The Fernweh-farer: Unlikely Japan
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
I will be the first to admit, I arrived in Tokyo with less consideration than the place deserved. That became evident just a few hours into my time here. Years ago, I cut my international travel teeth in the typical haunts of Western Europe. My gateway drug to measuring my mettle and compatibility with new cultures, novel menus, and alternative dialects.
As confidence grew in lockstep with curiosity, future travels would expand my horizons and distance from home. A full day’s journey to Cape Town, the coasts of the Mediterranean, and the clustered bounty of Southeast Asian countries. Sensing my enthusiasm for travel and stretching myself through exploration, friends, and colleagues presumptively put this question forward more than once.
“What did you think of Japan?”
A rather safe question if you consider the context. Someone enthralled in immersing themselves in enticing beauty, rich heritage, and captivating imagery had been to Japan, right?
Honestly, the answer was no. Not only that, but the island had alluded securing a place on my travel bucket list. Looking back, I have difficulty placing exactly why so many destinations took precedent. No amount of consideration will produce a reason that seems logical in hindsight.
Perhaps it was the distance? However, that did not hinder me from the southernmost tip of Africa. Also, I called the logistically convenient Seattle home for nearly ten years of prime travel age and means. Perhaps it was an intimidating language barrier? Alas, that did not dissuade me from stepping foot in rural regions of Spain, Portugal, Thailand, and more. All spots where English was more than occasionally an afforded luxury.
Maybe it was the perceived cost? Japan is typically bucketed with destinations like Paris and New York in terms of weight on the wallet. Anyone who has spent more time with me than a cup of coffee will tell you I am habitually frugal. However, the expense did not keep me from buying a ticket and punching my passport to both cities mentioned in comparison.
So reveals the truth — there was no good reason to have neglected Japan for so long, and there was lost time to recount.
My flight arrived at the less frequented and highly convenient Haneda Airport. Located south of the city, it is roughly one-third the distance to the city center as its larger counterpart, Narita International. I was restless to dive in and unearth the legitimacy or fallacy behind the Japan hype, so I counted myself lucky that unplanned fortune resulted in a twenty-five-minute train ride versus a ninety-minute one.
The ride in was my first glimpse into the orderly structure that governs daily life in the country. There are rules, both explicit and unwritten, that the society here takes great pride in and self-polices. I found myself frequently scanning my surroundings to take queues from the behavior of locals so as not to disrupt the norm.
It was not long before I understood what Japan evangelists have been alluding to in their praise of the country. Tokyo pulled me in like a sci-fi tractor beam and often left me attempting to pinpoint the marks of attraction. Finally, I happily resigned to give in and not overthink the infatuation.
The most striking takeaway remains the tranquil silence that dominates large blocks of the city grid. For a literal metropolis boasting a population of over 13.5 million residents, how is it possible to find so many nooks in the urban footprint lacking measurable noise? That is roughly fifty percent more workers, students, diners, and shoppers than New York City. Coming off nearly four weeks in Vietnam this was especially jarring — a place where automobile horns are more frequently heard than casual conversation.
The Japanese preference for foot and pedal-powered transport plays a large role in the low hum of side streets and alleyways. Street grids left me feeling as though I was transported into the layout of Tokyo’s renowned video game interfaces. Inexplicably clean lines, uniformity of traffic and pedestrian direction, and unbroken pavement the hallmark of every neighborhood of the city.
Surely the citizens understand how improbable and rare it is to maneuver such perfectly smooth pavements and sidewalks daily? I think back to the cities I have previously called homes like Charleston and Seattle — places where sidewalks are craggy moonscapes of rupturing tree roots and ankle-breaking potholes. I question if, as a PSA, I should inform the unaware citizens of Tokyo to prepare should they ever decide to visit my country.
I spent a lot of time walking in the city. I found myself fortunate to arrive in a surprisingly temperate and dry March. I quickly realized that Tokyo will not reveal all it offers in a typical visit or even multiple visits. It is an immense and sprawling grid that is dynamically changing. However, I was determined to get a broad feel for the city by subdividing it into directional regions and then selecting what sites and, most importantly, cuisines were specific to my tastes and priorities.
The metro systems and trains are an exhaustive labyrinth of stairs, turnstiles, and shops. Again, one could conceivably dine on the floors. Ok, maybe not that far with the cleanliness metaphor but you certainly would not question testing the five-second rule.
Entering an arriving train car, a pin drop would register. The two commonalities are quiet and lack of eye contact. Some would find this “cold” but I find it strangely comforting. I have rarely found myself on a public transit system in the States wondering “I wish that woman would turn up her speakerphone conversation a little louder” or “I sure do enjoy how that crazy-eyed man is staring a hole in my head.” I can also understand the frequent images captured of weary commuters grabbing a nap during their trip. A soundtrack of rhythmic soft clangs of the train maneuvering the tracks is the kind of white noise people doze too in the comfort of their bedrooms.
Tokyo comes with a punch list of menu items to sample during any visit. Even with a baseline of dishes meant to try, one can get lost in the wonderland of options available. Take, for example, ramen. It is believed there are roughly 10,000 shops within the city limits. Know you cannot leave Japan without fresh plucked from the sea sushi? Slightly easier with an estimated 4,000 spots. Fear not Western traveler, even the “ordinary” shops blow away some of the finer establishments back home. The Japanese take great pride in mastering preparation and presentation, and it shows from the izakaya bar to the five stars.
Given this litany of choices, it would surprise you to learn I spent so much time perusing the aisles of 7-Eleven. Convenience store culture, called conbini locally, is a reality that somehow exceeds the hype before arriving. They are marvels of efficiency and value.
Three conbini companies dominate the landscape in Japan: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. The prevailing logic seems to be each offers solid options across the board but truly excel at specific categories. 7-Eleven is thought to have the strongest sandwich and onigiri selection. Lawson stake claim to a robust line of healthy options like smoothies. Finally, Family Mart stocks its shelves with an impressive repertoire of unique dessert items.
Welcome news that sampling and deciding for oneself is made simpler by the fact that numerous street intersections feature all three brands facing off across separate corners. Ubiquitous across the city and even in rural areas, a delicious egg salad sandwich is never further than a few blocks walk.
Japanese conbini are an excellent case study in the brilliance of competition breeding customer joy. One gets the sense that a resolve to one-up each other with the quality of offerings, uniqueness of stocked merchandise, and value is the first item on the agenda in the conference rooms of conbini HQ’s.
7-Eleven and Lawson became my go-to for morning sustenance. Tokyo cafes and shops remained shuttered for much of the morning. Most traditional coffee shops do not pull their first espresso shots until 9 am or thereafter. As a result, conbini are ready to serve round-the-clock with serviceable to above-average coffee and staples like onigiri, ready-to-eat pancakes, fruit sandwiches, and grab-n-go smoothies.
The triangular-shaped sticky rice balls, or onigiri, hide a range of fillings from salmon roe to pickled plum and are brilliantly encased in nori, or seaweed, for the perfect outer texture and tactile handle. The individually wrapped pancakes are a heavenly experience complete with a pat of butter and an appropriate hint of maple syrup sandwiched between two gold medallions. They are flawless and will put the most stringent self-control to the test.
When the palate craves savory, few dishes deliver like ramen. While traditional tonkotsu never disappointed, it was the lesser-known tsukemen style that had me voraciously nodding and slurping — sometimes both at the same time which presented an odd challenge to my motor skills.
The trademark of tsukemen is the separate arrangement of broth and noodles. Few places carry as strong a reputation as Fūunji in the Shinjuki neighborhood. Springy noodles are plated and presented to the diner as autonomous offerings from swimming broth and left to the diners devices to combine. The precise chew of the noodles grabs onto the umami flavors as they plunge into the broth bath. You slurp, you moan, you rarely break eye-contact with the bowl before you.
