Tall Tales from Technologic Tokyo
Notes from my Journal -- Tokyo, Japan
July 20th & 21st, 2016
Embarking from Los Angeles & beloved LAX, I began my postgraduate Southeast Asian odyssey with my brother Raphael in Tokyo, Japan's hyper-technologic capital. After a long airborne journey time traveling from afternoon on the 20th in California to evening on the 21st in Japan, ready for the beginning of what would be an insanely wild & unforgettable adventure.
We arrived at Shibuya subway station just a little before midnight and stumbled into the heart of Tokyo's metropolitan madness at Tokyo’s Times Square, Shibuya Crossing: one of the busiest intersections in the world with traffic diverging in a few different directions with multiple stoplights for cars speeding by and crosswalks for the swirling sea of humans sauntering about. It was an immediate bombardment of noise, in more ways than one. Skyscrapers adorned with the soft lights of offices and bright lights of talking billboards soared into the sky. The bright, warm blur of tail lights reflected as cars zoomed by. Countless colored & neon signs of shops & restaurants advertising their wares. And a myriad of faces, the faces of humans of Tokyo—businessmen headed home after a long day in the office, couples unabashedly absorbed in each other, young night owls stumbling drunk to the bars & clubs, tech fiends glued to their smartphones playing PokemonGo, and so many more faces of Tokyo's humanity—all hustling around this beautifully chaotic sci-fi cityscape and spectacle of lights. Along with the vibrant visuals, noise bombarded us too: the rhythmic pounding of feet on the pavement, the droning chatter of the night's masses, the electric hum of passing cars & motorbikes, even animated advertisements calling out from the sides of high-rises. Noise on the ears, noise on the eyes. What a perfect place to be dropped into to start this Southeast Asian odyssey: loud, noisy, colorful, and vibrating with life--just like us.
We navigated the chaos of Shibuya Crossing down some smaller side streets through Shibuya's Kamiyamacho neighborhood looking for our apartment that allegedly existed. Stumbling around the dark streets for what seemed hours, we tried entering the wrong building (though we didn't know it then) along with a Japanese businessman. Rather than ignore us young and confused Americans asking for directions at midnight, this generous man looked through our Airbnb host's directions and decided to lead an expedition around the strange and dark streets of Kamiyamacho while explaining that it's rather hard to locate buildings in Tokyo because they are numbered by the date they were built and not in a progressive order down the street. With this local's help it only took us a solid 30 minutes to find our pad--and the guy lived about 5 minutes away. Still, this was a most fortuitously representative introduction to Japanese people who we learned then (and later on) were incredibly generous with their help and time, respectful and courteous almost to a fault, and more hospitable than two young kids from a materialistic bubble like Orange County, California could comprehend. It was one of those moments that, in retrospect, the world conspired to help us live out a dream.
After dropping our belongings at the halitosis pad (named for the ripe smell of early morning bad breath our apartment complex's outdoor hall had), we headed back to the streets to absorb the bustling life around Shibuya and, of course, gorge on the seriously delicious cuisine of a foreign land--what would become one of Raphael and I's premier habits on this multi-month odyssey. We picked up some Kirin Ichiban beers along our stroll (after confirming the lax nature of Japan’s open container laws) to toast to our adventure--Kanpai--then stopped in a late-night sushi joint to get our first taste of Japan. Bellies full, we headed to people watch and drink in the madness of Shibuya Crossing which, after our initial bombardment of noise, seemed to slow down the mad life & speed of it all, before packing it in for the night.
Soon enough though, jetlag, compounded by the beer, hit us like a sack of bricks and we returned to the halitosis pad to get some much needed sleep before foraying into our first full exploration in this foreign land tomorrow.
July 22nd, 2016
The next morning we woke up rather early by our standards, around 9, feeling the strange daze of our time travel. Dazed & confused, we headed out into a light drizzle for a morning coffee to get the mental gears turning again. Our brains fizzing with caffeine and our souls vibrating with energy we figured our first day should be balanced between explorations of both food and the outdoors as well as doses of culture both old and new. With that in mind, we decided to stroll through Yoyogi Park to visit the Japanese Sword Museum. Inside Yoyogi, the rain continued to drizzle down from the sky, cleansing us of our inhibitions and fears at taking a plunge liquidating our assets for this backpacking odyssey a long, long way from home.
After our mindful stroll through Yoyogi, we arrived at the surprisingly small sword museum for our first look into traditional Japanese culture & samurai history. These remnants of a bygone feudal society were ironically showcased in this bland museum: vanilla walls, hospital lighting, simple display cases of white cloth. Crafted from a steel called Tamahagane—a combination of smelted sand-iron & charcoal—we saw intricate & dazzling swords, minutely-detailed and masterly-crafted hilts, and sheaths of all lengths and sizes. There were katanas (long blades with the cutting edge up), tachis (a long blade with the cutting edge down), wakizashis (slightly shorter katanas), and tantos (small dagger-length katanas). These were the finest blades, hilts, & sheaths honed in all regions of Japan today, a testament to Japanese craftsmanship as well as the continuity of honored samurai culture in modern times.
