We are so close to the end of 2020 and I haven't gone on a single international trip - and boy am I feeling it. As much as I am trying to take this year's struggles in stride and find the silver linings, feeling stuck in California isn't fun. So let's go way back to my birthday trip to Tokyo, Japan last year, Alexis' and I's first international birthday adventure!
I had a lot of mixed feelings about going to Japan. Obviously I was excited, but I was also nervous. Despite testaments to Tokyo's safety and hospitality, which were all true, I had never been somewhere that felt so foreign. My international travels have been limited to Mexico and Europe, places where people look like me. I was worried about not being able to communicate or not being able to get around, but luckily none of that was a problem.
We stayed in Taitō City, the smallest of Tokyo's wards on the outskirts of the prefecture. It was nice to come back to an apartment in a mellow part of town after running around Tokyo all day. Our AirBnb was typical for the area. Practical and compact, complete with a soaking tub and room partitions. The shower was definitely hard to use at first, I had to look up a video on YouTube to figure out how to turn it on. We were just a few block away from one of Japan's magical 7-Elevens, full of so many amazing ready to eat options. I could seriously eat my weight in soy marinated eggs. I wish the convenience stores here could compare.
We had a whole day dedicated to visiting museums, and we spent all our time at The National Art Center, Tokyo and teamLab Borderless Digital Museum. Incredibly different in their content but equally interesting and entertaining. Also, clear on opposite ends of the city. It was definitely a jam packed day.
The National Art Center is considered an 'empty' museum, with no permanent displays, collections or curators. Part of Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs, the museum houses two 200 square-meter galleries, a cafe and and two gift shops. Before we started our browsing we enjoyed some egg sandwiches and coffee from the cafe and let me tell you, who knew an egg sandwich could be so decadent. The art ranged from sculptures to paintings to some really interesting installations, commenting on everything from the love our pets to the 1940 Olympics. It must have taken 4 or 5 hours to get through the whole museum.
The MORI building, home to the teamLab Borderless Digital Museum is in Koto City where you can also find the Tokyo Big Sight convention center, Tokyo Disneyland and the giant Gundam Robot. Inside, each room felt like a whole new world. From being surrounded by digital waterfalls and flowers falling from the sky, to walking through giant color changing balloons, to adding my hand colored sea turtle to a digital aquarium, the whole ordeal was unlike anything I have experienced. One of their more popular installations, the Forest of Resonating Lamps, had over an hour wait so we did not get to experience it but thoroughly enjoyed the rest. Afterwards we explored the area, found dinner and wound down with some arcade time. Alexis won me a stuffed corgi and a Halloween Pikachu.
Despite being such a food lover, it's hard to admit that I was intimidated by the food in Japan. On top of not really being able to read a menu, I was reminded that the Japanese food we see in America isn't exactly what you will find in Japan. Regardless, we explored and enjoyed noodles in Shibuya, tuna belly katsu outside Ueno Park, steaks in Koenji, and giant oysters Shinjuku's Omoide Yokocho, but nothing compared to the yakitori at Masakichi. Yakitori are skewered meats or vegetables that sit on a grates high above burning coals. The protein cooks and the fats drip down onto the hot embers creating a smoke that adds even more flavor to everything. What sets this particular restaurant apart is the type of coal that is used. Made from a type of Japanese wood, this type of coal is very rare and very expensive making this meal extra special.
As seen on Netflix's Ugly Delicious with David Chang, Masakichi is located in Meguro, one of Tokyo's residential wards, and it's small. Outfitted simply with counter seating and one table, only available for reservations twice a day, the ambiance was cozy and inviting. We booked our table through JPNEAZY and had the first reservation of the night. Our table was nestled in the back of the restaurant, the walls bearing the signatures of celebrities who had dined there before us. We arrived early, as I was beyond eager to indulge in a world famous yakitori experience. There were a couple of tourists sitting at the counter when we walked in, but It wasn't long before the restaurant was full and there was a small line of people waiting outside. The smoke in the air was intoxicating.
We decided to go with the tasting menu which was never really disclosed to us but I didn't care. I was ready. Our meal began with a green salad and a cold appetizer consisting of ponzu, avocado, nori and seared chicken. I had heard about Japan serving raw chicken so I wasn't too surprised to see it on my plate but what did surprise me was how much I enjoyed it. Chewy, but in a good way. The supply of skewers seemed to be never ending, paired with refreshing drinks made with yuzu and soju, I could have sat there eating forever. We enjoyed more medium rare chicken with fresh wasabi, grilled chicken thighs, wings, livers and finished with a warm bowl of ramen. After our meal we rushed to Shinjuku where we made it to the basement music venue Antiknock just in time to see one of my favorite American Hardcore bands, Knocked Loose, who happened to be doing a surprise show in Tokyo that night before heading to a metal festival in Kawasaki. Between the meal and the show, this was easily my favorite day in Tokyo.
A close second was the day we rented bikes in Yanaka and rode to the Tokyo Skytree and the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple. Yanaka is considered one of Tokyo's most traditional neighborhoods. Being spared from the bombings of World War 2, the houses and streets transport you to an older time. Known for the cats that once occupied the neighborhood, the streets are lined with little shops and cafes celebrating how adorable cats are. We stopped and had cat shaped pastries for breakfast washed down with Lucky Cat white ale.
I don't remember how the bike store crossed our path, but it finding the Tokyobike shop was meant to be. Initially I was intimidated by biking through Tokyo but it was so much fun. Riding through Yanaka felt like I was riding through an anime. The skies were bright blue with fluffy white clouds, zipping past the quaint wooden houses and deep green shrubs. Despite the population of Tokyo, it's surprising how few cars on the streets. Apparently it's very expensive to own a car in Japan, which makes sense when you think about it. Between public transit that can get you across the country in just a few hours and insanely bikeable streets who needs a car?
Once we made it to the Skytree we had difficulties locking up our bikes. Luckily a good samaritan helped us figure out the parking structure. It was amazing to see people go so far out of their way to help us understand. The Tokyo Skytree is the world's 3rd tallest tower and the world's tallest self supporting tower. Filled with shops, dining, art and an observation deck sitting pretty at 634 meters high, the Skytree was a one stop shop for all things trendy. We checked out the Kirby Cafe, shopped at the Hello Kitty store and bought Japanese knives. We didn't get a chance to visit the observation deck but we did go all the way up and let me tell you, that's a different level of high.
Afterwards we biked to the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple. We approached a group of kids and asked where a good place to park our bikes were. They literally laughed and told us to put them anywhere, no one would take them. Since they were rentals we wanted to play it safe and lock them up, but truth be told we were the only ones. The temple grounds were large and filled with people making offerings. Incense smoke billowed into the air as women in traditional kimonos meandered around us. The temple was surrounded by all types of shops and restaurants, most of which were too intimidating for me. We settled on some karaage chicken and some fat beers before biking back to the rental store.
If you're a lover of all things green, like I am, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a must see, especially the greenhouse. Home to almost 2,000 different species of tropic and subtropic, plants the greenhouse was easily my favorite part of the park. The park itself was a sanctuary, an escape from the city surrounding it. If you are in the center of the park sitting on the grass, you can look up and completely forget you are surrounded by the Tokyo metropolis. Not a building in sight.
When it came time to go home, neither of us wanted to. Getting on the subway just felt like a part of my routine. What would I do without the convenience of vending machine canned coffee? Of course I missed my dog and smoking weed, but Japan is one of those places where you need more than a week to take it all in. More memorable moments were visiting Mikkeller Tokyo, which opened less than a month before our trip. Having visited Mikkeller Barcelona and enjoying the San Francisco location frequently, I know it was a must see for me. Tucked between a love hotel, a nightclub, and traditional shrine in the back streets of Shibuya, I sipped a 14% imperial stout brewed locally in Japan. Alexis was in charge that night, because that one beer got me nice and faded. And of course no birthday trip would be complete without a tattoo! We set up some appointments at Tokyo Hardcore Tattoo in Koenji with artist Jiayu Pang. Alexis and I both got new tattoos, and between the two of us our whole day was was spent in the shop. I actually got two tattoos, and sat for more than 5 hours, it was brutal! It was an amazing experience though, after a few hours we all got comfortable around each other. Although communicating was hard, we found a way and eventually we were all laughing and having a good time.
My biggest struggle in Japan was feeling like spectacle, not so much to the natives though. The Rugby World Cup was happening in Japan while we were there, which meant tons of European tourists. It was still pretty hot out in September. We caught some rain here and there but I was wearing lots of shorts and tanks, which meant my tattoos were out in the open. It was strange to feel so many eyes on me all the time. Another struggle was Japan's strict policies when it came to eating, drinking or smoking in public. One day we hadn't had lunch and it was getting to us. We found an epic food court and got some food to-go, only to realize we couldn't eat anywhere. We tried to eat in a Starbucks patio and were promptly kicked out. We had to eat in the smoking section. And if there's one thing I could have done differently, I would have gone to a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. The Tokyo Giants actually played a game while we were there but I wasn't able to add it to our plans. All in all I learned a lot about a culture that I only knew superficially. As amazing as Tokyo is, I can't wait to see the rest of Japan to explore and learn ever more!
Don't forget to check out the video too! Photos really don't do this trip justice.
stoneyxochi. 30 year old California native. proud pothead, Mexicana and woman.