Welcome to Japan, where there are more sushi restaurants than fast food joints. I wonder if this is why everyone is so skinny. Don’t worry, we never went hungry. We actually ate 5 meals a day. The food was amazing, from sushi and ramen noodles to tempura and beef and pork dumplings. We also fell in love with the Japanese culture. In Japan, the politeness was inspiring. The population is 98% Japanese and I never felt like an outsider. I learned very quickly that everyone and everything is respected. People are raised this way. Schools do not have janitors; instead the students are responsible for keeping their school clean. Like other Asian cultures they only take and/or give something — a business card, menu, change — with both hands as a sign of appreciation. I was really impressed with the tactile paving, which is a system of textured ground surfaces found on footpaths, stairs, and train station platforms to assist pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired. I was also amazed with the cleanliness, order, and efficiency of the city. You can smoke inside alot of restaurants in Japan, but outside only in certain smoking areas. There are 38 million in metro Tokyo and it never seemed overpopulated. I was never annoyed at the sound of horns or felt like I was in the way of a Japanese businesswoman trying to get somewhere on time.
Tokyo is similar to New York in that you need to know where you’re going to eat. I’ve talked to others that had a hard time finding a decent meal. Denise and I had a list of restaurants to try out and that helped make our trip — and the meals we had — incredible. I fell in love with Ichiran, a ramen noodle place. After doing a little research, I found out there were 14 locations in Tokyo and 58 in all of Japan. This reminded me of Japan’s version of an American diner, except it only served ramen noodles. It was affordable and full of flavor. Upon walking in the door, we were greeted by a vending machine and after watching the man in front of me it seemed really simple. Enter your money and pick one of the four options: ramen, ramen with egg, ramen with pork, or ramen with shiitake mushrooms. Grab your receipt and change and proceed to an electronic chart showing you what bar stools are available. You then pick your seats and the manager shows you to your stool. There is a privacy wall on each side of you and a window in front, so a great place to eat alone. You remove the small wall on either side if you are with someone else. I also loved the cold-water faucet to refill your glass whenever needed. Once seated there is a menu to fill out before your noodles are served. The menu asks how you prefer your noodles: super firm, firm, or not firm. You choose your flavor profile: full, medium, or light flavor. The same questions are asked with garlic, green onions and spiciness. There is also an option for beer, tea, and/or dessert. When you are finished filling out the sheet, you press the button and someone appears in the window in front of you to collect the sheet and your receipt. They return with your order and shut the window. Now it’s time to enjoy your meal. The flavor is exactly the way you like it. There is no tipping in any situation in Japan – cabs, restaurants, personal care. To tip someone is actually a little insulting.
We didn’t notice bars on every corner like the restaurants and shops. Instead there are certain areas in each part of the city that are just bars. We went to the Golden Gai in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho. There were over 270 tiny bars taking up around 4 city blocks, nothing but 5 or 10-person places lining these narrow alleys. Most welcomed tourists, but some were reserved for regulars. This area is open till the wee hours of the morning because there is no time that bars have to close. We drank room temperature sake and green tea with Japanese alcohol. Our bartender spoke a little English and we had a great time talking about our cultures. Late night, our bartender walked us to a nearby restaurant where we got to cook beef at our table. We had drinks another night in a similar place in our area of Shibuya, Nonbei Yokocho, or Drunkards’ Alley, a quiet set of alleys filled with miniscule bars, just steps from the famous and very busy Shibuya Crossing. If you like to gamble, casinos are everywhere throughout Tokyo and stay open all of the time. We went into one of the thousands of arcades Tokyo is known for and had a blast. The game rooms make ours in the States seem outdated. Denise really liked a Japanese drum game where you have to stay in sync with different Japanese pop songs. We’ve visited many countries in the last year and I have to say Japan was one of my favorites. I was really impressed with the culture and food. It seems to me that today’s Japanese people are a great role model for the rest of the world.
Where we stayed:
Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu
Where we ate, and liked:
Ichiran Shibuya (ramen, locations throughout Tokyo)
Harajuku Gyoza-Ro (gyoza)
Heiroku Sushi (kaiten, or conveyor belt, sushi)
Tsujiki Fish Market (sushi)
Family Mart (onigiri, made fresh throughout the day, and a great pre-made ice coffee)
Where we drank:
Golden Gai, Shinjuku
Drunkards’ Alley, Shibuya
Neighborhoods in which we wandered:
Tsukiji Fish Market/Chuo
The view of Shibuya, aka Tokyo’s Times Square, and the famous Shibuya Crossing, from above:
Remember Hachi, the dog who waited for his Japanese owner every day at the Tokyo train station, immortalized in the Disney film? This is the station. And this is the dog.
Yoyogi Park, aka Tokyo’s Central Park:
Tsukiji Fish Market. The world’s largest wholesale seafood market, and it’s moving outside of Tokyo in December 2016. Always crowded, starting at 3am; the fish is that good. The early morning market was closed as it was a holiday week, but the restaurants were open. Sushi for breakfast is always an excellent idea.
Can you spot the white man in the middle of the fish market?
Let the eating (and drinking) begin:
Shinjuku/Golden Gai/Drunkards Alley: