The first stop of our trip was Tokyo. I have always been interested in Tokyo. For reasons that are hard to explain, the city fascinated me. From various stories, images, and videos, Tokyo in many ways has to me seemed like a look into the future. And the people seemed to have such a passion for everything they do. I wanted to see some of this technology– bullet trains, LED stairs, flat screen TVs projecting information and advertisements on every wall and this passion, and the crazy quirkiness of the city that one hears about.
Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market
Our first evening was spent figuring out how to get internet in our room, which, do to a surprising lack of wireless required not fewer than three cables and an adapter, and getting Udon noodles for dinner followed by a sip of Japanese whiskey at a standing bar. The first real stop on our itinerary was Tsukiji fish market the following morning. It was really interesting to see the largest fish market in the world. I have never really gotten into raw fish sushi. I have enjoyed veggie sushi, tempura sushi, egg, etc… but have I generally steered clear of fish. Trying it every once in awhile to see if my tastes had gotten ‘sopisticated’ enough for real sushi. For years, I had claimed that I would give it another good shot when I can try the very best in Tokyo [NOTE from Erin — Dan wouldn’t actually let us get the very best sushi in Tokyo (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi) something about money and trees.] It became a mantra to the point that it was a bucket list item, to go to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and push my boundries trying a bunch of sushi. We walked the area enjoying some free samples and conversation in the restaurant square across from the market, before heading in to see the whole sellers and avoid getting hit by various people on weird moving devices. After exploring the market, it was time to go back to the restaurant area and dig in. I got a creative sampler with 6 or so fish pieces.
- Tuna is the best;) Fatty tuna is the very best (you will see that this is accurately reflected in the price).
- I am not a fan of Squid, too chewy. Although the best places in JP claim to have not chewy squid. (We later had sliced squid at Zipangu, which was much better, so maybe really high end is OK)
- I still don’t really like Salmon, but will keep trying
- I really like egg sushi
- I like prosciutto sushi
- I really like soy crepe sushi, which I saw for the first time in Tokyo
- I don’t like Roe
After our first stop we walked around a bit more and needed to try another place. Our second sushi-bar definitely was better than our first, here we just ordered single items and I really enjoyed my lightly grilled semi-fatty tuna. It is kind of as close to bacon mixed with good steak as one could get. I am sure we will pick up some more sushi for snacks the rest of our time in Tokyo and hopefully I will be happy to add a few fish pieces to my normal eating repertoire back home.
A maze of people, shops, foods, and trains. One could explore the sprawling station alone for a week. It was a place to explore and feast at Ramen Alley, where we visited Rokurinsha, a top ramen shop, and recommended by several friends. Making various connections through the station we definitely got lost a little bit, but never too bad. From this launch point we visited:
The station was our jumping off point to explore the city:
- Shibuya, Meiji Shrine and neighborhoods.
- Akihabara, electric city
- Akasaka, Zipangu restaurant and neighborhoods.
- Shinjuku, (Robot Restaurant) and bars
- Yurakucho, Tsukiji fish market
- and finally to leave the city and head to Osaka
One of the reasons I was really excited to visit Japan was to see their train system. Hearing stories of it being the best in the world and how fast the bullet trains were, had always made me want to visit. We bought a 7 day JR Rails pass, and have a Pasmo card to ride the subway. Overall, I have been super impressed. A city with so many people and we hardly see traffic and cars around the city. Many places we visited had major streets shut down allowing only foot traffic making for amazing pedestrian malls. The signs and directions inside the transit system are well done and clear. The staff and security are extremely helpful. It made me wish the US had done a better job with subway systems. The circle around Tokyo city with spokes of major stations connecting through many routes makes it far easier to get from point to point here than in Manhattan where everything is in a straight line constantly blocking one another. It was fun to take the long route to some destinations so we could complete the full Yamanote loop around Tokyo. Really, the system is so clear that without GPS or our phone’s internet initially working we got from Narita airport to Tokyo station on the Narita Express (N’EX) and made our transfer over the subway to our hotel without any problems. The level of detail they have put into making the experience good is simply amazing and awe inspiring.
