Adventures at home, abroad, and online

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Golden Gai

We started the day at an amazing ramen place that we ate at yesterday, but had to go back to take John. It was jut as good the second day, and we were now pro’s with the ordering machine and the garlic press.

Safety simulator

Safety simulator

After a hearty lunch and Starbucks, we were able to face the day’s sightseeing. We went north from ikekuro to the sunshine city mall complex to see the Toyota Amlux showroom. We had read that they have robot demonstrations as a marching band, but that appeared to have been replaced by a gigantic inflatable mech warrior (or something). We were able to try out the safe driving simulators, which were way more fun to crash than I think they intended. I got a graded a C; Ruth flipped her car, not a good sign for a transportation planner.

Back to the apartment for a power nap, and then back for one last night on the town. We went to a department store looking for discount sashimi, but it was more of a takeaway setup than a food court. We ended up at a 280-yen restaurant (about $3.25). We defeated the ordering machine, receiving a dozen semi-randomly selected dishes.

The awesome cat-lady bar

The awesome cat-lady bar

For our last night together we went to the Golden Gai district, a 6-block warren of tiny bars that represent the pre-war style of architecture. Each bar has a theme and no more than about 8 seats. We opened a door with a black cat on it, and found a lovely cat-lady bartender. We stayed for two hours, drinking Sochu, cat-nip infused rum, and hearing her stories about running a bar as a wo,an for the last 15 years. She is planning to close next year, to spend more time with her cats, and she gave us a cat manga comic as a souvenir.

Golden gai

Golden gai

We left the sweet cat-lady, and went to two more even smaller bars. One was photography themed, where a woman who had been to San Jose complemented Ruth on traveling with two handsome young men. Finally, we climbed a steep set of stairs to Hip, run by a young guy with vinyl coasters and a guitar for strumming. Argued with some Aussies about American politics, played Jenga, and then departed down the steep stairs at around 1.

The trains stop running at midnight, but we weren’t so far from our apartment that a cab would be impossibly expensive. That is, if we could get one. Despite hailing aggressively, and waving cash in the air, we couldn’t get anyone to stop. We ended up walking about half of the three miles, stopping in a 7-11 and a late night restaurant to warm up. We left the last place without ordering, after a businessman spilled an entire bento box next to John. Time to go home, dude.

Drunken businessman

Drunken businessman


John went off to Nagano to see snow monkeys, where we will going next week, so we took a slower day and tried to go museum hopping. I say tried, because it turns out that many of the big museums are closed between Christmas and New Years. So we walked through the Ueno park, which is a popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring. It’s still quite pretty in the winter.

Ueno park

Ueno park

We ate fried squid from the street covered in kewpie mayonnaise, drank a warm soothing drink from a vending machine we are calling “honey bear lemon”, and strolled around a picturesque pond.

View from Park Hyatt hotel bar

View from Park Hyatt bar

After the sunset, we decided we wanted a fancy drink with a view, so we went to the bar from Lost in Translation. It’s on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, and looks out over the dense skyscraper core of shinjuku and the seemingly endless city. Very pretty, and very expensive. We had one excellent drink each, a Joie de Vivre for Ruth and a Beaver Malestrom for me, and moved on.

John returned from the monkeys with great photos and a desire for a bender. We went out searching for dinner and karaoke. We ate more squid at an izakaya with a grill on our table, which was almost as good as what we had in the park. Then it was karaoke time. The machine was hard to run with our incredibly limited Japanese, so Ruth and John stood outside another booth looking sad until the friendly after work party let them in. I stayed in our booth singing made up Japanese and eating cake for awhile, until they came to get me.

We started with a rousing Hotel California, some traditional Japanese ballads, and were finally defeated by a Queen medley. We fielded questions about our age, our country, and whether my hair is real (they were all impressed to learn that it is). Throats hoarse, we said goodbye to our friends and went in search for mcdonalds and sleep.

The traditional Japanese art of Karaoke

The traditional Japanese art of Karaoke

Harajuku fashion

After a day immersed in geek culture, we decided to try to get hipper. We took the Yamanote line south to Shibuya to see the busiest train station in Tokyo and the largest crosswalk. We found a cafe above the action, and watched dozens of cycles of people crossing like waves. It’s amazingly orderly, as long as everyone follows the rules.

Shibuya crosswalk

Shibuya Crosswalk

We stopped by the statue of Hachiko, the dog so loyal he waited every day at the station for years after his master died. John and I were interview ambushed by a video crew who were trying to get white tourists to say nice things about a woman I didnt recognize. They had a four-up comparison photo of Britney Spears, Victoria Beckham, Paris Hilton, and an unflattering photoshopped shot of this Japanese woman. They were clearly trying for some propaganda effect, but I’m not quite sure what.

We extricated ourselves, and wandered north through the hip Harajuku area, stopping at stores looking for cool fashion and misspelled “engrish”. Didn’t actually find as much as we had hoped; maybe increasing globalization has killed that trend.

We did find strange graphics though, like Galaxy Horse and Jesus cat.

