The sizzling heat of the August sun crept the ground as I padded my way towards the intersecting pedestrian crossings connecting Tokyu Plaza and Cerulean Tokyu Tower Hotel in Sakuragaoka-cho. To my left, a neat sushi bar was getting ready for its first customer. If only the pavement could drink, it could use an icy Sapporo beer or two. Around me, Tokyo-ites hurried towards their important destinations. Men’s white short sleeve shirts and black pants hugged their skin as their sweat trickles down. Women’s hats, a practical fashion accessory at this time, can only do so much. This was summer in Tokyo. Not even sweat could slow down the salarymen.
The hot and humid climate did not deter me from exploring one of the most challenging cities in the world for the first time. Though picking up a nice pocket wi-fi service at the airport was comforting, knowing I could never get lost in Tokyo with Google Maps, I allowed myself to feel apprehensive. Anything can happen.
The city commemorated Obon Festival, which happens yearly at mid-August. At this time, locals travel back to their hometowns to remember their departed loved ones. While many shops were closed, and travelling to different prefectures in Japan would be stressful for those taking the train, Tokyo was relatively accessible during Obon. With careful planning and with knowledge that my trip to Tokyo was during their Obon week, my itinerary had to be strictly followed, no dots left out of i’s, and no crosses left out of t’s. Armed with Google Maps and a couple of Tokyo Metro and JR East navigation apps, I was ready to explore the city in 7 days.
My first order of business were a couple of tourist spots not to be taken out of any first time traveller’s agenda in Tokyo including Meiji Shrine. My navigation app directed me to a train along the brown Fukutoshin Line, which I confidently boarded. Train stations weren’t far from what I was familiar in Singapore and Hong Kong’s commuter train systems. Alighting on the next stop to change lines was the norm for Asian countries. Little did I know, it would skip the next station where it was supposed to regularly stop and where I was supposed to change line. This was the time of Obon, Japan’s own version of Memorial Day weekend where schedules could get strange. Instinct told me to get out the next stop and take the train heading back to Shibuya.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” was working. With over 13 million tourists now visiting Japan in 2014, Japan could easily hit its target of 20 million tourists in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Though the relaxation of visa requirements was a huge contributor to the Japan hype, an intimidating vibe hovers around the city with its “Galapagos syndrome” characteristics, particularly with its train system. Withdrawing cash from ATM machines using international debit cards was another hurdle for tourists. In Japan Tourism Agency’s survey in late 2011, roughly 16% of its survey population cited withdrawing cash from ATM machines one of their biggest troubles, the number steadily increasing as one heads to rural areas.
As I prepared to get out of the dreaded Fukutoshin train that I would most definitely avoid in the future, I spotted an obvious middle-aged tourist poring over a paper map, his glasses sliding from the bridge of his nose.
I mentally gave myself an apologetic pat while attempting to rely on the navigation app. To be honest, even without consulting the navigation app, I had known which train to board going to Meiji Shrine which is a station away from Shibuya via the JR Yamanote loop, but I wanted to experience navigating the city using different trains. Learning to navigate Tokyo was a must for every tourist nowadays, especially as the train system is run by different train operators. Relying too much on the JR Yamanote loop could become addictive. Nearly all tourist spots in Tokyo are easily accessible using the loop.
After immersing myself in the contrasting youthful shops of Takeshita-dori in Harajuku and the serene sanctuary of the Meiji Shrine, I was famished and ready to call it my first day off. Maisen Tonkatsu at Aoyama is the de facto choice for tonkatsu by many foodies. Dining at this restaurant which was a couple of blocks away from the residential Omotesando Hills is a tourist experience in itself. Maisen’s flagship store used to be a public bathhouse back in World War II.
A single dining experience alone at this truly authentic Japanese restaurant left me in awe of the Japanese culture. A glass would be continuously filled with cold water without notice and a bow to every customer was given. A guest had to place bills on a plate designated for payment and absolutely no tips will be accepted. Couple that with the unmistakeable quality of Kurobuta cooked in quality Panko breadcrumbs that gives the tonkatsu a juicy and crunchy exterior and the experience was remarkable. For a first impression, Maisen, the King of Tonkatsu, did not disappoint; I began to wonder whether this attention to quality and service is distinctly Maisen. On the contrary, could this be how everything is here?
