The following is a collection of words I kept while traveling through Tokyo and Kyoto in October 2019 with my wife Kati. I am now posting this in October 2020, one year later. As you all know, the world changed in between then and now. It is utterly bizarre to read through this and even fathom doing what we did at the time. The struggle is real not to rewrite every sentence with, “This was pre-Covid, can you believe that we…?”
On a personal note, I find it curious that I am so preoccupied with coffee.
Also, I switch to present tense in one day’s entry. Why I do that I’m still not sure. I thought I would change it during my once over before posting but…no. It is a historical thing. I must have been in the moment.
Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019
Arrival. We landed in Haneda Airport and immediately had to figure out the PASMO card, a rechargeable card that you use to ride the metro, pay for stuff, etc. Except we didn’t know the protocol, so we asked someone at a kiosk and they helpfully explained the situation. This exchange was our first introduction to Japanese hospitality. One might call it “unbelievably nice.”
Our hotel was the Nohga Hotel Ueno, one of those new hotels built for the 2020 Olympics. It was a short walk from Ueno Station. We passed a 7-11 on the way. One of Kati’s colleagues had told me before the trip that Japanese 7-11s are not like their American counterparts. They actually have proper food that you can, you know, eat. Also, they always have Western-debit-card-reading ATMs and we would soon learn cash is still king in Japan.
After check-in, the hotel lobby staff directed us to the elevator and waited patiently with us for the doors to open. We walked inside and turned and were surprised to see both staff members bowing. Then the elevator doors closed.
After marveling at the economical use of space in our room (and posting a bunch of Instagram stories), we ventured outside. We stopped at a cafe with a picture of coffee on the outside. No one spoke English. They only had drip coffee, so we ordered that.
The cafe was one of those places that had been around for decades and the grill had never been cleaned. And that was the other thing. There was a grill but we couldn’t figure out how to order food. Didn’t seem to be a menu.
We sipped our bitter black coffee and people watched. Men in business suits talking in low voices, smoking cigarettes. The smoke hung in the air, only moving when someone walked through it. I made a mental note. Is smoking still big here?
Later on we wandered, keeping careful track of where on the map we were going. I started noticing a peculiar phenomenon concerning walking. There was a strict etiquette on which side to walk on. For example, you walk on the left side and those walking towards you will walk on the right side. It happened multiple times that someone – head buried in their phone – almost ran into us as we were walking on the wrong side.
Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019
Our first full day in Tokyo. Bright and early, we wanted some proper coffee and somehow got it in our heads that a latte from Blue Bottle was the best course of action. Because the first thing you do after arriving in Tokyo is go to an Oakland brand.
The closest was in Tokyo Station so we entered Ueno Station at peak rush hour. That was our first mistake. All those stories about the crush of people trying to get inside the metro? Totally legit. Once inside, I noticed pretty quickly that the American perception that all Japanese are short is just wrong.
As for Blue Bottle? We never did find it. The underground shops and stores beneath Tokyo Station are a labyrinth and Google Maps wasn’t helping. Before I exploded in righteous anger, we settled for Starbucks. It was a poor substitute but I would later learn that Starbucks are everywhere in Tokyo and came in handy when you needed that caffeine fix.
We ate ramen for breakfast at a place called Rokurinsha. Amazingly we were able to find it underground at Tokyo Station. I was still stewing after Blue Bottle. It was probably 8:15 am and there was already a line queued up to get in. And it was sublime. Seriously so good. Glad we got there early!
One thing to note is the curious way of ordering food at certain places, especially ramen restaurants. You punch in your order at an automated kiosk, receive a receipt and give that to a server. The kiosk is rarely translated into English but it does have pictures to semi-help us lost tourists.
With morning coffee and food checked off the list, we started towards the Imperial Palace. This is a huge green swath in the center of Tokyo. One of the gates was closed so we kept walking around until we found one that was open. This offered the only way to walk through the palace grounds: with a guided tour. We were right on time for the next one. The grounds were really quite lovely. Our tour guide was very precise with our huge English-language group. It must have been 75 people. The French-language guide had only one person.
Later we hit Ginza, the ritzy shopping district. We stopped at Ginza Six, a new shopping mall, where we found a Blue Bottle downstairs. Of course. So we finally got our Blue Bottle fix.
We crossed the street to the biggest UNIQLO I’d ever seen, eleven stories tall. Bored and stir crazy, I wandered across the street into Dover Street Market and Kati had a minor freak out when I neglected to answer my phone. It was on silent and she thought she lost me. We agreed to have a better plan while exploring because, well, sometimes you get lost.
Next up was Tsukiji Outer Market. The famed market had moved but all the stores and stalls selling stuff to locals and foreigners were still open. This was a personal favorite for both Kati and I. We had a bunch of yakatori (meat on skewers). Tuna, eel, egg. Later a tiny seafood platter. It was super good.
We wandered into a giant Buddhist temple just up the street and sat and listened to a service being held. The monk (priest?) kept making everyone laugh. It was soothing to just sit down and listen to another language and the laughter that ensued.
We continued walking and admiring buildings. We found an art gallery called M83 and went upstairs. It was mostly pictures of naked women. Nearby was a small confectionary store run by a woman who looked about ninety. Seemed the store was about that old as well. We turned around and walked all the way back to the Nakagin Capsule Tower to get some photographs, then nearly collapsed in a small park where we ate the little sweets we had bought earlier.
I should mention here that we had multiple people give us a ton of recommendations of where to go, see, eat and drink. It was spread across google maps and emails and notes saved in phones. Kati would later complain that I was a little dictator with the map, demanding we go one way when she wanted to go the other. I do not challenge this assessment. Anyway, everything else on our recommendation list around Ginza were bars so obviously we went to one of those. It was barely 5 pm.
This particular bar was called High Five and is perhaps one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to in my life. It’s in the basement and basically a small low-lit room with jazz music piped in from the ceiling. There were three men and one woman working behind the bar.
One of the guys was Brian, an American from New Orleans who dropped everything to move to Tokyo. Very talkative. The woman was the master bartender. They asked us what we liked and what we didn’t like and then made concoctions out of stuff I would have never thought of.
We each had three drinks, each very different from the other. By the end, we were nearly falling on the floor. Our new best friend Brian gave us a restaurant suggestion just around the corner. He stopped himself and asked, “Do you know any Japanese?” When we both shook our heads no, he said something in Japanese and said, “You have to at least know that to order.” Well that makes sense. We can remember that.
We stumbled to the place and it was a hole in the wall filled to the brim with beer, smoke, locals and loud noises. Nobody spoke English but Brian had warned us. I think if we weren’t as tipsy as we were, we might have gotten cold feet and wandered off to somewhere a bit more welcoming. But no. We sat straight down and pointed at the menu, hoping for the best. Whatever Brian had said earlier did not come back to us. Somehow we got fed. And it was glorious.
At one point, Kati went to the bathroom and I was left alone to people watch. Most were in business suits and drinking pints of beer, laughing, joking, yelling. The energy in that place was buzzing. At some point, two Americans tried to enter and they were rudely turned away. There were seats, both inside and out. The Americans stood there, scanning the restaurant, genuinely perplexed. Something about it gnawed at me. No matter how fuzzy I was, I had a bad feeling I’d see that again.
Afterwards, we wisely decided we needed one more drink and went to the next bar on our recco map. This was Orchard. It was the same style as High Five but run by a husband and wife. It was upstairs. Very small. We sat down next to an American from Austin and talked for a while.
