Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tokyo: Lost in Transition


The jet lagged couple emerges from their budget hotel.

Wide-eyed and conscious of their new tourist status, they fall into the nightly Tokyo pedestrian traffic - men in suits, women in dresses, teenage girls in school uniforms. 

The night glows in neon life. Zen went to war with capitalism and lost in this corner of Japan. Everything but the people are big and loud.

(sleepy and enchanted)
I love it!

I felt in every way that we were there, really there, and I loved it.

We had arrived just a few hours earlier after a marathon of activity. The week before my entire family had come to LA, my brother had gotten married, Kip's parents had stayed with us and then we had hopped a plane to Tokyo.
It wasn't quite hopped, but we had barely taken time to pack our clothes or read the travel guides I had gotten at the library. And we were surviving on very little sleep.

But we were thrilled to be spending a 24-hour layover in the world's biggest city, so when we arrived in Tokyo we immediately found our hotel, a little dive with tiny hotel rooms in the heart of Shinjuku, the "Time Square" of Tokyo, and fell asleep.

The 5-minute power nap turned into a couple hours and it was dark when we woke up.  But not wanting to miss a single minute of our Tokyo adventure, we headed out to find some Sushi.

Believe it or not, we couldn't.

We walked around for hours until I literally threw my heels at Kip and refused to go any further until he stopped following the GPS around in circles.

It's then that we discovered two things about restaurants in Tokyo.

One, they are multilevel, so the electronic sign and plastic food display for one restaurant outside a building might just as well be for any one of the six stacked up on top of each other.

And secondly, restaurants in Tokyo close relatively early. As soon as we found one place that had been recommended in our tourist guide, it turned out to be closed.

It was approaching midnight. And I was very hungry.

So we eventually gave in to one of the many Japanese guys trying to hustle us inside. We picked what looked like a nice teriyaki barbecue joint. Unfortunately it turned out to be a smoky basement restaurant with mystery meat on the menu, something like chicken hearts on a skewer. So much for fresh sushi in Japan.
I was tired and disappointed. But we struck up a conversation with a kid from Denmark and a couple of his Japanese friends who gave us better advice on where to go and what to see.

Eating red bean pastry -- after the mystery meat disappointment
The next morning we checked out of our tiny hotel room and started walking around our neighborhood. We walked through a Buddhist temple area, several Western/Asian coffee shops, arcades with "doll eyes" photo booths and shops with overpriced cute stuff like sushi shaped candles for $20.

plastic food advertising the menu

You can buy almost anything in a Tokyo vending machine. Cigarettes here.

We made a pilgrimage to the Toto showroom in search of the world famous electronic toilets, only to find that it was closed. The public bathrooms, however, were open, and not disappointing.

Which button to simply flush?

With a little trepidation we took on the world's most complicated metro system, a myriad of train stops with unfamiliar names. We got turned around a few times, but it made it to Asakusa, not to be confused with Akasaka (which is also a stop), to see a famous Shinto temple and walk around the more tourist appropriate neighborhoods.
 Here is a funny story. This poor kid obviously thought Kip was a movie star/rock star of some kind. He came running up to Kip, ecstatic, and said alot of something in Japanese. Then he insisted on me taking his picture with Kip with his camera. He seemed confused when we also wanted to get a picture of him.

It was Saturday and the streets were packed, although the tourists were mostly Asians, so I still felt like we were in Asia. And we resumed our search for authentic sushi.

We wandered around again for a long time and were just about to join a long line snaking around a very touristy joint when we saw a wooden door slide open next to the tourist line. A Japanese woman said in broken English, "good sushi here...." She pointed to the line of tourists and shook her head. Then she pointed to the closed door on the restaurant with almost no sign.

We trusted her.

And we hit jackpot.

It was a real sushi place, the kind where you take your shoes off and sit at low tables. The kind with absolutely no English on the menu and a boisterous sushi chief shouting hello to patrons as they entered. Even the prices were printed in Japanese characters.

Thankfully Kip had taken karate as a kid and knew Japanese numbers, as well as "thank you." And we somehow ordered a tray of fresh sushi, the best I have ever had, and a plate of tempura. It was the best lunch ever.

 Bride and groom at Shinto temple

 Serious about recycling here
From there we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags, explore that part of the city a bit more and then ride the complicated metro back to the airport. Kip was transporting the poster he was presenting at his conference, so while we were squeezing into the subway with our suitcases, I was guarding the poster, the reason we were even in Asia.

And then we were eating kimchi on an Asiana flight to Korea. It all happened so quickly.

It was amazing, overwhelming in a good way. If I could return to Tokyo, I'd go back in a heartbeat.


  1. Great story. Thanks for posting it and all the pictures. Funny how it was hard to find a sushi restaurant.

  2. Great stories! I love hearing about the escapades of you and Kip. :)