Before I tell you about Tokyo, I need to set things straight. Before going, I had this preconceived idea in my mind (another one) about Tokyo: it's huge, it's futuristic, it's stressful and that's not the side of Japan I will like. I'm happy to tell you I was completely wrong. Is it huge? Definitely. Is it futuristic? Not as much as I thought it would be. Is it stressful? Might be, probably is on a daily basis but as a tourist I didn't feel it. Did I dislike it? No, I loved it!
Now that I've cleared the air, let's dive into the exciting city that is Tokyo. We spent our first and last 4 days there and they were amazing. This is a somewhat long post, consider yourself warned.
Tsukiji Fish Market.
Our first morning there, still a bit jet lagged, we headed to the Tsukiji fish market. You have two options to visit it. One, be there at the crack of dawn and hope to witness (only 120 people get in) the tuna auction or two, go a bit later and just walk around the stalls. I chose the latter as I did not want to get up super early and risk to see myself denied entry. I am not much of a gambler and I didn't like the odds.
Tsukiji fish market is an incredible place. I expected to feel nauseated by the fish smell but it actually doesn't smell at all, which is nice especially early in the morning. The people there are actually working but sometimes have difficulties doing so as the market is swarming with tourists not always considerate towards them.
The second thing I noticed, after the absence of smell, is the variety of species available and the sheer volume of fish that transits through this market daily. Some species I'd never seen before or didn't know were even edible.
Although it wasn't always the case, I now consider myself adventurous when it comes to food. But honestly, some of these marine beasts they had on display looked dreadful. I wouldn't have tasted them fearing they might turn into some Alien-like creature and pop out of my stomach screeching.
I could easily have spent a few more hours in the market photographing people, things and just the general atmosphere. There is always something going on, a person counting money in a booth, a tourist knocking over some styrofoam boxes (not me, luckily) an old, tired salesman getting a massage…
In case you couldn't tell, I loved the fish market and I think you should make it a priority on your things to do in Tokyo.
We first heard about the Robot Restaurant while watching Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown TV show about Tokyo. He described it as the best show he'd ever seen and he's seen a lot. Located in the heart of Kabukichō, Shinjuku's red light district, this "restaurant" experience is, to say the least, intense. It is a mix of semi-dressed hyperactive girls, robots dancing and fighting dinosaurs and electronic music blasting through loud speakers. It sounds like a bad episode of the Power Rangers but it's so randomly bizarre it is actually highly entertaining.
I don't think the experience can be translated in photos. The only way is to experience it live or, if you can't make it there, through the wonderful piece of technology that is an iPhone video camera.
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To me, the strangest part was towards the end when giant robots were playing music while lightly dressed girls rode giant papier-mâché female mannequins and some kind of Daft Punk skull wearing a rainbow wig strolled around at high speeds with his buddies on circular machines. It was all very dizzying and frankly staggering .
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The Meiji Shrine is a very serene and beautiful place but what made it extra special was the fact that we were lucky to witness a couple of traditional Japanese weddings. They are, to say the least, very different from our Western celebrations, almost stern yet absolutely captivating.
Shibuya Cross walk.
This is probably the most famous cross walk in the world. It's fun to cross, it's amazing to see from above with the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people crossing it at once but I am still wondering how a cross walk can become a city landmark. It is, after all, just a cross walk. That being said, it really is fun to cross especially the first few times. You can observe people giggling, taking selfies and filming the experience. It's even more fun to pay for an over-priced coffee at Starbucks and watch all of that from a different vantage point.
Lost in Translation bar.
How could I be in Tokyo and not visit the place Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson first meet in the great movie Lost in Translation. The bar is in the Park Hyatt hotel which occupies the top 14 floors of the Park building. The bar, located on the 52nd floor offers incredible views of the city (title photo for this post) and excessively expensive food and drinks. After a month of Japanese food I was dying for a juicy burger (sorry vegetarian and vegan friends). But at a $42 price tag, I passed. We just had a nice drink, snapped some photos and left. Again, the views are breathtaking and allow you to understand how vast Tokyo actually is. And at night, you kind of have a feeling you are actually in another movie: Blade Runner.
