#rtw2012 – Tokyo

This is one of a series of posts about my round-the-world (RTW) trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may want to read the earlier posts for background and context.

Tokyo, of course, is the capital of Japan. As a fan of Japanese culture, food, traditions, it has been on my “bucket list” for years. It’s probably fair to say Tokyo was the single most desired destination on my trip. Or, put another way, if I couldn’t do this trip and had to just pick one place, Tokyo would have been it.

This is going to be a long, very detailed post. It’s mostly acting as my personal diary, although obviously if you’re going to Tokyo soon, you may find it useful. It’s part stream-of-consciousness and part chronological in listing some of the activities I enjoyed.

A few meta observations to start with.

The city is HUGE. It’s hard to over-state this. I did some research in advance, as I always do, and you hear facts or figures, e.g. Tokyo has more residents than all of Canada combined. It makes you go “wow,” or at least I did. But you don’t realize the size of it until you’re there in person.

I’d been to other big cities, e.g. Beijing and Shanghai, and obviously New York City, LA, and other big US cities. Tokyo felt bigger than all of them, easily. It’s dense, and so high-energy, both human and synthetic (the lights…)

My flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) was excellent.

The Tokyo subway is amazing. Like the rest of the city, it’s super-clean. I got the feeling one could easily have surgery or give birth on any random sidewalk or subway station, and it’d be fine. The trains are fast, run on time, have plenty of space, and are usually packed. I had a couple of fun encounters with the famed “people pushers.”

It’s a mystery to me why the trains stop after midnight-1am or so, and resume at 5-6am or so. Why? It facilitates some fun clubbing, where a lot of people have to stay out (or feel that way) until the first train if they miss the last one. More on that later.

Entering the area where I stayed, Kabukicho, in the afternoon.

The food is so, so good. I love Japanese food and eat it often anyways. It’s not surprising that I had the best sushi I’ve ever had in Tokyo (in fact, all top 3 or so sushi meals of my life were here), but also the ramen, yakitori, and other Japanese specialties.

OMFG ramen (chashumen to be more specific) at a street-side stand with sararimen.

Navigation at the neighborhood level (e.g. Shinjuku vs Shibuya) is easy, whether you do it by subway or other means. Navigation at the street level gets much harder, as many have written before. I think once you grok the block addressing system, though, which can be done on the plane ride, it becomes much easier. This was a great post on the topic.

Taxis are expensive but also mostly not necessary. I only a couple in my week there, mostly because I had to get somewhere in a rush and the subway was closed for the night. I did a lot of subway + walking, and it turned out great. It’s also a feast for the eyes and nose. (That turned out to be a theme for southeast Asia in general, not just Tokyo.)

Alone in the back of a taxi going from a club to the Tsukiji fish market around 3:30am.

I stayed in Kabukicho, a somewhat-notorious neighborhood of Tokyo contained within the big, bustling Shinjuku district. Kabukicho is sometimes known as “sleepless town” and it’s famous for its nightlife. This was to become a theme for my trip, somewhat, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You do need to be able to navigate in Tokyo, in Japanese, at night, probably having had some drinks, in order to do well there. It was a struggle the first night or two, but I adjusted quickly.

The nearest subway station to my hotel: Higashi-Shinjuku.

The flight was very good. I’m a fan of All Nippon Airways (ANA), as well as the other Asian-based airlines. Their standard of service just seems way higher than American or most European airlines.

The arrival in Tokyo is a bit dizzying, kind of like in the movie Lost in Translation, which I watched on the plane. It’s a good movie, by the way, even if you’re not going to Tokyo.

I lost most of my pictures from Tokyo, unfortunately, thanks to the Apple Photostream incident 😦 I have the ones from my Foursquare checkins (look for #rtw2012 #Tokyo in my Foursquare history if you’re really curious), and a few other selected ones that I texted friends.

View from the observatory on top of one of the city government buildings.

I went to a few key mainstream tourist sites, and enjoyed them. This is not the place to write about Japanese history, customs, and traditions, but it’s always been a fascinating topic to me. The Kaminarimon (“thunder gate”) leading to the Senso-ji temple, and that whole complex, was fun.

