This guest post is written by Ivan Langham, one of my fellow travellers on this most recent Japan trip, long time friend and talented graphic designer. Ivan & Matt had just returned from a brief sojourn to Seoul; here we find them reuniting with the rest of the squad for a few days of Tokyo madness.
No trip to Japan is complete without a handful of action packed days exploring Tokyo. This was my second adventure to the bustling capital and by the end it was obvious that I still haven’t even scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. It has never been one or two things about Tokyo that makes me wanting more. It’s the experience as a whole. All your senses are assaulted in the best possible way.
Flying in from Seoul, Matt (travel buddy) and I made our way via the Narita Express to the centre of Tokyo and towards our three level apartment in Harajuku, which, looking back, was an amazing find in an iconic neighbourhood. Once off the train, we began worming our way through the crowds of locals and tourists to suddenly find ourselves on a quiet street at the back of all the mayhem. Sitting atop one of the higher points was our apartment overlooking the streets below. This was going to be our base shared with four other friends from back home; Dylan, Ben, Dan and Lou.
After a quick dump of the luggage and cleansing shower we couldn’t wait to get stuck into a bit of shopping before the day’s end. If you like vintage clothing, then Harajuku is a great place to find it. The western world certainly continues to infiltrate Japanese culture – this made clear on my return by a suitcase full of clothing promoting Nike, the Chicago Bulls and various musicians/bands. Once the shops closed and night took over, it was time to finish up the day with a few cold Sapporo cans on our balcony overlooking the distant lights. By this time our friends had joined us to recount the last few days travelling and make a game plan for the days ahead.
The next morning kicked off with scrambled eggs and what looked like bacon spearheaded by Ben, the first-timer of the group to Japan. As much as I like eating ramen and rice for breakfast, it had taken it’s toll the last few days of travelling, so this was a welcome change. Over breakfast we discussed the plan for the day. Anyone who has travelled in big groups knows that it is a nightmare trying to coordinate an itinerary. But luckily we were all quite experienced in this area and quickly decided to go our separate ways and reconvene later that night.
Personally, I was in need of some fresh new kicks, so Matt decided to tag along for the search. While you can easily pick up a pair of Nike’s in Harajuku or Shibuya (and I did), I was in search of sneakers with an edge. Matt had heard about a place called K-Skit in Kichijoji, about a 30 minutes from our place, so we hopped on a train and made our way there with a horribly vague set of directions we found online. Travelling via train in Tokyo is more an experience than null time between destinations. It’s like a mini museum of sub-cultures, from your typical salarymen and school girls to geeks and pop star pretty boys. I’m a graphic designer by trade, so I also find myself mesmerised by the advertisements all around the carriage. Typically a good ad has a hero image and a clever tagline, but the Japanese love to fill the page or screen with as much shit as they can, especially text. A closer look at the translations into broken english can keep you smiling for the rest of the ride.
Arriving in the lesser known district of Kichijoji, it went through my mind that there really is something for everyone in Tokyo. I swear that if you were in the market for a pair of left-handed scissors or a dildo shaped as an alien, Tokyo would have a whole street amongst the sprawl dedicated to what you are after. As expected, the directions were useless and actually outdated because when we found the location the store was nowhere to be found. There was absolutely no way I was leaving without a pair of sneakers, so we looked around at where the cool kids were headed and sure enough stumbled across the magical K-Skit. It was a sneaker-lover’s wet dream. Whilst it wasn’t the largest place, the selection was certainly for those in the market for something a bit different. In the end, I landed on a pair of gold and white high-top Air Jordan’s, which were actually one of the most subtle colour combinations in the store.
Starving, we met up with Dylan back in Harajuku at a local noodle joint and decided to introduce him to one of my favourite dishes, Abuja Soba. It’s kind of like a soupless ramen, but hit with a salty/oily sauce and topped with a soft boiled egg. A common way of ordering food in a place like this is through a vending machine at the entrance, which shoots out a ticket with your order. You then sit at at the counter, hand over the ticket and wait eagerly, watching the masters in the kitchen at work as you drink as much free water as you can manage. As the steaming bowl of noodles is handed to us, I hear Dylan say in a worried tone “So where’s the soup. Does that come separately or something?” