Thursday, 15 August 2013

My secret crush

I am loving Montréal. I fall for it more heavily every day. But on my way here I had a brief encounter with another city and I developed a full-blown crush on it. Tokyo, I think I love you!

I have been wanting to go to Japan for years. Flights from Cairns to Tokyo were always so tantalisingly cheap, but for reasons too boring to explain it was too difficult to go before I had a mortgage, and once I had a house to pay off on a single income, well, international travel was at first too much of a luxury, and then purely a necessity in order to see Charles.

When it came time to book a one way ticket to Canada, I discovered the horrible truth that one way tickets are most certainly not roughly half the price of a return ticket! So I put those cheap Jetstar Cairns/Japan flights to good use and booked my flight with a 44-hour stopover in Tokyo. Boy, oh, boy, am I glad I did!

Harajuku Station at 9:20ish am. Where did 400,000 people just go?
One of my Cairns workmates, the lovely Hedy from Tuulikki Titine, showed me a Tokyo city guide by Ebony Bizys from the blog Hello, Sandwich. It was very helpful and I will be forever grateful to Ebony for inspiring me to explore Shimokitazawa. I was also surprised at how much I loved the back streets of Harajuku, away from Takeshita Street, or as Ebony so helpfully suggests as a mnemonic device, "Tacky-shit Street." Most appropriate!

I had 'dinner and a show' at Hiroki in Shimokitazawa, which with its traditional wood fit out and two bickering chefs was everything I had hoped for from my lunch. The layered okonomiyaki was superb washed down with a beer after an already solid morning of tramping around the city looking at vintage shops and awesome stationery. It was so huge that when I collapsed from exhaustion on my hotel bed at only 8:30pm, I still did not feel the need to eat anything.

Hydrangeas are native to Japan. I did not know that!

The next day was my birthday, and while I had hoped to get to the Tsukiji markets at 4:30am to be let in to the tuna auctions, I had also realised my hotel supers (in the perfectly kitsch Hotel Hoshikaikan) did not have enough English to book me a cab when I wanted one. The Tokyo subway doesn't start running until around 5am, but the highly contested battle for entry to the market is done and dusted by then, and you know what? It all just got too hard after weeks of packing and cleaning and tidying up loose ends and all the rest. I now have an excellent reason to go back!

I did make it to the outer market by about 6:30am and that was really quite enough of a birthday present. (Morgan had joked that I was the only person she could think of who would imagine that a 4:30am trip to a tuna auction would be a birthday treat to oneself! I'm sure I can think of a couple of others like me though.) I had a great time just wandering up and down, eating sweet omelette and sushi for breakfast and finally figuring out that those things that looked like cocoa-dusted turds were actually dried bonito ready to take home and shave, paper-thin, into dashi stock or as a garnish. I've always been fascinated by the way it does a little death wriggle all over again when the shavings get sprinkled on a hot dish. I also wished I had had enough cash and stomach capacity to have something from the hole-in-the-wall soup and noodle vendors on Shin-Ohashi Dori. I missed them on my first whirl around and when I stumbled upon them they smelled so good but by that stage I was down to just enough yen for the metro ticket to Tokyo Central and they were cash only. Another excellent reason to go back!

On my next swing past, just over an hour later, this was completely butchered up into steaks and sashimi slabs.

Edamame. I heart you!
After the market started to wind down, I wandered up to the Ginza district and promptly wished myself back at the markets. High-end retail just wasn't cutting it that day and, anyway, I was too early. One thing none of my guide books or the travel websites told me was that most retail in Tokyo doesn't open until 10 or 11am. Yes, it stays open until 8 or 9pm, but opening times are a relaxed, civilised affair that certainly don't align with an early riser traveller trying to pack as much as possible into 44 hours.

Soon I was off, however. Whisked away by the Narita Express for my flight to Vancouver and my new life in Canada. I'll be back though, Tokyo. Mark my words! I love your food, I love your busyness, I love your hybrid aesthetic of tradition and cutting edge, I love your vibe, I love your ceramics. I LOVE your ceramics! Two nights were nowhere near enough!

Walk all day. Plant face here.

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