Kaminarimon (“thunder gate”)

Senso-ji temple.

The Imperial gardens were impressive in their calm and quiet, too. The Tokyo National Museum has many amazing artifacts. The Meiji Jingo shrine was peaceful. The views from the tall observatories were impressive. (I went to the government ones, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and that big mall building in Roppongi.)

The temple cleansing ritual involves dipping, washing, bowing, clapping…

I also really enjoyed a few attractions off the beaten path, at least a little bit: the Japanese swordsmanship museum was incredible, and both the Kokugikan (sumo) and Kodokan (judo) are the respective world headquarters for their sports, with unparalleled tradition and history.

Murals of rikishi (sumo wrestlers) outside the Kokugikan.

For example, if you’re a sumo geek like me, this is the ultimate place to dig deep. They had an exhibition of yokozuna knots explaining the difference between the Unryu and Shiranui styles for the ropes, which was awesome.

The Kodokan, like Mecca for Judo.

The Japanese sword museum, officially the Society of Preservation of Sword Art in Japan or something like that, stands out from the crowd. It’s out of the way, in a residential area, looks small and is small, but every item on display is a gem. A couple of Japan’s nationally-recognized “national treasures” are on display here. I thought a couple of the swords here were more impressive than the two of the “five swords under Heaven” on display at the Tokyo National Museum. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed here, and the old Japanese man keeping watch enforced this with vigilance.

A katana by Masamune from the Tokyo National Museum, via Wikipedia. Not my pic, no pics were allowed…
A short blade from the Japanese sword museum. That’s all part of the metal — amazing.

Another highlight for me was a visit to Kokonoe beya, a sumo “stable” that is run by my favorite rikishi (wrestler) of all time, Chiyonofuji. Like a number of Japanese attractions, this place looks quite ordinary from the outside, a plain residential building. And like a few others, it does not allow pictures inside. I respected that, since getting a visit here is hard enough as it is, and I don’t want to ruin it for others in the future.

Nice flowers right outside the building. This should help you find the spot if needed.

Maps are a funny topic in Japan. Almost every business has a web site with directions, usually in Japanese, and a map. Except that the maps are not using a standard common system, such as Google Maps. They tend to be stylized drawings not to scale or reference, so they’re hard to use, often confusing. But all you need to do is get to the right block or nearby, and then walk around for a minute or two.

Here is a typical example, from the web site for Sukiabashi Jiro, a 3-Michelin-Star sushi restaurant located in a train station underground, with both an address and a map on the decent web site:

Think you could find it/

And for reference, once you get to the location indicated on the map, you need to go down under the building towards the train station. This is the best and nearest entrance. See the sign? It’s not there. On purpose. This is common.

An entrance to this Ginza subway station which is also the closest to Jiro and Birdland. 

Thankfully the whole time I was in Tokyo, the weather was warm and nice, easy to walk around.

Some food highlights…

My friend Pier, who happens to be the CTO of Gilt Groupe Japan, was kind enough to show me their office, hang out, and go to dinner at the very nice Hibiki izakaya in Ginza, where we had a wonderful meal full of little treats that are hard to describe and even harder to find outside Japan.

Can you guess what those are?

I wanted to go to Sukiabashi Jiro, the underground 3-Michelin-star sushi bar, since I saw the Anthony Bourdain documentary on it. It’s short, you can watch it below. Then the movie “Jiro dreams of sushi” came out and it became even more famous, but I still wanted to go.

How was it? The sushi was incredible. It was the best sushi I’d had in my life up to that point, and I’m not prone to superlatives. (Someone should text-mine this blog for superlatives, it’d make a decent programming interview exercise.)

The atmosphere was less compelling than I’d expect from such a famous place, though. The whole experience felt rushed. The sushi etiquette, that I don’t have trouble with. I stick to fairly traditional Japanese sushi etiquette even in Japan, although I don’t correct friends who have looser habits. It was more of a rush and an attitude towards an obviously-not-Japanese guest. (I was there with an Asian-looking but not Japanese friend. She speaks a little Japanese, but not fluently, and they could obviously tell…)

I’m still happy I went, of course. “Value” is a very relative question, and Tokyo is a very expensive city, so I’m not really considering that topic here. But the experience was unique and the sushi mind-blowingly-good.

