Friday, December 28, 2012

Day two - Tokyo

Jet lag sucks.
I woke up at 2:00. My wife woke up sometime after that. My son woke up at around 3:30. I went back to sleep at around that same time, and he went back to sleep at around 5:30. Somewhere in there I'm certain that my wife, too, went back to sleep. When I say that I was awake, that isn't entirely true. Part of me was awake, and part of me was asleep, or at least wanted to be asleep very badly.
At eight we were all sufficiently awake to begin our day.
Our hotel (Sumisho) is near Ningyocho station, part of the Nihonbashi area, just north-east of Tokyo station. We walked the five minutes or so to the station without seeing anything we wanted to eat. Which is strange, considering the number of places that served breakfast between the hotel and the station. Given too many choices, it is often hard to choose.
We went to Asakusa, an area in north-east Tokyo. The plan was to go to the large temple there, and visit the shops there before walking to the Tokyo Sky Tree. First we ate at Clover Cafe near the station, a small coffee shop that had some of the best croissants I've had outside of France, with some very good coffee. Joe even drank some; he's started drinking a little coffee here and there. It was a quiet place, the sort of establishment that you hope has success, not simply because of the quality of the product, but due to some feeling that you have that they deserve it.
After eating we headed to the temple. We arrived a little before 9:00 and very few of the shops were open. So we went to Sensoji.
In America, there is strong sense of belonging to the Christian faith. Church membership is declining, but “religiosity” is, supposedly, going strong. I mention this because, for all that there is a strong “faith” element in the society, it is still a very private affair.
When I'm in Japan I'm reminded of this. It is, I think, one reason why I like going to Japanese temples and shrines. It gives me perspective on what faith means. It isn't about the big things, like going to church every Sunday and then not keeping that feeling the following six days.
Sensoji is a tourist attraction. But that is a relatively new thing. For most of it's 1400 years of existence it was only a place of worship. Tourists visited, but they were pilgrims coming for religious reasons. Only when the rest of the world began flocking to Japan did Tokyo's oldest temple become a singular destination.
In spite of the presence of almost as many foreigners as Japanese, most of the Japanese who go to the temple still take time to pray. They leave a wish or memorial of some kind. When I see that, I wonder how many Americans go to church but don't do the same? How many cannot without someone to lead them in the prayer?
From Sensoji we walked to the Sky Tree.
Think of a giant needle pointing into the sky. It does look something like a tree, and it is a marvel of engineering on many fronts. But it costs a small fortune to go up to the observation decks. We opted to not go up. Besides, some things in life are better looked at, rather than looked from. There was a strong wind, and because of that they were exercising extreme caution, resulting in long lines, so it was just as well. Instead, we walked around, looked at the Japanese culture exhibition, and headed back to Asakusa to eat.
Ramen is generally looked on as a convenience food in the US. Japanese, too, have plenty of cup noodles and other instant varieties. Ramen is to Japan what hamburger is to America, meaning it is okay as a fast food, but is also served as a meal in more upscale restaurants.
There are many choices in Japan for good ramen. My wife had pre-selected several places near the shrine, and at random we chose XXXXX.
It was very small, seating maybe thirty people max on two floors. We ordered as we walked in, waited a few minutes for a table to open up, then climbed the very steep and narrow steps to the second floor. All three of us got the same thing: basic ramen with sliced pork, with a side order of fried dumplings to share.
Movies have been made about the fine art of making ramen, as well as how to eat it. Like other noodles, the trick is to cook it in just such a way that it is firm, but not chewy or stiff, while also being careful to not over cook it so that it becomes mushy. Then there's the broth, which has to complement the noodles, and the pork cannot make the broth too greasy. Each shop will have their own way of “dressing” the ramen, with, if you're lucky, local wild vegetables.
The afternoon was a whirlwind. Train to Tokyo Tower, where we promptly turned left out of the train station instead of right. Lucky we didn't walk too far before realizing our mistake (corrected by asking a nice lady working a small shop). Tokyo Tower costs about a third to enter as Sky Tree, and we went up to the main observation deck. To go to the highest point would have cost us the same amount again. Since it was cloudy in the direction of Mt. Fuji, we didn't see the need; we could see from one edge of Tokyo to the other as it was. Hanako had seen some television dramas where Tokyo Tower is nicely placed in the background, so we scoped out where that might be and walked around trying to find a good vantage point from which to take the perfect picture. That term is completely relative.
Roppongi Hills was a bit of a disappointment, but we hadn't really planned on going there, so we probably didn't see all that we should have. One big plus is that we found a Phiten store. Phiten make these products that my son really likes. Baseball players wear them, and he's a baseball player; so naturally he feels that he must wear one as well. None of us realized how many different products the company makes, nor did we understand that there are evidently health benefits to the products. He spent some of his travel money on a bracelet that I admit is pretty dang cool looking, but I don't dare buy one because that would immediately take it down several cool points.
Roppongi to Hibiya by train, with a walk to see the Imperial palace, which was really just a cool wall with old guard towers. Then to Tokyo Station, which has been renovated. All of the good shops are behind the gates, which means if you don't have a ticket, you can't go inside. We took our requisite number of tickets and walked back towards our hotel, stopping at the large Mitsukoshi department store along the way. Mitsukoshi is a high-end store, very expensive. Think four-hundred dollar wallets. I'll say this: the people that worked there were all very pretty, which I'm sure is (sadly) by design. Unable to afford anything there, we headed back to the hotel, taking another wrong turn and walking well out of our way.
Dinner was take out. Joe and I had fried chicken bentos, Hanako had sushi. At the hotel we slept quickly, all of us again taking turns waking up in the middle of the night.

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