Tokyo, Japan 2014

Friday 2/28/2014

Flying into Narita Airport from Bangkok on an overnight flight is peaceful. Towards the end of the flight the sun starts to rise and the sleepy cabin starts to wake and begins their day. 

sunrise over Asia

Peaceful, I say, until you land. We took off at midnight and are set to arrive at 7:30am. Still a little jetlagged from getting to Bangkok earlier in the week, this flight at least gives me the chance to sleep a bit before hitting the city in the morning. We have no holdups at immigration or customs and are exited by 8:15. Now, we just have to figure out how to get out of here. I got some preliminary directions from our hotel who did not know what method of transport we would be taking. We know the final metro station to exit, but getting from Narita to that metro station is our challenge. Luckily, all of the info desks in the airport are staffed with English speakers of some level. Some better than others, but I will gladly take what we get. At 8:15am, it is highly unlikely we can check into the hotel this early- meaning that even though we are tired and unshowered, we can take our time getting there and when we do we will rest, shower, and then hit the town. I ask for the cheapest option to get us to our hotel metro stop. The info desks have some preprinted papers where they write down all of the necessary train info for you in a way that is easy to follow. What is not so easy is figuring out all of our metro options without considerably more time. Some cities have unlimited metro passes, others do not. Some passes include airport links, others do not. Some give discounts based on number of trips or days purchased, others are just prepay cards that decrement per trip. Some give foreigners a discount but to prove that status, you either have to purchase them outside the country or at the international arrivals terminal in the airport. We have the time, we are coming up with some questions, the airport has wi-fi, and we are starting to get familiar with the terms for the options. An added complication here is that the Tokyo metro is operated by 2 companies and the discounted pass for foreigners only covers one company's lines and since we aren't familiar with the city yet, it is impossible to tell which tracks we use more. We could go with the decrement pass that will cover all trains...except no pass covers any rail to or from the airport. We quickly weigh our options and El goes to the metro desk. She is asked if she wants “cheap” or “convenient”. She goes with cheap and we each get two 2 day passes that cover only one rail company's tracks with the discount for foreigners not including the airport link- although we can get off the rail link earlier and switch to the train line that is covered. It is just about 9:30am by the time we get to the tracks and at 9:44 our train departs Narita for the 1h49m trip to Shinjuku Station where we will change metros to get to the hotel. Challenge number one- getting from the airport to hotel: completed!
We get to our hotel without much problem- just got turned around a little bit at the exit to the street making following the walking directions a little difficult to follow. Around noon we check into the “New Urban of Time and Space” hotel- yes, the Hotel N.U.T.S.! At this point we just want to take a nap and shower before heading out for the night. We set the alarm for 4:30pm. We go back and forth if we want to do the Ginza tonight or stay close to the hotel and check out the nightlife of Shinjuku. For a confirmation I check the Pollstar concert guide that has been telling me every day that Eric Clapton is playing the Budokan tonight, however there is an addition tonight...Nine Inch Nails at the Studio Coast! I never heard of that place, but we are going to do our best to find it. Within 10 minutes we have our route mapped out and are on the metro by 5:10. We are already putting our metro pass to use just to check it out- I expect the show is sold out, but we won’t know unless we try. Then at least we can get some more practice with the metro. The metros are virtually silent except for a random quiet conversation. Cell phone conversation is prohibited and your phone is required to be in silent mode. You see people texting all over, but no one is having loud phone conversations. It is a remarkable thing to hear in this day and age. The Studio Coast is very easy to find. We figured we would get to the area and ask people- or follow the Nine Inch Nails tshirts. Once we got off the metro there was an area map and the venue was marked on it. We walk to the arena and learn that the show is NOT sold out and that the ticket window opens at 6:00pm. Standing in line we meet some Americans who live and work in Tokyo. They tell us that the 2 shows earlier in the week were sold out, but this was a last minute addition and many people didn’t even know about it. At 6:00 we buy our general admission tickets. They cost US$95 each which is more than I would pay to see them at home, but when else will we be able to say we saw Nine Inch Nails in Tokyo (and it was still considerably cheaper than seeing Eric Clapton across town)? As we stand inside the Studio Coast waiting for Nine Inch Nails to go on El squeezes my hand and I know why. This is exactly the kind of thing that travel is all about to us. Blowing into town, figuring out the metro, and doing something that most other people only dream of doing. Maybe not everyone would opt to see NIN, but making the most of their vacation. 


it is like the marquee was written just for us!

