As seen in Masala Thai as “My Date with Tokyo”
I stepped off the plane at 7:00am. My heart was racing again, as it always does when I step into a new country. I’m not sure if it’s my conscience realizing that I’m going outside my comfort zone, my overwhelming excitement, or my downright fear of getting denied to enter the country at immigration. Now that I think about it, it could just be a combination of all three. Nonetheless, my heart races and I feel alive; that’s all that matters. And with my first step off the plane, I finally met Tokyo.
I only had one day to spend with Tokyo, and so I wanted to pack in as much as possible, and getting lost and confused by the variety of transportation modes was not an option. I did what I knew best; I over prepared. I figured out exactly how to get from the airport to my hotel. I printed the subway map on an A3 paper (note to self: unlimited printing – the perks of having an office job). Unfortunately it had to be A3, because A4 just wasn’t big enough to contain all of Tokyo’s subway systems legibly. Needless to say, I was officially nervous to take on this behemoth of a city with straw-like alphabets on my own.
To my amazement, I reached the hotel quite flawlessly. Since I had taken an overnight flight, I was really hoping I would be able to check in at 10:00am. Close but no cigar; I was informed that would only happen 3:00pm onwards. This meant I had to change my clothes, brush my teeth, and manage to look decent without having had an hour of sleep or a shower since last night. By 11:00am I was out of the hotel, with a big day ahead of me. I wanted to experience everything Tokyo had to offer, and time was not on my side.
I proudly took out my A3 subway map, only to realize that my first destination, Skytree Tower, was inaccessible by the subway from my current location. Without any directional bearings or a sense of the Japanese language, a 70 year old man guided me to bus number 8 headed in the opposite direction. I got on the bus, paid the fees, and had a bit of a staring contest with the bus driver. Finally realizing that I was not getting a bus ticket, I hesitantly made my way inside and seated myself. I decided to look out the window for an obscenely tall tower, assuming that would be my queue to get off the bus. It was all a guessing game really, but I finally made it.
Standing tall at 450 meters, Skytree Tower happens to be the highest observation point Tokyo has to offer. It is equipped with state of the art technology, and provided an absolutely stunning view of Tokyo. The elevators going upwards went as fast as 600 meter per minute, and my ears suffered the consequences. On a clear day, it is even possible to see Mount Fuji from here, and that is about 120 kilometers away! Since my exhaustion was getting the better of me at this point, I decided to enjoy my first cup of coffee in Tokyo at the Skytree café, while taking in the cityscape.
Tokyo’s subway system is the most complex piece of art I have ever seen. There are so many metro lines going in every direction. Each station seemed to have an underground city of its own. It’s as though all of Tokyo city existed on 2 floors. With all the signs, thankfully both in English and Japanese, along with my A3 map, I was easily able to navigate from location to location. By the time I reached Asakusa Station, I was famished. It was 1:00pm and I realized I had forgotten all about breakfast. Whoops. To be fair, I was distracted by my excitement. Luckily Nakamise, a market that leads directly to the Sensoji Temple, had an assortment of traditional Japanese eateries and desserts. My aching belly felt the urge to try everything, so I went on a food hopping adventure through the Nakamise market. I ate some baked goodies that came fresh out of massive stamping machines, mochi, sweet potatoes formed in the shape of bricks, and some cold Matcha tea to top it all off.
Sensoji, a popular Buddhist temple, is situated at the end of Nakamise market.
I headed directly to the fortunes, where majority of the crowd huddled. I was eager to part take. I took the wooden container in my hands, and shook it until a chopstick fell out. On the chopstick, was a Japanese inscription that I had to match with one of the 150 miniature drawers to retrieve my fortune. This is going to take a while, I thought to myself. Thankfully, a nice Japanese lady came to my rescue. I was disappointed to read my bad fortune, especially the part where it read “Going on a vacation is not advisable.” I was on my first day of a one week trip. I decided to donate another 100 yen and obtain another chopstick; one that I was happier with. My second fortune read quite well, so I decided to stick with it and left the temple feeling quite content that I had just changed my own fate.
