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Saturday, December 22, 2018

Tokyo, Japan: A Decade Later

July 8 - 16, 2017

In 2007, my brother decided to spend a year living out his childhood dream, attending a year of high school in Gifu, Japan. As the school year neared its end, my parents and I took advantage of the free translator in a country we’d always wanted to visit. The resulting two weeks opened my eyes to a place of wonder.

After earthquakes, wars, atom bombs and typhoons, Japan maintained a way of life centuries old and globally unique. From lazy days wandering the art galleries and tea houses of Gifu to exploring the temples of Kyoto to taking in the bright lights of Tokyo, we were definitely worlds away from the USA.

But, it was the people that struck me most.  My brother’s host family made very little money, living in a small house, that my 6’1” brother had to duck to enter. He slept each night on a thatched cot barely long enough to reach his toes. And yet they were so kind; inviting us to dinner at their (ironically) Chinese restaurant, refusing, of course, to let us pay one yen for the feast. His other host families were equally accommodating. We ran into other lovely characters throughout the rest of the trip from restaurant owners dusting of giant bottles of free sake and joining us for dinner to old ladies on the street who’d count back Mom’s extra change when she accidentally paid too much for an item.

In summary, it's a country I’ve been desperate to revisit. In July 2017 (yes, I know it’s taken awhile to get back to the blog), I had the chance to return to Japan for a work summit and could barely contain my excitement as the train rolled towards Tokyo from Haneda airport.

The resulting week could not have been more different from my 2007 trip....

First, I was without parents and my translator brother. Secondly, it was over a decade later.  I was in my mid-thirties so I had the independence, money and travel experience to put big city Tokyo to the test. And lastly, I had a crew of fellow miscreants eager to join in the fun.

Six of us crammed together in a tiny Airbnb in Harajuku right near the Reebok Classic store.  Though cramped, it was very cute and realistically by Japanese standards, quite spacious. was cute.  Eager to get our adventure started, we dropped our bags and headed straight to the famous Shibuya Crossing, arguably the busiest intersection in the world.  It was definitely VERY busy!

It was already getting fairly late, so we returned to the Airbnb to change into our "going out" clothes and stopped for some of the best dumplings in my life at Harajuku Gyoza (I later learned that there’s one in Sydney!)

Luckily, I hadn’t stuffed myself because our next stop featured some of the coolest little restaurants and bars I’ve ever seen.  Welcome to Shinjuku's Golden Gai, a district of Tokyo known for its tiny bars that only hold a max of 8-10 people and each have their own unique personality.  The small size of each bar and sheer number of them packed into a few streets, meant we inevitably lost track of each other.  We finally ran back into each other on one of the narrow streets and decided to try out one of the restaurants. 

We followed the waiter up tiny tiny stairs to a tiny tiny room with a tiny tiny table.  I was with three guys minimum 6’2” feet tall.  It was pretty hilarious to see us trying to crowd into the seats (pillows on the ground).  No one spoke or could read a lick of Japanese so we just left it to the waiter to bring us whatever he though was good.  And damn, was it good.  The restaurant ended up being a yakitori restaurant so our meal was course after course of skewers – red meats, veggies and seafood.

Our muscles were beginning to seize up, so we said our goodbyes, and decided to stretch it out by going to a club.  We found ourselves at Sound Museum Vision club which had good reviews on Google Maps. We clearly we had no idea what we were doing, showing up with zero cash to a cash-only club at 10pm.  Let’s just say we were the only 20 people in a club that holds hundreds.  We were close to cashed out by the time the good music came on and suddenly the place was packed (1am).  There were multiple rooms, of varying sizes, playing different genres of music, so there was something for everyone.  I had a great time although I’d advise arriving after 12am with loads of cash if you decide to visit.

You can imagine the hangover the next morning, which could mean only one thing… more dumplings down the street at Harajuku Gyoza.  Harajuku has streets and streets of amazing boutique shops.  Personally, I LOVE Japanese fashion, though it can be hard to find clothes in my size.  And forget shoes… a size 9 US is almost impossible to find! 

Harajuku is equally well known for some weird as f—k restaurants, one of which is Kawaii Monster Café.  It is so weird that you have to pay before you can go inside because they know how Instagrammable it is.  The concept is set up similar to a comedy club where you pay a fee to enter and then have to spend a minimum amount on food and drinks.  I have a soft spot for neon colors and rainbow, so my rainbow sundae selection was a given.  We were just about to tuck into our food, when crazy lights and music came on… and a show unlike any other began.  People in wild costumes, electronic-moving animals and a rotating stage filled with singers and dancers took over the restaurant.

We left the restaurant filling a little bit like someone had taken a ton of photos of us with a very bright flash, but it was worth the money to see it.  As you can imagine the food was not particularly good, since that’s not really what you are paying for, so we wandered down the street looking for something else.

