I had the desire to go to Japan, and especially Tokyo, because I wanted to spend my next trip in an urban area doing urban things. I felt that the last few vacations had a focus on exploring nature and natural wonders and I wanted to try going the other way. Tokyo is a massive urbanized area with the largest urban population in the world and endless things to do so it fit my goals well.
9/2, the afternoon:
I arrive in Narita. Japan is overcast and the foliage is definitely unfamiliar - trees are dark, dense and the foliage is a bit weedy. The air isn't North Carolina humidity but it isn't exactly comfortable. The airport takes a good chunk of time to navigate, both getting through passport control and eventually acquiring my luggage. But then I am set free into the mall-like interior of the airport. I immediately go to change some cash on hand to yen and get a pasmo so I can get out of here.
My first attempt at riding the train was a bit painful. I didn't find Hyperdia very useful, it was more helpful to use Google Maps with its GPS location tracking and address routing. I went off to Meguro and my first AirBNB apartment. I was able to get on the right train but I didn't understand how Google maps communicated trains/platforms so I wound up taking a local train and had to transfer someplace underneath downtown Tokyo. Navigating the station around Meguro was also painful, it was my first introduction to how disorienting it can be to come out of a train station in Japan if you don't have a mental map of the area already. But I eventually make it to my first place to stay. The apartment is small and cozy and it has two low beds pushed together. There is a coin operated laundry machine outside. The neighborhood is very residential and maybe even slightly suburban - the houses are all multi-family dwellings for the most part but it's still distinctly quiet and cosy.
After unpacking my initial stuff I then head out to tackle Ebisu. Turns out my apartment is pretty much right in between the start of Ebisu and Meguro so it's a quick walk over to the 7/11 where I get my first yen withdrawal from the ATM. I then start wandering the commercial district nearby, just poking around in the department stores. I've got a goal to pick up some toiletries but this place seems too upscale to get what I want. I also get my first chance to wander into the basement of the department store which is always full of food. I look at the things and eat a taiyaki, one of those bean paste-filled waffle fishes. It's quite good, the bean paste tastes half bean, half Nutella. It's delicious hot. Of course I pay with a 10000 yen bill for my 120 yen snack because that's all I have on hand. I keep walking, passing the "Americabashi Park", a big pole with a star on it built in St. Louis. There's a weird collection of people in old-fashioned dresses singing, forgot exactly what that was about. I keep going into the Ebisu station area where I find a craft beer bar and have some good beer and sausages. My first attempts at ordering in Japan aren't totally abortive and I'm getting the hang of it. After a few beers and a few hours I then head off to Shibuya to buy stuff at their Don Quixote. I'm aware now that I could probably have just kept hitting up convenience stores and smaller department stores in Ebisu to get this stuff but I wanted to give this a shot. It's a good thing that I did, because it turns out that Shibuya on a Sunday night is totally packed. People everywhere, the scramble is full, the area around Hachiko is packed. I keep going down the streets to the store and it is just completely full of people. I'm learning that Shibuya and Don Quixote both attract a young crowd and it seems like Sunday night is full of teenagers doing shopping and hanging out. I get my stuff - it's a bit pricey, but I get it and get out of there eventually. I'm also immediately struck by how plain the Japanese sense of fashion is. Uniqlo style plainness is everywhere, on everyone, and I am looking at these women with long, plain dresses and pants and it's reminding me of fundamentalist Mormons more than anything modern. Finally, I return to my home and get many solid hours of CPAP sleep.
Up and out to Ikebukuro. This was bumped earlier in the trip because the Gudetama cafe is there and was closing for the year in a few days. Thought I'd check it out. I make it onto the street in Ikebukuro and start wandering around. I find a cafe, a chain I believe, and have breakfast and coffee there while it's cloudy, foggy, wet and humid outside. I then wander around what I'd call "North Ikebukuro" for a little bit, it's a very seedy corner of the town. I see a ton of people lined up for a large, faceless building with a young woman service worker organizing the line and handing out tickets. Later, when I went past it I saw it's a Maruhan, a giant pachinko parlor. I'm amazed to see that the line was wrapping around the building while it was only 9:30 with an opening at 10:00. Not sure why the crowd didn't have work on a Monday morning but it was all men. Next, while wandering into the main part of Ikebukuro I wander into the Animate tower and spend some time going through every floor there. It's all content marketed towards women and I'm just about the only man in the store. There are lots of little collectibles and toys and trinkets and not so much figurines everywhere like I'd later see in Akihabara. I then wandered around the central commercial district in Ikebukuro for a while. I went through a SEGA arcade from top to bottom. The only game I played was Taiko no Tatsujin which was pretty fun but mostly I was there to check out all the different games. There was a Pokemon RPG that seemed to be pretty popular, a horse racing game where 20 or more people could all sit in armchairs around a big screen and race horses together, an entire floor of photoshop booths marketed towards women and a floor of music/rhythm games.
It was getting towards lunchtime so I went to the Ikebukuro Seibu, built on top of the train station, and had lunch at the Gudetama cafe. The food was OK, it was creative and cool but Japanese curry is a bit too much for me. I then spend a chunk of time wandering the Seibu, my first time really exploring one of these giant Japanese department stores. It's a lot of women's fashion so I don't spend a ton of time here but notably I see a $7000 wooden ping-pong table. I also make it down to the basement floors. This department store has one floor for gift-type food and the floor below that is a grocery store which I understand is pretty typical.
Finally, I'm back out on the streets, wandering Ikebukuro again and browsing more shops. I find the big store whose top floor is all Gundam models for sale which is neat. Make my first visit to a camera/electronics store. I stumbled into a video game store (pretty sure it was the Ikebukuro Super Potato). I didn't realize it was a landmark store - the entrance in Ikebukuro is a tiny door up to a 2nd floor shop. The store was packed with retro games, all individually shrinkwrapped, and I was impressed by the kind of resale market that must exist to support all this trade in used, vintage games. Also, I stick my head into a porn shop. It seemed to be a place where you rent the porn and a room and you got a space with a big TV, air conditioning, optionally a beer and had some time to relax, watch the video and have a wank. I didn't buy anything or rent anything but I was shocked at the obscene content right on display - a front-facing DVD on the shelves was literally just a close-up of a gaping asshole with nothing else on the box. There was also a sizable collection of poop videos.
I head across Ikebukuro back to the main, central part, browsing many stores along the way, and over to Sunshine Road. There is a bunch more female-friendly manga for sale here but I didn't spend a ton of time browsing it. It has the nickname of Otome Road - Virgin Road - a pun on the nerdy women who shop there. I head over to the large mall but find everything there is closed on this Monday for some reason I can't figure out. I am committed to coming back again later because it seems like there's a lot here and they have a Pokemon store I want to check out. On the way out of Sunshine Road I stop at the Mocha Lounge cat cafe - it's a very clean, professional place with a modern American interior design. The cats aren't super playful, they're mostly just sleeping, but one guy is running around and freaking out. There is lots of space to sit and read and an entire library of manga to borrow. I take off after 30 or so minutes and wander back to Ebisu.
In Ebisu, I go for ramen for dinner right off of the subway. There is a highly rated ramen place nearby called Afuri and it's very, very good. It has a salty broth and you can definitely get a bit of that salty taste in it. I guess it's a more modern, hip style of ramen. I had a Kirin beer with it, an incredibly tasty lager. As the trip goes on I find out that there are lagers available in most places and I wind up drinking one with most meals. Kirin beer is great, the Asahi stuff is good (another dominant soft drink manufacturer) and Sapporo is straight trash. I then start wandering Ebisu for bars or some place to spend the rest of the evening and I wander the neighborhood looking at stuff. At this point disaster strikes: I am walking (well, power walking) while looking at Google Maps and I plow into a foot and a half tall concrete wall that is sticking out into the sidewalk. I get a pretty big gash cut open on my leg, the old woman who sees me tumble is frightened and says something , and the phone in my hand goes straight into the ground, cracking the screen. Things are still functional, thankfully, but I can see that the phone is in a precarious position. At this point I'm pretty shaken up, I decide to head home, defeated, and go to bed.
When it comes to accessibility and safety Japan seems like America in the 50s: no handicap access anywhere, lots of environmental hazards, tiny steep stairways and smoking is allowed indoors. Interesting to see the differences in culture - in America people would be straight up offended if you didn't have handicap access, myself included.
Jet lag had me up super early, and I went down to Meguro to get breakfast. I went into Sukyia, a chain gyudon restaurant, and ate that. It was pretty good and served fast, glad to check it out. Would be interesting to try and reproduce the meal at home, it seemed very practical and tasty. I then went down to Shibuya at around 7 AM for reasons I don't understand (it was supposed to be a Shibuya day?) and hung around the Hachiko statue from 7 to 8 AMish standing under an umbrella and watching the commuters. The place was incredibly quiet, partly because people weren't up yet and partly because it was raining out. I have some insane photographs of the scramble, the Hachiko square and the station entrance that are almost completely devoid of people. I then went around and found a nice, quiet cafe and chilled out on the 2nd floor, watched the quiet and rainy street below and planned the day.
My first stop was halfway across town at the water treatment museum. It was decently interesting, and it set a bit of context for the city of Edo and how it was planned, built and developed. It was also pretty quiet, with me arriving right as the place opened. On the way over I wound up in Kanda by accident. I wandered around that neighborhood before realizing I was going to the wrong place but it was cool to explore it in the rain. It was a neighborhood with lots of small streets and izakayas and I'm sure it's a cool place to visit at night although I ultimately never had the chance.