To order, you choose from a huge bowl of fresh fruit and they make a custom drink for you out of that fruit. I chose grapes for my first and pineapple for my second. We got absolutely hammered. I gave a card to the American and told him if he’s ever in San Francisco to come and sleep on our couch. I don’t remember his name.
We picked up cigarettes and smoked one on the pedestrian overpass next to Ueno Station in the smoking area. That’s a peculiar thing about Japan. Smoking is ubiquitous in bars and restaurants, but only allowed in certain areas on streets. Under no circumstances do you walk and smoke.
I spent a long time adding up our day’s expenses, sure I had the exchange rate wrong. We spent five hundred dollars on drinks alone.
Thursday, Oct 17, 2019
Our second full day was a Shibuya day.
We started at Streamer Coffee then jumped to Cat Street, which wasn’t on our list. Everything was closed but we bookmarked it for later. We ate a small breakfast at Island Vintage Coffee then trekked towards Meiji Shrine and stumbled upon Takeshita Street. So colorful and yet touristy, even in the morning. Then on to Meiji Shrine where we made an offering.
I’m not a religious person, yet I found myself strangely gripped by spirituality while walking and hiking around Japan. Whenever I found myself at a shrine I prayed. To whom? I don’t know. But it felt right.
We ate lunch at Harajuku Gyoza Lou, a fantastic dumpling place with a super simple menu and low prices. We walked back along Cat Street and bought a pair of jeans at Japan Blue Jeans. Japanese-made and perfect fit. The woman in the store was super nice (shock) and gave us some shopping tips in the area.
We grabbed boba and headed towards the middle of Harajuku. There we found a bunch of small quirky stores. Some nice stuff but didn’t buy anything. It started to rain.
We walked up Omotosando Ave, the Champs-Ellyse of Tokyo. Très chic with uber expensive stores. On our list was a confectionary shop called Higashiya Man and it was basically an incredibly designed hole in the wall. The presentation was perfect. We had two little sweets on the spot (we didn’t want to take away) and they gave us tea. Useful when it’s pouring outside.
We found this great design department store – if that’s what you even call it – called Spiral. On the 3rd floor was the market. On the fifth floor of the same building was a tea experience place that was on our list (called something like Sorokai) but we weren’t in the right mood just then. Looked beautiful though.
Later on we ate an early dinner at Tonkatsu Maisen Aoyoma, a big touristy place teeming with people. Tonkatsu is fried pork and also delicious. Basically a healthy vegetarian’s nightmare. Unlike Kati, I had never tried it before, but according to her it was the best she ever had.
By this point it was still raining and getting cold. Kati wasn’t feeling 100 percent so we trudged back to Shibuya Station and ran smack into the wall of people crossing. It’s probably the most famous crosswalk in the world and demands to be photographed.
But we just couldn’t get the right shot. For that sense of scale ground level doesn’t cut it. We tried the upstairs Starbucks across the street, but a mob of people taking pictures at the windows clearly had the same idea we had. We finally gave up.
Later we rode the Ginza line back to Ueno Station (the last stop). We stopped at 7-11 and picked up sake and sweets and nuts and chips and went back up to the hotel room and consumed them all while watching a Japanese TV show about (what we think is) living cheaply. There was a person living in his truck. #vanlife. Kati crashed and I soon followed around 9 pm.
Friday, Oct 18, 2019
We were out bright and early and immediately stopped at Starbucks inside Ueno Station. This is not ideal but we had quickly surmised that Starbucks are everywhere and always open early, so why not? Especially since local Tokyo coffee shops were rarely open before 10 am.
We rode to Ebisu Station and walked around, admiring the little shops and restaurants. We had some time before the shops opened in Daikanyama so we stopped for another coffee at Garden House Crafts. It had maybe the best croissant I have ever had in my life. That’s something that happens a lot here. The Japanese do everything better.
This is also the first point on our journey I used the bidet function on the wildly futuristic toilets located all throughout Tokyo. It would begin my love affair with Japanese toilets. I was stunned how clean public toilets were. It just blew my mind. I was constantly stopping to use the bathroom, even when I barely had to go. It drove Kati mad.
There was a Shinto shrine nearby so we headed that way. We entered Shibuya and found the shrine after wandering a while. It’s called Konno Hachimangu Shrine. We watched as people would walk up to the shrine, ring the bell, bow twice, clap once and bow once more and walk to the side.
A lot of being in Japan is just watching people and trying to figure out what the hell the customs are.
By this time, we had timed it so that shops would be opening, so we started back towards the heart of Daikanyama, where supposedly all the hip shops are located. We stopped in many. One of note was Okura. Everything inside used indigo. I bought a sweatshirt and Kati a t-shirt. Nearby was T-Site, which is basically an impeccably designed book store complex. Very cool.
Next was L’Officine Universelle Bully, some sort of custom scent shop. It was a big deal for Kati. I walked in and walked out and bought an iced tea at one of the thousands of auto vendors on the corner and sat down, resting my legs. At some point Kati finished and we walked to the Meguro River.
There, we were starving and rolled the dice and went into a small sushi place called Iroha Sushi. All they had was a lunch menu and it was all chef’s choice. So, continuing to roll the dice, we let the chef decide. It was delicious. And a lot of food. But perfect.
The waiter was hovering and watching us eat. He complimented my excellent use of chopsticks. Then he asked us why we were here. He was genuinely confused why we would ever think of visiting Tokyo for our honeymoon.
Now fed we started along the river bank. This is where all the cherry blossoms bloom but there were no cherry blossoms blooming. I could imagine it must be beautiful when they do. Places of note: Vase. Cool little shop with hip Japanese brand clothing.
At some point we turned off the river and got to Yaeca Apartment Store. Not for me but very stylish. Later we found Traveler’s Factory. Basically a place designed solely for quirky gifts.
We continued along the river until we reached Switch Coffee. It didn’t seem like much, but supposedly Rene Redzepi declared it the best coffee in the world. I had no idea who this was but Kati explained with a sigh. And sure, it was good coffee. It just didn’t really leave an impression. But maybe that was due to our dark moods simmering just below boiling point.
Kati and I had both miscalculated the sheer size of Tokyo. Usually as you travel you have a built-in rest period in the afternoon. Perhaps you stop back at the hotel or sit in a coffee house for a couple hours and just chill. Get off your feet, process the moment. In Tokyo, you don’t have that luxury. Our hotel was at least a fifty minute metro ride away. It’s not worth it to go all the way back and forth.
At that particular moment, sitting outside Switch, we’re exhausted, pissed off and at each other’s throats. This is our honeymoon. And remember Kati calling me a little dictator with the map? That was thrown into the mix too.
So we talked it out. Yes we were cranky and yes we wanted to throttle each other, but our feet hurt, our bags were heavy and the sheer amount of input pouring into our eyeballs was unsettling both of us. And that’s the thing about Tokyo. You want to experience so much and cram it all in, but that’s just not going to happen. Better to enjoy what you can and hope you get to come back. So we made a promise to better segment our days to maximize our mental health.
This was a small incident, maybe all of thirty minutes. But it set the tone for the rest of our trip. If either of us were feeling crispy, we tried to find a place to lay low and rest. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But at least we analyzed the problem and produced a solution. So we got back on the metro and took the long train back to our hotel.
