80 Hours in Tokyo: Sushi, Shrines and Samurai Robots
A light drizzle was already falling when I was drawn to a glowing vending machine outside the terminal at Narita International. It was filled with an array of soft drinks, some of which I couldn’t pronounce. I was like a moth to a flame, and I needed something to quench my thirst after the eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles. I selected my first taste of Japan, a bottle of Pocari Sweat, a lemon-grapefruit-flavored water (think: Gatorade without the obnoxious colors and labels). It did the job as I boarded Narita’s “airport limousine,” a charter bus that would shuttle me and my friend Matt to the posh district of Ginza in downtown Tokyo.
The misty night air and glistening concrete, combined with the city’s inevitable neon signage, provided a neo-noir ambiance as we moved deeper into the capital city. It’s the kind of atmosphere usually associated with films like 2003’s Lost in Translation, the cherished Sofia Coppola film that conjured up for travelers a romanticized ideal of the mega metropolis, or any given yakuza saga in which danger lingers in the handshakes of shady businessmen and the tinted windows of town cars.
It had been over a decade since I last visited Japan, and I was excited to experience the Land of the Rising Sun on my own – on my own time – with less family obligations. (My last visit was spent mourning a grandmother I had gotten to know over a fifteen-year period.) I had always wanted to return as an adult, to submerge myself in the culture of a country I had mostly learned about through tales of my father’s childhood and adolescence. Since half of my heritage originated from this island nation thousands of miles away from the western coast of America, I knew I wanted to have an experience I could fully appreciate, one that blended both the traditional and the modern into one, awe-inspiring package.
After our transportation dropped us off at our designated stop, we managed to hail a taxi that zigzagged its way through the rainy Friday night traffic. It was a brief ride during which I started to envision the many possible adventures Tokyo promised.
Our accommodations for the next four nights, Hotel Sunroute Ginza, came equipped with some nice amenities – God bless whoever invented the bidet. The boutique hotel was located within a few blocks from the best shopping in the city. Having opened in the summer of 2015, it’s the newest addition to the stylish Sunroute chain that caters to a variety of high-end travelers and business types. The Ginza location, with 165 rooms, covers all of the C’s: Comfortable, Compact, and Convenient. Our double-twin space wasn’t much larger than most college dorm rooms. (The word “pod” came to mind once we settled in for the first night.) But this is Tokyo, I told myself. Like Manhattan, square footage is a precious commodity here. And despite the absence of a closet, every inch within our room was meticulously designed for maximum functionality.
The next three days consisted of some of the best sights and meals Tokyo had to offer. Within the first day, I was craving green tea-flavored everything. Lucky for me, I was in the capital of green tea-flavored everything: chocolate bars, lattes, truffles, ice cream, muffins – you name it.
We met our English-speaking tour guide, Shioji, in the hotel lobby. She gave us a warm greeting and equipped us with some maps and brochures before we set off for our first destination: the Tsukiji Fish Market, a reasonable 15-minute walk from the hotel. Since we neglected to eat anything beforehand, we grabbed some breakfast at a small, nameless open-counter storefront frequented by some of the local fishermen. It’s the kind of non-descript haven that serves a hot meal and a warm smile, courtesy of the grandfatherly cook who also manages the register. We ordered tonkatsu donburi, a pork cutlet and fried egg over white rice and a bed of cabbage drizzled in a sweet brown sauce. I was immediately reminded of my father’s own spin on this particular recipe, a dish I often ate on weekends during my childhood back in New York.
After some much-needed sustenance, we wandered throughout the two main sections of the labyrinthine market. There’s the marketplace where one can buy the freshest catches of the day and sit down at one of the unbelievably crowded food stations for a mouthwatering meal (expect to wait in one of the many lines that snake around the block), and then there’s the massive open warehouse where one can get lost among the coolers of salmon heads and freshwater eels and carving blocks that are constantly being hosed down to accommodate the next shipment from the Pacific. Once we witnessed our umpteenth slab of tuna being buried in an icy grave, we felt the enormity of the entire operation that unfolded before us. A majority of Japan’s seafood passes through Tsukiji, and we were standing in the middle of an epicenter that smelled like a combination of saltwater and every fish imaginable.
It eventually made me hungry for lunch.
Next, a visit to the Imperial Palace Gardens proved to be a brief one. Expecting an up-close-and-personal experience (a la Buckingham Palace), we were disappointed to find out our views of the royal house and the remnants of the former Edo Castle were limited due to the surrounding moats and bridges overlooked by guards. Still, we were able to take in the beautifully manicure bamboo trees that populated the park and snack on juicy Japanese pears on benches near the restrooms where busloads of tourists took turns using the facilities.
From there, it was a 10-minute Metro ride to the neighborhood of Asakusa to take in the sights at Senso-ji Temple, the oldest in the city (said to have been built in 628). First of all, there are many ways to visit this sacred ground and appreciate its surroundings, but the standard is to start at the Kaminarimon Gate and move up through Nakamise Shopping Street, the large marketplace where we browsed several tourist-trapping souvenir shacks. But before heading in, we observed the two large figures that guarded the gate, a pair of intimidating deities, Fujin-sama (“god of wind”) and Raijin-sama (“god of thunder and lightning”). Good luck getting a good snapshot of either one; both are protected by wire netting, most likely to prevent birds and vandals from tarnishing them.
A change in scenery was soon needed, so we hightailed it to Harajuku. The bright colors of this world-renown shopping district (and inspiration for Gwen Stefani’s 2004 album Love. Angel. Music. Baby.) may not appeal to anyone over 40, but it’s the ground zero of all things Kawaii (cute things). From accessory boutiques and patisseries to anime costumers and trendy sock shops, Harajuku was one giant sensory overload. One of the stores we visited, the two-floored Body Line, blared an album of remixed Disney theme songs. Somehow, hearing “Colors of the Wind” over a generic EDM beat inspired us to try on wacky sunglasses and an occasional neon wig.
Finally, after being bombarded by the shouts of costumed shopgirls and the aromas of sweet and savory crepes, we tracked down an actual Harajuku girl (okay, maybe stalked) to take a photo with her like the clichéd, silly American tourists we were. Think of Rainbow Brite, throw in an anime warrior princess, multiply it with a dozen Hello Kitty dolls, and that’s just a fraction of what this young woman looked like.
By that time, I wished I had worn a FitBit to see how much walking I had accomplished so far. Shibuya Crossing, one of the largest pedestrian crosswalks in the world, was our next stop, and we managed to keep up with Shioji as she zigzagged through the massive yet orderly crowd. (Imagine New York’s Times Square mashed up with London’s Piccadilly Circus.) After one slightly wrong turn, we found some refreshments at Mocha, one of the city’s many popular “cat cafes.” In between cups of melon soda and iced mochas, we lounged and played with a dozen furry felines that strutted quietly around the picture-taking patrons. (Rule #1 of Cat Cafe: No sudden movements or running – because that would just be…bad.)
After our brief cat-tastic pit stop, night had fallen, and we said our goodnights to Shioji in Shibuya, thanking her for the day’s extensive sightseeing and wondering what the rest of the night would have in store for us. But at that point, neither of us had one iota of energy to carry on. After all, with the jet lag, we were running on four hours of sleep. So we made a beeline back to our hotel.
Before completely passing out, we opted to stay close for dinner and tried Villazza Due, the “Italian restaurant” at Hotel Sunroute, where I enjoyed a nice bowl of fettucine topped with lamb smothered in a brown sauce that was both sweet and savory. (I’m using quotations here because this is far from the red-checkered-table-clothed eateries I’ve experienced in New York; I’m sure there was no one named Vinny, Al, or Luigi cooking up a storm in the kitchen.) *Sidenote: this place also turns into a traditional Japanese and Western breakfast buffet that serves everything from mini omelets and broiled fish to muffins and pickled radishes.
After grabbing a coffee and muffin from a nearby 7-Eleven – they’re everywhere in Tokyo – we strolled through Ginza with the very informative and patient Shioji. She led us past the Yonchome Intersection, known for its symbolic architecture and Wako Clock Tower, through massive electronics stores and tempting food stations, and into the Tokyo International Forum, a giant complex that houses exhibitions, concerts, and conventions. By the time we made it to Shinjuku (considered the skyscraper mecca of Japan) and snapped some photos in front of the world’s largest Hello Kitty monument at Sanrio Gift Gate, we were ready for some lunch. The top floor of the enormous and family-friendly Takashimaya Store boasted several dining options, and we ended up scarfing down bowls of rice topped with tuna sashimi and dried seaweed, miso soup, and several cups of hot green tea – a classic Japanese lunch to fuel us for the remainder of the jam-packed day.
