A Japanese Jaunt (2014)

Happiness Is A Heated Toilet Seat

Tokyo, Japan / Monday 28 July 2014

After a quick breakfast (wolfed down in 10 minutes at 6.30AM) at the Langham in Hong Kong, we cabbed it to the airport for our flight to Tokyo. Our cabbie this time was a kindly older gentleman who apologised for his English (which was actually fine) and drove quite sedately, and smoothly – our first such experience in a HK cab.

Yet another queue to check in but we were there with plenty of time to spare so no mad rushing needed today.

Watched The Grand Budapest Hotel on the flight – very good, and as Vinodh later said, “Typical Wes Anderson. Every scene is like a picture.” That, combined with the crazy mixed up world of Żubròwka, pretty much sums it up. Another all-star cast – Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, F.Murray Abraham…the list goes on.

There was yet another long queue at Narita immigration but with Japanese efficiency and 20 (open) immigration counters we were cleared in no time.

But moving on…our room at the hotel…we had to contain ourselves and not burst out laughing before the bell man left the room. I’d stayed in some ‘high tech’ rooms before but this one had features I’d not seen before…it kept one informed of the outside temperature AND humidity, allowed you to adjust the in-room humidity (and temperature of course), had a proper coffee maker, a printer, fax and a nail dryer (!!). There were options for normal and mood lighting in the room, the bathroom and in the walk-in wardrobe – this last item had space for clothes, our suitcases, shoes and had a dressing table with power points. There also was a ‘valet cupboard’ – if you had a delivery (e.g. the newspaper) this gets placed in the cupboard from the outside and a light goes on in the room to inform you of the delivery. The same process works in reverse – e.g. if there’s laundry, you put this in the cupboard and press a button so someone can pick this up from the outside. All this so that the hotel corridors remain pristine and one’s laundry is kept private and discreet till picked up?

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Part of the walk-in wardrobe

Then there was the bathroom (it deserves a separate para all to itself). First the toilet – as one approaches the loo, the toilet seat cover automatically flips open. There were buttons to flip the toilet seat and toilet seat cover up and down in whatever combination you want (only toilet cover, only toilet seat, both). The control panel had the usual options and then some…you could choose to have your bottom washed by a simple ‘spray’ or you could choose a wash that was ‘gentle’, ‘massaging’ or ‘oscillating’. There was even a button for ‘powerful deodorising’! But the best feature, according to me, was the heated toilet seat.

The bath was another feature unto itself. You could watch TV from the bath, controlling the channels, volume, lighting -all while in the bath. If you touched the ‘Spa’ button, the lights go down, TV goes off and classical music comes on! What and what! [I used that phrase a lot as a teenager – often when in awe of something or if Really Surprised…30 years on, it’s time to resurrect that phrase!]

After playing with the various buttons and switches it was time to go out. It was almost 6PM and we were all starving. Took a walk towards Ginza and found a nice-looking restaurant down a little street. A lovely dinner was had at the Ginza Koya – super fresh sashimi, grilled scallops, chicken, beef teppanyaki, tempura, the best shishamo I’ve had, and some ice cold sake for Sunil and me and a frozen Kirin for Vinodh. All very satisfying. Post-dinner we went for a short walk and to the shops under the Yurakucho rail line. There were throngs of people but strangely it didn’t feel crowded.

That night Vinodh and I checked out the gym – his was a far more vigorous workout than mine. We all slept well on our first night in Japan.

A Hop-On, Hop-Off Day

Tokyo, Japan / 29 July 2014

It was a very satisfying breakfast – Japanese for Sunil and me, ‘Spa’ breakfast for Vinodh (egg white omelette, cottage cheese, salad, fruit juice, coffee, bread basket, and more jams than necessary). The Japanese breakfast had rice, grilled salmon (delish!), and a variety of condiments (including egg roll and a dried fish thing which was yummy)…having Japanese food feels so virtuous, with its surfeit of fish and green tea!
Today we decided to see Tokyo on a hop on hop off bus. The pick up point was a short walk from the hotel through lovely wide tree-lined avenues with nice little cafés, designer shops and even a Laduree. Before we bought our tickets for the bus we were shown instructions in English – the main one being we HAD to sit on the upper deck and we’re not allowed to move to the lower deck. The instructions also explained that there was no air conditioning on the lower deck anyway…it omitted to mention that there were no seats either on the lower deck.

