“Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of All Nippon Airways we would like to welcome you to Tokyo."
Grab the bags, de-board, and head straight for customs. Reached a mandatory “health check", passing by detectors that measure your overall body heat and display it in different colors on a small TV. The color green flashing HEALTHY; you may now enter Japan. Jump on a bus with wifi, that drops us off in one of the busiest metro stations in the world; Shinjuku. Walking in a sea of humans, sometimes feeling like salmon going against the current. This station is like an underground city in itself. Sushi stands, bookstores, designer bags, trendy clothes, a shop full of socks, a restaurant, malls, and electronics. Find our train and wait on the platform. A thick line is painted across the floor indicating the beginning of where you should form a line. We join the three lines already formed. The train arrives and we load in and set off in less than 2 minutes. The most organized chaos we have ever seen. We get off on our stop and step out into the Tokyo streets. People rushing trying to make it somewhere. The streets are spectacularly clean, not a single piece of garbage, yet there are absolutely no bins in sight. We meet up with Mark and Fede, friends from Miami.
A window with a Japanese man flipping dough. He’s making udon noodles. You order from a machine by the entrance, selecting your dish, inserting the money, and receiving a ticket number. Everything is in Japanese. No one speaks English, except for the chef screaming “no pictures”. Everyone eats standing up. Slurping down their udon, just like we were about to do. Big bowls filled with hand made noodles topped with onion crisps and light broth. This is Hongo-3.
We ended up walking through underground malls filled with endless rows of food stalls. Stepped into what seemed like a prepubescent boy's fantasy, only to find arcade machines lined up like slots filled with older men chain smoking and playing weird video games. Took a turn leading us down a narrow street lined with the smallest outdoor taverns, all serving a variety of grilled skewers. Ordered kebabs of mushroom, beef, intestine, and pork. An hour later we were lost inside a store, setting our inner child free, while playing with Japanese toys, reading anime books, and buying pins to put on our backpacks.
When the sun sets the lights of the city take its place. Skyscrapers come to life illuminating colors of the rainbow from their outer layers. Walking the streets is like taking a dose of LCD, minus the negative side effects. Shibuya crossing feels like you just entered a giant disco, as you walk across towards the "bar" to grab a drink, neon signs are constantly changing around you like a disco ball, and people surround you in every direction as if ready to break into dance.
We entered in to a sushi restaurant, for our first taste of Japanese raw fish. We were given 60 minutes to eat and a paper reading "dinner time over- 10:45pm". Sitting down at our booth equipped with brand new iPads, we spent the next 15 minutes flipping through the touch screen menu. A conveyor belt with neon purple lights would mechanically slide to our booth and beep to inform us that our food had arrived. There was no one to ask us how our meal was, and the only time we spoke to a human was when we entered and later had to pay.
"A bar for four please?", we inquired.
We were welcomed inside by an older Japanese woman speaking no English, into the tiniest bar ever imagined. Sat down on the four bar stools available as she closed the door behind her and climbed under the bar, serving us sake in small wooden boxes lined with salt.
The streets of Golden Gai, are not just parallel lines of tiny bars, but an escape area for the Japanese artists and defiant salary men wanting to unwind. This is where you can truly be who you are within the realm of strict Japanese culture, escaping into a small confined bar, where a bartender will pour your choice of medicine without any judgement.
We spend an hour, lost and roaming the gardens of the Imperial Palace. It doesn't phase us because we are steps away from a restaurant that serves some of the best okonomiyaki- Japanese style savory pancake topped with an array of ingredients.
Exploring the lively streets of Tokyo, we walk through the neighborhoods of Shinbashi (which we revisit on Day 4 of our trip in detail) and Shinjuku, Tokyo's largest neighborhood. There are approximately 13.6 million people living in Tokyo, but when you walk outside you notice that the city carries on silently every day, and sometimes the footsteps of the hectic crowds is the only sound you hear. A silent culture filled with ancient traditions, it doesn't take Hollywood movies and Murakami books, to make your realize how lonely you can truly feel, even when you are surrounded by the masses.