After an hour of decompression, we headed back out to Dentsdelion Antiques, which is basically a museum of Japanese artifacts, except everything inside is priced to sell. It has two floors of some pretty amazing stuff. It’s run by a couple. The guy is French and woman Japanese. He told us that in earthquake-prone Japan, most of the stuff available in antique stores are often boxed up. You need to know what you’re looking for and they bring it out. Because we were just browsing, this all sounded absurd but did make more than a little sense.
The guy did open up more and told us interesting tidbits about Japan. Like how antique Japanese furniture is basically worthless in Japan because 80% of its citizens live in cities. But check out Japanese antique stores in the States and it’s all furniture. Because we actually have the room.
When I mentioned we loved old maps he brought out a bunch of maps from the late Edo or early Meiji period, around the 19th century. It was amazing. There was one map in particular that caught our eye. It was 500 dollars. Hmm, how much do we really love old maps? We told him we’d think about it.
It was a Friday night and the Ueno street vendors were hopping. Almost too crowded. After leaving a particularly smoke-filled restaurant, I was surprised to see everyone gone. The rains had come and flushed out the neighborhood.
Just then I had a particular urge for sake. We found a sake bar nearby but it had a private event. Right around the block from our hotel was a restaurant underground. They must have sake. And they did. Lots of it.
Fun fact. When you order a “glass” of sake in Japan, you get a carafe of sake to share. This took some time to figure out. At some point, the Japanese server waved over a super nice Indian dude, clearly the only guy on their staff who spoke English. He gave us the lowdown.
By the end, we had downed three “glasses” and smoked a ton of cigarettes because that’s what you do here. At some point it was time to go.
Saturday, Oct 19, 2019
I didn’t write much for this day. We were mostly in Shinjuku. In the morning we did one of the most touristy things we could and went to the Samurai Museum. Which turned out to be fascinating. Did you know samurais had guns? Neither did I.
There was a retro coffee house that may have been called Retro Coffee House. See a trend here? A lot of coffee.
We went up to the viewing plaza in a super tall government building. We took a bunch of photos. We kept trying to see Mt. Fuji but there was a haze across the sky. No Fuji for us.
Later we got drinks at Golden Gai. That was weird. Maybe because we were so early. The places had just opened, or in the process of opening. Some had cover charges. I saw signs that prominently displayed MEMBERS ONLY across the door. I filed this away for future contemplation.
It was barely evening at this point and we needed to rest. Somehow we found ourselves in a shitty underground cafe and tried to figure out what to do next. Our friend Libby had given us a restaurant recommendation in Shibuya called Narukiyo Izakaya. It looked like a blast but they turned us away. “Do you have a reservation?” We promised ourselves we’d get in there by the end of the trip.
About a block down we found another place called Wana Tedome. This was on ground level, a strange place for a restaurant in Tokyo. We went inside and immediately hit the language barrier, except this time it was like an impenetrable wall. We struggled. Hard.
The locals must have been impressed by our ineptitude (or maybe it was the constant ordering of beer and sake) because they started opening up, speaking to us in broken English. That got us somewhere, and in the end it was a really funny and cute experience.
Both sides practiced English and Japanese words. It never occurred to us that we had a supercomputer in our pocket and Google Translate could make our life infinitely easier. That realization would come much much later in our journey.
Sunday, Oct 20, 2019
We wanted a proper breakfast place so I fired up Google Maps and did a search. I knew we had to change metros around Shimbashi Station so I kept it relegated to the Ginza area. A place called Bills Ginza popped up. It was on the 12th (top) floor of a building. It looked fancy as fuck.
It was indeed everything promised in the pictures and reviews. Cool views and great vibe. There was a 20 minute wait but we were people watching so it wasn’t a problem. There was a couple with three kids and two servants, both wearing matching uniforms. They weren’t from Japan and we were trying to figure it all out. Wherever they were from, the servants and uniforms weirded me out.
The food was excellent. I had ricotta hot cakes (basically big fluffy pancakes) with crispy bacon on the side and Kati had eggs and bacon. There was also coffee and the densest coconut bread I’ve ever tasted. It was too much.
Pleased but overstuffed, we waddled out of the restaurant and down the main strip of Ginza. At Shiodome Station, we caught the metro and headed out the farthest we’d been so far in the city: the port. The metro crossed the Rainbow Bridge and passed giant buildings. Some housing but seemed more like offices.
Our destination was teamLab Borderless. This is an exhibition space created specifically for the Instagram generation. It mixes art and technology in a wild way that needs to be seen in person to be believed. The line was huge but went quickly and we were inside within an hour.
Colors and sound and multiple tactile experiences. Kati and I wandered for at least three hours. There were hidden rooms and long lines for some of the more popular rooms. Even the lesser rooms had something to offer. Definitely a great experience.
After walking outside into blinding sunlight (there are no windows in the teamLab space), we got back on the metro to Shibuya. There we stopped for coffee and a much needed rest at Streamer. We had already been but I remembered it had chill vibes and ports to charge our phones. Kati didn’t want to be there but she posted on Instagram so it all worked out.
Later we walked around the west side of Shibuya, something we missed on our last exploration of the area. Seemed like a lot more young people. Definitely not as crazy as Shinjuku but it did have a fair amount of tourists.
There were a couple shops that Kati’s colleagues had mentioned we had to go to. One of them was Don Don Down on Wednesdays (that’s the whole name) and it was a used clothing store. Pretty cool. Mostly men’s stuff. I bought a pull over.
One thing to note here is that sizing is always a funny situation. Most clothes are sized super small and basically useless to me (and Kati for that matter).
Next was Tokyu Hands which is listed as a “home improvement store” on Google Maps and that’s a good summation of it. We went up to the top floor and wandered down level-by-level. It was an older building but had a bunch of cool stuff. Mostly cheap goods.
We had been waiting for our hotel to get back to us about the reservation at Narukiyo Izakaya. That seems to be a thing here. You can get your hotel to set up restaurant reservations. But no confirmation came.
When Kati called the hotel, they kindly explained the restaurant was not answering their phones, so they must be quite busy. We weren’t even hungry (our gigantic breakfast was holding us over) but we were curious about Narukiyo and it was nearby. So we walked over.
It was closed. That was twice we tried to eat at this place. We kept walking and found the Eyevan 7285 glasses shop. I’m a big fan of the brand.
Now we were hungry and found a highly rated French restaurant. The place was on the second floor, small but nicely put together. We ordered pinot noir and pate and grilled mushrooms and chicken and the medium rarest steak I’ve ever seen. It was all delicious.
Back to Ueno Station. We stopped at 7-11 for sake to-go before going up to the hotel. Then we sat back watching Japanese TV (again), but this time it was an anime about a group of cops (maybe?) struggling to dismantle a bomb. A baby dragon and magic was also involved.
Monday, Oct 21, 2019
Travel day! I was really curious about Kyoto. All we had to do was get on the Shinkansen bullet train and the rest would work itself out.
Now, there are those who advise you to buy your Shinkansen tickets ahead of time. We did not. There was a short line at Tokyo Station (the Shinkansen starting point) and it all went incredibly smooth. Perhaps we got lucky.
A Shinkansen train leaves every 10 minutes and cruises at speeds of 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour). The Japanese are doing it right.
When we finished the ticketing process, the 11 am train was just about to leave. We boarded on car 11, only to learn all non-reserved seats were in cars 1-3. So the first few minutes of our Shinkansen journey was walking up the train to finally plop down in two empty seats in car 2.
