Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tokyo, Tsukiji and Pretty Maids All In a Row

Tokyo remains one of my favorite cities in the world.  I lived there for several years (an eon ago), and have visited the city innumerable times since.  Unfortunately, like many familiar places, I never really thought to take photos since I never thought of Tokyo as a “destination” per se. While not quite home any more, it's always a place where I would be drawn back, so I never felt the need (or an urgency) to capture those memories on film (or an SD card as the case may be).

I inevitably find myself missing this cosmopolitan city if I am away too long.  To me, Tokyo is on one hand the most “foreign” city in the world, and on the other hand a very comfortable and comforting city as well, which kind of makes sense since Tokyo itself is a constant juxtaposition of contradictions.  Every Japanese here studies English, but no one claims to speak it.  Everyone loves foreign culture, even K-pop and K-dramas, but almost everyone is incredibly xenophobic.  Tokyo is a very interesting place to visit for a few days, but these seemingly puzzling nuances make the city an unbelievably rewarding place to stay to linger for awhile and discover its charms.  There is no other place in the world quite like Tokyo.  Like I said, it is a foreign planet.

I found myself back in this Lost in Translation city after a two year hiatus.  Many things were the same, and some things were different, but the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi remains the same hip and serene (again “contradictions") place to stay for me.  I found a welcome back invitation in my room for a manager’s reception, which was nice and thoughtful.  Entering the Hyatt’s French Kitchen brought back a comfortable sense of déjà vu, and getting an update on the city from the hotel manager over cocktails and appetizers was a great way to settle in.

I would spend much of this trip seeing old friends, renewing business acquaintances, and of course, visiting my favorite haunts.  Some things had changed, but the things I loved about this city remain essentially the same: the people, the culture, the food, and the aura.  And of course, the Bauhaus is still the Bauhaus, with Kay-chan still belting out the classic rock and roll tunes as he has done on most nights for decades.

There was one thing I had never done in Tokyo.  The Tsukiji Fish Market is world famous and one of Tokyo’s top tourist destinations.  I had never bothered because one needs to visit very early in the morning, which is difficult if nursing a Roppongi hangover.  Besides, I always figured I could go some other time.  However, Tokyo will soon replace this aging 1935 mecca, so I decided I should finally haul myself out of bed early enough to check it out, even with that all-too-familiar Roppongi hangover.

Heading into the always-clean Tokyo subway, I might have stood out a bit in my slightly disheveled state, earning a glance here and there from the vigilant subway attendants.

I got off at the right metro stop, but then puzzled over which way to go.  I don’t read or speak Japanese, other than taxi-cab survival words, so I decided just to follow the crowd.  One problem, of course, is that there are crowds everywhere in Tokyo going in every which direction, even early in the morning!

Along the way, I passed many stalls selling all sorts of seafood, so I figured I was going in the right direction.

Soon I saw it, the famous Tsukiji Fish Market!  Hmm, wait.  It doesn't look THAT impressive.

Perhaps it was better inside?  I had actually arrived a little late and thus missed the all important tuna auction, but I decided to enter and wander around and see what I could see anyway.

The market stalls were still open, with customers and tourists browsing around.  Much of the business, however, appears to be wholesale, as expected, so big forklifts often blocked the cramped walk ways.

Some vendors cut the frozen tuna by machine, while others preferred the tried-and-true axe method.

The market was big and bustling, but it was so far a little bit of a disappointment.  Then I saw Japan Elvis!  Now that was a pleasant surprise.  He even winked at me.

Seeing the inevitable leftover fish carcasses, and almost stepping into it because someone left it on the walkway...well, that was a less pleasant surprise.

Still, it was hard not to admire how laboriously everyone was going about their business.

I left the market wondering what the big fuss was about.  Tsukiji is big and old, but I think I would have preferred to have slept in.  Maybe I hadn't missed much all these years.  Or perhaps I would feel differently had I witnessed the actual tuna auction, but I doubt it.  One thing for sure, however, is the sight of all that fresh fish made me hungry.  There were many vendors along the street back to the metro, and I stopped at one.  Needless to say, the sushi was fresh and delicious.  Yummy.

I made a slight detour to Akihabara on the way back.  Akihabara is the electronic goods center of the city, where supposedly you can find anything electronics oriented, as well as some items that are supposedly not yet on the market.  It's basically a place that any geek or nerd would love.  Some people think I might fall into that category, but the jury is still out.

Akihabara also is the home for another “only in Japan” phenomenon…the “maid café.”  I have never been in one, but they are everywhere.  My friend explained to me that basically these are normal cafes except the servers are dressed (somewhat skimpily) as maids.  Their job is to make conversation with the customer (presumably the male nerd who has been shopping for the next must-have Nintendo accessory) and to tell him specifically how handsome and manly he is.  Apparently there is no hanky-panky, only ego boosting conversation.  I don’t really understand it, but again, this is Japan.

I did notice, however, that if one was not entirely happy with the available maids, one could buy a costume and perhaps recruit your own.

I ended up buying neither any electronic goods nor the maid costume, and just returned to my hotel empty handed (though my stomach was thankful for the delicious sushi).  I needed to rest up for the rest of my Tokyo stay.  I would spend the rest of my Tokyo trip sticking to the tried and true that I had grown to love over the years.  And while some things had changed, I left the city feeling great to have returned once more.

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