Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nov 8 2015: Odd Memories of Tokyo

Odd memories of Tokyo - observations that didn’t fit anywhere else:

Men In Black Coffee???

Japan is the land of vending machines. If anything can be put in a vending machine - iced tea, hot soup, mobile phones, entire dinners - the Japanese have figured out how. One thing that escapes me is why Tommy Lee Jones is always featured under Boss Rainbow Coffee.

Playing at the great Bornelund toy store Daikanyama
Thanks Bornelund for the free entertainment!

I remember reading an article a couple years ago about how it's considered improper for women in Japan to open their mouths wide, so a local burger chain imprinted the face of a woman on its hamburger wrapper so that when the burger is being eaten, you can't see her mouth wide open. Apparently sales of their largest burger skyrocketed 213% among women a month after it was released. I tracked down a Freshness Burger to see it in action. Unfortunately the staff didn't speak any English, and when I showed them the English-language article, they seemed perplexed. I'm guessing the campaign ended last year and the staff hasn't been working there that long. It's too bad, it would've been yet another wacky Japanese anachronism.

CVS in Jinbocho!?

There is a small chain of drugstores called CVS. Some online digging shows CVS doesn't have any locations outside of the US. Coincidence or strange knockoff?

Don't press that button! Or do! I'm not sure!

Japan takes safety seriously. The flat we were staying at received a 100 page book that is essentially a manga graphic novel from the island State of Japan illustrating all the perils in the country (volcano, tsunami, earthquake, flooding, bad sushi) and recommended preparation/reaction. It’s just like the “Worst Case Scenario” survival books – BUT WITHOUT A HINT OF IRONY! Wherever you go in Tokyo there are adorable violent anime-style safety signs. Like the Virgin America safety videos, it's a little hard to take them seriously.

One of many toilet control panels

The Japanese are infamous for their fancy toilets. Wherever we went, the public restroom toilets had amazing looking control panels. One button makes a fake flushing noise (for modestly or to get the waterworks moving?), another warms the seat, yet another blows different temperatures of air. On my last night, I finally tried the bidet function on a public bathroom toilet - but not the prescribed way. I held my hand over the infrared sensor so it would think my butt was in place. Then I pressed the bidet button. A little nozzle slowly inches its way into place and - viola - the wall was instantly plastered with water from a fire hose. That would've been my butt. Wow.

Tokyo Tower seems eerily familiar
We didn't plan to see it, but passed
it on the way out to the airport

Honkering down for a short 8 hour flight (Bowie slept 7 hours!)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Nov 7 2015: Last Day in Tokyo - Found in Translation

Matsunosuke - as Japanese as apple pie

Kyu Asakura garden from Bowie's perspective

Friday morning we walked around the nearby Daikanyama neighborhood some more. It definitely seems to have the highest concentration of kids and babies in the area. We created a breakfast walking tour:
- Sour cream apple pie at Matsunosuke New York - the only other patrons were a mommy/baby group who had biked there - and Bowie was delighted to have the ladies' attention!
- Kyu Asakura one of the oldest houses in the area to survive the earthquakes and the war
- A bakery/cafe makes black croissants because the charcoal allegedly absorbs toxins in your system (I had a charcoal roll / tofu byproduct sandwich)
- Tsutaya T-Site shop is a wonderful boom/CD/Video store campus encompassing three buildings. This place is cool because the cookbook section also has gourmet food ingredients, the travel book section has travel gadgets, etc. It's like Amazon unplugged. Check out Olga's blog for, you guessed it, more details about the bookstores!

Tsutaya Daikanyama
Popsicle brûlée!

 Mid-day our nap was interrupted by 4 representatives from the town government who wouldn't go away, they kept ringing and ringing the doorbell. They must've known we were there. It turns out they consider Airbnb to be an "illegal hotel" and they wanted to know how we came to be there. They were friendly and respectful and said we could stay but we should know the law is being broken. It's too bad because we love Ebisu and Daikanyama neighborhoods for being quiet and having wonderful boutiques, and being central - but there are just very few hotels in this area.

Plastered all over the building after the town officials left

In the evening, we split and went different directions. Olga and Bowie went back to one of the free play areas with crawling space and toys and other kids to play with. I went out to Akihabara, Shinjuku, and Karaoke.

Akihabara is the so-called electronics neighborhood. Mostly I found it full of:
- Electronic kitsch like overpriced sushi-shaped thumb drives
- Young ladies dressed like french maids trying to get pervy men in the maid cages where customers are attended to with a certain level of attention. You can't walk down a block without bumping into a few of these maids.
- Tons of anime and manga and video game character toys
- Shops to get components to build a computer or home a/v system
It's neat to see the scene but I couldn't find anything I wanted to take home.

Akiharaba street corner with maid
Overpriced sushi thumb drives for $20 USD

Shinjuku seems to be the main downtown Times Square (circa 1990) type of area. Lots of lights and sounds and crowds of drunk people and bars and souvenir shops. At 11pm it was just starting to pick up. It was nice to find a hot spot in Tokyo (after going to bed early with Bowie every night) and stock up on souvenirs at Don Quijote.

Shinjuku at 11pm Friday night

Headed back to Ebisu. There's an oldies club near our flat called Jan Ken Pon (Rock Paper Scissors) that advertises itself as karaoke where you can sing with a live band. For $20 you can to catch one set, 1 drink, and do some karaoke. When I got there, the band was just going on break, but each band member came over to talk with me and find out how my trip is going, what do I think about Japan, what kind of music I like. They are exclusively a 50s band so we chatted about Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, ELVIS. Even through a language barrier, you can share a common appreciation for artists.

JD-Brothers Six Amigos @ Jan Ken Pon

They did a rocking set that concluded with Roll Over Beethoven with a Back to the Future guitar solo...awesome. Afterwards I sang duets of Honey Don't and Don't Let Me Down with the lead singer. What a great last night in Tokyo!!

Duet with Johnny

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Nov 5 2015: Edible Tokyo

Giant Opah freshly caught and offered slice by sashimi slice
Bowie sharpening his chopsticks before digging in

Wednesday morning we headed to the Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market. It's a crowded scene with several rows of stalls alternating between selling fish, snacks, produce, and small restaurants. In her blog, Olga tells a cute story about Bowie snatching the strawberry off our mochi

Pondering the oxymoron of jumbo shrimp

Amusement Park and baby playland at Tokyo Dome

We headed into a sushi bar for brunch and decided to sit in their tatami style room with the mats and low tables/chairs. It's actually a super baby friendly experience - we were able to close off the room, Bowie could crawl around, we were never very far off the ground. Score one for Washitsu! Being inside the fish market, the sashimi was of course very fresh - Olga says it's the best she's ever had. On the other hand, the sushi roll was covered in mayonnaise - I wonder if it's a special treatment for foreigners?

Somebody has to be the jumper
Somebody has to be the jumpee
Taking out one ball at a time

After a trip back to the apartment, naps, homemade lunch, we headed out for our afternoon excursion to the Tokyo Dome, a famous martial arts and concert venue. Next door there's a baby paradise called ASO-Bono - sort of a Chuck E Cheese without the electronics. There are play rooms for each age where kids can dress up for any occupation, play kitchen or store or pirate or doctor (ok maybe not doctor). There's a bouncy house and a giant ball pit and ropes and nets to climb through. Bowie had a blast trying to empty thousands of balls out of the ball pit. He likes to empty things and fill them up again - that's his thing right now. He probably got about 30 balls into it before we had to leave.

Tokyo Dome Carousel - Bowie rode up, down, and around!

Should be called Whipped Cream N Things!

Thursday we breakfasted at Eggs N Things, a Hawaiian breakfast joint in the Harajuku section of Shibuya. The staff (and customers) were super patient while Bowie crawled all around the place - inside, outside on the patio, up and down the stairs, around the second floor. In the mornings we try to get him some exercise so he'll nap well - and the apartment is small so we need to crawl outside somewhere. In the same area we popped by the Meiji Shrine to pay respects to the late Emperor and Empress's stomping grounds. It's a nice place to walk on tree-lined paths and they have an affordable souvenir shop.

Grounds of the Meiji Shrine
Kids dress in kimonos and pray for good health

In the afternoon we visited the Jimbocho neighborhood where every other store is a bookstore. If you're looking for any kind of book in Tokyo, first check Tsutaya stores, then go to Jimbocho neighborhood! Bowie had a blast pulling all the books off the shelves and flipping through the pages and suspiciously glaring at giant stuffed animals. Dinner was back near our apartment at the Yebisu Beer Hall, which is named after the neighborhood, which is named after the beer. They have a decent stout that tastes exactly like Murphy's Irish Stout. Not better than Murphy's but not worse either.

Prayers on wooden tiles - like at the wailing wall
Bowie self sufficient at the bookstore!!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Nov 3 2015: Napping through Tokyo

Finding places to play: basket of plastic fruit in a restaurant
Play area in kids section of
Mitsukoshi Ebisu department store

As Olga learned last week and I'm discovering just now, traveling with a baby is an entirely unique experience. This week he wakes up around 8am on the dot. He starts stirring before that so you have to make him super comfortable if you want to sleep past 6am. He gets super tired around noon and you need a bunch of time for changing clothes, medicine, eating, bathing, playing, going out, and coming back, so you end up with a couple of hours in the morning for a quick sightseeing excursion. We've been using those morning hours for a nice breakfast in any of the nearby neighborhoods - and a visit somewhere he can run and crawl around - a department store, park, playground, sidewalk. Then he passes out and we come back to nap, change, eat, play from 12 - 4pm.

