Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Japan 2009: Tokyo, the first 2 days

Boy, what a difference several thousand miles of ocean makes.

First, a small philosophical preface to this blog post:

Tokyo is insane. It is a cyclone of color and sound – a whirlwind of input and crushing humanity. It is also full of dichotomies. It is loaded with people who will push past you on the street without a second glance, but while they are serving you are tremendously attentive and accommodating. It's a city of people who are reserved, often oppressively so, but their most popular neighborhoods are bright places that don’t just promote excess; they celebrate and revel in it.

Tokyo is a fascinating city.

Ok, that's done. On to the good stuff. Day 0 we arrived into Tokyo at 4pm and passed through immigration and customs in record time. We met up with the other members of our travel group with zero incident, despite having only the slightest concept of Narita's layout. We took the JR line train into Tokyo around 5pm. The sun was already set by the time we reached Shinjuku-dori and subsequently our hotel rooms. The hotel staff didn't speak much English, but we managed our room situations fairly well. Our hotel room, which I am currently in as I type out this blog entry, is very small. It has 3 beds where 1 would normally be in a Western hotel, the with bathroom, complete with shower and bidet-toilet, is the size of a small closet. There is no air conditioner, and the hotel is set into "winter mode" which means the whole place is about 85 degrees inside. The windows are locked shut, and for the first night, as we were jet lagged and too tired to deal with the language barrier, we slept in the heat. By "Real Day 1" morning I was determined we find a way to cool down the room, but that's another story.

Day 0 we decided to take a small stroll around Shinjuku to find some food, and found a recommended noodle shop nearby, which served fresh made udon and soba soup dishes. As is common in many small restaurants in Tokyo, one orders by looking at an array of plastic versions of the desired food outside of the restaurant, then using a computer system to print and purchase a ticket with the number of the dish you want, which is then given to the chef, who prepares your meal. That first night I had Udon soup with a nice big tempura prawn. It was definitely the best udon i've experienced thus far.

We crashed early that night, determined to take advantage of our jet lag the next morning to take a trip out to Tsukiji market before dawn to catch the early morning craziness. We did, in fact, wake up at 5am with nooooo problem at all (when my alarm went off at 5, we were already quite awake.)

Tsukiji market is a must-see tourist attraction in Tokyo, but more than that, it is a square mile of living, breathing, twitching fish for sale by hundreds of vendors who havve dragged their catch out to sell to the city. We were initially disappointed when we got into the market that the area where all the action was taking place was off-limits for foreigners for the duration of the time we were going to be in Tokyo, but with a small amount of courage and the motivation that we might never get the chance again, we decided to "break the rules" and we snuck into the main market. We were certainly the only westerners there, but the place was such a hive of activity, no one seemed to take notice of us, so we wandered around as we would have done anyway, and were treated with an unbelievable array of huge tuna, octopii, sea urchins, and a thousand other wierd and wonderful things from the sea of Japan. After gathering Japan's fishing intel for an hour or so we decided it was just about time (read: 8am), to get a giant plate of Tsukiji market sushi from one of the nearby restaurants. We went to a small sushi bar which held maybe 18 people maximum, and I got the chef special sushi plate, which basically meant whatever was fresh was breakfast. Everything was profoundly, cosmically, existentially good. I had cod fish roe gunbanzushi, a nori roll with the fatty part of the tuna, and an array of nigiri including Pacific Saury,uni, and a sea eel that was absolutely as fresh as possible and delicious.

With Tsukiji under the belt, we headed for a quick break at the hotel, then back out to walk through one of Tokyo's more famous districts, Shibuya. Shibuya sports the busiest intersection in Tokyo. Picture Time Square, then multiply by 5, then reduce everyone's height by about 5 inches. We did some casual shopping in Shibuya, had a nice Tonkatsu lunch at an eatery, did some more wandering and picture taking, visited a huge 15 story mall filled almost exclusively with women's clothing stores (one of our travel companions is female, and a clothing fanatic), but the rest of us men didn't mind the diversion, as the mall was jam-packed with fashionable and attractive Japanese twenty-somethings. One of our number aptly nicknamed the escalator in the mall the "the magic escalator", as it was always filled with hot eye-candy.

We then continued on to Harajuku avenue, a road that is famous for the fashionable young crowd it draws. In my humble opinion it was not that special, other than the *awesome* food stand we found, that served my new favorite octopus-based snack, takoyaki -- a doughy squid filled dumpling served with bonito shavings and a mayo-like sauce. Oh man. You've no idea. It's heaven in octopus dumpling form. By this point we were all pretty tired of walking, tired of shopping, tired of buying wierd drinks from vending machines, and we returned to Shinjuku.

In Shinjuku we decided to go to a bar in the older part of the neighborhood. We picked the spot blindly, and it turned out to be a dark, fancy little western style bar that served almost exclusively cocktails. I had a small, expensive martini, which my associates had a kamikaze, manhattan, and brandy alexander. The straight liquor drinks at the bar were served with huge spheres of perfectly clear ice. They looked very fancy, but I can't shake the feeling that the bar charged us a "gaijin" tax.

Today, Day 2, started with a Japanese-style breakfast downstairs at one of the restaurants below the hotel. It was.... well... the Japanese aren't particularly famous for breakfast, let me say. Among the offerings were pickled vegetables, flavorless rice porridge, poached egg, smoked salmon (actually quite good, but bony), and my now second most dreaded food, natto. Natto, for the uninitiated, is fermented soy beans, cultured with a bacteria that creates huge strands of very sticky protein. They are bitter and smelly and some people swear by them. They are considered a health food in Japan. Next to Durian, it is the worst flavor I have ever experienced. But hey, I tried it. I'll probably give it another chance...some day. When the memory of the flavor isn't burned so strongly into my brain.

Next we gathered the whole group to travel to the neighborhood of Akihabara (or Akiba). This is the technology sector of Tokyo. The videogame, comic book, dvd, cell phone, and anything other nerdy thing you can think of section. Among the dozens of impossibly loud, visually overloading stores, the most noteworthy was Super Potato (in Japanese, pronounced "Supa-po-tah-toh"). This was a store dedicated to videogames. But not just modern games. All games. Games from the entire history of videogaming in Japan. From Game and Watch, through Famicom and Virtual Boy and Game Gear and every other system you can evoke, all in amazing condition, some in their original boxes, for *pittance*, I got Super Famicom version of Final Fantasy VI in the original (and incredibly superior Japanese) box for 15 dollars.

I also bought some DVDs of a show that's impossible to find in the states. After the excitement of Akiba, we went to dinner in Roppongi, an older neighborhood that's known for its nightlife. The restaurant we chose, called Gonpachi, is the inspiration for the bar in Kill Bill where the Crazy-88 and Uma Thurman duke it out. There I experienced the indisputable king of beefs, the real, award winning beef from the Kobe region of Japan. Kobe beef is richly marbled, smooth and buttery due to a strict diet and massage regimen for the cattle during their raising. We enjoyed this meal in the form of a Korean hot pot rice bowl, which was prepared at our table in molten-hot stone pots.

There are things I've failed to mention in this blog. I didn't talk about playing Street Fighter 4 in 6 story arcade, or the Square-Enix store, or all of the little street food places we tried, or all of the crazy convenience stores and vending machines. Maybe when I have some time when I get back I'll try to report it all. Right now I am a little tired, and tomorrow we're going to a giant cos-play convention thing, a huge park, and an all-night new year's party at a club in Roppongi. Soooo I'm going to go lie down for a bit if you don't mind.

Thanks for reading. More when I get some time to type.

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