It got pretty hot on the upper deck (but we remained there as instructed), it was ok when the bus was moving and there was a breeze. The expressway was a maze of figure 8 over/underpasses – the recorded tour guide said these are a nightmare for new drivers – easy to imagine why.

First stop – the Sky Tree Tower in Sumida. At 634 metres it is the tallest structure in Japan and was the second tallest in the world when it was completed in 2012. And oh, by the way, 634 in Japanese is ‘mushashi’ which is an old name for Tokyo. Clever!
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We got to the ticket counter…and there was a humungous queue (the one constant of this trip) and we were told it would take us 50 minutes to reach the counter. It was a fast moving queue (as queues in Japan seem to be) and we got to the counter in 40 minutes (the old under-promise and over-deliver strategy!).

The difference between visitors to The Peak in HK and those at the Sky Tree Tower : At the former, people jostled for space and when they got a ‘front row’ vantage point, they stayed put forever; nevermind that the crowd was three deep with people waiting for some kind soul to move away so they can get a clear view of Victoria Harbour. At the latter, people took in the amazing view from the Tembo Deck (350 metres up), then moved away and with a little bow waved you to take their spot. I love this country!

When we bought our tickets to go up we had wanted to get tickets to the galleria at 450 metres as well, but were told that those tickets are sold at the 350m deck. As it turns out, once we got to the 350m deck we decided that we’d give 450m a miss. Sunil pointed out that most other places would try to sell you more rather than less. Did I already say I love this country?

Lunch was at the mall adjoining the tower. We had tempura – it was the most delicate tempura I’ve had – it didn’t even taste fried.

It was a bit of a wait to hop on again so we did some roadside sitting and people-watching, and topped up the Vitamin D levels.

Next stop – Asakusa. Asakusa is one of the older districts in Tokyo. Its claim to fame is the Sensō-ji temple, a Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. This was the first time we saw the long-handled dippers at a well-like structure outside the temple. There was an instructional poster in cartoon format on how to wash one’s hands and face (unlike at Hindu temples, feet washing wasn’t necessary) – which we followed – the ice cold water was a welcome relief; it had been a sweltering day. There was a Zen-like calm to the temple despite the crowds.
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Asakusa’s other claim to fame in the early 19th century was kabuki and geishas – while things have changed post-war as most of the district was destroyed, there apparently still are a few geisha left in Asakusa. Unfortunately we didn’t see any. What we did see were young, good looking rickshaw pullers – and their exclusively female clientele.
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After a short walk at a park by the Sumida River, it was time to hop on again.We decided to remain on the bus and not hop off till the last stop – where we had started. There we hopped off and hopped back on another bus which was just leaving on another route. By now it had cooled down considerably and was quite windy and cold on that top-deck.

Dinner was Japanese-style (seating) at a restaurant in the Marunouchi Building not far from the hotel. It had several little cafés in a courtyard with Western and Asian fare. We decided to stick to Japanese food and found a restaurant which touted “Kyoto-style home cooking”. At the next table was a young Japanese family with a baby, probably about 10 months old. What a well behaved baby – he either was sleeping or entertaining himself throughout the evening – and his parents could have their dinner in peace. In Japan even the babies are polite and thoughtful!

Needless to say, our dinner was fab – we had a very refreshing salad of beancurd skin with nori seaweed and a vinegar sauce (“non oil” according to the menu), salt roasted chicken, beef and potato stew, braised pork with radish, rice in soup (described as rice with tea on the menu…a kind of bak kut teh?). Each dish came with fresh plates…Sunil was feeling sorry for the person washing the dishes. We had been hopeful that this would be a restaurant without a menu in English (just for fun), and our hopes were raised when we walked in and the waiter said, “No English menu”…but by the time we’d removed our footwear and sat down, they’d found their sole English menu…

All that was left to do when we got back to the hotel – shower and sleep (for me at least). I think the boys went to the gym (!)

