How Do We Get To Whatchamacallit-Dori?

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September 12th 2011
Published: September 18th 2011
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Everything in Tokyo is bright, loud and a little bit wacky. The television shows are positively absurd, the advertising is - in your face - loud, the signs are blindingly bright, even the labels on food items are colorful and quirky. The fashion is off the hook, the food is plentiful and delicious, and the buildings are chic and modern. And everyone bows... a lot. You bow to say hello, you bow to say goodbye, you bow to say thank you, you bow to say thank you again, and then one or two more times for good measure.

After about 16 hours of traveling a grubby and bleary eyed version of Travis and myself stumbled into the sleek, modern Tokyo airport. My first impressions of Tokyo was it was very similar to the United States, but the people dressed nicer, were smaller in stature and were more polite….and everything was in Japanese. We had our first encounter with the language barrier almost immediately. Our taxi driver had never heard of our hotel and was unable to read the address we had printed out since it was written in letters rather than kanji. It was an interesting experience not being able to communicate whatsoever. First he would say something that we couldn’t understand, then we would say something that he didn’t understand. We were at a stand still - there was absolutely nothing we could do to help. We sat there completely helpless until I finally waved down a woman who spoke a tiny bit of English and was able to give the cab driver directions. It was the first of many, many times that we would get lost in Tokyo.

We spent our first day in Tokyo walking around Ginza, a very upscale area of Tokyo where our hotel was located. Everyone - and I mean everyone (except us) - was dressed up. All the ladies wore high heels and short skirts and the men wore suits or tailored shirts. The streets were wide and clean and the shop windows displayed expensive modern clothing that you would find on Michigan Ave in Chicago as well as traditional Japanese products (tea pots, parasols, etc). Dotted in between the expensive store fronts were large pachinko halls (an arcade game that is similar to a vertical pinball machine), arcades, tiny restaurant stalls, and convenient stores. First we headed to the Imperial Palace, which was once the site of the Edo Castle. The palace is surrounded on all sides by a moat and high 16th century stone walls. After an afternoon of strolling through the impressive grounds and parks we went and relaxed over a bowl of delicious Ramen at a small restaurant nestled underneath the railway.

That night we decided to wander out again. We only had 5 days in Tokyo and we wanted to see as much of it as we could in that time. We took the train to an area called Shinjuku which according to our guide book was an area that never sleeps. From the train station we tried to find the main area, Kabukicho, a controversial spot known for its many love hotels, pachinko halls, jazz halls and other unsavory things - but - it did not want to be found. The area was completely disorienting and to make matters worse the street signs were in Japanese kanji rather than letters making them next to impossible to read. We had no idea which direction was which, since every street looked the same – bright blinking lights as far as the eye could see. Finally after an hour or more of walking in circles we found Kabukicho, unfortunately, we were completely exhausted and decided to head home after briefly trying our luck in one of the arcades. After some more time wandering in circles we found our way back to the train station only to find that it was closed for the night. Exhausted and too far from our hotel to walk we flagged down a cab a coughed up about $65 USD for the 10 min cab ride - a bit more expensive than our $4.50 train ride would have been. Oops, we wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Friday morning we woke up early and met Kana (a Japanese exchange student who had been living with my family in Sun Prairie for the last year) and her mom, Yoki and headed straight for the Shibuya/Harajuku region. It was really awesome to see a familiar face and also a huge relief to not have to try to navigate for an entire day! We walked up and down Omote-sando, a beautiful tree lined street with expensive stores such as Chanel and Versache. We stopped at the Oriental Bazaar to shop and I contemplated buying a kimono. I was awestruck with how beautiful they were, and even more awestruck by how old they were. The one I was looking at was deep purple with beautiful painted flowers and was 120 years old! In the end I decided to wait since they were expensive and it was only our second day on the road. Next we had lunch at a little no-frills sushi place in Harajuku that had been open since 1924. It was very similar to the sushi at home – the only real difference I noted was that the rice was warm instead of cold, and the wasabi was mixed into the rolls rather than served on the side. Right around the corner was the Volume salon, where I was going to get my hair cut. The salon is decked out like a post-apocalyptic spaceship on the basement level and a trendy Asian loft on the top. After a hair wash and a quick massage I got an adorable funky short cut and felt like myself all over again. Now it was time to hit up the famous Takeshita-dori where all the young, trendy, Harajuku girls hang out. The fashion was all of the cosplay sort – stores sold bright accessories, amazing costumes, dresses, and a fair amount of second hand clothes. It was my kind of street. We saw a fair share of gothic lolitas, Kitty maniacs and other cosplay devotees and I ooed and awwed at each one! Takeshita-dori ends right at the entrance to a large Shinto shrine called Meiji-jingu shrine so we decided to check it out. A high wooden gate 1,500 years old marks the entrance to the sanctuary which is tucked away in a wooden area. The shrine itself was very simple and peaceful, constructed entirely of Japanese cyprus – a light red wood.

