I’ve long had a fascination with Japan. My very first tape recorder was from there, as was my first transistor radio. So what? No, for a boy in the early 1960’s obsessed with music and sound, the fact that these amazing devices had “Made in Japan” stamped on them gave me the beginnings of a romantic notion that Japan must be a place of wonder. My father (before I was born) had been stationed there as a member of the US Air Force, and 2 mementos he brought home were long a part of our household. One was an elegant Geisha doll in a wooden box, with a selection of wigs each in it’s own compartment. The other was a satin bomber-style jacket embroidered with the words “Takusan Stinko” and images of fuzzy dice and martini glasses and such, which all of us kids donned as we each became teenagers.
My wonderful roommate in my first year in college was Japanese-American, and he taught me Japanese songs (Sakura), some history (his parents were in internment camps), and some culture. The novel “Shogun” came out, and Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures”, and I was so inspired by their portrayal of Japan that I took classes in Japanese history at UC Berkeley. I saw Kurosawa films at the Pacific Film Archive, my first girlfriend after college played the Shakuhaki and studied Aikido. I was happily surrounded by Japanese influences.
But it wasn’t until our son got on a Korean/Japanese TV craze this past year, and then started campaigning for us to travel East, that we made a family decision to cross the Pacific. I finally got to see Japan. Thanks to him, a longstanding dream came true. And, it was dreamy…
Sunday, April 10 – Tokyo
Fresh off the plane, on the balcony of our Airbnb on the river at dusk.
Our apartment building as seen from the river…
We walked along the river in warm, beautiful shirtsleeves weather to the famous Tsukiji fish market, where trucks full of seafood bustled in and out.
Around the market are many small alleys, and some really really tiny alleys, all filled with various restaurants.
The door to this one, hobbit sized and down a hobbit-sized walkway, intrigued us mightily. A very cool maitre’d with a Portland/Brooklyn/Oakland vibe (only Japanese) came out to greet us. It was only $120/per person. I was ready to go for it, but Marcella, knowing that we were jet lagged and knowing that my mind was not working at full capacity, wisely steered us to a more affordable yet still charming place for our evening meal.
We did indeed enjoy Japanese vending machine culture! Vending machines are everywhere, including 2 or 3 in every quiet residential alley (apparently there is zero vandalism in Japan). Most are for cold and hot drinks, but some have snacks and food as well.
Monday, April 11
Our apartment building, the white one on the right, on a bend in the river…
There was a trio of spider-men scaling the building next door every day. Not just window washers, they each had a pole, like a selfie stick, and they were tapping each and every one of the 2×6 inch tiles on the building, listening. When they found one that didn’t sound right, they took out their clipboards and noted where it was, apparently so they could come back and repair it. Attention to detail!
The garbage trucks here are TINY. And garbage/recycling is very intense. The plastic caps to plastic bottles go in a different bin than the bottles themselves, and it goes on and on like that. And, there are virtually NO trashcans on the streets of Tokyo. After the Sarin gas terrorist attack back in the 90’s, Tokyo got rid of all trash receptacles, leaving nowhere for terrorists to leave terrible things. If you’ve got a wrapper or a bottle you want to get rid of, give it to someone at a store. And, everyone does – Tokyo is amazingly clean and litter-free. FYI – after a windy night, we woke to see some plastic bags and stuff in the river. No problem. The river trash boat comes along every morning, and guys with long poles clean up any trash that accumulated over night..
We did see a couple of major tourist sites, like the above temple. They were crowded, kind of cool, but really we most enjoyed just wandering in neighborhoods and finding things on our own.
From the temple, we could see the SkyTree about a mile away, beckoning to us. It’s the tallest tower in the world, with the most expensive tickets in the world to ride the smoothest elevator in the world to see the most amazing city in the world. We paid the money, enjoyed the view. It was fun.
On the way to the SkyTree we passed this weird-ass building. The Asahi building, designed by Philippe Starke. Inside is a restaurant with a towering ceiling, and some offices hidden away on the upper floors. Atop is what’s called, locally, “the golden turd”, but what was intended by Mr. Starke to be a golden flame.
After an a-mazing meal of freshly made Udon noodles (the muscled guy at the front of the restaurant is constantly kneading and cutting them), where you order according to how thick you want the noodles (we chose super-thick, they were super-yummy), we went to bed.
Tuesday, April 12
We woke and dawdled in a neighborhood cafe, where a dog and her Japanese owner were dining as well. She spoke excellent English (a rarity here) and filled us in on various things we’d been wondering about. We loved petting her dog, too.
Then we ventured to yet another fantastic restaurant, super hip and locavore and all that, meeting up with our good friend Mariko (above). She used to work for Marcella at her store in San Francisco.
After lunch we headed to a bunny/hedgehog cafe. For $10, you get to hold a bunny or hedgehog on your lap for 30 minutes. They were supposed to serve tea or something, but they never did, we never cared. Holding these animals was da bomb…
After the animal petting party, Mariko took us to Shibuya, where the humanity, the crushing humanity, was awe-inspiring. Makes Times Square look like a village green. So crowded, so bustling, it takes your breath away. And, while things move fast here in Tokyo, nobody pushes or shoves, there’s a gentleness that makes it all bearable.
After a tour of Mariko’s favorite store, Tokyu Hands (a cross between Ace Hardware, Office Depot, The Nature Company, Starbucks and Bed, Bath and Beyond) we headed off to see the Yakult Swallows take on the Yomuri Giants at Jingu Stadium. The way they enjoy their baseball here tickled us no end! We had some yakitori snacks at the game, but were still hungry by the time we got back to our home neighborhood, so we wandered into a smoky yakitori restaurant. No menu in English, no pictures of the food, so we just nodded and indicated we needed food. They brought so many things, only a few of which we had any idea what they were, but some of them were off-the-charts delicious. Another fine meal in Japan! Then to bed, for in the morning we were off to Kanazawa…
Wednesday, April 13
Here are a couple of Japan’s famed bullet trains, the Shinkansen. They are fast, comfortable, and just plain wow. Kanazawa is about 350 miles from Tokyo, and it took just 2.5 hours to get there, up through the snow-covered mountains of Nagano and back down to the West Coast of Japan. Why, oh why, don’t we have trains like these? A trip to LA from San Francisco would take just a little over 2 hours, and would be comfortable, beautiful, even fun. There’s no TSA, you just go to the train station and get on the train and go. Truly civilized.
We caught the train at the world’s largest train station, Tokyo Station. We walked over a mile with our suitcases to get to our ticket counter. It being another 1/2 mile to our train platform, we weren’t going to be able to make the next train, and would have to wait an hour for the next one. Meanwhile, we went to a line of tiny restaurants located under the train tracks, and had a decent lunch for a handful of change before going back to catch our train.
Keep your keyboard noises down, please. Truly civilized!
On the train, I sat next to guy who was reading a baseball newspaper, while I had the A’s game on my ipad. We got to gesticulating and nodding, and he got me to understand that Oakland’s former manager, Ken Macha, had played for his team, the Chunichi dragons, for 4 years. I reminded him that Hideki Matsui had played for us, and that we’d signed Hiroyuki Nakajima from the Seibu Lions. We smiled and nodded more throughout the trip.
View from the train…
In Kanazawa we know what it feels like to be royalty… It had started raining on the taxi ride from Kanazawa Station, and when we arrived at our hotel, the Sai No Niwa, they bowed, and then handed each of us an umbrella. We walked the 20 paces to the front door, crossing a japanese garden with a bridge over the local creek. At the front door, more bowing people took our umbrellas from us. Before we could get to the registration desk, they asked us to please sit and relax, while they took our coats, and our luggage was whisked away. They brought the check-in paperwork to our couch, and thanked us profusely for staying with them. Then they graciously showed us up to our room, showed us where to store our shoes, where the pajamas and robes were for each of us, and how the room key goes in a slot by the door (which then turns on the power to the room – when you leave and take the key, all lights are automatically turned off, saving power). We all bowed to each other as they left us to our room. They did not wait with the palms extended, hoping to be greased. No tipping is expected in Japan. This is all just part of their job.
The Sai No Niwa hotel
As night came on, so did the rain, so we took a taxi to Iwashigumi, “Gang of Sardines”. Marcella had researched this place, which is famous for serving nothing but sardines. Yes, I was skeptical – I mean, how long can you keep one simple fish interesting? As it turns out, that fish can go all night long, baby. We ordered a kind of prix-fixe menu of many courses, and added in a few extra things as we went along. Soup with Sardine meatballs, Sardine spring rolls, I forget what it all was, but it was all so delicious.
Even Sardine Bones, deep-fried… So so good!
Thursday, April 14
Our hotel was unbelievably gracious, but it was affordable. At affordable hotels, I’m used to “breakfast included” meaning cold cereal, danish and juice and coffee, so when they reminded us that breakfast was from 7-10, I merely nodded in thanks. We were unsure if we were supposed to wear our pajamas and robes to breakfast, but luckily opted for normal clothing, and we fit in just fine. Imagine the most elaborate buffet at the Ritz-Carlton or some such. That’s what we found on offer. It was amazing in its scope and quality. Granted, their ‘western’ items like omelettes and toast were a bit lacking to our western palettes, but everything that was local – the salads, the fish, the pork, the miso soups, the rice, the rice porridges, the jellies, it went on and on and on and it was spectacular. Mmm-mm.
After breakfast we bought a ‘loop’ bus pass, and got off at the Contemporary Museum. Really nice exhibits, including a wacky swimming pool…
I stumbled climbing the concrete steps in the museum, gave me a little scare, but no real damage done (I thought)…
Outside the museum we found a lovely alleyway and stumbled into a tiny Tempura bar. Yum! Then tumbled up the hill to visit the 400 year old garden…
After the garden, we popped into one of the many many sweet shops we’d been seeing. Basically like a very well-appointed cafe, with the selection of sweets including some western-style parfaits and cakes, but lots of red-bean and mochi unheard-of things. We tried them all!
