With a connection through Japan’s Narita International Airport and enough Hilton points for a free three night stay we decided to extend our trip a few days and explore Tokyo. Unfortunately, this completed the planning portion of our trip. I know! We planned all our other stops, but when we got to Tokyo we just dropped the ball. Looking back, a general idea of the distance from the airport to the hotel would have been a good place to start, but by this point in the trip we were tired of planning we decided to throw caution to the wind and just wing it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t even aware that downtown Tokyo was a good 90 minutes from the airport until 15 minutes into our bus ride there.
Because the Metro was just a few blocks from our hotel and because we found it easy to navigate in both Hong Kong and Bangkok we naturally assumed traveling Tokyo by rail would be just as simple. Boy were we wrong! There’s a reason the Japanese Metro system tops the Tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Tokyo (yes it’s currently #4). Riding the metro is certainly a challenging task. To start, the subway is made up of two train operators; Tokyo Metro “JR” and Toei Subway. JR is a private rail system which operates 179 stations on nine lines and Toei is a government run system with 106 stations on four lines. The systems are closely integrated, sharing stations, but not payment thus you cannot use a ticket purchased through JR on Toei or vice versa. This would have been good information to know prior to arriving at the station. Add to that the fact that in some areas of the city the train runs three levels deep, meaning from the top of the platform you may have to take two additional escalators and pass four tracts before locating the train you’re supposed to be on. Yes to a foreigner with no background information on the rail system the map just looks like a hot mess of spaghetti.
Being that we were staying at the Hilton Tokyo in the financial district and it was 8am on a Monday the rail station was was full of corporate types making their regular morning commute; too distracted by i-phones and time constraints to notice two very lost tourist trying to buy their first tickets on the Tokyo rail.
We were starting to lose hope, but all a sudden like a beacon of light in the tumultuous pool of black and gray suits two golden robed monks appeared. Frustration turned to relief as I watched them approach my disheveled husband. With praying hands and subtle smiles the tiny men stood just inches from Paul’s outstretched hand watching him stare defeatedly at the map. Sensing an audience Paul drew back the paper to see two tiny baldheaded men staring up at him. After exchanging a couple of nods the monks motioned for him to come closer. As he did they pulled out a shiny gold card and gave it to him along with wishes for lifetime of peace in broken English. Then one of the men raised a small coin purse and waited patiently for a response. Paul opened his wallet and handed the man $5usd but the purse remained high in the air with countenance now turning from contentment to condemnation as the monks pressed him for more. After forking over $20usd and another $20 for “the girl” they turned and disappeared back in the sea of suits. So $40 lighter after our encounter with the two “alleged monks” and still no idea how to ride the train we headed back to the hotel to regroup.
Is this a dream or a nightmare? The last thing I remember is stepping out of a cab, walking down an alley and backing into a door as this ten foot tall half woman half robot (mostly breast) machine rolled onto the scene. Falling down the rabbit hole deep in the basement of Tokyo’s Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district through migraine-inducing neon, video screens and 3-D jungle graffiti into the not so Disney version of “Alice in the mind of a teenage boy video gamer world.” I was at a complete loss for words. Sensory overload coupled with the incessant pounding of beamstaiko drums and last year’s American club music made simply walking a straight line nearly impossible.
The staircase opened into a large pit with stadium style seating on either side. After being lead to our table and handed our preordered bento boxes we were literally chained into the seating area. Yes, I definitely need a drink, make it two. Our entry fee included two bento boxes, though we both agreed we could find tastier fare in an average convenience store. Sure hope the show is better than the food. One and a half cocktails later the lights dimmed and the drumming began.
Two tiered platforms with at least a dozen hot Japanese girls rolled in from opposing sides in some sort of sexy choreographed game of chicken. Laser beams moved back in forth across the floor showering the glittery vixens in shades of red and green. The moving platforms gyrated up as the girls swung around conveniently places stripper poles in ridiculously small bikinis which were clearly designed to squeeze every last bounce out of their giggly physics as the crowd waved their glow sticks in the air enthusiastically like drunken groupies at an EDM concert. Then the show just got weird. First came the mirrored tank with flashing lights, and then another fight scene followed by a random stuffed panda running across the stage. Intermission brought more drinks, then the lights dimmed and the craziness continued, motorized bikes, several somethings resembling the terminator with clown hair, then the finale. Out came massive “bustybots” for a little robot on robot action. Yeah, the pictures about sums it up. This Siskel and Ebert pair gives Robot Restaurant one thumbs up and the other thumbs down (way down).