The trip was precisely 135 minutes. As the countryside whipped by, Kati and I checked over our lists from friends and colleagues about what to do in Kyoto. Turns out, not a whole lot from them. A couple bars and historic shrines. It looked like we’d be on the hook to find some amazing food. Judging from our trip so far, that shouldn’t be too hard.
The tenth floor of Kyoto Station is famous for their ramen restaurants. Seemed odd but then what do I know. On arrival, we puzzled our way through department stores (there was a mall attached to the station I guess?) and finally located the correct elevator.
Masutani was the recommended place to go, but there was a huge line and we were hungry. So we went to the next place (didn’t catch the name) that had almost no line. As customary, we ordered at the vending machine and got our food promptly. It was perfectly delicious. While we ate, I noticed someone had left a purse under a table and Kati notified the staff. It was a Louis Vuitton because of course it was.
A lot of traveling without speaking the language is just stumbling through the simplest shit. The next piece of our puzzle? The Kansai pass. This is a tourist-only pass that gives you access to public transport and a bunch of other things in the Kansai region (Kyoto is a big part of that). Only problem was there were multiple terminals and we weren’t quite sure which to use. After three attempts we found the correct line and soon were riding the metro. Easy!
Our room at the Nagi Kyoto Shinzo was more like a very well manicured apartment. It had this great layout. Much bigger than our Tokyo hotel. I vaguely remembered splurging a little more on our Kyoto accommodation so that made sense. As we were leaving to explore, the front desk insisted we borrow an umbrella. This sounded like a preposterous idea but finally we relented.
First we hit Nishiki Market. It’s basically this long covered walking street (we would soon learn that rain is a thing in Kyoto), so you’re picking through people and stalls but not getting soaked by the rain. It was cool.
We stopped at a sake stall and got a glass of their daily offer. Kati insisted on roasted chestnuts and we were carrying a bag of chestnuts around for the rest of the night. There were stalls for anything and everything and the appropriate amount of tourists to match.
At some point we found our way to Pontocho Alley. It felt like you’ve been transported back to a different time in Japan. It’s magical and a little surreal. Kati explained the geisha houses used to be here. More research is needed.
There were a couple bars on our list in the area so we tried the first: Star Bar. It was upstairs but the door was locked. When we knocked a guy came out and told us it was closed. Right.
Next was Bee’s Knees, a really cool speakeasy-style place. It was the same style as High Five back in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood. When we mentioned Brian (our High Five bartender friend who recommended Bee’s Knees), the head bartender goes, “Oh yeah Brian, he’s my friend!” The bar scene here is a really small world.
At first it was a pretty awkward conversation with one of the bartenders. He was this young kid, seemed aloof. He would ask us a question then listen to our answer and stare off into space. We didn’t quite know what to do with him.
Kati spied an Unicum bottle and that finally unlocked some interesting conversation. Unicum is quintessential Hungarian and Kati is, well, very much Hungarian.
But then later we asked for restaurant recommendations and our guy stared off into space, said, “I don’t know” and walked off. Okay. A couple minutes later he came back with a place on his phone. The screen was cracked. We pinged it on Google Maps and it was only a six minute walk away.
After two drinks, we were itching to leave but the head bartender grabbed the Unicum bottle off the shelf to pour shots. This stopped us. We looked around at the other people. Who in the hell ordered Unicum? That’s such a specific drink and probably no one outside of Hungary (and Japan it seems?) even knows about it.
The bartender gave each of the other bartenders a shot, then placed two shots in front of us with a smile. Ah, now it clicked. The guy was listening all along. We toasted, “Kanpai!” And drank. Still after all these years, Unicum is not for everybody. Regardless, it was a nice moment.
The restaurant recommendation was called Yanagi Koji Taga and it was absolutely the right place. We ordered mackerel and snails and chicken and cabbage and sake and beer. The place was run by two guys who seemed to love their jobs and were genuinely funny. It helped that it was a very international place yet had locals mixed in. It was standing room only though, and we had not yet experienced that. It all worked.
Two guys standing next to us were from Toronto. We had a burst of conversation and then it just stopped. You know that feeling when you’re stuck with strangers and you feel like you should include them and then both parties just…don’t? That’s exactly what happened.
Later we crossed the Kamo River and went to this weird gin bar called nokishita711. As is everything trendy in Japan, it was a small intimate space. It was filled with scribbled notes of past travelers saying what a great place the gin bar was. Sounds really kitsch (and it was) but it oddly worked in the setting. It set the vibe too. The bartender/owner is a mad scientist mixologist who created these wild drinks.
When I asked for the check, he told me to pay what I want. Okay, that’s bold. I stood there stunned as he went back to mixing. I overpaid, but maybe that’s the point.
We walked back in the rain, huddled under our loaned umbrella.
Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019
So hungover. We had talked about waking up early to go to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the famed Shinto shrine with the red painted gates. But we couldn’t wake up and plus it was pouring out. At around 10:30 am, Kati finally peeled herself out of bed.
Before leaving, we asked the front desk to book us two reservations, one for tonight and one for Friday when we were back in Tokyo for the place we kept trying to get to but never could.
She said that’s fine, but when she asked us about tonight and what type of food and how much we wanted to spend, it took us a while to respond. Our brains were not functioning properly. Finally we agreed on Kyoto-style kaiseki and 10,000 yen per person.
Kati was in charge of finding a place to eat. When we got to our destination – a bakery called Fiveran – it was closed. Google Maps and the wrong opening hours strike again!
Nearby was another bakery called Fleur de Farine. It turned out to be a takeaway shop, and I really needed coffee. So we grabbed some stuff to go and went across the street to Starbucks. It’s looked down upon to walk and eat in Japan. Tourists did it but we did not want to be those people.
By the time we finished the food and coffee, Kati wanted to go back to Fleur de Farine. We ate another pastry quickly next to the bakery. Imagine a squirrel stuffing its cheeks in record time. That was Kati. It was hilarious.
The weather cleared. We decided to go to Fushimi Inari Taisha, regardless of how late in the morning it was. Crowds be damned.
At first, this felt like a massive mistake. The shrine was a madhouse of people, all bumping into you and trying to get that perfect shot. The age of Instagram is annoying as hell.
What no one tells you about this famous shrine is just how big it is. Or maybe it was just an assumption on our part. We thought it would be a short walk with the famous red gates. But no, the path and gates just kept going up a mountain. Mount Inari to be exact.
As we hiked higher and higher, the crowds melted away and the experience became something much more. It felt spiritual, but that may have been the hangover.
Kati was complaining the whole way up. She kept saying, “I’m happy to be the person that almost made it to the top.” But I kept pushing her. It was important to reach the summit. We had to.
It took a long time but we made it. I prayed at the summit shrine for good health to our family (here’s hoping it stuck) and we started down the backside. Kati was ecstatic she made it. It was a good thing.
We came down the back side and there was a little coffee shop at the base called Vermillion. It was cute and had strong coffee, so we sat back to review our pictures and check emails.
The hotel had set us up with a reservation for that kaiseki restaurant, so we knew we had to be there by 8 pm. In the meantime, we had time to wander.
We walked north and found a beautiful little area with cool houses clustered among shrines in all directions. Most were closed.
One seemed open and we walked inside. There was a young woman at the entrance and she gave us a flyer. It was all in Japanese but it looked like some sort of art exhibit. So we walked inside.
