I went to the Orient (is that term not cool anymore?) for a two week stint, on business. But did get a bit of pleasure during the gaps between work weeks, which was quite nice for a change. I traveled with Joseph and Sean — when combined make a fun traveling party.
First we went to Japan near Tokyo and spent two days there on business, followed by Saturday and most of Sunday in Tokyo waiting for our flight to China. The night we got in we headed to the trendy Shibuya neighborhood and spent hours wandering the windy, narrow roads dropping in on bars and pubs. There were lots and lots of people around, the scene buzzing with energy. I learned here that Japan, for a foreigner who doesn’t know any Japanese, is a place where you can get within 10 yards of where you want to go, but that last 10 yards is often insurmountable.
Often times the three of us would be standing outside a stretch of storefronts, looking at the location-aware maps on our phones showing us that we were in the right location, but having no idea which of the dozen storefronts or signs is the place you want. Due to population density, places go vertical. Often you’ll see signs for different restaurants or stores on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th+ floors of a building — it’s not just commercial on the ground floor and residential on the rest.
We discovered that Tokyo’s premier underground / indie music venue was in Shibuya, and finally found it after walking up and down the street a few times. The top level was a bar with hundreds of pamphlets new and old of various artists’ shows. There was a TV showing the stage on the floor below, but after seeing that the band tonight was a retro hair band from the ’80s, we just had our drink and moved on. The places we hit up were so varied — an English ex-pat pub, a wonderfully lit and vibey wine bar, a chain noodle joint, and finally an old style sake bar where we sat low to the ground on pillows. I was feeling super tired by the end of the night, so I hopped in a cab while Joseph and Sean walked the two or three miles home.
The next day, we visited the famous Akihabara electronics mart and the neighborhood around it. The famous Tokyo subway system was efficient and always on-time. Again, if you knew where to go. For the newcomer, entering a central hub station is overwhelming — at least twenty different platforms with all sorts of lines going through. We stared at the maps (some have English, some don’t) and remembered the kanji to make sure we boarded the right train. After the first couple of trips though, it becomes a lot easier.
In the afternoon, we took a long walk to the old Imperial Palace. It was a lot less grand and opulent than I expected, but then again I didn’t have time to do any real research on Tokyo before arriving.
I really should have done my research on the weather too — it was extremely hot and humid. After half an hour outside your clothes are just drenched with sweat. That evening, we made our way to Popeye’s, which is apparently the #1 beer lover’s bar in the city. We parked ourselves at a small table on the narrow patio, and literally just passed the next three hours there. They had a great thing going — excellent beer menu, and if you got a certain beer, you also got a small tapas-like plate with it. So it’s wonderful to go with a bunch of friends, order some drinks and nibble on some food. That evening was also a large firework show, to mark a cultural event. This event got delayed due to the tsunami. All along the subway cars and streets, men and women in traditional kimonos and attire were streaming towards the riverfront for the event. Pretty cool to see. At Popeyes, the waiter was taking a liking to us for being such good patrons. We spotted a sweet poster inside titled “Refermenting Japan” and asked about it — he went over, took it down, and rolled it up for us to take. And then as we we finally left, he handed us special Popeye club membership cards. What a trip.
On Sunday, we had a leisurely brunch and headed off back to Shibuya to a popular shopping street where I wanted to get some things for folks back home. The shopping was a total disappointment (a lot of crap and awful attire), the people watching so-so, but we stumbled onto the main promenade we discovered they were having a parade that day. And the timing of it was to work in our favor. We snagged a streetside spot amid the crowds and enjoyed the parade. It featured troupes of dancers in different garbs and styles, usually with a banner leading them. I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose was, but what an nice unexpected surprise!
Hit the hotel, took a shower, checked out, and pretty soon we were back in the Narita airport headed down to China….