One of the only things we had planned before leaving was attending a sumo tournament. There are two sumo seasons and we were lucky to be in Tokyo at the right time. We bought the cheapest tickets available and hoped they would not be too far away from the action. The tournament goes on all day from 8am to 6pm. We were told to be there around 2pm as that is when the professionals start to fight. We arrived at the stadium around that time thinking we would stay an hour or so and then leave. Well, it turns out we stayed until the end. We really enjoyed it!
I must admit, we read about the ritual, the basics of sumo fighting but still, we had trouble understanding what was going on. All I know is that they are not faking the fight. They are literally jumping at each other's throats!
Basically, a fight lasts a few seconds but the preparation to the bout lasts several minutes. There is a lot of psychological intimidation going on. It start with both fighters in their respective corners of the dohyō (ring). They hit their thighs and lift one leg after the other, stomping their feet on the ground. They then throw some salt to purify the ring which is considered a sacred shinto place. They then crouch down, lift their arms to show they bear no weapons and intensely stare into each other's eyes. And then, just like that, they get up and go back to their corners. They repeat this approximately 3 times.
What surprised me too is that they collect their winnings right there, on the spot. They are handed an envelope with their winnings at the end of each bout. Each fight is sponsored by a company or several companies. These are represented by vertical flags before the bout. Every flag amounts to a ¥50000 (approximately $500) purse. So the more sponsors, the more important the fight and the more money the winner gets.
All in all, the sumo tournament experience was a great one. If you are visiting Japan and there is a tournament going on, you should definitely try to get tickets. Even the low-priced tickets for the seats high up in the arena offer very decent views of the action. It's something one can only experience in the country of the rising sun and it is still very traditional.
Among the other oddities we saw or witnessed in Tokyo were Maid Cafés. Unfortunately there was no photography allowed but I will try to describe it anyway. Maid cafés are, from what I understood, mostly for lonely men to find a companion to talk to and play with. These companions are generally semi-attractive girls with extremely high-pitched voices and dressed as French maids. We decided to give it a try, here is how it went. When we arrived, we were immediately called Princess Anka and Master Josh but to get our maid's attention we had to meow like a cat. Yes, you read that right. I found it kind of strange but went with it anyway and had a good laugh. We ordered food and when it came we had to make it "magic". To make it magic we had to perform some kind of dance and say the words: "oichi, oichi, moi, moi, KAWAII!". Which very basically translated means: "delicious, delicious, — no idea what moi means —, cute!".
Behind us was a guy sitting alone. He chatted up one of the maids and played a card game with her. Not like poker or rummy. No, more like the childish Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh. It was actually pretty sad. I guess when Westerners go to strip clubs, Japanese guys go to Maid Cafés. Not sure which is best… Anyway, it was kind of sad and this permanent infantilization was disturbing to say the least but I am happy we got to experience it.
Patchinko parlors are not specific to Tokyo, they are absolutely everywhere in Japan. They are another thing I can't really understand or relate to. Patchinko parlors are normally crowded places engulfed in cigarette smoke and drowned in a deafening buzz that is terrible loud electronic music. The game itself I don't understand. You are given marbles and you put them in a small slot. The marbles then trickle down the machine like a pinball. I'm not sure how you know if you've won or lost. The only thing I am certain of is that observing the players' body language, they are no different from old uncle Joe playing at a slot machine in Vegas.
I don't have much to say about the photo above other than this gentleman has skills and balance. I can't even begin to imagine what would happen if I tried this myself. The ground would probably enjoy a nice bowl of ramen or miso soup.
That's it! Tokyo is a crazy place, a mix of beautiful and extremely strange things where you will find yourself successively amazed and confused, touched and bewildered. It's an absolute emotional maelström! But it's an incredible city, each district or neighborhood offering a different atmosphere. It's bustling, it's gigantic, it's overwhelming, it's amazing!