Trent doing his thing

more of Trent's thing

Some go on vacation and sit at the hotel pool- we don’t. The band goes on at 7:00 sharp, finishing exactly at 9:00 (we are told it is a curfew). After the show, El is not feeling well and does not want to make it a long night even though she is tired, she is also hungry. Instead of exploring the somewhat industrial area near the concert we agree that the area of the hotel would be better for this evening. After the show we head back to the metro and take it to Shinjuku Station. I read about some recommended eateries in Shinjuku (which is just a neighborhood/section of Tokyo). There is a place called “Yakitori Alley” and the place at address #1 is in our guidebook. Once there, we cannot identify which business front is #1, so we ask a passerby who whips out her smartphone and helps us find it. She taps the sliding glass window that looks into the kitchen of the small place and the chef tells her they are at capacity and cannot take anyone in right now. Instead of waiting, she points us literally next door to another yakitori place where the chef behind the sliding window says he has room for two. We walk in after thanking our helper and get a face full of smoke. The place is filled with a haze of cigarette smoke. There are just four 2-tops and about 4 standing spots at a counter. A waitress comes out and between her minimal English and the picture menu affixed to the wall we are able to order dinner. We get an order of steamed edamame, a bowl of beef soup, five yakitori to split, and a serving of sake for each. We are reminded here that we can’t expect to know what we are going to eat before we do. Here it is all about just putting it in your mouth and chewing. The edamame and sake are nothing new. The beef soup has a lot of spice and there are definitely textures I don’t recognize in it. It is very tasty; I am just thinking I may be eating tripe or some other digestive tract component. Then there is the yakitori. Certainly not like what I get at home (usually just teriyaki glazed chicken breast pieces). 

clockwise from upper left: El's sake, her "beef" soup, edamame, my "beef" soup, my sake", and our parts unknown

sake. El learns it is all about the overflow.

In the kitchen, one guy stands in the kitchen over a hibachi quick grilling small pieces of skewered meat. They are all five served on wooden skewers and I start with one that looks like it could be intestines or something the way it was folded. I eat a bite and it is grilled chicken skin. No meat, just skin. Next I try what looks like chicken pieces separated on the stick by onions. I start to chew and it is hard. Not crunchy, and it’s not onion. I use my chopsticks to remove the thing from my mouth and it is strips of cartilage. We ate the chicken, not the cartilage. Third up was meatballs of minced meat. Who knows what part of the bird it was, so it remains a mystery. Fourth was a darker piece of meat on the stick. I guess liver, but it is too tough for liver. Turns out, it was heart. Last was chicken tails, but again with an all new texture for us. We finish off our sake and decide to call it a night to give El a chance to rest up before waking early in the morning. We walk back to the hotel, spying some places to try tomorrow or Sunday. I would say it has been a productive day number one in Tokyo. 

Saturday 3/1/14

We set our alarms for 7:30am, even though we wake earlier. Our first stop today is Tsukiji which is the world’s largest fish market. It is open from 5:30am-noon Monday thru Saturday. It is walking distance from the Ginza, so we may metro to the Ginza and walk to the market. Not sure yet. It is overcast and about 50oF, which is still better than home. I wear my rain jacket even though it isn’t needed right away. On the way to the metro El spots a café. I suggest something to go, but she reminds me that we probably can’t eat on the metro, so we get the food to stay and eat our croissant and coffee quickly to keep moving. There are two facets to Tsukiji market: one I the fish auction where restaurants and other wholesalers buy torpedo sized fish by the ton in one swoop and two, the market, where anyone can come and buy their fish (and other things) for their personal use. Most stalls have samples and or offer prepared items to passersby local and tourist alike. We start with a steamed pork bun and steamed pork meatball (Did I mention that it is not all fish in this market?) I continue with a scallop topped with sea urchin. 


scallop with urchin

The scallop is great, but the urchin is too bitter for my liking. Next is a grilled fresh oyster which is very tasty. Lastly, we duck into one of the many sushi bars in the market for a chirashi (fish served atop a bowl of rice) breakfast. We have no indication if any are any better than another, but they all look the same and presumably got their offerings at today's market. We do not see the auction portion of the market and even though I think it would be cool to witness, the sampling of the products is what it is all about for me. 


three bowls of chirashi at Tsukiji

I am a bit surprised at just how not fishy this whole place smells. By 10:15 we have had a full fish/rice breakfast and are ready to walk down to the world famous Ginza. We arrive as it begins to sprinkle. We are prepared with raincoats, but decide to look for a café to sit and digest our lunch. The Ginza is remarkably unremarkable. It area reminds us of midtown Manhattan or downtown Los Angeles: a business district with a lot of tall office buildings and hotels, but not much in the way of residential living. Besides the fact that the stores surrounding us are Armani, Prada, Mont Blanc, Coach, and Gucci, there does not appear to be much for us. 


