Tokyo – New Tastes, Cherry Blossoms and Lots of Cute

The weather gods just couldn’t let us leave Hong Kong for good without asserting their superiority, so once we arrived in Tokyo, they decided to dump about a billion barrels of rain on us for our ten-minute walk to our hosts’.  By the time we dried out, it was late at night and we had a time-change to deal with, but we were just as happy as our new hosts to stay up learning about each other and comparing cultures.

Our first full day in Tokyo began with a home-cooked, Japanese breakfast.  To our western sensibilities, though, this was more like the sort of thing we might usually expect for dinner.  There was rice and miso soup with tofu, nori (seaweed wraps), and, most memorably, natto.  Natto is fermented soybeans, and let’s just say it is not always suited to the palates of non-Japanese.  In fact, we had even been warned by someone to avoid it.  It turns out that Stephanie liked it enough to go back for more.  I wasn’t as sure, and our hosts took great delight in photographing the microscopic sample I took for myself.

They then proceeded to spend the entire day with us in hospitable Japanese style showing us their city.  It’s a darn good thing they were with us too because the Tokyo metro system is less of a way to get around, and more of a giant, cruel joke being played on unsuspecting tourists.  It is without a doubt the most confusing and complicated train system we’ve ever ridden (and we’ve been on the Paris metro).

We went first to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a popular park in the city.  We found that although Japan is near the end of sakura (cherry blossom) season, there were still plenty of flowering trees to be seen.  We strolled the enormous grounds for a couple of hours, taking in the beautiful cherry blossoms and taking plenty of photos, before settling under a tree for a homemade Japanese lunch.  Our host had made rice balls filled with salmon, bamboo or spicy fish eggs, accompanied by bamboo and eggplant salad.  I had always been nervous about the quantity of fish-related edibles in Japan, so I found myself surprised by how much I liked the fish eggs.  After lunch we enjoyed an hour or two of relaxing in the park, which was quite welcome and different from our typically busy travel pace.  As we exited, we were still excited about seeing one beautiful cherry blossom tree after another.

Our next stop was Harajuku where we visited the Meiji Shrine – a beautiful and tranquilly wooded shrine in the middle of the city.  Luck was on our side as we arrived just in time to see a traditional Shinto wedding procession.  Outside the shrine we bumped into a couple of cosplay kids who looked like they popped right out of a Japanese comic book.  (Cosplay is short for “costume play,” and it’s when people dress up as characters from a work of fiction.  The costumes are usually very accurate and detailed.)  Naturally we had our photo taken with them.   We took a stroll down Takeshita Street which is a hip collection of pop culture shops similar to South Street in Philly (or Queen Street in Toronto, or Hollywood Blvd. in L.A.).  We found a 100¥ store which is like a dollar store, except, being Japan, it was like a dollar store on steroids; four floors of 100¥ goodness.  Stephanie was in her element, now armed with the power to be frugal even in Tokyo!  We got out alive only spending about 1200 yen.

After a relaxing break on a beautifully landscaped rooftop terrace, our hosts sprung another surprise on us – they were taking us to dinner.  They wanted us to try traditional izakaya. This is a method of dining kind of like Spanish tapas where individual small dishes are ordered, and everybody shares.  To order, there is an electronic picture menu.  Simply tap in your order, and a few minutes later, it gets delivered to your table.  We started off gently with fried chicken, dumplings and edamame before moving on to dishes like sausage satay dipped in raw egg yolk, udon noodles in a spicy fish-egg cream sauce, and even octopus.  (Yes, octopus!)  We liked just about everything (maybe not the octopus so much), and my favorite was omusoba, a noodle dish topped with an omelet and pickled ginger.

The next day our hosts walked with us to a hip shopping district called Jiyugaoka.  This was specifically so I could get Stephanie to the Sweets Forest.  (See previous post Delicious Desserts in Tokyo.)  We also went in search of things that are “kawaii.”  This is the Japanese concept of being cute, adorable or lovable, and it is everywhere.  Signs are full of baby pink coloring and other pastels, even on the metro.  Big companies pitch things like mobile phones, dry cleaning and metro commuter cards using cute little cartoon characters. Teenage girls put their hair in pony tails and buns with lots of ribbons and barrettes, andwear knee-socks with their bouncy short skirts.  Stores have walls full of cute little trinkets like keychains and cell phone charms, and inside they all have the feel of a Hello Kitty store.  In fact, Hello Kitty is e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e!  As prevalent as she and her friends are in the States, there is so much more to be found in Japan.

Our hosts took us to one store in particular that we just loved.  Imagine the kind of kitschy stuff sold by Urban Outfitters, but now imagine you can actually find a use for the items they sell, rather than just being a hipster desperately searching for a way to be ironically cool.  Needless to say, our credit card did not escape this store unscathed either.  My most interesting experience here was with a gaggle of uniformed schoolgirls.  As I pushed past them a few times while exploring the store, I found myself thinking they were so stereotypically Japanese that I wished I could take a picture, but I didn’t want to be rude (or creepy).  Our host overheard them talking, and told me that they were commenting on how cool they thought I was and that I looked like a Beatle with my shaggy hair and beard.  Thanks for the ego boost, Japan!

We did learn that Japan is a difficult place to use an ATM.  There are machines everywhere, but many of them did not play nicely with our US ATM cards; something we had not experienced before.  We finally found one that would work, but it punished us for our foreignness by forcing us to withdraw 10,000¥.  Worse yet, it came in a single bill (equivalent to just over $100!).  Fortunately this was at a 7-eleven, and so they made change for us.  Now I can say I once had to get change for a 10,000.  After a quick stop at a local market, we had another homemade dinner.  This time it was a fabulous Japanese curry and rice dish.  We got a (relatively) early night because the next day we…

Ooooh, sorry!  We’re out of time.  Join us next time for the next exciting installment.  (And if you’re only reading these posts in your e-mail, be sure to click over to our blog to see the full photo gallery with each post – usually around 30-40 photos or so.)

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