Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Flag of Japan  ,
Thursday, February 14, 2008

My flight from Melbourne to Rome was via Tokyo, so I decided to stay for a few days - I had flown this way with my family when we first went back to Italy 33 years ago but had only stayed overnight in Tokyo.
I stay in a small ryokan (traditional inn) in Asakusa, one of the oldest parts of Tokyo. I have a tiny 4-tatami room plus bath & shower - it has a futon on the floor and a thin pillow made of some type of husk or grain.
I spend most of my first day shopping for a new camera - this entails a number of train rides and I get to work out the train system. I am going to buy a big expensive one on the basis that I won't be so prone to leave it around, and that I will be so petrified of losing it that I will keep an eagle eye on it.
That evening I eat at the 24-hour sushi bar nearby and order the following: Sea urchin & salmon roe nigiri, seaweed, conger eel, snow crab, most fatty tuna, lightly roasted horsemeat, and geoduck string (their translations). I could also have had gizzard shad, crab liver, surf clum, and welsh onion bud (young leeks). A series of trays is brought out artfully arranged with my sushi and I settle in for a good feed. A hot towel comes then a small bottle of warm sake and a glass, and the waiter pours the sake until it overruns the glass and fills the saucer.
The menu asks: Why is it tasty? And the answer is: In this shop, the ingredients for making sushi is fresh fish. Kept up fresh these fishes in a fish preserve at Tsukiji fish market until the morning.'
Next day it's raining and I am given an umbrella by the ryokan and proceed to go for a walk through the old town. There are hundreds of shops selling mochi (sweet rice cakes) and other sweets, wooden combs, kimonos, swords, fans, and all manner of other goods.
I stop for breakfast at a very spick & span coffee shop: walls of high-gloss white tiles and a mirrored ceiling surrounded by lights. Everybody is greeting each other and bowing, and I join in. It could not look more different than the typical little bar or food shop - these are usually just a small serving bench and the space behind the seats is so narrow that you can hardly get past the other customers to go in. I go on and keep buying colourful little sweets in various flavours: green tea, sweet potato, cherry, sesame, and they look and taste exquisite. I go to the Asakusa tourist office and ask where I can eat fugu (Japanese blowfish - chefs have to be specially trained to remove certain sections as they are toxic and you can die). They consult with each other and give me a map with 3 suggestions and wish me luck :).
I walk past a shop advertising massages and get into conversation with a lovely young lady and am easily persuaded into a foot bath detoxification, foot massage and a body massage. I come back at the appointed time and spend an hour and a half in there. The atmosphere is so peaceful, soft Japanese music is playing, the sore spots in my body are massaged away - it's a bit of a struggle to go back out into the cold, wet outside world, and I feel quite dazed as I do so.
After this I'm quite peckish so head out for my fugu night. I'm shown to my small private room and order a sort of fugu degustation: the first dish is finely sliced sashimi of fugu and finely chopped inside skin of fugu (like long shreds of firm jelly). Second course is pieces of fugu on the bone (the fish has a lot of bony cartilage and it's delicious sucking the meat from it) and some boneless pieces together with vegetables (cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, welsh onion, shiitake mushroom, tofu, and kuzukiri (clear noodle-like strands of arrowroot) cooked Nabe-style - an open weave bamboo basket is lined with waterproof paper and placed on an induction hotplate set into the table and you cook it yourself. Third course is fugu tempura (deep fried)- very delicious, then finally rice and eggs are boiled in the water for a sort of porridge. Seasonings such as crashed white raddish and hashed scallions (sorry to include this level of detail but I just love the sound of these words) are served with the fish. The total cost was around $A50.
After all this food and a half litre of sake I am very comfortably ensconced in my room and just want to lie down and go to sleep (one of the advantages of sitting on the floor :). The restaurant is completely made up of these private rooms and all evening I hear loud laughing and talk from my fellow customers, and the greeting and farewells by the staff - every time someone comes in or goes out every staff member calls out and it all sounds very cheery.
Next morning breakfast is at the Pronto Cafe (motto: an atmosphere flavoured by coffee, cocktails, culture and conversation), and I have a macchiato and a slice of salt caramel millecrepe. On the huge TV screen on the wall a black & white film directed by William Wyler (and possibly set in Rome, or some other European capital), has started showing and Audrey Hepburn appears as a young princess. The sound has been turned off and the subtitles are in Japanese (an Australian songstress is singing in the background - I don't know who but the accent is unmistakeable). I become engrossed in the film while I have my breakfast and by the time I am regretfully leaving, Audrey has waltzed with a number of stuffy and boring men at a ball, then the film cuts to her running in her nightie to the window to gaze wistfully at the colourful street life outside, but is dragged back to bed by her governess, who continues to read to her from her Bible. I am mad to know what this film is (can someone help me? I must see it in future).
