Japan Stories: Tokyo Landing

TOKYO IS A VERTICAL CITY. The best bars, the secret restaurants, the gems are found by keeping your eyes up and staying aware. Every floor of a building contains something different — an exceptional sushi restaurant sandwiched between a nightclub and a hole-in-the-wall bar. Floor after floor of karaoke, its reckless occupants shamelessly exposed to the outside world. The rhythm between the bright neon lights and the dimly lit windows is mesmerizing, the allure of a foreign place that’s an adventure to find all on its own. In Japan, this is where the good stuff lives. In Tokyo, there’s a lot of good stuff.

After managing the fourteen-hour flight, we were here in Tokyo, stepping onto the metro from Haneda Airport. Japan has been a place that has captivated me for so long, its culture and food, its dramatic landscape, its perception of life. Here with eight of my best friends, we began the journey that would take us to several different regions of Japan, from the major cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, to more rural areas such as Hakone, and the Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku.

There wasn’t much we could say to each other on the train. I stared out of the window with a smile on my face and watched the soft rain drip down the glass, the boat lights and industrial sites of the bay illuminated outside. We were staying in Akasaka and had a good walk ahead of us from the train to get there. We hopped off and trudged through the spotless streets like a line of ducks, all in awe as we looked up at the glistening Blade Runner-esque buildings with steep slanted roofs, the architecture as if from a distant year in the future. Our breath was outlined in the cold air, the rain fell off our shoulders. We moved through the streets in unison, lugging our bags through the rain, in disbelief that we all made it to the other side of the world together.

We arrived at the hostel so excited to see the other guys who had been in Tokyo for a couple of days already. We were greeted with brimming smiles and passed Asahi beers with no time wasted. After checking in we threw our bags into the hostel’s fourteen-person dorm and went across the street to 711 for some nourishment. 711 in Japan, a beacon of hope, an institution, a shining example of convenience store perfection. 711 in Japan is nothing like in the United States or anywhere else in the world. One could cheaply live off the food and drink supplied at this establishment, and frankly live well.

The first thing I had to get was an onigiri, a rice ball stuffed with anything from pickled seaweed and plums to salmon roe. There are many variations, all relatively delicious. They come fresh every day and serve as a source of breakfast or snack to Japanese on the go before sitting down to a proper lunch later. These things were the fuel to our adventures and something I’d been dying to try since seeing them devoured in Spirited Away. Wrapped like a delicate origami so the seaweed doesn’t touch the rice, which keeps the seaweed fresh and crunchy, we ate our assortment of onigiri in front of 711, mouths full attempting to catch up since all being together last.

That night was a mishmash of wandering the shining streets while sipping highballs (Japanese whisky and soda), lost, simply laughing with delirium after not sleeping for twenty plus hours. It didn’t matter what we did, we were in Tokyo. We paid Shibuya crossing a visit, fell into a few bars, and of course finished the night with our first bowl of ramen.

Tokyo is a megalopolis, a sprawling city with many distinct neighborhoods. Each ward has an identity and culture of its own. Together, these cities within a city add up to what we know as the greater Tokyo. Massive buildings make up downtown districts such as Ginza, Shibuya and Shinjuku. These areas are jaw-dropping. But to stay in the city center and never leave, never travel to the working class outskirts, the real beating heart of the city is to not see Tokyo at all.

We visited Shinjuku with its towering skyscrapers and views, but staying only in Shinjuku makes you feel like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. You have to visit the suburbs to see the master craftsman shokunin up at dawn cooking for the neighborhood, or creating art which brings them livelihood. Tokyo is unlike anywhere else in the world. Endless wandering may lead to the discovery of a thousand year old shrine, sitting at the base of a skyscraper that makes up the Tokyo skyline. This is modern Tokyo, and to see the dark hues of red torii gates, the deep green and yellow trees, the blazing orange leaves juxtaposed against the monochromatic city backdrop is breathtaking.

We essentially visited a new neighborhood every day. Since the firebombing of the Second World War Tokyo has been rebuilt from the ground up, with only a few neighborhoods retaining their pre-war structures. One of these is Yanaka. It was a fresh morning. Walking through Yanaka in silence, you could hear a pin drop on the street. A deep inhale brought calm, tranquility, a stark contrast to the hustle of Tokyo’s core. Many of the buildings are brick, wooden, low, the streets are clean and narrow. Autumn is felt in every avenue of this world. Golden trees loom over the city streets, burning red maple leaves dominate every park. This brings me so much joy. I’ve always been lured to cities that change with the season. For my first visit to Japan, I had to come in the fall.

The seasons of Japan are in constant flux, in motion from one to the next. Each season is fierce, and when it strikes, it strikes hard. The spring cherry blossoms come and go in the blink of an eye. Summer is hot, humid and rainy, yet reawakens the land. Autumn is bright, cool, fresh, golden. Winter is quiet and still. The Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi believes in letting go of what is no longer here and appreciating what lies ahead. The landscape of Japan being susceptible to natural disasters has made the strong-willed Japanese accustomed to letting go and looking forward. As with their seasons, there is constant beauty all around, though always changing. The sunlight changes the city throughout the day and alters the shadows, the trees and the buildings, which play off one another and make the city a piece of art in faint, but noticeable transition.

Aesthetically, Wabi Sabi emphasizes the natural, the imperfections of nature and of life. I noticed this all around while in Japan, it’s a constant theme no matter where you are or where you look, it’s a feeling that never leaves. Yanaka was a beautiful reminder of this. Walking through this historic old neighborhood, I noticed the decay, the fading old buildings, the falling of the autumn leaves transitioning to bare winter trees. But placed on the steps of old buildings are vibrant, fresh flowers in contrast to their surroundings. Having been rebuilt so often, electrical wires dominate the streets in Japanese cities. However interwoven with these wires and poles are trees and plants that give an omnipresent charm.

Flowers are everywhere, on the doorstep of every home and lined up on city streets. It’s as if collectively Japan makes this a priority, to fill their cities with a natural rusticity that is constantly changing, that comes and goes with the wind. I’ve never been so enamored by a silent alleyway cramped with an old bike or a pile of trash, at first glance meaningless, but after stoping to pay closer attention I’d notice the beauty even in the unwanted. I’ve always found cemeteries powerful when in a foreign place. Something about their spirituality, their calm. It allows me to slow down and truly appreciate life in that moment.

Cemeteries are numerous in Yanaka, often on temple grounds, the gravestones are somber and grey. Wooden planks stem from these stones, delicately engraved with names and prayers. With the silence of the cemetery surrounding us we were able to stop and be thankful. Thankful for another day, for the fact that we were together on the other side of the world with the freedom to briefly lose ourselves during this young stage in our lives.

I was up early the next day, eager to get out there and watch Tokyo wake up. I was hungry. Breakfast is often simple, a bowl of rice with a raw egged cracked on top, some seaweed, pepper and a little soy sauce. Walking down the street close to my hostel, I saw this staple dish advertised in a shop window. While this would be the first of many, and probably the most ineloquent version of this meal, it hit its mark spot on. It was still early. The legendary Tsukiji Market where crack of dawn tuna auctions are historic is a place you want to visit early to sample fresh seafood. While the market itself is closed and has moved to a new location in Tokyo, the surrounding street vendors still shell out their daily oceanic delicacies. At 7am my best friend and I had the best tuna sashimi of our lives, a few meaty slices prepared on half an oyster shell with a dab of wasabi. The fish is soft but has bite, is deep in color, it melts in your mouth, it’s how sashimi should be. We had some chicken liver to round the morning out and we were off.

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Well fed and with a little local exploration under our belt, we met up with the crew and set out to Shimokitazawa, an eccentric neighborhood lined with thrift stores and a retro feel. Everyone you see in Tokyo, even if they don’t all have style per se, cares about how they look. They put effort into how they’re perceived, from the old men with soft-shouldered suits, matching scarves and a winter hat, to essentially all young Japanese who rock a vintage look. Japan has style, it’s cool to see.