My smartphone’s alarm rang its silk, asian tone, the sun barely up at 5:00 in the morning. It was day two, a pleasant Tuesday morning where I am most certain my skin would be sticky once again from the heat. As the feeling of being in a vacation trickled by senses, I jumped from the bed and headed for a quick shower. It was a very important day two. The only day in my week long visit in Tokyo that Tsukiji market would be open.
The world’s largest fishing market is like nothing else. Had I woken up earlier, I would have made it in time for the largest tuna auction in the world, a feat Guinness World Records had no complaints taking note of. This wasn’t a day I could afford boarding another wrong train. One slight miscalculation could end up missing the highly acclaimed sushi breakfast.
After following a man dressed in rain boots and carrying what was suspiciously crabs judging from the pincers peeking from his cooler box, I reached the back entrance of Tsukiji market. A security personnel shouted at me as I attempted to enter. To my relief, he pointed me to where the visitor’s entrance was.
Tsukiji market is every chef’s dream come true. The freshest seafood presented itself, row after row, from boxes of Uni, to dried scallops and abalone. My sushi breakfast was nothing short of matching this dream, the sushi chef happily torching the Anago sushi laced with teriyaki sauce, giving it a slightly burnt exterior and bittersweet taste. The season of eel trumps during August, with tourists ordering plates and plates of Anago and bowls of chirashizushi to quench the summer heat. One who needs omelette for breakfast need not despair. Marutake’s famous tamagoyaki will wake you up with its cheap 100 yen sweet egg.
The day went without challenges reaching Nijubashi-mae, the Imperial Palace, and the magnificent Tokyo train station via Marunouchi Line. There was little room to feel lost in translation. As I explored the city, my mind was slowly adapting to the Japanese way of life. If my change for a purchase comprised of coins, the coins were handed first, conveniently allowing me to put them in my purse before the bills were given. It wasn’t only customer service training; it was a way of life. Every package bought was wrapped neatly and delicately, matched with a polite bow after the package was handed over. One could say “omiyage” upon payment and be amazed at the folding of extra shopping bags inside, each fold extremely handled with care and precision. It was clear that they lived for continuous improvement, every experience outdoing the last and reviewing what can be improved. It had not only been Maisen. It was done in each and every part of the city.
If I could only take home with me the vending machine that spurted out my order at a ramen bar, I would. My country is in dire need of a restaurant revolution, where one does not have to feel frustrated after three succeeding follow-ups of his order only to find himself short of his expectations.
A couple of drunk locals boarded the train heading to Roppongi early afternoon, their alcoholic stench evident as they laughed and snickered trying to keep their senses alive. There is no such thing as a perfect city. I shrugged the thought as I made my way towards one of my most anticipated dinners ~ dining at Nihonryori RyuGin.
In a city where the number of Michelin restaurants outnumbered others from all over the world, Chef Seiji Yamamoto’s Nihonryori RyuGin shines at 29th spot in 2014 San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants and the 4th spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.  His modern Japanese style mixed with European technique made his restaurant hard to book even a month before schedule. The “Singing Dragon” restaurant showered the diner with rare ocean delicacies from skipjack tuna to spiny lobster, to the famous pickled ginger atop summer duck and poached egg. The reverence Chef Yamamoto presented with his diners is palpable with his famous swimming Ayu, the live eel grilled over white charcoal to death to symbolize the importance of the animal. After all, Chef Yamamoto was famous for sending an eel for a CT scan to study its anatomy. Each meal ended with the Chef’s famous Candied Fruit, frozen at -196 degrees with liquid nitrogen, a playful way to reward the diners for enduring the 10 course modern kaiseki.
I was over the moon as Chef Seiji Yamamoto personally got out of his kitchen and bowed at me deeply as I left his fine, fine restaurant.
