<<  Tokyo, 9-Mar-2014  >>

Do you want some fish in your sake?

Tokyo. The final destination. Not only mine, humanity's final destination :-) Millions of people, automated sushi, pink hair and weekend with Mikiko. And yes, fish in my sake!

I woke up early in my capsule to do the last sightseeing in and around Kyoto before finally changing region and moving on to Tokyo. I headed bit out of Kyoto to Fushimi-Inari Taisha and found there one of the most fascinating places I’ve been to. And most hallucinating as well. Being a Shinto faith stronghold, the shrines which are located in the mountains are reached by “tunnel of tori gates”: hundreds of tori gates standing so close one after another that the path that goes under them seems like an orange tunnel. No point in trying to describe it, see it in the photo gallery.

After paying my homage to deer, foxes and the sun – Shinto pantheon – and making my camera busy, I returned to Kyoto to visit the last sight there - Shogun’s palace. Shoguns were military rulers of Japan, the true rulers of Japan for centuries while the emperor was just a puppet in their hands.
The palace was a sprawling building but essentially it was as simple as the tea master’s house in Nara, any Zen Buddhist temple or any other old Japanese house. Shogun’s property was a large one, but it was no so different from houses of fellow Japanese folks – tatami mats, white paper walls with paintings of pines and tigers, empty rectangular rooms expounding Japanese minimalism. Shogun might have been the ruler of Japan, enjoy the finest food, fuck the finest geishas, but it seemed to me that the basic elements of his life must have been not shockingly different from the rest of the Japanese, unlike European aristocracy bathing in spoiled luxury.

Saying goodbye to Kyoto I hopped onto Shinkansen to Tokyo, the largest city in the modern world. While we were flying at 300km per hour we could see Fuji, but before too long I got out at Tokyo’s central station and met a special agent Mikiko. Mikiko is Olga’s and Irene’s friend from Ireland who now lives back in the Japanese motherland and thanks to Olga she invited me to stay at her place in Tokyo.

Leaving my backpack in a locker at the station I went with Mikiko straight away to explore Tokyo. Something you need to know is that Tokyo does not really have a “general downtown”. Instead, it has 6 or so downtowns. It’s probably not so surprising for a metropolis of some 25 million people that the city lacks a unique central area and it’s even less surprising if you realize that Tokyo was leveled to ground just 70 years ago by the end of WWII. Anyway, New York is also pretty spread out but it has its Lower Manhattan, Times Square and 5th Avenue - Tokyo has whole bunch of areas which could claim being central. From around the Tokyo Central Train Station we went to one of them – Ginza, known to be playground for the posh and the snobbish. We started on Tokyo’s fanciest shopping streets loaded with Pradas, Louis Vuittons, Giorgio Armanis and similar crap. Japanese obviously love waiting in queues. There was 30 minutes queue for a chocolate bar and (believe it or not) a queue which was surely about to take 45 minutes for… POPCORN!!! Only in Japan!

We finished the evening in yakitori bar. Pretty interesting experience as well. Yakitori bar are bars which also serve food, and it was in one of these that they served me beer with peas in Kyoto, but here in Tokyo there is a whole street specialized in them, and every building of that street (which is pretty long) and every gate of that building offers yakitori bars on every floor (typically 10 floors). That must be like 500 yakitori bars on a single street! Well, this is Tokyo, modern world’s largest city, so it takes a lot to supply its citizens. In the yakitori bar we were given a small table for two, and we were separated from the next tables on left and right by a thin hanging tatami (bamboo) mat. In reality the people next to us were sitting maybe 40cm from us, but this trick with tatami mat provided decent illusion of privacy. Mikiko invited me for an imperial dinner and my taste buds were fully delighted. I didn’t feel like going home yet so I asked Mikiko if she knows some bars, and she apologized and said “no”. No? You don’t know any bars in Tokyo? “Is that possible?” – I was thinking, so I asked where does she usually go with her friends and she told me that they usually go to eat to places like this yakitori bar. Well this is Japan. Half of the young people are serious psychos wearing vampire clothes with pink hair and obviously don’t have a clue what to do with their lives, and the other half are these super nice and humble people like Mikiko, not even knowing where to get properly drunk in Tokyo :-)
Finally we took a loooong subway and train ride to Mikiko’s tiny but cozy and nice apartment. There was large Irish flag hanging above her bed with Irene’s and Olga’s signature on it :-) The apartment is 30km from geographical center of Tokyo but it’s still Tokyo and it didn’t even have suburbs feeling, it looked just like proper Tokyo. This city is insane!

