“I Hope You and Japan are Best Friends!” – Japan, Part 1

Whew! I am back from my whirlwind adventure to Japan and am jumping back into work, blogging, and life full speed. I’m so excited to share some of my stories with you guys and tell you all about this amazing trip. I’ll be breaking these posts into probably 2 parts with a couple of other topics thrown in the middle because I just have SO many ideas for posts and things to say! A lot of time on trains and planes will do that to a person, so GET EXCITED. Can you tell I’m a little cracked out? JET LAGGGGG. Alright, sorry.

DAY 1: Tokyo – Tokyo Bay, Akihabara and Asakusa

The first thing to know about Tokyo is that like any other major city, it has a lot of different neighborhoods and distinct areas. I think that Tokyo has the biggest distinctions between these neighborhoods of any city I’ve ever visited. Our hotel (the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay – paid for with points!) was very convenient to several train stations, so we could easily catch the train or subway to anywhere we needed to be. Our first morning, we woke up super early thanks to the 14-hour time difference and headed out to find breakfast, whereupon we learned our first thing about Japan – they put eggs on everything. Mostly raw eggs. This is not always accurately depicted in the picture menus you hear so much about.

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Chicken and rice bowl with raw egg – it’s what’s for breakfast!

After wandering around the Tokyo Bay area for awhile (and happening upon random shrines), we made our way up to Akihabara, also known as “Electric Town.” This neighborhood in Tokyo is the center of all electronics, video games, Japanese cartoons – basically all the weird, kind of stereotypical things you think about when you think about Tokyo. There’s a very popular phenomenon there called “maid cafes,” which are basically tiny “restaurants” (I put that in quotes because the food options are pretty limited) where your food is served to you by a young woman dressed as a maid. It fits into the Japanese culture of cosplay (costumed play), and it’s common for men of all ages to go to these cafes just to talk to girls, even though there isn’t really a sexual element. Lauren and I went to one called MaiDreamin expecting something weird and potentially creepy. What we got was weird, not that creepy, and extremely entertaining. The maids are probably 18 at most and are so cute and sweet. They do a lot of clapping and smiling and THEN THEY SING A SONG. It was a complete disco experience with glow sticks, the awesomeness of which cannot be described.  You’re not allowed to take photos or video in the cafe, but your “meal” includes pictures taken with the maids, so I just took a picture of the pictures. Yes, we’re wearing animal ears.

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By far one of the most fun and memorable things from our entire trip!

After having our minds blown by the maid cafe, we headed over to Asakusa, home of the Sensoji area and shrine. It’s a combination of a super busy and touristy shopping area and a really cool shrine. We may or may not have gotten a little carried away with the trinkets, but in fairness, it was our first day, and everything was just so exciting and, well, Japanese. 

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I don’t know what any of this is but I’m going to buy it ALL

Some of the shrines have areas in front of them where you can pay 100 yen (about $1) to get a fortune. Then, you make a wish on it (we think, maybe) and then tie it to a little pole and pray over it. My fortune was very confusing, but we think pretty good. Lauren’s was not so good. Apparently, she’ll be waiting a looonnnnngggg time for something she wants.

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Good fortune or not, at least my hair looks pretty good

I posted a picture of the shrine itself in my previous post about Japan, so I’ll try not to bore you with the same images. Instead, here’s a picture we took there with some school girls because Lauren really liked their uniforms. You would not believe how excited they were to let us take their picture! Similarly, you would not believe how embarrassed I was that Lauren actually asked them. Naturally, as soon as Lauren took a picture with them, they insisted on pulling me and all my blonde glory into the picture, so here we are.

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I felt really tall in Japan so I apparently kept subconsciously squatting down for pictures…

After wandering around Asakusa some more, we ended up finding our way into a Japanese department store, which I had heard were absolutely crazy. We decided to go in – I think for the purpose of actually buying some type of thing that we legitimately needed – and ended up just wandering around in circles staring at things and trying to avoid the children who were beating each other with rubber chickens (true story).

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On the way to the department store, we saw this panda bus and it was everything. I have no idea of its purpose and I do not care.
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Japanese department stores make Walmart look organized and sane.

DAY 2: Tsukiji Fish Market, Kabuki-za Theater, Race Expo, and Ginza

The next day dawned bright and early, as Lauren and I intended to go to the Tsujiki Fish Market to catch the tuna auction! The market is open from 5 am – 9 am and is a real, functional market where restauranteurs and merchants go to buy the day’s catch. The first tuna auction starts at 5:20 am, and 60 members of the public are allowed to attend. The second auction starts at 5:50, and another 60 people are allowed to attend, but in order to get a spot, you have to get there and get a vest (which serves as your ticket) by 5 am. That meant we had a 4:00 am wake up call.