the less-than-impressive Ginza

One camera shop does offer some interesting window shopping featuring classic film cameras and digital zoom lenses for thousands of dollars. We walk through some of the side streets. The cliché would be to say "we ate sushi on the Ginza", but having been to both, I am going to say "we ate sushi in Tsukiji market, and it was fabulous". We hit up a café called Café de Ginza for a cup of coffee and a chestnut puree pastry- all at price I would expect on the Ginza. Our next stop is Tokyo (train) Station for a free walking tour at 1:00pm. It does not look unreasonably far for us to walk after the café, so we enjoy the quiet time together. We walk down to the Tokyo Station since we have a lot of time to spare it is only about noon and we are reasonably sure we know where the meeting spot is. I have to find a restroom, which seem to be located everywhere including inside the station, however, there are turnstiles with ticket readers that only allow ticketed passengers into the station. We head a short distance to a metro station and find one there. Amazingly clean for any restroom, let alone a public one in a subway station! At 12:40pm we start meeting the tour operators. It is a free, English, walking tour given every Saturday by a group of volunteers starting from the Tokyo Station. They say it should last about 2 hours and since we aren’t doing anything else, we are game. The walking tour starts on time and points out some historical buildings and spots along the way. It makes its way into the imperial gardens which is a free admission area. We have three guides who each take turns telling us about the various stops. One of the stops in the imperial gardens overlooks the world famous Budokan Arena and I make a note that I would like to visit it after the tour. There is a good amount of information, but I must admit that if I am not standing next to the guide, I am having an impossible time understanding them. It is mostly about the speaker's volume and nearby noise rather than the accent- which I have no problem understanding. The tour lasts about 2 hours and we agree it was good, since we saw stuff we probably wouldn’t have explored on our own. After the tour, I want to take a walk past the famous Nippon Budokan Arena. 


"this is the first song on our new album"

distancing myself from the Baby Metal fans

It turns out there is a band called Baby Metal who are actually playing two nights there. We get our photos among the throngs of young people in line for tonight’s show. After getting our pictures, we continue through the park to the metro. We are in a station with three train company lines. We want to go to Shinjuku Station and one of the lines is called the Shinjuku line- however it is one of the four lines operated by the "other" train company and we would have to pay full price since that line is not covered by our pass. The other two lines are on our list of good lines and just means we have to make one transfer. Just as El and I have it all figured out we are approached by an official looking woman who asks where we are going. She is a metro worker whose job appears to just wait to answer questions about routes from travelers who may not be familiar with the station and lines. She confirms our plan and points out some stations with easy transferability. We head back towards Shinjuku, unsure of tonight’s specific plan. 

Shinjuku in the rain

Shinjuku looking like Times Square

We may hang in Shinjuku again or head to Shibuya and work our way back towards Shinjuku. Either way works at this point. One of the challenges we are facing regularly is lack of internet. Some cities have lots of access and some have few. This one seems to have fewer. Even Starbucks that offers free wi-fi requires registration (ironically, that requires internet) before being able to use their system. El is trying to get ahold of her phone provider and needs internet to do it. We should find something in Shinjuku. The helpful factor is high here. Two times yesterday I asked someone for directions. When they didn’t know the answer, they pulled out their phones and started getting the answer from the internet. How many times in New York would you ask someone who doesn't know the answer, only to have them say "ooh, sorry, I don't know" and keep walking? We had one girl last night who was asking chefs at the yakitori shops if they had room for us! Very helpful. When we come out of the station we want to go visit the Park Hyatt Hotel where the movie “Lost In Translation” was filmed. We are comparing our guidebook to the "you are here" area map outside the station when an elderly woman approaches us and says "can I help you find something?" We tell her we are looking for the Park Hyatt and think we have just found it on the map. She asks us why we don’t just take the free bus? We don’t know the free bus so she offers to show us and we start following her around the streets of Shinjuku. She tells us that it is very cold today compared to yesterday and that her daughter lives in Los Angeles. Minutes later we come upon a signpost for the Park Hyatt free shuttle service between the hotel and Shinjuku Center. Of course it is designed as a convenience for guests of the hotel, but hey, I am looking to drink in their bar, so technically, we’ll be guests too! We have only been here 24 hours but I am rapidly falling in love with this city. I haven’t felt this way about a city since Prague, and I am loving every minute of it. The shuttle drops us at the hotel and we make it to the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel and take some photos. Unfortunately, the vista is slightly marred by the fog/clouds. 