Next on the schedule was the Edo museum, also on that side of town. I also realized that I was on the same side of town as Akihabara and it was bound to have plenty of places to repair my cell phone. It would also work out that I could go and walk through the museum while they spent a few hours on the repair of my phone. So I walked over to Akihabara and found the place, it was about $400 to get the screen replaced. They took my phone and I wandered off without the aid of any map to find the Edo museum. Akihabara was decently busy and had the largest number of white people I had seen so far on this trip. There are definitely different demographics for different neighborhoods in Tokyo and I'm starting to get a feel for that.
Before going into the museum I wander around it trying to find a restaurant for lunch. I didn't have my phone so this is the one meal where I was flying blind. It turns out that I actually wandered into a Chinese restaurant named 蜀食成都. I had to ask the waitress what to recommend, she pointed to the first thing on the menu and it was incredible. It was a ramen dish but with a creamy sauce and a delicious amount of heat from chili oil. It was garnished with finely ground beef. It turns out this is a hybrid Japanese - Szechuan meal called tantan-men (a form of the Chinese dandan noodles) and it was delicious. Someone left a Japanese language review and you can see it on tabelog along with pictures of the same tantan-men dish that I ate.
The Edo museum was cool. This was about the history of the city of Tokyo, formerly called Edo. The main part of the museum was historical artifacts from the Edo period which was when the shogun leaders of Japan ruled the country from Edo. There was a second exhibition which covered Tokyo and the Japanese way of life from WWII to the present. The first part of the museum was cool with lots of displays and artifacts from the giant castles that the shoguns had built for their rule. It also had lots of background on what life was like for the people of the time, how the government was organized and what services it provided to the people of the city. Fires were a big problem for the wooden city and there were these military-like fire crews organized all over town. They had these cool, big white standards they'd carry when charging in to fight a fire and there was a neat ukiyo-e which really captured the military aspect of these firefighter crews. There was a section of the exhibit full of ukiyo-e and other printed materials from the time period and the one thing that stuck in my mind was a ukiyo-e of a plain woven grass mat in a temple that had a single rice plant growing out of it. The museum explained that many of the printed artworks from the period were like this: elegant reproductions of slightly out of the ordinary but mostly unremarkable events like that one and the population at the time loved that sort of thing.
I also had time to reflect on Edo and the Japanese mindset. The city was mostly constructed by the shogun for the purpose of running his administration. Everything about the design and construction of this city had this sense of duty to it: we need to have a city that will serve the shogun's need for governance, and the people who live in the city need city services to live here. And I think that carries on to the present with how YIMBY, dense and urban the city has become. The most important priority is to have a city that functions. There is little consideration given to traditional NIMBY complaints, the city just keeps plowing forward and urbanizing. And because of that I don't think Tokyo's urbanization is a good goal for most other cities, it's uniquely urbanized because of its unique culture and history.
Also, it's interesting to think about how exocitized Edo era ukiyo-e and other artwork is done. We think of it as some ancient, beautiful artwork, but it was just ordinary printed artwork for newspaper-esque distribution. Compare that to anything printed or painted in antebellum North Carolina, roughly the same time period, and you wouldn't have that viewed with the same reverence.
The post-WWII part of the museum was also very interesting although I don't remember a whole lot about it, it was mostly an overview of the increasing consumerism in their society.
Made it back to get my phone, everything works. The aftermarket screen is a bit wonky but I'm functional again. On the way out I was idly standing in the street, getting my bearings again, and I found that I was standing next to a sign that advertises some sort of service where you get to watch a schoolgirl through a one-way mirror. Sketch.
Finally, I ride back to Shibuya, my original plan for the day. I'm on the subway and my feet are starting to hurt from all this walking. I notice now that virtually everyone on every train has a phone and they spend all their time on the train looking at it. It's only the very old people that don't have a phone and they're often reading a book.
Back in Shibuya, I walk around and eventually walk all the way down to find a craft beer bar - goodbeer faucets. It has a nice overlook of a busy street. They have several local beers and I have some good ones, including a weak but interesting and tasty lemon beer. The couple next to me looks like they're in high school, way too young to be drinking in a bar. I also had to get through Shibuya station in the mid afternoon which is full of schoolkids for whatever reason. By the time I head out of there I'm decently drunk and I'm ready to take on Shibuya. Wandered to find dinner and eventually found an izakaya that sells kushiage - a kind of fried, battered food on a stick, called 本場大阪串カツの店 串猿. It was nice, I was drunk. Finally, I wandered around a bit more, looking for another place to go and drink, and wound up in a chain bar called Kirin City. They have decent beer, it's got a sort of diner vibe, but they also have these frozen heads where the head is a beer slushy. It was pretty good. I am fading fast, drunk and tired from being up all day, and I head back to the room in Meguro to sleep.
I forget what I did for breakfast this day but I do remember looping around my Meguro block checking stuff out like the Algerian embassy which happens to be a street over. I was up late so I see all the little kids go to school in the opposite direction of where I am going. Lots of them have this little safari hat on, I guess to identify them as little school kids. Most are unaccompanied but a few have their parents with them. They're all really shy and avoid eye contact with me which is really cute! As I'm leaving the neighborhood two slightly older girls try to jaywalk and the smaller one grabs her sister and pulls her back to get her out of the way of an oncoming car and says something harsh. I wind up laughing, it was just a funny situation to see the older kid humbled by the younger one.
Headed over to Meguro in the morning and saw the graceful Meguro Sky Garden which is a highway spiral that connects an underground expressway with an elevated expressway. They built a small garden on top of the spiral, it's cool. I then walked down the Meguro river to the main part of Meguro. It was small and pleasant, the river is walled in on three sides and is shallow but there are lots of quiet trees and small shops along the way. It's also not super busy, most everyone is at work at this point of the day and the river isn't all that commercialized anyway. I eventually make it down to the Meguro Parasitological Museum which is small but somewhat interesting - I guess an influential scientist lived here and they decided to showcase his collected work.
Made it back to Ikebukuro with hopes of exploring the Sunshine City mall again. I found a place called 燕返し and had soba there, it was pretty good although I am not sure if I was eating it correctly. I then wandered the big mall, it was somewhat interesting, and bought a bunch of stuff at the Pokemon store. The original 151 and Pikachu are still the most popular pokemon.
Finally, I head over to Harajuku, my destination for the evening, and arrive around 4:00 PM. I don't know what it was about the place: maybe it was the gentle afternoon light, maybe it was the sun out after several days of rain, maybe it was the trees (the neighborhood's boulevards had lots of large trees growing along the sides of the street which is unique for Tokyo), maybe it was the energy of all the students hanging out there after getting out of school for the day, but for whatever reason I was just in great spirits when walking around in Harajuku. It was one of the few places in Tokyo where I walked slower than the people around me as I was looking at everything along the way. Most of the architecture in Tokyo was very samey and utilitarian, this was a neighborhood where everyone went out of their way to make everything visually interesting, even the small buildings and shops. Maybe it's a way of marketing to Western eyes but I enjoyed it. I was there until after nightfall and I got to see the busy side streets which were packed with school children and definitely had a carnival feel to them. I had a realization that $10 gets you a JR train across town and back with enough left over for a soft drink. With that kind of accessibility I can see how kids growing up in Tokyo could do some serious exploring. It made me really consider how raising a kid in a big city could be a hugely positive thing over the American ideal of a quiet, small town where everyone knows each other and nature is the only thing to explore. When I was a kid I loved what freedom I had to explore and I spent a ton of time doing it so I can see the appeal in it.
Finally, I went home - my feet are dying and the blisters are TERRIBLE. I am starting to buy more of the blister bandages and waterproof bandages and although my feet look bad these really help a lot. By the end of the trip I'm not feeling any blister pain and my feet are healing quite a bit despite many long days on my feet. When I went home I headed over to the local ramen shop - it turns out there's a tiny ramen shop in my neighborhood, just nestled up in the middle of all of these houses and I didn't notice it at all. I decided to head over and try and get some ramen. It was called ラーメン隊, Ramen Tai (Ramen Corps/Army?), and it seated about 10. There were three men in the corner, drinking and talking, a mom with her two children, one boy and one girl, and an older couple who ran the place. I take a stab at Google Translating the menu and the mom comes over to talk to me. Her name is Mika and she has pretty good English. She helps me order and I get a standard bowl of ramen and a shumai, a Chinese steamed bun. The bun is good, the ramen is only ok, unfortunately, with a weak and watery broth.
We talk about the city and my plans to go around and see all of these neighborhoods. We talk about the Kichijoji fall festival and she is very excited for it! She has only good things to say about Kichijoji, something echoed by everyone else who had to talk about it. She recommended i go to an izakaya (which I wasn't able to do, unfortunately) and the park there. We talked a bit about the matsuri and she confirmed that it would be happening. She also mentioned there was a festival happening in Meguro where they served free grilled fish on order of the shogun. She goes on to talk about her son - he is in a little league baseball league and her father and the men in the store are his coaches! They're gathering in the neighborhood ramen shop after practice to hang out, drink and smoke! She said the men took her son on a trip to hike up Mt Fuji in hopes the exercise would make him strong and successful at little league baseball. Eventually the ramen is served and I get a chance to eat it and she takes some pictures of me. It was a nice conversation and a nice, wholesome situation. I'm glad to have ran into her!
I then went back to the apartment, nursed my feet and did laundry.
