Still in Ginza, from the Kabuki theater, we walked fifteen minutes towards the water until we reached Tsukiji fish market. It was basically a large industrial looking block of warehouses which smelled more fishy than any fish market I have been in. Typically, people wake up at 3am to get into the market and observe the famous tuna auctions. When we reached there at 2pm, there was neither fish nor fish bones in the market. However, the retail market adjacent to the main action warehouses was still alive and in full gear. With three full blocks of fishmongers, seaweed-mongers, and sushi restaurants, the market was both fun and interesting to walk and explore. After walking every row in the market, looking at all the fresh fish and local foods, we finally popped into one of the decent looking sushi restaurants. Anu is not the biggest fan of sushi, but she gracefully obliged to this meal for its not often that we get to eat sushi in a fish market in Tokyo. I had the assorted sushi plate with about fifteen different kinds of sushi and sashimi and Anu had a tempura plate. Given the market’s fame, most of the restaurants in the area have english versions of their menus. The fish was literally melt-in-the mouth good, one of the best sets of sushi I ever consumed and trust me I am a sushi connoisseur even in my own sushi-crazed Lalaland. I don’t remember exactly how many times I bowed to the sushi chef, a fine sixty year gentleman in a very nice blue tie, or how many times he bowed back to me, but it was clearly respect exchanged, between my mouth and his hand.
While still in the Ginza are, we figured it would be a good idea to check out one of the landmark buildings next to the station – the Sony Building. We climbed all of the seven floors of gadget glory; every floor guarded by nice looking Japanese women, we checked out all the latest cameras to teles to phones with awe and lust. I have always had a split mind about Sony; though I immensely appreciate the brand and its innovations and have always bought its gadgets, I hate to watch its slow spiral into second-rate. But that is the evolution of every industry. Beyond Sony, we didn’t wander much of Ginza other than a block around the station. Instead, we were faced with a choice – ride to Shibuya or head back to grab our bags and make haste to Hakone, our next stop. I suppose we enjoyed Tokyo so much that we had already decided to go on to Shibuya which was on the west of town and a good twenty minutes on the metro; we did have a full day in Hakone next.
Shibuya could basically be the love child of Akihabara and Ginza. Walking out of the Shibuya station, you spill out into this massive intersection where five different pedestrian walks meet and everyone watches in awe as several hundred people all walk into each other for five minutes at a time. Walking in this crossing, I think we felt more like zebras stuck inside a herd of deer that are on a deadline to reach the other side of the plains. The sheer number of people walking in perfectly harmonized chaos is both intimidating and awesome to watch. We participated in this ritual a four times as we crossed to each side of the intersection each time dodging hoards of fast moving Japanese while holding on to our belongings. Reminded me of Times Square except this was five times the rush. A seven story building devoted to comics and manga towers above this intersection and Starbucks has a prime store on the second floor where every tourist can sip on a latte and watch his fellow monkeys. Coffees and fifteen minutes of people watching satiated our appetite and gave us the energy to check the seven floors and three basement floors one by one. Couple of floors were devoted just to movies and video games, two just for music, the rest for a smattering of different manga. Again I tried to ask one of the clerks if there was an English manga section and he gave me a sinister “you’re out of your league” look.
Every major retailer in the world has a store in Shibuya, usually a monstrous mutant-sized one that too. A four-floor Zara, six-floor Gap, two-floor Bath and Body Works – every American brand was there with selections not found in our local malls. Large LCD panels cover many buildings’ entire facades, street lights are not needed for there is enough artificial light to illuminate every pore in your face. There were surprisingly few restaurants, especially decent sized ones, in that neighborhood. We popped into Zara to buy a scarf, but turned out to be far more expensive than the US counterparts. Most of their scarves were selling for well over 3500yen. So we did the smart thing and bought one from a hole in the wall store next door for about 1000yen. We went looking for an apparently popular manga store two blocks down and when we finally found it, the dim sinister-looking underground entrance was nothing but a turn off. So we wandered into a bigger brightly lit five floor manga store, browsed for a good half hour and bought a bunch of anime character toys and trinkets to take back. I continued to be amazed by the sheer choice of hundreds of thousands of brightly colored toys and apparently miscellaneous junk that line these manga stores; it must be like entering st. peters every time for the local anime fan.
We went back to the Shibuya crossing one last time walking with the crowds under the starlight before heading underground to the train station. While 5pm is the peak hour in the US, 7pm is the peak in Japan, the trains are packed with well dressed office workers making their way home. With standing room only for the first half of the 40 minute 18-stop train ride ride back to Ueno, we squirmed in the crowds and regretted staying so late. When we finally reached Ueno station, we were once again lost in the maze of the interconnected stations and were unable to find our baggage lockers among the many sets of lockers in every corner of the station. Frustrated and tired, we made a last ditch effort to exit the station in the direction of the hotel and re-enter it and try to trace our steps from the morning. It took us almost 40 minutes to find those damn bags. We rushed to the Ueno JR station next door, which is the non-metro longer distance station.
Tokyo’s train networks are a nightmare and I can’t imagine how they all operate in unison. There are over five different private and pseudo-private companies that run different lines. As a result, there are a plethora of separate train stations mostly adjacent to each other. I have lived through my fair share of train stations in NYC, but NYC has nothing on Tokyo. There is no one big map that we can refer to which will give all possible connections and lines and instead you have to have several line maps and have to constantly guess if the different lines meet in the same stations. The JR of Japan Railways stations always have manned ticket counters and will issue tickets for legs of your journey. I have to say the clerks in the counters usually spoke passable English and were always nice enough to write down exact times and platform numbers as well as backup train schedules in case we missed any.
We took three trains from Ueno, the first leg being the Yamanote line to Tokyo station. At Tokyo station, we had our first ride on the famed Shinkansen or the bullet train. The Shinkansen are definitely imposing and sleek to look at, its bullet-like nose is far more protruded than its cousins in the TGV or TrenItalia. Typically, all the Shinkansen have unreserved and reserved coaches and there are line markings all along the platform where passengers can queue. Unlike Europe, we never reserved any train ticket before arriving in Japan, and traveled in the unreserved coaches with a single hassle. All the Shinkansen we rode were fairly empty and most of the coaches were only half full. The seats are very similar to the second class in Eurail and the service is very similar. At the late evening hour, most of our fellow passengers were male office workers returning to suburban area homes. Many of them had at least one drink on the way back in the train, as was customary for most office workers. Pretty attendants with drink and packed dinner carts passed through the aisles every fifteen minutes catering to them. This was a short train ride of only forty minutes and we could not see anything outside in the dark. I decided to try a Suntory brand beer, having recognized it from Lost in Translation, I don’t remember it to be worthy of writing anything about though. Disembarking at Odawara, we switched to a local Odakyu railways train to Hakone-Yamato; this was a much smaller and local metro like train which climbed a gradual include for a good fifteen minutes until we reached Hakone. We vowed to return one day to the sights and sounds of Tokyo, for through we went across the length of the city, we could have easily spent a week and left far from satiated.