view from the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel

We order some drinks and appetizers (because we can’t afford a full dinner here!) I look to order a Suntory, because, well if you’ve seen the film “Lost In Translation”, you'll get why. But they don’t have it. I order a Hibiki 17 yrs. scotch and I am making it “Suntory time”, my way. We get an assortment of bar snacks (curried popcorn, spicy plantain chips, and candied nuts, as well as a snow crab, ricotta, and mustard pizza. The food is good, if not great for bar food, making the whole stop worth it. We finish up and want to try to find a metal bar called Godz. The addresses are not very easy to navigate since their addresses are based on a series of numbers and a neighborhood. For example, we are looking for Bunkocho 1-10-5 in Shinjuku...and I haven’t even given you the street name yet! We spend some time checking maps and apps to find where we need to go after the shuttle drops us off back at the center so that we don’t have to figure it out in the middle of a windy street. It is only 6:30, so the night is still young. Our first stop is Godz bar that is on my list of heavy metal bars in Tokyo. It takes some time to find, but once we do the bartender Haruka is friendly, the beer is cheap and she plays requests from the patrons. She plays AC/DC and Twisted Sister for us and also puts on some Saxon as a cue from the tshirt I am wearing. We stay for about 2 hours before heading around the corner to Mother Rock Bar. Before leaving I hit the bathroom. Now, this is every bit a dive bar, smelling of stale beer and reeking of smoke, yet the toilet is sparkling clean and the room smells of flowers- a respite just for moments before heading back into the filth. At Mother Rock Bar we walk in to Rolling Stones playing way too loud for the number of people in the bar - one bartender and one patron. They too take requests, having a menu with all of their CD's. We request some Joan Jett and The Breeders. It seems like a divey enough bar, but the lack of wi-fi makes me think we won’t be here all too long. I have to give the bartender props for playing Johnny Thunders next to El's request for Kate Bush. Maybe we will stay for a second drink after all. After about a half hour a few more people come in and literally fill the place. There are 6 stools at the bar and one long bench along the back wall bookended by two speakers that are way too big for the size of this shoebox. When someone lights up the view gets obstructed between you and the person next to you. Very small, very loud, and very metal(the attitude, because not all of the selections would be considered metal, for sure). With more patrons, come more diverse requests, Dinosaur Jr., Rapeman, Iggy and the Stooges, and Mansun among the selections. It is so dark inside that it is difficult to journal. I make the call to leave around 10:30. As we walk home we opt to stop for a bowl of ramen. Real, fresh ramen. I order a bowl with bean sprouts. The bowl arrives moments later with broth, the ramen noodles and quick boiled bean sprouts, a sprinkling of spring onion, what might be some sort of pickled radish, two chips of roasted pork, and a totally unnecessary sheet of nori (dried seaweed). One of the workers has a limited English vocabulary and comes over to tell us what the condiments on the counter are. Hot pepper flakes, soy sauce, ginger, black pepper, and sesame seeds. You use any combo you like. The broth has some sort of creamy and buttery consistency and taste. With the hot pepper flakes it is wonderful. The whole restaurant looks like a small diner with seating for only 12 at the bar. They only serve one thing- about 6 variations on ramen (the variations come from what gets sprinkled on top). Really a great and filling end to the day. As we walk back, we consider a concept that doesn’t seem to work for me here. It is the concept of the cover charge. Now I know how it works in America; that if you go to a bar that is offering live music or maybe is playing a special game on the television might ask for a cover charge to enter. This prevents the teetotaler from going to the bar for a live band and not buying any drinks and calling it a night without paying a dime. Here, however, either they or I misunderstand the concept of the cover charge as many places have them. The ones we experienced were between 400-700yen and get charged just for entering the bar. So, El and I were walking back to the room one evening and spot a little bar with a Bruce Springsteen poster out front. We want to check it out. We walk in and the bartender asks me for 700yen each! No game, no band, (and no other customers I might add) and he wants me to essentially pay for the privilege of paying for his beer. I think to myself, we can come in with no cover and you sell us at least one drink (probably two) OR we can leave without paying a cover and you sell us zero drinks. Either way you get no cover from us. We forwent the nightcap and called it a night. Some places have signs that advertise "no cover" and those are the places we drank at. El is still getting (or is) sick and wants to call it a night so as not to get too run down.

Sunday 3/2/14

Shibuya. We set the alarm for 8:00am, but take our time leaving the room. Once we get out we head to the metro and come to find that the M line is not running due to an accident. I ask the station master if this affects only the M line or all lines? He confirms just the M line, so we walk a few blocks to the F line to get to Shibuya. We arrive to Shibuya around 11:00am, just in time for lunch. We find the Tokyo Food Show which is like a mini department store just for food. Some prepared in front of you, some prepared earlier and displayed for sale. I didn't notice anything fresh, like vegetables or meat, but plenty of fryers and steamers were working overtime to get food churned out for people to order. We walk through and get an order of octopus balls which are kind of like a donut the consistency of slightly undercooked pancake batter with a cooked shrimp and piece of octopus dropped inside. The chef attends the ball as they are cooked in what look like small muffin tins and he uses long metal chopsticks to roll them around in their individual sockets. 


happy as a clam..er, octopus to be working the balls

they are almost ready

"your balls are served"

