I’m a few days behind but just catching up now with decent internet and some more free time. I’m having trouble uploading photos again so I will update again in a couple of days. We woke up early and I washed before 8am breakfast. I was pretty disappointed. The breakfast included a tiny piece of very fishy white fish, some pickled vegetables, an egg somehow cooked with onsen water (I didn’t think too hard about it) and some pickled mushrooms and a couple unknown things that I couldn’t bring myself to eat. There was also shabu shabu (hot pot), but the broth was milky and there were only 2 little pieces of pork. There was the requisite miso soup, but the tea was matcha and the rice, to my horror, wasn’t plain white but mushroom rice. I’m sure it was tasty but first thing in the morning it was pretty rough. I just wanted my white rice.
After breakfast we packed and checked out and walked to Chamise cafe to find out it didn’t open til 10. We didn’t walk to walk further so we just waited at the station for the train, the “Snow Monkey” to Nagano. The mountains in the distance were pretty though the towns we passed through were less so. We did pass a number of unused older trains that were pretty cool. The Australian family next to us were laughing and joking and sometimes that bothers me but it was so refreshing to hear and see people playing around on the train and having a good time. It’s interesting what you take for granted and complain about (like people being loud on the train), but really miss when you don’t have it.
We got to Nagano and quickly bought tickets for the next Shinkansen to Tokyo, which was leaving in just a few minutes. I grabbed some onigiri from Newdays (a convenience store chain I’ve mostly seen in stations) and we rushed to the train. You only need to board a minute or two before leaving, but it really leaves on the dot. The onigiri from Newdays fell apart, and didn’t stand up to the three major konbini chains. I think 7 Eleven and Family Mart have the best food, but Lawson has good desserts and hot food.
The regular cars have both reserved and non-reserved seating. I opted for reserved to make sure we could sit together, but I think the trains are rarely full. The vibe is similarly morose in both the reserved and non-reserved cars. I’m so, so glad we upgraded to the green pass. The seats in the regular car are fine, probably about the same as one of the older Amtrak seats, but they’re extremely narrow, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position for my large body. The little window tray jutted into my shoulder, and I also felt the tilt of the train in a way I didn’t in the green seats. I honestly think it would be rough to sit in these seats for more than a couple of hours. It was still a smooth and fine ride, but the Shinkansen is really expensive without the pass, even if you book a non-reserved seat. The green car would have only been less than $30 more for this trip, and maybe would have been worth it to me, even though I was glad to check out the normal ride. The regular car was pretty full although there were some empty seats, with salarymen but also leisure travelers and some tourists.
We got off at Ueno, north of the center (the stop before Tokyo Station), and transferred to a subway, which we rode two stops north and walked a few minutes to Andon Ryokan. The hotel is in Taito, north of Asakusa and the city centers. The hotel is fine, although it seems less like a “modern” ryokan and more like a hostel, with shared bathrooms and limited amenities. The main problem was the space. Tokyo is notorious for having limited space and Andon pushes this to the limit. The room, if you can call it that, has room for two futons laid out side by side, and nothing else. It’s significantly smaller than my single at Haverford. The hotel worker tried to give us a double bed but we had booked a twin and thankfully were able to communicate that. The shower also looks quite small, so that’ll be interesting. If I was any wider, I wouldn’t have been able to squeeze into the bathroom to use the toilet. Space clearly is at a premium.
We were hungry so we left and walked down through the deserted streets of Taito into busier Asakusa, an older district that we were excited to check out. On one of the streets we found a little forklift, and we took turns taking pictures on it. We kept walking and half expected someone to come running after us to yell at us, but thankfully no one did.
We walked into Fuji Ramen for lunch, on a busy main stretch in Asakusa. The very friendly older waitress helped us to order, and we sat at the quiet counter and were soon served steaming bowls of tonkotsu ramen with a side of rice (I needed to make up for breakfast). The ramen was good: the noodles were chewy, there was a lot of lettuce, and the mayu (black garlic oil, although I was worried the waitress said mayo for a second) reminded me of Ippudo’s ramen. The proportions were just right, and I wasn’t too hungry or full after. The chef asked how we found the place and chatted for a second, and then said “see you tomorrow” as we walked out, with a knowing smile.
We walked through the covered shopping malls of Asakusa towards Senso-ji temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo and one of its most important. It was rebuilt after World War II and is now one of the most visited temples in Japan.
We stopped to watch a street performance, which was fun but much more stoic than it might be elsewhere, and as I was distracted by the shops and food, a woman asked me whether I’d be interested in being interviewed for Japanese tv. Before I knew it, I was gazing into a camera and answering questions about my experience here. The cameraman would ask a question in Japanese and the woman translated into English, which she spoke very well. They asked me generally about my visit and then wanted to know if there were things that surprised or shocked me about Japan, and if there was anything I didn’t like. I talked a little about how restrained the culture is but didn’t want to offend. They were also interested in any difficulties I’ve had as a very tall person, so I gave them a couple of anecdotes about small showers and hitting my head on things and seating. I could probably have been more interesting but I’m not great under pressure or in front of a camera. The whole thing was pretty funny. I air on Japanese tv on January 29th, on TV Tokyo’s The Impossible World.
We reached the temple, which was impressive and has a pretty red pagoda, but I wasn’t awed. Maybe it’s because we’ve just been in Kyoto but I was thoroughly unimpressed. It felt just like a big tourist attraction. There were endless food stalls and little souvenir and craft shops (mostly touristy and I didn’t bother to try to find any hidden gems) and people dressed up and all kinds of things. We saw more of the carts pulled by walking men, and even a tourist with an owl on her arm.
