Saturday, December 15, 2012

Asia Adventure Part II: Four Days in Tokyo

In 2006, after landing briefly in Hawaii enroute to Sydney, I swore that I'd never again book flights without extensively researching layovers first.

So when it came time to book our tickets to Bangkok, I was prepared; I already knew that the flight stopped in Tokyo and this time, I would be stopping with it.

I was not prepared, however, for the unexpected eight-hour layover in Chicago.

By the time I got to Tokyo, I was so exhausted that I couldn't figure out how to flush the toilet. I was too tired to even enjoy the prospect of "cleansing the buttocks with warm water." (Don't worry--when I returned to the Tokyo airport later in the week, I took full advantage of all the toilet's functions.) 

Mike had flown from Victoria to meet me in Tokyo. After spending hours in the airport waiting for my delayed flight, he was likewise exhausted. So it should come as little surprise that after a solid hour of wandering the streets of Asakusa looking for our hostel (you heard it here first: we got lost), we were starving.

Luckily, there were a ton of restaurants in the neighbourhood and I was feeling fairly confident that all my problems in life were solved--until we realized that we were in Japan, where menus are written in Japanese. (I couldn't even flush a toilet. How was I going to order food?)

Lesson learned? Don't stay out until 2:00 am the night before you have to catch a 7:00 am flight to Asia. (Uh, yeah. We both did that. Oops.)

Day 1: In which I'm reunited with Saki after 10 years (and willingly consume octopus).

Still jet-lagged, the prospect of trying to eat out again was daunting, so Mike and I headed to the grocery store, which would become our go-to food venue for the next five days.

Breakfast of champions: a pancake-like pastry stuffed with sweet bean paste, yogurt, bananas, coffee and, of course, rice.

After our hostel breakfast, I discovered what would become my main source of sustenance in Tokyo--canned coffee from one of the vending machines that are conveniently located every five steps. (I have no idea why you can't purchase cold, black canned coffee from vending machines in North America, but this should probably be remedied, stat.) 

Once I was sufficiently over-caffienated, we headed over to the Sensō-ji temple.

We each paid about 100 Yen to read our o-mikuji fortunes. After shaking a box of sticks, we retrieved one and then found the corresponding number on these drawers, from which we got our fortunes.

This was mine. (Not to brag or anything, but Mike only got "regular fortune.")

Since it was Taiiku No Hi (Health and Sports Day), the temple was packed, so we didn't stay long.

Instead, we wandered around for a bit before heading back to the hostel to meet Saki and her boyfriend Jun.

I hadn't seen Saki since 2002, which is when she was an exchange student in Cold Lake. We've kept in touch through the years and when I booked my layover in Tokyo, I was thrilled to discover that I'd actually be able to take her up on her invitation to visit.

First up, we headed to Shibuya, before walking to Harajuku. We stopped for a snack of takoyaki, which are essentially fried octopus balls. (After less than 24 hours in Japan, it was becoming quickly apparent that as a non-seafood consuming vegetarian, I was going to starve unless I made some concessions. Saki confirmed my suspicions when I told her that I don't eat fish or meat and she responded by just laughing.)

Next up, we went to take purikura pictures. Although Tokyo had seemed relatively tame until that moment, the photo club was insane. To quote Mike: "This is exactly what I thought Japan would be like."

It was amazing.

The best part of an already amazing day was when Saki and Jun took us out for dinner near the fish market. Best hosts ever.

Thank you Saki for showing us an amazing time!

Day 2: In which we attempted to all the "craziest things in Tokyo"and failed miserably.

The next morning, along with our roommate Blake, we got up at 3:30 am to catch a taxi to the Tsukiji fish market, which is the largest fish market in the world. Unfortunately, when we arrived around 4:20 am, we were already too late to snap up one of the 140 tickets to watch the morning tuna auction. 

Fun fact: There's nothing worse than getting up in the middle of the night to go look at dead fish, only to be told that you're not allowed to go look at the dead fish.



The friendly guards had explained to us (providing us with a map, no less), exactly where we would be able to find the tuna auction. So we walked back and looked through the window.

We probably didn't get kicked out until about 30 minutes later.

And by that time, the restaurants had just started to open, so Mike treated himself to some sushi at 5:30 am.

We spent the rest of the day on a quest to do "crazy" things in Tokyo, and this is the only photo I have.

No, seriously.

Here's the thing about Tokyo: all of our pop culture reference points for Japan are about 10 to 20 years old. At this point, Tokyo is no longer the hyper-futurisitic city that we've mythologized it to be; globalization has taken care of that for us.

Sure, cat cafes are kind of weird, I guess. Likewise, the sexualization of "cuteness" creeps me out. And pachinko is indisputably strange. But everything else in between? Let's just say that we spent an entire afternoon seeking out weird activities and somehow ended up at the arcade, where I played Street Fighter II and the boys used the batting cages.

To me, the weirdest thing about Tokyo was the fact that although it's the world's largest city (by nearly every classification system except the city's proper political boundaries) is how clean and safe it was.

Day 3: In which I made everyone go look at parasites.

The next day we went to the parasite museum with Michelle, a freelance journalist who was also staying at our hostel, and Blake. This is us posing as parasites.

These are actual parasites.

These are photos of pretty much the best day of my life, but I'll spare you the other 20 pictures of parasites because I'm aware that not everyone's into that. (My co-travelers certainly weren't and spent the rest of the day cursing me.) 

This picture, in a nutshell, captures our time in Tokyo: staring blankly at the subway map, while someone attempts to decipher it further through use of a smartphone.

After successfully getting back on the subway, we ended up back in Harajuku, where we went to the Meiji Shrine

I really liked the prayer options that were available to me, specifically "traffic safety" and "entrance examination success."

After a full day, we walked back to our hostel through the temple grounds.

Day 4: Sayonara Japan!

It wasn't until our last day in Tokyo in that I discovered udon, in all its vegetarian, fish-free splendour.

But it didn't matter, because next up was Thailand, where I planned to eat all my feelings. All of them.

Next up: Asia Adventure Part 3: Thailand.

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