Slightly Off The Beaten Track

Shinjuku, Japan / 30 July 2014

Today we decided to venture further away from the centre of our little universe – which meant taking the train and/or subway. Our first stop – SCAI The Bath House – “a contemporary art gallery housed in a 200 year old bath house” in Taito. Our hotel concierge said we needed to get to the Nippori station so off we went to the Hibiya station which we later discovered could be accessed from the hotel.

We get to the station, pull out our map to check which line we should be on – and a young lady stops to ask if we needed help…it took all of 5 seconds for someone to offer help! This has to be the most courteous country I’ve been in. Vinodh also said. The helpful lady pointed us in the right direction – we had to get on a JR line not the subway, so off to the Yurakucho station we went. The pricing info and ticket machines were quite intuitive to use and we were soon on the train to Nipporo.

7.1406678400.the-minimalist-map_-by-tennoji-priestFrom the station it was a short walk to the Yanaka Cemetery – the bath house was somewhere there we’d been told. But before the cemetery, we chanced upon a temple – the Tennoji temple with a seated bronze Buddha. There was such a sense of peace within those grounds, and despite being not far from the train station, almost the only sounds were birds chirping and the breeze rustling through the leaves. A young and very helpful priest drew us a map to the bath house – it took us through the cemetery on a cherry tree-lined avenue – the Sakura Dori (but of course!). It would be beautiful here during the cherry blossom season.

The cemetery itself was fascinating – and huge – more than 25 acres and 7,000 graves, including those of the Tokugawa clan with its 15 shoguns. The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, also rests here. The graves and the paths through the cemetery were well maintained. Some of the headstones were huge. There were various styles of bamboo fences around some of the graves with signs in English describing these styles – an intriguing touch.

The little town surrounding the cemetery had a quiet rustic charm about it. With the priest’s minimalist (see photo) but accurate directions we soon found ourselves at the bath house, a white-washed high ceilinged small building. The current exhibition was slightly underwhelming …the likes of melted wax from a huge candle and scribblings on a piece of wood…if nothing else it got us laughing.

Next stop Harajuku. Harajuku is one crazy place – the main street, Takeshita Dori, was packed – we were told it ‘gets crowded’ on Sundays (can’t imagine how much more crowded it can get) when the teens come out in their cosplay glory. We did see a few weird and wonderful beings today – shouldn’t they have been in school??
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The shops all obviously catered to the teen market – from the clothes, the bits and bobs – and the street actually smelt of candy.

We stopped for lunch at a little yakitori place – a good inexpensive meal. It was filled with locals so, as expected – it was yummy.

On to the Meiji Shrine next (“A Shrine to Chocolate?” asked Vinodh, channelling Borat). The Meiji Jingū is located within the Yoyogi Park – 175 acres of beautiful forest. It was easy to forget that this tranquil oasis is just a few steps from crazy Harajuku. Emperor Meiji is credited with the modernisation of Japan in the late 19th century – he cut off his top knot and introduced wine into the Japanese culture (I would’ve stuck with the sake) – there was a whole display of barrels of wine from some of the finest French vineyards on the walk to the shrine.

The shrine itself is dedicated to “the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken.” It was another sweltering day and before we walked back out of the park we sat in the shade and enjoyed the atmosphere for a bit.

Next stop – Daikanyama. Decided to take a cab there – cabs didn’t seem to be stopping outside the train station so we walked to a shopping area – there was a group of teenagers standing around so we asked one of them if we could get a cab there. He said “yes yes” and pointed at the kerb. His friend, a slightly rough looking chap, said something to him in Japanese then came up to us, saying “You want cab? I get for you” and proceeded to hail a cab for us and probably would’ve opened the door for us too except that the cab doors open automatically! Yet another helpful person. [Repeat Chorus here: I love this country].