After the shrine we tried to find dinner in Ginza. We were exhausted and on a budget so we went to the first affordable place we could find. Upon sitting down we discovered it was actually Korean food, not Japanese! Despite this it was absolutely delicious – rolled pieces of pork cooked on a small hibachi grill at our table, accompanied with lettuce, and a large array of delicious spices and sauces. We had another full agenda the following day as we were planning to meet up with Shima, a friend of Travis’ from college and her family so we crashed fairly early to give our aching legs a rest.

Shima, her husband, Takeshi, and her two children, Sota and Yuzu-ki met us in our hotel lobby the following morning (Saturday). Immediately I fell in love with her – sweet, bubbly and funny. And her kids are absolutely precious! Ive never seen two happier little kids! Sota is 1 yrs old and he sleeps and smiles a lot. He is super outgoing for a little one and would often reach out for Travis or I to hold him. Yuzu-ki is 4 yrs old and she is an unbelievable happy child! She has a huge smile for everything! From our hotel we decided to take the train to the Akihabara, an area known for its manga megastores, electronics stores and maid cafes. Every few feet a young woman dressed in a sexy maid outfit would try to lure us inside to eat at their café. Only in Tokyo have I seen this kind of fetish wear worn daily as a regular outfit (this goes for many of the outfits we saw in Harajuku as well). It was quite entertaining. We had lunch in an outdoor market, Ameyayokocho, which stretched along the rail line. Vendors sold dried algae, dried seaweed, fresh fish, as well as watches, and other Western knock-off clothing. It was great to have someone order food for us since most of the time we didn’t know what we were getting! Shima took the liberty of ordering us several skewers of different kinds of meat including cow tongue and octopus which we ate somewhat skeptically. Although they both had weird textures (the cow tongue chewy and tough, and the octopus slimy) they were both flavored well and reasonably good. Next we took the train to the Ueno/Yanaka area – one of the only areas of Tokyo that still feels somewhat traditional. Snuggled in between the large modern buildings are old wooden houses and small Buddhist temples. We strolled through a peaceful ancient cemetary with beautiful large stones displaying intricate carvings and Japanese kanji and visited a Buddhist temple (Jomyoin) that had approximately 20,000 stone statues filling the grounds. The statues represented jizo, or dieties that protect children, and made me think of and my favorite little kids at home, Isaac and Sofia. I was happy that we had two beautiful little children to share the experience with (Sota and Yuzu-ki).

