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Retrospect Travel Log: Japan Part 1 - Tokyo


I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto. All photos by Guy Podjarny

Over the Easter break, we took the young people (12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy) to Japan for a family trip. We had ten days, and we were travelling in serious comfort–just wanted to put that out there. I don’t know if I would have done a 14-hour flight in coach for a 10-day trip. It took me a while to wrangle this trip into a travel log. I had several experiences that I can’t put into words yet. I may try at a later point. For now, I’ll start with a breakdown of what we did, along with pictures. I split it into two posts because it’s a long story, and then I’ll do another post of general impressions and reflections. 


Friday

We landed in Tokyo at 7 a.m. after a 14-hour flight during which the pilots performed an impressive threading-the-needle exercise, avoiding both Iranian and Russian airspace. We went to sleep for a couple of hours because by that time, it was like 1 a.m. in London. In the afternoon, we had a sushi lunch at an excellent place called Sushiko, which is on the 35th floor of a building that has a mall on the first two floors or so and then, I guess, offices? Who knows.


From there, we went to our first activity of the trip: a visit to the Teamlab Borderless experience. It’s a sort of digital art museum with interactive art on every surface of the space. It’s quite difficult to describe, but it is totally amazing.


TeamLab Borderless

The whole thing is at a shopping mall in Azabudai Hills, which I think is the Japanese Beverly Hills. For dinner, we found a place that had hot-stone katsu: they give you raw beef, and you cook it at the table. It seemed to be a locals’ place (barely any tourists, several families). The meat eaters enjoyed it. We went there because the website says there’s fish as well, but that wasn’t the case. 


Saturday

After breakfast, we met up with Utsumi-san, who took us on a tour of the outer fish market. He knows everyone in the market and used to live in California in the 1970s, but what you see in the outer market is mostly tourists. It was packed and rather disappointing. From there, we went to a sushi-making class, which was lovely.


The sushi we made

We met up with another guide, Sonoe-san, who took us to walk around Akihabara, a neighbourhood with electronic shops, manga shops, and–I kid you not–a five-storey store selling retro and vintage computer games. Young women dressed up, advertising maid cafes stand on every corner. But it felt like there were mostly tourists there. I don’t know if the maid cafes are still a thing with Japanese people or if they are just a show for tourists. After that, we went to Ueno park, where lots of people were picnicking as apparently it was the first lovely weekend of the spring. Some things are universal. There were still some cherry blossoms, but it was post-peak. From there we went to visit the Senso-ji temple, where we learned about how people pray in Buddhist temples in Japan. The path from the gate to the temple itself is lined with shops selling everything from street food to good luck charms. It reminded me that the first tourists were pilgrims.


The path from gate to temple in Senso-ji

After that we went to see some kitchen shops and then to a ninja and samurai workshop, where we learned about weapons and traditions. For instance, the famous ninja stars weren’t meant for throwing–they’re too expensive. They were used as a dagger. Generally, most ninja weapons are easy to hide because they basically were undercover. The workshop was fascinating. That evening, we left the young people in the hotel to order room service and went on an adult food tour to Shinjuku with a guide named Momo-san. We had dinner at an Izakaya, a Japanese pub, and then went for a walk in Golden Gai - the golden street. We talked about the hosting culture which is thriving in Shinjuku. Basically, it started with hosting clubs for men that grew out of the Geisha culture. Rich, powerful men (or men who want to feel rich and powerful) go to these clubs to have women laugh at their jokes and listen attentively to all their yabbering. The women who work in these clubs are known as hostesses. A newer phenomenon is the “hosts” clubs, where there are men hosting women. According to our guide, these are mostly young working women who spend much of their income on having a fake boyfriend. What’s interesting is that Japanese society is so patriarchal that even in a situation that sounds as if the power will be in the hands of the women, it’s not. An idol culture develops around the “hot” hosts, and they become mini-celebrities and then the women compete on who gets to buy them drinks. They get upset if their favourite host accepts drinks from others, the whole thing. 