Up early-ish, went to another chain - Yoshinoya - and got the extra green onions. Of course, that's what a real Yoshinoya veteran does. The waiter helpfully explains how the egg de-whiter strainer works and how to mix everything together. It's pretty good though. I make my way to the car rental place, along the way hoping to pick up more bandages. I wander into a Matsumoto Kiyoshi, but it is apparently before the opening hour and the smiley young clerk kicks me out. I go on to pick up the car anyway, not being entirely sure how they will handle me if I'm late. There are a group of teenagers there also renting a car to go out on some fun trip. I inspect the car and get off and go.
Driving is a pain. At first it's a bit tricky to drive on the left side of the road. The turn indicator and windshield wiper sticks are also mirrored in the car which takes a while to get used to. And of course the Google Maps directions are absolute garbage - there isn't good warning at all about when you're supposed to turn, and they spend a ton of time reading out Japanese language street names which are totally meaningless to me. Incredibly frustrating. I wind up missing many turns and spending my time winding along the Yamanote line and winding through traffic and some very narrow streets. After only 10 or 15 minutes of driving I manage to completely scrape up the side of the car. I have no idea how wide the body of the car is because I'm driving on the opposite side of the road and I drive too far to the left, scraping a street barrier along the entire length of the car and leaving a huge gouge. I'm mortified. Eventually I make it to the interstate and I'm driving through the docks and industrial areas - lots of cool, huge structures. The trip is worth it so far. I then plunge into the Aqua Line, the bridge tunnel across Tokyo Bay. The in-car driver pass is the voice of a perky young woman who pipes up as you drive through these gates and is kind of fun and novel.
The rest stop was nice. There were lots of fancy food gift shops. I liked the view over the bay, there were many ships and the sun was out and everything was pretty. It was a cool structure. I had some ice cream - my first mochi in Japan! It was ok. There are samples for many of the foods in the gift stores but I am too coward to try them and also because I know I won't buy them. But what a cultural difference between Japan and America: nobody would ever leave out unattended samples of store food like this. I see a bunch of Chiba-kun merchandise but I don't purchase it for whatever reason. I now regret this, it's a cool mascot and I wound up having a lot of fun in Chiba. I then go across the bridge half which is mostly unremarkable.
Driving across Chiba was nice, low traffic, nice long cruising stretches and plenty of sunshine. We're up against the Tokyo Bay so there are long marsh grasses and oceanside plants everywhere. I visit this strange platform art installation thing that overlooks the bay and climb to the top. I'm then back on the road, crawling along the coast of Chiba towards Mt Nokogiri. As you come down the coast and finally turn the corner to see the mountain it's pretty impressive. Most of the mountains are low and rounded but this one sits right up above everything and goes right up to the coast. I attempted to take the ropeway lift but it was inexplicably closed. Luckily the lobby was still open at the time and a lady was able to give me a map and some directions and I drove up to the parking area near the top. At the entrance to the trails a man gave me another map and waved me through, not charging me for whatever reason (maybe the fee to drive up the mountain covered me?).
Hiking across the mountain was nice. It wasn't a super long hike, maybe a bit over an hour, but it was quite humid. The view of the town below and the bay was neat. There is a buddha carved near the top in a stone quarry that was accessible. I zigzagged across the mountain to see the 1500 arhat sculptures. They came in a huge variety of sizes and faces although all were sitting with legs crossed. I made it to the main attraction, the big stone buddha, the largest in Japan. It's carved into the side of the mountain but has a large, grassy plain in front of it so it's a commanding presence. There was also a closed-off temple complex which seemed to be pretty big. I think this was the Nihon-ji complex but I am not sure.
While driving back down the mountain I came across a group of monkeys! There was about 20 or 30 of them and they were covered in brown fur with red, hairless faces. They ran away at the sight of my car although one monkey, possibly a mom, took its time as it had a little baby monkey on its back. I think there was also one angry monkey which charged my car although it went for the back of the vehicle and didn't catch up to me. I had no idea that there were wild monkeys in Japan and the whole thing caught me off guard. How incredibly fortunate.
I then keep going down through the sleepy towns of southern Chiba and eventually make it to Tateyama. At this point a storm is blowing in from the sea and the sun is starting to set. Google Maps sends me to a tiny road in the foothills and I hang out in someone's driveway, thinking it must be the place as Google Maps sent me here. The house doesn't look familiar and nobody is around. Pension ATCA isn't responding to my message on AirBNB. What's going on? Well, after camping out for some time at this person's house I start heading out to town to find a hotel, fearing I have to give up. Turns out that Airbnb had the wrong address (it sent me to the geographic center of the postal code) but my backup plan took me past the correct house by coincidence, what a relief.
Pension ATCA is my stay for the night. ATCA comes from "cAT CAt", it's supposed to mean you're in a place sandwiched between cats. It's owned by a husband and wife who have two daughters, age 3 and 5. There are six cats in the building. I didn't fully understand this before but a pension has a shared bathroom and separate bedrooms. The upper floor was all small rooms, sleeping two people each, and there were about eight of them on the upper floor. The shared bathroom and toilet on the bottom floor was nice and they also had this giant special bathroom with a hot tub like thing in it. I hoped to get in it - I had reserved some time for it - but that did not happen. There is also a front room and balcony that is painted bright white, takes in lots of sun and overlooks the ocean. There are lots of rocking chairs and the cats like to hang out there.
The owner introduces himself and the pension and we go through check-in. He is full of smiles and energy. We walk through this very professional and spiffy pamphlet with headshots and information on all six cats. I hand him the Mac Tabby sticker as a gift and explain to him the story of Charlotte's prized cat cafe. We walk through the pictures on Google maps and he says kawaii to every picture of a cat. He and his wife think the space is neat. We talk about many things and break out a good amount of Google Translate. I forget all of the details, but I think we cover their backgrounds - he was from Chiba city, she was from Tateyama (I think?), they lived elsewhere (she worked in the city in Tokyo) but eventually decided to buy the pension, move here and start a family. They were surprised at how young I was, they were both 35-40. At some point his wife comes out and she's just a fireball. She drills me on what I'm doing here, wondering if I'm into anime or a japanophile, and I explain I'm just here to tour the city. We talk a bit about driving as I drove down here. I talked about how precarious it was and she says she thought the same thing about driving in the US with our fast speeds. She also mentions that they're going to a cat convention in Tokyo and I get the details on that from them. My weekend is filling up! Finally, the sun has set and it's time to settle down and get food. They recommend I go to a sushi place in the nearby village so I head off to visit before it closes.
It's called 富鮨, Tomi Sushi, (wealthy sushi?). The town is a small fishing village so I expect the sushi to be pretty fresh. It's a small, cozy place decorated in a traditional Japanese style and I take a seat at the bar. There's a young couple there, on vacation, and later a middle-aged couple comes to sit around a traditional Japanese table in the other part of the store. The young man knows English and he offers some translation help which is nice. There's also the boss: this ancient dude, looks like a 90 year old Popeye, and he's just a riot. The Google reviews all call him 大将, military general. He's in disbelief at the sight of me, he's instantly shocked by my beard and is convinced I'll get rice stuck in it while eating. And the whole time they're having a blast laughing at my clueless ways - I have my utensils organized in front of me wrong and the general comes by and rearranges them. I eat the sushi with chopsticks and they're all perplexed - why aren't you using your hands? I don't know, I didn't know you should! I asked for a spoon to drink the miso soup and a shout goes out to the staff in the back for it and they come back with one. And of course later the English speaker points out that everyone was drinking the soup from the bowl with their hands. At one point I thank the general with "arigato", but he's hard of hearing or something or doesn't understand my accent. The English speaker explains to him - arigato, but in japanese - and everyone laughs. It's hard to convey but it was a festive atmosphere, people were enjoying the show. The sushi was great and was served with giant chunks of meat. Unfortunately I was so hungry after the day's events I was pounding it down quickly and in a few bites. They put little bits of seasoning under each bit of sushi, something spicy or savory, and I think that is a great way to serve it. They also had a weak soy sauce available which really complemented the fish. Typically I don't put any soy sauce on sushi but in this case I'm glad I did. I order namero made from yellowtail, a meal with finely chopped raw fish and tartar-esque spices pounded into a thin, flat slab. It's a Chiba specialty, it's actually pretty dang good and something I can't imagine I'd ever have a chance to eat in the United States. At the end of the meal I almost pay with a 10,000 yen note before realizing I have a 5,000 yen note and the chef gives me shit for it (I have this anecdote in my notes although I don't remember it) and he keeps teasing me about having food in my beard. It's all in good fun though. Wish I could have come during sunlight hours - apparently the place has a view of the ocean and even Mt. Fuji on clear days! I leave, smiling nonstop, but also feeling awkward I couldn't interact with these people and join in the fun in more meaningful ways.
On the way back I grab a canned Suntory highball cocktail from the 7/11. It's surprisingly good - Suntory is the well bourbon, but it has fantastic flavor. Cool stuff.
Back at Pension ATCA I start writing down the day's journal entries - a massive list. The wife comes out and we talk for an hour or two, mostly through Google Translate. We cover a bunch of topics about our lives and backgrounds. I show pictures of Snowball, Tracey, life back in Charlotte and American food. She's impressed with a plate of shrimp and grits and is surprised that it's not spicy (although maybe she meant more savory?). I explain how it's a very traditional Southern dish. She talks about her time in southern California and how she wants to go back again and also brings up the Venice Beach hotels whose clean, white design were the inspiration for Pension ATCA. She talks about how busy her life is here in Tateyama and how she's working every day with no holidays. Finally, I finish my drink, finish my notes, go to bed and pass out as soon as I hit the pillow.
