We stepped into the small streets of Shinagawa to be greeted by the warm evening air and the faint sound of traffic in the distance. It was 10:30 p.m. and there was only one thing on our minds — food. After nine hours on a plane with a diet consisting of rice-crackers, soggy tempura and movies, wandering the streets in the search for some real Japanese food was a welcomed activity.
We settled on a small noodle house on the corner of the street. After taking our seats, we watched the noodles being prepared by hand behind the steamy counter and listened as the other patrons noisily slurped up their noodles, but no one approached us. It wasn’t until a young woman who happened to be eating at the table behind us informed us that we in fact, had to place our order through the vending machine by the door. After some laughs we approached the vending machine, only to be intimidated by the lack of English and pictures. A few moments later, one of the chefs came out to help, and with his broken English and plenty of hand gestures exchanged between the two of us, we managed to put 2400 Yen into the machine, and ordered 3 bowls of noodles.
Slurping up those noodles, we could not stop remarking about how delicious they were. They fell somewhere between a ramen noodle and an udon noodle, were hand-drawn and incredibly fresh and chewy. The steaming broth was thick and rich with a healthy nip of pepper and plenty of fresh garlic permeating the entire dish. The succulent slices of chashu pork laid atop the noodles simply melted in our mouths with each bite. This is what Japanese soul food is all about.
With our bellies full, we stumbled out of the small restaurant praising our thanks to the chefs, and receiving warm smiles in return as we walked out the door. Just a few short blocks away was our AirBnB, where we slept soundly that night dreaming of noodles and our upcoming adventures in the foreign Japanese city.
Tokyo is split up into many districts, all of which are impossible to visit on such a short stay — or so we thought. A family friend recommended we reach out to Tokyo Free Guide, which provides local tour guides who volunteer their time to show tourists around the city simply for the pleasure of meeting new people from around the world and having a chance to practice their English. Our guide arrived the next morning at our apartment, and introduced herself as Kazumi. She had a bright smile, impeccable English and was keen to get our day started. We went to a local cafe near the train station to have coffee and plan out our next couple of days together.
Kazumi had quite an ambitious plan for us — visit nine districts over the next two days, getting to each district by train or by foot. If it wasn’t obvious already by the noodle experience the night before, we knew very little Japanese, and by very little, I mean absolutely none. There must have been 25 different train lines, each more confusing than the previous one. Thank goodness for Kazumi and her navigation skills, leading us through the crowds of people and helping us transfer trains.
Our first stop was the famous Shibuya Crossing. Imagine Times Square, but in Asia. This was the place that everyone came to meet and hangout, and by everyone, I mean absolutely everyone. Locals were mulling about in every direction and navigating themselves smoothly through the crowd. As a tourist, I felt like an elephant, clumsily knocking into people, stepping on toes and generally getting lost in the throng.
After wandering out of the crossing and further into the streets of Shibuya, we made our way to the Meiji Shrine. We entered through grandiose gates and strolled down the shaded paths to the Shrine. While marveling at the architecture, we were bustled out of the way to make way for a wedding procession. The wedding party donned traditional clothing, with the bride and groom being shaded from the intense sun by a bright red umbrella. The procession made their way through the square and into the shrine, all the while being photographed by those around.
From Shibuya we walked to Harajuku; the district famous for young women seen dressed up as dolls. Takeshita street is where these young women are known to be seen, so we ventured through the crowds. The sheer amount of people was slightly claustrophobic and quite scary, for one misstep would cause a massive domino effect with thousands of people toppling over. Fortunately we managed the three blocks without incident, although it did take us over 30 minutes simply to wade through the people.
Hopping on another train, we made our way to Shinjuku, the red-light district of Tokyo. The neon signs glowed in the setting sun, and the buildings crammed into tight spaces were filled with people. Walking through the streets felt like I was stepping into a photograph. The colours were so brightly saturated and the hustle and bustle in the street was palpable. Despite it being the end of the day, the excitement we felt exploring the city did not fade and we wandered for a couple of hours longer.
Day two was just as intense. We ran all over the city to visit the Imperial Palace, explore the Tsukiji fish market, took in the view from the top of the government building, and wandered through the streets at the Senso-ji temple. To rest our feet at the end of the day, we sat down at a little Izakaya to enjoy some cold beer and food. The street was filled with Izakayas as far as we could see. People were laughing with friends and enjoying the sunshine, all with a glow on their cheeks, courtesy of the cold brews.
Squished in beside us at our little table was a young couple with their son enjoying a quick dinner. When we sat down next to them we exchanged the universal greeting of smiles, waves and awkward head-nods, and then did our best not to invade their personal space. Kazumi helped us order some food, and by the time the dishes showed up we were ravenous and quickly dug in, jousting with our chopsticks amongst the dishes.
On the side we had a small dish of edamame beans, which I kept going back to again and again because they were so surprisingly flavourful. One bean, however, decided to rebel against me, and when I bit the top of the bean to pop the pea into my mouth, out shot the bottom pea like a missile, grazing the faces of our table-mates, before getting lost somewhere on their table. Right then and there, I wanted to crawl under the table and never come up. I gasped emphatically, my cheeks were on fire from embarrassment, and I apologized profusely to the young family sitting beside us. Fortunately they thought it was hilarious and it broke the ice a bit. It also gained me a new admirer— their son could not stop giggling whenever he looked at me.
While excited to continue our trip in Yokohama, Hakodate, Muroran and Petropavlovsk, Russia, we were sad to leave Tokyo. The food was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, the culture was both fast-paced and calm and the sites were a photographer’s dream. Our short time in Tokyo was filled with wonderment and hasty adventure, and fortunately we managed to leave without causing an international incident — although the business with the flying edamame was definitely a close call.