Monday, October 17, 2011

Trip Report: A Weekend in Tokyo

 

My favorite airline (Delta) had a fantastic ‘oopsie’ mistake fare to Tokyo over the summer and so my friends and I jumped at the chance to take a 3 day weekend in Asia. After a Labor Day weekend mile run to Sydney, AU last year I swore off economy cabin flights longer than 13 hours but at less than $500 round trip it was just too good to pass up this economy fare to Asia (typical summer fares are $1400).

So off we went!  A warm Thursday evening in July five of us departed the DC metro area bound for Tokyo. With the time zone changes we touched down at Haneda airport Friday evening just after ten o’clock. I’m going to be honest and share with you that it’s a bit unnerving- after growing up in the melting pot of the United States – to find yourself surrounded by a lack of ethnic diversity. The ‘sameness’ was especially highlighted as international tourism to Tokyo has dropped sharply after the tsunami. It wasn’t until two days into the weekend that I was able to stop seeing how similar everyone appeared to each other (as compared to typical Americans) and started seeing the real differences between individuals.

We were all a bit tired after the long flights in economy (at least it was economy comfort with a bit more legroom) and so that first evening we made a beeline for our hotel. Took a few subway transfers to get there, but it wasn’t difficult. The nice thing about metro subways is that from country to country they follow the same sort of implementation and mapping: color coded lines nicely displayed on a large map.

We stayed at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu which is a beautiful modern hotel in downtown Tokyo. In many ways the stay was similar in experience to an upscale Hilton or W in the States.

Then you use the toilet and you realize what you’ve been missing all your life.

The Japanese have a penchant for luxury toileting. These porcelain gods warm your bum, auto clean your bum with perfectly angled nozzles, dry your bum with bursts of air and fans, and even powder buff your bum on some models. Bum extravaganza! Oddly enough we were often limited to a  choice of luxury toilets along these lines or ancient squat toilets one step up from a hole in the ground during our Tokyo sightseeing. There were few if any standard toilets as we’ve been raised on in the States.

Our first morning (Saturday) in Tokyo we stormed the famous fish market – Tokyo Wholesale (Tsukiji Fish). This is the largest fish market in the world. It’s quite impressive and a bit nauseating all at once what with the blood and dismembered fish bodies at every turn.

 

Fish butchery. Oh the humanity!

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Sea Urchins

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Eels…ugh

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Fishheads fishheads roly poly fishheads!

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Tuna= massive fish

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We sampled a bit of sushi at one of the neighborhood sushi stalls just outside the market before heading to the Ginza neighborhood.

 

The boys sample sushi while Jenni poses outside the sushi stall 

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Ginza is the “5th avenue” of Tokyo, with multi-story luxury department stores and fashionably clad ladies strolling the sidewalk as if it was their own personal runway. We spent time leisurely exploring the Mitsukoshi department store. An entire floor devoted to French pastries and other such treats! A Laduree French Macaroon café onsite! A kimono department! The place is absolutely fabulous and not to be missed. NOT TO BE MISSED! We also browsed the Sony store which is set up a lot like IKEA stores in the States- with the various products staged artfully from room to room. Pretty cool.

 

Some of our group caught on camera at the Sony store and put on sales display

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We had lunch at Ippudo – a famous ramen noodle shop. What an experience! We were presented a choice between the ‘standard’ broth, the ‘flavorful’ broth or the ‘spicy’ broth (which could be upgraded to ‘extra spicy’ upon request). Three of us opted for the ‘flavorful’ broth while two chose the ‘spicy’ broth and asked for the upgrade to ‘extra spicy’ - alpha males they wanted to be. Now what you need to know is that Japanese manners preclude blowing your nose in public (sniffling is fine but bodily secretions are a no-no). So you can imagine my laughter as I watched these two sniffling and literally crying their way through their bowls of ramen wishing desperately they could blow their runny noses. Quite entertaining. For the record, they weren’t able to finish the bowls due to the spice and *both* of them are used to hot and spicy foods, so diners beware.

It was a quick hop on the JR train next to visit Ice Cream World. Japanese folks love unusual (read: freaky) ice cream flavors. I’m talking about eel. I’m talking about beef stew. I’m talking about ginger wasabi. Any food item you may have eaten previously in any context has probably also made its way into Japanese ice cream. Despite all my bravado and previous dining adventures (field rat in Thailand!) I opted for something safe: vanilla. I think my stomach was still feeling a bit shaky from witnessing the fish bloodbath earlier in the morning and the rich ramen broth. Oh and they also have shaved ice SERVED BY ROBOTS.

