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?
And look at the shame on the ATMs’s face when your card gets declined:
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.
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):
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:
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.
These are very good guys.
Afterward we got some weird waffle ice-cream, and I passed out in my Japanese-man-sized bed.
I promise I’m a real adult man 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.
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:
Once we arrived we got ourselves some Udon and some Rainbow Snow Ice.
Sorry ladies, he’s taken
Then, we saw a big Picasso exhibit / sculpture garden on the tourist map, so we went. Bizarre statues, ahoy!
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:
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.
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!
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,
some bizarre underpants,
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,
and the austere-as-hell Meiji Shrine.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Then a bad omen, during our train ride home:
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!
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:
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.
And for all that work here’s the payoff. Watching millions of dollars’ worth of tuna change hands.
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.
I recommend against wearing flip-flops — they’ll get soaked with ice-cold, bloody fish-water.
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!