At first, Tokyo felt like New York City's Chinatown: Lots of words I couldn't read, understand or even pronounce, but always enough English to get by.
Restaurants had English menus, or at least pictures of the meals on the menu. Many had both. Everyone there would immediately speak English to us the moment they saw our white gaijin faces. We would repeat in badly accented Japanese the only word we knew: Arigato, thank you.
But the deeper we dug, the more we realized that this was not New York. Not even close. Even the parts that you'd think would be similar were usually better in Tokyo. For example, the subways. The stops were in English, but that's where the similarities ended. The Tokyo system had cushioned seats, numbered stops and announcements that we could understand, even though we knew no Japanese.
As Paul said one day, Tokyo is what New York could be if it had any pride.
The SightsOur first full day in Tokyo was my most memorable. I had yet to experience the temple fatigue that set in about five days later, and it still seemed strange to be standing on Japanese soil. Jet lag knocked us out early the night before, and it woke us up about 6 a.m. After breakfast (more about the food in a future post), we visited Asakusa Kannon Temple, Tokyo's most popular temple, with a five-story pagoda (Japan's second highest) on the grounds.
I had thoroughly read our guidebook before the trip, so I knew that outside the temple, visitors wafted incense onto the parts of their body that ailed them. My throat remained scratchy from a severe cold I had five weeks before, so I made sure some incense came my way. And what do you know, two days later my scratchy throat was gone ...
Inside -- and we saw this in temple after temple -- people would toss 5 yen (about a nickel) into a slotted box, bow and clap twice to alert the gods that they were there.
I also enjoyed visiting the Meiji Shrine and Inner Garden in Harajuku later that week. It wasn't as grand as many of the other sights -- especially those in Kyoto -- but it was peaceful, pleasant and (according to the guidebook again) a good example of the colors and style of Shinto architecture.
We also spent an hour or two strolling through the Imperial Palace East Gardens, where there were good views and an amazing stone wall, although not much green grass.
The LightsShibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza-- it felt like I was in a world combining Lost in Translation with Times Square.
It was beautiful.
I have a feeling that not being able to read the signs made it more magical. After all, I wouldn't exactly call a big, neon Applebee's sign in America a sight to behold. But if I didn't know what it was or what it meant, I suppose I'd find that pretty, too.
Shibuya is teen central-- lots of shops and even a giant screen above the street playing Japanese music videos. I thought Shinjuku was prettiest because you could see the lights in every direction from pedestrian walkways above the streets. And Ginza was the high-end shopping district that was just a glittery Fifth Avenue.
The UnexpectedWe spent a lot of time simply wandering around. We'd often walk between sights-- not always wise or practical, since Tokyo is so spread out. We'd mainly stick to major roads, but we did wander off the beaten path a few times, with good results.
We read a small entry about the Beer Museum Yebisu in the Ebisu neighborhood. Paul liked the self-guided tour, even though it was all in Japanese. We both liked the tasting room at the end, filled with cheap beer and (even better) seats to rest our weary feet.
That night, Paul was determined to try sake, so we went in search of an izakaya. Finally, we found a sign for one off the main street, climbed to the second floor, and took a seat. It was one of the only places throughout our entire 10 days in Japan where the people working knew barely any English (but, then again, we knew even less Japanese). No English menu. We repeated sake, pointed at the pork dish our neighbors ordered and had a grand time. Our neighbors spoke very good English, and we had a nice conversation before the evening was over.