Soon though, we were told it was a private event. Kati had to put her shoes back on. As we were walking out, I heard someone behind us say something. I thought he was talking to us but he shook his head and said, “I said in Chinese that the buses are coming.” It was a mass failure of communication.
We needed to take a bus back to the hotel. This was our first foray into the bus system in Japan and it was interesting to see how it was set up. You board at the back and exit in the front, paying (or tapping your pass) as you leave. The Japanese are so trusting and it totally works.
After a short break at the hotel, we set off to Kaji, a traditional kaiseki restaurant. You take your shoes off and go to the “bar” and they serve you courses. Ours was ten courses and by the end I could barely move, I had eaten so much.
The server didn’t speak much English, so he would speak into his phone and the phone would tell us what he said. It actually worked quite well. It was the first time we had seen someone using Google Translate (though it seemed like a different Japanese app) and made us feel just a tad silly for not thinking of it before.
Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019
This time we did wake up early. The famed Bamboo Forest was the next top choice on our list so we were out the door by 7:30 am.
Almost immediately, we ran into trouble. According to Google Maps, the Randen metro line went directly to the forest, but we couldn’t find the stop. This would become a recurring theme in Kyoto: where the hell is the stop?!
We went downstairs into the metro, but the station agent told us to go back upstairs. We did but there was nothing. No signs. And according to the map, we were supposedly in the right location, so that wasn’t any help. Finally we crossed the street and peered into another building, and there was this cute little one car above ground train waiting for us.
When we got there, it was already crowded. There was a couple wearing judo gis and black belts. Kati thought they were fake but they looked too worn to be fake. I figured they were into judo for many years and finally made it to Japan. This was their picture book moment.
Just like in Fushimi Inari Taisha, the Insta-crowds were annoying. But unlike Fushimi Inari Taisha, the Bamboo Forest was tiny. There was no mountain to climb. So we left.
We continued down a side street, realizing quickly that everything would be closed until at least 9 am (including the shrines). So we walked for a while and came upon the Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street. This was not on our list. A Japanese woman walking past pointed to it and said, “Preserved street!”
As we continued down this very much preserved street, we noticed a bunch of school children in matching uniforms standing in front of a door to what had to be a shrine or temple of some kind. We wandered up to investigate. It was just 9 am, opening time. As the door swung open, the teachers turned and led the children away. We’re still not sure why.
Inside was the Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple, renowned for its thousands of carved stone memorial statues. It was breathtaking. And we had it all to ourselves. To top it off, there was a private bamboo grove in the back. Now we could be those Insta-assholes. So many pictures. It really was a magical place.
We stopped at Sabo Satsukitei, the only open restaurant nearby. It’s this quirky place filled with mahogany wood. But it had excellent sandwiches and surprisingly great coffee. Maybe it was the temple’s afterglow, but it turned out to be my favorite coffee during the entire Japan trip.
The famed golden Kinkaku-ji temple was next on our list, but it was far and there were no direct public transport routes to take. So we started walking. This gave us a chance to see a lot of housing in what must have been an outskirts area. We got looks. Tourists were clearly never this far out.
Hours later, the sun was beating down on us and our feet hurt. So we did the thing we should have done way earlier and jumped on a bus. Which was a huge relief until we actually got to Kinkaku-ji.
It was mobbed. And inside is quite small, so you walk in, see the temple, jostle around crowds trying to get a clear picture, then walk around it, and you’re out. It’s not worth it.
We got on the wrong bus back. Kati waited patiently as I silently raged at Google Maps. Maybe I wasn’t so silent. We found the metro back to the Daimaru department store.
Downstairs is a huge “food court” but not quite like what we’re used to in the States (or anywhere else I’ve been). It’s all different vendors with exquisite looking food. There was one particular vendor that also has a main restaurant elsewhere in the city that cost $800 per person. But their bento boxes found in this food court were only $30, so it’s a good deal.
That is, if we could find it. We found a floor map but it was all in Kanji lettering. It took some time as we consulted the Kanji name of the restaurant and Kanji on the map. And then, boom, there it was! It felt oddly satisfying to match the Kanji. Like this is the first step to learning a language. Ten minutes later, we were eating excellent bento at one of only three tables in the food court eating area.
A short rest at the hotel and we were on our way to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. It was getting dark but we figured the temple would be lit up. Again I ran into the, “Where the fuck is the bus stop?” conundrum, and we ended up walking all the way there after I went ballistic on my phone.
The temple is on the top of a hill and everyone was walking down. That was our first clue that something was wrong. When we got up to the entrance, we found the opening hours. It closed at 6 pm. And it was 6:04 pm. We overheard an older American photographer ask his guide, “Can’t you ask them to turn on the lights for me?”
We split off from the main street and found another temple: Hōkanji Temple. It’s a five story pagoda and it’s stunning when lit up at night. This made it all worth it.
We had no more restaurant suggestions on our Kyoto list so we found a random highly rated place. And this time, we would take a break from Japanese food.
Tato is a tapas restaurant run by a Spanish (I think?) dude who spoke fluent Japanese and had the loudest voice I’d heard since entering Japan. It was so different from what we were used to over the last week that it was almost unnerving. But he was nice and the food was decent.
There was a couple next to us on their honeymoon (we didn’t mention ours) and we talked to them about places and stuff to see. Another one of those situations when you make conversation but then it peters out and you’re left with silence.
We left and walked over to Bar Rocking Chair. There was a wait, but it was worth it. One of the coolest bars on our entire trip. There was this young Japanese guy sitting next to us at the bar. We couldn’t tell if he was studying to be a bartender or what his deal was. He ordered drinks, sipped them, then wrote down in a little journal.
We walked back, now used to the Kyoto streets. There was something so effortless about this city. It was small yet made sense. Much more so than Tokyo. Maybe I was just tired. Tomorrow’s plan was discussed. Our Japanese ryokan experience was next.
Thursday, Oct 24, 2019
We checked out early. Our next accommodation was Momijiya Ryokan in the far outskirts of Kyoto, but we still had a couple things to do before then.
This time, Fiveran bakery was open. And it had amazing pastries. We were given what looked like tickets for our lattes. But then nothing happened. We waited. And waited. Turns out you need to give the tickets to the back server to make the coffee.
Directly after this, we went to Kawai Kanjiro’s House. He was a ceramist and woodworker. I had no idea who he was but Kati insisted. I soon learned his art was incredible. His house even more so.
In the back of the property is this giant walk-in kiln that has multiple levels. I’ve never seen anything like it. The rest of the house had been preserved, complete with furniture and lots of art. Seemed preservation is a thing here. Experiencing Kanjiro’s house and learning about his life was a special highlight of the trip.
Next we made the long hike back up to Kiyomizu-dera temple. This time it was thankfully open. It was, however, pouring rain. And packed with tourists. You must take your shoes off repeatedly (on our next trip to Japan I swear I will only wear slip ons) and I remember thinking how ridiculous all the shoes were. Someone could swipe your shoes at any moment! But this being Japan, that wasn’t a thing.
Afterwards we sat down at Kagizen Yoshifusa Head Shop to eat cold noodles with brown sugar sauce. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is. While highly recommended to anyone who visits Kyoto, it’s also clear these noodles are not for everyone. I’m glad I tried but I would never eat again. The locals really seemed to like it.
