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. The 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. No one ever shows Meiji-Jingu shrine, with its 100,000 trees. Or the wide, empty streets of the Ginza on a late weekday morning. Naturally I was underwhelmed. It took me two entire days to get to Tokyo, during which time I passed through the rice paddies of Incheon, Korea, the industrial areas, 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 amount 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:
“I am simultaneously over and underwhelmed by Tokyo. It’s a big city, yes, but there are plenty of green spaces and doesn’t even feel that busy. 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 kind of like Manhattan to me and I think the only way I could have been awed by its size or density would have been to parachute straight into Shinjuku at rush hour. But maybe the things that make it feel almost recognizable are the same things that make it impenetrable. The department stored 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 place is immaculate but there are no trash cans. Everything is in Japanese, except for some English words that catch the eye then end up being entirely random. The city is not built on a grid, the address scheme is almost nonsensical 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 capitalist army”
How true that would turn out to be, and Victoria Abbott Riccardi sums it up nicely 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 year, 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 sheer fact that I had 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 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 travelled I used 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 and 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 in a crowded station bar, 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 requisite sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai. Because it was such a food-focused outing, I’ve written a lot about it on my food blog.
I thought I would cry at the auction. I was actually prepared for the possibility that I might have to give up 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. But 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 I all this is juxtaposed against the love I have of diving and undersea life. But instead what I felt was 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 (of not only fish but produce) 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 had 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’ and I felt that too. I had no desire to climb the Skytree and even the wide commercial avenues of the Ginza were hard to take in but every side street I looked down had a shop or restaurant or 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 stayed in business. The beauty here is in the details; a pair of hand-carved cedar chopsticks, made with love and incredible attention to detail and then wrapped in such beautiful packaging you would think it was a gem. Or a the wagashi, Japanese confectionary so detailed and beautiful that they really are edible gems, handled by glove-wearing attendants in the glamorous depachika department stores. 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 the tengui handkerchiefs, everything has been made thoughtfully and well and when that sunk in my world broke a little bit. I watched a door man 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.
But I only had a few days in the city so I took my metro card and ranged far and wide. I went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple complex, wandered around and snacked. 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 to the insanity of Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. Kabuki-cho is the pleasure district – in any other city it would 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 was missed in translation. Arriving here after work and getting caught up in the sea of commuters spilling out of Shinjuku station was the craziest version of Tokyo I ever saw. I got to take the photo below, a close-crop of one street but a pleasure district without much alcohol and no dancing isn’t really my thing so I 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 and passing meat down to patrons. The smell of smoke – from the grills and from all the men off work smoking and drinking – united the area called Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). My guidebook warns 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 for noodles and several were dedicated to yakitori. I also saw some mushrooms and something cut in a half-circle. Zucchini? Then a guy turning a sausage to get it charred on all sides. I like walking down one alley and looking in the front 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 really meant that I had no idea what I was eating. My best guess is pork heart, chicken skin, chicken thigh, wing tip, 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 blushed deeply when my neighbour passed me a tissue.
Later I met up with a friend of a friend, a fellow lover of travel and decidedly awesome person, and we went to a grill-it-yourself izakaya in the area. Yoshiko ordered for us but at least here I could 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 late and we ran to catch the last train, smelling of smoke and grease and smiling broadly. Then in the morning I left for Kamakura.
Here are all the photos from my trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157647124951877/