A lot of aspects of Japan’s culture appeal strongly to me. The beautiful Kanji script, wabi-sabi, the serene and sad painting and literature, the Japanese artisan’s obsessive attention to detail, bonsai, sashiko, artistic quirkiness, an identification with the cute and tiny, forest-bathing and sushi. And, of course, the national obsession with cream puffs. So I was thrilled when a trans-Pacific flight offered the perfect excuse to stop in Tokyo for a few days.
The first thing I noticed at Narita Airport were banners advertising Toto toilets. These space-age bogs are fitted with heated seats, music buttons to disguise unsavory noises, water jets every which way and various other bells and whistles that put your average dunny literally in the shit house. I know because they are everywhere: in the airport, in parks, in malls. For all I know, there is nowhere in Japan that you are not forced to have a luxury bathroom experience.
After marveling at this toilet technology and collecting our luggage, we left most of it at the Japan Airlines Counter so we wouldn’t have to drag it around for three days. Then we got on the Kei Sei Electric Railway from the station just downstairs from the Arrivals Hall—it was a 90-minute comfortable ride direct to Asakusa, the area where we were staying.
Despite the cold air that kept sneaking into the train whenever the doors opened, the sun was shining, the sky bright blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds. The landscape was prettier and more rural than I’d expected. Near Lake Inba-Nuba you could see Dutch windmills and tulip fields, knolls covered with spinneys, towering bamboo groves and small market gardens.
Floating over the scintillating lake I saw a bird of prey—possibly a hawk or osprey. The effect was very odd considering I’d come expecting a concrete jungle ala Blade Runner.
When we got to Asakusa station, we popped up one block away from the famous Kaminarimon Gate and right next to the red Azuma bashi Bridge. Across the way we saw the tall Skytree tower and the Asahi Beer HQ, instantly recognizable for the large thingummy sitting on top of one of the office buildings. I thought it looked like a giant golden chilli pepper.
Check-in time in Tokyo hotels is generally around four o’clock in the afternoon. Because we were a couple of hours early and hungry, we left our backpack at the hotel with the receptionist and set off in search of lunch.
This was not as easy as you might expect. It was a Sunday afternoon and the place was deserted. Most of the shops were closed, there were very few pedestrians or cars and only a few cyclists. Eventually, after roving for ten blocks, I caught sight of an establishment whose banners were standing proudly outside fluttering in the chilly wind. Sure enough, when we arrived, we saw a menu in the window that told us we’d arrived at a sushi place.
The interior was dark and inhabited by two people who looked utterly astonished to see us: a man with a fillet headband standing behind the counter and a woman in a kimono who might have been his mother.
I saw to our left, that there was a shelf full of shoes.
“Um, I think we need to take our shoes off,” I murmured to John.
As we bent down to untie our shoelaces, the pair looked horrified and the woman approached protesting and making gestures to indicate that we should immediately desist.
Abashed, we went to the wooden bench where she pointed.
The man behind the counter solemnly handed us menus. We read them intently, the blush of shame still fresh on our cheeks. As we did so, the chef carefully placed two rectangular trays in front of us, they looked like symmetrical slabs of slate.
Meanwhile, the woman brought us two hot flannel cloths, which seemed to be for washing our hands. When I finished wiping mine, I carefully folded up the cloth and wondered where to put it. Then it occurred to me that it was supposed to go on that slate tray.
“Here, you have to put the cloth on that tray,” I whispered to John, who’d just left his willy nilly on the bench beside his plate mat. Accordingly, he picked up the cloth and put it dutifully on his tray.
The chef returned, probably to take our orders, but his eye fell on the trays and he froze before he could even lift his pen to his notebook. When the shock had subsided, he glared good and long at each of us, then said (very slowly and clearly) “This not for cloth. This is dish.” Disgusted, he carried the contaminated dishes away, with one final backwards glance of revulsion.
“Oh my God,” I whispered, mortified.
“Do you get the feeling,” John mused, “That we might not be entirely welcome here?”
“Possibly.” My stomach rumbled. “Oh well, we’re here now.” Hunger conquers all.
The chef returned anon, his jaw clenched in readiness for the next foreign outrage.
“I’ll have Set C please,” I said with a conciliatory smile.
“Both of you?” he inquired with a sarcastic lift of one eyebrow.
