Friday, February 18, 2011

I went to Tokyo and don't have the pictures to prove it

This is where I admit to thoughtlessly not backing-up my vacation photos. I transferred all 130 or so photos to my computer, deleted said photos from my camera, called it a day and wouldn't you know, next day my computer refused to boot. I took it in for repairs, and oh, yea, my computer runs better than ever now, but my hard drive was wiped in the process. Hence, I've got maybe six photos, all food-related, that I'd pretty immediately uploaded to Facebook at Nick's request and for that, I thank you, Nick. I've at least got six photos chronicling my trip half-way around the world.
That said, I was pretty seriously and immediately wowed. I vocally dreaded the 12+ hour flight, but was awed when we took the Polar Route. We flew straight up into Canada, across the vast and frozen Hudson Bay, toward the North Pole, down through the Aleutian Islands and over Siberia. We flew over ice, glaciers and frozen mountains -- nothing else -- for close to ten hours. I'd show you a picture, if I had one.
Once in Tokyo, my friend, Aika's family was kind enough to let us stay at a family member's empty apartment a block or so from the Buddhist temple the family keep. So, yes, Nick and I had our own apartment, so to speak, for eight days in Minato-ku, the heart of the city. This was indeed a charmed stay in an amazing place.
Staying on the seventh floor we had sweeping views on one side toward the bay -- we could see the Rainbow Bridge -- and on the other, a glittering cityscape. Thank you so much, Aika's family! And yes, the apartment had a toilet complete with bidet features and heated seat, but most impressive was the bathing room with a deep, square tub and bunny soft water that didn't flow from a spigot, but the side of the tub: warm, warm and the warmest at the end -- perfect. Did I mention that you could pre-heat the bathing room in advance? Which was a super-nice feature, because Tokyo's cold in January! It's Bay Area cold, with a deceptively mild, but bone-chilling temperature.
So, what did we do in Tokyo besides hang out in said apartment, bathing and watching late-night network programs? And this is where I mention late-night TV! There's a station that plays a lullaby accompanied by a montage a kitty cats going to sleep each night at midnight -- Really, Tokyo?! <3 That said, we ate.
We ate at izakayas, had conveyer-belt sushi, we ate stand-up ramen soups ordered from a machine, but prepared by a skilled human, we made our own okonomiyaki... but one night, this one night, we were treated to a phenomenal dinner by Aika's mom. Knowing that Nick and I are vegetarian, Aika's mom said, "Oh, I know where we'll go!" We had no idea what we were in for! Aika walked us through the grounds of Zojoji Temple underneath the Tokyo Tower -- a spectacle unto itself, and then she walked us down a garden path to Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai. Holy, holy! First, what an amazing place. We romped through a traditional Japanese garden so well-planned that from one window we had a view that's said to replicate that of a wood block classic -- and that's just one window. We were set in a private room and served eight courses of hand-crafted tofu in all its stages of development; all served with enough sake samplings to make your head spin and by a server who did nothing less than serve us while on her knees and bow to the ground before leaving the room. An especially memorable course was a block of hand-crafted silken tofu served in warm soy milk and topped with a sprinkle of kombu. Again, holy, holy, this restaurant! Holy, holy, Aika's mom!
Really, our trip was made of top experiences like that. We wandered around all of the famous neighborhoods, saw drunken salary men, Harjuku girls, sumo wrestlers, peeped a maid cafe in Akihabara and bonded with drunken anime dudes over Thunder Cats in a tiny Golden Gai bar. We even spent a day outside of the city and traveled to Kamakura on the Pacific coast where we visited rustic, wooded temples and paid homage to a 140 foot-tall bronze Buddah and on the way home stopped in Yokohoma's China Town for dinner.
As far as neihborhoods go, I really enjoyed Shinjuku after dark. In particular I liked an alley called "Memory Lane" filled with ramshackle yakitori koints, an izakaya or two and a cool bar called Albatross, where drinks are passed upstairs through a hole in the ceiling. Also in Shinjuku, I enjoyed the Golden Gai. It's a sort of post-war, black-market-looking stretch of alleys filled with hundreds of pocket-sized bars, hidden among neon makes-Times Square-look-like-peanuts Shinjuku. Bar-hopping in Golden Gai is like a guessing game. You spot a cool looking sign, open the door to a closet-sized room packed with five or six patrons until you found the spot where you could squeeze in.
Then there were the times where Nick and I, not knowing what we were doing, stumbled into situations. A highlight being the night we spotted the Tokyo Tower from the metro car we were riding and spontaneously got off. We walked all of the way to the Tower, because we remembered that there's jazz in the observation deck lounge every Thursday night. For the cost of admission, which was cheaper than the admission to any dive bar in Tokyo (Serious! Cover charges are outrageous), we took in awesome night-time views of the city and listened to live music. Another odd highlight was stumbling across a German Beer Hall in Ginza complete with a lederhosen-wearing, German language-singing, elderly Japanese oom-pah band!
I went through Nick's photos the other day, bemoaning my lost vacation snapshots the whole time. I guess I've now got an extra reason to return to Japan -- in addition to the lovely countryside, people and culture -- to photograph the heck out of the lovely countryside, lovely people and lovely culture! I look forward to my next visit and promise to share those photos with you!

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