Back at the hotel, a cab was called and seemed to materialize instantly. Time management here never ceases to amaze me. The host held the umbrella for Kati as she went from hotel to cab. After we were all packed in, she told me that “was the first time someone has held an umbrella for me leaving a hotel!” Which is kinda cute but also makes me think we’re staying at the wrong hotels.
The drive took about 40 minutes. The ryokan was way up in the mountainous region around Kyoto, twisting and turning around narrow roads. By the way our driver was constantly worrying over his GPS, it was clear he had never been up in this area before.
Suddenly he stopped and there was a man outside holding an umbrella. I opened the door and he gave me a paper with a list of names. I pointed at mine and he crossed it off the list. Then he and another man grabbed all our luggage and led us across a footbridge over a gushing river to the ryokan on the other side.
“What room would you like?” I wasn’t expecting this question. You could choose your room? The place must not have been busy. It did seem empty. This was not tourist season, after all. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this ryokan, considering I had never been in a ryokan before. I looked at Kati. We both shrugged. The man said something in Japanese and we were led inside to the main building.
Once inside, we each were given slippers and led to our room by a kindly woman who would act as our attendant for the night. The interior of this place was traditional with sliding doors and tatami mat flooring. There was no check-in process. I was so confused.
The attendant explained when dinner would be served in our room and the rules of the house and bath. Furthermore, now that we are here, we should wear the yukata provided. It’s basically a kimono but lighter. Many pictures were taken.
We tried the communal bath first. By the way, nothing in Japan is co-ed. Kati had to go to the women’s side, and I to the men’s. But when I got there I was surprised. It was tiny, like a slightly larger-than-usual hot tub. And there was a system of washing your feet and body before you entered the bath.
Coming from the Hungarian bath system, which is several jumps in magnitude larger than whatever this was, I was trying to figure it all out. Also, no one else was in the room. So I read the instructions (or rather studied the drawings explaining what the fuck you’re supposed to do) and did my best.
I was soaking in the tub in no time, but it didn’t last long. Something didn’t feel right. It was so empty. And I didn’t want anyone else to come in and watch me try to figure out the exit wash process. Which I knew there was because I had seen the detailed pictures.
So I began the exit process, washing myself at the station next to the tub, and while I rinsed my hair a voice rang out, “HEY!” I think I jumped three feet in the air. But it was just my wife, Kati, telling me she was also alone and bored and why don’t we use our own personal tub in our room?
Which is what we did. The tub was ceramic and sat on the deck looking out to the river. Kinda felt like you were the tea in a giant teacup. As the rain fell, it was a magical experience.
Then it was time for our kaiseki meal. Our attendant brought in the entire spread, broken up by a couple waves of dishes. It was exquisite, much better than our earlier kaiseki meal. By the time it was over, we just rolled onto the floor, stuffed.
Our attendant and another woman came in to set up our beds, pulling out futon mattresses from a seemingly hidden closet and laying covers down.
We went out for one last soak and then crashed with Japanese television playing.
Friday, Oct 25, 2019
We woke up and got straight into the tub. Breakfast was at 8:45 am and I knew we would have limited time to enjoy our private bath. I highly recommend staying two nights instead of one so you can explore the area. I feel like it was a missed opportunity. Next time.
Breakfast was served upstairs. It was the same type of kaiseki meal, except breakfast. It was very good and I left stuffed as usual.
One last quick soak and then got on the shuttle bus back to Kyoto proper. It was so packed that I was surprised when they stopped and managed to find room for another couple at a different hotel. It dumped us all off at a JR station (metro) and we went to Kyoto Station and jumped on a Shinkansen going back to Tokyo.
Kati and I would later agree Kyoto was the best part of the trip. Tokyo is like a dopamine bomb straight into your veins. Which sure, is a fucking blast. But in Kyoto you can actually slow down and enjoy the experience. Life runs slower there. Definitely more our speed.
Anyway, we still hadn’t seen Mt. Fuji. And according to our map it should have been right next to the Shinkansen tracks. But nope. Too rainy and cloudy. Just villages and cities whipping past at terrifying speeds.
We arrived back in Tokyo in a proper rainstorm. This made things difficult because I had to find our way to the Airbnb (remember I had the map), and it was in a new area and dragging baggage behind you while trying to keep your phone dry from the rain and checking the map…it was all a bit much. But we found it after some false starts.
The airbnb was a tiny apartment located on the ninth floor with a balcony and an epic view. This is probably what most Japanese are used to.
We entered via keyless entry and found wet towels and sheets hanging from the ceiling. Before we could really come to terms with this fact, the cleaner came back and asked if he could fold everything. To which we promptly left him to do his business and get to where we needed to go.
Which was really nowhere. We had reservations for 8 pm at Narukiyo Izakaya with a couple hours to kill. We thought a coffee would do nicely and searched around our new neighborhood (Otsuka) for something hip.
There was nothing hip. Or there might have been, but our first choice was closed. The next was a super retro cafe called Roa-ru. It was on the second floor and looked like it had not changed since the 60’s.
The proprietor was an ancient woman sitting behind the bar. She smiled and bowed to us as we entered. There were a group of old ladies sitting at a table nearby. They stopped their discussion and stared. The place stank of old cigarette smoke and stale coffee. It was perfect.
The menu was Japanese only, of course. We fired up Google Translate and checked the Kanji lettering for “coffee.” We found it almost immediately on the menu but it was grouped with other kanji. Even “coffee with milk” was not translated exactly on the menu.
So by the time the proprietor came up and asked us for our order, we pointed at the Google Translate text, which she then pointed to the menu, and I’ve got to say it was not the same thing.
We were also hungry and tried asking for sandwiches, which sort of worked with the app. But then she kept saying something that sounded like “toast” but we couldn’t be sure. A few minutes later she brought us toast. And it was delicious.
We still had some time so we jumped on a metro to Shibuya and walked around. At 7 pm we found a little bar called Alcool across the street from Narukiyo. It is amazing how drunk you can get in just one hour. But that actually worked in our favor when we got to the restaurant.
Narukiyo Izakaya is downstairs with a bar built around the kitchen to the left and a more traditional sit-down area to the right. It was packed when we arrived, and since we already had a reservation, we were waved all the way to the far corner of the bar. This was a perfect viewpoint for the entire restaurant, but it didn’t really matter. Smoke hung thick in the air.
We quickly learned there was no English menu and no one on the staff spoke English. For a second we were at a loss. Especially because literally everyone at the bar was foreigners speaking English with food in front of them. How the hell did they order?
The guy sitting next to Kati spoke up. “You need help with ordering? I speak fluent Japanese.” What, did the big wide eyes give it away? He seemed like a regular and ordered a bunch of stuff for us.
It was one of those Fun Nights. The food was sublime and we had a front row seat to watch it made. The cooks were a tight knit machine, producing dishes that I still think about. And the language and heat and smells and smoke coupled with liters of beer and sake. It’s hard to beat a night like that.
Meanwhile, we got to talking to our Japanese-speaking friend about living in Japan. He was surprisingly honest about what it was like. He told us you absolutely must speak the language in order to get by. Once you learn enough, it’s very doable. But there was also blatant racism against non-Japanese people. No matter how much you assimilate (learning the language, marrying a Japanese girl, etc etc), you will hit a wall because you’re just not Japanese. And that is everything in this country.
I thought back to the signs hanging outside of certain bars. MEMBERS ONLY! NO ENGLISH MENU INSIDE! So that’s what that was.
