Ever since I started drawing smiley faces on Hello Kitty when I was 4, Japan has always held a special place in my heart. From its Sanrio super-stardom (and yes, I’ll admit it, the beginnings of my affinity for all things Japanese) and high-tech living to the intricacies of its traditional customs, I was fascinated by the story of Edo. Even the language, with its syllabic-pronunciation, took on an almost poetic tone as it wove its way between hiragana, katakana (often used to express Western-language words), and the most traditional of kanji.
The first night in Tokyo offered a glimpse into the daily life of Japan’s “salary men” – working professionals who put in 60+ hours a week at their desks and relieved stress on the weekends by going out with friends and co-workers, often ending up highly intoxicated on the streets (or subway trains) under the city’s neon lights. On the streets of lively Shibuya, it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see men sleeping on the streets, and perhaps the most surprising thing was that no one seemed to find this surprising. I’ve always heard about those “capsule hotels” (“hotels” literally big enough for someone to sleep in in case their late-night activities prevented them from catching the last train) but I suppose that the warm summer nights in the relatively safe streets of Tokyo allowed for the former option as well.
By Monday morning, riding the subway cars was a sharp contrast to the events of two short evenings ago. The yells and excited chatters of Friday night were replaced the calm of a city waking up for another work week, with only the sound of the rails as the only accompaniment to the silence. Regardless of the noise and energy level though, Tokyo was a city that knew how to live in style (especially the women). And in true contrast fashion that I have come to know and appreciate Tokyo by, while the men predominantly wore white collared shirts and black/grey slacks to work, the women were dressed in the cutest dresses, skirts, sandals and heels.
On the streets, fashion was definitely a serious affair, among both men and women. Never have I seen so many people with colored and/or otherwise permed up-dos, and if flair was measured by cloth, Tokyo-lites certainly had it down. Although Harajuku is the neighborhood that most associate with Tokyo’s young fashionistas, it was something that could be experienced in almost all of the city’s central (and peripheral) neighborhoods.
These days, I tend to travel with very few expectations, but Japanese food was something I had very high expectations for. After all, when you concoct something as amazing as sushi, and apply the famed Japanese attention to detail to the culinary arts, could you expect anything less? Sadly, I was disappointed though this was probably hindered as much by my inability to communicate properly beyond an “oishii!” as anything else. There also seemed to be a surprising lack of fresh veggies and meat, which I now wonder if it was in part exacerbated now by whatever may be happening just north of Tokyo following the earthquake and tsunami. Luckily, not all was lost as my good friend Simon was able to show us some of Tokyo’s hidden gems, including 風雲児 in Shinjuku, one of the best ramen houses in Tokyo (at one point it ranked first in the Ramen rankings! (yes there is such a thing J)). After a half-hour-plus wait, we were seated at small bar with seating for about 15 and presented with bowls of steaming ramen in chicken broth and dipping sauce – truly an oishii there (albeit a bit salty towards the end).
Just as no Japanese food experience would be complete without ramen, no visit to Japan is complete without visiting the traditional Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that define the country’s religious identity. According to one tour guide, up until she became a tour guide, she really didn’t have an idea that Buddhism and Shintoism were two different religions. Another said that the Japanese liked to hedge their bets, and in not knowing which religion was “right”, decided to adopt the customs and teachings of both.
I was originally going to title this post “100 hours in Tokyo”, with the intention that it would sum up that whirlwind tour feeling of spending just four plus days in one of the world’s greatest modern metropolises. After those hundred hours, however, “searching” seemed like a more apt title, especially for a city who seemed to assume as many identities as adolescents and quarter-lifers searching for themselves. But perhaps, that is what defines Tokyo – a city in constant cultural evolution, looking as much to the future as it is tied by its past.