Daikanyama is a lovely suburb – cafés, lots of up-and-down alleys with designer shops, and even a Cordon Bleu school. We stopped for iced coffee/mango juice/milk tea at the Chez Liu. It was full of well dressed women having tea and a goss, and some a smoke (smoking allowed indoors – don’t like)..Japanese tai tais? As if on cue, they all said their goodbyes and left almost at the same time – my guess is they had to go home to start on dinner before the husbands got home.

Another discovery at one of the shops where Sunil tried on a t-shirt – a cover for one’s head and face so one doesn’t soil the shirt. Another what n what moment.

We found a supermarket and the boys bought some post-gym supplies for later. At the train station while we were trying to figure out the lines, once again someone came to help – this is fast becoming the norm and it doesn’t seem to be confined to a certain demographic, this helpfulness – we’ve had young, older, guys, girls – all uniformly helpful.

On the food agenda for today – sushi. Unfortunately we did not make reservations at Sukiyabashi Jiro (like we could afford to) so it’s us dreaming of Jiro’s sushi instead of Jiro doing the dreaming. On the recommendation of the concierge we went to Sushisei (not Sushi-tei) near our hotel and had fresh and delicious sushi…how are we going to go back to Sushi Tei and Sakae Sushi after this trip??
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It was an evening of 50mm in Ginza. Weekday night but it was still crowded – mainly the office crowd stopping for dinner and drinks (many drinks by the looks of it…slightly staggering gaits but still unfailingly polite).

Another excellent day – tomorrow we thought we’d check out the shops.

Best Uniqlo in the World (they said, I agreed)

Tokyo, Japan / 31 July 2014

A slightly earlier start this morning with breakfast in the room at 8.30AM. The two days we’ve had breakfast in the room, the phone has rung at exactly the time we’d asked breakfast to be served, to say that they’re just outside our door with our food. Service here has been excellent, with things arriving within minutes of being requested for. Sunil and I checked out the ‘outgoing’ service in the ‘valet cupboard’ – left a couple of pairs of shoes for shining in the cupboard then pressed the ‘valet service’ button. It was barely five minutes when we heard the shoes being collected, and less than half an hour later we heard them being returned – and the ‘items for collection’ button lit up. Our shoes were nicely polished in a soft cloth bag; and Sunil’s came with a shoe tree. The magic cupboard works!

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Room service breakfast

But I digress. The agenda for this morning was the Tsukiji wholesale fish market – the largest in the world. We got there well after the famous auction that happens between 5 and 6AM. Queues start before 4AM for the limited (free) public tickets for the auction…will save that for another trip. The stalls at the outer ring of the market were still busy – these sold mainly dried fish and other condiments. Hole-in-the-wall sushi and ramen stalls were also doing good business.

In the market itself, the last of the fish was being sold and the stalls were toting up the days’ sales on white boards. Stalls that were done for the day were giving their countertops a really thorough scrub down – more thorough than I’ve seen at any market. Outside, mountains of styrofoam boxes were being cleared away.

We wandered around a bit then popped into a little sushi place – as of today, this was the best sushi we’d had – Ever. The sheer freshness of the fish was…indescribable!

Tsukiji sushi reluctantly done we took the subway to Ginza and Uniqlo. This was a huge store – 12 storeys! It was very pleasant walking into this store and not have people shouting “WelcometoUniqlo” at you. Instead, at suitable intervals a well modulated female voice said (with perfect pronunciation – and enunciation), “Welcome to the best Uniqlo in the world.” Twelve storeys and two and a half hours later, we all agreed with this recorded voice.

We stopped for a late lunch on the way back to the hotel – tonkatsu…better than the place in Takashimaya and at half the price. We haven’t had a single bad, or even average, meal so far.

We made another toilet-related discovery on our second day here which I forgot to mention – toilets in the malls have a button labelled “Sound” or “Flushing Sound” – we assumed it was to mask other sounds and to not offend anyone in the vicinity – what n what!

