Sunday, June 3, 2012

Japan part 1 - Tokyo

I finally have Internet, but no keyboard, and no way to upload photos, so I'm starting with an outline, to be fleshed out more later.  Ok, starting to put photos up.  We took nearly 1500 on the trip, so it'll be a while before I've got the albums in good shape.

 1) The flight, on an A380 operated by Singapore Airlines was long but relatively comfortable. The only difficulty was that the timing made it so we lost a whole night of sleep. Overall, jet lag wasn't too bad on this trip though. I guess it helps not to be standing all day in a cavernous tradeshow hall!

2) Upon arrival at Narita, we traded in our Japan Rail Pass vouchers for real passes (a process which involved forms in triplicate and lots of official stamps) and took the Narita Express train into Shibuya Station. Surfacing there, we arrived to the complete madness of Times Square, not quite on New Year's Eve, but maybe St. Patty's Day.  A ton of people crowded the streets, and we quickly realized most of them were drunk. We were nearly drunk from the jet lag, and had a hell of a time figuring out where our hotel was. Two friendly policemen and a lot of arm waving later though, we'd located it just across a massive intersection and around the corner.

 3) The Tokyo Granbell Shibuya Hotel was home for the next three nights. The rooms are tiny, but totally functional. The only thing was that to avoid having the bathroom be windowless (a nice touch, actually) your toilet overlooks your bed, which takes some getting used to, but luckily they provide multicolored curtains to pull across the glass for privacy.

4) We quickly went back out (before we could collapse in a pile of mush) and navigated our way to the first bowl of ramen. This was also the first time of many that we proved totally incapable of following the directions and maps we were given, in this case by our friendly hotel clerk. Oops. We should have tried harder. As cool as it was to queue with the crowd of young (drunk) businessmen in identical black suits, and crowd around tiny tables slurping hot noodles, this bowl of ramen was disappointingly mediocre. I also wondered why our table companions were carrying two massive shopping bags from McDonald's, filled with quarter pounder meals. Any ideas?

 5) We walked around Shibuya a bit, saw the crazy tsunami of people converge on the main intersection when the light turns, and then wandered back to the hotel to collapse in bed.

 Day 2 - Saturday
1) Early start. Ugh jet lag. Bfast in the hotel, which proved to be rubbery eggs, salad, and toast. We were pretty turned off, not realizing that we were getting off lucky as, in deference to all their western guests, they'd left out the whole fish we'd see many times in the future.

 2) We took the metro to Ueno Park, then followed a walking tour from our guidebook past a series of shrines. We got to see street fairs, numerous old(er) gentlemen setting up the small shrines they were going to parade, guys who looked like they work in an office all week, but take their Saturdays to honor tradition, and because they enjoy the companionship. Off in the distance, we spotted one larger parade and ran to catch up. Big drums, gongs, and a couple of guys in full regalia on horses. I have no idea what we saw, but it made if clear we weren't anywhere close to Kansas! The coolest part of the day is that we kept giving up on following the directions in the walking tour, but still kept stumbling on the things we'd intended to see. Plus lots of serendipity - I loved the bouldering wall we came across, with all it's funny shaped holds.

 3) Akihabara - the electronics district, was overwhelming. We went into a 10 story arcade, which was so full of light and noise I could see why some people have seizures. Lunch we grabbed at a Korean BBQ place in a mall, thrn we changed some $, then it was back to hotel (yay, we figured out the subway") for a nap.

 4) We were lucky, because dinner that night was with a classmate of mine from business school, Takako and her husband Daisuke at an awesome yakitori place that we never would have found on our own. I tried raw chicken. Breast, gizzard, heart. Couldn't bear to try the liver. But it was fantastic to see Takako again, and really feel like I was experiencing Tokyo, instead of just touring it.

 Day 3 - Sunday
1) We had a slower start today. Sat in Starbucks overlooking the busy Shibuya intersection, waiting for the Food Show in the basement of Shibuya Station to open. Once it did, we went a little nuts, buying bread from all the amazing French-style bakeries, gyoza, pork buns (turns out the Japanese like the same parts of Chinese cuisine that we do), plus several of those wonderful triangles of seaweed-wrapped rice, filled with we-never-knew-what. There's probably a system to the color coding of the wrappers, and if someone could let me know what it is before I come back, that would be awesome. This one was filled with salmon - yum!

After breakfast we wandered in completely wrong direction, then turned ourselves around and walked to yoyogi park. It was unbelievably cool to see all the ways people are using the space. We wandered through harajuku, but I was very disappointed that we saw no cosplay. Where are the goths or rockabilly guys? We then walked through Omotesando, and had lunch at nice cafe.  It felt like a place I'd be excited about back home.

2) We took the subway again, over to the Tokyo Dome for baseball game, where they were playing the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters The crowd was pretty tame, although I was much impressed by the brightly dressed girls running up and down, w big jugs of various drinks strapped to their backs. And the crowd is very coordinated, led by the cheering section, which included a drum to keep time, and horns, and big flags being waved...

3) We intended to rest, then head to Shinjuku, but instead fell asleep at 6 pm. Maybe that's why I didn't think the jet lag was so bad this time - I just gave into it!

 Day 4 - Monday
1) luckily, we had gone to bed early, because Monday morning we were up at 4am, headed to Tsukiji fish market. We were too late for the big tuna auctions, but waited in line for 2+ hours at Sushi Dai. I had fun wandering the nearby shops for a bit, interacting with the friendly vendors. I also met a nice couple from Holland who were also braving the seemingly endless wait. But eventually we made it in, to a tiny spot that seats only 8, and must have a size limit on the women who work there, because no one over 90lbs would be able to squeeze behind the dinners. And it was worth the wait, because we ate AMAZING SUSHI! Fatty tuna, flounder, mackerel, omlet, semi fatty tuna, soy marinated maguro, giant clam (live!) Spanish mackerel... Two more plus salmon. Omekase for only 50usd!

2) After "breakfast" we walked around Tsukiji. The scale and frenzy there is hard to describe, but still everything is all lined up gorgeously - the headless fish, the octopus tentacles, the striped prawns... We also went into the fruit and vegetable market, but that seemed tame in comparison. Still, everything was scrubbed to complete perfection.

3) That afternoon, we took the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Very cool way to travel! I'm definitely going to look for more excuses to travel by high speed rail.

From Wheeee!

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