All sugared up, we meandered up the hill, past this temple which had a charming walkway hung with good-luck charms…
I was charmed yet again by the fencing around this construction site…
We walked the few blocks to the museum of the famed Buddhist writer/philosopher D.T. Suzuki. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, the building and grounds were modest yet stunning.
Beauty was just about everywhere you looked. This was just a view of a creek as we walked along a typical street…
Little temples everywhere…
Getting hungry for dinner, we came across a place that looked good, so we put our shoes into the wooden lockers and were ushered into this ancient, bustling place…
It was like being on an old ship – the sushi bar was 2 steps down from a walkway, you felt all cozy by the time you’d tucked your legs in. This was perhaps the wildest food we’d tried, and we tried some of the wildest things on the menu (pickled tiny squid, a squid-ink salty custard). It wasn’t all great, but it was still exciting. Although Marcella said she was feeling a little queasy…
Friday, April 15
Marcella’s birthday was not quite what she had planned. She ended up making love to a fancy electronic Japanese toilet all night long. By 8 am her body had finished torturing her and she went to sleep until noon. I snuck out and enjoyed the bountiful breakfast again, then took one of the hotel bikes on a journey to get her some feel-good stuff at the pharmacy. Again, the language barrier was tough, but thank heavens for smart phones and their smart translations… I was able to get her some Pedialyte-style drink for hydration and some instant rice porridge in the baby health section 🙂 I read the newspaper in the lounge and just hung out until Q woke and texted me, then took him to a local grocery for more adventures in negotiating buying food (the checkout clerks don’t handle cash, you feed the cash into a machine). Back at the hotel, M was awake, and after some bland yet apparently yummy rice porridge and a bit more rest, she said she wanted to get out into the world again.
We toured the famed old town (too crowded with tourists), grabbed a sandwich, western-style, at a chic hotel, and, because it was a block away, tried the phonograph museum for $2 each.
Phonograph museum? Well, some guy spent his life collecting hundreds, maybe thousands of these machines, and, um, there they were. And they are rather gorgeous and intriguing. One machine in particular looked awesome, a tiny pipe organ and tambourine and bells packed into dresser-sized console, with an elaborate player-piano style cylinder on it. The curator came over and cranked it up for us – big smiles all around!
Then up to the castle – 400 years in the making. It covers many many acres, the stone work is beautiful.
The weather was growing cold and windy. Marcella took us to the ancient-yet-still-active Geisha district by the river. Very quiet and restrained, no sense of anything going on inside, but everything well-cared for an inviting. We even saw 2 very finely dressed Geishas disappear into one of the buildings.
We walked along the chilly river to a noodle place. The food was just okay, but the masks all over the room were exquisite…
The waiter was charming. When the meal was over he helped us into our cab, and as we drove away he came to the wall and waved to us. That just doesn’t seem to happen in the USA 🙂
Saturday, April 16
Marcella got up early to enjoy the hotel’s luxurious Onsen (baths). I began my morning stretches, intending to join her shortly, when – Twang! My lower back went out. It had been slightly tender since tripping on the stairs 2 days before, but I’d hoped it would work itself out. No. I couldn’t move. By 11am I’d made it to a standing position, and they gave us an extra hour to check out. The staff came out and bowed and waved to us as I spent 5 minutes getting into the cab 🙂 Bullet Train back to Tokyo, to our new AirBnb, in a rather splashy area near Ikebukuro station. I was able to shuffle slowly at this point, and we went to…
Shinjuku! Not the largest, but the busiest train station in the world. Hectic, but energizing – Saturday night in the busiest place in the biggest city on Earth!
We waited in a long but fast-moving line for yet another great meal, this time at a ramen bar. Yum!
Quinn ordered extra green onions…
Sunday, April 17
Our last day. My back was still excruciating, I was having trouble moving around the apartment, much less Tokyo, so Q and M went out for lunch with Mariko, exploring new areas. By afternoon I wanted fresh air, so I went out and shuffled around the local alleys. Watching my feet very carefully (any false step was painful) I noticed all these cool benchmarks and metalwork embedded in the streets and sidewalks…
Dinnertime, I took a long taxi ride to join Q and M for dinner – but the restaurant was closed! After misadventures, we found a sweet little spot with 6 stools. We were the only ones there. We sat down, ordered, Q went to the restroom. He came back, saying he felt queasy. Soon poor Q was throwing up, and he couldn’t leave the bathroom for nearly 2 hours. Marcella was still feeling unsure in her stomach, so I ate as much as I could of the food we ordered – more sardines!
The owners were very kind and helpful throughout the meal and ordeal. We packed ourselves into a taxi and rushed back to the apartment, and Quinn finally found sleep after a few hours.
Monday, April 18
We thought about postponing our flight home, yes we did. Marcella called the airlines, but found it would cost the equivalent to 4 years of tuition at Stanford, so we made Quinn as comfortable as possible, and Marcella and Quinn wheeled the luggage while I shuffled slowly behind them 🙂 We made the plane, we made it home. My back gets better day by day, and Q and M are back to full blooming health. It was a marvelous, marvelous trip!