What does one say, really, about a place that exceeds your imagination and has moment after moment of something like awe that can’t quite be labeled so simply? Tokyo was amazing. Tokyo was beautiful. Tokyo was a city of juxtapositions. All of these are true, and none of them do much in the way of conveying to any hypothetical readers of my words how exceptional it really was.
Fascinating, funny, and engaging travel bloggers exist. I read their work with a mixture of envy and engrossment, following along as they eat dishes and see sights that I’ve [usually] never eaten or seen. Close Madison friend Dave came to visit me in Vietnam bearing gifts in the form of books (the man knows me well) one of which was Bill Bryson’s book about Australia. Bryson is an example of an amazing travel writer. I’m not Bryson, and on the plane ride home I struggled with how to write about this trip without filling several internet pages with “we went here and it was so cool and the lights were so bright and then we went here…’ No one wants that. So instead, hypothetical reader, I offer you a quite discombobulated non-linear set of thoughts that match the discombobulation that is Tokyo. Also like Tokyo, there might be moments of clarity and insight…especially for those of you who know me well.
Narita. Clean, modern, efficient. Express trains connecting the hub of air travel to the hub of subway travel, with automated seats that turn around so you’re always riding forward. Facing forward towards Tokyo; heading forward to _______, facing towards the airport; heading forward to new destinations, adventures, experiences. We watch the chairs swivel from our place in the orderly queue, and then board and sit, facing Tokyo, sunglasses protecting me and hiding my red, tired eyes with contacts that have overstayed their welcome. Bleary from the red-eye and sunburnt from Hoi An. Cold winter sunlight coming through the train windows. There are hills everywhere. Everywhere.
Hills and evergreens and windy streets in small towns with well-ordered lanes and people waiting at empty intersections for the green “go” light, even with no cars in sight in either direction. Old school black cabs, silver and white cars, shiny as if they’d been buffed that morning. Train staff are deferential and authoritative. Arigatou gozaimasu.
People are dressed for the wind that whips around corners, down large thoroughfares, and through parks. Everyone in black, gray, dark brown; well-tailored winter outerwear and face masks, the latter a gesture of hyper-consideration for others, or for the privacy and relative anonymity that it affords [read more
]. My red leather jacket – which I love – elicits memories of childhood winter weekends in NYC, me in a bright yellow ski coat, sure
that everyone around me could tell I wasn’t really from NY. That I was an outsider. Sure that I had a “grew up climbing trees in Vermont” stamp on my forehead. I hated that coat those weekends. Being the only person in a crowded intersection of an urban metropolis in a bright color doesn’t bother me now, though I notice it. Progress? Konnichiwa, watashi wa sumisu Cristina desu.
Tokyo women are beautiful. Poised. I notice gorgeous slender classy woman after gorgeous slender classy woman, and in a moment of subway-spacing-out I conclude that that it’s good I didn’t bring the ex who described “driving around Hanoi with his jaw on the ground” to this city, not that it mattered much in the end. The men wear well-tailored suits the way guys in magazines wear them, effortlessly and usually matched with amazing bone structure. Every single subway car in Tokyo could be an instagram entry for #hotdudesreading – so many men reading books full of beautiful vertical lines of characters, and I love men who read. Scratch that, people who read. Books in Japan are small, and are read back-to-front, so as you look at the cover the spine runs along the right side. It’s trippy. Between the books and the smartphone screens, train cars are silent. Slight murmurs and nothing more. Phones silenced.
The 50-something woman in Hanoi who assembles perfect bowls of bun cha (noodles with pork) and the 50-something man in Tokyo who assembles perfect bowls of shoyu tonkotsu ramen (noodles with pork) are the same, and yet so different. Perfect is different. Classic Vietnamese noodle soups, purchased on the street from a lady with a fanny pack full of small bills, have hours of behind-the-scenes work put into the broth…the main way to judge a good pho or a good bun bo Hue. But the assembly is casual, thrown together. A pile of ingredients, a big ladle of broth, toss on some herbs, toss a dish of lime wedges and pickled garlic on the tiny plastic table…done. The food is casual-beautiful, and delicious. Japanese ramen shops, little hole-in-the-wall non-pretentious joints with lobster bibs for prime slurping and the accompanying enjoyable splatter, with an order machine up by the door that produces a receipt that you hand to the cook; they also have hours of behind-the-scenes work…but the assembly is exact. An arranged pile of noodles, broth, and then carefully arranged squares of dried seaweed, fanned out slices of pork, a tiny nest of pickled radishes, spring onions and a half egg placed just so… and a bowl set gently and carefully in front of you, no additions necessary. The food is precision-beautiful, and delicious. Watashi wa vegetarian desu.
The 30-something waitress makes a pinching motion with her thumb and index finger.
“Can you use chopsticks?”
The 20-something waitress shows relatives beer sizes with her hands.
“Short beer, verrrry small! I think you want tall beer! More beer!”
“Ok yeah. Two tall beers.”