I catch the train to Shinjuku (the busiest station in Japan handling more than two million passengers each day and a dozen railway and subway lines) to go to the Nikon Service Centre. I have to get an English-language instruction book - and am relieved to get one as it's not great to spend so much money on something and not be able to use it. Although Shinjuku is full of large modern office buildings and huge department stores I find a narrow alley filled with businessmen gulping down food in tiny food shops. I have a meat & vegetable soup (the meat melts in my mouth) and a mixed yakitori - chicken, pork, beef, meatballs and vegetables on skewers cooked over an open flame. My face and body are warm from the brazier (and the bottle of hot sake I'm drinking) but my body and feet are freezing from the cold wind whipping through the lane (the day temperature is around 4-5 degrees and at night it's zero - it was even mentioned that it might snow). On my way back to the station I see a teashop and go in. It's all dark wood, cool jazz, and a beautiful collection of teacups and I have an astringent Assam tea with green tea cake and a tangy ginger mousse.
After this I stop in at one of the giant department stores and buy a pair of Japanese underpants - I just wanted to round out my underwear collection which includes Argentinian, Italian, British, US, French, and Swiss, as well as some long johns for when I hopefully travel up to the Arctic Circle.
After I get back to my ryokan I head off for the local onsen (public Japanese bath house). The procedure is you take off your shoes at the entrance, go in to the change room and strip off completely, then enter the adjoining bathing room, which is divided into 2 areas. At the front there are a couple of low walls with showers and taps set in - you get a little plastic seat (like the ones 2-year olds sit on), sit down in front of the shower, wet yourself all over, soap yourself up, and wash it all off. I have bought a little kit with soap, shampoo, toothbrush, razor and a tiny white towel which doesn't even go around my waist and barely covers the essentials (it's about 30cms wide).
So, I sit on my little brightly coloured plastic stool with all the other naked men and we wash our hair, shave, brush our teeth and generally give ourselves a thorough cleansing to within an inch of our lives (sorry, no photos) - it's great not to have to worry about how much water you use. The men wash themselves very vigorously, especially their genitals. After lots of rinsing you walk over to the hot mineral baths.
As I get into my first one I feel a slight electric current amd as I try and sit down between the arm rests the current gets much stronger, to the point I almost can't take it. However I try and breathe smoothly, relax my body as much as I can and lower it down until I feel the electric current completely envelop me (my hands are a bit claw-like though) - I manage 60 seconds of this, then move in a sort of continuous bathing game through the various other baths - different temperatures, a spa, an outdoor pool, and a pool to refresh yourself, which it certainly does at 22 degrees.
When I'm finished I get out to dry myself - this is easier said than done when the towel is about as thick as a tea-towel and tiny. If I stay in the communal bathroom I won't get dry as the air is thick with steam. If I go into the changing area I will drip water everywhere, which is not the done thing, so I stand there a while indecisively in my lobster-red skin rubbing as much water as I can off my body with my hands and lightly dabbing the wetter bits with my 'tea-towel', I spy a TV lounge with a couple of Japanese men watching a game show so go and join them for 20 minutes until I dry off naturally - yes, another first experience to put down - watching a Japanese game show naked with 2 other naked men.
After this I am starving hungry so quickly find a traditional-looking neighbourhood restaurant in the back streets - everyone looks at me as I walk in but they usher me to a seat at the bench and scrape up an English menu. I get some kudos when I immediately order Nigori (unrefined sake that is milky white) - it comes in a large glass and as usual it's overfilled so it also fills the saucer below. Both containers are so full I can't possibly pick them up without spilling sake everywhere. However I'm a fast learner and have seen other men lean forward and suck the glass, so I do this casually and get some approving glances.
I run through the menu quickly and order grilled pork guts (5 skewers with different bits of offal - liver, intestines, etc), Mozuku seaweed in a vinegar sauce, grilled smelt (a small fish called shishamo), and nagu-age (deep-fried eggplant). Other items on the menu were: boiled fish sausages, smoked beef tongue, jellied fish broth, cod broiled hard with soy sauce, and udon noodles with vegetabltables (their spelling). I would have liked to try these dishes but there's only so much a man can eat.
It's a warm and welcoming place - there are businessmen tired from a long day at the office, some young guys with beanies pulled down low and attitude, and I have a feeling that the cook is stirring one of the waitresses and egging her on to talk to me because she keeps looking at me, going red, and giggling. This restaurant is quite large by local standards (about 5 x 5 metres), but even so it has 3 large wide-panel TV's on the walls screening another game show.
