Tokyo, and Japan as a whole is one of my favorite places to go. If they were a music album, I would play on repeat.
I had been to Tokyo once before, by accident. The year was 1991, I was eleven years old traveling with my parents and my paternal grandmother from New York to Manila via Tokyo. The original plan was to have a one night stop-over and sleep at the Nikko Narita hotel. A geological oddity occurred and Mount Pinatubo erupted closing Manila Ninoy Aquino Airport indefinitely. We were marooned. So began the Dick family outing in Tokyo. Japan Airlines put us up at [Forgotten Fancy Hotel] in downtown Tokyo and we had a few days to explore Tokyo. I don’t remember anything other than our hasty departure to Hong Kong (not Manila) with 10 minutes notice at the airport, but that’s a Hong Kong story.
November 2019, a friend and I had made a plan to check out Tokyo for a week. We did it during Thanksgiving week, an ideal time for foreign expats in the US to travel since traditional Americans would go home to their families and argue, we already did that at Christmas.We arrived at Narita Airport and took a train into Tokyo, we stayed at a budget but very comfortable hotel not really in the right place (hindsight 20/20). Just before we got to the hotel we were hungry, really hungry. Our first meal in Tokyo was in basically a worker’s diner next to the hotel. We sat down at the counter with a smiling chef saying I’m sure really nice things in Japanese with a big smile, we just pointed at food that others were eating and we were in business. I’ve eaten at some really good restaurants by Michelin standards. This workmen’s diner was one of my favorite meals of all time, not necessarily because of the food, which hit the spot perfectly (Gyoza, Fried Rice and Ramen), but my friend, the atmosphere, the context, the laughs, it was all a recipe for simple enjoyment.
After a long-haul flight, my routine is to make myself human again which involves cleaning myself inside and out. I had known about washlets, the automated and toilet integrated bidet system that was installed everywhere in Japan. I had not used one for a while. After secondary business was done I operated the washlet. On water contact, my back arced and one eye opened larger than an other with a sense of pleasant surprise overcame me. It was at that moment, as the perfectly aimed, temperature and pressured water cleaned my posterior that I thought American civilization had some catching up to do. I was truly clean.
My friend is approximately half my mass but can eat the mass equivalent of me in raw fish. I didn’t want to disappoint, after looking for a well respected Sushi place that would accept us without a reservation (there is a whole process to reserving in Tokyo, I found out the hard way), we found one in Shibuya Station (Shibuya was on our list of places to go). After getting a number ticket we waited in line for approximately an hour. I’ll eat some Sushi, but I’m not seafood adventurous, J.G. will eat it all, send it her way. Later that night we checked out a steakhouse known for their Waygu beef. Our stomachs were still broken from all the fish we ate that we probably ate a couple of slivers of steak before we called it.
This story isn’t in any particular order, I’m writing this as it comes back to me through the haze of my memories. Haze that also came from some fine drinking.
There’s a small district called Shinjuku Golden Gai, filled with small alleys with bars big enough to hold maybe five people at a time. We ended up at a small whiskey bar, I was told I had to try an aged Hibiki Whiskey. I am not a big whiskey drinker, but here I indulged and will never regret that I did. We were the only ones in the small bar, J.G., the barkeep and myself, sipping my Whiskey and J.G. her sake, we observed with perhaps more than necessary attention at how meticulous the barkeep was cutting perfectly crystal clear cubes of ice, so much attention to what we considered mundane and unnecessary made the moment even more surreal.
I became a fan too late of Anthony Bourdain after his passing. Before heading to Japan I was on a binge streak to absorb as much of his information and wisdom. Two things I recall from his Tokyo trip: the Lawson convenience store egg-salad sandwich and the Robot Cabaret. The sandwich is a masterpiece in sandwich making, from a convenience store no less. The Robot Cabaret is what I can only describe as what happens when you ask drunk toddlers to write a play and you say yes to every single one of their tiny drunken demands. Seated in stadium seating in an indoor mini arena, you will have dancers and robots play out a science fiction fantasy inches from your face. Nothing makes sense, but it’s not supposed to. Go see it, is absolutely worth it.
TeamLabs Borderless is an exhibit that extends what reality is. Once you enter the non-descript building in Tokyo bay you ‘re transported as if by magic into another dimension. A whole world was created using the very best of sensorial technologies to project a world that does not exist into your reality. Using projectors, mirrors, lighting and 3-D formed materials you’re walking into a visual symphony, divided different rooms, each room is a different oeuvre, an experience that calls on your own memories past but transposed into a dreamworld that does not really exist beyond light and sound.
