Impressions of Tokyo

Now I’ve wandered around Tokyo for two days and I think I understand something of it.  Really, I understand only that I don’t understand it.  Enormous and like most cities somewhat amorphous, it doesn’t really have important monuments or great museums, the sort of things one visits while sightseeing.  But dig deeper, get to know it, and it has Everything.  Maybe, it makes me start thinking, even postdocs in topology.

Yesterday, I took the train to the Tokyo station and wandered a little bit around the imperial palace only to discover that the grounds were closed on Fridays.  So I decided I would wander to Asakusa, an area both my guidebook and everyone I met said I should go to.  Early on, I had the bright idea of turning off from the big avenue onto a side street.  Immediately I was rewarded with this:100_0612The contrast between the English and Russian signs amused me.  Soon after, I found myself in an entire district of snowboard shops:100_0613

Eventually I found my way to Asakusa, although not before being essentially forced to eat lunch at an Indian restaurant.  I was outside reading the menu, and they came out and shooed me in.  I didn’t really mind though, as I was curious about what Japanese Indian food would be like.  Characteristically, the aloo palak was too liquidy and there was not very much of it compared to the giant and delicious piece of naan.  They really overdo the carbohydrates here.  (Also characteristically, you got a fairly small choice of meals, and you had to take the whole meal, not just a main course.)  Additionally, I got to hear Japanese spoken with a strong Indian accent: “haaai, irasshaimaaashe, dooozho.”

I got to Asakusa and found it to be full of shops, restaurants, and bars (which are, oddly enough, called “snack” in Japanese) which varied in touristiness depending on where you were.  In the middle was a huge lane filled with trinkets.  Every once in a while, though, a shrine or something else decidedly and charmingly Japanese would peek through.  I decided that my mission was to find a shop that sold musical instruments; the only one that I found, however, sold only taiko and transverse flutes, along with some other religious implements.  It was uncomfortably clean, spacious, and expensive and I felt rather out of place in it.

Since Carol had said she wouldn’t be back from a company dinner until fairly late, I stalled in Asakusa.  After it got dark, I decided I’d look for a hookah bar I’d passed by at some point, just because it would be amusing to say I’d gone to a hookah bar in Tokyo, a sort of second-degree Oriental borrowing of a Western borrowing of a Middle Eastern idea.  I had remembered that a block next to it was numbered 36, but I hadn’t remembered of what chōme (section of a neighborhood: since street names are absent in Japan, the addresses go by blocks, so for example something’s address could be Tōkyō, Taitō-ku, Asakusa 3-chōme 36-3) so I ended up searching for an hour and a half, mostly because I had nothing better to do, getting lost and finding myself in a red light district with creepy old men standing by the doors of the establishments and calling me in, finally getting back to Asakusa and finding the place around 9.  I talked to the owner a little bit, attempted to explain to him how amused I was at the concept of a hookah bar in Tokyo, but it was too early for any customers to be there, so I took the train back to Fujisawa.

Today, Carol and I wandered around Tokyo together.  First we walked all the way around the imperial palace, but didn’t really see anything of it, as it’s surrounded by a moat, a stone wall, and essentially a forest.  The garden was open, however, and fairly nice.  It had a section with the tree-symbols of each prefecture.  Then we went to the Russian restaurant, which turned out to be Japanese-ified to the point of unrecognizability.  First we had a “salad” of cabbage which was not entirely clear as to whether it was fresh or sour.  Then borscht, which was also somewhat sour, and built according to the Japanese principle of soup-making in which you have large chunks of solid stuff in a liquidy broth.  It was hardly even red.  The bread, too, though advertised as “roshiapan”, was not too different from the usual: for some reason the Japanese only eat the sort of very soft white bread that little kids like.  I had ordered a meal containing “griby v smetane,” but they seemed to contain regular cream, not sour cream.  I was still holding out for dessert, but instead of pie or something else Russian, they gave us pear sauce.  So much for satisfying curiosity.

After wandering around a bit (I found a music shop with a shamisen I could try–its strings were very loose–and a shop with very old maps and books which was part of an entire block of used bookshops) we took the metro to get to Yoyogi Park.  The Europeans I met in Nikkō had told me to go there because there were interesting street performers, apparently actually cosplayers.  For a while, though, we got stuck in the Meiji shrine and the associated museum which contains stuff that belonged to the Meiji emperor.  There were really exquisitely decorated bookshelves, boxes, fans, even toothpicks.  I wouldn’t mind being an emperor if I could use things like that every day.  The paintings there, on the other hand, were not particularly impressive.

When we got out of the shrine area, there was suddenly a huge crowd, as if all of Tokyo–no, all of Japan–had gathered in Harajuku, a neighborhood mostly of teen fashion.  We attempted to follow it, but it wasn’t going in any particular direction.  Eventually, we came upon a demonstration which seemed to be protesting something involving American-Chinese relations:100_0625This didn’t explain the crowd, though.  Eventually, we figured out that there was a huge summer sale, something like a Japanese Black Friday.  So we went back to Yoyogi Park.  There still weren’t any cosplayers; perhaps they were all at the sale.  But there were a number of musicians, such as these:100_0631The two violins, a banjo, a tuba, two percussionists, and a singer were doing very simple, but original and organic things.  This is definitely the most worthwhile thing I’ve seen in Tokyo.

Then we ate dinner in the Ginza at an Italian restaurant which for some reason served something that they called oyster and mushroom egg paella.  It wasn’t really paella: it consisted of a bed of rice covered with omelette, mushrooms, oysters, and tomato sauce; but it was very good.  After this we returned to Fujisawa.

So this is what the biggest city in the world is like.  It’s certainly worth exploring some more, but maybe not now.


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