This one has a competition between a young man and woman to iron a shirt within a given time. They use matching baby-pink irons, then the gong sounds, and a mature-age lady who looks like she's done quite a bit of ironing in her life comes on and judges how well they have done. She is meticulous and merciless and turns over the shirts and shows them all their ironing faults. This is all a bit surreal sitting in this restaurant of dark wood and bamboo, relaxed from my bathhouse experience, eating pig's guts, drinking unrefined sake, and watching an old lady tearing the contestant's ironing to shreds, with the garish backdrop on the 3 giant TV's on the walls surrounding me.
I scan the drinks list to see if I can make this experience any more bizarre, and among the drinks such as lactic acid drink with shochu (a distilled liquor made from various vegetables or grains - barley, rice, sweet potato, etc), shochu with umeboshi (Japanese salted plum), and shochu highball and lemon or grapefruit, I see a drink called Denku Buran, which is described as Asakusa's original liqueur, so what am I to do but order it.
I am really impressing everyone now - my little mate across the other bench keeps trying to catch my eye, and shouts questions across the serving area, and the young waitress keeps giggling and even dour old lady who runs this establishment softens a little and brings the bottle over for me to read the label. I leave and drop into the 7/11 to buy some sweet steamed rice balls filled with azuki bean paste and end up going to bed quite late, which is not a good ides as I am going to the world's largest fish market tomorrow morning at 5am, then I have to pack and catch a flight in the early afternoon to Rome.
I try and set the alarm on my mobile phone but it has run out of battery - I have every combination of converter - Australian to British, Australian to European, European to British, British to European, Japanese to British, Japanese to European - but I don't have British to Japanese so I can't recharge my mobile. Miraculously I wake up just before 5am (I find out by stealing out to the cold dark deserted entrance where there is a clock, in my yukata). I go back to bed for another half-hour debating whether to get up or not - after all I will be on a 12 hour flight to Rome, then a 4-5 hour train trip, all on the same day.
I finally decide to get up, hurriedly dress and walk to the subway in the dark. As I come out of the station I don't know which way to go but follow my nose, and in a few minutes I'm dodging delivery vehicles of all sorts - trucks, vans, scooters, and a type of vehicle like a fork-lift but without the forks, which drags a platform on which the fish is transported. There are lots of these speeding around in the dark and you have to keep your wits about you. The market is huge - there is a large open area where frozen tuna carcasses are auctioned, but the rest of the market is made up of hundreds of tiny stalls displaying their wares. I can't even begin to describe the variety of fish, shellfish (from the size of a nail on the small finger to the size of 2 hands), and all sorts of sea-slugs. The passage ways between the stalls are very narrow and the concrete floors are very wet and slippery.
Around 7am I went to have breakfast at one of the little restaurants adjoining the market. Some of them are very busy but I don't have much time and I go into one that has only one couple in there. She's wearing a mini-skirt and high heels with black stockings to just over her knees, leaving about 15cms of naked and goose-pimpled thigh. Over the top she wears a green/grey suede jacket trimmed with fur, and her black straight hair has what seems like a wig over her crown of black, long frizzy hair - certainly very original. Unfortunately her companion had not risen to the challenge and was just wearing a track-suit top and jeans and his hair was spiked up the centre.
I order a dish from the picture menu which consists of raw prawns, salmon, tuna, various white fish, salmon roe, octopus, slice of omelette, and a large green leaf, all heaped over cold white rice. This is my first raw seafood breakfast in my life and is very good.
I have to catch the airport train to Narita at 10am so I quickly catch a train back to Asakusa and by this time the trains are full of commuters. Japanese people seem to have a marvellous capacity to sleep on the train (nearly always with bowed heads), but to wake up when they reach their station - it really is amazing to see someone who looks sound asleep jump up and get out of the train quickly.
This leg of my trip I'm flying Business Class as this was all I could get on my Frequent Flyer points on this date. As I enter the Business Class lounge I am cheerily greeted by a battalion of young female attendants, even though I'm unshaven, my eyes are red from lack of sleep, and I'm wearing tattered, lived-in jeans. I while away an hour drinking wine and spirits and reading magazines while ensconced in a comfortable armchair and try not to make it too obvious that I'm really a backpacker who's fluked it in to here.
The special treatment continues as I stroll past the lined-up plebs and am am greeted personally by a young Japanese attendant, who gamely tries to say Mr Tarascio correctly, then leads me to my spacious and comfortable seat. The drinks trolley comes as soon as we level out and I choose Piper-Heidsick champagne for my first drink ... to be continued.

So, after barely 4 days in Tokyo what do I make of it? It's huge (33 million in the Greater Tokyo area), modern and traditional at the same time, technology-mad (but also love their traditional things), incedibly polite and cheery, aesthetic appreciation and presentation is exquisite, etc, etc.
Personally I love the traditional Japanese aesthetic in architecture, interior design, gardens - it's probably my favourite.
I had a fantastic time there and must come back for a much more in-depth look. Help, I need another lifetime!
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valeriavine on

Harajuku to you
Lovin' it

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