I knew Jiro is hard to find, so I went on a recon trip the first time I was in Ginza. I noticed a yakitori joint across the hall in the same underground subway station corridor, and I was hungry, so I stopped by for a snack without even checking the name. It turns out I was lucky: the place was Bird Land, the first yakitori joint to get its own Michelin star, and it was indeed delicious. (Plus I was there right around opening time. Apparently the line to get in gets epic around dinner time.)

My pictures from Birdland are lost, and (like Jiro across the hallway) the low cell phone reception hampered my checkin.  But I had the same chef’s omakase menu that most people order, and this Sydney foodies blog post captures it quite well, with nice pics.

Negima yakitori at Birdland from the Sydney foodies blog.

Tokyo has 16 restaurants with 3 Michelin stars, which is a fairly shocking total. That’s out of 32 in the whole country of Japan, which, by the way, is more such restaurants than France 🙂 For another comparison, NYC has 7 such restaurants, although I personally think a couple are questionable choices based on my experience there (Eleven Madison Park and Chef’s Table), and one (Momofuku Ko) that should make it soon.

I went to another such restaurant, also a sushi-ya, called Sushi Saito. Like Jiro, Saito is a traditionalist, and like Jiro, the restaurant is a tiny bar with 7 seats that’s hard to find. And like most times when eating sushi for the first time somewhere new, I get the omakase. But that’s where the similarities end, because the experience at Saito was better than Jiro. The sushi quality was equivalent, i.e. incredible, but the service, friendliness, experience, and atmosphere were all much better.

Chef Saito from Sushi Saito. Photograph from Kang at London Eater, a great blog.

I wish I had my pictures from these places. The London Eater blog just had a very good post on Sushi Saito, including a number of pictures, all of which are better than mine. It’s highly recommended reading. What he says about the Tokyo fish being fuller, whole-r, better cut, tastier somehow, is very true.

I also had some sushi at 6am, after clubbing. I love how it’s available always and everywhere. Such a healthy alternative to other typical post-clubbing foods. More on that in the nightlife section below.

6am chirashi FTW.

My overall favorite meal in Tokyo, the overall best sushi I’ve had, was at Sushi Dai inside the Tsukiji fish market, around 5:30am one day, after getting in to watch the live auctions. Much has been written about this market, and visiting it, by many people. It was an amazing experience even without the meal.

Inside Tsukiji at sunrise. Them forklifts move fast!

You have to get there in the very early morning, before sunrise, if you want to have a chance to get into the market itself for the live fish auctions. In recent years the market has been in various states of closed to foreigners and visitors, but this year they are allowing a very small (~20-30 folks) supervised group of people in. For some people this is an early wakeup, but I was coming from a nightclub, so it was actually quite easy.

Once inside, you’re led around by a guide who’s very strict about staying within a small path. This is a Good Thing since small forklifts are buzzing around really fast, and people are swinging sharp hooks into and out of big fish all over the place. There are crawling creatures, wetness, and other assorted fun items all over the place. I really enjoyed it.

Inside the market during the live tuna auctions. Each of those fish is worth a lot of money.

The auctions themselves were interesting, with much inspecting of tuna, yelling, and some laughing.

After the tour I went to Sushi Dai. It was around 5:30am and there was already a line, but it was pretty short for us, about 20 minutes. By 7am, when the auctions and wholesaling is largely done, and the market opens to the wider public, the line often goes around the block, and you have to wait for 2-3 hours, or more.

This toro (fatty tuna) made me cry. Best piece of fish I’ve ever had. 

A number of people have written about Sushi Dai, and I can’t add much beyond what they’ve written, plus they have better pictures, so you may as well read these posts if you’re curious: EdEdition, Epicurious Deb, My Food Sirens, and many more.

I had a number of additional small meals, just at random street-side noodle and ramen joints. Pretty much all of them were great. I learned how to operate the vending machines where you pick what you want based on pictures (so helpful), get a ticket stub, and give that to the chef behind the bar. Easy, efficient system.

Another aspect of Tokyo that’s worth coverage is its nightlife. It’s reasonably well-known as one of the most interesting nightlife scenes in the world. I was lucky to have a friend as a local nightlife guide for part of the time, Tiffany Rossdale. She was (and is) awesome in many ways, and she also introduced me to other cool folks like Christi. Thanks 😉

Tiffany DJing at ageHa, another Tokyo superclub.

One place I’d wanted to visit for a while is Womb, the underground nightclub that’s always on the various “best of” lists, e.g. DJ Magazine’s Top 100 clubs in the world or M Theory’s top 10 list. It was indeed all that and a bag of chips. Excellent sound and lighting systems, very friendly crowd, hard-to-find entrance (sensing a theme here?), lots of fun.

View of the floor at Womb from the VIP area upstairs.

If you haven’t seen the movie Babel, it’s not bad. One of the characters is a deaf woman in Tokyo, and in one scene she trips on E and goes to a nightclub. The club is Womb and it’s a routine night there…

I also got a chance to visit Le Baron (fancy, a little more snooty crowd, but beautiful, very colorful), Vortex (some good salsa music, surprisingly), Rigoletto in Roppongi (good food), R2 in Roppongi (fun crowd), and more.

Hanging at the bar at R2. Very friendly crowd.

I also walked a lot during the day, not just at night. One fascinating district is Akihabara, home of many electronics stores as well as maid cafes. I went to both, and both were fascinating, the latter being mostly just awkward.

The “information” display at a big Akihabara electronics store
On the way up to a Maid Cafe, stopped to watch this kid play a localized Dance Dance Revolution type of game. He kept getting perfect scores on the highest difficulty level. Impressive…

I walked around Harajuku to see the goth kids and other teenagers in fun outfits. That was entertaining.

I figured the long line is for some hip clothing store, but no. Brunch at a very American “eggs n’ things.”

While in Harajuku, I window-shopped in Takeshita-dori and nearby areas, although I wasn’t in a buying mode for much of the trip, traveling light with a backpack. “The Filth and the Fury” did have some nice stuff, though.

Overall, I loved the shopping style in Tokyo. It has a nice edge that we don’t often find in the US, although it’s similar to Israel.

Shopping in Takeshita-dori often means being part of a human tidal wave.

Aside: while research this area for specific shops, I stumbled upon several good sites, like ShiftEast, which are worth following in and of themselves.

After walking past countless Pachinko parlors, I figured I should try one out, “when in Rome…” and all. I obviously don’t know how to play the game well, but with a bit of help from Google and a nearby local, I figured it out. Not my cup of tea, and I was late to dinner anyways, but it was an interesting experience, a little bit of sensory overload, and a couple of sketchy Yakuza-type characters standing around, but overall a safe atmosphere.

I went in here for about 30 minutes, then had to leave. No rush to return.

Finally, a couple of interesting experiences outside the normal tourist realm. These may not be as easy to replicate for other visitors to Tokyo, but they were two of my personal highlights, bucket list items, and delivered some adrenaline.

I’ve already written about how I played pickup football (soccer) in every destination as a way to exercise and meet locals. After watching the movie Pelada, and seeing The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, I really wanted to find the rooftop pitch depicted in both these movies. It’s not easy to find, because it’s not marked (on purpose) and can only be accessed by one elevator of many inside a nondescript department store in Shibuya.

This description
, from the Pelada blog, of the rooftop soccer pitch, is spot-on.

My teammates, right before I went on the field again.

I found it after some searching, and joined a couple of games around sunset. Then the team went out for drinks, as often happened during my trip, and they connected me with folks for my next bucket list item, also related to the above movie: drifting.

This I can’t write much about, since the folks are already persecuted enough. But if you’re curious about the topic and can spend a night around the Ooifuto port area, ideally with a local escort, do.

Although I spent most of my time staying in Kabukicho as noted above, I did stay at the Park Hyatt for a little bit. This is the movie from the Lost in Translation movie mentioned above, too. I enjoyed their restaurant and bars.

View from one of the hotel bars.

Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to Tokyo. I had a blast, though, and I can’t wait to go back for more.

Aside: I was originally thinking of also visiting Kyoto during this trip, but I had so much fun in Tokyo, I didn’t want to leave. Next time…

Nice goodbye sign at Narita airport.