The world is a really big place, and nothing makes it feel bigger than a ten-hour plane ride. This time, the big metal bird is taking me all the way to Japan as part of a three-week vacation. It was hard to wrap my head around being away from work for so long, but my boss helped put it in perspective by saying, "Everyday will be like a weekend because you're fired". Escorted by my portable traveling companion, Hana, we will be spending a week in Japan, and then spending another two weeks in South Korea. Prep your eye sockets, this will be my best photo tour yet!
Most of what I know about Japan comes from YouTube game shows (yes, you should actually stop reading this to watch the linked video), but to my surprise, daily life in Japan wasn't like that at all. On a related note, it took a trip to the dentist to figure out that most of the furniture that I encountered was not candy. The first thing that struck me as odd when I got out of the airport and into the streets was that nobody was being a jerk. I suddenly felt like I was a long way from my home country. I quickly learned that this was a great way to spot tourists. They are the ones that are loudly arguing, usually in English. Everyone in Japan was extremely polite to me. I later found out their sinister motive... they wanted me to be polite as well. Their cleanliness and efficiency was also quite striking. When the train pulled up to take us to Tokyo from the airport, we couldn't board for about five minutes because the staff was cleaning the train. Yes, they cleaned the entirety of the nine car train in five minutes.
Another difference about Japan is that people bow a lot. I found this a bit puzzling at first, but once I got to the place we were staying, the reason became obvious. It's because there are a lot of low ceilings, short doorframes, and obstacles at head height. I guess the Japanese just got in the habit. The apartment where we stayed in Tokyo was small, but cozy. The bathroom was much smaller than I was used to, and they had a separate tiny closet for the toilet. The most memorable thing about the room was not that it only had one television, but that it was in the shower.
We were staying right in Shinjuku, whose train station is considered to be the busiest in the world. It's got all kinds of attractions from Golden Gai (an alleyway full of tiny bars) to themed restaurants. There are so many choices for themed restaurants. There are maid cafes where attractive women dress as maids serve you food and prison cafes where you get the experience of eating a meal in jail. Hana and I were feeling more hungry than sexist at the time, so we met up with a few friends and went to the prison-themed restaurant called "The Lockup". Upon entering, a police officer put me in handcuffs and led us through a hallway of spider webs and skulls to the table. It turned out she was just our waitress. She pushed us into to a cell and locked us in! The nerve they have here in prison! The food was nothing worth commenting on other than that it had strange names. For example, you could order "ghost bowels" (hot dogs, potatoes, and ketchup) or the roulette takoyaki. Takoyaki is a fried dough ball with octopus tentacle in it. Roulette means that only one of the many balls would be very, very spicy. The drinks were brightly colored and came in test tubes and beakers. It seems they weren't very committed to the prison theme. Near the end of our meal, the lights suddenly went dark and sirens started blaring! The announcer was speaking Japanese, but said something to the effect of "Prisoners are escaping!" Soon after, werewolves, clowns, and people in kubuki masks started slamming open cell doors and trying to scare us. Hana was pretty scared and I was quite amused (but still wet my pants so that the people in costumes wouldn't feel like they went through all that effort for nothing). This went on for about five minutes before the music changed to a happy birthday song and the prison break transformed into something of a dance party.
We went to a bar at Golden Gai afterwards to watch some really awkward karaoke. After a couple drinks, a miserable game of darts, and an unforgettable rendition of "Piano Man" I was thoroughly tipsy. We left to go explore. On the way home, a taxi pulled up next to us and five guys got out--four from the cabin and one from the trunk. What a strange custom! The rumors about Japanese transportation with regard to crowded, tight spaces were true. All in all, it was a strange night.
To my surprise, finding breakfast in Japan proved harder than teaching an amputee how to use chopsticks. We wandered for nearly thirty minutes before finding a place that was open. In our three days in Tokyo we managed to find two great breakfast spots. One was a ramen shop where you can order a tasty bowl of noodles and pork with a soft-boiled egg. The other was Good Times, a little bakery in the underground subway area.
The train station--despite being the largest in the world--was not loud at all. Nobody talks either on the train or in the station. The only sound you hear is hundreds of people walking. Japan's transportation system is little short of excellent. It is punctual, convenient, and you'll rarely spend more than five minutes waiting for one. The bestest part is that at every stop, the train plays a friendly little jingle. Our first train ride was to Akihabara, dubbed "The Electric City". Akihebara is famous for its street electronics markets, anime shops, and technology stores. Naturally, I wanted to see some of those robot women that I'd heard so much about. Alas, I'm not sure I ever did... I guess you can never really be sure. As the great science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from real human women". I think shortly after, he went insane and forced his wife to repeatedly go through a metal detector.
Ahikaburra introduced me to a concept that I thought impossible. Remember those claw machines full of stuffed animals from the 90s where you could trade your hard-earned income for mild disappointments? Here they have six-story buildings (seven if you count the basement) full of them on every corner. There are a few arcade machines as well, but you have to ask one of the many video game savants to take a break if you'd like to play one.
After touring Akihabañero, we were hankering for some lunch. Thanks to the recommendation of one of Hana's Japanese friends, we made our way to Tokyo Skytree. Tokyo Skytree is not only the tallest structure in Japan, but it's also the tallest structure in Tokyo. It contains an aquarium, a planetarium, and much more. For lunch, we got okonomiyaki, which I had never had before. Approximately translated, okonomiyaki means, "look at all the stuff we put in your pancake". It's made from batter, grated yams, eggs, shredded cabbage and lots of other ingredients. As is typical in Japanese tradition, okonomiyaki is coated with mayonnaise, grilled to perfection before your eyes, and doesn't wear shoes indoors. We ate straight from the hot grill using a tiny metal spatula.
Food in Japan is somewhat expensive. A good meal can easily cost 3000 yen, but a bad meal can cost you your appetite, so choose wisely! A dollar is approximately equal to one hundred yen, but confusingly, 1000 yen is only about 90 dollars.
Skytree tower had all kinds of crazy things. All the restaurants in Japan seem to have an obsession with putting fake food on display. I guess folks think it looks more appetizing than a picture. Skytree had a store that sold exclusively fake plastic food.
Just when I thought I'd seen everything Skytree tower had to offer, what did I spot with my eyesticles? When I was just a little shit, my parents bought me the gameboy game, Pokemon Yellow. Even though I'm now a big shit, I still haven't grown out of Pokemon. Neither have the Japanese.
By day three, I was ready for some street food so we went to Tsukiji Fish Market. Oh my, do they sell fish. Whether you want tuna, salmon, puffer fish, squid, or eel, they'll find ten different ways to cook it. The shoppers were less creative in eating it, and usually did so orally.
The best kinds of poems
are short, sweet, and Japanese
a charming haiku
Incidently, the number of haikus that I heard, read, wrote, or was permitted to tattoo on my lower back while in Japan was exactly zero. Thanks a lot, Hana.
We scheduled our trip just in time to see the cherry blossom trees. It's somewhat tricky to time if you want to buy your tickets months in advance. We missed the actual blooming, but managed to still catch one of the cherry blossom festivals.
What a week! It's time to be on our way. We're taking the mighty Shinkansen to Kyoto. It's the fastest maglev train in the world with a top speed of 375 miles per hour, though it doesn't exceed 200 miles per hour with passengers. Maglev means it uses magnetism to float in much the same way that regular trains do not.