A host club in Shinjuku

If you think Saturday was a packed day, you are correct.


Sunday

We went to visit the Meiji Shrine after a pit stop at a cemetery that had some pretty cherry blossoms still. This is a Shinto shrine with two trees in the main court that merge together to look like one tree. So, naturally, this became the go-to shrine for weddings. We saw several wedding processions where everyone was wearing traditional kimonos and it was lovely. Then we went to walk around in Harajuku, a neighbourhood known for stores that cater to teenage girls. A single street has hundreds of shops selling all sorts of random stuff, from a shop that specialises in strawberries to a manga and anime store with every merch you can possibly imagine.


Harajuku Street

From there, we went to Togoshi Ginza, a neighbourhood built from the debris left after an earthquake tore up Ginza, a very fancy neighbourhood in Tokyo. So, they took whatever they could reuse and built a new neighbourhood. Makes sense. Sahori-san took us to see our first Shōten Gai–a shopping street. These are long, roofed streets that have everything from hair salons to tea shops and a lot of street food with Japanese-only menus. We tried a bunch of different foods: takoyaki–octopus balls that originated in Osaka; yakitori–grilled all sorts (chicken thighs but also chicken liver and innards, as well as eel); onigiri–rice sandwiches with a filling of your choice. We got stopped by a group of young (really tall) Japanese people who wanted to practice their English (we think).


Takoyaki in Togoshi Ginza

After that we went to walk around the original Ginza for a bit (fancy international brands like Tiffany and Gucci, with white-gloved attendants that show you around). Following that, we had dinner at a teppanyaki place at the Palace Hotel, which was really lovely, and we ended up eating way too much. Sunday was a bit less busy because we had an early wake-up call on Monday, and we had to be packed and ready for our departure from Tokyo.


Monday

The early wake-up call was so that we could get to the Sumo Stable in time for the morning practice. We arrived and were seated in the gallery (which is really just a raised floor to the side of the ring. Sumo wrestling is a traditional sport and, as such, is almost a religious practice, much like the ninja/samurai practices. There’s quite a bit of praying. Anyway, we learned a lot about Sumo wrestling on the way to the place–I’m not quite comfortable with calling it a stable. It turns out that there’s not a lot of money in Sumo, and it’s very hard. The athletes must gain weight, and they come to live at the place. It’s a thorough commitment: they sleep and eat where they practice, and they also have to clean and cook for themselves. In other words, they aren’t being pampered, they don’t make a lot of money, they have to work hard, and nobody knows who they are unless they’re at the very top of the game. The guide said people now come from other places like Samoa and the Philippines to train as Sumo wrestlers. The practice itself is fascinating. They spent a lot of time pushing each other across the ring and then had practice matches. All the while, a silver-back gorilla of a coach sat beside us and watched, commenting occasionally to one of the athletes. The rules for us as an audience: no talking or making noise, no fidgeting (it distracts the athletes) and no sitting with the soles of our feet towards the ring (disrespectful). We were allowed to take pictures quietly. All things considered, I think we managed pretty well. 

Sumo Wrestlers in practice

After a quick stop to check out of the hotel, we went to have lunch at a running sushi place. This was in a mall, and we barely spoke to anyone. You come in and interact with the screen at the entrance to indicate how many people are eating and the number of children. You get allocated a table number, and you go find that number. You pick up any sushi plates arriving on the conveyor belt, and then you slide the plates into a designated slot which counts how much you’ve taken. You can also order on a screen by the table, and that arrives on an express conveyor belt. The sushi was super basic (I don’t know if I would have gone in to eat had I seen it beforehand), but the experience was a lot of fun. 

From there, we went to a manga drawing class. We learned tricks to indicate the age of a character: eyes further apart and shorter necks for younger characters, for instance. We also learned how to draw and ink our very own manga characters. Let’s say I’m not going to be illustrating my next book, but it was loads of fun. After that, we took the Shinkansen–the famous bullet train–to Iiyama. 


I had to add a video of how they flipped all the chairs to face the direction of travel before leaving on time.




To be Continued… 

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