“So what are your plans for today?”
I thought the friendly Australian male voice was addressing the person who just left, but when he was met with silence I realized he was speaking to me, and looked over my shoulder as I was putting on my shoes. Hostels are the best place to meet people, especially when you’re travelling solo.
“Me? Nothing yet. You?”
“Nope. Just getting lost.”
“Mind if I join? I’m on the hunt for Godzilla.”
Over breakfast at a local coffee shop, Tam and I chatted about Japan, our trips, and sweet buns filled with red-bean paste. Since this was the first full day in Tokyo for both of us, we decided to forgo a map for now, but eventually make our way to Akiharaba (also known as “Electronic City”), where he was to meet a friend later in the afternoon. First, we needed money.
Despite what I was told, ATMs in Japan are not created equal. Most don’t like international cards, even ones on the Plus network. Apparently, the best places for international-friendly ATMs are post offices and 711. So we find a post office and my new friend goes nuts. Not postal, just nuts. The ATM before us wasn’t a fancy, touch-screen, AI, paranoia-inducing interactive “experience” that we’re used to in Toronto, New York, and Sydney; no, it’s a big ol’ keyboard kiosk with what looks like a monster CRT screen. I wish one of us had taken a picture (’cause that would have gone down well with the startled clerk looking at us funny).
Cash procured and astonishment abated (though Tam’s still giggling), we wend our way in a direction that looks interesting. Meanwhile we talk. I learn that my fellow traveller works for Google, hence his response to the ATM. Like me, he’s amazed at Japan’s many technological contradictions: Bullet trains that go a million kilometres an hour, but JR trains and subways that are dated. Toilets that automatically warm up, play music, clean and dry your ass (and allow you to control the pressure of the bidet), and flush; but the abundance of squat-style toilets. Then there’s the country’s environmental programs. It has a recycling program in place whereby you separate plastics from “combustibles” from PET bottles and cans. Which is great for the hot bottled coffee that you can get from the same case in which you find cold water and soft drinks. Huh? Tam and I looked at this, um, creative use of energy and couldn’t reconile it. So I got a cold water, he got a hot coffee and we each got a plastic bag. You get plastic bags with everything. Decline a bag, you’re greeted with puzzled look…and a bag.
Have I mentioned bicylces? The Japanese cycle everywhere. On the road, on the sidewalk. Wearing suits, high heels, babies, but no helmets. The bikes look like sturdy things, equipped with internal locks, child carriers, baskets, kick stands, and umbrella brackets. Some have even bells, lights, and mirrors. Sidewalks feature rectangular knobby plastic inserts, but I’ve yet to descern the purpose. The only bike lanes appear at crosswalks…and aren’t used. I used to ride until arthritis kicked in. Tam is an avid cyclist in Australia. We’re both baffled at the cycling chaos. Where’s the logic? Best use the eyes in the back of your head to find it.
Finally we reach the bright lights of Electronic City. Tam must find his friend and I must find Gojira. We promise to check in later.
If you’ve ever watched a Godzilla movie, you’d believe that he’s a giant lizard that is hard to miss. Not so. I walked around and couldn’t see him. I asked locals, and they had no idea. Finally, I gave up. Head low and spirits deflated, I retraced my steps and resolved to simply enjoy Tokyo minus the radioactive icon. Then it happened. I turned a corner in Shinjuku there he was: Gojira in all his fibreglass glory, his head crowning the Hotel Gracery. I giggled like an idiot and took some photos.
Now what? I noticed another fan snapping some shots with his phone. “Another Godzilla fan!”
“Hey there! Did you see that there’s people up there. I’m gonna try and go up. Wanna join me?”
And so a strange man and I went to an expensive hotel to get to know to a giant fibreglass lizard. Bow-chika-bow-wow! Okay, not quite. Really, not at all. Just a couple of nerds who were willing to pony up ¥700 for ginger ale to get up close and personal with a 1950s movie icon. Acutally, the restaurant got ¥1200 out of Jacques (from Montreal) for the Godilla cake.
Over a fizzy drink and a lava cake, Jacques told me about how he came to Japan (every detail including youthful conversations with his buddy), made friends (with a woman in a bar whose family he has since met, hmm), and gave me lessons on how speak Japanese with an outrageous Quebecois accent. Who was I to say no? Then we went out to meet Godzilla.
And so another adventure came to an end. I bid Jacques adieu, and left to meet my pre-arranged food tour of Tokyo After 5.
Despite desperately wanting to prove to a group of strangers that I wash up well, I resigned myself to the fact that Tokyo is not a city you can just dash across, hop in the shower, and meet your date in time. At least not when you’re just learning the subway system. Don’t believe me? This, dear reader, is the Tokyo subway system:
I’ve learned to schedule time to get lost, even if it means arriving early and sitting on a cement block in a busy retail square listening to a girl shrilly shill lottery tickets through a bull horn.
How do I know this? Silvia, our lovely tour guide told me. I booked this tour thinking it was more of bar crawl, but I learn now that there’s more food than booze. There will be sake, however, and possibly beer and plum wine. Great! Let’s walk.
We are eleven people: five couples and me. There are four Americans, four Australians, and two French, and a lone Canadian. Silvia, a local of Japanese heritage and Brazilian birth, leads us under a bridge and through an alley barely wide enough for two people. This is Yakitori Alley and it is here, she explains, where people hid during air raids during the Second World War. Families set up restaurants that remain to this day, the businesses passing from generation to generation.
Yakatori is grilled food on a stick, most often chicken and pork, with a few veggies thrown in. Every bit of the animal is impaled: skin, liver, and on so. The first place we visit serves up plates of the stuff. Delicious!
As you can see, there was sake. I’d tried this spirit once before and was nonplussed, but I was keen to be plussed. However, you can’t just order a glass of the stuff. Drinking is best done with others. I was with others. Did they want sake? Yes, some chorused! Yippee! And so the decision came down: warm or cold.
“Warm!” I whooped.
“I don’t drink warm sake,” said one of the Americans.
“But you’re in Japan. Don’t you want to try something new?” replied one of the Austrialians.
“I don’t drink warm sake or warm beer.”
So we drank cold sake. It was perfectly fine cold sake, but it wasn’t warm. Next time. With more adventuresome Americans. Or Aussies. And for record, I’ve developed a taste for sake.
Next we were off to get sweets, which are ridculously popular in Japan. Many pastries are made with a sweet potato flour and some incorporate matcha, or green tea powder, and have a chewy texture. The filling varies. At the shop we visited in Ginza, were given a choice between red bean and apricot.
We save the sweets for later to leave room for monja-yaki, which originated in Tsukishima. When Silvia described our group as big, I didn’t believe her; however, given much space is at a premium in Japan, I could see her point. Squeezing a dozen people into a Japanese restaurant is challenging, especially when we have to remove our shoes. Nevertheless, we manage and are seated in booths each with its own flat griddle.
The first course is monjiyaki, a battery stir-fry of sorts with meat, cabbage, and flavouring, best served slightly crispy and burned. I wish I could describe it better than than, to be honest. We all have a go at stirring it with large spatulas, then serve ourselves with tiny ones.
The second course is okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake that looks more like a latke than a flapjack. The ingredients include an egg, cabbage, pork, garlic, flavour, and a few other things.
You form it into a patty and let cook till golden brown on the bottom. Then carefully turn it over to continue cooking.
When done, dress the okonomiyaki with teriaki sauce then mayonnaise. So good!
During all this cooking and eating, we were drinking. My poison? Plum wine with soda. Mmm, refreshing…so much so I think I may have another… Oh, there’s dessert? Of course! Chokomaki, or chocolate crepes. Yes, the French couple approved, even if the batter was made with sweet potato flour.
Despite our protestations, we finished all the food and drink and left a happy group. Here’s proof:
I floated back to hostel on the subway, confident I knew my way home. In the day, yes, but at night? From an unfamiliar exit? In the rain? And there I stood, minus rain gear, hoping that my head bent over the map would shield it from drops. It didn’t.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
I looked up as the rain suddenly stopped. A friendly young Japanaese woman had shared her umbrella with me.
“Anne Hostel. It should be around the corner, but I’m turned around.”
“Oh, I know it. Let’s go.”
“But it’s out of your way…”
And so she walked me to my door, telling me of her plans to work in British Columbia the next year. I forget her name, but I remember her kindness. What a wonderful way to end a fantastic day.