Monday, February 26, 2018

Tokyo: First Bloom

This week, incredibly, I am in Japan.  I've never been to Asia (unless you count eastern Turkey, which feels like a technicality), and I get to go with Box for work, plus a few days on either side for myself.  And the great thing about solo travel?  Plenty of opportunities for real-time blogging.

The office is right near Tokyo station, and our hotel (I'm with a couple members of my team) is located in Ginza, the fashionable shopping center of town (the Tiffany's Wedding Shop is on the corner, if that gives you any idea).  

My first couple days here I've been completely on my own, and it's given me a great opportunity to just observe and learn about the Japanese way of life and how things work.  There is a lot to learn.  There have been a lot of firsts.  Expect lessons scattered throughout my posts.

My first order of business was ramen. Ippudo, a spot that just opened in San Francisco in 2017, was a stone's throw from my hotel, so I figured I'd give it a try for comparison's sake. My first sip of broth was yin and yang, making me feel both a burst of excitement and calming comfort simultaneously. One taste was like a flip book animation, and as I thumbed through the ramen, a rapidly changing image appeared on my tongue: first milky, then meaty, then airily light. Layer after layer, the complexities continued to play out. I'm so thrilled I'll be able to find this ramen back in San Francisco (although I'm sure it's more than $10 there).

That evening, fighting off jetlag, I decided to stay close to home and explored the many shopping streets and department stores of Ginza. I'm pretty sure every building actually is a department store. I was amazed at the level of service. Every time I walked by a new brand, the attendants would bow and welcome me. Already feeling a bit exhausted, the bowing really started to take it out of me, but I loved it nonetheless. I bought a piece of costume jewelry in one section, and got my first real taste of the patience, pomp, and penchance for precision of the Japanese people. I took a seat at the counter as the shop keeper delicately tonged my ring, cleaned it, wiped it, boxed it, and artistically tied a bow on top. She reminded me of Mr. Bean in Love Actually without any whiff of facetiousness. She presented me with a plastic folder as a special gift, painstakingly wrote out a receipt and warranty card by hand, and received my payment as if I were the Empress of India (I just watched Victoria and Abdul on the flight over). I'm really learning to take my time and enjoy the process.

My room is larger than anticipated (I read about some hotels where there isn't enough room to open your suitcase!), and as always, having a hotel room to myself feels like the height of luxury.

Saturday morning, I headed to Tsukiji fish market, which is a maze of stalls and shops and tiny restaurants piled on top of one another.  Markets are usually my favorite part of any city-it's where the real buzz is, and since it's a principal food source for the people, it's often the heart. 

Dr. Demento's Fish Heads, anyone?

I weaved in and out, often retracing my steps, I was so consumed with decision paralysis.  Eventually I decided to just start eating, so I commenced with a corn fritter, then scallops on a stick, and finally settled into a sushi stall deep inside one of the structures.  

 I didn't know what most of this was, but it sure was yummy

I had a little time to spare before the show I wanted to see at the Kabuki theater, so I detoured over to the Hama-rikyu Gardens.  The not-cherry but plum blossoms were starting to bloom, and as my Japanese-savvy friend Addi informed me, they're considered one of the Four Gentlemen plants, and represent resilience since they are the first to bloom, despite it still being winter! 

Back at Kabuki, I bought a standing room only ticket to the last act of a four-act play for just $11.  I was shepherded to the fourth floor, and lined up in order of my number.  Thankfully, I ended up being number 89 of 90 available seats!  I don't think I would have lasted standing, as I was already fading. 


Now, here's the thing.  Maybe I was stereotyping or being naive, but I was really hoping to see some samarai fighting.  Or some geishas twirling.  Honestly, any movement at all.  Instead, the entire act (the final act, mind you) was a man and a "woman" (no women are allowed to act at Kabuki, so as in true Shakespearean style, it was a man in drag) kneeling in a simple room talking, with the woman constantly lamenting and occasionally wailing.  For an hour.  Granted, I couldn't understand a word, which would have been helpful for a dialogue-based act, but still, it grew rather grating to listen to this man portray a woman in such an overly-dramatized way.  She was carrying on as if all her children had died (and maybe they did, I don't really know).  I will say that the costumes and sets were very beautiful!  By the end, I unfortunately felt kind of like this guy looks: tired and a little annoyed.

After a jet-lag-induced catnap, that evening I set out for fancy tempura.  I didn’t know luxury tempura-only restaurants existed!  Before my reservation I stopped by this magnetic little restaurant/bar called Zero for some sake and edamame.  I was one of eight people inside, and the photos don't quite do it justice for how much was fit into a very tight space, with one man doing all the bar-tending, cooking, serving, and cleanup himself.

Back at Fukamachi, I settled in between two Chinese couples and prepared myself for the feast.  This place was $150 cash for a 12-course tempura meal (and up from there).

