Posted on September 22, 2016
It’s already Friday morning here, in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. We arrived on Wednesday evening, some 12 hours after leaving PDX. The jet lag is still with us and we were wide awake early yesterday morning. Looking at the clock on my iPad, and seeing it was 1:30, I thought it must be 5:30 am here in Tokyo (since my iPad clock has never altered itself before, when changing time zones), and I was stoked to get on the subway and head to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Then I looked at the clock again and realized it had been updated, which meant it was only 1:30 in the morning, Thursday. We went back to bed until five or so, them I got up and checked the hours for Tsukiji. We really wanted to hit the market while we still had jet lag, since the early morning hours, during the fish auctions, are the most fun. What I’d forgotten, however, was that yesterday was a Japanese holiday: it was the solstice! So the market was closed.
Open since the Edo period, the Japanese fish market moved to Tsukiji in 1923 and has been in business ever since. It’s an institution. Whenever I come to Tokyo, I always try and make it to the market my first morning. There’s something fun about having ultra-fresh sushi at 7 am, shoulder to shoulder with a lot of the fish market laborers. On my first visit to Tsukiji, in 1997, there weren’t a lot of tourists there; Google hadn’t been invented yet (had it?). I remember trying to hand money to the sushi chef, after my meal, and how everyone in the tiny restaurant (it could seat 8 people) looked at me as if I’d just sneezed on the fish. The chef kept refusing my money, and waving me away, so I thought he was being polite and buying my meal for me. When I started walking out the front door, a small woman I hadn’t previously seen came running out from behind the counter, yelling at me in Japanese. Then I understood: I was supposed to pay her, since her hands never touched the fish (in the highly misogynistic world of Japan, women were considered unable to ever handle raw fish, as their hands were deemed too warm to keep the fish fresh). That was nearly 20 years ago, which seems impossible. The last time I was at Tsukiji was in 2008, when I took Marla and Jacob to Japan for the first time. Then, the market was full of tourists and all the best hole-in-the-wall sushi joints had lines stretching down the alleys. I’m guessing that will be the case this morning, since the Tsukiji Fish Market is slated to relocate next month, to a remote area of Tokyo called Kotoku, and tourists won’t be as thick, since it won’t be readily accessible by train or bus. Nearly 20% of current fish vendors, and the vast association of other businesses associated with them, are closing their doors for good once the relocation gets underway. So this will be the last time I’ll get to go. Marla and Jacob are up and ready to brave the rain once more. I’m glad the nearest subway station is only a two-minute walk from the Airbnb house I rented here, near Harajuku. Tsukiji is nearly an hour from here, after changing trains twice, but it’s all underground. Then we have a 10-minute walk from Tsukiji Station to the market. More later, and I’ll post some photos from yesterday (all shot with my iPhone, since it was too stormy to carry an umbrella and my camera at the same time).
It’s now just after seven pm and I’m still awake, an hour later than I stayed awake last night. Woohoo! After 11 hours of walking around and riding subways I’m pretty beat but not too tired to go out to a place called Baird’s Taphouse that’s within walking distance. They make their own IPA and I’m curious to see how it tastes. But first, a bit more about our day. We did indeed make it to Tsukiji in time for the fish market and we found a hole-in-the-wall sushi joint that must’ve made it onto the TripAdvisor site.
There’s nothing like eating sushi in Tsukiji so we got in line and were seated within 30 minutes. Ahead of us in line was a couple from Silicon Valley and they asked if they could buy some yen off me, since they weren’t aware that most businesses in Japan don’t take Visa (and none of the shops in Tsukiji will take it). I made sure to tell them not to try and pay the chef when their meal was over.
The sushi was amazing and it left me wanting more food from the market, like the soup from this stall:
The woman in this photo seemed pretty upset when she looked up and saw the camera pointed at her so we decided to just scoot on down the road and go to Hama Rikyu Gyoen, one of my favorite meccas in Tokyo. Situated along the Sumida River, Hama Rikyu is the perfect oasis in an otherwise bustling area. Walking towards it, a place I’ve been a dozen times, I didn’t recognize the area at all; everything is being revamped for the upcoming Olympic Games. In fact, that’s the reason the fish market has to relocate: a road is being built in its place, a road for the games. There are a handful of brand new, 30 story buildings that have sprung up around the entrance to Hama Rikyu and it took me awhile to get my bearings. It was still raining, but only just, and the whole park was enshrouded in a low mist, awesome. Here are a few photos from Hama Rikyu:
After Hama Rikyu we walked back to the Hibiya Line and took the subway to Ueno, where I exchanged our JR vouchers for JR Passes; I also booked us on the Shinkansen to Kyoto tomorrow at 1:00. Ueno was fairly close to Asakusa, and to Sensoji Temple, so we walked there. Jacob used his phone to get us there the fastest way and it took us on a route I’d never walked before, through lots of quiet, narrow-laned streets. The sun was about to set so we made our way to the temple before it was dark and it was still crammed with people, mostly couples.
And that pretty much covers our day so far 🙂
It’s now Saturday morning and we are lounging around the house. Our body clocks seem to have fully adjusted and we’re getting ready to go to Kyoto in a bit. The Baird Brewery Taphouse, where we went last night, was amazing! It felt like I was back in an Oregon microbrewery. Then I looked at the prices ($10 per pint) and realized I was in Japan, plus the fact that I was able to order grilled saba (mackerel). The best part about the place? It’s smoke free! I cannot tell you how many times I went out with Kaz, or with my classmates at ICU, and came home reeking like an ashtray; it would take a few days for my hair to finally smell normal. Now that I think about it, every place we’ve eaten at so far has been smoke free. What a difference.
I forgot to transfer some of my iPhone photos to my iPad (this is being written on the iPad). These are panoramic shots, which is the reason I bought the iPhone in the first place. I will place a caption under each one.
Our much-anticipated journey has come to an end (be sure to see my other posts, from Kyoto and Nikko, to see what’s happened since I last posted from Tokyo). We are almost home, waiting here in the Vancouver airport for two more hours for our flight to Portland. It’s always funny to fly from Tokyo to home: we left Narita at 5 pm on Tuesday and now we’re in Vancouver and it’s just past noon…on Tuesday. We went out to Shinjuku last night but it feels like two nights ago. It was our last night in Tokyo, and it was warm and humid. Marla said she wanted to try one of the crepes that are sold all over Tokyo so we made the 5 minute walk from the apartment to Takeshita Dori, which was crammed with people on a muggy Monday night, and perused the handful of crepe shops on the three block stretch of Takeshita. I opted for the strawberry shortcake and Jacob got a mixed berry. Tokyo crepes are different from the ones I had in Paris many years ago: those were flat, more like a thin pancake covered with Nutella and whipped cream. The Tokyo ones are all rolled up like a giant ice cream cone. After the first few bites, which were delicious, Jacob and I were both too full to continue. Marla nibbled a bit from each and we hunted around for a place to throw the rest away (there are almost no trash cans anywhere in Tokyo). I thought we were gonna head back to the apartment but Jacob wanted to go back to the Kabuki-cho area of Shinjuku so we hopped on the Yamanote Line and made the 2-stop trip. I didn’t think it’d be that crowded there, since it was a Monday night, but it was as packed as I’ve ever seen it. Thrumming with life, the neon lights blazing and the insanely loud music blaring out of the pachinko parlors, Kabuki-cho did not disappoint. Twisting and turning, taking any little alley that looked intriguing, we stumbled across a Mexican restaurant. A Mexican restaurant! In Tokyo! When I lived there, the one thing I craved was Mexican food but I never saw a place to get it. We had to go in. There were no complimentary bowls of chips and salsa on the table, ubiquitous to every Mexican restaurant I’ve been to in the States and in Mexico, but they did have good food and tequila. A few shots later we were ready to do some more walking. I was glad we were making the most of our last night and not just sitting in the apartment, waiting in that we-have-to-leave-tomorrow kind of vibe that can permeate the end of any long vacation. The subways stop running at midnight so we didn’t stay out too late, but we definitely gave it our all. Walking back to the station, I looked up and saw the subway entrance platform that I’d slept on back in 2000, when I and a bunch of kids from ICU missed the last train and had to crash in Shinjuku until 5:00 the next morning, when they began running again. It was strange to see it, almost like an anachronism, something that seemed completely out of place. There was no way, back in 2000, that I’d ever thought I’d be at that platform again sixteen years later with my life in Japan as mere memory. The platform looked just the same, and I think nobody else had slept on it since I’d done so (we all had to climb up to get on it, and it’s in full view of one of the busiest plazas in the world), so that was cool.
On our way back to the apartment we passed by Afuri Ramen, a place that always had a line out the door. It was relatively calm at that late hour (but it does stay open til 3 am, every night) so we ducked in for a bite. We’d already eaten there a couple nights earlier, and had to figure out how to order: put money in the vending machine, choose what we wanted, take our tickets, then give those tickets to the chefs. After one bite I could see why the line was always so long; the ramen was outstanding. It was like eating at Pat’s Steaks, in Philly, after years of eating cheesesteaks on the west coast. Jacob had looked up some rules of etiquette, most of which I already knew, but I watched the other patrons anyway –all Japanese– to make sure I was eating properly. Even if the ramen is really hot, and if the amount in your chopsticks is really large, you never bite off the ends so you can have a manageable mouthful. Instead, you keep at it, using the chopsticks to continually feed the ramen into your mouth until it’s all gone, slurping all the way. It was fantastic. I noticed all the women were given little bowls on the side, bowls they could use to hold their chopsticks over as they took each bite so any drips wouldn’t spatter the counter. The men were given no such bowls and I am proud to say I finished the whole bowl (they’re huge) and didn’t spill a drop. That was the first time we ate there. When we were there last night, I was an old pro and devoured the bowl in half the time. Lemme tell ya, if you ever wanna upset your stomach, make sure to eat most of a humongous crepe followed by a big ass bowl of spicy ramen. My stomach hadn’t hurt like that since Dave and I were in Kyoto in 1997 and I had a huge bowl of spicy spaghetti followed by a trip to Baskin Robbins. It’s all better now, thankfully.
And that’s our trip! I will post more photos here, below, once I get back home and go through them. I did see another wedding at Meiji Jingu Shrine the other day, and the light was way better than the first wedding we saw there, a couple weeks ago.
Matt Emrich Photo