We decided to have breakfast outside the hotel and just along from it was a Denny’s a restaurant/cafe chain frequently mentioned in Murakami’s books so that was a obvious choice and offered a good mixture of Japanese and western fare. The most stunning thing was that seven-eighths of the space was smoking and we were bundled into the remaining eighth. It’s really a shock to find that in many places people are allowed to smoke freely. Offices, hotels and the trains haven’t been able to ban it completely but all have special smoking rooms where the afflicted/addicted can go.
It’s also odd to see how little obvious recycling there is. I did find this splendid facility in Ueno Park but in general trash seems to be collected unsorted, packing in plastic is extreme and there is certainly no hint of a charge for plastic bags.
After our outing to the north on Wednesday with all the peace and quiet of the countryside we spent Thursday back in the maelstrom that is the Ginza. There’s been a long-standing love of stationery in this family which has been inherited by the younger generation. So first stop was Itoya – 8 floors of amazing craft materials, pens, notebooks and other desirable items where new pens were purchased along with a number of other delightful objects. We had been joined by an old university friend of Chris’s, Will, who lives in Japan and had made the four-hour bus journey from his home to meet up. He’s a great guy and gave us some interesting insights into the life of an expat married to a Japanese wife with young children to bring up bilingually. We all met up in Itoya and then visited Mitsukoshi for an okonomiyaki lunch in the tenth floor food court. We then just had to take the children in particular to see a department store food hall. These are astonishing places with fantastic displays of delicious foods and ingredients. At one of the bakery stalls there were cronuts, that recently invented hybrid of the croissant and the doughnut, so we took some of those for later consumption. While in the centre of the city it would be wrong not to visit the Imperial Palace so we set off there and found Tokyo’s last good cherry blossom for our own hanami picnic in the grand plaza outside the palace where it transpired Chris’s friend had been married. Do they plant a special long-flowering strain especially for the emperor’s benefit?
It was a slight disappointment last time that you really can’t go into the palace grounds as the gardens are said to be spectacular. So we just have to do with pictures by the moat and the iron bridge. A mild amusement though was seeing someone of clear importance being admitted to the palace after repeated checking of permits.
Next was a visit to Hibiya Park where the young ones had fun climbing up to the Liberty Bell and exercising on monkey bars and assorted playground equipment. They so enjoyed themselves it was soon time to walk to the subway at Toranomon which I remembered as my regular starting point back in 1979 when we set off for our lectures and school visits from our base in the nearby Okura Hotel. Back in Asakusa we had a farewell drink with Will before he had to set off for Shinjuku to get his bus home. One of the difficulties we’d encountered had been finding restaurants able to accommodate all seven of us so Jo and Chris took the children for pizza – they had been very tolerant of Japanese food – and Tom, Caroline and I went to a local sashimi, sushi and tempura place that served its tempura with hot dipping sauce – a first for all of us.
We decided to stay local on Friday and visit Kappabashi Street, the one and a half kilometres of food related shops. They sell everything from industrial scale ovens and fridges to chopsticks and rice bowls. And of course the great attraction – the plastic food plates that adorn the windows of so many establishments and give you a hope of knowing what to order. Plastic food key rings, new chopsticks and a brilliant set of trainer chopsticks with rubber guides for finger position and a hinged top help young people master the art of eating with chopsticks.
The guides can be adjusted or removed as chopstick proficiency badges are gained. Tom and Caroline had spotted some dishes they wanted to take back home so they went back to buy those and check out of the hotel before returning to Hong Kong that afternoon.
The rest of us went to a drum museum which was superb. There’s a collection of representative drums from all continents and many cultures with good explanations in English. Best aspect however was that there were thirty or more drums and percussive instruments you could bash yourselves, although the signs did say ‘Please play gently’. We spent a happy hour there and then went to meet up to take our farewells from Tom and Caroline.
With our hotel overlooking the Senso-ji Shrine we couldn’t leave Tokyo without its stamp in our hons. So we went there and achieved that and a walk round the grounds before tackling Nakamichi Street the road that leads to the shrine from the Karinomon Gate and is often given the soubriquet ‘Tat Street’ but which does in fact have an amazing variety of goods on sale and we managed to find a gorgeous kimono for my granddaughter and an elegant yukata for her brother.
The tick list was gradually showing a positive reduction but the scramble crossing at Shibuya was next on the list. It still feels pretty mad at ground level but there’s no match for the aerial views on the web. We just couldn’t find a good vantage point in the air that was obvious A little light store perusal brought a few fashion purchases and then we moved back to the subway Shinjuku bound.
Another of the must see Tokyo phenomenon is the Shinjuku neon and it didn’t disappoint. Even though Dee and I had stayed in Shinjuku five years ago, the advances in animation and displays were staggering and the extent is mind blowing. We were hungry by now and entered Bar Mouton on the fourth floor of a restaurant stack and I suppose should have deduced from its name that it featured lamb, not that common in Japan except in Hokkaido. We all had very tasty and different dishes and a first taste of craft beer from the growing Japanese scene. Looking out of the restaurant window the neon was so bright you thought it was daylight outside. Bar Mouton featured a pianist who regaled us with all the standards that seem to be the repertoire of lounge pianists the world over. A stroll around the mad streets of Shinjuku and it was time to head on back and get packed for our next phase of the journey.