Travis Smith: my resume, bio and photos back to the main blog page

Wednesday, 12/3.

I’m on vacation.

This is something I often find hard to believe, in my bones, at first when I go away on one.

But the strangeness of Tokyo reinforces it at every turn of my head.  It says: You clearly don’t know what the hell is going on here, you are from somewhere far away, so you must therefore be on vacation.

We got up this morning like roosters—well, more like beavers, animals who as we all know get up around 8:15 a.m. most days.  We were going to head over to the subway to meet Jason and Noriko (old friends from Vancouver, now form Toronto, who have relatives in suburban Tokyo), but we were told we got breakfast included in the price of our hotel room, so we headed into the restaurant to see what wonderful buffet awaited.

I definitely had a picture in my head of a buffet like the one I remember from Kuala Lumpur, which was the most lavish breakfast spread I’d ever seen.  So I was .... totally underwhelmed by what awaited, in the way that old bagels are underwhelming when you expect a fresh doughnut.

Our breakfast options were, in toto: coffee, tea, orange liquid, hard boiled eggs (resting morosely in a bed of salt), bread which you could toast RIGHT THERE IN A TOASTER OVEN, oh the luxury!, packets of jam, and small bananas with the tops already opened so you can’t put them in your bag for later.

Paper plates were provided to eat off of, and on the second day (ooh, preview of tomorrow) I found paper napkins that I think weren’t there this first day so I’m not including them.

It was, by any measure, the most grim, minimal, bland breakfast I have ever paid for.

Thusly fueled, we headed off to meet J&N at the station.

We took the Subway south the the Imperial Palace, which is the central space in Tokyo, but is a disappointing tourist destination for three reasons:

1) The Imperial family still lives there, so you can’t really tour one half of it.

2) The other half of it was destroyed except for the large outer walls, so there’s nothing really amazing to see.

3) Given that it’s a large space with parks and not much else, in the middle of Tokyo, they did what any reasonable city planners would do, and ran big roads through it, so you’re not really all that far from zillions of cars (i.e. it’s no Central Park)

That said, it’s a pretty cool look at how much land and power the shoguns had when they were running the country from Tokyo.

* * *

We kept on walking, and met up with Noriko’s friend Yoshiko at the Sony Building in Ginza—a popular meeting point, our guide book said, and lo they were right!  We then headed for an early lunch, in the Sony building itself which has a spectacular Italian restaurant on the 6th floor.  (Before I forget, you see 2F, 5F, 6F on signs all over the place—it’s indicating which floor the sign’s business is located on. Much of the interesting commerce and shopping is not located at ground level.)

This Italian restaurant is one that Noriko often goes to when she’s translating for the Formula 1 racers who come to Japan.  This particular restaurant seats about 16 people, and has 4 staff, and is the most delicious Italian food I’ve had in quite a while.  I had basil / bacon / garlic / olive oil, Yoshiko had clams, Noriko had something seafoodtomatoey, and the waitress was so cute I expected her to turn into Sailor Moon at any moment.

After lunch, we headed down through the store in a spiral manner, each area attaching to the next with a sort of 1/3 of a floor staircase down so you never really know what part of the building you’re in, exploring the “world of sony” which includes some digital cameras that made my wallet involuntarily clench, and a section that showed off noise-canceling headphones by having a mock airplane fuselage you could stand in, to mimic the noisy environment you might like to wear headphones in. Somehow I managed to escape without buying anything robotic, musical, or videogamey.

* * *

We then headed down through this amazing shopping district, stopping at wonderful stores, some with things we couldn’t afford (like BMWs and Cartier watches) and others, like the store Muji, which had crazy affordable clothes and housewares and so forth - sort of an Ikea with dried squid and rice makers.

