Japan Solo

I loved Japan. Loved it. How can you not love a place so mannerly, so punctual, so delicious? Every aspect of life in Tokyo has been tweaked with an extra-considerate eye for detail. Take ATMs, for example. Where in the US would an ATM have a little umbrella slot on the counter?

descrip Such courtesy!

And look at the shame on the ATMs’s face when your card gets declined:

descrip They can’t bear the disgrace.

An American ATM wouldn’t give a shit!

But I wouldn’t have made it to Tokyo without one extremely considerate American on my side.

My lovely lady-friend Rebecca sent me to Tokyo as a birthday present, where I got to meet up with some wildly generous Japanese friends of mine.

Tokyo

My first recommendation for enjoying Tokyo: have some wildly generous Japanese friends. Here they are, caught in the act of buying me a nice meal (this happened very, very often over the course of the trip):

descrip What a crowd!

Hidemi (in my arm) and Hiro (right across from  me) lodged and fed me, and showed me a side of Tokyo that I never could have seen otherwise. And-o-re (front left) helped treat me to some barbecue, and hosted us all for drinks to boot. A big thank you to all of you guys.

Now to talk about the trip. It started after a bizarre, smokey flight on cheap-ass China Eastern Airlines. I don’t know why my flight looked  like this:

descrip Don’t they know there’s a fine?

After that, I arrived in Narita Airport, via Pudong (in Shanghai. Don’t come to Narita, if you can avoid it —  even though it’s “in the city” of Tokyo, it’s actually a 2.5 hour bus ride from town.

The bus dropped me off nearby  Hiro’s hotel / apartment (one of the perks of his Big Corporate Internship), where Hidemi met me and took me to meet up with Hiro at at an upscale Unagi (eel) place nearby.

The day before I got there was a big Unagi Festival, and that made my friends want to treat me to some.  Everything on the table tasted great, even the deep-fried eel spines.

descrip These are very good guys.

descrip

Afterward we got some weird waffle ice-cream, and I passed out in my Japanese-man-sized bed.

descrip I promise I’m a real adult man descrip This is what adults eat.

The next day Hiro had to work, but Hidemi took me to see the Parliament Building before we got on a train to Hakone.

descrip Very official.

Hakone

Hakone sits a little outside Tokyo, and it’s filled with quaint little hotspring resorts that seemed very “couple-y” to me. A place for honey-mooners, not a couple 20-something  dudes.

Sure enough, the main train through town is called “The Romance Express”. It’s an  old-fashioned little engine that chugs its way along a mountainside lined with hydrangea bushes, like so:

descrip Enchantment!

Once we arrived we got ourselves some Udon and some Rainbow Snow Ice.

descrip Sorry ladies, he’s taken

descrip

Then, we saw a big Picasso exhibit / sculpture garden on the tourist map, so we went.  Bizarre statues, ahoy!

descrip descrip

Like all Japanese things, the exhibit came with exquisite planning. Just when our feet started to ache from walking around in the mountains, we stumbled on this free foot-soak, fed by hotspring, complete with fresh oranges to scent the water. This is where Hidemi snapped the best picture of the trip. Check out this suspicious kid:

descrip I can sense his hate.

So after all that we went to a hotel in Hakone. Once in the hotel, you throw your clothes in a closet and wear loaned robes for your entire stay. Extremely comfortable.

descrip

The hotel stay includes access to some excellent hot springs,  but since you have to be completely naked to hang out there, I thought bringing the camera might be in poor taste.

More great food here, including my first sampling of bona fide Japanese ramen, served with a frosty haiboru (a splash of whiskey in a big mug full of ice-cubes, topped with club soda). Behold my satisfaction!

descrip He slurps the ramen / idiot grin afterward/ MSG, then bliss

Back to Tokyo

The next day Hidemi took me to Shibuya, to see some virtual horse-racing,

descrip

some bizarre underpants,

descrip I wish I had his confidence

And then to Kabuki-Cho, where Hidemi showed me some of Tokyo’s seedy underbelly.

(Don’t worry, I didn’t do anything filthy.)

We replenished our souls at the well-manicured Shinjuku-Gyoen Gardens,

descrip

and the austere-as-hell Meiji Shrine.

descrip

At these shrines you use stations like this to wash your hands and mouth, so that you don’t taint the grounds with your filthiness.

descrip

You could buy a prayer-card for 500 Yen. Since Emperor Meiji was a broad-minded guy, you’re supposed to write a magnanimous prayer for society. Something big like world peace, or wise leadership from our governments, or something like that. Check out what this German guy wrote:

descrip

My German’s a little rusty, but I believe that’s “I wish for a new Online banking service, and for many funny emails.” And here’s an interesting chart:

descrip

It lays out what the worst years of your life are supposed to be. The red markings mean “Danger”, and they indicate when some awful things will happen. For men, the bad years are 25, 42, 61. For women, 19, 33, 37. So, uh, watch out.

More ramen after the shrine.

descrip

Then a bad omen, during our train ride home:

descrip

A train stopped mid-platform may not look like much. But Hidemi tells me that Tokyo trains never, ever do that. A likely cause of the delay? Some poor soul’s suicide, elsewhere along the railway. Japan has an enormous problem with people throwing themselves on the tracks… Very ghastly.

We got home safe, though. We met Hiro and Andre for barbecue. No way I would have enjoyed such a classy meal without their help. Thanks guys!

descrip

Tsukiji

After dinner, Hidemi and I stayed up until 2 AM, so that we could snag a spot for the Tsukiji Fish Market tour. It’s insane — you have to get there by 3 AM, so that you can get a spot to wait for 2 hours before the official tour starts. It’s an all-nighter, with quite a turnout:

descrip

I’ll never forget how it felt to defy death in  the market at 3:30 in the morning, dodging the dozens of forklifts zipping around the asphalt. When the whole world sleeps, Tsukiji moves fish. Hidemi and I were stoked.

descrip STOKED!

And for all that work here’s the payoff. Watching millions of dollars’ worth of tuna change hands.

descrip Worth more than your house

The daily trade volume in Tsukiji is around $15 Million USD. In 2013, one tuna sold for $1.76 Million! Serious business, and it’s all done by super-traditional auction, with this guy singing out the bids. descrip

I recommend against wearing flip-flops — they’ll get soaked with ice-cold, bloody fish-water.

descrip Don’t do this

Afterwards, Hiro met us up for breakfast sushi nearby the market, which was the true culinary highlight of the trip. No pictures — that would have been pretty rude, I’m told. But I’ll tell you that it was delicious.

And then, after a few more good conversations, Tokyo was over! What a ride. I will definitely be returning.

Thanks again to my hosts!