I landed at Narita at around 6pm. One of the first things I realized was that no one was going to be speaking much English to me. Not even the customs agents knew more than a few words. After making it through immigration, I found my way to the JR ticket office where I exchanged my JR pass exchange order for the actual pass. I then bought what I hoped was the right train ticket for a ride into Tokyo (Narita is a 90 minute train ride from the city). It's always a little disorienting coming into a foreign city for the first time. I wasn't going to be able to orient myself until I got to the hotel. There was going to be a lot of hoping I was on the right train or walking the right way during this trip. I followed signs for the Narita Express and waited for a gleaming, white train that arrived exactly when it was scheduled to. The doors were roped off for several minutes while each car was cleaned by uniformed attendants in matching hats before I was allowed on. I stepped on and was whisked off to Tokyo.
Once at Shinjuku Station (where my hotel was), I walked around outside for a bit trying to match my map up with what I was seeing, but after about 20 minutes of not knowing where the hell I was going, I just hailed a cab and gave them my map and was taken on a cab ride for about 5 blocks. After dropping my bags in my room at the Hotel Tateshina, it was roughly 8:30pm. I stretched and headed back out to grab dinner at a ramen shop nearby in the Golden Gai neighborhood.
Golden Gai is a network of narrow back alleys lined with tiny one room bars where salarymen come to drink after work. Above one of these spots is Nagi Ramen, a shop known for its shoyu (soy) ramen flavored with niboshi (dried baby sardines). I climbed the super narrow and steep stairs to Nagi and had my first encounter with a ramen vending machine. Unfamiliar with the protocol, I had to stumble my way through a broken conversation in the tiny space, disrupting everyone's meal, to learn that I had to pay into the machine first and select what I wanted, get my ticket, then go wait outside. Unfortunately, I hadn't had a chance to get to an ATM yet, but a young couple that was finishing their ramen recognized my predicament and offered to lead me to an ATM at a nearby convenience store. The guy didn't know any English, but the girl knew a bit; enough to tell me she'd been to Hawaii and Vegas before. They led me to a Lawson's (which I soon found to be ubiquitous) and I thanked them. I found, however, that the ATM only accepted Japanese cards. I then wandered around a bit looking for a 7-11 because I knew it took international cards. I ran into a black guy that turned out to be a Nigerian that I thought was staying at a nearby hotel. He spoke English and led me to a 7-11. When I came out and thanked him, he offered to show me to "his place" for a drink. I thought he meant his hotel, but I quickly realized as he led me into a tiny back room in a gaudy lobby that he was the proprietor of a hostess club. He opened the door to the tiny, black-lit space and revealed a pair of heavily made up Japanese women and told me it was 3000 Yen for a half-hour of "all I can drink and all I can touch." Stunned for a second, I politely declined and backed my way out of there, but not before being propositioned by a few other Nigerians. I shook my head and ran back to Nagi.
Cash in hand, I waited in an adjacent alley to Nagi that was barely wide enough for me to extend my shoulders. The chef called out the next customer from a tube in the kitchen that led out of the window. When I was finally seated, I was served my beer, a plate of chicken skins, and my ramen. It was probably the most filling thing I've ever eaten. The noodles were extra thick and chewy and the broth rich and fishy. I told people I'd be eating ramen non-stop, but that bowl really made me question my ability to eat as much as I thought I could. I finished what I could and walked the few blocks back to my hotel to crash after a long day of traveling.
The next morning I had planned on going to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mikata, but I found all of the entry times to be sold out for the entire time I was in Japan. I was extremely disappointed. I tried a few Loppi kiosks in different Lawson's (where you buy museum and show tickets in Tokyo) to make doubly sure, but eventually I conceded and decided to walk through some nearby parks. I made my way to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and wandered through the pristine lawns with Tokyo skylines all around. There were bird and insect calls that I didn't recognize. Instead of pigeons and song birds, crows cawed constantly and fluttered heavy wings. After a while, I found myself on the other side of the park and wandered a bit through the alleys toward the Meji Shrine in Yoyogi Park.
The streets in Tokyo couldn't be more different from cities in the States. There is zero litter. There are vending machines on every corner. There are more bikes than cars. There's also very little to suggest any form of poverty, save for the occasional rundown shack sandwiched among high rises. Cats often flitted lightly on their paws across the street.
I eventually found myself at the entrance to the Meji Shrine where I found a stone fountain with bamboo ladle and washed my hands there. Just outside the grounds there were souvenir shops, as with everywhere in Japan, and at the bottom of some steps I found a wallet. I opened it and saw it belonged a Caucasian man named George Thomas. I made a few attempts to ask random white guys if it was theres, but that obviously failed. Inside the Shrine on Sundays, there are often ceremonial wedding processions. Wedding parties in traditional garb march slowly across the grounds while tourists stick cameras in their faces. It's an interesting example of how Japanese tradition is preserved, but in such a way that it's just spectacle for a large portion of the population. I'd find this to be the case in many other places.
After the Shrine, I took the train down to Harajuku Station. Before checking out the mobbed areas full of curiously dressed youths, I made by way into the side-streets to find another ramen spot, Afuri. What's interesting about Afuri is that 1) it specializes in adding a slight citrus flavor to its broth and 2) most of the workers are women (ramen is predominantly a male thing in Japan). I had a bowl of shio (salt) ramen with a couple slices of fatty, smoky pork that they grill on a tiny charcoal grill. Afuri is also considered "cafe ramen", meaning it's light and in smaller portions. It made a great lunch. Afterward, I walked a few blocks to Be A Good Neighbor coffee. A fantastic, tiny shop on a corner that's just big enough for an espresso machine and a drip bar. It's designed impeccably with brushed metal and wood everywhere. Interesting looking design magazines lined the counter and a 3rd gen. iPod played music softly over an Apple Hi-Fi (two of my favorite Apple product designs). I ordered a drip coffee that was hand dripped fastidiously. They offered me a tiny glass of chilled grapes with my cup. A subtle, but sublime touch that made the experience so much better. The shop was manned by a charming couple that gave me some recommendations for thing to do in Tokyo in halting English. Mostly museums and art related things. They were more American hipsters than Japanese hipsters.
Speaking of Japanese hipsters, Harajuku is full of exactly what you would envision when hearing that word. There's one particular street lined with shops and is mobbed with young people, mostly girls, dressed in outlandish costumes and with large, bleached hair. They ranged from almost normal looking to completely ridiculous. A lot of the costumes are like what you'd find at Halloween costume store selling slutty versions of everything. There were groups of girls wearing the exact same costume. The last girl pictured takes the cake for just being dressed as a pumpkin that's only slutty because of how short she's wearing it. This is something I noticed among women's fashion in Japan. Everything is extremely short and gives off the impression of wanting to look provocative, but it's an afterthought here with the rest of the outfit being super cutesy. This was also where I first encountered the maddening chorus of intensely nasal, high pitched shop girls calling for people to come in to their shops. For me it was like going to a toy store, finding a shelf of toys with voices, and pressing all of their buttons and listening to 50 toys repeat their prerecorded message. I don't know how those voices make anyone want to buy anything from them.
After a short break back at my hotel, I went out to Ginza. Ginza is the high end shopping district and home to the flagship Uniqlo store, which is 12 stories tall. Yeah. 12 stories. Even more astounding is the Abercrombie & Fitch next door that's even taller. One thing I found interesting, which continues the sentiment of many Harajuku girls wearing the exact same outfits, was that the two Abercrombie models manning the doors were dressed identically in the same plaid shirt and distressed jeans. I mentioned this in my initial post, but it really just kind of makes it feel like even the mentality of counter-culture in Japan is subject to a rigid subconscious drive to control every aspect of oneself.
Before dinner, I went to another coffee shop. Open since 1948, Café de l'Ambre in Ginza is a classic Japanese "kissaten" (coffee shop) and emphasizes mood and the quality of the cup. The sign outside proudly proclaims that they serve "Only Coffee" and that's exactly what you find. There's no food, other drinks, or even milk or sugar to speak of. Select the size of your cup and watch as each is dripped through a cotton filter from a copper kettle into a small copper pot and then transferred to a pre-warmed cup. It's a hypnotic process. I don't think I'm well versed enough in coffee to be able to appreciate the intricacies of the flavors I should have been tasting, but it was terribly fascinating just to watch the man execute his craft.
Afterward, I wandered through the Uniqlo a bit and actually found a few nice pieces, but realized I don't really have the proportions for clothes designed for skinny Asian guys. I then went to get dinner at Yakitori Ton Ton, which sits underneath the train tracks at the end of a long narrow corridor of bars and restaurants. The archway captures all the smoke and echoes all the noise back into the space. It's a crowded, raucous, smoky spot, but the food is great and if I knew more Japanese, I'm sure I'd have had better, longer conversations. I had pork, pork gizzard, chicken, and chicken meatballs. The chicken meatballs were amazing. I ordered 3 more skewers after my first one. I finished my beers and headed back to Shinjuku to crash after the first packed day of many more.
So this ended up being a lot longer and took a lot longer than I had anticipated. Each day in Japan was so packed though, that I don't really know how I can condense or speed it up. I might just have to do 8 more similarly massive posts. I've also not really had a lot of time to rest and recover after my trip, so I'm not sure at what pace I can keep this up. I'll do my best to keep these coming before I forget everything though.
I really just need one or two solid days to just do nothing, but I don't know when that'll happen. Where's all my free time these days?!