It’s hard to believe that it took us nearly four years on this adventure to get to Japan, one of our favorite countries. Over the years we’ve been to Japan four times but always in November (i.e., after the election and over Thanksgiving when we had plenty of time to get away). This time we’ve scheduled our four weeks here to coincide with cherry blossom season and, after three days in Tokyo, that’s looking like a pretty good move.
First off, I can’t imagine what we were thinking when we decided to stay in Tokyo for only three nights. This is a great city and it would take a week or even two to do it even remote justice. It was probably just that we’ve been to Tokyo a few times and really wanted to get out and see new places. And the fact that at cherry blossom time the city is crazy expensive and really quite full. Still, it felt as though we were being dragged out to leave so quickly.
The “crazy expensive” part is amusing. A few months ago Mark started researching hotel availability in Tokyo during cherry blossom season and his eyes just kind of popped out: we wanted to spend at least a few days in Tokyo but prices were just out the roof. Until we looked at using points, when – voilà! – we could get a room at the Ritz Carlton for the cost of the city tax, just $3.54 a night. Mind you, this was an entry-level room that was priced at $1,300 a night on their website. It made those points seem pretty valuable.
So we spent three nights in luxury. We arrived at the hotel a bit after noon in a cold rain. After getting our room we went out to lunch and stopped at the first place we saw, Shells Café. What a delight, just cute and comfy and warm and dry as could be. It was as though we’d landed in the anti-China. The fixed-price lunch consisted of a little salad, a little salmon with pesto, a little bowl of clam chowder, some mashed potatoes with a little bacon, a little ratatouille, and some cold mint tea.
Now, you might have noticed the adjective “little” in those dishes; it seems unlikely we’re going to put on any weight here in Japan. The dishes we’ve had so far have all been beautiful and elegant, and they obviously take great care in how they’re presented. But they’re all small. Rather than walking away feeling stuffed, we’re more likely to walk away feeling hungry. But that’s not a bad thing; we’re both trying to lose a bit of weight.
Let me give you one example of small. In one dish at a different restaurant they included a bit of vegetables, probably pickled (they pickle everything here). Included in this vegetable dish that was intended to serve two was Brussels sprouts. Not to overstate the dish, though, there wasn’t a few Brussels sprouts, or even just one for each of us: there were two Brussel sprouts leaves. Now that’s attitude!
So while you’re not going to pig out here, there is a lot to love in Tokyo, including the fact that not a single waiter has attacked us (yet). We couldn’t get over just how neat and orderly everything is here. The streets may well be the cleanest I’ve ever seen in a big city and I was intrigued to observe at one point that you not only didn’t see trash on the street, you didn’t even see trash cans. My nose was running because of the cold, wet weather so I was often looking for somewhere to throw my Kleenex. Never saw a trash can once, and yet the streets and sidewalks are all but spotless. And I loved seeing signs that indicating that smoking on the sidewalks was prohibited and that flicking of cigarette butts was really prohibited.
What else did we love during our way-too-brief stay in Tokyo?
• The traffic is surprisingly subdued. I don’t know if Tokyo has some inner-city car tax or what, but you never got the sense of anything close to gridlock or crazy traffic jams. The cars that are there just seem quiet and – I love this – if a building has a parking garage that you have to drive over the sidewalk to get into or out of, there’s always at least one and sometimes two guards to stop traffic so pedestrians can get through.• Speaking of pedestrians, in a 180-degree change from China, cars yield to pedestrians here. Always. I watched in Shanghai as a mother was crossing a street in the cross walk with a green light have to hold her maybe five-year-old daughter back as a car careened around the corner making a right turn on red. No way that car was stopping for some lousy kid with a green light, and that is clearly the default in China. Japan is so much more civilized.
• I love the fact that when you’re riding escalators around the subway system or in office buildings or whatever, people always – always – stand on the left and let people who want to walk up pass on the right. It appeared simply universal, with no one ever having to remind someone to stand left.
• Tokyo is a city of runners, as was evident in our long walks around various neighborhoods. There are lots of places in the world where you rarely see people out running but here we saw it all over and at all times of day.
• The food. We stayed in the Rappongi neighborhood and it seemed as though there could be hundreds of tiny little places with amazing food and ambience. The first two nights we let TripAdvisor be our guide and we had great meals within a few minutes of the hotel. The last night we just went out on our own and stumbled into yet another great place.
• The cherry blossoms. The first two days in the rain and gloom they were beautiful, but the third day as the sun came out they were glorious. We’re spending a month in Japan and the season has just begun, so I think we’re going to see a lot of cherry blossoms this spring.
We had one big cultural excursion, going to an exhibit at the National Art Center, Tokyo. The museum is unusual in that it has no permanent collection or curators; instead it hosts exhibitions curated and sponsored by others. The exhibit we saw – Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul – was simply stunning. Kusama is an 88-year-old artist, still remarkably active, who was on the forefront of modern art nearly 60 years ago. The exhibit started with a room full of her current work, and when I say full, it was full, including 132 current paintings along with a bunch of sculpture-things. Then it went back and looked at her older works, including a sketch she did in 1939. Right, 78 years ago, and she’s still active! The exhibit included some of her work from the 1960s when she was living in New York City and hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol.
I love the opportunity to go to a place like Tokyo and learn about fascinating people like her.
So yeah, we fell in love with Tokyo. For now, though, we’re off to the mountains northwest of Tokyo, almost on the other side of the island. We’ve got about two weeks on our own before we start a bike trip and we’re going to be poking around in various parts of Honshu (the main island) during that time. Meanwhile, a few more pictures from Tokyo.