The balls are topped with a sweet sauce and a salty sauce. I ask her to hold on the powdered seaweed and bonito flakes as I am reasonably certain if there is any way we are going to like them, those ingredients would kill it. Continuing our walk we grab some steamed pork buns and an order of potstickers. Knowing that we would probably just keep buying more items, be quickly head out to the street. There are no benches in sight, so we find a ledge to unpack our lunch and eat. I run around the corner to a vending machine and we split a Coke to wash it down. While the bun and the dumplings are nothing new, the takuyaki (octopus balls) are new. And they are really good. The texture on the tongue is weird, but tasty for sure. After lunch we head to Starbucks for a couple of reasons. One is to get a coffee for dessert while we digest the lunch. Two is to check the internet availability since El has just registered (and wants to post some pictures of our lunch), and three is to watch and try to get a birdseye photo of what is called the "Shibuya scramble". 


the best thing about Starbucks was this view

This particular Starbucks is located on a seven way intersection that is called one the busiest walking intersections in the world. All of the traffic lights turn red at once and all of the walk signs green and for several seconds hoards of people just pour into the intersection from all directions crossing in a fluid scramble to get to the other side. After our coffee and since we don’t really have anything specific we want to do here today, we decide to try the Tobacco and Salt Museum (hey, it couldn’t be weirder then the forensic museum in Bangkok). We walk up to the building and are greeted with a sign that states they are closed for relocation until 2015 (slow movers I guess). We look up Shibuya in the guidebook and see that it is a section of the city geared mostly to and populated by the under 25 crowd. Lots of clothes shops, theatres playing films geared towards younger people, loud pop music everywhere- from shops, from cars, from mobile advertising trucks, from street performances, and of course, the streets are filled with young people. We feel old just walking down the street. Anyway, we find a short walking tour in the guidebook and start the path. Along the way we see some interesting sites and get to discuss our trip so far. It is quality time with my best travel partner. I have been seeing some interesting things: a bank with no tellers, but just a room with 10-15 ATMs. If you have a problem, a worker comes to aid you, but think of it more like a self-checkout line at the supermarket where one person can staff several registers if the customers are doing a bulk of the work. Today is colder and rainier than any of the other days on our trip, but we are prepared. Along the way we stop at Tower records (a CD store that went out of business in the US, but is alive and well in Shibuya). We don’t want to buy and music, we just want to use their bathroom. I have a funny experience here. I open the door to the restroom which consists of one stall, one urinal, and one small sink and there is an older woman working cleaning the bathroom. There was no "closed for cleaning" sign and it looks like she is gathering her bags and gear, so I step out to the hallway to let her exit the small room, but she does not emerge. Then a guy comes behind me and as I stand in the hall, he goes in. He is in there long enough that I know he was not deterred by the cleaner in the room. I think "OK, he went, so maybe it's no problem here" and enter into the room. I step up to the urinal and start doing my business. During my time she emerges from the stall and goes to clean the sink which is next to the urinal. As she leans down to get something from the floor in front of the sink I can’t help but notice how close her face is to the activities going on in my area. One sideways move and she could be catching some liquid shrapnel from my stream. I finish, she backs into the stall to give me room to wash hands and exit, and then goes back to work. Maybe I am the only one who thinks like this. Along the way we stop at Tokyo Hands department store so that El can get some souvenirs and have a look around. 


