Japan 20 - The Bermuda Triangle, Tokyo City.
Ginza district, our last frontier. Think Champs-Élysées avenue in Paris meets Bladerunner. Tomorrow I will make another quick stop in Akihabra to hit the Gundam Model store – I was going to try and convince Daniela to have lunch at the Gundam Café, but I figured that would be pushing it. It looks like I will miss the Bandai Toy Museum – but I did see a small Godzilla exhibit this evening that was titilating enough for a quick fix.
Not sure, but did I mention the kitten cafe? Where you just pay a wad o’Yen and pet pussy for an hour? Daniela was a no on this one too, so all I got to do was peer into the windows like a “Peeping Tom”. We had seen these things on TV and laughed about them – but in real life they seem pretty bizarre and very much not up to health code. The inside of these places somehow resembled daycares, and some even had the tiny teenage maids running around with their high pitched voices touting milk-teas and cat-shaped omelettes. (they love eggs here, almost as much as pork, and don’t be surprised if you get a raw one as a garnish just to make things all a little more slippery going down). I digress… let me get back on track.
Ginza is nice and chic but things are really pricey – think 65.00 for a plastic hair clip. Or a nine-dollar mint tea at Harrod’s café (we didn’t go in). We did a little shopping, including a seven story stationery store, a few department stores and a clothing store called Uniqlo. The streets were wide and spacious and the buildings were high and lit up in very opulent ways. I liked the area but it is a one-visit wonder and we pretty much saw all we needed of Ginza in the one night. But there was one highlight that really made our anniversary tingle.
As I may have mentioned before, or not, Japan is a navigational nightmare. Even the locals seem to get lost and most streets have many permanent maps. But these maps appear not to have a standard or established way of presenting the directions north, south, east or west. So you spend five minutes looking at your map, then back at the street map. You spin your map a few times, look back at the street map, then try to recognize shapes of streets or landmarks, then look around to see if anyone might have come up behind you to help you, then look at each other and think about blaming them for not knowing where we you are, then think about getting in a cab instead of trying to figure it out, but there is a good chance they won’t know either, then turn on your GPS and watch your google maps location indicator spin like a roulette wheel, then look back at the street map, think about calling Lonely Planet and yelling at them for their shit-maps, then walk 20 minutes in the wrong direction to another street map and start over.
I am not exaggerating. The only logic-based system we could figure out was the subway map. Somehow though, overall, we managed to get along pretty well. Mind, you Dainiela did the bulk of the cartographic analysis while I moaned about the state of my feet or some other ailment or need, like a restroom or beverage bar. If you have limited patience, forget trying to find your way around and if you have any intuition that things are “in that direction”, well turn the other way. More than once, actually most times we found things in the completely opposite direction we thought. It got really tiring near the end and affirmed the far-east upside down jokes over and over.
On our first night in Ginza while in a state of full-swing, unadulterated navigational malaise, a kind Japanese woman slowly approached us and timidly offered her assistance. We were searching for a recommended restaurant in Lonely Planet (most of their suggestions are excellent) and she kindly offered to lead us to the general area or “to crose rocation” as she put it. The woman was small, middle aged, well kept and dressed immaculately. It took her a few minutes and we followed her there like lost dogs following a stranger home. We thanked her profusely. Without her we would not have found our destination or the “close location” to our destination. I only say this because after we left her it took us another 30 minutes to find out where it was we wanted to go. You may wonder why? Well most locations are not labelled with any English at all – especially Japanese specific or catered places. When we travel we want to get our money’s worth by diving deep into as much of the culture as we can and eating or drinking establishments are great ways to feel completely alienated and humiliated quickly and easily. In most cases Daniela or I would pop into places we expected were the ones we wanted to visit and ask what the name of the place was. Some we got right, some we got wrong, some had changed their names, and one we found only because in small print there was a URL on a sign in English that was in the reference we had. Luckily we found this exceptional place with the help of the woman and our own raw determination. We were very lucky we did.
Here is some text I stole from a reviewer online:
ROBATA – WHO KNEW?
In the shadow of the swanky Imperial Hotel lies a wholly original dining experience. Stepping into the small and time-worn storefront of Robata, you enter another dimension. It has the feel of a movie set: Cramped, dark and filled to the brim with high-quality and eclectic artwork. Here, you can feast with your eyes as well as your stomach.
At the door, you’ll usually be greeted by Takao Inoue, the owner of this unique restaurant. On the night of our visit, he looked dashing in an old-fashioned kimono with hakama.