How much is that baby in the mirror

How do you pick between gelato flavors like
Mustard Spinach, Pickled Plum, Apple Ginger,
and Peanut Milk? Two for sampling, two for buying.

I've been super tired too - catching up on missed sleep from the past few weeks of work - so I've been enjoying the opportunity to nap with Bowie. It helps make Tokyo a bit like an oreo - rough and crunchy on the outside - soft and creamy on the inside. That leaves from 4-8pm to go out and explore a little further out neighborhood.

Bowie reached and stretched and strove
until he was able to grab the subway handle
(with some help from behind)
Model Railroad at Sony Building Tokyo. A moment
later Bowie snatched the train from track and almost
got us kicked out

We tried a couple days with a stroller and a couple days with a baby carrier. Bowie LOVES the carrier. He's up closer to eye level, kicking and cooing and giggling as we hike through the urban jungle. On Monday he got his first taste of rain (through an umbrella) and I could see him stretching to reach his little hands out to touch it. After a rough time the first day, we've been learning the subway system. It's a good way to get around, especially without a stroller! Visitors to Tokyo: do yourself a favor and get a Suica prepaid card as soon as you can - it simplifies the subway system immensely because there are 10 routes to get from point to point and you don't have to know the exact cost of your route before you board.

Getting denied entry at Kabukiza (it's
still quite beautiful from the outside)

Hitachino Jackpot!!
I've heard people say English isn't spoken much in Japan. We've had absolutely zero trouble communicating - maybe Tokyo is different from the rest of the country. We did have two problems though. On Sunday night we picked out a place to have sushi, and upon opening the door to sushi bar, a lady ran over and showed us a sign in English saying "you must order in Japanese." That didn't seem like a problem, the menu seemed to have photos and we'd be happy to point. But she was blocking the door and wouldn't move. She just kept pointing at the sign. No matter how much we agreed, she wouldn't let us in. Tuesday night we tried to go to a Kabuki show at Kabukiza, but were told the minimum age for all of their shows is 6 years old. There must be a family-oriented show somewhere, but I was hoping the top Kabuki theatre in Tokyo would have some kind of kid-friendly matinee. But no troubles being understood - especially when Bowie flirts with neighbors and waitresses and train passengers. They love flirting back with him :)

Shibuya Crossing at night

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nov 1 2015: Taking over Tokyo for Halloween

Japanese restroom includes
a place to hang your kid!
Playground in Ebisu - unlike China you
don't have to bring your own swing

We had a couple glitches getting into our lodgings when we arrived from China Thursday night. Nothing super serious, just a few Airbnb quirks. We had a roof and a bed and a toilet and a fridge. We weren't homeless. Almost. Olga goes into fun detail in her blog

Asakusa temple which pays tribute to the
three men who brought Buddhism to Japan

This is a serious shrine, no giggling!

We're staying in the Ebisu neighborhood (named after the Yebisu brewery that was originally here). Friday we spent the afternoon walking through Daikanyama (next neighborhood towards the center). Playgrounds, great cafes with amazing pastries, unique boutiques, and interesting windy alleys that made the journey really fun.

Very elaborate pumpkin float with horesemen
Bowie likes his mugs of beer!!

Friday was Halloween, and I was super excited to see how Tokyo celebrates. The next neighborhood towards the center is Shibuya, where everyone comes to see and be seen on Halloween at Shibuya Crossing. If you've seen Lost in Translation when Bill Murray is sulking around a Times Square like intersection while the world is moving around him at a frenetic pace - that's Shibuya Crossing.

Samurai and Mario at dinner

Not exactly sure... Zombie Minnie Mouse??

We saw so many zombies: zombie nurse, zombie Mario, zombie bunny rabbit, zombie Samurai, little red riding hood zombie. It seems to be the theme this year. Lots of young ladies in groups of 4-8 that are dressed up in the same costume. We were in bed by 10pm, I wonder what happened next!

Just Wow.

Bowie getting a little tired of Marios by the end of the night

Had dinner at a tiny cute ramen place near Shibuya, our first meal in Japan. You order from and pay at a vending machine, you get tickets with your selections, give them to the ramen chef. You can ask a couple questions but mostly you are on your own. There are helpful pictures on the machine but not a whole lot of info such as which ones have meat :) This is the first meal Bowie has really taken to so far on this trip. Ramen it is!

Ordering dinner for three
Bowie REALLY likes ramen!