It was really great that I was in Tokyo with Mikiko. Not only she was my guide to Tokyo, it also allowed me to dig at least a bit deeper into understanding Japan. It was very interesting talking to her and luckily her English was very good due to the time she spent in Ireland. For example now I understand why the Japanese pensioners flood the world with late-life travels: in Japan they only have 2 weeks of holidays per year. So how are they supposed to travel anywhere, even for vacation? Of course their only time to travel is after they retire.

Next day we headed to Tokyo National Museum. The Japanese sense of beauty is wonderful. Some of the pictures in the painting section almost made me cry but their sheer beauty. I’m not joking people! The difference between western style painting – pictures totally crammed by angels, holy spirits, dogs and everything else in order not to leave a single square cm empty – and Japanese painting - which is in essence much more abstract and focused – is astonishing. As I was contemplating this I just ran into the best illumination of this: there was one Japanese painting of Europeans (Europeans arriving to Japan) and one European painting of Japanese. Almost hilariously different approach. I wish I had a photo of these paintings. Hmm, maybe I can google I that…

From there we just wandered through streets of Tokyo well out of downtowns, revealing a bit of old Tokyo, but it’s no competition for Kyoto’s looks. And then we headed back to the future of Tokyo’s super modern shopping avenues.
From these streets loaded with modern architecture we went on a truly quirky place – the main shopping area for Tokyo’s mad teenagers. It was here in Takeshite street (notice the very symbolic name of the street: Take-Shit!) where heavy metal vampires, emo junkies and Barbie dolls get there crap to claim their uniqueness. Fuck, this nation has some serious problem with its youngsters :-)
I was tempted but finally I didn’t buy any piece of crap there.

Not far from there was another “great sight”: the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Thousands of people mingling together like liquid and then dissolving into individuals again, every 3 minutes. If you have seen Baraka movie, you know this crossing. It’s right under Shibuya 109 – Tokyo’s landmark shopping mall, and we did go inside. Not to shop but for some people watching: Japanese teenagers in action.

And just around the corner we had a perfect automated dinner. It was one of these sushi train places, where sushi runs on a belt you just grab whatever you feel like, pile up the empty plates and pay your bill based on number and colors of your plate (color indicates the price). But this one was much more advanced. The whole restaurant was divided into sections for 2 people. You choose one and then you order your sushi, maki and sashimi on iPad. Press the button, wait 2 minutes and your sushi will arrive straight to you on highly sophisticated belts which whizz around bringing sushi to the people and taking away their empty plates. We managed to have a whole dinner without speaking to a single person! Completely automated. Welcome to Tokyo Mr. Roboto.

But there was still more waiting for us. A minibar. But not the tiny fridge in your hotel room. A real minibar, with people inside :-) Hidden among the high rises of Tokyo there is a stretch of bars, each of them 3x3 meters large. There is 1 or 2 barmaids there and place for 4-6 people to sit down around the bar. That’s right: it’s a bar for 4-6 people. Amazing that in a megalopolis like Tokyo there are places so intimate and small. We squeezed inside and ordered some sake. And then came one of the weirdest questions I have ever been asked: “Do you want fish in your sake?” What? FISH? IN MY SAKE??? It didn’t sound very desirable, but heck I’m always open for cultural experiments so I said yes. And then one of the barmaids (maid is not the best word here, one of them was 75 years old and the other one, her daughter, maybe 55 years old) took a piece of fishtail, grilled it and dipped it in my cup of sake. Well, it wasn’t something that I would have regularly, but I have to admit it wasn’t all that bad. Obviously it gave fishy taste to sake and that sake being warm, it tasted something between fish soup and alcoholic drink. Hmmm, interesting! I soon found out that the tail belonged to fugu fish, one of famous Japanese delicatessen – it’s deadly poisonous fish, but here is Japan there are obsessed with it. It the chef fucks it up, you die. But it doesn’t happen very frequently :-)

Later we ended up in a more conventional bar where I had fantastic Japanese whisky, and Mikiko, being true to her Irish heritage got a pint of Guiness. As she was savoring her Guiness she asked me: “Do you drink a lot?”. I didn’t want to admit my alcoholic tendencies (gone are the times of avoiding alcohol in India) so I rather said no, only to her Mikiko saying: “Because I drink a lot”. So Mikiko drinks a lot! :-) That Ireland must have hit her hard! :-) Sweet.
And then another cold night in Mikiko’s apartment. I really don’t understand how come that there is no heating in Japan when it gets here so cold. It’s Japan. There’s no use in trying to understand.

Mikiko thank you very much for your hosting and guiding! I had excellent days in Tokyo thanks to you!!! Peace and love!

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     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak