Monday, April 30, 2007

Beware of Tokyo Maps

One of the frustrating things I found in Japan were their maps. Tokyo is a big, dense place so it is very hard to get around, even if you have an address and know where you are going. So what they are very good about are having lots of maps around that are very detailed. Nice works guys.

The downside is that unlike maps I'm used to (always having north at the top) the maps in Japan are oriented in the direction that you are facing. For example, if you are looking at a map that has been mounted facing south, then the orientation of the map will have the top of the map pointing south. Make sense? Check out the two photos below that I took at the Imperial Gardens about 20 yards away from each other. It might look as if I've rotated the photo since the "you are here" mark is so close in them both but that is not the case. Notice the direction North arrow. This messed with my head the whole time I was there.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Tokyo 2007: Part 2

Sorry for the late wrap up but trying to get back on SF time has been kicking my butt for some reason and now this stuff isn’t as fresh in my mind but here is what I had written in my journal:

I met up with Robert and Tomoko Monday, feeling proud of myself for having navigated the daunting Shinjuku rail station and actually ended up where I wanted to go and on time! We headed off to Harajuku and a stroll down Omote-Sando. From what I gather these are the ultra chic, fashionable areas of town, which seems like the whole place to me but I’m just slovenly American.

Then a train over to Shibuya. These guys really know how to shop. Just look at the place. I don’t know where they get all the energy, money or time. Amazing

Tuesday morning we met up with Tomoko’s parents and headed south by train down the Izu peninsula. We picked up a car in Hakone and checked out the MOA, it’s Japanese Gardens and traditional tea house.

A bit more south we checked into the traditional Japanese hot bath / spa / onsen Tomoko’s parents booked us into. I think it’s called the Eggplant? Check it out: We got the same excellent service I had quickly become accustom to and traditional 8 course Japanese meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'm an adventure eater and everything was so well done and I'm not complaining but the point I snapped was when they brought out the breakfast salad with dried little fish as a salad topping (see photo below)

Each room was setup in a traditional Japanese fashion with tatami mats, futons (stored in the closet) a small table and a hot soaking tub on the balcony over looking the ocean and hills. Between the shochu, beer, hot baths and views, I found myself totally relaxed and struggling to leave. This photo was of my room. You can just make out the hot tub through the doors on the deck. Yummy.

We did a bit of exploring and visited a few lighthouses and small towns on the way back to the train station. This photo was a light house near Shizouka that had this interesting little hut tucked into the side of the rocky cliff with a couple of monks selling prayer offerings and meditating. I had given up questioning these things and just checked it all out.

Thursday afternoon we were back in Tokyo and the realization that our time was drawing to an end was coming upon us. We headed over to the electronics district, Akihabara, then some comfort food in Ebisu for dinner. We wound up at this Italian / Japanese fusion place and had great meal that really hit the spot, although not what I was expecting (but no guppies at all!) The last couple days are a bit of a blur but I found myself wandering through the Imperial Gardens (below)

and to the War Museum. I had read about their version of the Greater East Asian Conflict (we called it World War 2) and it was a trip. I don't want to get into too many details as it is something you can easily research but what was really odd for me was that I was there with about a dozen older men that looked as if they could have been involved in it. Being the only American in the place it just seemed odd reading about the heroic victories of the Japanese military over the US and thinking that at one time these guys were at war with us. I'll never begin to understand the psychology of war and the military mentality.

Lastly, we visited Asakusa at it's famous temple, Senso-ji and had a nice boat ride back to central Tokyo.

Look for one last Tokyo post with some follow up photos and observations at some point soon. Dōmo arigatō

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tokyo 2007: Part 1

I am sitting here trying to figure out how to put together any kind of meaningful blog about the last week I spent in Tokyo and am not sure how to start so I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.

I am in awe at the size and density of Tokyo. I remember my first trip to New York City and thinking that THIS was a city and clearly understanding why many of my east coast friends thought of San Francisco as a sleepy little burb. Well, Tokyo is to New York City what New York City is to SF. I can’t and won’t even begin to describe the physical layers on layers of restaurants, stores, back alleys apartments and parks mixed in with a deep ritualistic cultural, history and (to me at least) incomprehensible written and spoken language. Kind of a happy metaphysical punch in the face and kick in the groin at the same time.

What an amazing experience. I was so fortunate to be able to go there with a close friend and also someone who grew up there, that I can’t compare it to “traveling”. It was much more about getting to know a place and them through their experiences there.

Arriving on Sat the 7th, Robert and I navigated the daunting Shinjuku train station to find our nearby hotel on the East side. A cozy LITTLE place with just enough room for two beds and bathroom. A nice enough, cheap ($60 a night) and central place to spend some time if you are headed to Tokyo.

We took it easy the first night and ended up getting some dinner nearby where I got my first experience with the amazingly high level of service in Japan and Robert’s language skills. I was impressed by both. We ended up in a small plates place where I was trying to sort out the all Japanese menu through the cigarette smoke (remember smoking in restaurants, gack!). We wandered around a bit and ended up on the West side of Shinjuku in the skybar at the Keio Plaza Hotel, on the 45th floor over looking part of the enormity of Tokyo. This was the hotel (and neighborhood) that was in much of “Lost in Translation”

The next day we headed over a couple blocks to the Shinjuku Goyen Park. This was to be one of the highlights of the trip and it was. It was the last half of the Cherry Blossom season and is one of the best parks for experiencing it. It was simply breathtaking, as if it were raining blossoms. They covered the trees, the ground and floated through the air. The colors of the park were spectacular; the vibrant greens, whites, pinks and reds of the trees and bushes, the greens and browns of the grass, and the blue and white of the sky and clouds.

For dinner we headed over to the West Side and met up with Tomoko and her parents, Keyoko and Toshi for some ShabuShabu. I’ve never had this before but have heard much about it. Check out this link if you are curious what it is.

Beyond the amazing presentation what blew me away was the service. This was an 8 course dinner and for each course the waitress would describe in detail the dish and how it was prepared. At one point we had an Udon type soup and I asked about the noodles. The waitress asked her manager, he looked the specific special noodles up on the internet and printed up a page to bring to us. These guys get no tips BTW. This is just amazing service and attention to detail. Makes me want to spit on any waiter I see in SF.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tokyo Timeout

I don`t even know where to start.  How about with generalities (and no spell checking) .  Tokyo and Japan are beautiful. I spent the first few days wandering around the parks admiring the Cherry Blossom trees and gazing slack jawed at the high tech future that is Tokyo. What a contrast, the tranquility of the carefully planned and maintained natural surroundings and the height of high tech consumerism. The food has been amazing. Ever tried Italian / Japanese fusion? I have. We also just got back from the south a stay in a traditional Japanese spa for a few days. I have had enough minnow salad for breakfast for awhile but am looking forward to seeing the Imperial Palace today and maybe an opera tonight.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tokyo Here I Come!

My good friend Robert and his wife Tomoko asked me to accompany them on their annual visit to Tokyo. Of course I said yes, so we are heading out tomorrow morning to spend a week in Japan. I'm looking forward to checking out the home market motorcycles, tyco drumming, interesting vending machines, the Cherry Blossom Festival and lots of other things.