Woke up and went for breakfast, which was served by the owners. They served a unique quiche that was delicious and had a fantastic crust. There were also little slabs of french toast that were delicious. Just a really great homemade breakfast. I went and showered and prepared to leave. We conversed a lot as they were glad to have met me and I was glad to have stayed here. They asked me about buying a Mac Tabby tshirt and I think there was some translation error here - I saw the wife get a money envelope but decided against it. I tried to ask them about buying it online although I don't know if that's possible. Either way I will be sure to send them one independently through the mail.
I start driving up the Tateyama coast. There are many beaches here, I can see how it's a resort town. The sun is out and there are cool breezes. The sea grasses remind me of North Carolina's Outer Banks. I realize this would have been a fun place to visit with Tracey. We would have fun on the beach, we could do some hiking, we could visit the little town on the beach and we could have some good sushi. For the last leg of the drive I take the toll road freeway through the mountains instead of the coastal road like I did on the way down. That was a good idea: it was a fun drive with little traffic, graceful curves, lots of tunnels and impressive mountain views as you're going in and out of these tunnels. Finally, I arrive for the ferry with a good 20 minutes or so of wiggle room. The ferry was short and pleasant, maybe only 10 cars in total and a quick 40 minute ride across the bay. I spent the trip walking all over the boat. It is surreal to sail under the Japanese flag.
There was also a motorcycle parked in the hold of the ship. It was decorated with several flags and had a drawing of an anime-style girl on the back of it along with a Twitter handle. I took a picture and checked it out upon returning home. Turns out this guy has a tiny, realistic doll of a fashionable young woman and he's doing a motorcycle tour of Japan and taking pictures along the way. I didn't get a chance to see him in person but I was able to check out his Twitter account and discovered all of this and all of his pictures with the "smartdoll". Apparently he quit college to do his trip around Japan and take photographs. He is from Chiba and showed his doll to his grandmother.
When I made it to the other side of the bay I had originally hoped to drive around and see things in that area, however, with the time I had left I pretty much could only get up to Tokyo without being late for the car drop-off. I then set off for the expressways and cruised up towards Tokyo. The highways were nice and easy, but navigating the interchanges was surprisingly challenging, once again because Google Maps was a pain. Once in Tokyo I drove the length of Meguro which was also a bit tricky as there was plenty of traffic on this road plus Google Maps kept being a pain in the ass. I managed to navigate the Japanese gas pumps and correctly fill up my car although it did take two tries. Eventually I returned my car and wasn't charged anything for the scratch, or at least they haven't billed me for it yet. It seems like the car was still driveable so they kept it rolling. We'll see. I wound up paying 4000 yen in road tolls which is a pretty impressive number for a day's trip. Finally, I set off for my hotel in Koenji, which was a pretty great deal - it's right on top of their subway station.
I then head over to spend the evening in Shimokitazawa, the hipster neighborhood. I spend a few hours on the north side of the station, wandering around, looking at all the "vintage"/used clothing stuff. It's all American, 90s style designs with big printed logos, stuff like a very 90s bright yellow Iowa Hawkeyes pullover sweatshirt. The people there are also dressing with a distinct hipster vibe, they're clearly all in their 20s or 30s, have stylish, carefully trimmed facial hair and are often wearing flannel. The whole town is urbanized but nothing is over 2 to 3 floors tall, it's got a cozy feel to it. And I stumble upon the find of the trip: a vintage Creighton Prep t-shirt. I can't place the timing or style, I wonder if it's a counterfeit. But at the same time it is a visibly worn in the collar Creighton Prep t-shirt sold for 4500 yen or so.
For the evening I wander to south side of the tracks where I get food in a place called the "Milk Bar". I have oxtail soup which is pretty good. On the way out I realize the place is full of women and I guess the whole name and branding was more woman-focused and I didn't pick up on it at all. It was just a pretty plain, slightly hipster restaurant to my eyes. I then explore the south side of town, it's not quite as big and doesn't take a whole lot of time. Finally, I turn back around to go to the north end in hopes of finding a bar for the evening - this is the hipster district, after all, and there are quite a few bars, izakayas and even craft beer bars. As I'm walking over to one I come across a place tucked back into the 2nd floor of a building called "Bar&Records Delmonico's". It's empty, except for the owner, and it's small, seating about 15 or so. One entire wall is packed with records, a huge collection, over 10,000 records. I suspect that it's the owner's personal collection that he transformed into a business. He spends the entire night playing DJ. It turns out he has a large collection of good 80s and 90s stuff and some modern Japanese idol music and I have a blast - he's a fantastic DJ, he plays great stuff all night long. He asks me about what I like and winds up playing Stereolab and shoegaze records and some really, really deep cuts too. Keep in mind that this is all on vinyl, to have a collection that includes a not-so-popular McCarty record really shows that you've got a giant collection. I have a great night. Some of the stuff he played:
Stereolab - Orgiastic (reminding me of Mitch's wedding!)
Deep cuts from Moose
Deep cuts from McCarthy
French films (???)
RYUTist, a J-Pop band that plays what I consider to be more EDM-type music sampling young, Anime-sounding women
This cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit that caught me off guard when it jumped into the Japanese lyrics.
Sandii and the Sunsetz - Heat Scale
Colored Music - Colored Music
The Art of Noise - In Visible Silence
Nick DeCaro - Italian Graffitti. One of the cocktails I had here was named Italian Graffiti after this. All the cocktails here were really good, the kind of stuff that would have people raving about them in America and this place wasn't even really a cocktail bar!
Funkaho - Villain Style
Goat - World Music (?)
Denim - Back in Denim
Sugar - Changes
The Boo Radleys - Lazy Day. One of my favorites, and I didn't request it! He owned and played it off of this Boo Radleys vinyl EP which appears to be super rare. Deep cuts, man. Later, I find out that the owner tweeted about my visit and what he played.
After this magical, serendipitous evening I took the train back to my home. I picked up a McDonalds hamburger late at night and had the teriyaki burger which was not great but also not bad. It's served with a thick teriyaki sauce and mayo.
Eventually made my way down to Kichijoji and walked around the shopping district north of the station. Lots more department stores, lots of the same, nothing really notable here. However, there is also the start of the matsuri! This was a pretty neat thing and I'm glad I made it to Kichijoji to see it. It's not a huge, famous festival: it was a bunch of neighborhood kids wanting to have fun and carry the mikoshi around. It was a bunch of shoppers gawking at the festival as it went past. It was a handful of parents and grandparents bringing their little kids to see the festival. It wasn't huge, so there was plenty of opportunity for me to get up close and see what is going on. They have several mikoshi, and they're all elaborately decorated. There is a little truck/float thing that follows the main mikoshi around and it's full of women in kimono and with fans. They're beating the drums and playing the music that keeps everyone marching forward on beat. The mikoshi is carried by a large group of teenage kids, some in their 20s, and they're wearing this loose fitting robe with short shorts. They're planning on sweating and today is an incredibly hot one. There are a few women carrying the mikoshi but I think they are just a little too short to get a shoulder on it. They're packed together carrying this thing and bouncing it up and down and chanting. Their route is a slow loop around the entire shopping district and I happen to catch them when they start near the main shrine in the middle. It's funny to see that the "inactive" mikoshi are abandoned by the side of the road without guard - in America, you'd never leave something so decorative and flashy unattended by the side of the road! There are also traditional Japanese festival games and food booths off on the side streets and those seem to be patronized by families with young kids.
I also see puppy shops in Kichijoji as well as a few other places on the trip. They stock incredibly tiny puppies and kittens that are all about two to three months old. They're pretty popular, full of people looking at them and some getting to play with them. The pets of course are incredibly expensive, thousands of dollars for a kitty and I think a purebred puppy comes to almost $10,000.
After an hour or so of watching the matsuri and walking around I head down to Inokashira Park. The most striking thing about it to my eyes is the lack of grass: there could be some sort of grass or other plant or surface throughout the park, but instead it's just big trees and dirt floors. After looping around I went back to Kichijoji and saw the tail end of the festival. There were three mikoshi in front of a stage right in front of the train station and there was some kind of announcer on the stage. One by one the mikoshi were brought up in front of the stage where they were jostled around and lifted to a 45 degree angle. Later, reading about matsuri on Wikipedia, I learn that jostling the mikoshi around and tilting it is a style only done in Tokyo and they do it to give the kami a more exciting ride. When one mikoshi takes another mikoshi's place in front of the stage the two groups march right at each other head on and only stop when the front people get squished into each other. I think that's also part of the excitement, they're faking out a collision between mikoshi.
I head back to my hotel to change out clothes - today wasn't super hot, but the humidity really struck a note. I was drenched in sweat. No idea what it is with Japan but not even North Carolina is like this. I'm stinky and disgusting.
I take off from Kichijoji and head to Hatagaya's Club Heavy Sick. It's a tiny basement venue that maybe packs 20 into a tiny room. Like everything in Japan it's smoke friendly too. The first band, which I believe was from Korea, was pure shoegaze and pretty enjoyable. I didn't see their whole set but I saw most of it. In between sets they were selling some kind of beef stew on rice as a fundraiser in the other room. It smelled great, I'm sure it was a pragmatic choice but I laugh at the idea of a beef stew salesman outside of an American show. The second was more of an 80s/90s influenced jangly pop band and the final group was pure 90s alternative rock. The kids are still making good music! It was a fun show. It seems like most of the attendees were friends of the bands playing, possibly because of the strange 3pm-8pm schedule of the show. The crowd was really getting into it, though, and I loved it.
The four bands performing that afternoon were “youthememory”, “Free, i do”, “tranquil life”, and “Kailios(京都)”. I believe I saw the last three in that list.
After the show I wandered back to the station and found a gyoza place, which is good because I had been looking for gyoza for the past few days and this was right in front of me next to the train station. The gyoza was good and they had some good sauces but it really shined when I got these tiny "one bite gyoza" that were a local specialty and were quite good. Wait staff was super busy, there was a group with some young bratty kids screaming the whole time. The mom looked trashy and the dad had tattoos - wondering what was up there? It was unique for Tokyo. I then went to my hotel room, pretty darn tired and defeated, and slept.
When I was planning this trip Japan rolled out new laws around AirBNB hosts called the minpaku laws. I had nearly all of my AirBNBs cancelled and some were cancelled several times. AirBNB tried to soften it with giving away hundreds of dollars of free bookings but it was still a huge pain in the ass. At the end of the day I had screwed up my dates for this hotel (a replacement for an AirBNB when I finally hit my limit of having places cancelled on me) and had to extend it for one day. Luckily they were able to do that, but if they weren't, man that would have been a huge pain in the ass. AirBNB is still a better platform for booking and discovering hotels than the competition with its endless dark patterns but this really grated on me. A bunch of the cancellations were done because AirBNB wasn't even vetting the minpaku registration that the hosts would provide until a week before the booking and I was rebooking places right up until I left for Japan.
The hotel had free breakfast at the Denny's below and this morning I went for the traditional Japanese breakfast with baked salmon and natto. The fish was dry and the natto wasn't pure death like I was expecting. The goopy texture was a little off-putting but mixing all the mustard and stuff into it made it pretty tasty. I think the bitterness of the natto is analogous to the bitterness of greek yogurt so I understand how it is popular as a breakfast food.
I then marched way down the Koenji commercial street in hopes of finding this speakeasy bakery down in the basement of a residential building. After hiking 15 minutes or so down there I found that they were closed for vacation for a month or so. Oh well. On the way back I was struck with the oddness of the English signs in Koenji, for whatever reason out of all the neighborhoods I visited this was the only one that had so many bizarrely named stores.
I took the train over to Asakusa. When I did all of my planning for this trip somehow I did not know about Asakusa at all and didn't include it in my planning. I was incredibly surprised to pop out of the subway and see the Skytree and the golden turd building. I was even more surprised to see the Sensoji, which I had no idea existed, and all the crowds around it. I was coming to Asakusa to visit this cat convention that the Pension ATCA owners were attending and told me about. Glad to "discover" this fun neighborhood. I went for the cat convention, it was full of people selling handmade cat-themed equipment and it was pretty busy. I spent quite a bit of money there just impulse buying all sorts of cat things. The gender ratio was heavily skewed towards women, and in fact when I was waiting in line outside of the convention it seemed like I was one of only one or two other men there.
After the cat convention I went up two floors to the Gothic fashion convention happening at the same time on the floor above the cat convention. There were lots of people dressed up in steampunk and gothic styles but really it was a grab bag of all sorts of stuff. For example, there was even a booth where all the guys were wearing latex gimp suits. I bought a wall scroll with a cat in a kimono from a guy in a giant furry helmet and a rice farmer hat. Later, I figure out his artist name and make an attempt to contact him through a 3rd party site but am unsuccessful. I suspect it is a hand painted scroll. There was also a bunch of women in lolita fashion. There was a grab bag of stuff for sale, most of it was fashion accessories but there were all kinds of things, like notably the girl who sold books of photographs of herself in bondage, with makeup bruises and in very rapey settings. The crowd also had lots of teenagers who were dressed up in steampunk or gothic fashion with their moms hot on their tails accompanying them to the convention which I thought was funny.
I wander around the temple area for a bit and eventually find a hole in the wall that serves me some hot, greasy yakisoba that was quite good. There are lots of little trinket and gift shops all around Sensoji so there's lots to walk around and look at. I get my first melonpan with matcha ice cream in it and it's pretty good. I also walk into this underground shopping mall near the subway station - it's tiny, cramped, dirty, and of course incredibly humid but it's kind of got a neat vibe. The area is also full of groups of people dressed up and the women were often wearing yukata - I guess the thing to do on the weekends is to get with your friends, dress up and go to the temple area and hang out.
The day's plan is to go back to Nakano Broadway - it's back on the other side of town, by my hotel. It's an indoor mall that's full of lots of small shops selling gear for nerd interests. The focus is on lots of gacha, old pop culture, toys and especially models. It's pretty busy, it's a Sunday and the place is packed. I load up on lots of gacha there, including a 300 yen porn DVD. Yes, you can buy porn anonymously from a gacha vending machine: you just crank the handle and it slowly squeezes out a DVD in an unmarked plain envelope.
I'm then back to Koenji and wandering the neighborhood to find some place to eat, drink and hang out. I don't find anything satisfying - not sure where all the izakayas are in Koenji. But that's ok, it works out - I wind up making it to the Mona Bar right when it opens. It's mostly empty, with two staffers, and I see one other dude who shows up, has a drink and leaves all before I do. The place has lots of Mona and SJIS-art themed things and the food and drinks are pretty good. They also have a cryptocurrency themed deal where you buy drinks and aquire Monacoins that you can spend on prizes. I go hard, spending $50 on several alcoholic drinks just so I can save up for a little button that says GOX. Worth.
I move to my hotel in Shinjuku, which was pretty nice and also situated directly over the Golden Gai. I was a bit apprehensive over Shinjuku for this whole trip: I knew in the back of my head it would be very touristy and I was a bit nervous - I didn't want to commit to spending tons of time to it and for it to be a letdown. It turned out OK though. I first went through the Kabuchiko and it was touristy as expected. There was a surprising number of people wandering through for 10 AM on a weekday when everything is closed. I went to the samurai museum which was also tourist trappy but hey, I enjoyed it, they had a tour guide and I learned stuff. I then walked through several large department stores, including a fancy men's fashion one. I had lunch at the top of one - the meal was thin slices of beef, decently rare, pretty tasty, but also this disgusting snotty soup thing. I thought you were maybe supposed to mix it with the rice so I did that, but it only ruined the rice. Oh well.
For the afternoon, I went to the western half of Shinjuku which is much more commercial. I go for a tour of Toto's toilet showroom - everything is nice and clean and formal and I sort of stand out as a tourist. They do have a row of toilets in one part of it - I remember walking past and having the motion sensor in one lift the seat to greet me as I go past - but it wasn't the largest user of showroom floor space here, even though Toto seems to be predominantly a toilet and washlet manufacturer. However, I wonder if I wasn't thinking it through - they're a toilet manufacturer, what if the real showroom was in the bathroom? I should have gone and checked it out.
I walk through more of the commercial buildings in Shinjuku, including going past the government office tower whose observation decks are closed on Monday. That's ok, I'll just go to the building next door, which also has observation floors - and they're all closed. Oh well. I retreat back to my hotel to check in and I actually have a room! This is a huge surprise to me. I had booked the place through this really seedy booking agent based in Turkey. They were a total fly-by-night operation and didn't even email me confirmations of my reservation. I was expecting them to have taken the money and run with it, but no, I had a legit hotel room, even though it was booked on the business floor. I chill out for a bit - it's been humid all day and now rainy, so I get to see Shinjuku with all of its lights in the rain.
The plan for the evening is Kagurazaka. It's a small neighborhood so I'm glad I was able to find stuff to do in Shinjuku during the day, there's no way I could have spent an entire day there. I think Mika also warned me about its size as well. I'm there in the rain, so I don't wander a whole lot, but the neighborhood is nice but small. There are lots of izakayas and shops along the main street. I spend a chunk of time in a bar, overlooking the street while it rains outside. At some point I leave and walk around in the rain, it's pleasant. I go past this small restaurant that has a window display where they're grinding flour in a mill right out next to the street. I don't go in there because I was looking for a more traditional izakaya but I record a video and later, when looking up the restaurant and its details, find out that it's a michelin star restaurant and I'm now committed to visiting it again. I eventually find an izakaya in a small, rainy alleyway and I get some good yakitori from it. Unfortunately it's pretty empty (maybe more of a late night party place) and I don't really talk with anyone. At any rate I'm pretty tired and head home. I pass by a store advertising a giant, 7000 yen gyoza that you have to order in advance and was maybe a foot long on the flat edge. I guess you can order it and eat it with a bunch of friends. I go home, passing through Shinjuku in the rain which is cool although I don't take any pictures because I'm tired.
At this point in the trip my legs are pretty well destroyed but a good night's sleep and stretching in the morning helps pick them back up again. I've also been consistently bandaging my toes and although the blisters look pretty nasty I'm not feeling any pain on them from walking. I go to Matsuya, another chain gyudon place for breakfast, then head back over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to hang out before my bike tour. I spend a chunk of time up there which is nice as it just opened and was not as packed with tourists. I also reflected on the unintentional coincidence that I was spending the morning of September 11 at the top of a twin tower.
The bike tour was something I found on AirBNB: as a part of their apology for the minpaku cancellations they gave free coupons for people to try these hosted AirBNB events and I picked up this one. I think biking could be a cool way to explore Shinjuku and I wasn't leaping at the idea of walking all over the neighborhood given that I thought it would be very touristy. The bike ride was leisurely and fun and we managed to cover a lot more things than I would have done on foot so I think it was a win overall. Our group was made of four tourists: two American-educated college students, a couple, one who grew up in Japan and one who is going to grad school in Columbia to study AI/ML. The last guy was a webdev from Utah, a nerdy tall guy full of energy and a minor weeb. The group leader was a hardened city bicyclist and he brought around two friends as English translators to help the group. Of course, the first place we went to was back in the tower, but I didn't mind - it was fast up, and everyone got to walk around and look at everything and take pictures. The next stop was by an old-fashioned Japanese candy store where we all bought a little piece of candy or whatever. I got these plums in a red sauce, everyone described it as sour, but no - it was a sweet pickle flavor! The juice was disgusting, I choked it down but the taste stayed with me for a while. The plums were dense and inedible too. Weird-ass stuff. We then went on to the Meiji Shrine and they show us how to do the shrine thing, which is nice - I hadn't planned on visiting any shrines so I'm glad I got a chance to do one. It's also a ways away from Shinjuku Station and I probably wouldn't have walked to it by myself so doing it on bicycle was nice. Next, part of the trip includes lunch and we went to a gyodon restaurant which was pretty good. We talked about our lives back home and about our trips in Japan. By now we're getting later in the afternoon and the sidewalks are starting to fill up. Biking, which is still done on the sidewalk, is starting to get hectic, and I'm having a few sudden stops and close calls. Nobody in our group manages to hit anyone, though. Next we visit a taiyaki stand and have some fresh taiyaki, which is fantastically delicious. And finally we loop through the Golden Gai, Kabuchiko and that corner of Shinjuku before heading back to our origin. We put the bikes away into this cavernous basement bike locker that held hundreds and hundreds of bikes stacked on two layers. It even had a little bike elevator to help you get your bikes up out of the basement. Finally, I head home to shower and relax before going to the fancy soba place. I almost join up with the nerdy Utahn for dinner but he is dedicated to his plans to see Ueno Park and we split up.
When I finally make it back to the fancy Michelin-star soba place it's got a few seats open at the bar so I can get seated immediately. This is good, because otherwise I'd have a super long wait. It's called Kyourakutei Soba, 蕎楽亭. The bar overlooks the chef's working area so I'm seeing them go around and prepare everything. They're taking thin slices right off an octopus tentacle and eating it right there. I guess it was really good because the one dude cut a slice off for the boss to try. I see them hand cut and boil the soba which is nifty. I see them make all these carefully arranged plates of fried food and fresh sushi which all look incredible. I order the ordinary hot soba which is pretty tasty - the noodles have a distinct, rich flavor to them that's a bit bitter - and it's good, but i really wish I could stay there and keep ordering appetizers all night.
To close off the day I went back to the Golden Gai to find a bar. I find a place that is nice and I have a bit of conversation in English but eventually it turns to all Japanese. There's a big soccer game on the TV and when it's over the players are rushed off to pose for photographs with giant soft drink and beer can mascots. At the bartender's request, I try the Hakushu whiskey, it is pretty good. The Fuji-Sanroku whiskey is pretty unremarkable, and I have a plain Suntory and club soda which tastes OK. At this point I'm realizing that I'm probably not going to have some English conversation and I go back to my hotel room for the night.
I forgot the previous day was Subtember 11, but luckily it turns out not only is there a subway in Shinjuku but it's open for breakfast. It was still 9/11 in the New York time zone so I say it counts for a Subtember 11 sandwich. I ran over there and had something unremarkable, however it was noticeable that the "Subway smell" from the break was not present at all, this was an ordinary loaf of white bread and the restaurant didn't have the smell at all. I check out of the hotel, once again shocked that it was a real hotel and not a scam. I then head across town to Ueno to my AirBNB home for the rest of the trip.
I spend most of the day at the Tokyo National Museum, a gallery of art and historical artifacts. Because this is a tourist spot not just for foreigners but also Japanese I get to see a bunch of people taking photographs. I see one dude who is going around the entire museum, item by item, and photographing both the item and the museum's placard with what appears to be an expensive camera setup. I later visit another room where a woman in a dress and stilettos is taking lots of pictures of a reflecting pond and a tree from inside of a building - a shot that can't possibly be good - and then turn around to take a picture of the tasteful yet totally unremarkable chairs in the lobby of the museum. Photography is a strange hobby over here. The museum guards also sit completely motionless in chairs and stare straight ahead at all times. I have no idea if you're even supposed to talk with them under any circumstances.
The museum itself has many immensely cool artifacts, and it's lots of very, very old stuff, hardly anything from the Edo period. I see the oldest katana with writing in the metal. There are lots of artifacts from the almost-prehistoric early kingdoms of Japan around the 10th century and it's inspired me to read up lots on the history of ancient Japan. One memorable exhibit was an entire scroll laid out for people to read and thankfully they provided an English translation for the story. It's the story of a princess who meets a mouse at a temple and decides to marry him. It goes through the story of the mouse and the princess getting ready for their wedding, preparing themselves and putting together the feast. At the very end the bride peeks out of her room and sees that the mouse groom person is really a mouse and not a man and calls the wedding off. It was a neat little story and I found it engaging despite the vast cultural differences and I'm glad they put it on display. The artwork was also very cool and the drawing of the mouse as a human was pretty compelling. Unfortunately I can't find the name of the artwork otherwise I'd try and see if I could link it here.
I then spend a bit more time walking around Ueno Park, checking it out. There's some sort of military drill/competition type thing happening with firefighters right in the middle and lots of people are standing around and cheering. There's a whole group of JR Railway employees hanging out, watching this thing and cheering and they've got these green JR scarves like they're some kind of sports team. It's time to check in to the final AirBNB, so I hunt that down and run into the host still cleaning it out. I explain I just want to check my bag and leave and go back on my way. I head over to the Kaneiji temple which is back on the other side of the Ueno Park. It's in a quiet neighborhood but there are still a few tourists there. There's a bunch of ritual objects around it, including a giant bell that is hardly fenced off and I am oh so tempted to sneak up and ring it. I also see the insect shrine which is a small, worn black rock with writing carved into it. The interior of the temple is beautiful, peaceful and warm and it's heavily decorated with the Tokugawa family crest as this temple was built or managed by them and there are many things tied to that family in the Ueno area. I go into the temple, do the prayer thing and purchase the goshuin. The design is beautiful, and the book it comes in on is a tastefully packaged tiny notebook decorated with the Tokugawa family crest. It looks incredible. The calligraphy is done by a little old lady who seems to be running the place. I wander down to the other Tokugawa shrine, the Ueno Toshogu shrine. It was elaborately decorated and also had the family crest prominently placed all over it. There was a very cool railing with lots of animals carved all around the shrine and also a flame continually burning from the bombing of Hiroshima. Finally, there are many giant stone lanterns scattered all over the property around the shrine which were sent from all over Tokyo as gifts to Tokugawa Ieyasu from his vassals after his death. It was very cool to walk in this forest of lanterns as you walked around the grounds.
At this point I am pretty tired, I've spent a lot of the day on my feet. I walk through the park and see a few more things but I'm heading on to the Ueno business district for dinner. I wind up going to Hanamaru Udon which turns out to be the McDonalds of udon. I'm tired, though, and my feet are pretty beat so I take it. The food isn't bad at all, just not great. I'm feeling a bit rested so I take on the Ueno markets, eating a bit of ice cream and melonpan, walking around and seeing everyone shopping. The main drag of Ueno is a small road covered in retail shops with the tables spilling far out into the road and they're very busy with people picking up food on the commute home. I walked through a big toy department store and saw lots of models for sale. I also came across a place called 1kara that rents out solo rooms for people to do karaoke by themselves, I guess. Finally, I retreat home and lie on the floor of my apartment because my feet are ridiculously sore and I can't stand to put any weight on them again.
The apartment is in a weird state. The owner left a bunch of towels up in the shower dryer and I had to put them away and kill the dryer heater that was heating up the entire place. It has a washing machine which is this tiny futuristic thing lurking in the corner that I did get to use later. And the decoration for the main area was nonsensical with fratty vintage beer ad reproductions (all in English!) on the walls and a Japanese traditional bed on the floor with Hello Kitty sheets and pillowcases.
For breakfast I look for cafes in the area, and there's a nice one only a few blocks away called Coffee Katsura, 珈琲店 桂 台東区役所西横店. It's a very cozy place with light sandwiches and fantastic coffee, some of the best I've had in all of Tokyo so far. I have some time to kill before the Marutaro store opens at 11 so I walk around the Shinobazu pond in Ueno which is full of water lilies and giant carp. I slowly walk up the road towards Nezu and Maru's shop. There's a bunch of stuff in there, lots of calendars and tshirts and other things. I pick up some magnets and gatcha. I'm then sent on a lengthy subway trip across the city to the subway museum.
The subway museum is a little bit kiddy, I'd definitely say it's kid friendly, but there's lots of more technical information on the history and construction of the system. At the very end of the museum they have a bunch of simulators, including two different subway locomotive cars that have been converted so you can drive them and a pretty sophisticated PC where you can drive simulated trains along entire subway lines. There's an old man watching over the system, a kid on the PC and his dad watching him and we all laugh as the kid plows through a station at 20km/h. There were lots of moms and kids at the museum but also a good number of single guys wandering around and also a few guys who seemingly paid the entry fee so they could people watch through windows that overlooked the subway exit. I then have my first chance to take the bus in Tokyo and go a few hops down to the Kasai park. There are lots of cool structures and buildings here, including a large glass-walled building that I think was meant for watching the sunrise. The park has many trails through the forest and a large beach area including some manmade islands that stick out into the bay. It was a pretty cool park and worth the detour. I'm then taking trains back into the heart of the city to go to the Skytower, but first, I check out the salt and tobacco museum that is near the Skytower. It's a slick, modern presentation about salt and tobacco, which were at one point regulated by a single government monopoly after WWII until the eighties. The salt floor talks about the history of salt extraction in Japan and the tobacco floor is mostly an exhibit of smoking apparatus and carton designs. There is no mention of North Carolina at all in the tobacco museum! What an oversight.
