May 18, 2008

Wandering Around Tokyo

Filed under: flickr,food,travel — mhoye @ 8:38 am

It was pretty grey on our last few days there, but you don’t get to pick the weather. You only get to pick what you wear, and I, frankly, look good.

The Tokyo Subway Map

Getting around Japan is surprisingly easy for a tourist, or an english-speaking tourist at least; there are enough translated-to-english maps around and even the untranslated signage is decipherable enough that with a level head and a pocket full of yens everywhere we tried to go was walking distance away. This struck me about Hong Kong, too: get a modern public transit system, cities! It does great things for every single part of city life I could see, and it makes the TTC look kind of… embarassing? Why does Toronto have this filthy, poorly maintained and vaguely Stalinist toy model of a public transit system when other places get these sprawling, clean, fast systems? It’s pretty depressing.

The Tokyo Light Rail System

We spent some time near Ueno Station, looking around the very Hong-Kong-like and very awesome Ameyoko market, visiting the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and just generally wandering about in the park, and as usual the people-watching was a lot more interesting than the thing-seeing. There was a modern art exhibit in the Metropolitan Art Museum which was, in tourist terms I think, a mistake? It reminded me of my visit to MOMA in New York – “modern art” apparently means “doesn’t connect to anything else, including the audience” – and sadly didn’t particularly speak to me of anything particularly Japanese. I lack the appropriate context of modernity, maybe? Maybe that’s the gag, that not getting it means you’re somehow out of touch, so everyone plays along. Anyway: some of it was neat but we could have spent that time better, I think.

Outside The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art

As always, though, there are intricate little shrines all over the place, intact and well-maintained over centuries, and the constant juxtaposition of the intensely-modern (in the more conventional “built recently” sense) and the durably traditional was one of my favorite parts of the trip.


We spent some time doing a little window shopping around Ginza, too, a sprawling shopping district for the recklessly affluent. Stepping out of the subway puts you within five minute’s walk of four entirely different acre-sized Tiffany’s, just to give you an idea of the grade of affluence we’re talking about here. Not how I roll, exactly, but cool to see, regardless. We even visited the Sony flagship store, was fully of shiny things that you couldn’t use with anything that wasn’t also sold by Sony. Also neat, but also not how I roll, so there you go. Again, it was pretty, but I’ve seen big stores before, you know?

You Are Here Now

But, as I’m starting to realize is typical, it’s the unexpected street-level interactions with a place that really bring you the awesome, not the destinations. Getting there is most of the weird.

Japan Rail

We had lunch at what appeared to be a restaurant-backed vending machine, which was pretty cool. You might have seen these ads before, which look really disheartening, but these places were exactly that sort of job, but done exactly right. The vending machine was basically an automated cashier, and I selected a picture of food and brought the ticket it gave me to the back of the eight-foot-wide restaurant where a woman in an apron looked at it and shouted what might have been my order.

Then, and this seemed like a remarkable thing, two guys behind her splashed some liquids into bowls and clanked some pans in this tiny little kitchen, maybe six by ten feet of floor space. And she turned around, picked up a tray that now had two full bowls and some chopsticks on it, and handed it to me, and that was my order. It’s all about the prep work, of course, but that’s literally how long it took; she took the ticket, yelled the number, clank pour clank pour, here’s your food. Time gets weird when you’re swimming in awesome, I know, but to my estimation this took about nine seconds. I wasn’t sure how to react; this can’t possibly be my order, am I expected to hand this to somebody else? Who? This is mine? What? (And hesitating was bad, because what I clearly was expected to do was get the hell out of the way, so they could do the same trick for the next person in line.)

But for a meal assembled in less than ten seconds, it wasn’t bad at all. Apparently this is a common thing in Japan, too, but I definitely need one of these near my office.

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