Having just endured three hours of “man fun” I decided now was the perfect opportunity to pull the estrogen card. So over breakfast I casual suggested that since we had the morning free we squeeze in a little kabuki; and off to the theater we went. The primary difference between kabuki and traditional theater is the duration. At the Kabukiza Theatre, production begins at 10:30am and runs until nearly 8pm, but your not expected to stay all day. Balcony seats are sold by the act allowing commerce to continue at every intermission. The lights come on and a borage of new people appear. Not happy with your seat? No problem, simply wait for the next break and commandeer a new one. Going in I was a bit concerned that we wouldn’t grasp the concept being that we arrived three acts in and the show was entirely in Japanese. Not to fear, Paul rented me an English headset and up to the balcony we went. Not sure if Paul thought a British woman rambling the plot in his ear as the actors carried on in their native tongue would detract from the experience or if he was just planning to take a little nap after the lights went out, but we took our seats with just one headset containing a single earphone. Concerned that he wouldn’t be able to follow the story and finding myself with a few minutes to kill I set to task bringing Paul up to speed on acts one and two as he gave me his best “I’m fully engaged in this conversation” face and tried to act interested. No barely clad bods in this show. Infact, no women at all. Being male is a prerequisite to perform at the Kabuki Theatre.
Japansese Kabuki is just as I imagined. Powdered white faces and beautiful traditional kimonos. Lots of slow controlled movement with minimumal words causing you to lean thoughtfully in like elementry children listening to a teacher’s whisper. Then sudden outbursts of sullen cries or joyful adulation shaking the audience to their cores and filling every inch of the theater. What amazing pitch for someone with an Adams apple! Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of our Kabuki experience as picture taking during the performance is strictly forbidden. Official looking Japanese ladies perched on bar height stools throughout the auditorium sit ready to swoop down and snatch contraband from anyone who dare try and break the rules.
On our last full day in Tokyo we got up extra early for an up-close look at the Tsukiji fish market. I know it sounds crazy to get up before dawn to walk around a seafood market in the freezing cold, but this place is absolutely incredible. Famous for being the world’s largest fish market each day Tsukiji moves over 5 million pounds of seafood totaling more than 28 million usd. What’s even more incredible is that you don’t smell fish anywhere in the 56 acre complex. That’s because this place draws the freshest and best seafood from all over the world; more than 60 countries. Crab from Alaska and Russia, tuna from Spain and Croatia, sea urchin from Oregon and Australia and anchovies from Peru. Many of the ocean’s finest delicacies arrive still alive, shipped from their native lands with extra special care.
Tsukiji Market consists of an inner market with wholesale business and the famous tuna auctions, and an outer market with retail shops and restaurants cater to the public. Although the fish market does try to be tourists friendly, it is clearly business first, tourism second in the inner parts of the market. The tuna auction actually closed about 60 minutes prior. We would have liked to see it, but the market has a strict no tourist allowed during busy season policy so we arrived fashionable late – ten till seven. It’s a little after 7am when we enter one of the warehouses. A severed tentacle nearly four feet long stares up at me like a fallen log with a sprinkling of shiny inverted mushrooms plump after a heavy rain while its captor decapitates a fish on the adjacent board. Squid pour into barrels with a slosh like the sound of a loosed jowled woman slurping scalding soup from a spoon.
After a few laps around we headed to the outer market taking care to stay out of the path of the mini carts hauling boxes of styrofoam full of seafood motoring about. In the center of the courtyard atop a large cement pillar stands a uniformed guard whistle in mouth hands flailing up and down with each tweet of his whistle. It’s time to get some sushi. We duck down under a band of flags into a tiny restaurant with a single L-shaped counter and take a seat. We are presented with a menu written entirely in Japanese. On the wall perpendicular to our stools hangs a picture of our chef with the president of Amazon.
Paul points to several of the pictured items on the menu and the small Japanese woman nods her head. Not sure what we ordered, not sure Paul knows either. All of a sudden I am overcome with guilt as I realize my decision to eat sushi will most likely lead to certain death for some poor sea creature on the other side of that wall.
The quality of the fish is apparent at first bite. The meat is lightly marbleized, medium fatty tuna from the upper belly, with a hint of wasabi and a slightly acidic rice which subdues my palate. I place the entire piece in my mouth and close my lips tightly. It melts like butter into a sublime and heavenly flavor as I swallow. I am forever spoiled to Japanese sushi.