Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan: Day 1 in Tokyo

It is hard to believe that we've been back in Chicago for exactly one week since we were in Japan. It feels like we are worlds away from the busy intersections we crossed, the hushed temples we explored, and the ramen shops where we slurped away.

Since we got back, I have been journalling and Brian has been annotating the hundreds (erm... thousands?) of photos we took. Each picture reminds me of the surreal, awesome sights, sounds and tastes we experienced, so different than anything else we know and any other country I've been to so far. We'll try to recount our experiences without running on and on, though every day we spent there could fill volumes! Let's begin...

After literally being up all night packing (and still feeling rushed and forgetting some things!), the taxi picked us up at our apartment at 4am. Still dark out, we spent most of the ride in silence, exhaustion and anticipation alternately filling my mind and rippling through my body. At the airport, we went through the motions of checking in and getting through security, and I got the rush of excitement that always hits me at the airport when I'm going somewhere or picking someone up. We're going to Japan!! A quick stopover in Dallas, and all of a sudden we were settled into our 12 hour flight to Narita. (When you fly to Tokyo, you use the NRT airport, which is about 60km NE of Tokyo). A few naps, one viewing of "Taken" (not really worth it) and a couple of compartmentalized meals including bad sushi later, we landed at NRT. We were told to stay put until the health officials had come onto the plane and screened us for swine flu. A few young Japanese men in plastic suits boarded the plane, one took a bunch of thermal images with a large camera, and we were soon cleared to disembark. In all, that probably took half an hour, but it felt like the longest part of our travels so far. We're on the ground, we don't have H1N1, let me out!

At the airport, we used the ATM and the internet - I had forgotten to print out the combination to the lock on the mailbox holding Mina's housekey, where we were staying... hehe - and got our express train/subway card combo tickets. It was pretty easy to get out of the airport, once we figured out where to buy the tickets, and suddenly we were on a comfortable train speeding toward Tokyo.

Arriving at Shinjuku subway station, we transferred to another subway line, traveled three stops to Shibuya, transferred to another train for three stops, then dazedly attempted to find Mina's apartment building. (Mina is a friend from high school who has been living in Japan for several years. I had bothered her on facebook for advice about our trip, and she offered to let us stay at her place - even though we hadn't seen each other since 1996. So incredibly generous! Coincidentally, she was out of town on her own holiday, so we got her place all to ourselves. Luckily, we did get to meet up with her on the last night of our trip - more on that later!)

After dropping our bags at her place and taking a few minutes to sit and take it all in, we wanted to press on and fight off the urge to sleep off our 25-hour travel odyssey. We didn't want to go very far, for fear of having to try to interpret this in our tired and disoriented state, so we just took the subway back to Shibuya and decided to walk around and find something to eat.

Coming out of the subway station, we were immediately assaulted with sounds, lights and people. The intersection right outside of the station is a common image of Tokyo in the media (e.g., it was shown in "Lost in Translation") and it was every bit as mad and chaotic as it is portrayed. We just stood at the corner for a few minutes, mouths agape, taking it all in. Am I really here?? I felt like I was scuba diving underwater, with schools of fish deftly swimming past me and voices from people on the street and from the huge TV screens above unintelligibly blurring together. It was the epitome of sensory overload.

This picture doesn't really do it justice - I'm too short, and should have held the camera higher! There are about 100 feet between us and the building straight ahead, and the intersection was FILLED with people.

Only slightly daunted, we picked a direction and threw ourselves into the thronging crowd, which moved surprisingly easily in every direction. The ultimate mission was to find food, and to that end we wandered in and out of food halls (in the basement storey of every department store, where tons of counters sell every kind of edible - more on that later) and looked at the plastic food display models in front of dozens of restaurants. Unusual for us when it comes to food, we were plagued by indecision. Finally, after wandering up and down several blocks, we found an izakaya (a Japanese pub, basically, but with more emphasis on food) that had been recommended in our Rough Guide book. The staff spoke very little English but had an English menu, from which we ordered a beef stew, chicken wings (for which they are known), and chicken gizzards. Not a bad start to our eating adventures!

Mmmmm... deep fried gizzards!

After that we walked around a bit more but were pretty tired, so we made our way back to Mina's and fell into a very satisfied sleep.


Amy said...

OMG, I loved the part about the thermal imaging! Great start on the blog, but you've got ~13 more days to post before the weekend!!! I can't wait to read it all... :o)

riceandwheat said...

ooo good choice...i heart izakayas and all the little snacks they make! SO much better than american pub food.