Tokyo: Mecca for Food and People

In Japanese, “tok” means city, and “yo” (pronounced Yu-a) means food. Put it together, and you get “Tokyo” – city of food.

Actually I just made that up, but it might as well be true because Tokyo genuinely has some of the best food in the world. Sushi, ramen, soba, udon, Kobe beef, Tokatsu – fried pork, chicken on a stick, squid on a stick, stingray on a stick. . . and the list goes on. And on.

We flew into Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Saturday night and left by bus on Tuesday afternoon. It was just enough time to wish we had a lot more time.

While in the city, we took an all-day bicycle tour – an unconventional way of seeing Tokyo but something I would highly recommend – joined a night food tour and explored as much of the city – by foot and by subway – that we could. To sum it up: we walked a lot, we ate a lot.

Food wise, In those three days we managed to sample a bit of everything. From the indulgent – Kobe beef and lobster …

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This beef came with a “certificate of authentication.” I’m sure the cow would be proud
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Lobster cooked in front of us

to the simple: ramen served at convenient, cubicle-style desks where patrons are free from distractions (like other people) to concentrate on the flavors of the meal.

Plus, the ordering is all done through an easy to use vending machine – so no reason to bother with those annoying people who always try to talk to you at restaurants – I think they’re called waiters.

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Vending machine ordering
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You don’t have to bother with pesky small talk from waiters here – the food is slid through small slots in the wall
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Ramen!

Our first meal in the city was in the Tokyo subway – that city beneath a city. We ate tempura at this small restaurant in the Shinjuku station.

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Amy enjoying some tea
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Tempura in the Tokyo subway

On our food tour, we ate Yakitori – chicken and pork skewers cooked over an open flame.

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Yakitori at the bar

A plate full of fresh sashimi and a fish that was hand picked from a tank and filleted, still flopping helplessly about, in front of us.

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Fresh sashimi

And of course we had more ramen.

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You can’t have enough ramen

People

Tokyo is second to none when it comes to people watching.

On the subway and on the streets – Tokyo fashion runs the gamut from 1980’s esque puffy colored pants and all denim outfits – big accessories included – to slim cut black suits worn by the endless masses of sleek but tired looking Japanese business men.

In Akihabara, an electronics (and sex) district – women dress in French maid outfits to promote fetishized cafes. And in Shibuya -at the famous cross walk – one could spend all day watching the never-ending stream of busy looking pedestrians hustling off in all directions.

Finally (but not really – not by a long shot) on Takeshita Street, locals and tourists push together in a giant mass of slow moving, consumer-happy humanity.

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Takeshita street on a busy Sunday afternoon

Bottom Line

If I were more adventurous – and had more money and spoke Japanese – I would move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. An endless melding of concrete, bright lights and over-the-top eccentricity – Tokyo is a city that defies characterization. Urban sprawl writ large, Tokyo can neither be fathomed nor explained – but it should, without doubt, be experienced.

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Japan Revisited – Ten Years On

I first visited Japan ten years ago as part of a study abroad program at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. I went with a good friend from school and, after five weeks of pseudo-study, we booked tickets on the Japan rail pass and explored the country from Tokyo to Nagasaki.

In those pre-iPhone days and before TripAdvisor had fully caught on, our itinerary was based less on concrete travel plans and must-do activities, and more on WWII nuclear destruction: which is to say we visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki because, well, they are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and because we didn’t quite know where else to go.

In Hiroshima, we explored the peace memorial, walked the city’s hallowed grounds – watching the eternal Flame of Peace burn – and then, unsure of what to do next, boarded the Shinkansen and headed south to Nagasaki – where we did largely the same things.

After Nagasaki, we travelled north to Tokyo. That massive, thriving and urgently vibrant megatropolis that is the heart of Japan. There, we wandered the city’s chaotic streets, got lost in its incomprehensible subway, ate whale meat and other non-traditional “food”, and toured the famous fish market – watching the tuna auction at 4:00am.

I loved everything about Japan. I loved how there were multiple vending machines on every corner and back alley in the country – offering everything from beer to umbrellas. In Nagoya, I loved how the streets and subways were immaculately clean – even though it was virtually impossible to find an actual garbage can. I loved, of course, how good the food was – even 7 Eleven had excellent Onigiri; and I loved watching the nonsensical Japanese television, which seemed like a strange, non-english cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a Snuggie infomercial.

That trip, now a decade on, seems at times like it happened ages ago, and at times like it could have ended just the other day.

I was 21.

All that is to say, it had been a long time since I was in Japan, and I was ready to go back. This time, despite my protests, there would be no atomic site visits, instead, as detailed in the coming posts, our week-long itinerary (this time with my wife) was split out as follows:

  • Three days in Tokyo;
  • one day in the Mount Fuji area; and
  • three days divided between Kyoto and Osaka.

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Japan, 2006