 

Tokyo streets are crowded

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Power Rangers for the win

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Ice Cream World Flavors

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Jon chose squid to try

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Jenni makes friends with the local celebrities

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Robert serves up shaved ice

Wicked Cool!

 

For our final activity of the day before dinner we descended on Shinjuku – a famous neighborhood of Tokyo known for its vibrant personality, shopping and nightlife. We wandered around Isetan (another mega department store); specifically we headed up to the rooftop where there is a lush green park with happy families dotting the lawn enjoying picnics. 

 

Park atop a skyscraper….crazy…

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And then it was off to dinner at Shinjuku Tsunahachi for tempura. Oh reader I just wasn’t feeling it. I watched the artful chefs quickly stab and gut a helpless eel and prep it for the fryer. It was too much, especially given the mass slaughter we witnessed at the morning fish market. I’ve no problem with eating animals or slaughter but apparently my stomach won’t easily fall in line after I’ve witnessed such events.  I nibbled at the food on my plate, which is in no way should be taken as a sign of its quality as the rest of our group chowed down with enthusiasm.

A long happy day for all and a good night’s sleep lay ahead of us.

Sunday morning we were up early to visit the Meiji shrine. The grounds were beautiful and we stumbled across a wedding in progress. We felt so honored to be witness to the couple’s happy day and I was thrilled to get another bride for my ‘Brides and Pigeons of the World’ facebook photo album.

 

Jon and I stand as tiny figures before the entrance to Meiji

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Bird in flight

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Bride and Groom

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Wedding processional

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We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon at Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum where we were immersed in Japanese history as told by the Japanese (hint: they’re not yet acknowledging that they are descended from Chinese settlers which modern research now shows to be the case).

 

Beautiful art

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From there it was a quick trip to the Senso-ji Temple for sightseeing and pictures before we toured the Ameyoko bazaar.

 

Senso-Ji Temple views…

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The bazaar is a series of streets that parallel a train station. Shops run the gamut but there is a lot of flea-market type outfits selling t-shirts with American advertising from the 70s and 80s. There are also a lot of kink shops with shoppers free from any sort of humility or shame regarding their purchases. They approach the store clerks with giant lifelike silicone penises and sex tapes with the same nonchalance you’d approach a clerk to ask for a price check on avocados.  

Dinner our second evening in Tokyo was at Maru. I did a lot of research on Kaiseki dining (traditional Japanese multi-course meal) before selecting Maru for my friends and I to dine at. Kaiseki dining is usually very expensive  and difficult to access for western tourists. Maru was reported to be an excellent choice for Kaiseki dining at a more reasonable price point.


When we found Maru (and I write 'found' because it took us forever to locate the restaurant as it has no English signage and the entrance is on the side of the bldg and halfway down a flight of stairs) we were excited to order Kaiseki only to be told it is not possible without reservations in advance. However our waiter was very helpful to guide us in selecting al la carte all the items off the menu that are typically served in the Kaiseki meal progression. This was even better in my opinion that being boxed into the formal Kaiseki menu as we had some leeway for substitutions to accommodate our groups' palette.


Course after course of delicious cuisine was paraded before us. SO GOOD. We started with figs topped with tofu cream. Followed by a delightful green salad with tender asparagus and cucumbers. Followed by a soup with duck dumplings. The main courses were roasted chicken (the best i've ever had) and grilled beef (fantastic). The restaurant's proudest creation is their signature house rice- which takes 40 minutes to cook and is rolled out with oohs and ahhs from the waiter as if it's sacred. Guess what, it's just rice. We couldn't figure out why there was such mystique surrounding ordinary white rice, but we let it slide considering everything else was just absolutely fabulous. Oh and for dessert- a caramel custard, similar to flan. I highly highly recommend you make time for Maru and either call ahead to reserve for the Kaiseki menu, or piecemeal it together as we did. I also highly recommend Maru get a traditional rice steamer or microwave and stop parading their rice as a sacred creation that is worth 40 minutes of waiting.

After dinner we checked out of our upscale fancy toileted hotel and shuttled over to a budget hotel close to the airport to make it easier to catch our early morning flight the next day. Our flight left Tokyo the following morning at a quarter to seven and brought us back to the metro DC area in time to head right to work, albeit a bit late. And the best part was the flight was oversold and so, as elites, we were upgraded to business class (lie flat seats!) gratis for the ride home. Fantastic and yet a bit unnerving to leave Asia in the morning and roll into work in the States THE SAME MORNING. Ahhh the magic of time zones…..