Recently I had the opportunity (requirement) to travel to three countries in five days for work. Seoul, then Shanghai, then Tokyo were our stops. It was a bit rushed. However, after we were done with business meetings in Tokyo, I had one full day to wander the city.
Here’s what happens when you let a forty-something gaijin dude loose in Tokyo.
After a ridiculous run at the massive hotel buffet (don’t eat like this at home, kids), I wanted to walk around Harajuku. This district is famous for being a place where young kids get dressed up in crazy costumes and just… hang out. Go there to be seen in their awesome outfits. Especially at Yoyogi park (which is just fun to say, even without crazy people dressed up).
To give you another example of why Harajuku might be a fun place to go, you find things like this on the street:
So, I took the subway from my hotel in Ebisu out to Harajuku. On exiting the subway station, I was impressed by a couple things:
1.) the sheer number of people streaming out of the sub station.
2.) there were a bunch of people with signs near the exit.
My initial thought was that, like you often see at airports, they are waiting here to pick people up who might need a friend to be their local guide. How nice, I thought. The fact that anyone savvy enough to get themselves there by subway probably doesn’t need a guide, much less this veritable plethora, didn’t occur to me. Because my brain sometimes doesn’t like common sense.
I also noticed that several of the signs said “Kat-tun” above the indecipherable gibberish that followed. I made a mental note to ask my travel partner who was fluent in Japanese if “Kat-tun” translated to something like “Hello, I’m here to pick up a friend, if you see them, please direct them to me.”
But as I continued on, making for the walking overpass that led to an interesting building I could only see the roof of, it dawned on me that everyone around me was female.
I puzzled at this as I walked, feeling a little more out of place with each step. Does Harajuku only allow females? Do guys just not like this kind of place? Have I made the first of many catastrophic errors as a big dumb foreigner? My god, what other faux pas am I committing without realizing it?
At the top of the overpass I was finally clued in to what was happening. I was greeted with the following sight, and the fact that there was a large sign in the middle advertising “Kat-tun”, I came to realize I was in the midst of the gathering for a Japanese boy-band concert (see their pictures on the side of the truck?).
If you ever want to feel like a total creeper, I highly recommend this as a near-perfect situation. Surrounded by girls / women on the verge of screaming and loosing their collective minds over the prospect of the boy-band goodness they were about to partake in, and being the only male in the surrounding two-mile radius is a good start. Add to this the fact that I stand head and shoulders above everyone there only heightened the sense that I was vastly out of place.
So I bailed out of there rapidly. Back over the walkway, back towards the park opening. I figured some seclusion in the natural beauty of the park would do me well.
I had forgotten that the park was also the site of the Meiji Shrine. My fortunes improved rapidly.
Along the way to the Shrine, you come across two large displays, one of wine and one of sake. Supposedly these are donated to the shrine, and are blessed here as well. I think these are now just empty representations of the historic practice, but I like to think that these are here in case you get parched in your walk along the glorious path to the shrine. Do you prefer wine or sake? There’s not really a wrong answer here folks.
Eventually the path leads you to your destination.
Outside of the temple, there is a station where you are to perform a cleansing ritual where you take a quaint wooden dipper, pour water first on one hand, then the next, then sip a bit and spit it out, thus cleaning your hands and mouth before you enter the temple.
I watched several people do it first as I wanted to get it right.
I’m pretty sure I still messed it up, I’m just not sure how.
Ignorance is bliss, so we move on.
As luck would have it, this was a perfect Saturday afternoon, and as such several wedding parties were parading through the temple. I attempted to be polite and let them have their ceremony unmolested by cameras. However, when all the rest of the crazy people around whipped out their cameras and started snapping away like madmen, I went with the crowd.
After having my fill of nature and beauty, tranquility and tradition, etc, I figured it best to head back into the city proper and get my fill of the bustle and madness of Tokyo on a saturday. I was not disappointed. There are so many shops, interesting buildings, and cool little stands and restaurants to stop in that it would be hard to get bored. I eventually found a fifth-floor rooftop deck with a beer garden and was able to take a bit on an arial view. In the distance the slopped roof of the boy-band venue taunted me from afar.
The rest of the day was spent roving through many little shops filled with many strange things that make you shake your head and go “oh Japan, will you never cease to be delightfully odd and bizarre?”. Sadly I didn’t capture pictures of these strange things. One example: a store entirely devoted to stickers with bizarre sayings overlaid on emoji and cartoons saying things like “beware drunkards, don’t give them any piss.” and “listen, I will not, my mind set!” I was tempted to buy one of each of the 40 thousand stickers, then decorate a building in downtown Portland with them. Sadly, I acted all responsible and grown-up like and didn’t do this.
One last word about Japan: the food is pretty special. Even in the grocery stores. For example, you will never see fruit treated with such care and reverence as you will in Japan. Example below: every single grape is PERFECT. And each stalk has been groomed to act as a handle while you pluck each pleasingly rounded globe of perfection and deposit it in your mouth to experience exactly the right crisp and crunch along with a flood of juicy sweetness.
However, some care should be taken on who you let pick the restaurant. My boss, who happens to have lived in Japan for eleven years as a younger man, took us to a delightful little hole in the wall (actually hole in the floor as you go down from ground level to get in it). The menu was a fabulous experience, but required us to put us in his hands for ordering:
My first warning sign should have been the decoration they chose to hang above our table. I’m not sure who’s mind thought “this is just the thing to accompany guests as they dine on strange and highly speculative foods”
To be fair, the food was quite good. Except for the “rare chicken”. That was a bit sketchy. I’m a firm believer that chicken needs to be cooked within an inch of becoming charcoal. There’s no telling what’s in a bit of chicken. Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.
In closing, Tokyo is always delightful, with a fantastic blend of new and ancient, tradition and bizarreness. Someone chose to interpret John F. Kennedy’s statement about Berlin as a statement about Tokyo, and I thought it summed it up nicely: