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?”

The clean back alleyways of Tokyo. An unexpected calm found throughout the city.

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.

Early mornings in the trendy Shimokitazawa district.

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.

Akihabara, Tokyo’s gaming culture center, is a feast for all the senses.

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.

Roughly three-thousand perfectly manicured pine trees surround the Imperial Palace grounds.

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.

Tokyo Skytree with its place among the skyline.

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.

Traditional tonkotsu ramen

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.

A voracious Godzilla keeps watch over the Shinjuku neighborhood below.

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.

Proud artisans crafting handmade Ningo-yaki

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.