenetic pleasure district. This kind of thing. You hardly ever see the Meiji-Jingu shrine, with its 100,000 trees, or the wide, empty streets of Ginza on a late weekday morning. It took me two entire days to get to Tokyo, during which time I passed through the rice paddies of Incheon, Korea, industrial areas around the Seoul airport, vacant lots of Narita and then along the partially closed expressway to arrive at Tokyo station. Later I would have a near panic attack at the number of people pushing through the station and the utter lack of coherency of the train schedule, but arriving by bus in the middle of the day and walking to my hotel I marvelled at the quiet emptiness. When I had settled into my hotel I sat down with a cold beer and wrote this:
“Tokyo is a big city, yes, but there are plenty of green spaces and the pace isn’t as fast as I expected. The expressways are impressive but there are homeless people sleeping under them, like in any city. And there are expensive hotels and restaurants to be sure, but there are plenty of cheap ones too. It feels a bit like Manhattan to me so I think what I’m surprised about is the lack of culture shock that I was bracing myself for. But maybe the things that make it feel almost recognizable are the same things that are masking cultural mysteries. The department stores are like museums where you are not supposed to take photos and where you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t know what you want. The city is immaculate but there are no trash cans anywhere. Everything is in Japanese, except for some English words that catch my eye then end up being entirely random. The city is not built on a grid, the address scheme is almost incomprehensive, and street signs are rare. If you do find what you’re looking for, there is another level of impenetrability inherent in the manners and etiquette. Every man is wearing the same outfit; white undershirt, short-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks and shoes, black laptop shoulder bag – the uniform for some kind of office-worker army”
Victoria Abbott Riccardi expresses something similar in ‘Untangling My Chopsticks’, “things seem so easy until you try to understand them. An American acquaintance now living in Tokyo said that after his first week, he felt he could write a book about the country; a year later, only a magazine article; after fifteen years, only one sentence.”
For dinner my first evening I went back to Tokyo station for ramen at “Ramen Street” – a collection of ramen shops where you order from a machine and have the option of paying with your metro card. I had some trouble with the order of operations (as well as my first realization that things were not going to be as simple as they seemed) but the ramen was delicious and deeply comforting – and I decided to be satisfied with the success of having arrived in Japan and fed myself. At one point during my trip, a friend had emailed and said she thought I was brave for travelling in Japan by myself. I hadn’t given it much thought because back when I travelled often, it was frequently by myself and I like the freedom to spend as long as I like in a museum or occasionally eating lunch twice without forcing anyone onto my schedule. But if I had thought about it, about the fact that it was my first time in Asia or in a place where I knew only a few words of the language and none of the alphabet, my first time travelling alone in quite a while and after a hard year of set-backs that knocked big holes in my confidence, I’m not sure if I would have been so cavalier about it. I wrote in my journal, “this is hard. Other times when I’ve travelled, I leveraged beauty or money or knowledge (language, geography, etiquette) without even realizing it but now I have only the internet and the kindness of strangers.” The kindness of strangers started well before my trip, with people offering all kinds of suggestions for things to see and do and eat. Friends reached out to friends, my landlady introduced me to someone she knew in Tokyo, and people everywhere were offering to help. Part of this is the Japanese culture – the importance of being polite and a gracious host is evident everywhere – but as I sat eating my ramen that the person behind me had helped me order, it was good to be reminded that people are kind and the world is a beautiful and interesting place.
The next morning I had an early morning wake up call to check out Tsukiji Market, followed by the early morning sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai.
I wrote on my food blog (now defunct):
I thought I would cry at the fish auction. I was actually prepared for the possibility that I might have to give up eating fish, so anxious am I already at the dire strait of the oceans. The sight of so many tuna lined up on the floor didn’t unhinge me, but the understanding that this was the second series of auctions that day and this happened almost every day of the year made me feel faint. However, as much as I am passionate about ocean conservation and sustainable fisheries, it was hard to be angry here.