Hangry-ness setting in, we cured our appetites on the best $2 noodles I’d ever had and headed back out, with no particular destination in mind, wandering around Shinjuku Station, eyes looking upward at the sci-fi cityscape. At some point our attention was drawn back to the street level by the noise & neon light escaping from what appeared to be a kitschy Japanese Pachinko arcade. Inside the arcade it was a clusterfuck of color. There was a labyrinth of arcade consoles lined up like slot machines in a Vegas casino. It smelled like a casino too, with cigarette smoke mingling in the stale air. It even sounded like a casino with the almost unbearable of noise: the cha-ching of slot machines, the metallic boing of Pachinko pinballs, the animated babble of talking characters on fighter games, and Japanese pop drowning it all out over the loudspeakers. We tried to set up shop at one of these machines and after five minutes of flashing lights & blaring noise we hadn't figured out how the hell to even start the game (or the different games on the machines to either side) or how to play, so we aborted the mission before our heads imploded from the overstimulation.
After escaping the delirium of the Japanese arcade we wanted to settle our minds for a bit outdoors with something more peaceful, so we made for a nearby temple in the city to get away from the hubbub, if only for a little bit, before returning to Yoyogi for a visit to Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine, one of the more eminent religious shrines in the city dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken, famous for restoring Japan to imperial rule in 1868 as well as opening Japan to the West. The shrine, a vestige of historic Japan, offers a glimpse into Shintoism, Japan's oldest religion. In Shintoism, there are no gods, no founders, no sacred scriptures. Rsather, Shintoism is more ritualistic in nature and focuses on man's essential goodness, harmonizing man & nature, kami spirits, and virtue/purity .
We arrived at Meiji-jingu, passing under a 40 foot cypress-tree archway and into the serenity of the scene. Solemnity mingled in the air and we absorbed the tranquility of this shrine nestled in Yoyogi’s evergreen forest, surrounded by thousands of old and august cypress trees.
Our minds tranquilized and bodies feeling the full effects of jetlag, a nap was now in order. Back at the halitosis pad we slept through the sunset and into the night, feeling rejuvenated. Somehow we rallied and headed back out into the madness of Shibuya to fill our bellies before calling it a night. Wandering around Shibuya crossing, Sapporos in hand, we found a late-night restaurant--Tiger Gyoza Hall. I stepped out of my food comfort zone to try a Japanese 'delicacy', a "1000 year old" duck egg, the most questionable looking egg (looked more like a sliced brown apple than anything else) I’ve ever seen. After eating some oishii Xiao Long Bao dumplings to chase down the egg, I was cashed out. Bedtime for bonzo.
July 23rd, 2016:
The next morning we awoke a little on the groggy side, and rebooted our brains over a morning coffee. It would be another long day with doses of cultural history and modern madness, kicking off with an excursion to the Imperial Palace—the home of the Japanese emperor from 1868 onward after the Meiji Restoration, during which Japan’s capital was relocated from Kyoto to Tokyo. After breakfast we set out for the subway and transferred through Shinjuku Station—the busiest subway station in the world (during rush hour)—where we navigated through the underground labyrinth onto the new subway. From Shinjuku we were delivered to the Imperial Palace, a sanctuary of traditional culture amidst the futuristic urban backdrop.
Crossing the palatial moat was like crossing a time portal into another era. I took a moment to be in the moment: admiring the willows and pines ornamenting the outer gates, a graceful swan bobbing atop the swampy ancient moat (an apropos symbol of the palace’s beauty), the carved stone sculptures of fish & other animals around the gates, and the traditional Japanese architecture with the large hip and gabled roofs. In the middle of a metropolis like Tokyo here stood a regal & imperial palace. Though we weren't able to see the interior palace—home to the royal family—I still admired the beauty meandering around the Fukiage Gardens and East Gardens: elegant hibiscus flowers, bamboo shoots of all different varieties, and a wide open air grass knoll. It was a world within the concrete playground that is Tokyo, a city separated from the speed and time of modern life by the moat.
After a dose of traditional Japanese culture, Rahael and I were about to experience its exact antithesis, electric Akihibara. Unlike the more serene garden grounds, Akihibara overflowed with chaos and commotion as the epicenter of Tokyo's, and Japan's, videogame culture. It was the madness & masses of Shibuya Crossing infused with all things video games. Skyscrapers adorned with Sega, Nintendo, Panasonic, Sony, and Atari ads. Crowds swam slowly down the sidewalks like sardines, eyes glued to the black mirrors in their hands. Electronics stores, kitschy arcades, and cosplay cafes with female servers dressed up as video game princesses. From geishas to cosplay, the Japanese male’s mind had found a new fantasy.
It was all so strange to me. I loved video games. I played too many video games growing up: Call of Duty, Halo, World of Warcraft, and so many more. But this obsession of video game culture was fascinatingly beyond my comprehension. Sensory overload seemed to be an underlying theme of my time in Tokyo thus far. Time to duck into a ramen restaurant and relax for a little awhile.
Hungry, we sat down & ordered quickly, sipping some cold Kirins while we waited for the feast of gyoza & ramen coming our way. The gyoza was uncanny; the ramen was even better. The noodles were perfectly cooked, the flavor from another planet between the tart ginger, spicy miso, green onions, umami soy, and hint of garlic. If there was ever a blackout during a meal this was it. The food was all there in front of me and the next thing I know my ramen bowl was completely drained and I'm sitting back undoing the top button on my shorts to give my stomach some breathing room. Incapacitated, all I could do was smile & laugh.
Once we were able to move again, we opted for an ascent up Tokyo Skytree. Looming large over the sci-fi city skyline, the Tokyo Skytree is the highest man made point in Japan at 2,080 feet. From the lower observation deck, we had a 360 degree view of Tokyo: out to Tokyo Bay in the south, blue skies to the east, stormclouds marching in from the west (obscuring our view of Mt. Fuji unfortunately), and the Sumida River cutting through the north side of town. Tokyo just extended on and on in each direction, offering an endless possibility of life in any direction.
We descended the Skytree as night descended on the sky. Back to the halitosis pad to pack our bags and get ready for the all-night ahead, our atavistic endeavor to climb Mount Fuji-San for a morning sunrise.
After a long journey stunted with ill preparation and paradoxically serendipitous timing, fueled by our resilient desire to be undeterred, we watched sunrise three-quarters of the way up Mount Fuji. From up above the clouds we watched the sun paint the canopy of the sky with it’s radiant and warm hues—the first light of the day. To say it was magical, majestic, magnificent, and marvelous would be an understatement. It felt like we had climbed a mountain and were now outside reality.
[For a more detailed account of my ascent of Mount Fuji see my blog post: An Atavistic Ascent up Mount Fuji.]
July 24th, 2016:
We headed down Fuji once delirium was upon us, beginning our long and disillusioning descent. Eventually, what seemed like another day later--though only a few hours later, we arrived at way-station #5 for a bus back to Tokyo. To our dismay, tickets to Shinjuku Station were sold out and a route through Kawaguchiko to Shibuya had a multi-hour wait. Fat chance we were waiting in that line. After a chat-n-cut with some other backpackers we were headed back home. There are wolves and then there are sheep.
If the walk down Fuji was a blur, then that bus ride was a total memory zap. Back in Kamiyamacho fatigue had vanished like Houdini. The naps on the buses must have tricked our bodies into thinking we had some sort of energy to mobilize again. First we stopped in a little bookstore down the side street from the pad and browsed their wares. As a bookworm, I was pretty delighted by the difference in writing. Unlike English books, Japanese ones are written vertically, from right to left, and I figured it would be interesting to have a novel-ty keepsake.
Entertained, we were ready for one last epic gorge and stumbled upon Kaikaya by the Sea, a sushi restaurant. With no reservation they had to seat us at the sushi bar right in front of the masterclass chefs at work, if that was okay with us. Next question. Of course we didn't mind seeing these culinary wizards at work. We got to talking with one of them, Chef Shun, about the gargantuan sashimi bowl with seven different pieces of fish he was meticulously preparing and figured that’s exactly what we needed too. We devoured that sashimi, yet this time savoring each bite (unlike the ramen gorge). We thanked Chef Shun again for that marvelous meal to which he replied by sending us some cherry blossom ice cream on the house. Now that’s hospitality. What an all around meal. Some serious Japanese chicken, a bountiful platter of sashimi, some naturally sweet cherry blossom ice cream as well as warm barley tea and cold Japanese sake to wash it down. The perfect gorge to end all gorges in Tokyo.
During dinner and on our stroll home, Raphael & I reminisced on our few days in Tokyo. What a phenomenal start to our East Asian Odyssey. We'd seen some bitchin' Japanese swords, some ancient oriental temples & shinto shrines, blacked out to some uncanny ramen, people watched at Shibuya Crossing, wandered around the city for hours, and been at the two highest points in Japan (one natural, one manmade) within 24 hours between the Tokyo Skytree & Mt. Fuji. And to top it all off, some authentic, fresh, flavorful and oishii sashimi.
July 25th, 2016:
There was no escaping our jabinry. After checking out of the AirBnB and (mis)reading the train times to the airport, we stopped to gorge on ramen in Tokyo one last time. Big mistake. We missed the train, and our flight to Osaka. After the time we’d had so far, nothing could dampen our spirits. We booked the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto, found some smoking cubicles and ripped a heater, relaxing on our way to the ancient capital.
21 Free Things to Do in Tokyo:
Tokyo Bucket List
A Chef’s Choice for Food in Tokyo