Many thanks to Phil and his lovely rendition of the events of New Year’s eve and day. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogger. By the way, this entry and the next were composed between glances out of the window on the Shinkansen bullet train, traveling at 200 miles per hour from Tokyo to Kyoto. More on that later.January 2nd is one of two days the Emperor’s Palace grounds are open to the public, so 3 of the 5 of us decided to brave the crowds to possibly get a glimpse at said world leader and his pad. The crowd at the palace was comparable to the crowd at Meiji temple the previous day, but thankfully the palace grounds are notably larger than the path leading up to the temple. Everyone in the crowd was handed small paper Japanese flags with which to celebrate their Japanese-ness. We were allowed to have them too, and availed ourselves of the opportunity. The emperor’s palace is surrounded by a large moat and several acres of gardens and grounds smack in the middle of Tokyo proper. After a session of rigorous “pad down the foreigners” from the Tokyo police, we were allowed through the main gate and followed the crowd through the winding hilly path to the palace.
The palace itself is a testament to the Spartan quality of Japanese architecture. It’s a curious amalgam of traditional Japanese style and the clean lines of modern design. We filed into a square where an official of the government was orating in even tones and the countrymen were generating a small windstorm of paper flag rustling. Then, on a glass enclosed balcony about a story above us in the palace, emerged what I assume is the royal family of Japan and the emperor. I assume this because it was pretty difficult to see any facial details at the distance we stood from the balcony, but the fervor of the crowd seemed sufficient for an emperor, so I’m going to go ahead and say it was him. So, yeah, we saw the emperor of Japan. Neat.
Outside the grounds, we wandered around north of the palace and discovered a path lined with Phil and I’s favorite travel pass-time…street food vendors. They were situated along a walkway that we would later discover lead to a monument we wanted to see anyway. But before that, let’s talk about the street food! After an initial mutual convergence on a yakitori stand, where I had both a chicken skewer and what I think was tongue, we decided to divide and conquer to get more mileage out of our eating exploration. Phil stood in line to get some freshly fried Yakisoba noodles, which I picked out some pancake-like buns – one filled with a mild white cheese, the other filled with egg custard. Then a few stalls down we appropriated some seared rice-bun thingies, one filled with stewed Japanese vegetables and another with red beans. (Trust me when I say that I’ve had enough red beans on this trip to last me a lifetime.)
The street vendors eventually gave way to what we first thought was another temple, but turned out to be a controversial monument to World War II called the Peaceful Nation Shrine. The shrine is a combination of monument to the fallen soldiers of the war, and a memorial to an Indian diplomat who wanted Japan to be absolved of guilt for their actions in the war because the international council charged with resolving blame in the conflict was heavily biased towards the Allied forces. To be fair, I suppose it was, but that would be because the Allies won…history written by the victors and all that. The shrine itself was quite nice, and a helpful and emphatic middle-aged man pointed out to us in broken English that the cards hanging from the trees all around the shrine listed regiments of soldiers killed in the war.
There was also a small group of performers playing zithers, an instrument I am not confident giving a constructive opinion on. Strings are plucked to generate the familiar “black keys on a piano” sound of Japanese music and the performer bends the pitches by pressing down between large frets to create dissonant tones in the music.
Afterward we drifted towards a canal and over a small bridge at Iidabashi station to reach Kagurazaka, a neighborhood known for having an “old Tokyo” feel, with many shops selling traditional kimonos and sandals. We stopped to take the opportunity to have a burger at “Mos Burger”. We did this because several people had mentioned to us that we had to, at least once, try a burger in Tokyo to see how the Japanese translate America’s most identifiable foodstuff. Even ordering the most typical-looking burger on the menu, all three of us can testify that, while being fairly edible, the meat-based, cheese covered sandwich of which we partook that day was not what an American would traditionally call a burger. Oh sure, it resembled one, but the texture and flavor of the meat more resembled a Salisbury steak than a true hamburger. We think it might have been a mixture of beef and pork.
After walking around for a few minutes in Kagurazaka and being fairly unimpressed, we hopped on the Subway and headed over to Ginza to see, among other thing, the impressive Sony building. Sony recently released a new Walkman to compete with Apple’s IPod shuffle. It is tremendously thin (less than ¼”), with physical buttons and a small color screen. It might compete, but it’s hard to say. We also saw a little cylindrical robot that danced to whatever music was playing, and a really nice multi-touch monitor. We decided not to wait in line to try on the glasses for the 3d television set.
The next stop was a department store basement. While this may not seem like a particularly interesting thing to do when visiting a city several thousand miles from home, department stores in Tokyo have a very noteworthy aspect to them, usually dwelling on the basement level, that I would like to refer to as “foodtopia.” They are shrines to food – a living testament to a nation that loves to eat. Foodtopia was stall after stall of produce, meats, prepared meals, bento, cakes, pastries, chocolates, salads and fish. It was jammed with people making purchases. Some of the vendors sold things I’d never seen before, like white strawberries and whole fish skewers. Others were old favorites, but of consummate quality – ruby red tuna filets and artistically and precisely constructed bento boxes. We managed to avoid making any purchases, but it was a real treat just walking around there. We might be back later in the trip to partake of Foodtopia’s splendors.
After the Sony building and the department store we went on a mission to find a famous store in Ginza that sells chopsticks. Without too much difficulty we managed to locate the small storefront and walked into a narrow shop with walls completely lined with chopstick sets. Some individual pairs were upwards of 800 dollars, but they ranged anywhere from the single digits to the hundreds. All of us managed to find at least one pair that caught our eye.
The last stop worth mentioning for the day was the restaurant where we ate dinner. Phil had located a tempura restaurant he wanted to try, and we amazingly located it without incident, in the first place we looked. Yes, the guidebook had at last managed to pinpoint a location with enough accuracy to allow us to find it on the first pass through the neighborhood. The restaurant, called Tenmaru, was slightly more expensive than our previous food adventures, but the set meals we purchased contained more than enough food to satisfy our hungers. The meal included wicked fresh sashimi, green salad, miso soup (of course), rice (of course), a dozen or so pieces of tempura which was brought moments after frying to our table, and a small cup of chowanmushi – a Chinese savory egg custard with seafood and vegetables. The meal was topped off with hot roasted green tea and a criminally good tempura fried ice cream.
After dinner we staggered back to the hotel room after picking up some alcoholic beverages from the AM-PM and spent the rest of the evening watching the painful and hypnotic shows on Japanese television.