I hate that we are fishing tuna out of the water. I hate that Japan is still whaling, I hate that there was a mountain of Styrofoam and all this is juxtaposed against the love I have of diving and undersea life, but instead of being angry, I felt intense respect for these workers, readying their shops every day at 4 in the morning and doing their best to move food through the market in spite of the tourists who come to gawk at them. Awe at the sheer diversity (not only of fish but produce too) and beauty in the market as well as the frantic pace of bikes, pedestrians, cars, vans and scooter carts trying to get the fish delivered as quickly as possible.
In short, I thought it was pretty neat, even before I ate the best sushi of my life.
Matthew Amster Burton writes in Pretty Good Number One that ‘Tokyo is not beautiful but is full of beautiful things’ that really resonated with me. I had no desire to climb the Skytree but every side street I looked down had a shop or restaurant that I wanted to check out…paper lanterns moving about softly in the breeze and bells tinkling invitingly, or a display of something so specialized you could hardly believe the shop could stay in business. The beauty here is in the details; a pair of hand-carved cedar chopsticks made with love and incredible attention to detail then wrapped in such beautiful packaging it looks like a treasure. Or wagashi, Japanese confectionery, handled by glove-wearing attendants in the glamorous depachika department stores that are so detailed and beautiful that they really are edible gems. Matt asked me in an email what I had seen that was beautiful and I replied that everything was beautiful – from the police motorcycles to tengui handkerchiefs, everything has been hand-crafted thoughtfully. And the attention to detail shows through in the service as well. I sat and watched a doorman at a shop changing the position of the doors at closing time to lead outwards instead of inwards and I was ashamed for every mall in America.
I only had a few days in Tokyo but I took my metro card and ranged far and wide. I went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple complex, wandered around and snacked on street food. I had the best sushi of my life again and I walked from the serenity of the Meiji-Jingu Shinto shrine through Harajuku down into the insanity of Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Kabuki-cho is the pleasure district (in another city it might be called the red light district) and there are a couple of strip bars here but there are also Maid Cafes, video arcades, pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be digitally glammed up, and who knows what else that got missed in translation. Arriving in Kabuki-cho at rush-hour and getting caught up in the sea of commuters spilling out of Shinjuku station felt like the Tokyo postcard that I described at the start of this post. I explore for a while and then continued back up under the station where I found the warren of yakitori joints and izakayas.
There must have been 30 different places, all specializing in something different and most so small that the proprietor was grilling on the windowsill facing the street then passing meat down to patrons. The smell of smoke (from the grills and from all the men off work smoking cigarettes while they drank) united the area called Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). My guidebook warned that some entire places are reserved for locals and I thought this was just code for “not friendly to foreigners” but then I saw a reserved sign hanging across the doorway of one shop.
Some shops were specific to noodles and others were dedicated to yakitori. I also saw some mushrooms and something cut in a half-circle (zucchini?). I had fun walking down an alley and looking in the front doors and windows of the restaurants, then turning a corner and being able to see in the back. Finally, I decided on a place and ordered the set menu – which meant that I had no idea what I was eating. My best guess is pork heart, chicken skin, chicken thigh, wingtip, negi (similar to a fat green onion) and some other kind of pork. I thought how funny it is that many people are scared to eat here and don’t worry about the etiquette because they don’t know a thing about it but for me, it’s the opposite – I chewed happily on my mystery meat and didn’t really care to know more.
Later I met up with a friend of a friend, a fellow travel-lover and a decidedly awesome person, and we went to a grill-it-yourself izakaya in the area. She ordered for us but it was easy to identify the giant scallops (as big as my hand), huge turban snails, sashimi and crab with quails eggs in them ready to be cooked. We sampled sake and shochu and chatted about all the amazing places in the world. Then suddenly it was so late and we ran to catch the last train, smelling of smoke and grease and grinning broadly.
In the morning, I left for Kamakura.