Tokyo: Time Travel
After spending nearly two weeks in Vietnam, we felt lost in time. We spent our days rotating between winding around the maze-like cacophony in the old town of Hanoi, and trekking the countryside. We didn't watch any tv or interact with technology much beyond our cameras, and we ate local street foods from simple roadside stalls and restaurants with no electricity or modern facilities. Juxtaposed with our Vietnam adventure which cut out many of the comforts of western culture, our journey to the ultra-modern city of Tokyo was like a trip back to the future.
Hanoi to Tokyo
We flew out of the airy, clean airport in Hanoi, eating our final pho in the terminal, and enjoyed a 4 and a half hour flight to Tokyo, touching down around 9 pm. We hopped on a silent, smooth high speed train from the airport into Minato, Tokyo and headed to the Park Hotel, situated on the top floors of the Shiodome Media Tower - with the lobby on the 25th floor. Just after dropping our bags, we descended to the ground level of the building to pick up some of our favorite food in Japan - snacks from 7/11, Family Mart and other convenience stores. We grabbed some instant ramen, onigiri sushi, beers, and Erin's favorite Japanese chocolate candies for a midnight feast in our room, looking out on the expanse of skyscrapers lighting up the night sky.
Shinjuku Electronics Stores
We woke up early the next morning and headed out out for a day of shopping, exploring, eating and just taking in the unique, stylish and quirky culture in Tokyo. We started by hopping on the very complicated, but efficient and shockingly quiet subway to Shinjuku, where we visited electronics stores filled with floors of the latest technology. For Erin's birthday, we picked up a Fuji camera we've both been eyeing that is excellent for street shots. Going through the process of the purchase was fascinating - the sales person bowed to us and wrapped our purchase like a very delicate present.
From there, we headed to Harajuku, where we strolled the famous Takeshita street, dotted with candy and cosmetics shops and cosplay stores. Erin picked up a rainbow cotton candy bigger than both of our heads put together, even though she doesn't like cotton candy, just because. We found a delighted child to give it to, perhaps to the dismay of the kid's parents. We wandered through the less crowded side streets to some of the coolest clothing shops we'd ever seen - the Tokyo street style mixes California surf and skate, hip hop and traditional Japanese style in a way that we both loved. Dave got a hat, Erin got a coat and we spent a couple hours just walking around and observing the super cool scene. We replenished with local beer and dumplings for lunch and then headed back to our hotel to refresh for the evening.
In the evening, we headed back to Shinjuku for an evening at the famous Robot Restaurant. We entered a psychedelic building with mirrored walls and ceilings, neon 3D murals and various flashing lights. We sat down in a small arena-like room, where we bought drinks and waited for the show to begin. What followed was a kaleidoscopic saga performed by giant robots and human dancers clad in wild costumes atop giant electric floats. When the lights went down and the neon lights went on, it was as if we were transported to another planet - a strange, futuristic, pop music fantasy world. We knew we could only experience this in Japan.
"Piss Alley" Ramen
After the somewhat bewildering show, we walked to "Piss Alley," a section of winding pedestrian-only streets lined with tiny bars and ramen joints (some seating only 4-6 people). Despite it being a weeknight after 10pm, the alleys were filled with business-people in suits drinking and stumbling around. A wasted dude slammed into Dave and Erin was briefly worried a street brawl would ensue. We found a ramen bar run by a literal mom and pop (the only employees) and devoured a couple of bowls before heading back for a quick sleep.
Tsukiji Fish Market
We woke up at 6am and raced to the famous Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast. To witness the famous trade of fish caught overnight, you have to arrive at 4am. Since we had a late night with the robots and ramen the night before, we arrived at a reasonable 7am and explored the working market, filled with employees zipping by on forklifts filled with boxes of fresh-caught fish.
Along the perimeter of the market are several sushi shops that make sushi to order and source their fish from the market each morning - this is known to be the freshest restaurant sushi in the world. A couple of the restaurant had multi-hour lines, so we picked a simple place we'd visited on our last trip and waited for 2 spots to open at the bar. We let the chef choose what he wanted to serve us, and Erin ended up with some strange new items to try - but 7am sushi and beer with some tipsy locals was definitely the right move. When Dave asked for the check in Japanese, the drunk elderly couple next to us cheered - a good start to the day.
From the market, we hopped on the train and zoomed into the Tokyo suburbs for a tattoo appointment with the legendary tattoo artist Horimitsu. To even get the appointment, Dave had to go through an application and interview process, showing his current Japanese tebori tattoo and explaining why he wanted another. Horimitsu is part of the legendary Horitoshi family, famous for tattooing members of the Yakuza and for slowly bringing the once shadowy, criminal world of traditional Japanese tattooing into more mainstream culture. Horimitsu practices tebori tattooing, meaning that most of the work is done with needle poking rather than a machine.
We picked up a bottle of Jack Daniels as a gift for Horimitsu (as gifts are accepted rather than cash tips in Japan) and headed into the studio. We took off our shoes, put on slippers and spent the next 4 hours in this famous, tiny studio while Horimitsu hand-drew and then tattooed a pastel peony, surrounded by leaves and waves, on Dave's leg. The artist was so skilled, Dave claimed that it wasn't even painful. Horimitsu called Dave a warrior for managing the pain with a smile. After this unique experience, we headed back to the hotel for a rest.
For our second night, we took the train to Shibuya, where we observed the famous intersection where thousands of people cross the street at once, surrounded by neon advertisements and buildings, akin to the "Times Square" of Tokyo. We explored the area a bit, and then headed to Erin's new favorite restaurant: Ichiran. At this restaurant, you can go through the entire seating, ordering, eating and payment process without interacting with a single person (only headless torsos).
Upon entering, you walk up to a vending machine, press buttons for what you want to order (spicy ramen with extra noodles, matcha pudding and beer) and slide in your payment card. The machine spits out a few tickets, and then you find a seat. Each seat is surrounded on two sides by dividing walls, and the back wall slides open. You sit down, and at your seat is a water tap, empty glasses, and clean chopsticks and napkins. You then fill out a form on how you would like your noodles cooked, how spicy you would like your noodles, etc., and then you place your tickets and completed form near the back of the seat cubby wall and press a button. Within seconds, the back wall slides up, a hand reaches in and grabs your tickets and form. Soon after, your food is delivered through the back wall from a headless torso. On top of this fun and totally impersonal form of dining, the food is delicious. After another night of delicious ramen, we picked up some Japanese candies for dessert and returned to our hotel.
For our third day, we started the morning by visiting the Asakusa temple complex to check out the Sensoji Buddhist temple - the oldest in Tokyo. At this famous temple, visiting Japanese tourists dress up as geishas, and the temple exterior is lined with shops selling traditional goods. We picked up some old-school Japanese shirts, influenced by the outfit Horimitsu was wearing the day before.
We then headed to Akihabara, the famous electronics and anime section of Tokyo, where we walked the streets, taking in displays of figurines, floors of arcades, billboards featuring anime school girls and other various quirky scenes. We enjoyed some donuts and explored a few shops, some of which Erin wasn't allowed to visit as a girl - apparently these were filled with female doll companions.
After Akihabara, we stopped at 7/11 one last time to get some famous green tea Kit-Kats and some disturbingly delicious egg salad sandwiches for our flight. We headed to the airport and flew over the Pacific, for a few days of work and visiting family in Seattle. After that, we headed to London for a couple of days and then back to Lux, completing our 17,000 mile honeymoon trip around the world.
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