One of the dirty little secrets of the nice folks here at Indolaysia is that although we are big travelers, and although we are fascinated by Asia, we actually haven't traveled that widely in the region. This goes even for me, who is employed to be an expert (of sorts) in Asian affairs. Not only have I never been to China, India, Korea, Thailand, or Vietnam, but I've also never even been to Papua or Sulawesi (in Indonesia, the country I know best). Until today, I'd never been to Japan either, but due to the impossibilities of arranging flights to Singapore from Ithaca, I am currently in the midst of a 20 hour layover.
With only 20 hours, I don't have much time to see much. Narita is a big airport so immigration takes a long time, and it's a solid hour by high speed train from downtown. That's left me with just over five hours of hanging out in Tokyo. My itinerary so far:
Arrive at Tokyo Station. The "Narita Express" is a nice little train that gets you from the airport to right downtown with no fuss. Driving through the countryside you really get the sense that this part of Japan is just crammed with people. Everyone is right on top of everyone else, and houses and apartments and cars all seem about 1/2 to 3/4 the size of what we see in the US. The idea of a 3000 square foot house would be ludicrous.
Akihabara. This place is like an electronic explosion in your brain. It's so busy full of lights and sounds and video games and comic books and all that sort of stuff, it was actually a bit disturbing for me. This stuff isn't my style so I moved on quickly.
Harajuku. This is the center of Japanese youth exhibitionist culture, especially on Sunday afternoons. Let me explain: if you're a 23 year old Japanese guy who has an Afro and wears velour pants, you come out to strut your stuff at Harajuku, especially along the main drag Otome Sando. Same thing if you are a 17 year old gothabilly kid, a flower child with "hippy!" stenciled on your skirt, a pierced and muscular sad clown with no shirt on, or someone dressed as Tony Montana and riding an adult sized Big Wheels trike on the sidewalk. Harajuku on Sunday afternoons is where you see this. Made for quite the interesting walk–topped off by the group of kids giving away "free hugs" at the subway station.
I walked from Harajuku down the street a bit and then strolled over towards Shibuya, where I was going to have my dinner. It probably isn't the fanciest shopping area in Tokyo, but it sure was packed.
Shibuya. As far as I know, the most notable thing about this part of town is its gigantic train/subway station. It was a nice terminus for my walk, not only because it was within easy distance of Harajuku, but also because it has an outlet of a well-known chain of sushi restaurants, Sushi Zanmai.
Now I know, all you foodie snobs will turn your nose up at this. Sushi Zanmai is not the best place to get sushi in Tokyo, not by a long shot. It's not known as one of the old guard of sushi giants, and moreover it's a chain. I know all this and I plan to seek out a real local hotspot tomorrow morning for a 5:00 AM sushi breakfast. But Sushi Zanmai is a reliable-enough joint to get pretty good sushi, and as the guy who runs it is know as the "King of Tuna" so I thought that of all the places for a quick raw fish dinner, this would be the place. I ordered the Maguro Zanmai special, which means "lots of tuna."
You see here some rolls, some broiled tuna, and several different kinds of fresh tuna, ranging from the regular to the super high-grade fatty tuna known as otoro. I have no idea how good sushi can be–I aim to learn tomorrow–but this was just outstanding. Even the regular grade tuna was fantastic. The consistency is just different than the tuna I've had in the US…softer, more yielding, and just tastier and more flavorful. In all, a good meal.
Ginza. That brings me to where I'm overnighting, Ginza, which is a nice shopping area but more importantly is within quick striking distance of Tokyo's wholesale fish market. My understanding is that there are a couple of joints that serve what is reputed to be the best sushi in the world. I will investigate this claim tomorrow morning for breakfast.