I visited Japan last May and it stole my heart. I immediately started planning and saving to get back as soon as possible. I saw an ad on the internet for a company called Walk Japan. They offered tours all year long, all over Japan. Normally, I am not one for tours, but a snow shoe trip through the mountains was irresistable and the tour, vital, as I would certainly not be able to navigate the unfamiliar snow covered terrain alone, nor communicate in the small villages.
My sister-in-law Hannah, decided last minute, to join me for a few days in Tokyo and my brother agreed to stay home and watch the kids so she could go. We whiled away the 11 hour SFO-Tokyo flight with adult beverages, snacks, and movies, cat-napping off and on. As we were approaching Tokyo, I was telling Hannah a story when suddenly my eyes popped open and I pointed and shrieked, bouncing in my chair, “Look, look, oh my gosh, it’s Mount Fuji!!!” I’d no idea it would just BE there, right there, right outside the plane window.
We made our way without (much) incident to our hotel near Tokyo Station and wandered out to look for a proper meal. I’d seen a recommendation for a sushi restaurant and determined to find it. Sometimes a particular place can be daunting to find in Japan as there may be no sign, usually no street address, and there can be a small, decorative curtain hanging over the door. But find it we did, and we ducked under the curtain and slid open the door. It was if a needle scratched across a record. The restaurant went silent and everyone turned and stared. Had we come in through the wrong door? Did I have toilet paper on my shoe? I shifted uncomfortably and Hannah smiled at the restaurant at large. We waited. They stared. Finally an employee decided we weren’t going away and motioned for us to follow him. We wound our way through the restaurant and followed him up a precarious flight of stairs to a room with several small tables. We sat and he told us, “No dinner menu!” We looked at one another befuddled. It was a restaurant full of people eating and drinking. He motioned for us to wait. About 15 minutes later he came back with two wooden planks with 10 beautiful pieces of sushi each. He set them down and that was the last we saw of him. We looked around at all the people eating and drinking all manner of things and decided he was the sushi nazi a la Seinfeld. No dinner menu for you! You will eat what I decide to give you and that is that! We hoped he’d come back sooner or later so we could order something more or perhaps a drink, but he never did and eventually we gave up and left. The food was delicious but it was the one and only time I ever felt anything other than the warmest of reception. In his defense, what would a waiter in San Francisco do if someone showed up on the doorstep, unable to read or speak English…
Having been awake for well over 24 hours we collapsed into bed shortly thereafter. Somewhere around 2am we were awakened, scared half to death by both of our cell phones sounding alarm sirens. “What’s happening?!” Hannah called out in the dark. A voice, emanating from our phones, repeated a phrase in Japanese over and over. “It’s some sort of alarm, but I don’t know what it’s saying!” I called back. Then the building began to sway. “Oh, an earthquake” Hannah said loosing interest and went back to sleep. Being from California, this is not uncommon, but my heart was pounding and I kept thinking, “Yeah, but what if it’s actually Godzilla? I mean this IS Tokyo!”
The next morning, having survived the first few interesting hours in Tokyo, we bravely set out to see what else the city could throw at us. We stopped in at the Fukugawa Shrine to witness the “goma” or fire ceremony. We were the only non-worshipers there and tried to remain discreet as our giantness and white-ness would allow. I was entirely engrossed, listening to the chanting, watching the pyre crackle with flames, admiring the colorful robes and watching the voluminous sleeves billow as the monks threw their whole bodies into pounding the giant taiko drums. Oddly, at the end of it all, the worshippers all shuffled down to the smoking remains and handed their bags and purses to be waved about in the smoke. Some sort of blessing or purifying?
The public transportation in Japan is daunting to a California girl. We don’t have public transportation. We have personal cars and GPS. Subway, bus, train, monorail, oh my! Hannah and I put our phones and our heads together and made our way via public transport (we did it!) to Sensoji Temple. We high fived one another for a successful journey. In order to get to the temple which was built in 645 (Say whaaaat? ) you must first run the gauntlet of shops and food stalls. We almost didn’t make it. We were side tracked by tiny mochi dusted with matcha, grilled balls of rice, steamed pork buns, cookies stuffed with sweet red beans, skewers of charcoal crisped chicken. Finally we popped out the other end, gasping, and 10 pounds heavier. The temple was enormous and beautiful and it made me shake my head in wonder at the history and longevity of this country and its culture.
One of the things that stood out most to me about Tokyo was how seemingly incongrous things seem to co-exist, side by side, no big deal. As we walked the streets of this HUGE city (over 9 million people) Hannah mentioned, “Have you noticed how quiet it is? It’s so strange for a big city.” She was right. There was no honking, no screeching tires, no noisy cell phone conversations, no sirens. Same with the subway. You could be jostling shoulder to shoulder, standing room only and aside from the noise of the wheels on the tracks, it would be quite silent. An ancient crumbling wooden shrine might have a clasp on the door of the shiniest new brass. A family in kimonos and wooden sandals minced down the street flanked by the reflective glass of a high rise. A brawny young man stood with his rickshaw waiting for a fare while a hot pink Lamborghini growled down the street in the opposite direction.
In this vein, we were not surprised to find that near the Sensoji Temple was a 14 story department store called ROX. On the seventh floor was a public path. And you thought Walmart had it all. Public bathing is a uniquely Japanese experience, and not to be missed. I mean, why not. Shop till you drop, and then go have a bath. You check in at the counter and are asked to remove your shoes. You are given a key for a special shoe locker. Then you are given a little baggie with a washcloth, a towel, and a very silly set of matching Hawaiian print capri pants and button up shirt. The men and women head to their respective bathing areas. In the ante-locker room, you remove your street clothes, put them in a different locker and don your silly Hawaiian outfit. Then, 5 steps later in the bathing room, you remove your silly Hawaiian outfit and stroll in the buff to the bathing station where you pre-scrub your person while sitting on a tiny, kindergarten size chair. Then, you fold up your wet washcloth and wear it on your head while gently easing into the scalding hot pool of your choice. It’s so great.
The following day we started out by with a visit to the Tsukiji Outer Fish Market which was a hodge podge of narrow alley ways stuffed with people bumping shoulders and vendors shouting and selling their wares. We walked and snacked. We saw scallops so big it would take two hands to lift them, live crab the size of pomeranians, people whipping up frothy matcha, bamboo steamers sending their plumes of heavenly scents curling heavenward in the cold morning air. We ate. We watched a fisherman take apart a yellow fin tuna which we guessed to weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 pounds. We ate some more.
I could go on and on about all the wild, wonderful, and wacky things we saw during our time in Tokyo. But the wackiest of all had to be the Robot Show. I don’t even know how to tell you what it was other than a night of entertainment. After paying for our tickets, we were led down so many flights of stairs, all covered in crazy street art and mirrors, that I lost count and started to get midly claustrophobic and panicky. I mean, how far underground could it be? We finally emgerged into a small auditorium of sorts where the spectators sat on either side and the stage was in the middle. What followed was 90 minutes of eye and ear popping visual and auditory assault. There was singing and dancing, lasers, pounding drums, floats, scantily clad girls riding various angry beasts, giant shiny robots, dancing neon cats, and over-sized sumo pandas running around knocking people down. We emerged at the end somewhat dazed and not entirely sure what had just happened. I’d recommend going for the wow-that-was-weird factor but bring ear plugs and sun glasses.
The next day, Hannah had to head back to California and I had to meet my tour group in Tokyo Station. To be continued…