And We’re Off….. First Stop, Tokyo

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We started the second half of our travels after the holiday season, refreshed and ready to go.  It was sad saying goodbye to everyone again.  It had been such a nice break stuffing our faces with American classic cuisine and visiting with friends and family.  We were beginning our travels on a brand-new continent: Asia.  And out first stop was a country high on everyone’s’ list, especially Adam’s.  We were heading for the fascinating country of Japan and our first stop was its well-known capital, and bustling metropolis, Tokyo.  Boasting over 13 million people and an area of almost 850 square miles (in just the downtown area), we were starting off with a bang, and immersing ourselves in the energy of Japan’s urban scene.

What We Did

Day 172 (1/10/17):  Leaving for the airport before five in the morning Cincinnati time, we all knew we were in for a long day of travel.  Adam and I departed CVG and had a two-hour layover in Minneapolis before boarding our twelve-hour flight for Tokyo.  Katie and Justin, on the other hand, faced an early morning cancellation, which pushed their departure time back a few hours and rerouted them through Denver and Vancouver on their way to Japan.  We would all be meeting up at our apartment downtown the next day.

Day 173 (1/11/17): Adam and I arrived in Tokyo at 3:00 p.m. and quickly made our way through customs.  We found an information desk and had our first experience navigating the Tokyo subway system to find our apartment in Roppongi.  After a series of issues that delayed our entry we inspected the small space (and its magic toilet), and decided to go out for a walk.  We walked around the streets, buying street foods, touring convenience stores, examining a casino, and ogling puppies and kittens at a pet shop around the corner.  Afterwards we met Katie and Justin at the subway station and brought them to the apartment.  Adam, Katie, and I went to the grocery to stock up on supplies and then returned to the apartment.  We were all pretty tired, and decided to call it a night and prepare for a full day of sight-seeing in Tokyo.

Day 174 (1/12/17):  We were all awake by 5:00 a.m. as a result of jet lag so we decided that today would be a day to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, which was open early.  We got ready, made ramen noodles and pizza for breakfast, and began our hour long walk to the market. On the way, we passed the    Zojoji Temple, and decided to take some time to explore it.  After snapping some pictures and observing prayer in the temple, we continued ono the market.  We began by exploring the various shops, restaurants, and stalls long the alleys in the outer market.  We sampled, whale, tuna, dried mini fish, pear jam, and sweet dumplings.  Then, when 10:00 rolled around, we were first into the inner market to see where all the wholesale fish distributors were.  We wandered through the crowded aisles, observing the odd catches and the workers cleaning a preparing them, and tried to stay out of the way.  We bought some tuna sashimi and took some more photos.  Once we were finished with the inner market, we took a small detour to see the most popular sushi restaurants by the market, where lines to eat can be up to four hours long.  We then continued on to see the Meiji Shrine, walking through the park grounds and the main gate, snaking our way through the gorgeous crooked trees until we reached the shrine.  We all wrote a quick prayer and observed the worshippers saying theirs.  We also both got pictures by the two trees said to represent a happy marriage inside the shrine walls.  Once we left we walked towards the Shibuya area for lunch.  We decided on a sushi place called Uobei, known for its ipad ordering system and high-speed, electric track delivery system.  We all stuffed ourselves on different sushi and soups before walking back to our apartment for a nap.  Our nap went longer than anticipated, and when we did wake up we were feeling quite lazy.  So, we sent Adam down to the Family Mart to get dinner and spent the evening lazing in the apartment watching movies.

Day 175 (1/13/17):   Today was another jam-packed day.  We got going early again and attempted to watch the Sumo wrestlers during their morning practice.  However, we discovered later there was a tournament going on over the weekend, which explained the absence of wrestlers at the practice facility when we arrived.  Not to be deterred, we promptly headed off to the Senso-ji Temple.  We spent a couple hours wandering the grounds and surrounding area of Asakusa, examining the prayer halls, monuments, architecture, and shops while eating a sweet bread bun and snapping pictures of everything we could.  From the temple, we took the rail to make our reservations for our morning train to Kyoto.  Then we ended up at a stop outside the Kubuki-za Theater where we impulsively decided to see the first half (yes they allow that) of a traditional kubuki drama.  After grabbing a quick snack at a basement food court, we returned and got our seats.  We watched the show in both confusion and awe.  The last stop on our wanderings for the afternoon was at the cultural center to participate in a traditional tea ceremony.  Afterwards, we stopped at a 7-11 to get a snack before returning to the apartment to shower and rest before going out for the night.  Once we all got ready, we left the apartment and made our way to Akihabara, a central point for video games and anime in Tokyo.  We were headed there to give Adam his one of a kind birthday present: real life Mario-kart on the streets of Tokyo.  We each picked our costumes (Adam was Luigi, Katie was Mario, Justin was Waluigi, and I was Wario), boarded our karts, and headed out.  After returning, we took some time going through anime shops searching for keychains depicting or “spirit character”, and the giant (6 story) Sega arcade (where we played an awesome virtual game).  Once we felt we had absorbed enough of the action, we got on the subway and headed back to Shibuya to see the world’s busiest cross walk lit up at night like Times Square.  Justin was not feeling well, so him and Katie returned to our apartment.  However, Adam and I weren’t quite ready to call it a night yet so we wandered the glowing streets if Shibuya, and found a place to rent a booth and do some karaoke.  We spent the next couple hours belting out Jonny Cash and Queen in our booth and sipping on far too much whiskey before we too went home.

