Seventeen hours into Asia, I have eaten cry-worthy sushi, plucked from a conveyor belt, have lost my iPhone in a cab and somehow navigated it back, have seen robots dance (and fight), have slept VERY LITTLE and am feeling pretty fortunate to be on track.
After getting about five hours of sleep after staying awake for 28, I packed up and headed for the airport.
This is no small feat in Tokyo and the process for a 10 a.m. flight needs to begin around 6. First there is a walk to the train station, halfway through throwing yourself in the only taxi you’ve seen on the oddly deserted morning streets. Then, you have to FIGURE OUT the train system, which is not well-marked in English. Very few people here even speak English it seems, so that’s another barrier, although everyone seems genuinely interested in trying to help you. I’m actually surprised at how nice people are in a city as big as this and that they actually stop what they’re doing to help a frantic backpacker who is great at near-missing everything.
The train station this morning was mostly filled with tipsy, ravishingly dressed young people who were clearly making their way home. One couple — despite literally speaking only one word of English between them, “went,” which wasn’t actually helpful for our conversation — stopped and really tried to figure this thing out with me. Of course, they were drunk and they gave me completely incorrect information but being not drunk and only hungover myself, I assessed that sitch, said thanks and walked away. When I found the appropriate counter with a woman who did actually speak a little English, she sold me the ticket to Narita and then said “You won’t make this train. You can’t make this train.”
The train was eight minutes away and I thought that was ridiculous but it turns out getting there required a maze of stairs and more people trying to drunkenly help me and suddenly I was sprinting with my pack on and hyperventilating and then finally finding the correct platform and literally FALLING ONTO IT as the train arrived. Missing it, you see, would mean either missing my flight or paying $300 to get to Narita in time.
So, I leave Tokyo for now, this wonderful, maddening place that is wonderful and maddening for many of the same reasons.
Also I would possibly murder someone for a bottle of water right now.
I landed yesterday at 2 p.m., after 13 hours of trying to entertain myself while hopelessly awake on a flying pillbox. I had a pretty hefty stack of plans, but again logistics are not simple in this city. I took a bus from the closer Haneda airport, but still didn’t arrive at my Shibuya apartment until almost 5.
I shed my pack and wearing the same clothes (It’s cold here. It’s warm everywhere else I’m going), I made my first stop, navigating through the Time Square-like Shibuya Crossing and to Katsu, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, aka, my new vision of what heaven must be like. After about four people helped me find it — in Tokyo, you often have to look vertically for your destination — one man ushered me to the weaving line of chairs around the outside of the restaurant. Every three minutes or so, one of the men working would run out and snatch the two or three people seated next in the cue. Then everyone would shuffle over two or three seats. And again three minutes later.
When finally I was at the front of the cue, they brought me in and sat me at the large, square bar. In the middle of the bar were sushi chefs, yelling and chanting and singing. There was a pottery cup and dishes for ginger — which was housed in a box every three seats or so — and for soy. Matcha powder for making tea was in a small canister with a spoon. When you put a little in your cup, you could then fill it with hot water from the spout that aligned with your seat. Chopsticks were in a small drawer. Oh, and then you were ready for the sushi. The conveyor belt rolled along, topped with everything from fish to fried foods to drinks to fruit. The only white person in the joint — a win! — I must have looked like a kid discovering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory as I snatched a trio of slightly singed nigiri cuts. Oh my god, they were butter. One bite in, I plucked a bottle of sake. Then most fish, shrimp, another sake, fish, fish, fish. Each item sauntered past on a colorful plate — each design of which had a price understanding (I didn’t know and I didn’t care what it was) and at the end, the staff would look at your stack of plates and determine how much you owed. From what I understand, this is the sushi of the people. Not supposed to be especially outstanding or anything. It’s basically in a mall for pete’s sakes. And yet it pretty much smashed everything I’ve had up to this point (Sugarfish in Santa Monica, while way more expensive, is up there.) could have stayed there all day. All. Damn. Day. But I forced myself out to see a little more of the city.
And what a city it is. Like New York, everyone here is so beautiful and immaculately dressed and I’m just in love with everyone. Except they’re actually nice, too. I was overwhelmed by my lack of time and the largeness and the glamour and the wackiness of it all. I resigned myself to accepting that I would only see a small part — and another small part on the way back — and hopped around a few bars and stores before meeting a pair of gay guys I befriended on my flight at their hotel, the Park Hyatt, for a cocktail on the 52nd floor, the New York bar, a Prohibition-inspired nook with live jazz and stellar views of the city. One quick bit of hilarity: there was a drink on the menu that needed a qualifier. The Old Fashioned could be served either “classic style” or “US style.” Since I’m pretty certain the US invented the classic style, I had to ask our waitress what the difference was. “Classic style is stronger, she said, and US style is fruitier,” a declaration that drew quick hoots from the table. I think we should all be very insulted by whatever that means!
The main event last night was the Robot Restaurant, a bizarre bar/show combo that one of my new Tokyo friends, Blaine, had discovered on his apparent travel bible, Atlas Obscura — essentially a guide for the weird and wacky in cities across the world. The show, a collection of colorfully wigged, outlandishly dressed and scantily clad women dancing and performing about war alongside robots, and floats that trounced around in seeming chaos. I think our mouths hung open the entire two hours. It was awesome, except that it was totally Westernized and pretty much everyone there was a tourist. We were imagining what the creators tell the staff before each outing. “Just bang the drums. You know they like that. They’ll believe whatever you do is authentic so just take it over the top, OK?” Definitely more sake was needed than was had.
An aside, to demonstrate how kind and precise people here seem to be: on the way to the Robot bar, we took a cab and in the chaos that comes with three people demanding to be the one to pay, I left my iPhone in it. Pat, Blaine’s partner (they were both just so wonderful) immediately announced that he felt strongly that I would get it back. He told me later he’s into putting positive vibes out into the universe. I was considering it gone and mourning my photos, but we decided to call the hotel to ask if they might what who the cab company we had used was. It was a starting place. None of us remembered the color of the cab or anything else about it. When Pat called, the manager he spoke to remembered who we were and that we had taken two cabs — Pat’s adorable parents were also traveling with them and they also came along — and asked whether the phone had been left in the cab on the right or the left when they lined up at the hotel to pick us up. When we said it was the left cab, he knew precisely which company it was and said he’d research it. Fifteen minutes later, he called and told us he had the phone at the front desk. When we returned to pick it up after the robot show, I gave him all the money I had. Wow.
Today, I’m headed to Bangkok with a connection in Hanoi, which of course makes me think “WHY THE HELL DID I NOT SCHEDULE A STAYOVER IN HANOI?!?!”