We visited temples, walked through the Imperial Gardens and felt small in such monumental city. There was so much to do and we didn’t have enough time. We had still other parts outside of Tokyo to visit.
We headed south to Kamakura, a small seaside Japanese town that had a little mainstreet full of small shops leading to the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu temple. On our walk towards the temple a group of uniformed schoolchildren stopped us and started asking questions in primary school english. In the most polite and giggly of voices they asked who we were and where we came from, it was I assume either for a school assignment to practice English or the cutest method of intelligence gathering training for future intelligence operatives. We visited the temple grounds which, which like the whole of the trip and every place we went, was wonderful. We took a taxi to a small bamboo forest to the east (Hokokuji) and got lost among the high stalks, we ended the tour in Kotoku-In, a temple with a giant Buddha statue.
Our next destination was not that close, we would need to grab a train, we were cutting it close, jumped into a Taxi to the train station, checking the time and timetable, got to the train station with just enough time to figure out how to use the ticket machine and get on our train.
We decided to indulge and visit an Onsen, which is a traditional Japanese bath house. There is a range, from simple to luxurious. We had chosen the upper side of the scale. Some of the most prestigious Onsens are located in an area close to a town called Odawara. Since we were last minute bookers J.G. found one that looked like it would fit the bill. The Kinnotake Tonosawa Onsen, can be best described as Bond Villan’s lair. We took a municipal bus through the town then up through a small narrowing, climbing and winding valley road before dropping us off at our stop. As the bus pulled away from in front of us, we were across the road from a suspension bridge spanning a deep gorge surrounded by a multispectral autumn foliage. There were no signs, no indications of where we where. Our satnav indicated that we were at the right place. We crossed the bridge and then appearing from nowhere was a woman in an impeccable kimono. “Madame G., Mister Dick”, welcome, it wasn’t a question, they knew who we were.
She escorted us straight to the building, a discreet building that easily blended into the surrounding nature. There was no check-in, straight to the room which overlooked the gorge and foiliage. On the balcony our own private bath with thermal waters flowing. Included were kimonos to change into. J.G. looked amazing in hers, as if it were tailored to suit her exact form. I looked more like a misshapen burrito in a multi-coloured tortilla.
We dined in at the restaurant which did not have more than ten tables. J.G. was in sushi heaven.
Leaving the next day, J.G. didn’t feel that well, the sushi may have had an effect. My regret to this day was not taking that more seriously, for the road back was not an easy one and seemed like it would be well chronicled in a Wes Anderson Movie. We were driven across the suspension bridge by two women in impeccable kimonos to a small train station. We took the Hakone-Tozan railway to Gora where we took a funicular up to a ropeway station where we traversed over a steaming sulfur pit before dropping us off in Todgendai port. From Togendai we took a Pirate ship to the South end of Lake Ashi where we would take a taxi back through the mountain roads to Odawara so we could take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. J.G. never expressed dismay or anger even to this day.
Before leaving I wanted to drive in Japan, even if it was a tiny Toyota for a few miles, we rented a car and drove to Narita airport early. While researching the airport, I found out that there are parcels of land within the airport property that are privately owned and not part of the airport. Due to Japanese law and customs, these lands could not be expropriated through eminent-domain as they are in the US. The airport had to provide access as well. These areas are visible on Google satellite images but not indicated on maps as destinations. We made our way to the first one, driving through one of the access tunnels to Narita there is a small turn off, we took it and 20 meters later we were in front of a house, a residence. It was a house landlocked by the airport, a few meters away a 787 rolled by. We then went to the second location. As a side note, the area around Narita is a quaint countryside with small rice paddies worth a small drive through before a flight. Arriving on a dirt road surrounded by tall fences with manned guard towers on each side we ventured on. Through a tunnel that brought us under the runways to another landlocked land. No house here, tall bamboo stalks, which were dwarfed by even larger security fences. My airport curiosity was fully satisfied when we went to the Aviation Museum. I was like a small kid in a candy store. Aviation Museums are a big passion of mine (I became a Board Member of the Flight Path Museum LAX a few years ago and redid their logo, branding and website, come visit us), this museum is a must see for every aviation aficionado.
Returned the car, went to the United Desk, our upgrades to sleeper seats had cleared and we promised ourselves we would be back one day.