We were lucky enough to really step into the world of the Japanese, meeting up with some friend's of our Japanese friend Hito, back in Miami. It was a night out with salary men and women, or a modern version of. We gathered at 7pm for dinner at a restaurant that is the Japanese version of Applebee's, sitting on bamboo mats on the floor and ordering the typical salary man's drink, a "lemon sour". As the clock struck 11:00pm we panicked, paying the bill and trying to make it home before the last train of the night. A big issue in Tokyo, as the metro run up until 12am. So what happens when you are working late or barely starting out the night with your friends? You patiently wait until the first train starts running at 4am, because there is no way you are taking a Taxi home for a couple of $100 for the 5km to your front door. If you do end up missing the last train you can choose to join other salary men, drinking until the early morning or you can sleep at one of the many capsule hotels all over the city. No wonder there are lockers at every subway station and almost every neighborhood, in case you need to lock up those belongings and catch some Z's until you head back to work the next day.
We managed to make it back just on time.
We grabbed breakfast in a Japanese diner, ordering by clicking on pictures and inserting money into a vending machine that spits out your receipt. We all sat at the bar and and waited for our trays of noodles, hot dogs, salmon fillets, or fermented beans. Digesting our unusual breakfast we eagerly wait for our friends Munia and Mon to join us from Spain.
A train hop away, we entered the Japanese hipster world in Shimokitazawa. As if Japan was not interesting enough, here we witnessed refurbished houses turned into bars, cafes, and vintage stores. Men and women dressed in an extraordinary flair of 'how asymmetrical can my clothes really be?' roamed the streets, while we sat at a noodle bar talking about how happening Japan is.
In the evening we made our way to the famous Robot Restaurant, entering a neon-induced acid trip, that is so hard to put down into words without sounding like I am losing my mind. Or did we? Warning what you are about to read might make you dizzy. A glitzy entryway welcomes you as you climb up a golden lit staircase laced with rainbow colored circular mirrors, reflecting a weird version of yourself. You enter into a theatre placed in what looks like a psycho killers basement and find your seat as you brace yourself for whats next. Laser beam like lights begin to flash, and not like the ones you see at the Pink Floyd Laser Show. These lights flash as fast as you can blink, as women scantily dressed like sailors, robots, devils, cats, and weird creatures I didn't know existed. Loud music blares from speakers. I cannot point out what song plays, other than a vomit of different beats flowing through the room. The actors hyperactively urged you to dance and move around, and by the end of the night we somehow found ourselves waving our glow sticks and cheering for the hero about to be eaten by a dinosaur. Yes, I realize this makes no sense, but this is the Robot Restaurant.
Hungover, from a night lost in a Hunter S. Thompson book, we strolled through Yoyogi Park enjoying the fresh air and hanging a wish in the Meiji Shrine. From the calm of a Japanese temple we stepped into the wild Harajuku neighborhood, as Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls played in my ears singing "a subculture in a kaleidoscope of fashion". Found our way to Japan's Dollar store and spent quite a while running up and down its many floors, adding meaningless little figurines in our baskets, sushi erasers, Hello Kitty notepads, and weird little contraptions. Its easy to find your wallet emptying in Tokyo, so when you find fresh steamed and fried dumplings for $3 USD you choose to stuff your stomach.
Headed home for a nap as we had a long night ahead of us to prepare for the Tsjukiji fish market. It was a Thursday. It is here we revisit the neighborhood of Shinbashi, walking distance to the fish market. Outsmarting the metro system we decided to stay up until 3am, drinking lemon sours until it was time to catch the famous tuna auctions.
Walked into an alley filled with fish restaurants that turned into a drinking playground filled with men in white-pressed shirts and black pants. Our first character of the night is a salary man that speaks little to no English.
"Where you are from?" asks salary man.
"United States, Greece, and Argentina." we reply in unison.
"Ooh! United States, Greece, yes! Argentinaaa! Messi!" salary man raises his beer glass to the sky.
Our second character is a working magician who walks in and impresses us on his skills to which we buy him a beer. We move to our next location. A Japanese Irish Pub, because you can always find an full Irish Pub any where in the world. Clock almost reads 3am so we head over to the auction only to find out we are too late. Its full. Anger takes over. Here is where the night presented us with two choices; do we pitch in for a very expensive taxi ride home, or do we stay and wait in line to eat some world famous sushi for breakfast? We opt for the latter.
