Monday, December 28, 2009

Tokyo? I'll have seconds!

On a quick visit to my blog, I found this guy sitting in my editing box, ready to be published, but not edited. Because I probably spent a few hours putting this post together, I thought it should be out there, free to play in the interwebs. Enjoy, though it's definitely a couple months late.

Despite the hard futon and traditional bean bag pillows (oh, didn't I mention how fun those were?), I was able to sleep pretty soundly until 6:00am thanks to our outdoorsy, long day in Hakone.

We were still awake too early to go downstairs for our complimentary breakfast, so after practicing lying quietly for 30 minutes, I finally woke up Jen and we started to develop a plan for the day. Really, Jen just made suggestions from her Lonely Planet guide while I nodded and smiled.

It was finally after 7:30, so we went down for breakfast in our provided yukatas (pajama robes). Frosted flakes, half a banana and two thick pieces of toast with orange marmalade were a welcome sight after the breakfast disaster the day before. After two cups of green tea served in a china cup and saucer (because I'm white and therefore British, maybe?), we took our time getting ready since we'd be hanging out in the city all day.

Our first stop was right around the corner from our ryokan, exploring the shops of Asakusa.

We saw a few old women with purple hair (quite the normality there, apparently) and masses of uniformed school children who appeared to be in the city on a school trip.

I bought an adorable sushi magnet for our fridge, thought about getting a geisha costume for Milo and was lead by my nose and the crowd to some cookies filled with a sweet bean paste being made right in the front of the stall.

Before you get all "GE-ROSS!" on me, they was actually really good.

They were still warm and smelled a little like maple syrup.

Plus, they were adorable!

Even after I bit the head off to show the gooey, sweet bean paste center.

We decided to explore the Sensō-ji shrine in the light of day before leaving Asakusa.

In front of the great hall, there is a large incense burner where people would place incense they'd purchased, then wave the smoke toward themselves and rub it all over their body to complete a ritual of purification.

Then they go over to wash their hands at the fountain. Taking the water from the dragon spout, not dipping into the pool, you wash your left hand, right hand and then your mouth.

I saw this many times at every temple we visited over the next 5 days, though I only pretended to wash out my mouth. For a country so obsessed with the swine flu and disease in general, they definitely practiced some questionable hygeine. (Public Restrooms: Why have a sink if you don't provide soap?!?!)

One inside the temple, we saw and heard a service being performed.

The giant drums and monks were chanting and beating in time while another monk drew delicate calligraphy on a scroll. Visitors came and went, offering yen, ringing bells and clapping to get the attention of the gods, and saying their prayers before heading back out again.

We walked around the park outside for a bit and saw a few things we hadn't been able to see when exploring in the dark the first night of our arrival.

On our way out to the train, Jen snapped this picture of us in front of the THUNDER GATE.

We hopped on the train to Tokyo station where we could explore the gardens of the Imperial Palace.

The maple, sweet bean cookies weren't very filling, so we decided to stop for a snack at a chocolate shop Jen had heard a fellow blogger mention in a post. Meiji 100% Chocolate Cafe had a different type of chocolate for every day of the year.

We had difficulty narrowing it down, but we each chose two different pieces of chocolate and I had a banana, lime, chocolate squash drink.

It was surprisingly good, but there really wasn't a lot of chocolate taste. I thought there'd be squash in it, but apparently, that's basically how they say "soda", so it was the type of drink, rather than an ingredient.

We moved on to the chocolate and Jen started with the cinnamon she chose while I went with this:

I thought it had potential to be one of those things that sounds weird, but tastes pretty good.

I was wrong. It was weird in the grossest possible way. Rather than chocolate with a mild, cream cheese or farm cheese, they went with a cheddar/american mix. I actually only ate the one bite and wrapped up the rest to share with Andy back in America. The cinnamon was better, but not much. The gritty texture was like eating sand and the cinnamon flavor reached out and punched you in the face like 1,000 tiny red hot candies, drowning out the poor chocolate.

Silly Japanese. They make beautiful desserts that all taste like crap.

We wandered over to the Imperial Palace to check out the gardens I'd read about.

This was one of the entrances to the palace. Stuck right there in the center of Tokyo.

Though I've never been to the one in NYC, it reminded me of what I'd imagine Central Park is like. Lots of giant, green, open spaces with smaller, nore intricate gardens here and there.

The East Gardens were my favorite, just like the guidebook said they'd be.

This area had more water features, more manicured trees and grounds as well as koi fish!

Don't they look more Japanese than our American koi? Koi turned out to be pretty popular and almost everywhere we went, so I didn't get as excited later in our trip for sightings as this first one.

We walked the grounds and hiked up the small hills to get better views.

After getting our fill of green space and trees trimmed to look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, we headed over to Harajuku for lunch and shopping.

THIS was where all the fashion had been hiding. I'd been so disappointed with the completely drab and lifeless clothing choices of Tokyo men and women. Color was nowhere to be found and the most interesting accessories I saw were always very painful-looking shoes. Here I saw girls dressed up like anime characters with more dedication to appearance than I could ever hope to muster.

Harajuku was without a doubt the trendy part of town. Jen and I selected a restaurant on the 5th floor of a building overlooking the main intersection in Harajuku.

The place served yakiniku which basically reminded me of Korean BBQ where you grill the meat at your table.

This grill was super high tech, though, sucking the smoke out of the air before it got an inch off the table, so we didn't smell like food for the rest of the day. I'd been missing the vegetables I usually incorporate into my diet, so I went with an udon noodle salad that had an amazing ginger sesame dressing and a fried egg on top!
From Tokyo

After lunch we headed around the corner to explore the Meiji Shrine. The wooden torii gates are the largest in Japan according to Jen.
From Tokyo

I loved this shrine because you had to walk down a LONG gravel path through about a mile of thickly wooded area before you arrived at the main temple area.

Eventually the trees opened up and we were there.

Since it was late in the day, we spent a lot of time reading the prayer cards left by visitors. With our combined French, Spanish, Japanese and English, we were able to get through quite a few of them.

But my favorites are always the ones with the pictures.

On our way back out, we noticed the wine barrels (a gift from France) and the painted sake barrels lining the path.

A drink sounded nice, so we hopped on the train to Shibuya to see the famous crossing while waiting to meet up with my friend from college, Hiroo.

After making our own way across the insane street, we found a window seat in the second floor Starbucks to watch the show.

Untitled from Kristin Sutter on Vimeo.

After a few changes of the light, we noticed a couple of guys in the crowd.

Untitled from Kristin Sutter on Vimeo.

We decided they were doing a photo shoot for an album cover, but they could have just been getting a photo for an extremely complex scavenger hunt. I guess we'll never really know.

When it was time to meet Hiroo, we headed over to the Hachiko statue to meet, which happens to be one of the most popular meeting places in Tokyo. Yikes!

Hachiko was an Akita dog who would go and meet his owner every day at the Shibuya train station when he got home from work. When the owner died while at work one day, Hachiko continued to wait at the station every day, becoming a sort of national hero in Japan for his loyalty. They also made a film starring Richard Gere about it. I dare you to watch that trailer and not cry.

Japanese people are awesome because they love a good dog story, just like me. Hachiko was all over the station.

After some hugs and introductions, we were off to enjoy my first taste of Japanese bar food at a place run by one of Hiroo's friends. We enjoyed some cucumbers and pickled plum sauce, fish roe pasta and more traditional items like fried fish and pizza (though it did have mayonnaise on it which is apparently very common there). We also tried some shochu which is a Japanese liquor which tastes pretty much like whiskey. I controlled my gag reflex to get it down, but didn't order seconds.

After dinner, we headed to an arcade to have my first (but definitely not my last, experience with purikura.

Think photo booth mixed with an arcade game and some scrapbooking and you've just about got it. The booths are extremely popular, so we had to wait a little bit, even though there were about 15 booths in the arcade.

After seeing how much fun it could be, we decided to go again.

After all, there's NOTHING like this in the states, so I had to take advantage while I could.

Sleepy and full, we finally headed back to Asakusa and waved to Hiroo from the train until we pulled out of sight (something I can finally cross off my list of things to do).