Ramen broths vary, but I gravitate towards the milky consistency that thickly coats the noodles with little effort. Hunched over a bowl, the distance from soup surface to mouth seemingly narrows as consume the dish — breathing in the aroma a part of the full sensory experience.
Noodle shops are efficient and as a diner, you are advised (hell, expected) to dive into the bowl immediately upon service. Respect to the chef means capitalizing on those peak flavors, slurping loud and proud, and wasting no time so they can turn over your seat for the next customer…usually standing in a long line outside the shop. They are not a place to dawdle over a dish and snapshots for the ‘gram.
Halfway through my time, I made a trek to Tsukiji Market and the outer food stalls that qualify as required grazing. The early morning auction that played host to nearly every TV travel personality to set foot on the island has since relocated to a less convenient location, and that still supplies the fresh catch to restaurants both local and abroad. However, the popular stalls that stock prepared foods and the freshest varieties plucked from the nets remain in the original location.
I arrived early in the morning as stall owners were still in setup mode. I fell in love with Tokyo in the early morning hours. Peak people watching accompanied the sunrise as sharp-dressed office workers in perfectly tailored suits navigated the sidewalks in the most orderly fashion. Classic Toyota Crown Super Deluxe taxis floating down pristinely lined avenues of white and yellow lines. A red stoplight providing an opportunity to catch the white-gloved drivers at the ready, always seemingly maintaining a perfectly erect posture and “ten and two” hand placement. Again, orderly.
Tsukiji offers great variety, but I knew immediately that my first snack would be a well-regarded tamagoyaki stand. The stall has been serving the delicately folded sweet egg omelet for over 80 years. Helming the griddle was a proud and practiced artisan on full display for passing market shoppers. The fluffy square of layered egg managed to satisfy both the morning sweet tooth and the savory inclination. I chuckled and nodded at the shop proprietor who anxiously watched and reacted to each diner. I returned his thumbs-up when my face registered my happiness with the initial bite.
Working my way around the market is a metaphor for Tokyo itself — incredible variety, beauty, and too much to take in on one visit. Affordable high-quality unagi (eel) fire-grilled to ideal juiciness. A squid ink bun stuffed to the brim with unctuous sea urchin — the saturation of its vibrant yellow color dialed up. For many, sea urchin (or uni) is an acquired taste. It is unapologetically of the sea. However, the buttery richness delivers coats every corner of the taste buds.
Interspersed between tasting all the city has to offer, was plenty of time spent taking in all the serene scenes it offers as well. Lush temple grounds that seem to naturally lower one’s blood pressure simply by setting foot inside. Japanese gardens are frozen in time as if transcribed from a Hokusai masterpiece. The dichotomy of moving five blocks west and finding myself in the whirlwind energy and cosplay sidewalk performers of Akihabara.
It is a city meant to roam — constantly rewarding that effort with a density of charming surprises around every turn. A purposely unstructured stroll will doubtlessly reveal something truly awe-inspiring, like the avenues lined with early blooming cherry blossoms (or sakura) that greeted me on my first morning.
The city is too grand to approach with a set of expectations and requirements, lest you succumb to the overwhelming feeling that it is just too much. It is too much! So, let fortune be your escort and trust that few experiences leave you feeling underwhelmed — intentional or not.
You should, and will, see the big-hitters of Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku. However, concentrate on the lesser trampled areas like Shimokitazawa, the muted normalcy of Sunamachi Ginza, and the quaint Togoshi Ginza just south of the city center. Each pulls the curtain back slightly on the way locals lucky to call the city home go about their day.
Tokyo remained dormant on my travel itinerary far too long. Prioritizing it finally proved an absolute boon to my senses. The culture prides itself on, well, being proud of their culture — they should be. Tokyo is a natural entry point to an island larger than many realize. It is by no means the extent of it. The endless options and embracing nature of the city are unique for one of its size. My interest peaked, I desire further exploration into more reaches of the country. I am wiser now and will not make the mistake of letting years pass before I set foot here again.