The day started at approximately 12:01 am on Nov 1, as we shuffled through customs at Haneda International Airport. I’d just slept 9 of last 12 hours on the flight (thanks to my dear friend, Xanex); Patten had been less fortunate with just a couple of hours under his feet. Ready or not, here came our first challenge: Getting to our hotel.
Ticket kiosks: found! The English button on ticket kiosk: Found! Credit card slot: Not found!
Seeing us fumbling, an agent came over and made the universal sign for no and one that we’ve come to learn quite well here in Japan: hands in an x. The “no” was for credit cards.
ATM machine: Found! English button: Found! Cash in hand, we were back at the kiosk buying tickets.
Soon after, we were on a train, excited we’d made the train we thought ended shortly after midnight. What we didn’t realize was that there was no way to get to a station by our hotel. So yet another interaction with another train agent at another stop, who made more hand x’s for us, and we finally made it on a train that took us about mile away from out hotel. From there, we walked and walked and walked until we reached Zion, i.e. Agora Place Asakusa. The process was long and confusing, but exhilarating, which is to say (and the point of this ridiculously verbose intro), it was reminiscent of just about every one of our first-time experiences with a foreign city’s mass transit systems. It was the perfect way to dive into a trip.
4:45 am: Tsujiki Fish Market
After a two-hour nap, we were in a cab with lace-covered seats, apparently the norm here in Japan. He zipped through mostly empty streets, on the left side of the road, until we reached the bustle of the fish market. “Skee-jee,” he said, while pointing vehemently down a road to our left.
We paid (a whopping 3000 yen), then exited the cab into the very early morning. Shop owners were unpacking their wares, laying out mushrooms, big boxes of fish flakes, bags of salts and seasonings; many were cooking, old men stirring steaming pots of unknown broths in big steel pots.
We asked several people where to meet for the tuna auction. They looked at us blankly. “Maguro,” I said, after finding the word for tuna in our Lonely Planet guidebook. This worked slightly better, various fingers pointing us to a large building 100 meters away. And so we trekked further in, now darting between hundreds of motorized carts, each carrying around styrofoam boxes filled with silvery fish. “Run,” Patten would say, and we’d sprint through an opening, luckily avoiding death each time. Eventually, some police men turned us away from the action, and pointed us to the tourist booth. A man behind the closed-window counter made an X with his hands. The tuna-auction tour had filled up, which we later learned, at 3:30 am that morning. Only 120 tourists are allowed in. If you’re there during a busy weekend, Lonely Planet’s suggestion about getting there at 4:30 am is a bit off the mark.
We were disappointed, but hungry. Next: We set off in search of the famous sushi breakfast. We found two restaurants, both busy. We ended up in the significantly longer line. An American behind us (one of the few we’ve encountered here) had heard this was the best place in the city to get high-quality, high-value sushi.
So we waited. And waited. Two hours later (after fun conversations with Thai and Malaysian tourists), we sat down at the 12-person counter of Sushi Dai. Immediately, our itamae (sushi chef) welcomed us with a succulent, ruby-red curve of toro nigiri — Was it the two-hour wait? Our rumbling stomachs? The ambience of eating sushi at Tsujiki, something I’ve wanted to do for years? Biases aside, I do think this was the best piece of fatty tuna that’s ever slunk its way down my throat. Soooo good.
The joy kept coming: baby snapper, red snapper, sea urchin, baby shrimp, yellow jack… each time, he’d lay the nigiri on the bar before us delicately, elegantly, and we’d pick it up with our fingers (as he instructed us to do) and savor the new flavors. Forty minutes and 6400 yen later later, our fun had ended and we were back on the wet, bustling streets.
Next, we walked to the wholesale market, the gigantic warehouse where Jiro comes each morning to pick out his fine fish. Even though we’d read it was the “largest fish market in the world,” the size of this place, the immense volume of fish, the thousands of fish merchants and purveyors, is truly unimaginable.
We spent hours here wandering down the small aisles, gaping as they chopped off fish heads, sawed through hulking, frozen tuna bodies, bagged heaping piles of shellfish into styrofoam boxes. It was if the ocean had been reaped of every living thing. Both disturbing and awe-inspiring, It was one of the most amazing scenes we’ve seen, ever.
10 am: Hamarikyu Gardens
For a dose of calm, we headed to Hamarikyu Gardens. While impressed with the geo-located audio guide that started talking in your ear the minute you approached a particular point of interest, we were struggling to take in the very detailed history of the Tokugawas. Instead, we just walked in quiet. We watched as gardeners plucked dead needles from trees, making each pine brilliantly green, then headed to take matcha in the teahouse on the garden’s lake. It took us twenty minutes to realize that we needed to pay before we were served, so Patten shuffled back inside with slippers that were significantly too small for him (this continues to be a point of laughter), turned around backwards to slip them off at the door, handed over our 1200 yen, and came back with some sort of wooden token. The server then placed a laminated sheet of tea-drinking instructions before us. We learned how to hold the cup (in two hands), how to turn the tea with each sip, how to wipe the mouth, etc., and most importantly, how to eat the confection, which we were instructed to do before drinking the tea. We followed the rules exactly (at least to our best knowledge), while successfully multitasking: basking in the sun and charging my now drained cell phone with our Satechi energy station (fantastic purchase!).