Joining a line that wraps around 3 blocks of the fish market, we patiently wait, as our lemon sours wear off and sleep slowly starts to set in. At 5am an hour from opening the heavens start to pour down. Luckily traveling during typhoon season you come prepared. We put on our rain gear and waited under plastic drawn tarps to eat some of the best sushi of our lives. But we didn't make it. Steroid-induced rain droplets began to pour from the Independence Day clouds surrounding us. Checking our watches we realized the metro was running but we were running out of energy. We made it to the station, soaked, hungry, and sleepless riding the train home where we dove straight into bed depressingly dreaming of raw tuna slices.
The clock flashed 3 in the afternoon, as we dragged ourselves out of bed, recovering from the all nighter we just pulled.
There was no better way to forget about our failed night and our sad attempt at witnessing the Tuna auctions, other than heading to Japan's artificial island of Odaiba. Equipped with a Venice- themed shopping mall, Leisure Land filled with stalls of 24 hour VR headset video games, two faux beaches, a large race car track, and Daikanransha the worlds largest ferris wheel (now second to its predecessor in Osaka). Rode the 115 meter tall wheel with endless 360 views of the city and took in its industrial beauty.
To bid farewell to Mark and Fede, we chose to spend another night cosily tucked away in one of Golden Gai's little bars. This time we sipped on sake and chatted with a transgender bartender, who shared her view of what it means to be part of such a strict culture.
The sun shined as we placed money in to a box and pulled out our fortune at the Sensoji Temple. If it was bad you pinned it up against a wall along with all the others to rid of your luck, and if it was good you kept it with you as a reminder to be thankful.
Hopping out of the metro, or in this case a time machine that took as back to the past, we stepped in to the neighborhood of Akhibara. It was Saturday, and the streets were blocked off to traffic, as you walked in an apocalyptic-like video game world. We were inside a real life version of Mario Brothers, collecting coins, bumping into Bowser, and ultimately looking for the Princess. We found her as we turned the corner, alongside Sailor Moon and many other heroes of our childhood dreams. Buildings filled with anime, each floor taking you to another realm of reality. Our 12 year-old self was allowed to roam free here, as we played our hearts out on 'vintage' arcades, turning the knobs and pressing the buttons with endless games of Street Fighter, Mario Cart, PacMan, and Mortal Kombat. Akhibara is like Las Vegas, where time is irrelevant and you lose yourself amongst all your innocent guilty pleasures.
Hours later we decided to jump back in our time machine, bringing us to our Airbnb apartment, as an 5.5 earthquake jolted us back to reality. We were in Tokyo, and a although a small rub of the tectonic plates was just a regular event for the Japanese, we cured our shock by stuffing our mouths with delicious Japanese barbecue.
As we strolled back towards our apartment a red sign flashing the word 'bar' invited us inside. We were the only patrons of the place and the bartender made us delicious cocktails on his bar that was lined with several small plastic figurines, and jazz tunes played on his record player. We sipped away happily that we had found our local neighborhood bar, were we could enjoy our drinks in peace without worrying about catching the last train.
Our last day in Japan was spent in doors. Nature had other plans for us as she orchestrated a big typhoon over southern Japan, bringing with her winds that reached up to 120kph and unstoppable rains that flooded the streets and metro stations. The city yielded its daily activity. Luckily, we had prepared for this by heading to our local grocer the day before to stock up on important things like seaweed salad, sushi, shrimp flavored chips, wasabi beans, beer, and other mystery items.
12 hours later we emerged from our 'panic room' and came out for air, or more like bowls upon bowls of steamed dumplings. Of course, we did not miss a chance to spend our last night at our local bar. Enjoying the last few moments we had left in the modern metropolis of Tokyo.
In the morning we all parted with heavy hearts, waving goodbye to a modern city that simultaneously allowed us to travel back in time, diving into the depths of our childhood, and then back again. And with that, we stepped in an airplane and were awoken back to actuality.