Oh hell, what was it now? I thought grumpily. Is there some eighth-century Samurai code that a woman can’t order sushi before a man?
“Yes, two,” John nodded, throwing me a warning glance.
Eventually, the chef brought out new dishes, this time containing identical morsels of nigiri sushi: a little mound of rice topped with a translucent piece of white fish and a strip of seaweed. I pincered it with the chopsticks and raised it to my mouth praying that it wouldn’t jump out and splash into the miso soup. Miraculously, I managed it. The result was salty and exciting—vastly superior to any sushi I’d had in my life before. The fish was fishy in the sense that it tasted like it had still been swimming around a minute ago. You could taste the seawater and the texture was silky but firm. Every grain of rice was discrete but held together with the sweetness of mirin. Wasabi was there, but not in thick nose-clubbing clumps—it just melded seamlessly into the whole. I chewed it with extreme pleasure.
The miso soup was also better than usual. It wasn’t even very salty but had flavorful ribbons of seaweed, a hint of sweetness and dice-sized cubes of tofu.
The woman in the kimono brought us green tea in charming ceramic mugs. Mine was in the shape of a dog-faced puffer fish (nothing personal, I hope) and John’s featured the design of a crab.
The chef, meanwhile, was busying himself with his next creation: little seaweed-baskets of rice and orange roe—tiny balls of slippery sweetness that went down a treat. Next up was smoked eel, which I never in a million years thought I’d like. One bite, though, and I was entranced by its rich, creamy, delicious darkness.
Finally, we faced a kind of cake made out of a sweet, rice-filled omlette, which I didn’t like at all. However, with Tojo standing there with a sharp knife in his hand, I was obviously going to eat it all and not leave a thing.
Running through Asakusa down to Tokyo Bay is the Sumida River. Walking paths stretch alongside it for several kilometers, making it the perfect place to walk, run or simply experience the eerie serenity of this part of one of the world’s mega cities. The paths are beautiful in the understated Japanese way, with the muted colors of winter’s grasses and shrubs, and the pleasing geometry of stones and concrete patterns. There is even quite a lot of birdlife: big cormorants, coots, shelducks, gulls and terns. Along the way, you see monuments set up to villas of the Edo period that used to stand there, or plaques mentioning old large rice warehouses where peasants sent a share of their harvest for Samurai, or photographs of times when it flooded its banks.
Another way to experience the river is on the Water Bus . We decided to take this one morning down to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, an historic site that used to belong to the family of Tokugawa Shogun but has been a public park since 1946.
The first thing we saw there was a pretty avenue lined with blossoming plum trees–the Ume garden. Each tree came with its own deadly serious photographer, so I decided to join them with my beat-up little Olympus model.
At the end of the avenue was a little shrine to Kyu-Inabu, complete with a small stone gate, a water container and a stone worn down (I like to think) by centuries of worshipful feet and knees.
Past the temple was a garden of dazzling yellow–flowering rape. Perched on the stalks were large knife-beaked birds with a hint of blue in their foliage–I had no idea what they were. Walking past this scene was a young couple in traditional dress–possibly newlyweds–being diligently followed by a professional photographer.
Beyond them was a huge gangly-branched pine tree, a celebrity in the garden for being more than 300 years old. In keeping with its old-man status, its twisted limbs were propped up on sturdy supports and its trunk wrapped lovingly in what looked like tatami bandages.
At this point in the proceedings, I was extremely ready for breakfast. Spying a small canteen in the bushes, I dragged John over and ordered a couple of coffees, along with a box of glutinous yam cakes, which I didn’t like. I prefer red-bean cakes.
Having refreshed ourselves, we set off for the (rebuilt–it was destroyed in WWII) Pine Teahouse (Matsu-no-ochaya) where the Shogun & Co. used to gaze at the beautiful park scenery. These days this is surrounded by glitzy highrises but the effect is still impressive.
Further on was a salt-water pond, called Shioiri-no-iki (Incoming-tide pond) because it is fed by Tokyo Bay and therefore rises and falls with the tide. Aside from that, it is inhabited by several species of salt-water fish and, crucially, ducks. This is the area where the Shogun and other nobles liked to crouch in hides and shoot at a bunch of ducks.
We didn’t dawdle too long there, though, because our return boat was nearly due to arrive. Instead, we wandered through a short stretch of lovely, tree-shaded paths back to the landing area.