Technology, Tuna, Toilets & Trains in Tokyo

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February 20th 2011
Published: May 1st 2011
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Note - Our visit took place prior to the enormous earthquake that struck Japan on 10th March.

It's Tokyo don't you know!

OK, 72 hours to explore and get to know Tokyo - loads of time we thought, as we flew in from Bangkok. Right, but let's think about this, if we knock off the time to transfer to and from the airport, time spent sleeping, time spent looking at a guidebook and trying to plan what to do (something that probably took longer for us than the other things combined) and time spent on the super efficient but super complicated underground transferring between places, that leaves us with about 30 waking, active hours in which to explore the city. Umm. Surely that's not nearly enough time to even start to get to know this amazing city! And don't forget we don't speak a word of Japanese! Still, don't panic, take deep breaths...and into the melting pot we plunged.

To say we were excited to get a chance to get to know Tokyo is a bit of an understatement. For starters, it was going to be completely different to anywhere else we have been in Asia to date and secondly, and just as importantly, it was going to throw us back into the reality of winter in the Northern hemisphere after the intense heat of Asia over the last few months. It was pretty damn cold for most of our time in Tokyo and it was a rare opportunity to air our jeans and long sleeves which have been dead weight for so long in the bottom of our rucksacks. They proved to be essential wear in Tokyo in late February, and boy were we glad to have carted them around for so long.

Tokyo proved to be the efficient, clean, technologically advanced city we had expected it to be from the outset. It was a shock to be somewhere where everything worked perfectly: trains ran to exact times, traffic stopped at red lights and people could cross the road safely, restaurants were spotlessly clean and food came out quickly. Everything happens here a little faster than in other places it seems.

What do you do when your toilet is smarter than you?

But for all of these exciting and new things around us, it was the high tech toilets that got us most excited initially. We had heard stories of these before arriving and they lived up to our (well it was really Mike's) expectations. Toilets in Japan are something else the likes of which we have never seen anywhere else. Running along your right side as you sit on the toilet is an arm with a line of buttons. An instruction panel is usually found somewhere in the bathroom. Buttons range in function from a deodoriser, to variously angled water sprays for men and women (use your imagination!), to a seat heating option, to even running water sound effects which can be played at various volumes to help mask any more "natural" sounds that may emanate from the cubicle! They are amazing toilets and we definitely want to install one where ever we live next (Mike, again)!

The cool weird bits of Tokyo

Arriving for a long weekend was the perfect timing for us, as we were particularly interested in checking out some of the weirder parts of Japanese culture. Everyone has heard some odd story of some aspect of Japanese life and the weird things that they get up to at times and, as luck would have it, many of these exhibitionists come out to play in the streets and parks of Tokyo on the weekend. We headed to the Yoyogi Koen park, a large wooded park with plenty of trails winding through it. It is somewhere in which it seems anything goes. Whatever your hobby is, you can practise it in Yoyogi park at the weekend, from groups of guys all dressed as Elvis and enthusiastically, if seriously, dancing to 60's music (complete with leathers and huge hairdos), to teenagers hula-hooping, to an amateur dramatics group all dressed in full medieval gear getting ready to practice a play under the trees and even a lone man solemnly playing his trombone.

There is a large doggy exercise area in the park (well actually there are a couple, split between dogs of less than 5kg and those greater than!) which it seems if you have a dog, is the show off area of choice. Pampered pooches are dressed in full costumes like mini rockers, or Napoleon, and they strut proudly around the exercise area, while their owners strut proudly behind them, protecting them from the advances of less desirable canines (if they will dress their doggy in pretty outfits, they have to expect some attention from other dogs!). It is hilarious to watch one petite dog sniff another petite dog dressed as a ballerina!

Other unique things we saw while in Tokyo were the crazy pachinko parlours - mad, noisy, colourful video game and gambling emporiums which are packed full of not only kids, but also sober-suited middle aged ladies on their lunch breaks, all apparently hypnotized by the bright colours and sounds emanating from the screens in front of them. It's fascinating to watch. In one area of Tokyo, maid cafes are particularly popular, fed by the huge fascination in Japan with manga. On the streets, hostesses dressed as nuns or in bunny outfits give out fliers inviting people into the cafes.

A great way to get a break from all the madness and weirdness that goes on in Tokyo is to escape to the serenity of some of the many temples and shrines that are dotted throughout the city. The temples are often pretty grand complexes that look fairly new (almost all buildings in Tokyo are less than 60 years old, having generally been flattened during WWII and since rebuilt), surrounded by running water and swaying trees in perfect Feng Shui harmony. Despite the large numbers of Japanese that flock to them, particularly at the weekend, they are peaceful enclosures where people will pay respects to either religious figures (if it is a temple) or past Japanese emperors (if it is a shrine) in silence. In front of some of the temples are cauldrons containing many incense sticks. The smoke is thought to give good health and the Japanese approach the cauldron , collect some smoke in their cupped hands and then rub it into their bodies through their clothes.

There's something fishy going on here!

However, with all of these attractions throughout Tokyo, one the most popular excursions remains an early morning trip to the massive Tsukiji fish market. While we were in Tokyo, someone told us that the Japanese consume a quarter of all the fish caught throughout the world. To see this market we could quite believe it as it is contained in a huge complex that takes over many city blocks and is packed full of traders selling every sort of seafood you can ever imagine from fish to huge scallops to squid, octopus, shrimp and crabs. However, by far the most impressive fish they land are the yellowfin tuna, some of which are 6 feet long by a couple fo feet wide.