just a reminder of where we are

After shopping we are looking for a bar called the Hobgoblin and find ourselves lost on a street that has a restaurant that was recommended called Gonpachi. It is a full menu restaurant, but one of the recommended meals is soba which we haven’t had yet. Walking in there is a language barrier with the hostess. It is 4:00pm and only a couple of tables have customers right now, so there are plenty of free tables. She keeps saying "6 o'clock" and "yes". Sometimes she says "6 o'clock?" and "yes?" and sometimes they get mixed and matched. Either way we cannot figure out (but I think) she is trying to say they have a reservation for these tables at 6:00pm and we need to be gone, but when I ask if she wants us to come back and start at 6:00 or eat now and finish by 6:00, I get “yes” to both questions. Hey, if I want better answers I could learn some Japanese, or just take what we can get. We are seated and order a tempura soba and a glass of beer for dinner. During my research, I come across an interesting dilemma. I pose to El, if there is a restaurant that only served horsemeat, would you join me to try it? Then I ask a follow-up that if instead of horse it was dog, would your answer be the same? Then I point out that there is a restaurant around the block that serves only one meat prepared different ways- whale. Japan is one of the few countries where whaling is legal. I saw whale steaks for sale in Norway, but there was no place to taste it prepared- you could only buy it to cook it yourself. But here there is a restaurant that prepares it. The more I thought about stopping in for the novelty of saying that I have tried whale meat, I started to equate the situation with that for all I know shark fin soup or the purchase of powdered rhino horn is legal in China. I do not think I would have any occasion to be party to those industries. I decide to head elsewhere for dinner. That is how we end up at Gonpachi. The dish is served thusly: a wicker basket of cooked and drained soba (buckwheat) noodles with a cup of broth, both served cold. Then a side plate of assorted tempura and a bowl of dipping sauce for it is served. The server shows me to take a bite worth of the soba and dip it into the broth, eat and repeat. I really do not care for the taste of the broth. It has a most unpleasant flavor to me and the cold broth is making the cold noodles taste even worse. After the meal is finished, the waitress brings a kettle of warm water to the table. She fills the cold remaining broth with warm water and you are expected to drink. I taste the hot version and it is terrible. Hoping to get the taste of fermentation from my mouth, I finish my beer. During our entire time (4 days) we only ran into one restaurant that automatically added a gratuity. In general, there is no tipping here and some sources say they can be refused at best and considered downright offensive, depending on the recipient. I don’t know if I get that so much, but if I can leave without leaving a tip and still get a smile, I am good- I wouldn’t want to offend! The thing is that I think the trend around the world is the opposite. Places that, until recently, had no tipping etiquette, but have now come to expect something especially from tourists who are from cultures where tips are a formality. In these places the tip can range from rounding the bill up a few cents to a few percent. Rarely though is there an expectation of our 15-20%. We continue to have a difficult time finding the Hobgoblin which is a British pub. Again we elicit the help of strangers who go out of their way to help to lost tourist. El orders a cider she does not like and I get an ale that I do not care for (Hobgoblin dark ale). During our time here we find a place that we have to try. An all you can eat dessert buffet! Sweets Paradise is the name and you pay about $15 for 70 minutes and there is an array of both recognizable and unidentifiable dessert offerings. There are cakes of many flavors, tortes, and Jell-o looking stuff galore. Not much in the way of fresh fruits, but there is tiramisu. After two plates I am tapped out and opt only for a second cup of coffee. The concept is ingenious and tasty, but just because I can, doesn't mean I should. Still though, an all you can eat dessert restaurant! I knew there was a promised land beyond the giant marshmallow I walked through to get here. After dessert we decide to head to a bar called Malmsteen Rock Bar which certainly sounds like my kind of place, but sadly it is closed. Not sure if it is just today or permanent, but I doubt we will be back here again. Instead of looking further, I make the call to head back to Shinjuku and either find a place there or call it a night. But, since it is only 9:00 and we don’t have to be up and out until lunchtime tomorrow we do decide to head back to Godz bar again. The M line is working once again. The subway cars are clean, quiet, and even have cushioned seats. The stations are clean looking, smelling, and well attended. The announcements are made in Japanese and English. The trains are frequent and punctual. The weather has been damp at best and a bit rainy at worst. The thing is that it seems that everyone here, and I do mean everyone here has an umbrella. With that said, I must admit that most of the time I spend on the street, I am fearful of my eyes getting poked by the pointed ends of the spokes and any one of the many being used in my vicinity. El and I have raincoats and seem to be the only two without the umbrellas. Maybe I just never noticed this before at home? The place is a little more full tonight than we saw last night. Haruka and the other bartender remember us from last night and arrange a barstool shuffle to allow us a place at the bar. We spend about an hour and then walk back to the hotel. The hotel is on a very quiet street just two blocks off the main drag. I couldn’t be happier with this arrangement, for this price, location, and convenience all around, this couldn’t be beat for us. Would recommend and stay here again. The only annoying thing for us is the design where there are a couple of odd placed steps in the room. One heading into the bathroom and one leading to the main door. Ordinarily, not a problem, but it can be tricky to navigate in the dark of the night trying to feel your way without breaking a leg. Lastly this evening, we decide to try out the in-room Jacuzzi. It is clearly made for one person and trying to fit two is just uncomfortable on many levels. I think we should just stick with showers instead. We catch up on journals and look at the pictures of the day and call it a night soon after midnight.

Monday 3/3/14

Today is our last full day in Tokyo before getting back home tomorrow. At 11:00 this morning we will have our cooking class, but have no other plans for the day (except we both want to go back to that Ramen place near our hotel for our last real meal. El had found a beer brewery tour that we were planning to do after the cooking class, but realized last night they are closed on Mondays. There is also the Tokyo Tower that we thought could be fun going up to the observation deck, but it does cost a bit of money.
Just for convenience we hit the Veloce Café and get a coffee and a pastry to hold us until our cooking class this afternoon. We have some time before we need to be at the meeting spot at 11:00 and we also need to figure out our game plan for getting to the airport in the morning. On the way out of the hotel I ask if they have a recommendation. She gives me a preprinted list of four options to Narita. They are a shuttle bus, the Skyline metro (what we took to get here), the Narita Express train, and a taxi. At more than 8 times the cost of all of the other options, we rule out the 25000yen taxi. The two train options both leave from Shinjuku Station and the shuttle takes a lot longer than the trains so we head to Shinjuku Station to find out schedules and see if we can buy tickets today. 
I have remarked on several occasions how clean, well run, and generally nice the metro system is here. Not only is it easy to navigate, but the sheer number of people working in the system really work together to make it the experience it is. First of all, these stations are huge (Shinjuku Station alone has over 200 exits!). Of course they are not all large and some are just single line stations while others are transfer stations for 2 or more lines. The thing is that when you are in a station you almost cannot look around without seeing someone who is working there. From the station master all the way to the cleaners and the- for the lack of a better description- greeters who are usually old men who smile and wave their arms as you approach them to assure you that you are walking in the right direction. Of course the one-way aspect of the corridors already helps to tell us we are walking the right way, but I guess some need reinforcement. Although I did see some recycling bins inside stations, garbage cans are virtually nonexistent in this city either on the streets or below. We are not sure what exactly the deal is with that, but El had read something about people just taking their garbage home with them for disposal. It is illegal to smoke outside on the streets in this city (though indoors in restaurants and bars is OK), so you don’t see butts everywhere. Although some people get food to go, it is not to eat on the run, more to eat at home (and some eateries refuse to go orders). This cuts down on the amount of garbage that makes its way to the ground. And they have people sweeping and washing the sidewalks. Now, if New York City could just get some of that together. It really was a pleasure to spend time in the city with such clean streets even if the shops lining them were a bit seedy. We get to the ticket counter and ask about tomorrow tickets, but are told that this counter is only for today’s tickets and we need to go upstairs for tomorrow’s tickets. We get to the ticket desk in one of the busiest stations in the world and find there are three agents working and no line! We ask for the first train for tomorrow. 5:55am it is. We jump on the metro to head to our sushi making class. It starts at 11:00am and there are only 5 in the class. Our teacher is Ayuko and she has been professionally trained at a sushi institute in Tokyo. As a group we learn an origami piece to make our own chopstick holder. Then we have some green tea while we wait for the rice to finish cooking. Also in the meantime, we prepare our vinegar, sugar, and salt mixture. Once the rice is done and portioned out, we start the sushi making process. We each make a cucumber roll and seven pieces of nigiri (fish with rice). We learn how to form them and get tips on how to repair the forms if they start to fall apart. It really doesn’t take too long, and before we know it, we each have a platter with 4 pieces of cucumber and omelet roll, and one each of salmon, tuna, squid, scallop, yellow tail, sea bream, and omelet. 

at our sushi class, the teacher is taking pictures of others behind us

the finished plate. a fun lunch.

El and I opt for the sake to wash it down. Then the 5 of us eat our lunch. It was very respectable sushi and we thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company of the other participants. One of the good things about these cooking schools is that they are usually travelers in them and it gives us a chance to pick the brains of others about their sites to see and offer up our knowledge of what we have done. Having no plan for this afternoon we are told to skip the Skytree because of the overcast weather (don't want to pay for the spectacular view only to have it spoiled by being in the clouds. If you can’t see Mt. Fuji, then there is no point- we are told. We are directed instead to Asakusa. Not sure what that is yet, but El is scrambling to find it in our guidebook. We take the metro to the end of the G line metro to Asakusa (not to be confused with Akasaka which is near our hotel). On our last day, I do need to stop at the ATM where I try to take out 5000yen, but unfortunately, 10000 was the smallest denomination I could get. This left us with some extra cash in our pocket. I get an extra beer or two at the bar will use it to grab some breakfast at the airport. We even have enough left over to buy some souvenirs for ourselves. We head to the Sein-ji Temple which turns out to be a really nice surprise for something that wasn’t even on our radar.

Sein-ji Temple

Interestingly, the swastika is used as a symbol at the temples. Not Jewish temples, but Buddhist temples. With only 1% of Japan identifying as Christian, I assume even less identify as Jewish, it is just striking to see the word "temple" juxtaposed with a swastika anywhere. We spend about an hour here looking at the temples, shrines, and statues before walking over to the Skytree.

view from 350 meters up, looking through the floor to the street below

the Skytree in it's natural environment

Skytree cast upon the city below

The sky is mostly blue so we figure that we should be able to see Mt. Fuji today. We make the half hour walk over to the tower and spend about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get inside. Once in we find the ticket desk on the 4th floor and ask for two tickets to the top. They are 2000yen each. She tells us that we can only buy a ticket from the ground to 350 meters and that if we want to go to the very top we need to buy a ticket at 350m for the second leg. I ask if we can see Mt. Fuji today and she says "no". Hey, on the bright side we didn’t have to waste the extra money to go to not see at the top what we can’t see in the middle, right? We spend about 45 minutes taking pictures of the various Tokyo landmarks...except Mt. Fuji. After the tower we head to the bottom and before leaving we pull out the guide books for a place to get some food in this area before we leave. El picks a tempura place called Nekase. It takes a few minutes to find it and after walking past it twice and are about to give up I spy a door that has no English writing, but looks like it might be a restaurant. We go in and ask for Nekase and they say "yes". We are seated immediately and look at the menu- they give us an English menu. There are only three choices, shrimp tempura, fish tempura, and shrimp and fish tempura. We each order a shrimp and a hot green tea. It comes very quickly and is served with a side of miso soup and plate of Japanese pickles. The tempura batter is a little thicker than I am used to and it is served over rice with the dipping sauce already poured over the bowl. We read that they use a sesame oil to make their tempura which gives it more of a golden color than the yellowish crust you usually see and that this is considered one of, if not the best tempura place in all of Tokyo. The taste is really good and we are done pretty quickly. A great pick by El, now, at 6:30pm we will start making our way back towards Shinjuku for our last evening in town. We end the evening as we have the previous two with a stop at Godz heavy metal bar. I still love this place, although tonight has more people smoking and the music is a little on the extreme side that I don't necessarily prefer. We take the opportunity to write our postcards. Earlier today we stopped at a post office and bought some stamps so we will be able to just drop them in the morning. Since we leave on the 5:55am train we don’t really need to try to find more things to do in the city- giving me the time to just stand and appreciate where I am at this moment- and of course, who I am with. We stay for a few beers and on the way back to the hotel we agree to stop again at our favorite little ramen shop. 