That evening we went for a walk in the direction of the Palace and its gardens. The two Imperial swans were at the edge of the lake, looking quite imperious.

Ramen was on the agenda for dinner and we found ourselves back at the Marunouchi Building where we’d had dinner two days ago. There was an Ippudo Ramen place there – best ramen I’ve had. The menu, and the boys, said there’s a branch in Singapore. Sunil had also been to the one in HK – which he said wasn’t as good as this. It was a Very Satisfying dinner.

Tomorrow – our last full day here…we don’t want to go-ooo…

A Theatrical End to a Fab Week

Tokyo, Japan / Friday 1 August 2014

Our last day in Tokyo and of our holiday. We’re all feeling a bit maudlin.

The plan today was to visit the art museum about a block away from from us next to what the hop on hop off guide said was Japan’s first western style theatre (Miss Saigon was on). So after breakfast, first stop – the Idemitsu Museum of Arts. There was an exhibition commemorating the 90th year of the death of the Japanese artist, Tomioka Tessai. His works were exhibited in 5 parts, following his evolution as an artist – and his view of the changing times in Japan – from the end of the feudal Edo period to the modern Meiji era.

It was a different experience from most art galleries in the West where there are often long descriptions attached to each piece – someone else’s interpretation of the painting. Here, as an introduction to each of the 5 chapters, there was a short paragraph on what some of Tessai’s inspiration might have been; the paintings just had a title and year – and left the interpreting to the viewer. In some strange way, one gets drawn in with each chapter – it left me wanting more – always a sign of a good exhibition.

There was also a permanent exhibition with a few pieces by Edvard Munch of The Scream fame, (which Sunil and I had seen at MOMA in NY). Vinodh was thrilled to see Munch originals – he’d studied this Norwegian painter in his first year at university and had written an essay on his influence on German Expressionism in the early 20th century.

We then wandered around Ginza a bit before we stopped for a Japanese pasta lunch – Vinodh’s request. Back to the hotel after that to pack and loll.

Vinodh was meeting a couple of his (Japanese) friends from university that evening and Sunil wanted to get some sushi-making photos. So after waving off a nice-smelling, Uniqlo clad Vinodh at the Ginza subway, Sunil and I went in search of sushi. We ended up at a place called Kazen, and got front row seats at the lovely smooth pristine wood sushi bar. Our sushi meister was a kind looking elderly gentleman who obviously enjoyed his art, given the flourish with which he did everything – from placing the finely sliced ginger on the wood counter to shaping the sushi and brushing on just the right amount of soy sauce. This was the first time we’d been served sushi (and the ginger) directly on the counter – no plates. Each piece was only made and served once you’d eaten what was on the counter. Here, as in the other sushi place, we were asked if we are ok with wasabi or if we would prefer our sushi “wasabi-nuki” – without wasabi (which was Vinodh’s preference).

It’s official – this was the best sushi we’d had – it topped the Tsukiji sushi (which we’d declared the best yesterday). The theatrics of seeing the sushi prepared and being served on the countertop gave Kazen’s sushi bonus points. That, and the sushi chef very thoughtfully bringing out all the various cuts of fish and other seafood so we could take photos.

On our last night, Sunil and I had a drink (or two) at Peter, the bar on the 24th floor of the hotel. It was lovely just sitting there, the lights of Tokyo as far as we could see. As if to top off the week, there was an unexpected fireworks display in the distance and we were then treated to quite magnificent lightning streaks across the sky.

Vinodh had a fun night out too – he was at Shinjuku and Roppongi. In one short evening he visited an art aquarium with a psychedelic exhibition of thousands of goldfish, the Hachiko memorial statue and had dinner at Gonpachi – where that famous and bloody Kill Bill scene was filmed. As he was describing it and I saw the photos I realised I’d had lunch there on my previous visit (on work) to Tokyo – I hadn’t made the connection then!

Tonight we slept with the curtains drawn open – to make sure we don’t oversleep tomorrow morning (and miss our flight…though that may not be a bad idea) and to catch the sunrise – maybe.

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