Tokyo: Around

Our original plan for the day was to have a family breakfast with Dan’s brother and our niece, then meet up with a local friend for some sightseeing in Tokyo. Unfortunately, Dan’s brother had twisted his ankle badly first thing in the morning. So, after breakfast at the hotel he made a trip to the doctor and we struck out for some sightseeing with our niece without much of a plan. We decided our first stop would be Asakusa to see Senso-ji and enjoy some ‘clever smoke’ on the way into the shrine. The Nakamise shopping street leading to the temple offers a mixture of the usual tourist souvenirs, along with food and some nicer items. This area was crowded but fun, and we stopped to buy a bag of warm, fresh ‘pancakes’ with red bean filling in different shapes. When we got to the shrine, we watched other visitors burn incense and collect fortunes, then purify their hands and mouths with water before entering the temple. We walked through the temple, but didn’t linger too long.

From there, we walked to the Kappabashi shopping street, which our niece had noticed is marked as the ‘Restaurant Supply Zone’ on the area map outside the Asakusa subway stop. It was fun to pop in and out of the shops offering everything you might need to furnish a kitchen or restaurant: high- and low-end pans, dishes, and flatware, menus, ‘open’ signs, and lots and lots of incredible knives. I found some cookie cutters to add to my collection, an octopus (with eyes) and three sizes of ginkgo leaf. Our next project was finding lunch, and this took a little while. We were all a little too hungry and it was hard to make decisions. After looking near Kappabashi for a bit, we ended up at a mall back by Senso-ji. Out of desperation, we got two small cups of ice cream, ginger and mugwort, to tide us over. The food stalls on the first floor didn’t catch our fancy, so we went up to the fourth floor and chose a restaurant with decent bento: good pork and delicious whole grain brown sticky rice. After we ate, we checked out the amazing custom furniture in the housewares department and the astonishing range of packaged dried fish in the grocery section.

From there we took the subway to Shibuya to get a taste of the dense, busy side of Tokyo. We experienced the famous scramble crossing right after we left the station, and then quickly became overwhelmed by the constant crowds, huge video screens, flashing lights, and the theme song playing on an endless loop from speakers on the sidewalk. in the street  around the neighborhood. After a short while we sought refuge in the second-floor L’Occitane cafe to have tea and watch the crossing for a while. After this we made the short hop to Harajuku to get a taste of that scene. We walked down the fashion street, checked out some used clothing stores and dodged the rain for a little while before catching another train to meet Dan’s brother and some friends for dinner at a tiny artisanal restaurant we would never have found on our own. There were many small courses: carrots with dill, raw marinated potato, tofu balls with mushrooms, fiddleheads, and bean salad, accompanied with a nice, grapefruity white wine. On our way back to our hotel in Shinagawa we passed one several gambling parlors in the neighborhood, and added ‘Hollywood Pachinko’ to our ridiculous future baby name list.

The next day, Dan and I were on our own and our first order of business was to transfer to another hotel in Shibuya. We decided to do that, with our bags, before eating breakfast, and that was a rookie mistake. We really should know better by now. It was hard to find escalators or elevators at the station, and then we had trouble finding the hotel using the directions from their site. It started to rain as we were hunting for it, and we realized later we lugging our bags up a slow incline all the way from the station. We overshot the hotel by a block, at least partly because the sign was very inconspicuous. Finally, Dan left me with the bags to go looking, and was able to find it in fairly short order. We checked in, dropped our bags, and immediately headed to the ramen shop across the street.

We chose it because it was the closest at hand and we were starving. It was a ticket machine-style ramen shop, and with our critically low blood sugar it was hard to figure out how to order. The machine seemed to want things done in a specific order that was mysterious to us. The woman behind the counter saw us struggling and came over to help us, and things got better quickly after that. The ramen was very good, with a  rich broth, firm noodles, slices of pork, shaved green onions, and sheets of nori. We added some ginger, garlic, and pickles from the dispensers on the tables. This turned out to be one of my favorite meals of the trip, and certainly earned a slot on my ‘best meals under $10’ list. We both felt much better after eating.

Fun Signs Seen Around Tokyo

Our agenda for the rest of the day was pretty light. We walked back toward the heart of Shibuya to find Tokyu Hands, a department store chain I was familiar with from gifts Dan had brought back from previous trips. had been wanting to see. This location had seven floors of craft supplies, home goods and DIY materials. We started on the citchen level and found a few small gadgets, including a very useful jam jar spatula that we now use all the time. On the craft level i was immediately drawn to a display of paper mobiles featuring hot air balloons and blimps, andI brought some kits for these home with me. There was an impressive leather-working section in the craft area as well. Half a level up was a section dedicated to sewing and fiber-related crafts. I found two Kanzashi makers, and a kit to make a small felt elephant driving a car. There was also a fabulous section full of stationery and pens, but I was able to exercise a little more restraint there. That stop at Tokyu Hands pretty much satisfied my shopping urge for the trip. After we finished there, we stopped for coffee and then went back to the hotel for a short rest before dinner. 

We took the train to Shinjuku and met up Dan’s longtime coworker and good friend, and his wife, near the Keio line gates. Shinjuku is more of a business district, and since it was after normal working hours it was quieter than Shibuya. It was fun to see the cool skyscrapers and modern architecture as we walked through the neighborhood to the restaurant they had chosen for us and see. We had a wonderful meal and even better conversation at Oto-Oto, an upscale izakaya with a wide-ranging menu. Our friends ordered a great selection for us: bonito and snapper sashimi, several salads, divine oboro tofu with a texture like burrata, various yakitori, and miso soup and rice to finish the meal. The point of an izakaya is to keep feeding you so you can keep drinking sake, and we did our best to honor that tradition. I enjoyed the traditional way of serving it, in a glass that sits inside a small wooden box, with the sake poured to overflow the glass and fill the box as well. We had a marvelous evening, and I was so glad to have the opportunity to get to know Dan’s friends after years of sending gifts back and forth.