Japan 2016 Part 1: Tokyo

Here is part one of a much-delayed recap of my travels in Japan with my boyfriend Ryan this May.

This 10-day trip to Japan was the first time in Asia for both of us, and it started with a detour to Canada. It turns out airfare to Tokyo is much less flying out of YVR, particularly with the current exchange rate, so the Bolt Bus at 6:30 a.m. from Seattle left us with a couple of hours to kill in Vancouver, enjoying a leisurely pub breakfast and pre-flight cocktails.

img_8718Arriving at the Haneda airport, a local helpfully prevented us from getting on the local train (monorail) into the city and a few minutes later we were on the express train into the city, just in time for a humid, smog-drenched sunset–the red sun of the Japanese flag realized.

APA is a chain hotel in Japan, and for 3 nights our home was a shoebox-sized room in the APA Roppongi in Tokyo. It’s very close to the subway station, however its placement on a side street with few exits to the main road made it somewhat difficult to find (not to mention Google maps trying to send me to a different APA a mile away). Overall, our room was clean–if a bit cramped–and we got to catch up on BBC news (the only English-language channel, at the time reporting on that passenger plane that had gone down over Egypt).

img_9108Two words: Japanese toilets. I had, of course, experienced the magic of the electronic-bidet-toilet so popular in Japan at Japanese restaurants in Seattle, but having constant access to this phenomenon made me wonder: why are American toilets so boring? All of our hotel rooms had full-functionality toilets and one even had the ultimate bonus feature: the heated seat. Ironically, the other kind of Japanese toilet is a trough in the floor designed for squatting. I got to use one of those as well, which was fine, but not quite as entertaining.

img_8600 img_8602After enjoying strange, eggy and delicious Japanese French toast at swanky Mercer Brunch near our hotel, our first full day in Tokyo we spent wandering around the Shinjuku area and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. There’s a strange cultural tension in Japan, particularly in Tokyo. On one hand you have these incredibly peaceful and reverent spaces–gardens and shrines. And right next to them is the strangest kinky-futurist-cute culture you can find anywhere. Which brings us to Robot Restaurant.

img_8650 img_8654

img_8644It was Ryan’s idea to buy tickets to the Robot Restaurant dinner theater spectacular. I’m not sure what either of us expected, but it wasn’t that. Nonetheless, I’m glad we went to what was the most incomprehensible and weird entertainment I can imagine. There was a plot, loosely held together by animated sequences projected between the live sequences. It made no sense. There were girls with huge smiles in skimpy costumes riding mechanical dragons with real fireworks shooting out of their mouths in a cramped basement with one exit. There were freaky bunnies with drums. It felt a fitting welcome to Japan’s quirky cultural melange.

img_8686 img_8691img_8703It was hot in Tokyo, and I was tired and cranky pretty much the whole time we were there. On our second day we subway-ed to within walking distance of the the Tsujiki fish market to find some Yelp-approved sushi. After what seemed like hours walking in the sweltering heat/ humidity, the place was tiny and full and there was no way I was standing around outside. Our goals were simple: raw fish and AC. Miraculously we found a tent/ shack type structure still serving lunch (and AC!) just around the corner. Possibly some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted. The prawn I ate may have still been alive.

Tokyo is large, to state the obvious. There are seemingly endless, busy streets serving commerce and trade without a single thing that might appeal to a human. Just cars and pollution and giant corporate HQs lining tree-less streets. No all of Tokyo, but a lot. That’s the kind of street we walked to cover a mile or two between the Mori Art museum and Tower Records.

img_8675img_8750Tower was a sort of pilgrimage for me, so the sweaty, noisy walk felt appropriate. I was a Tower employee in the early 1990s (and a customer for years before and after my 2-year stint at Tower Video). The place is drenched in nostalgia for me, even in Japan. The same tried and true foam core signage and end-cap art made every floor of the 9-story store feel like home. I bought a pair of Tower Records socks.

Among other highlights of our short time in Tokyo:

  • Tokyu Hands: eclectic variety store!
  • Uniqlo: Where my boyfriend likes to buy undies
  • Random hotel bar: because Japanese Whiskey
  • MOS burger: where it is difficult to order more than one item in English
  • Comic relief: Getting almost knocked over by a pack of drunk teens in Shinjuku at 4pm
  • Gin and tonic: in a can!

Overall, I wished we had a bit more time, but wasn’t unhappy to board the Shinkansen for the quick trip up to Nagano and the cooler mountain air.

Train tip: In Japan, people queue up for a specific car before the train arrives. It can be a bit challenging to identify the “non-reserved” cars if you haven’t reserved a seat. We memorized the “non-reserved” Japanese character, which helped in stations without English signage.

Up next: Monkeys! Hot springs! Weird dining!