What We Learned

  • Sometimes, you just have to try something, even if you have no idea what it is.  When Adam and I were in Tokyo waiting on Katie and Justin to arrive, Adam and I were walking around Roppongi and we stumbled upon this little restaurant that had a fair amount of people in it.  They were selling these deep-fried balls with a variety of different toppings.  They looked so damn good we impulse bought a set of them.  However, since we could literally read nothing on the menu, including what was in the balls or what was on top of them, we just picked a set that looked good and found a spot on the street to try them.  They tasted amazing, and we finished them quickly.  However, even when we were done we had no idea what we had just eaten until we googled the only English word written on the take-out bag, Gindaco.  We quickly discovered that the balls were filled with minced octopus “lava”, and that they were an incredibly popular street food originating from Osaka.  And we went out to get them again the next day.  So sometimes you just gotta go for it.
  • 15-20% of the population wears medical masks when walking around the streets.  It could have something to do with the higher likelihood of the spread of disease given their climate and population density, or possibly pollution, but I am not sure.
  • The crows in Tokyo are enormous.  They are at least four times the size of a pigeon and look more than capable of ripping a human face off.  They are also extremely loud, and their cries sound like someone screaming.  We got screamed at by one on our way into the Meiji Shrine.  Probably not a good sign.
  • The Tsukiji fish market is worth a stop, even if you do not go to the tuna auction.  I have read that the tuna auction is a sight to behold.  However, to get a spot at it, you must get to the market between one and three in the morning and wait in line until they open at 5:00 a.m.  Then, if you are one of the first 120 people, you get a spot at one of the two auctions.  However, once it is over, you cannot wander through the wholesale part of the market until it opens at 10:00 a.m.  Therefore, you must either leave and return or wait around for a while.  We decided instead, to show up around 8:30, giving us enough time to explore the vast amounts of stalls and shops that comprise the outer market before moving onto the inner market when it opened to tourists.  From what I read, the inner market used to open at nine to tourists, but they have since pushed it back because of the disruption the gawking crowds cause to actual business.  Now if you are going to go in the inner market, be constantly aware of your surroundings or you may find yourself in a crash course with one of the many electric carts speeding through the aisles.  Remember that they are working and while they are willing to sell to you, they generally do not appreciate you just standing in the way of their stalls taking photos.  But if you can keep all this in mind, you can see the way the market operates, snap some amazing pics, and be floored at the quantity and variety of sea creatures available to the masses (after which you may question your decision to ever get in the ocean again).  The inner market closes by eleven, so when you enter, you will see a lot of people closing up shop.  However, this means you can generally get yourself a good deal on some fresh sashimi before they pack up for the day.
  • Kubuki theater is an interesting art form.  We paid to see half of a show while in Tokyo on a whim, which is something they allowed you to do with this type of theater.  However, there is limited seating for this ticket type and if you do not get there early, you may end up standing.  Once the show started, I was intrigued.  The costumes, set design, and entrances and exits of the characters were awesome.  Although, admittedly, I found the entire thing fairly hard to follow.  It wasn’t the language gap that was the issue, I expected not to be able to understand what they said, but the sequence of the scenes was fairly confusing and I found myself confused as to what was going on at more than one juncture, and I never did figure it out by the time intermission came.  So, while I enjoyed elements of it, I feel the best way to describe it is interesting.

Memorable Moments

  • Having sushi at Uobei was a fantastic experience. We were looking for a place with a sushi conveyor belt like we had seen in movies, but I think we got one even better.  At this awesome restaurant in Shibuya, you sit at a small table facing an I-pad, and you use the computer to select exactly which rolls, or soups, or other food you want.  After confirming your order on the screen, you wait a few minutes and it comes flying out to you out of the wall via these quick flat trains on tracks.  It stops right in front of you and you remove it from the train and enjoy.  We had a blast ordering things and waiting for them to arrive.  The sushi itself was extremely good and was totally affordable (about 108 yen per item on the menu).  It was a very Tokyo thing to do, and I enjoyed every high-tech minute of it.
  • Participating in the traditional tea ceremony was awesome. We chose to do it at a cultural center called Kyoto-Kan because it was by far the cheapest at just 500 yen per person.  We very excited though that it surpassed our expectations.  We all got a chance doing the ceremony with the instruction of a kimono clad older Japanese woman.  She would take us through the steps one at a time, correcting you as you made errors (which we all did several times).  We laughed at each other’s inability to sufficiently fold the towel and the moments when you would be staring at your hands or fingers, unsure as to how to move them properly.
  • Our Mario Kart adventure on the streets of Tokyo was quite the amazingly fun and horrifying experience. We got to dress up as all of the main characters (we put the costumes over our clothes since it was very cold out that night), and select our karts, which all glowed either green or blue.  Then we headed out onto the streets.  Being in a go-kart on the streets of a major metropolitan area with no seatbelts on was quite terrifying at first.  We were all especially nervous when our guide told us to double up in the lanes.  However, our adrenalin served to keep us warm and we adjusted to driving quickly enough, laughing almost non-stop the entire time.  People on the streets and in nearby cabs were taking pictures of us as we stopped at intersections.  We went through Asakusa and past the Skytree before ending with an unforgettable drive down the main strip of Akihabara, entirely lit up with neon lights.  Towards the end, we had gotten so comfortable that we were weaving and switching positions in the lanes, making more of an actual race of it.  After pulling back into the garage we were all still stunned we had done it, and frankly, that doing it was even legal.  It was a truly unique and awesome way to see Tokyo.

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