And then those Americans who were refused from entering that restaurant on one of our first nights here. Yeah, the place Brian recommended. It all seemed to click. And this guy clearly knew what he was talking about. His mother was Japanese but father was not. So he dealt with this racism every day.
At some point we had finished and I paid north of two hundred dollars and we went stumbling towards the nearest metro station. The ride home was uneventful, but then, we were in a state of stuffed foodie drunken bliss.
Saturday, Oct 26, 2019
It’s the morning and Kati is asleep. I still don’t really know the Otsuka area but I can find my way back to the metro station from the apartment. I know there must be a Starbucks around and there is. There always is in Tokyo.
I buy lattes to go and find a cheap bakery and buy terrible-looking croissants. I’ve eaten so well this trip that I figure eating bad might actually be good. It isn’t, but that’s fine.
I come back to the apartment and Kati is still asleep, so I sit on the balcony and drink my latte and watch a construction crew add a top level to an apartment block.
Our plan today is to explore Ueno Onshi Park. Museums and greenery await. Kati finally gets up and we do the morning routine, finally getting out of the apartment at some point.
I’ve found a highly rated breakfast spot called Kayaba Coffee on Google Maps nearby the park, so we jump on the metro and get off at Nippori.
We start walking and quickly find this area is quite nice. There are a bunch of little shops (all closed at the moment) and a sculpture museum that Kati demands we double-back and explore later.
We finally get to Kayaba and they have the best damn egg sandwiches I’ve ever had. I order a pumpkin spiced latte. It has actual chunks of pumpkin in it. I am seriously considering a second egg sandwich but we’ve got shit to see.
We start back towards the museum but stop at a shrine. Kati has a moment of confusion. “Do I have film in my camera?” Her Canon AE-1 does not have a window on the back (seems like a design oversight) and it takes a couple minutes of heeing and hawing before she gets the nerve to open the back. No film. Phew.
As we continue, all the little shops open up. We enter one with a bunch of leather products and a little old man tells us he loves this area, Yanaka. Ahh, so that is where we are. I make a mental note. Yanaka is just cool.
The Asakura Museum of Sculpture is the former home and studio of master sculptor Fumio Asakura. We enter and three different people ask Kati not to take photos. Every time it happens she looks more and more flustered. Finally she puts her camera away.
The house has a ton of Asakura’s work inside. On the roof is one piece called “The Sunbather.” It is a naked woman. We learn that it caused a huge uproar in the neighborhood when Asakura placed it on the roof.
Back outside, I check the map and there’s a shopping street nearby. We wander that way, still no nearer to the park. There are tourists here but nothing so bad as Shinjuku or even the lesser hotspots. It’s manageable.
We’re looking for a Shigaraki tanuki statue, the Japanese trickster god that looks like a raccoon with enormous balls. Yes, testicles. We’ve seen them all over Japan. Supposedly, it’s a good luck charm. We stop in shop after shop, searching for that big balled charm. There are a lot of cheap options out there, but nothing looked right for our apartment.
So we moved on and stopped for another latte at the hip coffee shop CIBI. It could have been airlifted from San Francisco or Santa Monica and dropped onto Yanaka. Kati and I kept saying we could never find a hip coffee shop when we’re actually looking.
At this point, it’s late afternoon and we need to get to the park. This is getting ridiculous. We finally arrive and go to the Ueno Toshogu Shrine. It’s covered in gold foil. Which is all great and good, but we really gotta pee. That coffee caught up with us.
The attendant informs us there is no bathroom in the shrine so we go back out to the park. Which just so happens to have a huge fair going on. We find the bathroom and come back to the shrine and pay to enter. There, inside, is a bathroom. Sigh…
It was a detailed shrine built in the 17th century. It had two dragons at the front gate. According to lore, those two dragons come to life and drink in the nearby lake. I take a bunch of pictures, wondering how I can use this in a script.
We go back into the park and peruse the fair but it’s all cheap trinkets or knives or pottery. There’s food too, so we get corn on the cob and meat skewers. They really know how to cook those skewers.
After people watching for what seemed like too long, we started out of the park. It was getting dark and we realized the museums were no longer an option. But we still could make it to Dentsdelion, the Japanese antique place we had checked earlier in the trip. I kept thinking about that map of Japan. Did I need it? No, of course not. Did I want it? That was the 50,000 yen question.
The French proprietor was gone, but his Japanese wife greeted us. She wasn’t as talkative. I showed her a picture of a tanuki and she laughed, then showed us the two options she had. One was a beautiful small wooden piece. It cost 150,000 yen. Nearly 1,500 dollars. So that’s a big no, then.
We left with the map secured in my bag and it immediately started to rain.
This was one of those points that we had nowhere to go, so I checked the map for things we had not yet seen nearby. Nothing really presented itself besides a soba place called Kanda Yabusoba. It was highly recommended by one of Kati’s colleagues. It was fine.
We walked towards Akihabara (known for the Electric Town) and found a great little congregation of shops called Maach Ecute. Technically it’s a shopping mall, but the shops are interconnected and built into what is probably an old subway platform. It’s fantastically designed and has a bunch of cool shit in it.
We make our way to Akihabara Electric Town and Kati runs smack into this dude. His look of absolute shock that this white girl ran into him with her boobs is probably one of my all time favorite moments from the trip.
I buy some clothes at Uniqlo because I’ve run out of clean underwear. This is the first and only time I’ve ever done this. I know there is a washer in the airbnb but I’m too tired (and a little afraid) to figure it out. We jump on the metro and pick up some sake at the local 7-11 and make our way back.
Sunday, Oct 27, 2019
I do my daily Starbucks run in the morning. On the way back I found a tanuki statue around the corner from our airbnb. This made me happy.
We started our day at the Former Asakura Residence. It is one of the only structures in Tokyo to survive the devastating earthquake in 1923 or the American bombing in 1945. It’s quite a large house in a serene environment, right smack in the middle of the city.
There was nothing in the rooms, no art, nothing like what we had seen previously in other former residences. But it was still impressive.
I had done some research a while before we arrived in Japan and found they had a strong flea market culture on the weekends, so we trekked across town to one of the biggest at ARK Hills.
There were a ton of vendors with all sorts of stuff. I bought earrings for Mom as a keepsake from Japan. Though they were actually from Belgium, but whatever.
I waited in line for at least 30 minutes at a food truck called Camelback. They served lattes and banh mis. They stopped taking orders because they needed to slow down and get everything made. While the food was really good, I wondered how a truck like that would survive in the US. It wouldn’t.
Next on the list was 2121 Design Sight, a museum and design space with revolving expositions. This one was all about insects and how they are designed. It was super informative and really well organized.
The main dude who set the exhibit up had a quote, something like: “The more you magnify how insects are made, the more it makes no sense.” There was something about that that struck me. Eye-opening but also just strange. The more you look at nature, the more unsure it makes you.
Nezu Museum was next on our list. We walked through little streets to get there. We passed a US Army base. We passed a lot of things.
Nezu was not as impressive. The design was nice, but it came off as cold. The exhibitions were also not great. If we had flipped our day and started there and then went to 2121, I may have had a different experience. But how it stood, it just wasn’t that interesting.
We stopped by the Eyevan glasses store and picked up some shades, another keepsake from our trip (not that I needed another purchase at that point). What next? Should we eat? We checked our list.
Gyukatsu Motomura in Shibuya. It was off the beaten path and took a moment to find. Being in the basement didn’t help. Thick with smoke, we were led into a narrow space and sat at the very back. It was basically a bar, but for food.