The afternoon passed by like blur. We captured several sumo wrestlers exiting the Ryougoku Sumo Hall on the final day of the wrestling season. We strolled along the pedestrian-friendly boulevard of Akihabara, the city’s “Electric Town,” known for its retailers that cater to electronic heads, anime and manga fanatics, and video game junkies. And I made several impulsive purchases in the forms of several miniature toy cars, a 30th anniversary edition Super Mario 8-bit figurine, and a CD single of “Halloween Night,” the latest hit from the super-sized girl group AKB48 (go ahead and YouTube them).
As we neared the end of our time with Shioji, Meiji Shrine was our next notable spot to conquer. Located within 170 acres of evergreen forest in the middle of the city (in Shibuya, to be exact), the shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji, his reign (1867-1912), and his wife, Empress Shoken. It is built on grounds that are now considered a place for recreation and relaxation. It’s a classic expression of Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese that worships ancestors as guardians of a family. During our visit, we witnessed several wedding ceremonies, made a reflective offering at the central sanctuary where the emperor is enshrined, and observed the many people who left prayers on small wooden blocks in the main yard.
Then, it was off to Ueno Park, Japan’s most popular city park that houses over 8,000 trees (800 of which produce cherry blossoms in the spring), a small lake, and several museums. The Tokyo National Museum, the country’s oldest museum, was where we learned about the rise of Buddhism, the art of the tea ceremony (a painstaking process), Zen and ink paintings, what goes into samurai attire, and artwork created especially for folding screens and sliding doors. With more than 110,000 items, antiquities and national treasures, this place is a history junkie’s dream.
By nightfall I reunited with my Japanese uncle, Shin, and my cousin, Aki, who treated us to a traditional izakaya dinner, “Japan’s friendliest form of dining,” which kicked off with top-grade sashimi and a small bottle of sake, followed by an array of fusion dishes that included broiled mackerel, rice, fried chicken, sautéed vegetables, miso soup, teriyaki chicken, and a slice of raw horse meat. (Think: the Japanese version of a tapas bar.)
Heading back towards Shinjuku, we wandered into Arty Farty, a bar-club in the area known as Nichome and capped off the evening with some late-night sake shots and martinis while listening to a DJ spin some 90s house for a small dance floor of Sunday night stragglers. One cup of convenient store ice cream later (green tea-flavored, of course), and we were done for the day.
Our first day without our guide started with a breakfast that consisted of a McDonald’s sandwich (beef patty topped with a sunny-side-up egg, bacon, and that special sauce you usually find on Big Macs) with fries and a coffee.
It was enough to fuel me up for our main attraction of the day, Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest freestanding tower (according to Guinness World Records). An architectural wonder that will be celebrating its thirteenth anniversary this year, the Skytree represents the many kinds of technologies and art that has been passed through generations. Formed by steel and other flexible materials in a shinbashira, a vibration-controlling system very reminiscent of ancient wooden pagodas, the structure was created to withstand all forces of nature, particularly earthquakes and typhoon winds. Blue and purple lighting enhances the tower to convey both iki, the spirit of Edo, and miyabi, Japanese elegance. It is a true expression of the traditional and the modern coming together, creating a blended result for the present, a sentiment felt very much throughout Tokyo.
Afterwards, we walked through Tokyo Skytown, the connecting mall that led us back to the Metro, and found a cafe for a little refreshment and respite. We needed it before facing one of the craziest dinner-theater experiences of our lives...
Robot Restaurant was a subterranean entertainment venue in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district that incorporated large robotic floats, giant jungle animals, Samurai rockers, and Japanese showgirls into a story we couldn't quite follow. But the narrative wasn't what we came for. This show is all about over-the-top visuals and giving visitors a sensory overload. (NOTE: This show has evolved intoformat.
Since Robot Restaurant didn't provide much of a meal – popcorn, potato chips, and Asahi beer were on the menu – we trekked back to Shibuya to partake in a sushi lover’s paradise at Uobei. Dinner consisted of tuna, eel, salmon, cuttlefish, inari, baked scallop rolls, tamago (sweet egg), miso soup, and two melon sodas, all served on a high-tech, high-speed conveyor belt.
As we capped off our last night with some green tea ice cream, we reflected on our time in Tokyo, a city that has so much more to explore and experience. It is a place known for embracing both the traditional and the modern, blending elements of the past with present-day sensibilities. It is a fascinating, beautiful intersection where history and the future seem to coexist; the proof is everywhere you go. And as we packed our bags to embark on the next leg of our Asian adventure, I had a feeling that I would return, ready to learn more, embrace more, and discover more about a culture to which I will always be connected.
This article originally appeared in Bello Mag as "The Tokyo Diaries" in 2015.