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Yellow vests go first, then blue. We were at the end of the blue group because we are underachievers who value sleep.

The auction is done at a very frantic pace, and the auctioneer sounds almost like he is singing. We got to stand right next to the auction while it took place. Fascinating to watch! I wanted to buy a tuna and ship it home but apparently the public isn’t allowed to just randomly participate. RUDE.

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So, turns out tuna are huge. Who knew?

After the auction, we walked through the market (dodging carts, fish, and scooters the whole way) and went to grab some fresh sushi from one of the restaurants right next to the market. I’m not really a sushi-for-breakfast kind of girl, and I admittedly don’t normally eat the actual fish sushi (I prefer to stick to the rolls with cooked meats or no meat at all) but I was all “YOLO” so I might as well give it the old college try.

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I’ve been missing out all these years because raw fish is REAL good

Next on the agenda was a trip to Kabuki-za Theater, which is the premier place to catch traditional Japanese kabuki theater. The closest comparison I can think of is that kabuki theater is kind of like the opera – there’s a very distinct manner of speaking that kind of has a sing-song quality. The plays all take place in imperial Japan, so the clothing styles, homes, and story lines are based in the past. It was fascinating, but entirely in Japanese (of course) so we had no clue what was going on and therefore did not stay for the entire 4 hour event.

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The makeup and costumes are amazing! Stolen from Googlez since you can’t take pictures in the theater.
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Theater snacks! Tiny pastries filled with some type of fruit thing. Most importantly, made in the shape of kabuki character faces.

Next on the agenda was heading back to Tokyo Bay for the expo. Although we were originally supposed to switch hotels to head to an area closer to the start and finish of the race, I had already decided I was not going to do the marathon based on how my back was feeling. I can’t even run 2 miles right now without serious pain, so I knew the marathon was not an option. We decided to stay at our current hotel, since it was so nice and I had an upgraded room due to my status with Intercontinental hotels. When we called downstairs to try and switch, we were originally told that we could, but that it would be expensive. Then we got a call back saying that we couldn’t stay because the hotel was full. Then we heard that we could stay, but the only room in the hotel was the nicest room, and we would have to pay an arm and a leg. When all was said and done, 9 phone calls later, we ended up staying in our room after all. We wrote Kobayashi, the hotel employee who had endlessly tolerated our insane nonsensical questions and demands, a note in Japanese (we think) as a gesture of international good will and in hopes that he would not hate America forever as a result of us.

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We wrote in English on the bottom just in case Google Translate failed us.

I still wanted to go pick up my stuff and experience the expo. I’m going to be honest –  it was really hard to go. Walking around the expo made me sad. It didn’t feel like I was making a choice not to run the marathon, because it really wasn’t a choice. It was/is not possible for me to run a marathon at the moment. Fortunately, there was lots of insane stuff at the expo to cheer me up. Seriously, you haven’t been to an expo until you’ve been to one in Japan. Holy hell.

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Oh look, it’s an egg you can pose with. Not surprising.
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This is more or less what the maids at the maid cafe are dressed like. Apparently they were serving Brooks shoes at the expo? I don’t know.
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Want to buy a pre-made sandwich filled with maybe spaghetti or maybe butter or maybe fruit with basically no way of knowing? If you go to Japan, all of this glory is possible.

Although we were really tired, we decided to head to the Ginza district for dinner. We hadn’t heard much about Ginza and didn’t really know what to expect, but it was this amazing spectacle of lights and people and shopping that I never could have anticipated. I also didn’t expect to see literally hundreds of Japanese salarymen staggering around drunk at 8 pm. We’re not talking kind of drunk, we’re talking the drunkest you ever got in college when you did the most embarrassing thing ever. People were falling down in the streets!

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The pictures don’t do it justice, so you’ll have to trust me.

We ended up going to a German beer hall and drinking Japanese beer. Not too long into dinner, a man came up to our table and said to me, in a heavy European accent: “My friend and I are making bets on where you are from. My guess is the U.S. or the U.K, so which one is it?” Maybe it’s because I’m kind of an anxious person but my immediate thought was “OMG, how does he know I’m from America? I must be speaking really loudly and being an obnoxious American tourist. BAH.” His name turned out to be Valerio (really) and he is from Italy. Lauren headed off to the bathroom, abandoning me in the trenches, and she came back just in time to be literally punched in the face by Valerio as he made some grand gesture with his hand. I almost fell off my chair from laughing so hard because I’m a really good friend.

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Lauren icing her face with a tiny glass of water. Much to our mutual disappointment, she did not have a black eye the next day.