I'm then on to the Skytree. The place is busy, but there isn't much of a line to get tickets or to go up to the top. And man, is the view incredible. The whole Skytree observation deck was clearly designed for viewing the city as it has these large windows that stretch far below foot level so you can easily look down at the city below. Absolutely one of the best places I've been on the trip. I loop around the observation deck, taking a bunch of pictures, and also look for some place to sit and watch the sun go down as it is only a little bit of time before the sunset begins. I don't see anything to sit on at the observation deck - later, I learn that if you go down a floor there are a bunch of couch things. Instead, I go and get some (probably pretty overpriced...) soft serve ice cream that has vinegar as a topping. Never heard of putting vinegar on ice cream but it was really good. The vinegar was cut with fruit juice so it was a little bit sweet but very fruity and still bitter. I lean on this standing table thing and chill out for half an hour or so, eating my ice cream and slowly watching the sun set. Because I'm in the same spot I decide to take a bunch of pictures and I get a nice series of photos of the city lights slowly turning on and the sky slowly darkening. While this is going on I'm suddenly greeted by a ton of noise and shouting - school kids! A few elevator loads came up and the place is now swarming with school kids, all there to see the city in the dusk and at night. It's instantly much more packed and much louder, however I am safely sheltered in my foot court area because there's no way a middle schooler is going to buy the overpriced ice cream here. Once things calm down a bit and the sun has completely set I then loop around again, taking pictures of everything in the dark and helping a group of schoolgirls take their group photo. I pay for the extra Where's Waldo floor which is ok but not really worth the price, you have a better view from the main observation deck anyway. I wind my way down, taking a chance to stand on the glass ledge and for whatever reason it wasn't really terrifying to me at all, possibly because it was night out. I get out of the Skytree and head back to Ueno.
I've been staying in the north side of Ueno, which is mostly residential and I later find out full of gay bars on the back streets. The market district is south of the station. I notice that there is a commercial west side of Ueno as well and I decide to walk over there tonight. Turns out the reason why I haven't heard much about this is because it's full of seedy sex shops: massage parlors, girl bars, dance clubs. The women hang out on the street corners to try and lure customers in which is interesting. I remember having to shoulder my way though a group of 10 or so women hanging out at the end of the alleyway to get onto the main street. I go into a random restaurant which is full of salarymen eating and drinking. The food in these places is all greasy comfort food: lots of fried things and lots of strange cuts of meat and organs which I guess they really like. My meal is a whole course of this sort of stuff and I finish most of it but there are just some organ bits I can't finish. I head home, pretty worn out, and go to bed.
Today is the day I tackle using the fancy washing machine. It features a delay and I try to figure out the buttons with Google Translate but it really doesn't work too well at all with these technical terms. It's also a little weird in that because I'm trying to set up an 8 hour delay I can't go off of seeing the device kick on right in front of me, I have to program in everything and hope it works properly at the end of the day when I'm not around. Luckily I did eventually figure it out and I came home to nicely washed clothes. Breakfast was at a chain bakery in the train station, but one cool thing about it is that you put all your baked items on a tray and it scans them in and uses some ML to figure out what to purchase. You have to make sure they're all spread out on the tray, the cashier will spread them out if you're not careful, but it's pretty fast and accurate.
I head down the train to the Nihonbashi which is a cool little bridge. The modern bridge is in stone, the original Edo period bridge was made of wood. I keep walking, making it to the Hakozaki Junction which is much more impressive in person than in any of the pictures I've seen. You get a much better sense of how tall this thing is and how many layers of ramps there are on it. I keep walking across this corner of town, walking along the river and through more neighborhoods. I eventually get back on the subway and emerge in the Tokyo station. It's a huge station and I'm also on what has to be the lowest subway platform within the thing. It's packed, even though it's mid-morning, and it feels like it takes forever to get all the way up and out of the station. Eventually I'm on the surface in downtown Tokyo and I head over to the imperial palace.
Unfortunately it's a Friday and the palace gardens are closed on Fridays. Oh well. I walk around for a little bit but there isn't a whole lot to see without being able to get into the palace. I then keep wandering around the downtown area, passing in front of the Diet building, the Prime Minister's residence and going through a nice park. I probably should have kept looping around, it looks like there are interesting things all around the imperial palace, but I decided to call it there and head down to Ginza.
Ginza is pretty busy and I decide to go for coffee and a chance to rest my feet, which have been pretty sore all day today. I find some swanky place in the basement of a building and chill out for some time there, the coffee is good and I have a waffle with gelato on it which was very good. I'm then off to wander the streets of Ginza, looking at all the different shops, but for the most part not going into any. I do step through the entirety of Itoya which is kind of interesting, they've got all kinds of different stuff for sale there, not just stationery and writing tools. I find a leather wallet for sale for a few hundred dollars, it's marketed as quality American leather. At some point I go past the main Uniqlo store but I decide against browsing it - yes, my feet are tired but more importantly I'm all hot and sweaty from walking everywhere all day and not really in shape to try out clothes. I also walk past a fashion boutique that had screen printed vaporwave-style T-shirts. I see why it's popular, but it's pretty incredible to think that a bunch of Internet posters managed to roll this meme into a legitimate movement that's brought their aesthetic as far as the shops of Ginza. I make a tour of a big toy shop (pretty focused on kids stuff - it's not like the nerd focused ones elsewhere) and head back to the subway. I zip up to Shibuya, as I read that a place sells vinegar ice cream there. Turns out I was a bit mixed up - the place I wanted was in Ginza but wasn't getting any search results for it, so I wound up going to the Shibuya one by accident. I was sent to a random department store in Shibuya that had a small shop that sold the vinegar. I did buy a bottle and tasted a sample but oh well, missed out on the ice cream. I will have to experiment with it back home. At this point I'm still pretty worn out and I get on the subway again, taking the Ginza line back from Shibuya to Ueno which is a pretty lengthy trip. That's ok, though - I saw a fair amount today and pushed myself to my limit while walking.
There's a place in Ueno just south of my apartment that is open 24 hours a day and has this big, set back, wooden framed design. The place is called GyuMaru, 上野産直飲食街, and it's always got a bunch of people in it when I go past, all sitting on benches around long wooden tables, talking and drinking. I decide to check it out for dinner. It's mostly shellfish of different types, not so much fish, and I wind up enjoying it. It's another comfort food place full of salarymen but the foot is a bit less weird. I have some oysters cooked in a chili sauce which is tasty but not as spicy as you'd expect. After that I order some kind of seafood gyoza that was pretty good. I wander down the market street again, going to the matcha ice cream place, and I realize that everything's in English, no Japanese at all, and the design is very modern and hip. I realize they're taking our basic bitch culture and marketing it to the Japanese! It's cultural appropriation.
I keep wandering around the market and eventually decide to spend the evening in a basement cocktail bar. It fills up a decent amount over time but at the beginning it was pretty empty. I don't really talk with anyone, even the bartenders, but it is kind of strange that when I do eventually get up to leave suddenly everyone's wanting to talk to me about this and that. There was a lady sitting next to me with what I believe she said was her husband and she spent the entire time talking his ear off in a very one-sided conversation. When I start getting up to leave suddenly she wants to talk to me in English and is asking me all kinds of questions about what I'm doing in Japan and what life is like back home. The drinks were OK. I started with an old fashioned, which was served with Old Overholt but it had undissolved granular sugar at the bottom which was unfortunate. I go on to their house drink menu, and order roughly because I don't know Japanese and the bartender can't help a whole lot. I have a gin and tonic that is made with some sort of pear that gets mashed up and stirred into the drink that is pretty good. I also order some kind of mojito (I think, it had loose, crushed mint in it) and they also prepared it with liquid nitrogen poured out of a big Dewar flask so it was pretty cool to watch, plus you get a drink with the nitrogen smoke pouring out of the top of it when you drink it. Finally, I got a picture of their distillery apparatus: they had this cool looking thing in the dark corner of the bar and with HDR the picture actually came out pretty good. They actually do use it to distill some natural extracts and I get a chance to smell them - I forget what they were but they were pretty strong smelling so I guess it worked. At the end of the evening I return home to find my clothes washed (the machine worked!) and hung them up in the shower. Japanese places don't have dryers, they have either clotheslines or heating vents that you turn on in the shower to blow a ton of hot air into the shower and evaporate dry them that way.
My last full day in Japan, with the entire day dedicated to Akihabara. Wander down to a random chain cafe in Ueno and order a breakfast grilled cheese that is oddly sweet. I'm then off to the trains and down to Akhibara, which is actually pretty close to Ueno, I probably could have just walked down the main street. I'm first checking out the stores close to the river right on the west side of the train station. I'm going into nearly everything I can just to browse. In the morning things are pretty empty as it's been raining but by the afternoon crowds start picking up. I also note that the crowd is mostly Japanese compared to the largely white crowd I saw when I walked through Akihabara at the start of my trip.
There's a building, a good 5 or so stories tall, entirely selling trading card games. Magic the Gathering still has a strong showing in Japan but there's also a very popular game where all of the cards appear to be different anime girls from different series. There are a few shelves of Pokemon cards too and I check them out.
Next is a porn store, which also turns out to be one of the largest that I visit and also one of the most diverse. I notice that there's a shelf for beastiality videos - must be legal over there. Most of the porn is plain and cookie cutter and I'm also noticing that the women in all of these videos fit a very narrow look. It's a big jarring difference from all the different women I've been seeing all around Tokyo for the past two weeks. There's an entire section or two of poop videos. And I also find a few sections with creeper/peeper/upskirt/candid camera videos. They are notably sold in a plain, undecorated case unlike all the other cases, probably to give the illusion that it's the illicit stuff that's actually recorded in public and secretly distributed. The patrons of the porn stores of Akihabara are all men, middle aged and about as sketchy as you'd expect. It's a distinct crowd.
I find an electronics mall, a tiny cramped space full of little booths selling all kinds of parts. This was the only thing of its kind that I could find in Akihabara and I'm glad I stumbled into it as it was a pretty unique experience to see this kind of diversity in electronic parts all available in one spot. They had microcontrollers dispensed from a gacha machine but I forgot to loop back around and get one. Another weird spot I pass by is a kind of garage sale for electronic goods in the garage space for some business. There was just tons of strange, assorted stuff in there, like boxes of laptop power supplies and a whole case of random install DVDs for various bits of hardware for $20 a pop or more! The garage sale was decently packed with shoppers too.
The maids from the maid cafe are starting to come out onto the street to get customers. I walk past one place, shangrila, which appears to have a theme of chubby maids with lots of homecooked food. I make it to the giant gachapon store where an entire floor is stacked to the ceiling with gacha. I've bought everything I want at this point and there are lots of repeats in this gallery but I'm glad to have browsed them.
There's also a giant cosplay and toy store called Lashinbang. At this point the toys are all blending together for me but the cosplay floors are pretty impressive with a crazy selection of all kinds of stuff.
My feet are getting tired again, it's getting into the afternoon and I've had a good few hours on my feet. I start looking for a maid cafe and wind up going to Pinafore, which is this incredibly sketchy looking single room. It's barely decorated and everyone sits in plain tables arranged in a big U around maids in the middle. But they're real maids and it's a real maid cafe, half of them are in sailor costumes and half in schoolgirl outfits with one or two in a pink and black maid apron. They all do the talking in sync thing when you come in and leave. I'm presented with a menu and order a mystery cocktail and the rights to take one picture with my waitress. None of them know much English and I drop the ball here by not breaking out the Google Translate to try and at least get some conversation done, but I make it through the event. My drink is a bright green and sweet alcoholic cocktail with a cherry in it. The schoolgirl who is my waiter talks to me in Japanese and I try to squeak past with my "hai" but she isn't fooled. She knows at least one word of English, though - magic spell. I accept the offer and she does some chanting in Japanese, it's all pretty fast and she's waving her hands around but I do catch a "moe, moe" when she makes a heart with her hands and bounces it over my drink. Getting a magic spell put on your cocktail by a maid - you can't get that kind of service in America! One of the other maids comes over and strikes up a conversation with me, which I guess is part of the package. However she knows even less English and I just have to "gomennasai" my way through the conversation and she's halfway between humored and frustrated with it, doing a little mimic of me with her hands folded in front of her and a small bow. I should have brought out the Google Translate but didn't, oh well. I pay my bill and I'm on my way out of there.
I make a tour of the big Mandarake building, it's pretty packed at this point. It's also more of the same models that I've been seeing everywhere, but I also get a chance to see the shiny Japanese Charizard Pokemon card and an entire aisle of dakimakura. For the rest of the afternoon I keep walking in and out of stores, seeing endless models and figurines. It seems like K-On! will never die, though, it's still popular and it's been a decade. I find another doujin store, it's not quite as big as the first but there are a lot more tankoubon. They're all wrapped in plastic to prevent readers so you have to look at a little photocopied sample page that's put in the back of the bag. I find a tankoubon in the porn section with a happy family - young son, mom, grandmother - posing together on the cover so that's got to turn out nice, right? No, of course it was some sort of twisted rape thing.
At some point my phone thinks my SIM is missing. I'm a bit frightened because I use it heavily to navigate, even in Akihabara, but I realize that i'm in Akihabara which is probably the best place in the entire city to get a SIM card poker tool and check it out myself. I walk maybe a block or two down the street and find a place that sells cell phones, gesture to the clerk and he points one out to me right away. I do some surgery, reseat the card and it works great! I am incredibly thankful to the clerk. It's cool that it worked out.
It's getting later in the evening and I go for food. I wander into Nikujumen Susumu which is a ramen place. It isn't bad but it isn't great, just greasy and fatty. I also get greedy with the egg yolk separator and it breaks after my second time through (I manage to have it slip through into the catch bowl and pick it up the first time). It's now dark and the streets are crowded with even more people and maids. I'm wandering through the last few shops and stores and finally make it to M's, the supposedly legendary sex toy shop but I find it cramped and its selection is tiny. A huge disappointment. I look at one more hobby shop full of models, toys and figurines and at this point my eyes are falling out of my head after looking at figurines for the past nine hours. I then make the decision to take the train across town and visit my favorite bar in Shimokitazawa for my last night in Tokyo.
I show up at Delmonico's right around when the bar opens and I'm the only one there. As the night goes on through there is a bit of a crowd, mostly older couples in contrast to the younger salarymen that were there last time. The owner has a freaking Stereolab inspired shirt referencing Peng!. Deep cuts. I sit and reflect on the Japan trip and it seems like the first half of the trip had most of the memorable events. Not sure if that's because I was packing more into it or if I was less tired. There was still some very neat stuff in the second half and in all it was a fantastic trip.
The DJ’s playlist for the night:
Television Personalities - She's Never Read My Poems
Denim - Novelty Rock
Elmore Judd - Angel Sound
Love Zombies - The Monochrome Set
Miaow - When it All Comes Down / Did She
The Popguns - Snog
Happy Daze - a late 80s/early 90s compilation album of some kind
The House of Love - Beatles and the Stones
Nav Katze - Oyzac
I take off after two hours or so because I'm a bit unsure of the trains but that was probably my mistaken understanding of the time table. As I'm walking through the dark streets of Shimokita it finally hits me that my Japan trip is over and I have to go home tomorrow. There was still so much I wanted to do, and even just walking through Shimokitazawa there were bars I still wanted to check out. I stumbled up on this place next to Delmonico's called BAR FORCE and appears to be Star Wars themed but wasn't open when I went past it earlier in the evening. To think that on the initial incarnation of the trip I was actually going to spend a few nights in Shimokitazawa! What a missed opportunity. I ride the Keio line back to Shibuya and ride the entire length of the Ginza line for one last time.
I pack and get out of there to get a breakfast of more baked goods from the place with the cool automated scanner. I head off to the bus, which is packed full of old ladies and standing room only. It's a long trip across town too, 30 or 40 minutes, because there isn't a whole lot of cross-town connectivity other than this bus between these two places. I get to St. Mary's Cathedral a bit after 10:00 AM, the service has already started and it's standing room only. The building is magnificent, much more impressive than any pictures. The walls are all gray concrete but have texture to them, it's somehow inviting. Each section is perfectly straight top to bottom but they all twist around and align so it looks like each one is twisty. It also seems very small for a cathedral. Sure, it was built in the 60s when Catholicism was no doubt very small in Japan but in Omaha it would be the size of a small parish. The Japanese spoken for the mass was very slow, slower than any I've heard all trip. None of the women in the pews were wearing veils but the offering was brought up by women and several grade school age girls who all wore white lacey veils and capes. The individual collections were done by the women, even the grade schoolers, and I had a tiny girl give me a deep bow after I put my 100 yen coin into her velvet bag. The sign of peace didn't have any handshakes, it was a deep bow to all your neighbors and they said something in Japanese. The mass was almost 1 hour 20 minutes in length, likely extended by a post-communion lecture, and there was an additional blessing of old married couples after the service. Afterwards I stick around with several other people who are all in awe of the building and all want to take pictures once it starts clearing out. I also note that there is only a tiny bowl of holy water at the entrance. Maybe the giant baptismal fonts in the entrance are an American trend but I also wonder if it's too reminiscent of the little fountain that Shinto shrines have in front for purification and they want to break up that association.
I grab a bulletin, which is a multi-page, glossy, full color thing and head down to the main street to find postage to mail it back to Omaha. Surprisingly the first Family Mart I find doesn't have any stamps for sale and I have to keep going to find a 7-11, which of course is only two blocks or so down the road. I buy 400 yen in postage for 430 yen total which I hope is enough to get it back to America. It did manage to make it back and arrived on September 28th, a twelve day journey. I keep going down the road and turn into a ramen shop for my last meal. It's a chain called 太陽のトマト麺 that sells ramen in a tomato soup broth with vegetables and parmesan in it. They definitely have a sort of healthy, organic slant to their marketing and the food is pretty good. I pack up and head for my last subway trip across town and to Narita which takes some time, even with an express train to Narita.
It seems like nobody wants to fly out of Japan on a Sunday evening and the airport feels oddly empty and spacious. Security is virtually empty and I get scanned and whisked right through. To kill an hour or so worth of time before the flight I watch this NHK program in the lobby in English that has these short shows on different professional craftsmen in Japan. There's a whole hour long program on a master wall plasterer that can't keep my attention but before that there was a thing on a person who produces organic indigo dyes in a traditional manner which was pretty neat. Eventually the time comes to board and as I get my ticket and passport scanned and thank the flight attendant with one last "arigato" I realize that this is my last interaction with the Japanese people and my trip is finally over.