Note: This post was written February 26, 2011, two weeks before the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
It’s hard to imagine Tokyo as a place to rejuvenate, but after three weeks in Vietnam this city feels calm and relaxed. It helps that the sky is bright blue instead of the gray drizzle of Hanoi, and it’s the weekend with fewer people crowding the metro trains. Yes, the streets are still full of pedestrians like us enjoying the beautiful crisp weather, but the traffic flows in an orderly fashion and not one motorbike can be heard. Paradise.
Our overnight flight (just barely 5 hours) arrived at Narita just before 7:00AM. We are fortunate and with the help of the friendly agent at the limousine-bus desk are able to make the 7:15 bus into Tokyo, about an hour and half ride. Unfortunately our cell phones do not work and trying to call our friend Yumi becomes a headache – our room is not ready so we can’t call from the room, the hotel only has a pay phone for local calls and we don’t have any change. You would expect better service from a top-end hotel.
Finally we are able to reach Yumi and arrange to meet her at the hotel (Yumi was a student of mine when she was living in DC). She first takes us to Asakusa, one of the old Edo neighborhoods where modern architecture hasn’t completely pushed out the old-style wooden structures. The long entrance, lined with shops leading to the Senso-ji Temple, is a sea of dark heads all about a foot shorter than Don and me. Branches of cherry blossoms with bits of tinsel decorate both lengths of the passage way which create a bright sparkling atmosphere on this sunny morning. Yumi explains to us various traditions of the Buddhist religion – waving the smoke of the burning incense towards you brings good fortune, sculptures of fierce dogs guard the entrance of temple to keep away bad spirits, worshipers toss a coin in a grated metal box and clap their hands together to pray for good fortune.
The temple complex includes smaller temples that flank either side of the main temple, a five-story pagoda and a pretty Japanese garden with smaller shrines housing doll-like figures to pray for the well being of children.
For lunch Yumi takes us to Sushi Sen, an unassuming restaurant that serves fish from the famous Tsukiji market. We ordered – or rather Yumi ordered – a combination sushi plate plus a few of our favorite pieces. Maybe it was the beautiful day or the joy of being motorbike free, but definitely some of the best sushi we have ever eaten, fresh, tender and mild flavored.
The metro system is a complex network of interconnecting train lines, some public and others private. Depending on the kind of ticket you purchase you have access to more or fewer lines. An overwhelming amount of information is available if you know where to look. Lists of destinations are given for the multiple exits at the largest stations. At each metro exit are posted neighborhood maps. Some also have paper versions you can take with you. On the weekends information agents hand out maps and answer questions about local destinations. By the end of our weekend with Yumi we had a library of maps and pamphlets for the various places we visited.
After lunch we took a spin around the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Large manicured grounds, well tended without a leaf out of place or a scrap of paper on the ground. It’s early spring and the trees are full of buds waiting for warmer weather. A few cherry and plum trees have started early such that you can imagine what this garden will look like when it is at its peak in another month or so. Some of the old stone structures, such as the base to the main tower, remind me of the mortarless construction style of the Incas in Peru.
Yumi, in typical Japanese fashion, escorts us back to our hotel. She wants to make sure that we don’t get lost in the subway maze and that everything is in order with our room. We assure her that we can find our way back, but it’s best not to argue. It’s her city.
We are on our own for dinner. Completely illiterate in Japanese we will have to rely on the occasional English menu and pictures. The narrows streets of the Akasaka district near our hotel, lined with mid-ranged restaurants, offer lots of Japanese and international choices. We randomly choose a small restaurant Chyon-Sole doing good business with lots of pictures displayed by the front door. Upon entering the server looks at us hesitantly and says, “full”. A nice couple sitting at table near the door says in good English that they are leaving, freeing up a table for us. When we scan the menu with Japanese and Korean captions, we understand the server’s hesitation. This is a Korean restaurant, with no English on the menu. Looking around the room at the young Japanese patrons happily dining on fabulous looking dishes, we decide to dive in. Luckily the menu has pictures and we order what looks like a condiment starter set, a mixed beef and vegetable dish, a fish dish and a flat Spanish tortilla-looking dish which turned out to be something akin to a kimchi omelet. I really can’t say what we ordered, but everything came out sizzling-hot, spicy and wonderful. The best meal of our trip.