In an attempt to make up the punching incident to us, Valerio and his friends invited us to go to a bar that was “just around the corner” where every drink cost $3. They gave us some vague directions and left while we paid our bill. Suffice to say their directions were completely wrong and we wound up wandering the streets of Ginza for half an hour, asking everyone who looked like they might speak any English where the bar was. Even the people who did speak English had never heard of it, but finally, we found it with the help of  someone passing out flyers. It felt like a miracle.

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The 300 yen bar is real! And so is my homeless-chic look.

You might notice that that sign says “Ginza Standing Bar.” That’s because there are no seats there. There is also no room to stand. It was the most crowded place I’ve ever been. If you got stuck in a weird position, you literally couldn’t move to fix it. It was like being at the front of a Backstreet Boys concert in 1998, aka hell. Lauren is used to crowds, so she had a grand time while I tried to avoid a panic attack. Valerio bought all our drinks, but he did kind of owe us. Ok, he owed Lauren, but whatever.

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We’re not standing this close for the purposes of the picture. This is just how you have to stand in the bar. Me and Lauren with “The Man, The Myth, The Legend – Valerio”

Our Japanese friends were so excited to talk about America. They were so adorable and enamored with everything American, even things that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as being terribly interesting. While talking to one of the guys, I asked if he had ever been to America, just making conversation. He said “No, but it is my great dream to go to {unknown city name}!” and looked at me with a very expectant look. His accent made it hard to understand the city he had said, so I started running through my mental list of cities that he could possibly have the “great dream” of going to – New York, Chicago, L.A, maybe San Francisco or Miami. Then I realized he had said “Indianapolis.” Wait, what? I verified that this is what he said and I managed to ask “Oh, why Indianapolis?” with as little incredulity as possible. Apparently, it’s because he is obsessed with car and motorcycle racing and that is where all the action is. So there you go, people from Indiana. Japanese people are dying for the opportunity to go to your state!

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With our two Japanese friends and Jason, Valerio’s coworker from the U.K. The man who wants to go to Indianapolis is immediately to my left. My biggest regret of the entire trip is not becoming Facebook friends with him.

I finally convinced Lauren that we needed to leave before I had a panic attack, and she said goodbye to our new friends. As we were leaving, the man obsessed with Indianapolis said “I hope you and Japan are best friends!” God, I love Japanese people.

15 thoughts on ““I Hope You and Japan are Best Friends!” – Japan, Part 1

  1. Wow it looks like you are having so much fun. I am super jealous! I used to live in Japan for a couple of years when I younger (dad was in the navy) but I can completely agree. Many foreigners want to go to a random city because of the famous parts associated with the city if that makes sense.

    But then again I am sure that Americans want to go to foreign cities that might get the side eye from others too.

    1. Ahh, that is awesome! I actually met a few guys in the Navy while I was over there. You should definitely go back!

      You’re totally right, I just thought it was so funny that Indianapolis was the place he wanted to go. Of all the cities in the U.S.! But it was kind of nice to hear that instead of the typical NYC/LA answers!

  2. Sounds like an amazing trip. So sorry about your back not cooperating but I am looking forward to hearing the rest of your adventures!

  3. I LOVE LOVE LOVE all of your travel stories. I’m a fellow runner, triathlete (tortoise rather than hare paced) and traveler! If you are ever in the KC area, I’d love to run with you sometime!

  4. What an epic trip! I’ve been dreaming about going to Japan for years and your experiences solidified my need to go there some day. Can’t wait to read about the rest of your trip.

  5. I loved this post so much! It made me feel like I was right there. Especially in the markets. I would *have* to buy all the things, too!

    The whole mystery sandwich thing at the expo made me break out in anxiety hives. I just can’t imagine huffing one of those down before a race. I’m sorry that you couldn’t run, but I’m glad that you went to the expo. It looked like a cool experience!

    1. Trust me, we did not eat the mystery sandwiches. They’re still sitting in my house. I can’t work up the courage to try. I’m sure they’re not a mystery to Japanese people, so I guess that makes it better?

  6. That Indianapolis comment made me laugh out loud, haha.

    I went to Ireland for vacation in 2004, and when people asked us where we were from and we said Chicago, they would nod and go, yeah yeah Michael Jordan. Who won his last championship in 1998.

    1. I am so impressed with myself for not laughing. I feel like I was just so confused that I couldn’t.

      I mean, Chicago has basically nothing else besides Michael Jordan, right? 🙂

  7. The thing I have noticed as I just opened ‘Sigh’ on my iPad is that I have three of your posts sitting here now. These Japan posts are not just quick reads, I really enjoy drinking them in – you really do weave an artful tale. So although there were some downs to your trip, and obvious difficulties now, I do revel in your storytelling. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Michael! They are not quick to write either, as you know. Halfway through them, I’m always kicking myself for being so detailed (although I like the word “artful” better) so it’s nice to know the stories are appreciated 🙂

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