A chaotic tuna auction takes place at 4am daily, where the tuna are sold for thousands of pounds apiece to the stallholders in the market. The fish are then rapidly cut up (usually on a builders table with a saw as they are too huge to use a knife on), and passed on for preparation by the highly skilled fishmongers while they are still as fresh as possible, in advance of them being distributed to the very best restaurants throughout Tokyo. The tuna must be perfectly prepared for the restaurants into exact pieces to be used, particularly for sushi. The tuna is extremely highly revered by the Japanese so it is exact work to carve the tuna properly. One slip of the knife could ruin the entire steak and make it worthless so that it can't be sold on to the restaurants.

Raw fish for breakfast - Japanese style

Adjoining the fish market are a number of tiny sushi restaurants which of course will serve up some of the
Sampling the final productSampling the final productSampling the final product

The freshest sushi we have ever tasted, Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
freshest sushi available anywhere in the world. Being the foodies that we are, we couldn't pass up this opportunity and despite it being only 11am, we were ready to try and stomach the raw fish.
The restaurant we tried had a little bar behind which 2 sushi chefs worked, carving up the fish at exact angles. Ten customers at a time would be seated lined up on the other side of the bar, watching the chefs at work and waiting for wooden trays of sushi selections, along with miso soup and green tea. It was absolutely outstanding sushi with some of the freshest and most tender fish we have ever tasted, but in particular the perfectly prepared tuna and salmon were absolutely melt in the mouth fresh. The only downside of having such amazing sushi is that for ever more now we suspect we may be disappointed by any sushi we ever have!

Other Japanese food, cooked this time

Being big fans of the Japanese food we get back home, we were really looking forward to sampling the real deal, both of dishes we knew and others we'd only heard of. In our limited time in Tokyo, we only had 9 meals to have, so each one had to count, right? This put really rather unecessary pressure on us to find outstanding food every time. That really isn't very easy when you stand outside a restaurant in Tokyo, where the menu is entirely in Japanese. To complicate matters further, some restaurants were hidden away on the upper floors of buildings, so you couldn't figure out if it looked nice without getting a lift up to it. Luckily for dumb tourists like us, the Japanese helpfully place plastic models of many of their dishes in the windows of their restaurants at street level so you can get a 3D impression of what you'll get. And unlike the poor quality pictures you got in China, the real food here actually looked just like its plastic equivalent!

To be fair, restaurants usually had a menu in English hidden away inside the premises somewhere, and we managed to try out many different types of Japanese foods including unusual meats (including tongue), cooked on little tabletop BBQs, shrimp tempura (with some of the biggest shrimp we had ever seen) and eel marinated in soy sauce and barbequed. An attempt to have
Grilling Eel in a restaurant in central TokyoGrilling Eel in a restaurant in central TokyoGrilling Eel in a restaurant in central Tokyo

Adopting the default Japanese photo pose!
ramen didn't go quite as planned - it turned out we got kimi, which is still a combination of delicious broth and noodles. But we had to insert coins and push buttons on a slot machine to choose each element of our dish (small, medium, or large? They are all the same price!), received a load of little tokens, which we then had to hand to a waiting waitress. The broth came full of meats, egg and greens, and the noodles came cold, on the side. You then had to dip your noodles in the hot broth with chopsticks before eating, with loud slurps if possible - the louder, the more polite.

Watching the ritual of how the Japanese eat, whether in quick lunchtime diners, or in traditional little neat restaurants, was absolutely fascinating, and spoke volumes about the importance they place on the manner in which they eat, as much as the actual food. Their movements are precise and tidy, as are all the dishes themselves - there is a minimum of fuss. All of the food was just heavenly, to be honest, it's a foodie paradise. We could have happily have spent weeks there just food tasting, if it weren't for the cost - which is astronomical by the way!

The Japanese also surprised us by how courteous they were towards us - we were perhaps expecting a more brusque and cold welcome, seeing as were unable to communicate in their language, either spoken or body language. But while they were formal, they were quick to acknowledge or smile if we caught someone's eye, which makes a huge difference to how we perceived our stay. And as well as sharply dressed men and cutting-edge teenagers, we did see a fair few women walking around in proper, traditional kimonos on the street - which are just beautiful!

All too soon, with the clock ticking away until our next flight, we were back on the train out to Narita airport to continue our journey east. We were so glad that we managed to get a few days stopover in Tokyo as we both really loved this unique, vibrant, utterly fascinating city. It is so different to anywhere else we have been and we loved the odd and quirky side of the city that is thrown in with all the efficiency and modernity that is ever present. For us the famous Shibuya crossing kind of summed up Tokyo (the one in the movie "Lost in Translation"). It's a 4-way road crossing and when the traffic stops and the green men appear, thousands of people from all directions converge in the centre of the road junction, all jostling to get past each other and on to their ultimate destination. This is exactly the kind of chaotic melting pot of everyone getting thrown in together at the same time that Tokyo is. It is what makes it exciting and vibrant and allows people to be whatever they want to be in the anonimity of the big city.

Additional photos below
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Frozen tuna awaiting carvingFrozen tuna awaiting carving
Frozen tuna awaiting carving

These sell for £1000's at the daily tuna auction.
Cobblers to us....Cobblers to us....
Cobblers to us....

We walked the streets of Tokyo not knowing what anything meant!

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