Walked through a neighborhood with some very cool architecture to Ebisu, where we went looking for an old-style Japanese pub that we were unable to find. Instead, we ate delicious barbecued peppers wrapped in pork, and had five kinds of tuna at a reasonably priced sushi bar. I could do without the smoking, but Ruth doesn’t mind, so we put her next to the smells.

Akihabara Christmas

We woke up early Christmas morning, due to both continuing jet lag and excitement, and headed out for akihabara. Known as “electric light city” it’s the main center of Japanese geek (otaku) culture. We had breakfast at the usual train station noodle shop, but still arrived at 8am before the stores opened. We stopped at Mr Donut for some coffee and wifi, and met a young guy from SoCal who seemed to have been up all night, and was eating a healthy breakfast of three donuts and some green soda.

After the donuts settled, we wandered the streets looking for more food and geek sustenance. We stopped at a few video game parlors, but eventually found them boring. The crane games had great prizes, but seemed rigged, and most of the game stations were first person, so we couldn’t play against each other.

We had more fun at the theme cafes. First, we stopped at Gundam, which our SoCal friend warned us was expensive and “not that good”. He was technically correct, but I had a decent banana crepe with a giant robot face on it, and the toilet was outfitted with a jet engine takeoff sound. We were off to a good start.

Cat cafe

Next was a cat cafe, to calm us down a little. Apparently pets are hard to come by, and cafes fill the snuggle needs of the catless. We sat down next to Curl, a fat orange tabby splayed flat on his back and so asleep I thought he might be dead. After I felt his heart beat while rubbing his belly, I conjectured that he might be some sort of somnophilia fetish cat (Google it). Or maybe he just had too much tuna.

After getting our fill of pets (or almost our fill, because we were asked to leave once it became full of other people who wanted a turn), we moved on to have our other needs met at a Maid Cafe. The first we stopped at had taciturn Victorian dressed women, and was the originator of the market, but was described by a guidebook as “boring.” We agreed and left before she arrived with tea. Maidreamin’ was more our style.

Our maid waitress introduced herself as “meow meow” and had us close our eyes to enter a dreamland where delicious magic reigned. After a meal of pancakes, ice cream and zima, I’m a believer.
Maid cafe, eating cute food and drinking zima.

We went back to our place in Ikebukuro for a nap, and then out for dinner at KFC, apparently a Japanese tradition. Ruth regaled us with tales of poultry judging, which I made her save until after we had finished the fried chicken. We ended the night at a bowling alley with a pack of Santas and a reindeer, throwing rocks while drinking Asahi. We also found some awesome cooperative Japanese video games, which were much more fun than the giant robot fights of the last few nights.

Tokyo Christmas Eve

John arrived from Kyoto last night, and we went out around Ikebukuro to celebrate the beginning of our shared trip. We ordered great sashimi from entirely Japanese menus, sipped whiskey from both Scotland and Japan, and played some Gundam robot fighting game terribly. We are off to an auspicious start.

Everyone is still a little jet lagged, so we woke up fairly early and decided to go to the fish market. The tuna auction starts at 5:30, which we knew we would miss, but we expected there would still be sights to see at 7:30. We arrived and weaved our way through the whizzing electric trucks, trying to avoid being run over and remembering to look left instead of right. As we entered the wholesalers market, we were stopped by a gruff police officer, who told us that it is closed until 9 for visitors, and that we should go eat some sushi to wait. Fine by us, we can take a hint.

We wandered the rows of stalls looking for a good sushi joint, and settled on one without a line (the guidebook’s recommendation on how to pick) but with a picture of Jeff Bezos and the crew from the new spider-man reboot (good enough endorsement for us). It was divine.

We entered the market at the stroke of 9, but needn’t have worried, as there was plenty of action left for the tourists. We passed rows upon rows of tuna, crab, shrimp, oysters, and other delicious looking wonders of the sea. Workers cut the morning’s tuna on bandsaws, straight down the spine, then into quarters and smaller. I’m sure whatever fell on the floor ends up in a can somewhere.

Then we saw whale meat, which was helpfully labeled “not for tourists” and is hunted “for research,” but the baleen steaks didn’t look that scientific to me. A little queasy from the sight and the settling sushi, we left the market and strolled to the Hamarikyu gardens.

Ubiquitous guide

Ubiquitous guide

A refuge and hunting ground for the shogun tokogawa in the 17th century, we experienced the well manicured gardens in the most Japanese way possible, with the technological intermediation of the “ubiquitous audioguide”. It was GPS enabled, so we could get a live map, and panoramic photos of the scenes where we were currently standing. Very helpful. The tea house was excellent, and we aided our digestion with a mobile wifi hotspot and directions to lunch.

We walked west to Tokyo Tower, which looks strikingly similar to the Eiffel Tower, but they are proud of noting is 60% lighter and has faster elevators. We ascended 150m in about 3 min with almost no sense of motion; very impressive. The views of the city are seemingly endless, but the highlight was the Christmas photoshoot. I agreed only on the stipulation that I be a reindeer, and must say I played my part well.

We had some hotwine back at the base, and then off to a four course tempura meal and a very busy shopping mall. Ruth found a jacket she rather liked, but they kicked us out of the store for taking photos before she could try on the matching shoes. I know what she’s getting for Christmas…

Teddy bear track jacket

Teddy bear track jacket

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