Takao greeted us with a soft-spoken and humble demeanour. He was dressed in the full shogun type regalia and welcomed us into this establishment. (Daniela had peeked into this nameless place and asked them what it was called, and to our joy it was our set destination.) The place was dim and ancient, as you can see from the photos. There were large bowls of food set out in rows in front of a wide Japanese man sitting on a stool. We sat down, ordered a beer and were brought ginger pickles on a small clay bowl. Then Takao asked us to join him and we got up out of our seats and followed him over to all of the food where he proceeded to describe each dish in detail with an articulate charm wrapped in a soft Japanese accent.
After the run-through we were asked to choose, and Daniela and I picked so much, that the wide man behind the food interrupted to tell us it was too much.
As we chose Takao had gotten hold of a large hand-made clay platter and was dolling out some of our selected choices onto it. It turned out we only chose two hot dishes, one of taro, soybean and potato, another of pork-belly, tomato and Japanese peppers. We also chose three cold dishes: a chilled octopus ceviche, eggplant with peppers and tomato, potato salad with bitter melon and camembert cheese.
Everything was presented in the way Takao orchestrated it. We had the cold dishes first, then the pork, and finally the hot potato and taro. Dessert was chosen by him without consulting us, fresh persimmons with a sweet tofu paste and authentic Japanese hard candies (accompanied by strong hot green tea). Takao told us he was the third of his generation that had run Robata, Him, his father and grandfather. Takao looked like he was 200 years old. Maybe it was his clothes and the setting but it was like talking to some ancient man from long ago. (all part of the panache, I am sure, but very effective.)
We were gobsmacked by the experience and will most likely never have one like it again. A perfect 10th Anniversary dinner.
We left there changed in some ways. It was one of those idillic experiences you can see yourself remembering and talking about in ten years time. In some ways memories are the best gifts a couple can share. (I told myself I wasn’t going to cry when I wrote it.)
The next day we got up at the crack of dawn and hit the streets with the intent to accomplish what was left of Tokyo city. I had my feet taped up like Tutankahman’s, had downed my quart of BOSS coffee, and completed a series of mental and physical exercises to make sure I could at least attempt to keep up with Daniela’s relentless agenda. (Be advised that we most likely only saw 10% of what we would of liked to of Japan.)
The plan was to head up to Ueno district and do a two hour street walk through a series of neighbourhoods and temples, then hit the Tokyo National Museum, visit the busiest subway station in Tokyo Shibuya, trip down to Akihabra so I could get one more fix of French maid teenagers, kitten cafés, and giant robot toys, then see what was left of the day and spend it doing a little more shopping.
The walking tour started off poorly.
Before we left the hotel Daniela asked me to bring an umbrella and jacket for myself, as she was suspecting rain. I told her no, and left without both. It was about a twenty minute subway ride to the Ueno and Yananaka walk-start and when we surfaced to begin the walk it was pouring rain. She put on her jacket and raised her eyebrows at me.
“What are you going to do? You’re going to get soaked.”
I replied with a petulant face arms folded over my chest like an angry baboon.
Luckily a nearby drugstore was selling umbrellas for there hundred Yen which is about three bucks. I got my umbrella, defiantly popped it open like a bottle of champagne, and we headed out on our walk. Once again, which was almost always, we got lost and walked for a half of an hour in the wrong direction. This was the third or fourth guided walk we had taken on, all supplied by Lonely Planet. One of the previous walks was a nightmare from hell, wandering in circles confused and missing everything around us as we searched for obscure details and descriptions in the book that were no where to be found. An example of how Lonely Planet has a sick sense of humour is the phrase “when you get off of the subway walk up street x.” What in the fiddlers-fuck does walk up mean? We guessed they meant the hill, as the street had a hill… hey, maybe they mean walk up the hill. WRONG.
Think about it. You spent $$$ to get to Japan and you have your face in a fucking book, or a map half the time to make sure you don’t miss it! The world is going by and you are reading shit that just makes no sense and is out of context. Even trying to take everything in literal context didn’t work. At times these books are just broken. It’s like taking too many pictures. You become obsessed with capturing everything to the point that you miss it all. I tried to get Daniela to drop the book, but we needed it, or more so her, to do the due diligence she did, or we would have missed more that we did. We managed to get the walk on track and the day got away from us pretty fast. Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.
Akihabra is a place Daniela does not want to go back to, but I need to get to a store their called Yodobashi Akiba. It is a multi-storey building that contains video games, cameras, the largest selection of model Gundam robots in the world, and pretty much every other hobby or electronic gadget any geek on the planet would want. Think the holy grail of knob stuff. There is only one way to describe this store. Overwhelming. We take a taxi and I see the Gundam Café on the way by. I get even more excited. We get to the hobby floor of the store and I pick out a few things, dazed and confused by the selection. Numbed by the sensory overload. I immediately feel like I am 13 years old again and have been dropped into a giant dreamland that has everything I ever wanted in the whole world. I am blushing with excitement and have completely forgotten everything logical or rational. I simply want it all.
As soon as Daniela gets into a store like this her eyes roll into the back of her head and she turns into a zombie. There is not one ounce of interest or patience at her disposal, and the pressure is instantly on. I make it quick. I shake off my disillusionment after a few good backhands and sleeve-pulls from Daniela. We get out after some heated debate about what to buy and how much more shit do I need in my office at home (which is all warranted).
EMBARRASSING I KNOW…
Next I drag her to the front of the Gundam Café (they are completely booked up), she takes my picture out front and I buy some illuminated Gundam Robot figurine.
We missed the Museum and Shibuya station, but there is always tomorrow.
For dinner that night it was another episode of navigating in the Bermuda Triangle of Tokyo city. We had a Ramen destination in mind, and we wanted to find it. We spent an hour and a half walking around until we were able to decipher some hieroglyphic signage that had a tiny English URL on it.
When we walked into the place we realized that it was the infamous vending machine system. Now this was no biggie for us, we had pumped Yen into these, what look like refurbished cigarette machines of the 1970’s many times earlier on the trip. Simple, look at the picture, read the price, put in money, push the button by the picture, give the nice man the little pieces of paper that come out at the bottom, take a seat and wait for your food to show up.
Once we get over to the machine I realize there are no pictures and there are no english descriptions of any kind. I look around the room and the place is full, with a line-up starting behind us. No one acknowledges our arrival, everyone just keeps slurping and sucking up their ramen and the cook just keeps on cooking with no time to even glance our way.
We stand there for a few minutes and I keep looking at the machine like in some miraculous way I am going to be able to understand it if I just look at it a little harder or a little longer. Time drones on and I start to get red in the face. Daniela is fidgeting and seems to be waiting for someone to show up out of the blue and bail us out. We just stand there holding up the line and feeling like a couple of first-rate townies that should head on over to the Denny’s instead of trying to get on in here.
A Japanese man (By the way everyone in these places are Japanese. We are a huge minority here and seem to travel to places off the tourist track.) finally makes an effort to help us. He points to the vending machine and says something that sounds like put money but comes out more like purrrt runnie, purrt runnie. He says it twice, as if it will help and I look back at him happy that he is at least trying while everyone else ignores us (I don’t blame them).
I reply back to him somewhat heated and impatient, pretty well defeated.
“There’s no English, no English.”
I too repeat things back to him twice, like it helps in some way.
We wait another few minutes and then I give up, I shrug and motion to Daniela that I have had enough and it is time to get out, give up, and hit something less complicated. I am willing at this point to accept the defeat and loose the close to two-hour investment of time and go somewhere we can point at a picture and smile.
We motion to leave, I start to take one last glance around the place and the guy speaks up again saying I can help you if you don’t mind my broken English. He takes us through the menu item by item and describes things enough so we can order and wait for a spot to sit. We thank him profusely and reign victorious due to the kindness of strangers once again.
The meal is exotic, fire-spicey and most likely the best pork ramen I will ever eat. We sweat and sputter as we eat it and swill back icy beer to try and cool off. The place is small and seating is bar style. You sit shoulder to shoulder and people are lined up behind you waiting for their turn. It is all very hectic and rushed. Most of the clientele are Japanese business men or bohemian types. We wear huge paper bibs and sit with our bags at our feet with no room to move or stretch out. It’s worth every second of effort and we leave with swollen bellies and proud to have overcome another cultural barrier. Nothing worth while is ever easy.
At this point no amount of rest will fix my feet. They feel like I am wearing hot cast iron frying pans for shoes, each step requiring a large steel spatula to lift one foot at a time.
We head back to the hotel, but first grab a bag full of ice cream sandwiches and bars to cool off our guts, we eat too much ice cream, pack our luggage and, watch the anime station on TV while we look out at the view of Tokyo at night.
It all starts to sink in that this will soon be over. Tomorrow is our last day in Japan. In some ways it is a relief knowing that I can get off of the chain-gang agenda march Daniela has us on. But in other ways and mostly, it is heartbreaking to have to leave this place. We simply love it here and hate for the experience to end. It is the first time in years that something has happened to us that met our expectations and gone far beyond them. As you get on in years all things seem to be somewhat expected, known about, pre-guessed or experienced in some ways before. Nothing seems all that original anymore. This trip has changed that for the both of us. I think in some ways it has rekindled our sense of adventure and need for discovery.
We hate the idea of leaving.