In Tokyo, one shouldn’t miss dining at a Michelin star sushi restaurant. Booking a seat at the world’s greatest sushi master, Sukiyabashi Jiro, can be evasive; but truth to be told, Tokyo is filled with many equally excellent sushi candidates. I chanced upon Sushi Yoshitake, the three Michelin star sushi restaurant, which has been steadily gaining a loyal list of patrons, is tucked neatly in an alley within the high-end neighborhood Ginza. Like RyuGin, the seven seater restaurant was incredibly hard to book, with the friendly Japanese sushi master gaining plus stars from tourists with his fluency for English. I was served freshly made sushi which I happily ate with my bare hands, stopping each moment to remind myself of the right way to eat sushi. This wasn’t the land of california rolls where I could poke and point at sushi with chopsticks, a slight dab of soy enough before swallowing it in one bite, and too much of wasabi frowned upon. I cussed as my anago fell off my rice which I quickly shoved in my mouth before the chef could see me, the nerves suddenly getting the better of me before I continued with poise. Beside me, two fellow Asians drank sake after sake, each pairing giving the pieces of sushi a unique story. The Uni was a fine finale to the whole Sushi Yoshitake experience, as each diner stared at the duo of beautiful and creamy Uni, one originating from Hokkaido and the other from Miyagi prefecture. It was sweet, oceanic in taste, the best sushi I have ever had in my life.
As my last day in Tokyo eclipses before me, I couldn’t leave Tokyo without stopping by Omoide Yokocho once again. The former Piss Alley now hailed as Memory Lane gave a faint musty smell to anyone with a penchant for imagining things at the mention of the word “piss”. Smoke hovers over the air as sticks and sticks of yakitori and chicken innards are grilled for anyone who wants a night cap. The red-faced salarymen line the shabby izakaya after their second bottle of sake. The theme at Omoide Yokocho is Japan, post-war poverty, ladened with izakayas built since the 1940’s. I headed towards Bar Albatross, their bartenders freely lend their ears, a wallflower for the night while one is hit with nostalgia. The bartender chats with a couple beside me, as he pours my 800 yen sake in a shot glass.
Summer in Tokyo wasn’t all bad, I reflected sipping my sake, recalling some of the articles I’ve read before my trip to Tokyo. Summer was incredibly fun. Tokyo DisneySea made me feel welcome as locals danced to the summer’s theme song while Mickey Mouse’s float sprayed water to every single person in the theme park, no escape. It was Coyote Ugly minus the beer and tap dance. I could only imagine what the 2020 Summer Olympics would bring to the country. The city doesn’t need Godzilla’s marketing prowess. It was already a “gorira” on its own.
My watch read twelve midnight and I knew I had to head back before the last train. Early signs of separation anxiety loomed above my head. I learned to love the city in all its shapes and sizes, no matter how little conversation I had with the locals.
“Oganjo wo onegaishimasu?”, I said in a small voice to the bartender who graciously smiled as he handed me my bill. It was one of the few basic Japanese phrases I studied before my trip to Tokyo. I scampered quickly as I crossed Kabukicho, the supposedly safest night district in Shinjuku, already starting to reflect the area’s real reason for being. Nothing is perfect.
I stared at the infamous Shibuya crossing early morning from my hotel, as local TV stations and independent videographers prepared their video equipment to capture the world’s most famous intersection at daybreak. The city had a soul fed by a mission to be better than ever. At exactly 7:51am, my bus scheduled for Narita International Airport arrived. Tokyo’s punctuality is crazy.
I was lucky to return to Tokyo shortly after my trip that summer for the Hanami season. Sakuragaoka-cho was decorated naturally with blooming sakuras, the flowers blooming so beautifully pink in color. March was different. The influx of tourists was maddening, the evidence of “Abenomics” penetrating in the city. Omotesando Hills appeared to be a large venue for a birthday party, overflowing with balloons. The crowds blocked the pathways as I steadily walked the ups and downs of the hills until a light blue icon with an obvious “M” lettering drew a relief from me.
My trusty navigation app loaded my route as I typed “Kitasando” as my current location and “Shibuya” as my destination. I stared at my smartphone, hoping my eyes haven’t crossed. The brown Fukutoshin Line devilishly beckons me to ride its train.