Pub-crawl turned club-crawl. English pints and nachos, and unfounded accusations. “There was barely any cheese and you ate all of it”. Valentines Day theme, assigned a playing card as you check in. I drew the Q of hearts, and was thus subjected to a number of challenges that had the following features in common: (1) required uncomfortable amounts of extroversion and mingling, (2) doing stupid things in front of strangers, and (3) binge drinking. A few dozen mostly-twenty-something-expats all gave advice on our few days in town. Chanted my name during the lead up to a 3-second beer bong. Boom. I forgot I had this particular skill, a must-add for the CV. My prowess was announced into the DJ microphone, and then summarily forgotten (thank god) as people went through beers and shots and G&Ts and vodka/redbulls at a brisk pace, gearing up. We acquired an odd assortment of pub-club-crawl-friends, never to be seen again. There was the one who’s flirtations I defused by pointing out that he was both closer in age and shared a name with my 18 year old brother, and the one who kept asking to stroke the short side of my hair. There was the US Army employee who gave amazing shopping advice, if you want to spend $400 on a pair of jeans, that is. Only Gary was truly memorable, with his penchant for buying double-shots of whiskey and jubilantly handing them to nearby soon-to-be friends. Classic Gary.
A fish market (the world’s largest – Tsukiji) roughly the size of my hometown, with significantly more people. Ocean creatures of every sort, crushed iced in infinite quantities, and sushi/sashimi restaurants at every turn with jovial hosts standing outside with menus, enticing patrons into tiny shops with the same layout.
White-haired masters of the raw fish world in the middle, surrounded by the freshest sea creature flesh to be found anywhere, surrounded by conveyor belt, then counter loaded with tea powder and giant enamel containers of pickled ginger and hand cast ceramic urns of soy sauce, surrounded by stools with patrons sorting out what prices go with what plate color. I have to whip out my “I’m a vegetarian” card frequently, and it is met with smiles, polite bows, and kappamaki
(cucumber) rolls, which aren’t on the conveyor belt and thus need to be made specially for me. A new patron comes in, the whole staff (chefs included) yell a welcoming irrashaimase.
Another exits, and a chorus of gracious arigatou gozaimasu
heralds them out. Fatty tuna at these little joints has ruined fatty tuna everywhere else in the world for Dave, who nearly teared up over the freshness, sashimi by sashimi.
The Park Hyatt. Opulence without gaudiness. How do sunrooms with 25+ foot ceilings overlooking much of Tokyo seem understated and classy? Do hotels like this actually have patrons in need of an in-house library? What person is in charge of the likely-carefully curated selection of art books and map books that decorate this gorgeous room in which we’re staying 49 floors above the city? Can I have that job? Soft jazz trickles from the hidden stereo speakers as we enter the room, heavy keys in hand – the luddite in me loves the lack of swipe-cards. A classy espresso machine with your choice of several single-origin espresso beans, a “minibar” spanning 3 different cabinets (part 1: the hard liquor, set on small shelves and backlit, part 2: the wine, a selection of reds in demi bottles (1/2 size), part 3: the fridge, white wines and champagnes on the door, selection of international beers and sodas, juices, and mineral waters that cost more than a restaurant meal in Hanoi), a 12-piece selection of bath/body products produced by Aveda and Shiseido. A button to press if you run out of any of these things. Beds with feather everything. Automated light-blocking curtainsConversations about how out of place we felt in this environment, while reveling in this environment. Yes of course I used Bourdieuian class analysis to explain my internal urge to present as wealthy, to cover up the fact that I was blowing through the last bits of cash I had and that I might need to sell Ethel for food money upon returning to Hanoi. Duh. Dave now knows WAY more about the petit-bourgeiosie than he probably cares to know. You can take the nerd out of grad school but you can’t… yeah.
The weird, the weirder, the weirdest. A robot dinner-show for around a hundred people, two stories underground, replete with girls that danced and robots that danced. Robot men, robot snakes, robot dragons. Robot women on which human women danced.
A robot snake that ate a human man. Strobe lights, music, guys in the corners in all-black operating the robots from afar – the men behind the curtains, except without any curtains. Girls with beer-keg backpacks coming through between acts, 500 yen/beer. Four packed shows a day. Up above Tokyo by night is almost as insane, bright lights and teens showcasing their craziest outfits. Pink wigs in giant ponytails, petticoats, fluffy white parasols, and so many ruffled white socks sticking out of black mary janes – a subculture identified in Tokyo as Lolita.
Cosplay references I don’t understand but that I can identify as such. Lace up patent leather boots reaching the thigh. Facial piercings, teased 80’s hair band hair, and black lipstick, an unholy hodgepodge that is paired with an entirely awful (IMO) sub-genre of Japanese pop music under the term visual kei
. All of these exist at night in the cool neighborhoods where people go to be seen, but all of these also exist during the day, among their classy and demure fellow Tokyoites in clothes that Gene Simmons and Prince would find garish.
Ultimately, Tokyo is a city of juxtapositions. Traditional and modern. Conservative and wildly outside the box. While I could say this about most countries, it is all – after all – a matter of degrees, and Tokyo is the highest. It leaves me with a feeling I’ve had nowhere else in the world but New York, while simultaneously being entirely different. It leaves me perplexed in the happiest of ways, it satiated and then exceeded my expectations, it made me want more.
It’s been a unfortunately long time since I’ve been someplace truly new. Most of my travel, of late, is in Southeast Asia…and even new places in this region has a tone of familiarity in which I find comfort. Japan had none of this. I was out of my element again: exploring, staring at maps in an indecipherable language, eating, watching, absorbing. It was exhausting in the best of ways, and it served as a beautiful reminder of how much I love traveling and how many places there are “out there” for me to see, yet.
For more photos, check out the Facebook album here
(you don’t need to have an account to access it).