Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Exploring Tokyo

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Tokyo is a metropolis of more than 13 million people spread out over 23 special wards and 39 municipalities. To attempt to explore the city in three days is generally considered an act of sheer folly. But try I did, and perhaps I didn't even get to scratch the surface, but at the very least, I was able to polish it a bit and get a better look.

The first thing one notices about Tokyo is probably its ubiquitous metro system. Just about every other block has a station, and once inside, you can whisk yourself away to virtually every corner of the city. It's clean, efficient, and timed down to the exact minute. One interesting fact is that there are almost no trash cans at all in or near the metro (or even around the city for that matter) due to the Sarin gas terrorist attacks in 1995. However, the entire system is spotless. The Japanese people just learned to carry their trash until they reach their office or home. Pretty amazing.

That's the upside. The downside? If you are visiting Tokyo for the first time, you will get lost - guaranteed. This is due to a number of reasons, the first being there are just so many different lines, with many being operated by different companies. Hence, buying a ticket on one may not get you on the others. You can, however, buy a reloadable Suica card that is accepted on almost all routes. Also, some lines seem to have announcements translated to English, yet others don't. Most confusing of all, not all metro maps are made equal... some maps don't show all the stations for certain lines, which makes life a living hell when you're trying to find your way around. The picture below gives you an idea of the tangled web that is the Tokyo metro system:


JR Line in Harajuku

During the planning stages, I knew I wanted to keep my time in Tokyo relatively free so that I could just hang out with my friend strolling through quiet neighborhoods of Harajuku, trying out a number of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or window shopping in Shinjuku and Shibuya. But I had also identified a couple of sites I definitely wanted to see - first of which was the Tsukiji Fish Market. 

Unfortunately, I read that the famous early morning auction in the market has been closed to tourists indefinitely due to the recent earthquake, and I was sad to learn that that was indeed the case when I arrived. But more important was my mission to try some of the freshest, best-tasting sushi I've ever had. And that I definitely accomplished :) 

 Fish market to the left, start of the restaurant wait line on the right

The two most famous sushi restaurants in the fish market - Daiwa Sushi and Sushidai - are right next to each other. Keep in mind, however, when I say "restaurant", I mean a tiny, narrow corridor with one sushi bar capable of seating maybe 12 people at most. This was the case with Sushidai. We arrived at the restaurant at 11 am, and didn't get seated until 2 pm, so that should give you an idea of the wait. The general idea is to get there as early as possible... obviously advice that was not heeded by us!

But the sushi... OMG the sushi. It's hard to describe something that tastes so good, unlike any sushi I've ever tasted in the States. Even the uni (sea urchin), which I usually despise, had none of the pungent ocean taste that is associated with it. Instead, it was creamy, buttery, and so delicious. And I truly doubt I will ever have a better piece of toro (fatty tuna) in my life. There are only 2 sets that you can order on the menu - the large and small. The larger omakase set cost approximately $50 USD, which was quite reasonable given the quality.

On the outside looking into Sushidai

  Maguro, uni, mackeral, toro

It's amazing to me how crowded Tokyo is, yet everything flows like clockwork here. Rules are always obeyed... which leads to some very surreal situations. You can have maybe 30 people waiting to cross a tiny, one-lane alley with no cars in sight, yet not one single person will step onto the pavement to cross before the light turns green. And I don't even think I heard one car horn the entire time I was there. There is probably no better example of how smoothly Tokyo runs than the famous "busiest crosswalk in the world" in Shibuya. Somehow, it just works.

Shopping district in Ginza

Remember this orderly street before reading about Hanoi :)

Cool Prada building in Harajuku

One of the "smaller" skyscrapers in Shinjuku

Probably my favorite place in Tokyo that I visited was the Meiji Shrine. Built in 1920 in commemoration of Emporer Meiji, it is an oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle. Once you enter, the calm envelops you, and you just want to sit under the canopy of trees and enjoy the beautiful wooden structures surrounding you. I could have stayed there an entire day.

Hand-washing station before entering

You can buy a wood placard and write down your prayers

There was a wedding procession that day

On my last day there, my flight departed at 5:55 pm, so that gave me pretty much a full day to explore the city some more. I decided to visit the Tokyo Tower to get in some nice shots, and then on to Zojoji Temple, where the graves of six Tokugawa shoguns are housed. The tower itself is nothing special... modeled directly after the Eiffel Tower, it has a dubious paint scheme, and unfortunately, the observation deck was closed due to the earthquake. But I've heard there are much better viewing platforms elsewhere in the city anyways.

Tip of the antenna still damaged from the earthquake

Zojoji Temple prayer flags

I definitely want to return to Japan sometime in the near future to do a more in-depth tour of the country. It's an absolutely beautiful place and I can only imagine what all the sights outside of Tokyo are like. I'll leave you with one more shot of the best tempura I've ever had. It's dipped in sea salt so as to not ruin the crunchiness of the batter. Also with grilled mushrooms and soba in duck soup.

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