Vintage stores are huge in Japan. A lot of what you’ll find however are American clothes, where I’d scan through racks of jackets looking for a Japanese brand, all I could find are Polo jackets, Patagonia fleeces and Champion sweaters. Albeit everything in every store is done in a Japanese way, clean, organized and detailed, it’s a funny realization. I want Japanese, they want American. After hanging around Shimokitazawa for a majority of the day, evening set in. We lingered at an outdoor market in the center of the neighborhood where locals slowly enjoyed grilled oysters, beer and chilled sake and watched the sun set on Tokyo. Businesses closed for the day, darkness took over and lights turned on.

Izakaya — the happy medium of Japanese cuisine, a blend of all that is great about Japanese food and culture built to launch one happily into the night. Thought of as a Japanese pub but with much, much better food, it’s a place to eat with friends, drink and be merry for a couple hours before going out. The chef prepared charred skewers of chicken and vegetables, all types of seafood and vegetable tempura, sashimi, hot pot, it’s all fair and wonderful. In Tokyo, there’s no better place to experience a proper izakaya than Ebisu Yokocho.

The place is unassuming from the outside, but behind a few closed doors is a packed hall of izakaya stalls, one after the other making it difficult to tell where one starts and another begins. We split up our group to sit at whatever tables we could find, it didn’t matter, we couldn’t go wrong. Each restaurant is bustling with salarymen rubbing shoulders, their cigarette smoke and steam from the grill flowing together from all directions to create a tangible, lovely haze throughout the entire hall. We hung out for a while, flipped our own skewers on the small grill in the middle of the table, mopped up the last of the shrimp and beers and set off like a band of comrades into the night.

It’s fundamental to work hard in Japan, but the salarymen who work hard all day at their desk jobs need a release, practically every night. Ties are loosened and drinks start flowing, often with the company boss leading the charge. We had to experience a proper karaoke night, which in Tokyo is on a level of its own. These are karaoke hotels, a labyrinth of floor after floor, room after room of a few couches, strobe lights and a TV at the front, belting out American and Japanese classics alike, all set to the backdrop of a similar pre-made music video. It’s hilarious and part of the culture, a day at work followed by izakaya and a night of karaoke, stumbling home and waking up the neighborhood at 4am belting out the chorus of whatever was sung, just to do it again tomorrow.

The next few days we continued to explore. We stayed in Koenji, a local neighborhood with cheerful izakayas under its central train station, becoming more and more lively as the week progressed. We checked out the streetwear subculture of Harajuku and the slow pace of Jinbocho, known for its used book stores and Hiroshige prints stacked in storefront boxes. One of my favorite areas that I returned to several times was Nakameguro, where I could truly imagine what it might be like to live here.

I’m fascinated by the waterways and canals that run through any great city. Nakameguro, famous for its cherry blossom lined canals in spring is a neighborhood where I could easily idle the day away, where instead of the ephemeral spring pink flowers, the trees and neighborhood were now dark. Yellow leaves fell from the branches above as we sauntered from bridge to bridge, watching a lone white crane stand still in the center of the canal, its body outlined against the shallow gray water. The air was crisp, cleansed from the recent downpour rain. The streets were refreshed and covered with the wet fallen leaves, the air cold.

That night, we were walking along the canal, seeing what we could get into. I was alone for a moment. I looked into the window of a shop where a cook was tending takoyaki, battered, creamy, piping hot octopus balls that always seem to leave your mouth scorched. He seemed focused, giving that moment his full attention.

I watched him, captivated by the quickness of his hands flipping the staple Japanese streetfood. He looked up and saw me watching. He waved, I waved back and laughed. That’s how it is with Japanese. From our experience they were never unwelcoming, even in the most local, five seater hole-in-the-wall bars or stuffy restaurants. I found, when given respect, the Japanese enjoyed the opportunity to share their unique culture with foreigners like us. They’d make room wherever we were, and welcomed us in with an emphatic “irasshaimaseee!”This was from our travels in Tokyo, the beginning of our journey. From here, we left Tokyo Station for Hakone, a region in the hills outside Tokyo at the base of Mt. Fuji.

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