The restaurant was very minimalist and worked like a well-oiled machine, with a father-son duo preparing all the tempura (and working so in sync that they almost never needed to speak to one another), and three women, including the matriarch, serving.  It was a very fun experience during which time I made friends with the people around me and the chef.  One of the tempura was this small vegetable that looked like a brussel sprout with a tiny romanesco broccoli-looking bud on the inside.  It was super bitter and as we bit into it, everyone's faces scrunched up and we laughed.  It's amazing how people can bond over very simple human experiences when language is tenuous. 


The process began to gain a rhythm, as everyone received one tempura piece every 5 minutes or so, as soon as that wave was finished in the fryer.   Everyone in the restaurant was on the same course at the same time.  My highlights were baby bamboo and sea eel but there were several other vegetables, shrimp, and fish as well.

Fava beans

The next day I decided to brave the train system and venture outside of Ginza.  I failed from the start when I loaded up a ticket with $10, hoping it would last me a couple days, and the machine ate my ticket at the end of my first ride.  You have to purchase a ticket for the exact amount of your current ride!  Fool me once. 

Hirajuku neighborhood is such a crash of colors and smells and sounds. On the famed Takeshita Street, full of teen fashion, Disney music is playing. People are eating colorful giant cotton candy at 10am. Everything is pink or purple, usually both. It's amazing.

People there seem to be obsessed with crepes, as I noted at least six creperies along the main street. And Santa Monica! So many stores named after it. Most places felt like a jacked up Claire’s and then of course the main one that made me feel that way turned out to actually be a Claire’s, which gave me a real good laugh.


I think that because Hirajuku style has become so, well, stylized, I hadn't expected it to be quite so prevalent. Entire gaggles of Hirajuku teens would walk by together in knee socks and blocked Mary Janes or platforms, mini skirts, and baby doll sweaters (however you interpret this, it's probably accurate), pom poms or bows in their hair. They must've been shopping for a butterfly patterned lace blouse or a squishy ice cream charm, or maybe a giant rainbow-colored rabbit?

I seriously just walked around with my mouth gaping open, trying to take it all in.

The below store blew my mind.  It looks like a kid's store, right?  Small rocking horse hanging from the ceiling, pink princess tulle lining the table?  WRONG.  There were sparkly shoes with bows (must be worn with ankle socks).  Giant plastic necklaces in the shape of things like unicorns filled with poms and glitter on pastel ribbons.  An endless amount of tiny little lacy sweaters and jumpers with cute animals printed on them.  And the shopkeepers were so nice, treating me like any other customer and offering to show me varieties of ruffled baby pink polka dot mini dresses, while I felt as if I had entered either a cultural museum or a fetish zone instead of a fashion store.  Blew.  My.  Mind.  

I wanted to take more pictures, but the young women in the store were so genuine, and followed me so attentively, I didn't want to offend them. 


The little alleyways with boutique shops between Takeshita (crazy teen land) and Omotesando (upscale tree-lined shopping street) were my favorite.  I stopped here for Japanese risotto at bio ojiyan cafe, where I had a view of the passersby. 

Generally speaking, the rice was good, and I loved the egg and fried chicken on top, but I did struggle to accept the hot dog, seaweed, and stick of sugar bread.  (!?)


Later, at Omotesando, I popped into a few of the department stores, including Tokyo Plaza (mirrored photo below) and, opposite it, Laforet, which is a constantly evolving hub of young, local fashion.  I was completely amazed when I saw Japanese thug style, some denim-drenched goth style; really it ran the gamut and was infinitely entertaining.

Then, I couldn't resist checking out an animal cafe, and went with hedgehog because honestly, I don't recall ever even seeing one in person.  Ethically it felt questionable to be handling these little creatures, but the place seemed kinder than I can imagine some are.  All in all, another weird experience to add to the Japan list.

Baby hedgehogs who are in "resting time" so they grow big and strong!

Next, at Addi my Japan guru's recommendation, I tracked down green tea frozen yogurt which was surprising at first and beloved more and more with each bite.

I continued on to the Meiji Shrine, which itself felt understated, however, the entry gates were awe-striking in size, making me feel very small and unimportant (which was surely the point).  The forest along the path was so lush and peaceful, amazingly nestled amidst all the commercial hubbub of the neighboring districts.  I sense this will be a theme across most shrines!


I got my crash course in temple-ing, first making sure to cleanse my hands and mouth, and then once at the temple, bowing twice, clapping twice, and then making one final bow.  I simply adored the clapping.  It felt to me such an emphatic, joyous way to show devotion.   


Wrapping up the afternoon, I headed to Shibuya to witness the crossing.  The neighborhood itself is best seen at night (and I may return), but the many-way crossing was pretty cool.  The area seems quite calm and empty, and over time every sidewalk starts to fill up until the crossing light turns green and masses of people spill out on the streets, crossing in every possible direction.  It felt like when you're filling a glass with champagne, the liquid initially pouring slowly before suddenly catching up with itself and surging until it overflows.

The girl in yellow's face reflects my Shibuya sentiments exactly

My final meal of the weekend was some prime tonkatsu, or fried pork, at Ginza Bairan back in my neighborhood.  It was delicious, but God can someone please track me down a leafy vegetable?!

Next up: the workweek!

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