this ain't Nissin ramen-in-a-cup! I can't even explain how good this was

It tastes as good as it did two nights ago and will be the prime example for how we remember the food in Japan. Simple and tasty. Back at the room we pack and set alarms to ensure we make our train at 5:55.

Tuesday 3/4/14

This is the day that will happen twice- if everything goes as planned. It is Tuesday morning at 11:00 and we are just about to board our direct flight to JFK. We should be landing at 9:00am, also on Tuesday. An appropriate reaction to the fact that to get here we left New York at 10:00am and arrived at 2:00pm the following day.
As we leave Japan, Tokyo specifically, I can't help but think of how relieved I am that our experience was such a positive one. About a year ago I asked someone who had lived in Tokyo about the ability to get around if you don’t speak the language. I mean, how necessary is knowing the language to getting around the city? My worst fear was to arrive to Tokyo (or any city really) an not be able to communicate with the taxi driver to get us to the hotel. Of course, I know it would eventually happen, but if the language barrier impedes your travel any more than minimally, it is an issue. I don’t mind having to charade something out or pointing to a menu and settling for some unknown food, that is the price I have to pay for not being able to speak their language, but if they are not able to understand you and you they, I could find myself in a situation where I regret spending the money to take a vacation I can’t take advantage of. I don't think that has ever happened to us, but I wonder if there are places that are absolutely unnavigable by El and I. I thought this might be the first one. When I asked the former resident, she told me that she did feel it was necessary to know some measure of Japanese to be able to get myself around the city. Boy was I pleasantly surprised by just how easy it was for us to do pretty much everything in the city (now, it is possible that things change when you get further out of the city) but the sheer amount of Latin letters found not only in things like street and subway signs, but also in businesses- I mean you walk into a department store and see a sign that reads "tax free sale" written in English it is obvious they are doing some catering to the foreign clientele. Many restaurants have English menus (how many American restaurants have Japanese menus?). Also, not everyone, but many of the people we met did have some level of English. In some cases it was just what they remembered from high school, but others sounded professionally trained, complete with British accent and all. In a city with more than 35 million people, this city has a lot of things going for it. One is the diversity that a city this size can offer. There are the older, historical areas and also the ultra-modern areas. We experienced a little of it all during our time here and are hungry for more. Speaking of "hungry" the food was a pleasant surprise to us. We have just a little experience with Japanese cuisine at home and eating a different dish at almost every meal gave us the real culinary overview we needed. Learning the difference between ramen and soba, the difference between sushi and chirashi, the difference between cooked and raw scallops, and just what the heck "real" yakitori is. Some of the flavors were brilliant and I hope to seek them out again, while others I hope never to encounter again. Of all things, I had a cup of green Japanese tea that was just awful. So bitter, I would swear it was a mistake if not for the person serving it.
Our experiences this trip ranged from fun (sushi making class and drinks at the Park Hyatt Hotel) to the wonderful (wandering through Tsukiji market and finding our own experiences)- some will “always have Paris”, we will always have that late night ramen joint in Shinjuku. As I leave, I don’t believe there is one single thing that I wanted to do that I missed out on and even if there are, not knowing them right now ensures I leave without regrets. We travel a little differently than most. We spend less time at things like historical monuments (that is why I coined the phrase "Mona Lisa drive-by") and do things that aren’t usually considered on the tourist path (seeing a Nine Inch Nails concert or spending three evenings in the same heavy metal bar). But the fact that on our last evening here we were walking back to the hotel and recapping our trip, it is obvious that we both had a wonderful time and for most of the exact same reasons. Who could ask for a better travel partner in anyone than someone you just spent your entire vacation with leaving with the same "no regrets" feeling? Although El and I have always traveled pretty well together I think we sync one step closer with every one we take. I do not look forward to any time I would travel without her, since there is no way it could ever be this good with anyone else. Can’t wait to do it again, whether it is somewhere else or back to Japan, because I know it will be great.

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