We went on a cream puff quest, and found ourselves in the basement of a department store called Matzusakaya, which apparently is where all the deliciousness happens.  It was like Urban Fare, but with polite people and a lot more in the way of prepared foods, too.  Apparently this is “food box giving” season, which is one of several times of year that Japanese people give boxes of lovely pretty prepared foods to coworkers, and department stores are where a lot of this yummy goodness comes from.

Japan seems to celebrate Christmas at least as “accurately” as, say, Mexico or Sweden—that is, they have their own funny little lies they tell children, blinking lights on trees and Western Christmas music, and an orgy of consumerism that involves lots of people buying things they wrap for each other.

Having found cream puffs, and having sore feet, we went off to a coffee shop and drank tea and snuck surreptitious bites.  We then headed off to complete an errand I needed to do: Get an adapter for my Mac laptop. My three prong plug doesn’t fit in two prong Japanese outlets.*  The Apple store didn’t have it, they said, but they did have free open wireless…

* All of Japan uses one outlet type, but Western Japan is at 60 Hz and Eastern Japan is at 50 Hz, which doesn’t affect anything but devices that have timing circuits, like, you know electronics and crap like that.  Good thing Japan doesn’t rely on those! (The East/West divide in Japan has roots that go back hundreds of years.)

... wireless aside: Tokyo is almost eerily free of wireless networks, free or secure.  Most places on the street in Tokyo, my iPhone can’t see a single wireless network.  When it ever does, it’s a secure one only.  You simply won’t find wireless to mooch off of in Tokyo.  What you do see if you stand on a street corner, is at least 30% of the people visible at that moment on a cell phone, and that rises to 75% on the subway (during non-rush hour, when it’s possible to have enough space to have a phone in front of you).

The cell phones here are long and tall and they flip open vertically, looking so much like a Star Trek communicator, I fully expect to see people beaming up.  In fact, the only differences between the communicator and the Japanese cell phone, are that 1) the cell phones are less bulky, and 2) on Star Trek the communicators never did video phoning. 😊

... aside over.

* * *

So, my shopping isn’t the most interesting thing in the world, so let me gloss over ahead a bit.  Basically, we went to an electronics superstore called Bic Camera, bought an adapter and a new lens cap, and then headed out for dinner.

Jason wanted to reminisce about his days as a teacher in Japan, and took us to CoCo Curry House, a chain of deliciousness that had the most wonderful English menu you could imagine—great big pictures, details, icons, everything explained.  But even better—the food.

Simply put, you choose one of the many many deep fried things (pork cutlet, squid rings, tofu, chicken, etc.) and pour a heavy brown curry sauce over it, plated next to some rice.  You can specify many things: the default amount of rice is 300g, but you can go up by 100g increments, or down.  You choose the spicyness: 1-10, or two sub-1 levels.

We all ordered 2, and at one point, I’m not sure exactly when becaue I was in my own personal “zone of pain”, Noriko started crying happily from the heat.  The menu prohibits you from getting 6 or higher until someone in the restaurant has seen you eat a 5.  I simply can’t imagine what a 10 would be.  I think you would start to glow form the inside, and people around you would catch fire.

Interestingly, we found the curry house by asking at a police station located on the metro line.  There is a police station at every metro stop, that tells you how to find every single business and building in that vicinity.  Without that, there would often be no way to located what you’re looking for. Why?

Well, many streets have no names, for one.  Some intersections have their own names, though.  Buildings have names that are well known, though the number of that building might not be.  Buildings are numbered not necessarily in the order they’re on the street, but rather, by a number within that “ward”—kind of like numbering the chocolates in a box.

So to find an address, you find the city, then the ward (neighbourhood), then the building.  The street is just a way to get to that building, and isn’t very important to its address.  Some buildings have doors on multiple sides, so you can’t really say which street the building is on - just which entrance to use for a particular access.

After dinner, Yoshiko left us, and Jason and Noriko took us back to our station.  We headed back to the hotel, happy and fatted.



Previous entry:
Japan Day 1: The Flight

Next entry:
Japan Day 5: Hakone with Royanne


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