Morning comes quickly. I check my phone nervously. Phew, it’s not 1am or 2am. It’s five o’clock, a perfectly reasonable hour to get up. Our tiny little apartment has a tea kettle and wifi, which is all I need. (I use Starbuck’s Via instant espresso roast and it’s pretty good for road brew.)
The girls sleep next to me, yet unawake. When they wake-up we’ll open the door to our tiney 12x 22 foot studio into springtime, Tokyo with clear weather and sunny, 60 degree days.
When they get up shortly after, I hard boil some eggs for me and Lily. Emma eats bread, but we’ll get her more soon. On our way to the metro, there is a cute little bakery where she can get more …. yeah bread. We put on hiking shoes – city touring is alway arduous. ( Lily forgot socks, which we’ll have to buy her. The girls do all their own packing and they are great for their age. )
Our first stop is the little neighborhood of Yanaka, in the northern part of town that used to be the working-class neighborhoods called Shitamatchi. It’s not like I would have expected so close to the center city. It’s quiet, almost sleepy on a Saturday morning. We stop at a few temples and a preserved old liquor store with sake barrels.
Two things I don’t see as much as I expected: Cherry Blossoms, although there are a few. Spring came a little early this year. But I also don’t see much construction. The prolonged economic impact of recession has kept development down. By contrast DC and London are filled with cranes and demolition.
We search for a semi-famous coffee shop called Kayaba, but happen on an even cuter one, the name I have forgotten. We take off our shoes and crawl up a tiny set of stairs to a beautiful cafe area with mats. The food is incredibly tasty, light salad, miso soup and toast with egg. It’s not cheap – $40 but worth the beautiful space in which we eat it. There is a lightness and balance to the place. We feel very restored, after a few hours of walking.
Nearby is Ueno-koen – Ueno Park, which among other things houses the Tokyo National Museum. I’m relieved that the girls are excited to go. There was a time when museums would elicit groans, but as they get older, the presentation of science and history gets more interesting. (But it is always funny when Lily walks straight into a glass door – that never gets old.)
Of course it doesn’t hurt that there are lots of warrior outfits and samurai swords! We talk about how Japan was after the buddhist middle ages, a feudal, warrior society until the late 1800’s when the emperor, formerly a titular role, consolidated power and began 50 years of invasions that ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan then became one of the worlds largest economic powers.
Lily navigates the small museum for us, and ‘accidentally’ brings us to the gift shop before we’ve seen all the exhibits. Both girls are very thoughtful and spend their own money on souvenirs for friends.
On the grounds of the museum, which is shockingly empty for a Saturday in Tokyo, is another small collection from the earliest known buddhist shrine in Nara, Japan: the gallery of Horuji treasure. It’s beautifully curated and presented, small, dark and silent. Most of the statues and scriptures are from the 7th century.
Ueno park is bustling compared to the museum, and we first grab some ice cream from a truck before wading through stalls of clothes and food stands from some kind of fair or festival. There is a trained monkey that looks pretty sad, but gets a lot of attention.
It’s mid-afternoon, and we’ve been walking for about 4 hours. Food is always a challenge when we travel. Emma needs ultra-bland food, and doesn’t eat a lot of veggies in general, and gets most of her protein from black beans and mexican cheese. Lily is more adventurous, but a little random. She’ll eat the same thing twice and love it once and hate it the second. 18 months ago I returned to being vegetarian. Between the three of us, eating has been a challenge, as we found last night and today.
The food stands have noodles and dumplings, which we buy, but they don’t’ really hit the spot. The ice cream will have to hold us a little longer.
More walking – good thing we put on our walking boots – through Ueno Park watching people picnic on the sides of the dirt paths. People are eating dumplings and drinking canned beer, but no one is rowdy or sloppy. A Monty look-alike walks up to me and licks my arm, generating chuckles from the owner because they are commonly aloof with strangers. He’s either a young Akita or a Hokkaido, I think. We love Japanese Akitas so much.
ur last stop before heading back to our little flat is Shinobazu pond, for a paddle boat ride. If we had been a week earlier (or spring a week later) we would have seen full cherry blossoms, hanami, but only a few straggler blooms remain. It doesn’t deter fun. The pond is busy with boats, and we crash into several of them, sometimes on purpose. Young couples in suits, tourists, grandmas with kids, and tattooed hoodlums commingle in a public space that has been functional for centuries. It’s low-key but a blast.
On the way back we ride the metro, which is again, shockingly empty. I really expected it to be more crowded like Beijing, which was a skin-to-skin madhouse by comparison. We’ve got our metro pattern down and can easily get from place to place. There are both above ground trains and a city metro – and you just have to figure out which one to take. Switching requires another fare and usually going back outside and walking a bit.
Seven hours of walking, even with breaks, is enough. Back at our little community we buy some cucumber maki for the girls to eat. Emma, surprisingly for a kid that eats about 20 things, really likes Nori seaweed. At the apartment I set an alarm, because napping while jetlagged can lead to disastrous results like waking up a midnight, your body believing it to be morning.
I read somewhere that the ‘new’ Harajuku is called Shimokitazawa, a hipster neighborhood that’s only a stop or two from us on the above-ground train. The area is indeed hip. The first store we see it dedicated to matchbox cars. Can a store really survive on matchbox car sales alone? Japanese punk-rock blares from the speakers.
Kids with guitars on their backs, 30-somethings in deeply constructed fashion, cigarette smoking girls with nose rings walk the area which has streets so narrow, cars can barely get through. There are a lot of hat stores.
But what we came here for, is the chain of ramen places called Chabuton, which has VEGETARIAN ramen, for which I am so grateful.
It took some research to find – there are only a few places in Tokyo according to blogs that serve veggie ramen. The noodles are green and fresh, and the broth although not as good as some of the places in DC, tastes glorious after eating bread, eggs, yogurt and protein bars for 48 hours. The veggie gyoza are pretty tasteless, but I don’t care. You pay at an automated vending machine and hand the ticket to the chef, who serves you right there.
The kids order stuff, but either they aren’t hungry or it doesn’t appeal or both. Neither claims to be uncomfortable, so we trapse along the alternately bright and dark streets a little longer, finding a video game arcade. Mario Kart 2 is our last event of the day before we head home and crash hard.