12 pm: Hot coffee from a vending machine
In our few short hours in the city, we’d noticed vending machines everywhere. Upon closer look, when Patten began to suffer from a lack-of-caffeine headache, we got very confused. What was tea? What was coffee? What was soda? The only English on the cans was the name of the brand: Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi. Beer companies make juices and teas? Not in America. We picked a small can of Gold, assuming it’d be coffee. “It’s hot,” Patten said as he pulled it out of the shoot. We marveled at this for far too long, then he quickly shot back the syrupy, warm coffee.
1 pm: Panasonic Living Showroom
Not much to say here. We saw a beautiful building with an interesting name. Panasonic makes furniture? So inside we went, and quickly found two leather recliners. Patten solved the riddle of the remote and soon enough, the chair was squeezing our butts tightly from the side, then massaging our lower back, upper back, then neck with hard, round spheres. Again, we marveled at this far too long, as the showroom workers in their high heels and business suits curiously smiled at us.
1:30 pm: Our first meal ordered from a vending machine
We’d just exited Yoyogi station (yet another feat to get across town on the subway — thank goodness for an English speaker near the kiosk), and were famished. Without our trusty Yelp here in Japan and way too confused by addresses to use our LP guidebook with any accuracy, our restaurant choices are driven by three criteria: the number of people in the place, pictures (or plastic models) of the food, and whether or not the price is listed in numeric form. We found a place that seemed to score well in all three — but first, we needed to figure out how to order. We watched a few people in front of us: 1) Feed yen into the money slot, 2) Press the picture of the meal you want, 3) Take your printed ticket to the counter. Easy enough. Two minutes later, we had a steaming bowl of shrimp tempura (tendon) noodles.
3 pm: Reunion with Shoko
It was time to head over to Shibuya, where we planned to meet Shoko, one of the friends I’d met when I studied abroad at Exeter. It’d been 10 years since we’d seen each other, but Facebook had kept us in touch. I’d remembered Shoko as effervescent, bright, and very kind — she was all three and more when we met up with her at Shibuya Hikarie, the new KaDeWe-like (but hipper) department store. We met at the 8th-floor restaurant, which overlooked Shibuya Station and its respective swarms of people. We tried three types of Japanese tea, a flight of clementine juices, and three different sweets (aka desserts) — our favorite was the chestnut custard.
Shoko received her masters in Jewish & Christian Relations in London, but she’s home now, working for her father until she’s ready to start school back up again — this time, working towards her doctorate. She gave us the breakdown of religion here in Japan. “We are not very religious people, but we culturally identify with all three,” she continued, “For example, we go to a Shinto shrine to celebrate birth; we get married in a church (Christianity), and we go to Buddhist temple at death.” Then she made a very helpful flow chart for us about the three religions over the years in Japan. After our education and fully stuffed on sweets and tea, she took us for a quick tour of Shibuya. First, a giant gaming store that sold every possible video game ever created. Then, to Animate, an equally teaming store, this one filled with manga and anime and many teenagers with short skirts and face masks. (People here wear face masks when they’re sick to prevent spreading disease to others; however, teenagers have started wearing these daily “to hide their emotions,” said Shoko.) Patten and Shoko were very amused with a stuffed daikon (see pic) and we all giggled at the dirty comics: “Big boobs are universally appealing,” as Patten sagaciously offered. One last stop at a giant stationary store, then Shoko helped us buy our subway tickets home and sent us on her way with a giant smile.
8 pm: Dinner at “an establishment”
Even when we walked by the restaurant the next day and examined all the signage, we couldn’t figure out the name of this place. I’ve already exhausted myself writing this post, so I’ll keep this last stop in brief: Using our sniff test (as outlined above), we found a bustling family restaurant in Asakusa near our hotel. We were amused by the vats of cheese and gravy they seemed to pour over each concoction. Not brave enough to try their rendition of a hamburger steak, we each ordered the beer set: 20 oz Asahi and two small plates. Tipsy from one beer and our epic day, we giggled home to our hotel, first stopping at Mister Donut. As the dough-faithful know, a perfect day can never end without a donut.
Patten was snoring approximately 25 seconds after his head hit the pillow. I eventually dozed off, basking in the highlights of our first day and the promise of so many more new places, experiences, and people to come.
ZINK Year: We’re here!