We walked down through all the food stalls and crowds to the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, which has an observation deck with a good view of the Skytree, Tokyo’s tallest structure (not really a building) at 2,080 feet. The Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world and the tallest tower. It reminds me of the CN Tower in Toronto. Just in front, you can also see the Asahi headquarters. The smaller of the two buildings making up the headquarters has a giant structure on top meant to represent a flame, but it just looks like a turd and is the source of much ridicule. I wanted to see it as a flame, but I have to admit, it looks like no flame I’ve ever seen. The ridicule is well deserved, although I guess it could also be something totally different and humans just have dirty minds. One story goes that the architect was drunk when he designed it. Whatever the reason, it is pretty funny.
We walked to the Sumida river for the view and then across and down to From Afar 倉庫01, a spacious, charming cafe with a high ceiling, plants, big wooden tables and bookshelves filled with books on a quiet side street just off the east bank of the river. I had a cappuccino and we sat at the big central table and observed the locals (all women, mostly younger) having a coffee with a friend or just relaxing on this Wednesday afternoon. It’s nice to see people enjoying each other’s company and not working or on their phones. The barista was friendly and had to go ask what a cappuccino was, but the coffee was served in nice ceramic tea cups, there was soft, soothing instrumental music playing and I liked the pace. It was a great spot to regroup and take a breather.
Jake and I talked about how enormous Tokyo is. It’s not like LA or a similar sprawling city, but rather completely continuous. The city never ends but just continues in every direction. The Asahi sculpture looks different at night, lit up. Maybe like a carrot or a root vegetable. Certainly not like a flame. The Skytree is nicer at night, with rotating lights. The moon was really bright, although obviously there are no stars, as the light pollution is intense.
We needed to kill some time before dinner, so we found an arcade and whiled away an hour or two competing and generally trying different games out, most of which we didn’t understand. We eventually went back to Mario Kart, our perennial favorite. Asakusa felt like a worse, more touristy version of Kyoto or Kumamoto or a lot of other places we’ve been, and we were a little disappointed.
We walked through kind of seedy (at least for Japan) streets lined with love hotels (hourly hotels often used for trysts) to the other side of Asakusa nearby, where I wanted to check out a beer bar, Campion Ale, which is a British style pub run by a British guy. The beers are British style, so I tried the bitter, which was just normal but good, and the English IPA, which was hoppy but light and tasty. I like that English style beer isn’t too carbonated or cold. It’s very easy drinking beer, generally. The place, though, was disappointing. The owner wasn’t around and there were just a few locals hanging out, but not much of a scene.
There’s Christmas music everywhere, but there’s a variation. Some of it’s pretty traditional but there’s some rock and other faster versions. I’ve heard “Last Christmas,” a song I’d never heard before, at least 3-4 times so far. There are also Christmas decorations everywhere. It’s like the Japanese took only the secular parts of Christmas: food, music, decorations. I guess that’s true in much of the world.
We wanted yakiniku (bbq) again and tonight felt like the night, so we found a place in Asakusa called Tosura, with an all you can eat deal. We had stopped in earlier to make a reservation and we returned around 8:30 and were seated in an enclosed room with tatami floor seating (thankfully with a lowered floor so I could sit normally) around a grill. We started to order, and didn’t stop until our time was up 120 minutes later. I’ve spent a lot of long afternoons at my favorite Korean BBQ place in Queens, but I’m not sure anything compares to this showing. I don’t think Jake was fully prepared, but we ate and ate. The meat was all delicious, and the cuts were really nice for an all-you-can-eat spread. We especially liked the skirt steak and the pork galbi. We ordered a few rounds of shochu as we went, and soon we were full. I wanted to push through, but I ended up almost not being able to finish the last few plates I ordered. We were so stuffed afterwards that all we could do was drag our bodies back to the hotel and lie down. I call it a successful mission, I’m not sure Jake was quite as thrilled.
A couple of random thoughts from the day: I think the places I’ve liked the best have been the ones that are friendly and welcoming and open. I don’t just feel that way about restaurants, but also coffee shops, bars, museums, shops and more. I guess that’s probably true at home, too, and maybe I’m just thinking more about it here.
Jake and I also talked a lot today about all the contradictions here. There are contradictions everywhere in the world, and people and places are full of them, but we find it especially apparent here. The social aspects but also the utter antisocial nature of a lot of the things here. The ultramodernity of the cityscape crossed with the deep cultural traditions and conservatism. Tokyo is a city of excess but also limitation. Everything is so convenient, and yet utterly foreign. It’s definitely also true in the U.S. that contradictions abound, but maybe they are not so visible on the surface.
It’s interesting because I think the Japanese are friendly to tourists. They want tourists to come and see their temples and sights and eat their food and buy their crafts and goods, but they don’t want you to go further. I think life here is a bit impenetrable. Maybe if you lived here it would be different, although I’m not sure even then. I think most expats stick to themselves for the most part. The country feels welcoming to tourists but also guarded. There’s a line you’re not supposed to cross.
Maybe most importantly, I’ve come up with a good way to describe the food scene here. Food in Japan is like pizza in New York. It’s not that every place is the best, necessarily (there are many places that are, of course), but the floor is so high and the average is so good. You can walk into any place and get fresh fish or a steaming bowl of noodles.
Don’t know if I’ll be able to eat anything tomorrow,