- By THE CHARLES NYC
Hello and welcome to the second and final installment of my Asian travel series! Last week, I shared stories and pictures from Hong Kong, one of my favorite places in the world. My next stop in Tokyo turned out to be a truly bizarre and unexpected adventure. There are a lot of questions from this experience that remain unanswered for me. What I can say, is that this foray to the other side of the world successfully turned my perception upside down.
Tokyo is a stark mix of high and low, large and miniscule. The sprawling city is filled with skyscrapers adorned with flashing neon and twinkling lights. Impossibly tiny shops and restaurants also dot the streets, squeezed tightly between their neighbors. Residential areas contain apartment buildings and living complexes as well as dollhouse-esque single-family homes. While I didn’t feel suffocated in the city that I was warned would be more crowded than NYC, many spaces were definitely small and I bumped my head on more than one doorway. Luckily for this architecturally quirky locale, Tokyo-ites have been blessed with a passion for the birds eye view. Towers came recommended in every tourism guide – and you have several to choose from. For a price, the Tokyo Tower is a great view – especially at night – albeit a major tourist trap. But if you’re willing to forgo the gift shop, the municipal government building provides a free view. From these heights, you can sample the offerings of various neighborhoods and choose a particularly appealing building or recreation area to explore on the ground level.
I came to Japan incredibly anxious about committing a cultural faux pas. I was warned that this was a society built on propriety and hierarchy in which actions could convey deep disrespect without my intention or even my realization. I armed myself with pitifully little: “domo arigato” and a reminder to give and take with two hands and held my breath for fear of stepping out of line. Instead, I felt relatively invisible, out of place but ignored. There was definitely a mindshift necessary to understand the mentality of Tokyo and it’s possible I was never able to fully access it. The city and its people moved around around me in strange patterns and tempos, driven by motivators I didn’t experience or understand. A tsunami area warning sign on the road featured a colorful cartoon illustration of a playful fish-whale creature complete with mustache – creating a truly baffling result that could sum up my feelings about the culture at large: “I am undoubtedly missing something here. But what?” Despite a lingering sense that my hopes to dive into Japan resulted in more of a waist-deep situation, I was happy to be experiencing even that which I could not comprehend.
I am fully ready to admit that I was most excited about going to Japan for the food. Noodles are my life, and, being fortunate enough to have sampled Italian masterpieces, and Chinese sauteed art, Japan was the missing jewel in my noodle crown. Tampopo is probably my favorite movie and I was determined to taste the dishes that have long glowed on my TV screen. Our first stop was udon because, well, I simply couldn’t wait. After an hour wait outside in the freezing cold, the bowl at Shin Udon was as stunning as the reviews suggested and the plum wine with soda flowed pink gold. As it turned out, waiting in long lines for 8-seater restaurants is the norm. Bigger places even had lines – and in the middle of the day! Once you’re in a noodle bar, you place your order before sitting down so that it’s ready when you’re seated for you to slurp it down as quickly as temperature will allow and GTFO because there are thirty freezing people outside. It makes sense that turnover rates would have to be streamlined given the size of most of these joints but it did feel rushed and a bit impersonal once the novelty of the vending machine ordering system wore off. Aside from noodles, I’m still craving the Japanese sweet potatoes of which I consumed my weight in every possible preparation: made into fries, baked, smothered in honey and black sesame seeds. Heaven. I’m also a huge fan of all the -dons. Put some jewellike raw fish, bbqed eel, or salmon roe on rice, add a little wasabi, boom. Breakfast lunch and dinner. To fully realize my Tampopo fantasy, I had to try tampopo omurice. I learned two valuable lessons that day: I do not like ketchup fried rice and snarfing a very rare omelet despite your body’s protests to realize a lifelong goal is simply not a wise choice. But that was really the only food of the trip that wasn’t delicious. I was told Tokyo makes incredible uber-fluffy pancakes so I headed to Happy Pancake to see for myself. This was possibly the most incredible and decadent thing I have ever put in my mouth and it is very good I haven’t found these on my continent yet. Now I have to stop with food here because the drool is filling up the office and everyone is going to drown.
Let’s talk about temples/ shrines instead. They’re everywhere in Tokyo, beautiful and exactly what I expected with classical architecture and statues and perfect koi ponds under arched stone bridges. The only thing I didn’t expect was the food stalls onsite. I tried something which amounted to a Japanese breakfast lasagna: a griddled stack of noodles, underneath cabbage, underneath ??? shrimp salad?? Maybe?? Underneath a thick, sweet, and gingery sauce, underneath an egg, and all topped with fish flakes. I still (evidently) can’t quite wrap my mind around it. Now look, we’re talking about food again.
When on vacation, I’m drawn toward bodies of water so a ferry near the Senso Ji temple found me as much as I stumbled upon it. We took it to an island park which was stunning and even featured a classic tea house, a replica of the style shoguns would have used to entertain guests. Tokyo, to its credit, is filled with gardens and all of them are incredible. The imperial palace gardens are vast and therefore easily accessible for a break from the hustle and bustle of several neighborhoods.
When it comes to bullet trains: do it. They don’t feel fast while onboard but, when they fly past as you wait on the platform, it’s breathtaking. Buy a train-shaped bento box in the station shop and you’ll forget all about dining cars. A bit over an hour’s ride delivers you to Atami, an amazing seaside town we lovingly dubbed “where they filmed Ponyo.” Definitely take the gondola up to get a view of the stunning harbor and surrounding valley. But, for the love of god, do not go in the “adult museum” at the peak unless you’ve always had very detailed questions about Marilyn Monroe’s anatomy and trust a wax model maker (and his faux hair specialist) to answer them for you.
I can say that, of all the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, Tokyo struck me in a way no other has. To be uncomfortable is a gift and travel is pointless if it is not used to step outside your normal and learn about someone else’s. So, thank you, Tokyo, and bless you, Happy Pancake.