I knew it was a meat place but I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out they hand you raw meat and you cook it yourself on a small stove in front of you. It’s not my favorite. But we were starving. And ordered the biggest thing we could, which of course was too much.
It’s also difficult to be sure it’s all the way cooked. You hope it is, and you still eat it, but there’s always a chance that it just isn’t. We left smelling of smoke, heavier with food than ever before.
The only thing nearby on our list was a bar: Whiskey Library. It was big, huge compared to the other bars on our list. I didn’t feel like spending too much after my Eyevan drop literally an hour before so we kept it to two drinks.
I don’t know what was in one, but it had an ice cube with an LED light inside, so it made the drink glow. It reminded me of the Tesseract in the Marvel Avengers films. Very strange and yet quite soothing.
Finally we started home. It was still early, but I could feel the inevitable: travel fatigue had set in.
Monday, Oct 28, 2019
Our last full day in Tokyo.
We’d run out of things to do, or rather running out of things in one district to do. Now there were a bunch of places far apart from each other that we needed to decide upon.
The first on the list was Hozomon Gate, a huge Buddhist temple. Since it was a Monday, surely it would be empty of tourists.
It was packed.
I got over it pretty quick, though Kati was busy taking photos. We had to be careful because it’s easy to lose each other in the crowd.
Nearby was the Skytree, the tallest structure in Tokyo. It was always something we talked about, like, sure if we’re nearby and we don’t have anything else to do, then yeah I can see us going up. Turns out, that was exactly the situation we were in.
So we bought stupid expensive tickets and boarded an elevator that jumped 44 floors straight up and walked around, taking photos of the views.
Mount Fuji was just visible, or rather the outline of it. I’m going to say I saw Mount Fuji, but really it was the outline, and really it might have all just been in my head. Either way, I definitely saw Mount Fuji.
In the upper viewing deck (I can’t remember what floor we were on at that point), there is a glass floor you can walk across. It freaked me out. Kids loved it, trying desperately to stomp and jump and break it. There is clearly something wrong with children.
We came back down the elevators and browsed the shopping center at the bottom of Skytree. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Japan does shopping centers right. And really, 95% of that is just nailing the bathrooms. But that’s just me.
Later we jumped on a metro back to Maach Ecute. It was at least our third or fourth time back there. Kati had decided she needed to buy matching jewelry with what she already had. We ate at a fried chicken restaurant in the same underground complex as Maach Ecute. It was simple but delicious.
The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was nearby (everything is nearby relative to the metro). The last time we had tried, it was closed. So we made our way over, sure that it would be open.
It was closed.
We sat on the curb with the other sad sacks hoping it’d be open and ate some cookies we bought up the street. A man from somewhere I couldn’t quite catch commented on Kati’s Canon AE-1, saying he had the same many years ago.
Our plans shot once again, Kati realized she still had a couple postcards she needed to send to her Dad and her office (something of a tradition for her). We had seen a post office on the way and it had been empty when we passed.
When we arrived it was packed. This was happening a lot. But it was also nearly 5 pm, and people were leaving work for home. Prime time to send out that mail.
We were the only foreigners in the place. We walked in and didn’t quite know what to do until a nice Japanese man explained (not in our language) that we needed to take a number. So we took a number. After 15 minutes, the numbers had steadily gone up, but we were still quite far from our goal.
Suddenly, a man came up, took my hand, looked at my number, took the paper from my hand and gave me his number, which was much closer to the front of the queue. He bowed and I blinked stupidly and he was gone.
That was one of the best instances of how weirdly efficient the Japanese can be. They will do anything to be more efficient. I assume the man had somewhere to be and instead of throwing his ticket away, he gave us his. I think? We never could quite figure it out. But Kati got her postcards out and that’s all that matters.
After the post office, we boarded yet another metro for Shimokitizawa, supposedly a very cool vintage shopping area with very old-Tokyo vibes.
And very cool it was. The first shop we wandered into I found a pair of old Levi’s jeans that still had the original tags. Kati asked, “Do you need another pair of jeans?” I told her you can “never have enough pairs of jeans” and she rolled her eyes and walked away. It had been a long trip.
We went store to store. It was a really cool area. Whenever we get back to Tokyo, I want to go there first next time. Live and learn.
I was standing outside one shop, waiting for Kati, and an old woman came up to me. At first I thought I was standing in her way, or she wanted me to move, or something of the sort. But then she asked me in broken English, “Do you know Jesus?”
Jehovah’s Witnesses always seem to find me. I don’t know what it is. But even on a random street in Tokyo. They found me.
I tried to graciously pull out of the conversation. But that’s difficult when you don’t speak the language and yet want to keep the other person happy, which is completely normal in Japan.
She gave me her card and then took out an iPad and proceeded to try and play audio clips in English. One worked. It was someone reading from the Bible. I think. It was very religious and I was starting to sweat, worried I would never be able to shake this little old sweet lady trying to convert me to join her.
The next audio file didn’t play. As she was troubleshooting, Kati came out and joined, curious about what was happening. She quickly got it, laughing under her breath. The old lady read the room and (I assume) thanked me for my time and waddled up the street, off to find the next victim.
It was getting late and we hadn’t eaten dinner. There was a ramen spot on our list that seemed close, so we got on a metro and walked the rest of the way.
As usual, you ordered at a vending machine and gave it to the “server.” If that’s what you’d call the man. He was nice regardless, and helped us with the machine.
Later, on the metro, I watched a Japanese dude in an ill-fitting business suit opposite us fall asleep. You see a lot of people falling asleep, just nodding off on the metro. It is totally bizarre.
This particular guy had been watching something on his phone. As his chin slowly hit his chest, his grip loosened and the phone slammed to the floor.
This woke the man. He picked up his phone and checked it. Then he looked at me.
I don’t know why I laughed. It felt wrong. That much I knew. Perhaps the physical rigors of the trip had dulled my emotional intelligence. Which might have been okay. Except I didn’t stop. I had the chuckle fits.
Kati was horrified, whispering under her breath, “Shut up!” But I couldn’t stop.
The man glared until we got off.
Tuesday, Oct 29, 2019
It was raining when we got up. Our last day too, so that made sense. No point in good weather.
We dragged our packed bags to the metro station and went down to Shinigawa Station. The idea was to drop off our bags in the luggage lockers and jump out from there for one last jaunt in Tokyo.
We did that, but the rain sucked. So it was back to Shinigawa. We got some food at the station (there is excellent food at the metro stations) and talked about how we would move to Japan if we ever got the chance.
Tokyo is hypnotic in a strange way. When you’re there everything makes so much sense. Kyoto has it too, but in a much calmer way. That being said, there is a lot working against you, if you really are serious about immigration.
Kati and I decided to table the discussion for a couple years, but I think we both were excited by the prospect. It made sense.
Then we got on the metro and rode it to Haneda Airport and streamed through security and bought a bunch of sake and sweets for our colleagues back at home.
I was ready to go. It had been a long trip and a lot of money, but mostly I just wanted to settle back into my life. I love to travel, and I loved Tokyo, but it was so much in such a short amount of time that I needed a period of calm.
The flight was long. Eleven hours long. Back at SFO, we had to stand for over an hour in customs. After the streamlined ease of Tokyo’s everything, it was a cultural shock. It made us want to go back even more.
I already missed the bathrooms.
October 26, 2020