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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Toasting Tokyo: A Taste of Tall Towers and Tinny Tunes

View from Karaoke. 
In retrospect we should probably have been singing 'Everything is Awesome'

Now, still a large city, it has nothing of the New York Times Square feel to it that much of Tokyo’s Shibuya and Shinjuku areas offer. For the most part the office blocks are lower rise, but this sprawling city is really a prefecture by any other name, spanning hundreds of square kilometres and sprawling out as far as my eyes could see, even from the 350th floor of Tokyo’s Skytree building.

Lights in Skytree lift. Stunning, even as my ears popped, again.

In the film Lost in Translation I remember loving the soundtrack and an overwhelming sense of being very alone in the city. For this reason, as I type this, I’m so lucky to have been able to see it with great school friends who know me very well. With these friends I have always been able to pick up just as if they had stepped out of the room – just for a moment – and are now stepping back in. We know how little work we did in English (me), how talented at art and dance (them) and where we have struggled through the twenty or so years of knowing one another.

Prosecco with dried fruit and views of Tokyo as the sun went down. Lovely.

Having a frame of reference for me is not just about being able to relate my surroundings to something I recognise, but being able to experience it with others to have an holistic experience of what others are feeling about the art exhibition, the building, the crazy arcade and so on, and with this comfort to my anxiety I was able to enjoy Tokyo fully in all its foreignness.

'Times Square' Equivalent - Shibuya, Tokyo

Heated loo seats here too, added to which were a number of additional features: my favourite is the sound of running water, which you can choose to play in public toilets as a way of modestly hiding the sound of one’s own activities in the loo. (We could have used this at school, in our drafty and ancient loos, where we used hand dryers to mask any sounds that might prove we were using the toilets as nature (by our nurture, of course) intended.

Another toilet. In this case, after a little sake, I was at first puzzled, and seriously wondered whether Japanese men (who like all Japanese people, are on average not tall compared to us westerners) were expected to pee into the top of the loo...!

I had my arm twisted (yeah right, I was jumping at the opportunity) to ignore my extremely sore throat and take the opportunity for karaoke. The words ‘kara’ and ‘oke’, which I first remember being introduced to (again) on Blue Peter, when they ended up naming their two kittens after the new found hobby, mean ‘empty orchestra’ and we were up for the challenge of lending our voices to the mix. Being women of education and taste, only the finest songs of our generation would do: Like a Virgin, Bohemian Rhapsody, Let it Go and Don’t Cry for Me Argentina were all on our one hour’s hit list before we knew it, and we certainly did let it go. So did the Japanese, it would seem, when it comes to artistic input.

It all went wrong when you decided to stop using Clearasil, love. 
Also, blue is not your colour.

The video footage accompanying each song made us laugh so hard we could scarcely sing: ‘The Summer of Sixty Nine’ featuring a spotty student who spends so much time looking seriously and whistfully at his computer screen one can only assume he’s watching porn; the gothic girl who looks more Dark Water monster than the first lady of Argentina and Like a Virgin? Well, there was a lot of walking around and touching metal bars. I think we’ll leave it there.

My feet and me (just about) looking down 350 floors. When I have vertigo. Yikes.

Through the bright lights of the streets of the Shibuya and Shinjuku regions I was pleased to learn I had unwittingly visited one of the film locations for Lost in Translation: a super busy Starbucks. I may hate coffee, but I love wifi, and it was great to see the bustling mix of Japanese people and tourists, clambering for tables which were at such a premium that, oh so politely as always, we were given a time slot by which to vacate the table. I typed fast!

Shopping in the Skytree Mall.
Hello Kitty, Goodbye Cash.

My feet were still a major factor in selecting a daily limit for activities, so the Skytree was not to be missed, but had to be factored in to lots of sitting down. Luckily we were able to enjoy prosecco and see the city lights come on as the sky light faded, toasting Tokyo. We shopped a little in the mall, although we knew we were sitting ducks for sky high prices as well as sky high views. There was no getting away from the fact that, on this trip unlike many of the other places I've visited, I was a tourist only, so felt no compulsion to shun the tourist sites. I embraced them!

Flamed salmon. Delicious. And the plates were beautiful, and used to indicate the price of 
the different options

However, I love to get to grips with the culture of a place as best I can and had the opportunity to do so shortly after spending all my money on Hello Kitty toenail clippers. (No, not, really.) In Ueno, opposite exit seven of the station, we went on our second night to meet Helen’s friend Phil, who is a man of many talents, teaching English, acting in commercials and voicing electronic toy animals as well as finding time to be a coach in global communications some of his multiple claims to fame and fortune. Phil, originally from South Carolina (though sounding nothing like this until he staggered us by lurching into a southern drawl as smoothly as hot molasses, speaks perfect Japanese, and thus we were able to taste some of the best, freshest and most adventurous sushi.

Lost in Translation - Literally. But SO good.

And here it is! Don't say anything nasty about the way it looks. Honestly it was fabulous.

We had flamed salmon (think crème brulée but with fish), sea urchin which, alas, I couldn’t taste - damn you taste buds! – and my personal favourite...the untranslatable delicacy seen below. It tasted like paté, my culinary equivalent of ‘You had me at hello’. Yum. Taking it very easy on the alcohol because of my medication and general cold / sore throat, the delightful hosts plied us with free, excellent (apparently) sake, both hot and cold, green tea and some very good Japanese white wine. The best part was we were able to talk to one another by interpretation. どうもありがとうございました (arigato gozaimashita) is about as far as I got with the Japanese, but you’d be surprised how far being able to say thank you can get you.

I have to dash to get on a plane home, and there's just so much more to say. For now, though, here's to a taste of Tokyo, and more soon. 

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