You’d be remiss to visit Tokyo without searching for ramen, so we once again consulted Google Maps and found ourselves at Kyushu-jangara.  MY GOD.  It is the best ramen I’ve ever tasted and a restaurant that we would return to throughout the remainder of the week.  Granted by the end of the week, I was sleeping in my ramen more than eating it.

One of the other, great, or dangerous, things about Tokyo is that it’s legal to drink on the street.  It’s also bloody expensive.  For better or worse, we soon discovered one of the best places on Planet Tokyo… Lawson’s.  Lawson’s is the Japanese equivalent of 7-11, but with considerably better food and far deadlier drinks.  Our combo of choice?  Cans of whiskey lemonade (9% ABV) and spicy chicken balls in a cardboard box.  It’s impossible to stay hungry, or sober, in Tokyo.

The remainder of the night was spent wandering the different districts before eventually ending up at the other Tokyo specialty…Karaoke.

That ended our first weekend in Japan, which was followed by a very painful Monday, and our two-day work summit.  But we still managed to venture out for three very exciting activities before the week was over.

Considering how non-classy we’d been so far, we decided to head to the other extreme and dress up for an evening of cocktails and famous sushi in the fancy district of Ginza.  The parents of a colleague (and close friend) on the trip are major distributors of Australian beef to other parts of the world, including (you guessed it), Tokyo.  This resulted in a close, long-standing friendship with the sushi grandmaster of Sushiko Honten, a 130 year old restaurant with a Michelin Star.  The dinner would cost us $500 each, but wow was it worth it. 

Imagine sitting at an intimate bar seating for 10 people (that’s the whole restaurant) facing the kitchen prep area.  The grandmaster personally served us sashimi and sushi by hand, even making our wasabi fresh from the root, right in front of us.  We enjoyed some of the finest Japanese sake and even a bottle of Australian sparkling wine that had been specially made for the sushi grandmaster (his name was on the bottle!)  To go from the bright lights and crazy costumes of Harajuku to this old world of traditional Japanese was such a cool experience.  This city is unreal.

At the close of the $500 USD per person evening, he thanked us for coming, comped about $1000 worth of sake and wine and then personally walked us down the street to his favorite wine bar. My friend who’d organized the evening profusely thanked him and offered to take him to the best Japanese restaurant, Tetsuya, should he ever visit Sydney.  He smiled graciously and in the least egotistical manner ever, mentioned that Tetsuya was a close personal friend.  Of course he is…

Arriving at the wine bar, he gave leave of us and we went in alone.  Imagine my shock, when the main brands sold were from Oregon (my home state).  Excitedly I explained this to the waitress, who misinterpreted me, thinking that I was “of the wine families of the Willamette Valley” serving us more free wine. I admittedly didn’t hurry to correct her.

The next few days, we attended a baseball game, danced our hearts out at Ele Tokyo, gamed at the largest video arcade I’ve ever seen and visited a number of weird cafes where you could pet an array of animals from snakes to hedgehogs.  But none of those cafes were as weird as The Robot Restaurant.

Similar to the Monster Café, the Robot Restaurant is themed… with robots!  You are brought into a room where you are seated on either side of a long arena (for those who have been to Medieval Times you can visualize this).  You can buy beers and DELICIOUS kettle corn from the cart before the show begins.  The lights dimmed and we were sucked into the storyline of fairies and robots and a number of other fantastic creatures battling it out for ownership of their strange land. It was AWESOME!  Afterwards, we had just enough energy for some Japanese BBQ before passing out early, excited for another fun activity.

The next day was the day I’d been waiting for since we first found out about this trip to Japan.  At the time, Tokyo was the only city in the world where you could dress up like Mario and drive Mario carts on actual streets with a company called MariCar.  There is even a RAINBOW bridge.  

But there is a catch.  For some odd reason, you must have an international driver’s license, or they will not let you do it.  There is no paying your way around this so bring along or be prepared to watch in ultimate sorrow as your best friends, Luigi, Princess and Toad drive off without you.  This experience was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done (yes, up there with Burning Man, Yacht Week, etc).  You literally feel like you are in the game because there are other cars passing you on the streets (no closed course here).  My only regret is not strapping a Go Pro to my head.  I would hands down pay to do this again!!

Mario Kart would close out an epic, though tiring, week in Tokyo.  Far different from my previous family vacation, but arguably just as “cultural” in its own unique way.  I walked away from that trip having formed friendships with people who would become my closest friends to this day (yes 1.5 years later).  And Japan sure knows how to give you a good send-off… after my final night in an Airbnb with a broken shower, I was so happy to find I could pay $18 USD for a private “refresh room” with a shower and couch at the Haneda airport.  God I love this place and I can’t wait to come back again.