My next destination for the day was Chuo Dori, a walking street near Ginza Station. Hundreds of Japanese ladies, men, and children dressed in Kimonos were roaming around, chatting, and taking photos. I walked further and noticed two men methodologically blocking off a portion of the road and started lining up buckets of water along the roadside. I immediately sensed the energy and excitement that surrounded this scene, and knew this was not a normal day on Chuo Dori. A dozen photographers comfortably seated themselves on the concrete road, staring at the preparations underway. This peaked my curiosity, and I joined them in the waiting with my Canon. I felt like a true photographer, minus the part that I had no idea what I was about to photograph or witness. I asked one of the local photographers what was going on, and learned that this is one of the ceremonies in remembrance of the deceased. It was just my luck that I ended up here in time to ring in one of the local festivals.
After 20 minutes of anticipation, I noticed the Japanese in Kimonos start to line up along the water buckets. A man spoke loudly into the microphone and the crowd went wild. Children started playing Taiko drums and the beats kept getting faster and louder. Without warning, there was a huge splash of water; and I remember thinking to myself, Japanese Songkran! Chuo Dori was exceptionally festive on this day, and I was simply lucky.
There were little tented stalls for people to sit together and create some glass paintings, beaded accessories, ice sculptures, and much more. There was even a freestanding aquarium with a variety of exotic fish on display. Funds were being raised for victims in Nepal and people were lining up to give donations. Everyone was happy, at ease, and having a great time. Further down Chuo Dori, tucked away in a narrow meter wide entrance, I found myself stumbling into a Japanese Beer Hall and enjoying a Sapporo; the perfect finish to a lovely afternoon.
Harajuku District is well known for its hipster vibes; a look finished with cobble stone walkways and lined with quirky standalone boutique stores. I was on a hunt for Harajuku Gyoza Ro, an acclaimed restaurant for its Gyozas. After navigating through the petite alleyways, and unsuccessfully brushing aside my temptation to shop, I finally found the 6×6 meter restaurant. Seated next to me was an Austrian ballet dancer in his 50s. We had only just met, and it seemed like we knew each other forever. After a few beers and a couple dozen mouth-watering Gyozas later, I lent my ears, and he his years of wisdom, to an amazing conversation about life, love, and marriage; and then we parted ways.
Following a lovely evening stroll through Shinjuku district and watching the sun disappear behind the sea of buildings from the twin towers, I headed to Shibuya. Shibuya District is the heart of Tokyo’s night life, and one of the busiest crossings in the entire world. I cannot even comprehend how the Shibuya crossing runs so flawlessly. Thousands, literally thousands of pedestrians cross the streets at each green light signal. At every 2 minute intervals, all traffic lights turn red, and all pedestrian walkways turn green; this major intersection converts into what is best described as temporary chaos. Pedestrians are crossing through the intersection in every direction they choose, and within 2 minutes the intersection is clear of pedestrians; absolutely empty. The cars are free to pass again. Only in Japan can this concept actually function. Orderly chaos, it was beautiful to watch.
After spending a decent amount of time observing the Japanese night life through the streets of Shibuya, I decided to call it a day. It was 10:00pm, and the idea of being huddled in blankets quickly took over me almost immediately. I made my way back to the hotel, and my mind started to wander. I hadn’t noticed any rushing, pushing, shoving, or anger throughout my day in this densely populated city. It didn’t feel like a concrete jungle that metropolitan cities usually beckon. In fact, it was the exact opposite. This city has a soul; a rich culture that exudes patience, kindness, and humility.
I tucked myself into bed, eager to head out on my one week road trip through Japan the next day. Feeling a sense of calm and relaxation after my eventful day, I thought to myself with certainty; I need to revisit Tokyo.