Sunday morning was our last full day in Tokyo and we had tickets for the Sumo wrestling tournament that afternoon so we headed to the Asakusa/Ryoguku area where the Sumo stadium was located. Right away we found Nakamise-dori, a street lined with all things Japanese – kimonos, parasols, fans, Hiroshige prints, knickknacks, and so on – obviously designed for tourists. Even though they were designed for tourists didn’t make them any less cool and I could've spent the day there shopping if we didn’t have to be at the Sumo stadium. The end of the street led up the steps to the large Sensoji Buddhist temple – the biggest, oldest, and most popular in all of Tokyo. You have probably seen pictures of it on a post card somewhere – a massive red paper lantern hangs from the entryway. Next we made a beeline for the sumo tournament and met up with Shima and her family in tow. The stadium was what you would expect for any large sporting event – large, with rows of seats surrounding a center stage. Except, what was on the center stage was quite different from any sporting event Ive ever been to. There were large, fat men. Very large. A decent portion of the match is spent ‘posturing’ – two men line up face to face in the center of the mat, get down as if they are going to wrestle, and then walk away. They slap their thighs and stomachs really dramatically and then walk back into the center. Again, they get down and you think they are going to fight - but the don’t. They turn around and walk away again. After a couple more times of this they very suddenly throw themselves at one another pushing and shoving for about 10 seconds until one of them is pushed outside of the circle. The crowd screams wildly during this time, and then the process begins all over again. After a couple hours of this charade the matches are over and all of us head over to the Asahi Sky Room, a bar on the 22nd floor of a large skyscraper and home of the Asahi brewery (the popular Japanese beer). The view is outstanding – a 180 degree view of the Tokyo skyline. The lights go on and on and we contemplate in silence how each and every little light represents a family nestled in their house. And we once again have the realization that Tokyo is big, very big. We say our farewells to Shima, Taka-shi and the kids and I'm a little bit sad they cant come along with us. They definitely made our stay in Tokyo a little more special.

Monday morning we wake up at 5am and head to the Tsukiji fish market (we get lost along the way of course), the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It is an outdoor market teeming with small vehicles transporting fish and other goods and businessmen negotiating their purchases. We are forced to wear neon green vests and our “guide” screams at us to stay out of the way every few seconds as vehicles zoom past. The tuna are the largest fish I have ever seen before – most of them about 6 feet long and a couple feet wide. They were laid out in line after line on display. The auction kicks off with a small, energetic man standing on a stool yelling things I cant understand. Businessmen inspect thin slices of meat and raise their hands to make bids. We are in the way. Twenty minutes of this chaos was plenty and we gingerly make our way back to our hotel to crash for a couple of hours before check-out. Rather than going straight to the airport we take a train to Chiba where Kana lives. We don’t understand what train to get on and show up an hour late, but Kana is there waiting for us! We head to her house for a somewhat hurried visit and are greeted by her dad, mom (Yoki), and little brother. Her mother has prepared us a huge Thai feast (she teaches Thai and Chinese cooking for a living) complete with shrimp egg rolls, coconut curry soup, a shrimp noodle salad, and a chicken vegetable stir fry. We sit on the floor on cushions around a low table. The main meal is followed by green tea and a coconut mango custard – absolutely divine! Their house is a simple 5 room home with traditional Japanese elements – screen dividing the rooms, and bamboo mats on the floor. Much smaller than we are used to, but cute and comfortable. Finally, our time in Tokyo is done and we are whisked away to the airport to fly to Hong Kong for one night, then on to Bali! Our legs our aching from so much walking, our brains burnt out from so much navigating, but it was an amazing adventure with lots of new experiences! Now for some relaxation…

To see more pictures from Tokyo check out Travis' flickr site at:

Additional photos below
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18th September 2011

What a fantastic description of the trip thus far! We enjoyed hearing about the exciting places, including the mishaps, and all the great food, shopping and visits with friends you\'ve had. I really liked seeing Kana and her mom with you. Travis\'s friends looked super sweet and fun! Keep up the writing and photography! Travis\'s pictures were awesome too! Hope Bali is slower paced and energizing. love you, mom
23rd September 2011

The photography
Wow Claire, I am honored to be able to follow along with your journey. The photographs that you have posted make your blog look like a professional site. Either you or your husband must have photography experience. What kind of camera do you use? I took a week long photography class at Cornell University one summer, and I can say my black/white skills are better for it and I do know how to develop film in a dark room...yet I see I have a lot to learn about angles and lighting. I am so excited for you both, being on this trip :)
27th September 2011

Hey lady! Glad you're enjoying the blog! Its hard to keep up with because we are doing so much everyday. Some of the pics on my site are from my camera (a canon point and shoot - SD 780 IS) and some are from my husband - he is definitely the main photographer. I should actually give him more credit on my site... He uses a canon 40D. Hope you are doing well as well! Thanks for the comments : )
27th September 2011

Thanks for reading and commenting mom! It was really cool to see Kana and meet her family. The meal her mom made us was amazing! We are sending a box full of Christmas presents home soon but it will take two months to get there....

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