Our Impressions of the People and the Culture
I don’t know if it was because we watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi on our flight to Tokyo, but I swear that, particularly in the city, you could feel the desire people had to do one thing really well – devoting their lives to perfecting a single task. Combined with the dispersion of technology, this type of culture leads to a cult-like restaurant scene — you can always pick out THE BEST ramen restaurant and THE BEST sushi restaurant by the crowds gathered out front, even when there is another roman restaurant next door, sitting empty. Only one can be the best. It also seems to lead to an intense work culture. We saw people (men, mainly) walking out of their office buildings at 9 and 10 o’clock at night. It’s also possible to understand how that type of work culture could make it difficult to balance a family and a career (and could lead to the low percentage of women and mothers in the Japanese workforce), and could lead also to Japan’s relatively high suicide rate. Though we saw only the public, service-oriented types of work, it was possible to see how it could be hard to sit behind the counter at an empty restaurant, next to one stuffed with young, working, chatting, eating people.
Japan has Things Figured Out
Speaking of Toilets
An Exception — The Gomi Strategy
I have read, seen, and heard about wild and bizarre things in Tokyo. I just wanted to experience and see some of the lovely weirdness of the city. We hit up some neighborhoods known to be more quirky, a show that is known to be amusing and non-nonsensical, and explored alleys searching for the perfect tiny hidden bar.
Robot Restaurant is a quirky show of song, dance, and ‘acting’. In theory it is a dinner show, but the food can cost extra and most give it horrible reviews. We chose to eat elsewhere and just enjoy beer and sake with the show. The show doesn’t seem to make much sense but generally has the theme of evil robots fighting the good humans. It was a great way to see some oddball Japanese humor. While it does target tourists locals enjoy the show as well, I believe there were 3 people celebrating their birthday’s at our show. Really the photos and various videos can’t do justice to the spectacle you are immersed in (and if your in the front row occasionally dodging).
Piss Alley Bars, not kidding this is what a collection of back alley bars is known as. Even with the amazingly inviting name we decided to check it out. We wandered through crazy alleys with tiny bars that could fit 4 to 6 people. Many dark with stairwells disappearing into the unknown. Eventually we picked a stairwell to find a happy well dressed gentlemen ready to make us cocktails. It wasn’t our favorite as we were hoping to find a place with some more locals chatting. The bar tender didn’t know English and we don’t know enough Japanese, but we all had a good time.
Akihabara’s Electric City is just wild to me. I like electronics and computers. This place has a lot of those, all trying to beat out each others prices. Although that is what the area was originally known for now that while interesting takes second seat to the manga and video games. The area is full of comic, comic fans in outfits, video game arcades. Giant Sega signs and buildings seem to be around every corned. People waiting in line to see and play the latest and greatest game. It also has a large number of maid cafes, which is pretty funny. We didn’t drop by any but saw plenty of people in costumes trying to get visitors into their shops. The coolest part of this area was that all the streets were completely shut down. So people could wander down the middle of the road and all over the place. It made for great views of the cityscape and pleasant walking as you didn’t have to use all your energy avoiding people.
When I Close My Eyes and Think of Japan
Helpful Tokyo travel posts passed on by @abatalion:
- Hacking Japan: Inside Tokyo for Less than New York (part 1)
- Hacking Japan: Inside Tokyo for Less than New York (part 2)
I found the Rough Pocket Guide to Tokyo pretty useful and fun to read on the trains as we approached destinations.
We used the JR 7 day rail pass and thought it worked great for the type of traveling we did. You still need to pay for some subway and buses, but we did a lot of day trips to nearby cities like Kyoto and Nara as well as using the local JR loop line in towns when it made sense. Really just the cost of the Tokyo-Osaka round trip covered the cost.