It’s hard to write a post about visiting Tokyo and not say something that’s already been spouted a thousand times.
But don’t go thinking that I’m letting you off the hook just because of that.
We showed up to Fukuoka airport in typical American fashion: an hour and a half early. Our gate was deserted, and for a long while I thought that our flight would be mostly empty. But the Japanese obviously have a better understanding of how their airports work, and within about 15 minutes of our boarding time the area suddenly filled up with people. Back when I reserved our flights with some United Miles I had lying around, I had to call the ANA reservation center upon realizing that they had originally assigned us seats in separate rows (is this a new trend in my life?). The phone agent fixed the issue, but I never took the time to study the seat map after she gave me our new seats. But when we walked on the plane, I was delighted to discover that she had put us bulkhead seats! After we took off, the view from above Fukuoka was pretty stellar. I even caught site of a lake that looked a bit like a gecko with a long tail!
We landed at Tokyo Haneda around 3 in the afternoon. And after we procured a pair of adorable Suica cards festooned with cherry blossoms, the monorail whisked us off towards the city. Tokyo’s monorail is one in maybe five or six in the whole world that’s genuinely useful and not just a boondoggle sold to the people of West Haverbrook as a tourist draw.
Oh, but when we reached the Yamanote line in order to continue our trek to the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku, things got ugly fast. This is probably the most heavily travelled rail line in Tokyo. I finally had a crystal(Pepsi) clear understanding of the stories Chris had told me of his days riding the NY subway during rush hour— and it wasn’t even 5pm yet. And even though it was a maddening crush of people, the whole experience was calm, quiet and really not so bad. It was just, you know, kind of humid…
We reached the hotel and as luck would have it, the paid upgrade I had requested back when I booked the room was available. For a an extra $100 per night, we got our hands on a junior suite! Worth. Every. Penny. I’ll admit it, I’m kind of proud that Chris’ jaw hit the floor when we opened the door to our room. Stylish, modern, and ultra-comfortable, there really wasn’t a single negative thing to say about our stay at this hotel. They even had bath bombs stocked along with the standard set of toiletries! It was here at the Hilton that it really hit us: We were in the middle of an extravagant once in a lifetime adventure. From here on out, we were totally switched on. Here I am checking out the beautiful wet room that looked out into the bedroom and the city lights beyond:
Thanks to the upgrade, we were allowed to ride up to the 37th floor Executive Lounge for free snacks, cocktails, and beautiful city views. I had a rather difficult time getting my husband to go outside and explore the city because at this point he had decided he wanted to just run around the hotel, taking more photos of the place. But eventually we set off in search of one of Tokyo’s most entertaining shopping experiences: Don Quijote.
I don’t know that there’s a proper comparison to Don Quijote in the United States. It’s one big, cluttered, chaotic mashup of a Fry’s Electronics, Trader Joe’s, Sports Chalet, Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond, CVS, and Lamps Plus. It’s also cheap. And were it not for the blue stripe painted on the floor, we would never have found the cash registers in this labyrinth of shopping paradise. So I guess there’s a little IKEA mixed in as well. We only walked out with some KitKat bars and Japanese whiskey though, since we were saving most of our available baggage space for Kyoto. I still sort of regret not buying a pair of that underwear, just because I couldn’t believe it existed. After a healthy nip of said whiskey back at the hotel, we tucked in to our super cozy bed and drifted off to sleep against the backdrop of the metropolis.
Our first proper full day in Tokyo began with a visit to Shinjuku National Garden, where the blooming cherry trees were drawing quite a crowd of tourists and locals alike. And it was with good reason: If you’ve ever paid a visit to the Huntington in San Marino or Kew Gardens in London, you’ll have an idea of the size and splendor within Shinjuku Garden’s gates. Though the real centerpiece is their traditional Japanese garden, Shinjuku is packed with Cherry trees, a tropical greenhouse, a rose garden and plenty of green space to lay out on and have a picnic. Crowds gathered around the blooming cherry trees, taking pictures in front of veritable walls of color. My buddy Domo even got into the spirit of the season: From there we went to nearby Meji-Jingu and wandered through the dense urban forest to come upon a beautiful shrine filled to capacity with people and cameras.
What on earth had we stumbled into? Apparently a major trade deal in progress with Australia included some ceremonial formalities, which sadly made it difficult to enjoy a peaceful exploration of the grounds. We stopped by the gift shop, picked up a couple of charms, and made a hasty exit out of the Harajuku gate and into a mob scene of a different type altogether.
When we looked into the trendy shopping district and saw a sea of people, Chris promptly pointed me back towards the train station and so we retreated back to the hotel for a quick rest. As our afternoon stupor wore off, I reminded him that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building just down the street featured an observation deck on the 45th floor. With sunset approaching, it sounded like a great way to start off the evening.
From there, we decided to visit a ghost from our past: Tower Records. While the music chain was erased from the sidewalks of California in 2006, it still lives on in Japan and the Shibuya store is a nine-story nirvana of music, complete with a funky café on the second floor.
We came on a mission to find a fun Kylie CD for a friend and ended up staying for dinner, which was… odd. I ordered the loco moco, which had what I would swear was A-1 steak sauce for gravy. Chris ordered a pizza, which they BROILED. The result? Crispy cheese on top, a limp and half-baked crust on the bottom. Ugh. Well, at least they had beer. They also had a listening station right by our table, and I happened to notice that one of the albums on the screen was the soundtrack to my favorite anime series, Cowboy Bebop. I’m pretty sure that my squeal of delight was heard outside the store. The moment we paid the check it was off to the seventh floor to find it. I happily shelled out the 2500 yen, because it was still cheaper than the 3800 yen they wanted at the observation deck for a samurai Domo plush.
Saturday morning we dressed, ate at the hotel and hopped a train to the Tokyo Teleport station in the Koto waterfront area. The area is home to the rainbow bridge, a miniature statue of liberty, a life-size animatronic Gundam, and while we were there, Cirque Du Soleil’s traveling production of OVO.
A friend who works for cirque offered to get us tickets to the show when I told here we were headed to Tokyo. Little did I know she hooked us up big time with front row seats in the very center of the stage! Now, if you’ve seen a Cirque show before you probably know that sitting near the stage can end up putting you in the clowns’ sights when they do their gags throughout the show. And wouldn’t you know it, I was pulled into one. This had never happened to me before, and thank Buddha the Cirque folks speak a nonsense language because I would have been in deep trouble if I had to speak Japanese in front of a crowd. Cirque doesn’t allow photos during the show for both safety and copyright reasons (mostly safety), so I don’t have any concrete evidence of the hilarity that ensued as I tried to woo one of the characters onstage with my dance moves. However, I’m proud to report that several people came up to me after the show and said I had done a fantastic job. I hope they didn’t think I was a plant in the audience. My bald head made it a little too easy for the cast to point at my noggin and shout “OVO!”
Even if you don’t find yourself in the front row, I highly recommend picking up tickets to this particular Cirque du Soleil show if you’re headed to Japan this year and want a brief diversion from doing the tourist thing. With the possible exception of Zumanity, it’s the funniest one that I have ever seen. Great for kids of all ages, very colorful, and chock full of really expressive (and attractive) athletes and performers. Oh, how I wish I had pictures! But I don’t. Because I’m a good little gecko.
Feeling energized but not sure where to go next, we decided to check out Akihabara. Like Harajuku it was very crowded, but this time it was manga nerds instead of fashion bugs filling the streets. I quickly ducked into a couple shops in search of some cool Domo stuff, but my efforts were in vain. Nobody had anything! I did find a cute plastic backpack charm of an otter carved out of a hot dog in one of the many toy vending machines though, and that was pretty awesome:
We also saw a rather tall store filled with adult novelties and costumes and lingerie and “those” kind of books and… well, they pretty much listed the entire contents on the outside walls of every floor. Tokyo’s pretty laid back about that sort of thing. Nobody makes a big deal about your kinks, especially in Akihabara where every otaku (おたく) is shopping with purpose. I found myself mesmerized by the crowds as they filtered through the tiny store aisles with such focus. It must be exhausting! Oh waitaminute, didn’t I come here specifically to find one kind of toy character?
(mostly)Empty handed, we slipped back to our oasis at the Hilton for a quick rest. And by rest, of course I mean we spent an hour and a half in the Executive Lounge catching up on Facebook and posting photos to Instagram. Then we met up with our friend Junko who’s a graphic designer in Tokyo. She took us out to one of her favorite nearby restaurants, a fun izakaya pub named Donjaka Honten that’s located right in the middle of Shinjuku’s San-chome area. During our walk there from the Tokyo Hilton, we passed through the commercial district adjacent to Shinjuku station and saw a pair of robots being towed around town:
At Donjaka we were treated to fried baby mackerel, tempura young squid, grilled pork skewers, an amazing omelette filled with curry noodles, some fantastic sushi, tempura vegetables, and plenty of beer. The atmosphere was lively, even though the restaurant itself was fairly small. I would have been happy to spend the whole night eating there, but Junko wanted to take us by Kinsmen, a nearby bar her friend Ebi runs in Tokyo’s gay district. And when I say nearby, it turned out to be only a block away.
With its small streets and fairly sedate exteriors, Shinjuku Ni-chome looked nothing like our hometown of West Hollywood. She pointed out a novelty shop and suggested we go inside, but gay bookstores in Tokyo don’t typically allow women inside so she waited by the door while we had a look around.
Kinsmen was located around the corner on the second floor, and once inside I was thrown off by the intimacy of the place. Small by American gay bar standards, it had a bar and a small scattering of tables by the window. It was also fairly quiet, apart from the music which was playing at a downright respectable volume. It made for a great atmosphere to actually have *gasp* a conversation! Chris & I chatted with Junko about work, life in Tokyo, and even religion until we realized the last subway of the night would be passing through the neighborhood in ten minutes. Before we left however, the Ebi was kind enough to show me the CD he had been playing (Perfume! How did I not know about them until now?) and tell us we were welcome back to the bar any time we visit Japan.
We hustled to the subway station just as the last train rolled in, packed to the gills with everyone else who didn’t want to take a cab home on a Saturday night. Which looked and felt like half the city’s population. I think I was pregnant with someone’s child by the time we exited the train near our hotel. It was an amazing day in the city, and the perfect cap to our time in Tokyo. And while I know we barely scratched the surface of the city, I went to bed knowing that I couldn’t wait to come back and dive a little deeper.
Next stop, Kyoto! By Bullet Train!
Want to see more of my photos from Tokyo? They’re over on Flickr.
Some of these shots were taken by my talented husband. He’s put quite a few up on his own Flickr page as well.