Note: This visit to Tokyo was on February 27, 2011, two weeks before the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
March 2, 2011. It’s 5:00AM and I’m back in DC sitting in my office trying to finish writing up the last two days of our trip in Tokyo. In the dark quiet of the early morning, surrounded by everything familiar, it’s hard to propel myself back into the strange and fascinating streets of Tokyo.
Tokyo ended up being much more of an urban adventure than I would have ever imagined. Sure, we’ve traveled and seen a few things – well, really a lot of things. Often the differences between home and exotic lands can be attributed to the level of development – chaotic traffic, sidewalk kitchens, livestock on the road – and although European cities don’t work exactly like cities in the US, over the years we’ve grown accustomed to their charming idiosyncrasies.
Tokyo, however, is a whole new game. On the surface it doesn’t look much different from Manhattan except maybe cleaner, more organized and bigger. Much, much bigger. But here Western conventions don’t hold true. Simple tasks become mini-adventures. A delight for those seeking new experiences.
Soup noodles for breakfast, for instance. In Vietnam it’s easy to get a bowl of soup noodles at 9:00AM. At that hour practically every city corner has turned into a makeshift kitchen, but in Tokyo’s modern neighborhoods it was doubtful we would find any kind of street breakfast. We wandered the narrow streets of Akasaka where we had dinner the night before and, as expected, found most of the restaurants closed. A few western style cafes were open selling coffee, pastry and sandwiches, but we really wanted an Asian breakfast. Finally we found a ramen shop open for business with a couple of patrons slurping noodles inside. Better yet there were pictures by the door. We walk in and the cook/server (there is only one person in the place) says something in Japanese and motions for us to go back outside. Ok, the menu is listed by the door. We go back in and again he says something, maybe “ticket” and motions us back outside. Still not understanding, we go back inside and this time he comes outside with us and shows us the vending machine we are supposed to use to order the noodles. OK. Great, it has pictures, but not one word of English. Thankfully the order of operations works like Western vending machines – put in your money, choose your items, and it spits back the change and a ticket. We take the ticket to the now contented cook who quickly prepares our two bowls. Somehow these noodles are tastier spiced with a sense of accomplishment. Who thought you could order food through a vending machine?
Yumi met us back at the hotel just after noon for a tour of the Ginza shopping district, Tokyo’s street of high-end department stores and top label retailers. Fashion matters in Tokyo. As we sat in the hotel lobby waiting for her on this Sunday morning, it’s hard not to notice the smartly dressed women, mostly in short skirts, darks stockings and fashionable boots. I’m feeling very out of place in my convertible travel pants, fleece hoodie and tennis shoes. Although, considering my height and hair color I would be out of place not matter what I was wearing.
Our first stop is the Mitsukoshi department store. As usual we are most interested in the food department, two floors of exotic food heaven all brightly lit and neatly wrapped in cellophane. The aisles are wide and full of regional specialties of Japan as well as specialty foods from around the world. Row after row of cases of prepared foods, both hot and cold, with a wide range of international selections. Cases of beautiful fish fillets and the quintessential red and white Japanese beef. The Japanese like their Wagyu beef so well marbled that it often has as much white fat showing as red meat. The most famous of which is Kobe, a region of Japan that produces this well tended breed. Mirroring the beef coloring are the striking boxes of alternating red and white strawberries – a special sweet variety that has just a blush of pink. In addition there are huge sections of Western gourmet products – bread and pastry, wines, cheeses and chocolates, to name a few. Truly a food lover’s paradise.
We take a quick spin through some of the other departments. This store has 12 floors of food, fashion and housewares. Yumi is particularly interested in showing us the Kimono section, with elegant fabrics laid out with coordinating textiles for the obi (the sash that ties at the back). Appropriately the Kimono area is right next to the fine jewelry. Diamonds sparkle so intently they seem to burst from the case.
Along the wide avenues of Ginza all the top fashion labels are represented – Channel, Gucci, Tiffany, Versace. The architecture is clean and modern. On this crisp clear day the street is packed with shoppers as well as spectators for the Tokyo marathon cheering on the weary runners. Despite the multitudes, the flow of pedestrians is calm and organized with the help of frequent traffic officers.
Yumi takes us to the Ginza Sky Lounge with a rotating dining room. A Western-style place that serves lunch and afternoon tea. Yumi and I enjoy a fruit tart with ice cream as we watch Tokyo rotate around us. This is just a small portion of the city near the central train station, but still the endless sea of buildings is overwhelming. Few cities compare.
We say our final good-byes to our friend and expert guide. She finally will allow us to go back to our hotel on our own, but not without specific directions on how to get to Ripongi for dinner tonight and metro instructions on how to get to the fish market tomorrow morning. Spending the last two days with Yumi has given the first exploration of Tokyo an intimate dimension that would have been impossible for us to discover on our own.
MIXX at the ANA Intercontinental is one of Tokyo’s many overpriced view bars. From here you can soak up the immense Tokyo nightscape for the price of one very expensive drink (drinks here will cost us more than what we will spend on dinner). The ambiance of the chic bar, decorated in all black with strategically placed red votives, continues through the window to the limitless skyline dotted with red signal lights. Most cities only have a few lights on their tallest towers to warn passing planes, but in Tokyo the lights looks like red constellations on a clear night.
Conquering Ripongi. Elated after our experience in Akasaka the night before we venture into the neon lit Ripongi in search of dinner. But this is not the accessible narrow streets of Akasaka. Here the main avenues are wide. The better restaurants are on upper floors with names only in Japanese. It’s a happening night spot jammed with clubs, Western restaurants and cheap ramen shops. The dark narrow lanes behind the main road hold promise, but nothing feels right – stairs that go nowhere, too Western, no pictures. We end up back on the main road at a higher-end ramen shop. Japanese are waiting to get in, a good sign. Our turn comes and the hostess pulls the English menu out of a high cupboard and shows us to a table sitting alone in a small room and shuts the door. In our brief view of the dining room, except for a small bar area, all the tables seem to be in small rooms. As we sit in our little room we can hear cheering and shouting coming from the neighboring rooms. Don explains that they use these types of places for drinking games.
The menu with nice pictures and flowery descriptions in English is one-note; they serve ramen with pork. Although, according to the menu, all ingredients of the very best quality. There are a few appetizer type items listed in the back. We order pickled seaweed, garlic pot-stickers and two different bowls of noodles. The waitress asks me if I want to include the collagen ball at no extra charge. A service they offer only to the ladies (Japanese women melt globs of collagen in their soups and stews to ward off wrinkles). The noodle bowls, both with pork, couldn’t have been more different. One was a very light fish stock with seaweed and sweet tofu, the other a thick rich pork stock – almost a gravy. Both excellent and holding true to their claim of quality ingredients. Another enjoyable slice of Tokyo.