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World Travel Log

Follow James and Jay on a trip around the world.

Sep '09

Dommo Arigato, Tokyo

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Tokyo is so huge, it is almost unfathomable how it could be called a city. Alone, Tokyo’s economy is larger than all of Canada. There are over 20 different districts, each with their own charms. Planning a quick stop in Tokyo is difficult on the first visit. There is simply too much to see or do. This was a place where filling in time around one or two goals was easy to do, and probably more productive than extensive planning.

The massive subway system seems daunting at first, but is one of the few places English is in abundance. Getting from station to station is similar to any other large city, with one catch. There are 3 or 4 different companies operating the subway lines and it is not clear, to foreigners, who operates what. Several times I bought a ticket only to find mid-transit I had to buy another one. Fortunately, the subway employees are accustomed to helping foreigners through this process.

Our hotel was in the Asakusa district, which is known as “Old Tokyo” and is home to Sensoji. This is Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple. It is behind the Kaminarimon gate, which many people were eager to take their picture under. Kannondo hall offered a place for the steady stream of worshippers, and one of the few places that gave access to cameras inside of the temples. Around the temples were pots with burning incense. My understanding is that the buddhist believe the smoke helps to cleans their souls and cure illnesses.

The National Geographic podcast I listened to about Tokyo, suggested visiting the private garden of Denpoin Temple. The host said you simply knock on the door, and they let you in. The guard station with a guard, gun, and sign said otherwise. It was clear no entry was permitted.

For four days Asakusa district was our home base. One night while trying to find a restaurant, we had a typical conversation with a local. Jay asked a waitress of an English-style pub if she knew where it was. Her response is almost comical, but very much an example of how the Japanese tend to handle English: “Yes I know where it is, but I do not speak English well. I will ask my friend to draw you a map to the restaurant.” Without question, Japan has been the most inviting place for visitors.

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If I was to plan a visit to Tokyo again, I would attempt to find something in the Ginza district since it seemed a little more central. However, I am sure the cost would have been slightly higher.

The first night we found the Tsukiji district, but not the fish market. The plan was to locate the fish market, so the early morning journey would be a little bit easier. instead, we found some sort of celebration. I’ll call it a festival because it had dancing, food, and a beer tent. Everyone attending seemed to know the proper dances, and the dances seemed to change with the drummer’s song.

The next morning we returned to the Tsukiji district, arriving around 5:45am. In search of the famous fish market, I noticed a group of tourist hovering around a map and then all heading in one direction. Turned out, they knew where they were headed. In just minutes I was surrounded by trucks, propane-powered carts, styrofoam boxes, ice, fish, blood, and the most organized chaos I have ever seen. Amazingly the only warning was a sign that said “Caution, Floor may be slippery.” This isn’t some tourist attraction open on the weekends, it is a fully functioning fish market that properly serves most of Japan. Not surprisingly, visitors were welcome in almost every part of the facility. It should be noted that we were welcome to walk around, but it was obvious when I was in the way of a local.

After touring around and taking pictures with what would become breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next couple of days we headed to Daiwa Su. Daiwa is Tokyo’s oldest Sushi counter. There are two counters, each able to search 8-10 customers at a time. Menu choices are simple for English speaking people: small set, big set, yes/no for sea urchin? This counter is certainly famous for its age. However, the 1 hour queue was not worthy of the fish. A couple days later we returned to Tsukiji and visited a Sushi counter a block away from the market. The fish tasted fresher, was less expensive, and there was no rush to get out.

Our next visit was to the Ryogoku district to attempt to find a sumo match. We found the main sumo stadium, Kokugikan without much trouble. However, no matches were scheduled until the following weekend. A (positive) misunderstanding by the front gate’s guard allowed us access to the stadium to view some training matches. I can only imagine the energy level and the excitement during an actual match.

Ryogoku is also known for unique museums. Looking at the tourist mapped showed a few: wood carving and fireworks. Unfortunately by the time we found the fireworks museum, it had closed for the day. So Jay suggested we head back to one of the Fugu restaurants we passed earlier in the day for an early, and possibly deadly dinner.

The restaurant we picked had a unique feature: extremely fresh Fugu. How fresh? it was swimming around in an aquarium at the front entrance. Fugu is known as blowfish in the rest of the world. It is famous for being extremely poisonous. So poisonous that chefs in Japan must be licensed to serve it. At some point I should probably say the name of the restaurant we picked, so that others can find it. The problem is, the staff only spoke a few words of English and nothing in the restaurant was in English. In fact, I’m anxious to find the charge on my bank statement, so that I can learn just where I had dinner that night!

The dinner we picked was a 6 course meal. It began with shavings of the Fugu’s skin in an excellent tasting garnish. The skin itself had no real flavor. Next was the best Sashimi I have ever had in my life. The fish did not have a strong taste, but it did have a unique flavor. Its texture was remarkable, almost like that of a fatty tuna (without the fat). The sauce provided had a citrus base, which was incredible. One of the courses was fried pieces of Fugu. Not to be clichéd, but entirely honest, it tasted like fried chicken. (The best fried chicken of my life.)

The next two courses were by far the coolest. In the middle of the table was an induction burner. The waiter placed a straw basket on top of it, which contained a piece of wax paper and a metal plate. For the next 60 minutes, this “pot” would be used for boiling! Much like a fondu restaurant, we boiled pieces of Fugu. The boiled Fugu, much like the sashimi, had an extremely unique flavor to it. Again, not at all strong but no where near as mild as Mahi-Mahi. Vegetable soup was next after the Fugu was done. Cabbage, mushrooms, and stuff I don’t recognize boiled in the broth soaking up the excellent flavors. The cabbage tasted best, by far. Once we were done with this soup, the waiter returned to prepare a rice porage. Such a simple recipe: steamed rice, chives, salt, soy sauce, and an egg. It was hard not to eat the entire pot, but I was so full at this point that when the ice cream came, I was relieved. I thought we had one more Fugu course coming, and I had no idea how to eat it!

People have asked me about the poison and tingeling and such. From what I have been able to understand, that is a tourist attraction. Being that we were in a restaurant which does not cater to tourist, I didn’t get that locals eat it that way. After having the dinner prepared for me, I can see why it is so popular. It is simply an excellent fish.

Moving towards our goal of 10 Breweries, Jay and I visited a Beer Museum in the Yebisu Garden Place inside of the Ebisu district. This historic brewery use to brew Sapporo Beers. Most of the machines had descriptive signs, but they were all in Japanese. At the end were vending machines to purchase beer samples. This was the first time I tried Yebisu, which is the upscale brand of Sapporo.

After adding another brewery to the list visited, we headed back to Asakusa station to get our backpacks and then began the journey to the airport. Tokyo, and all of Japan, are places I can easily visit again and not see the same thing twice.

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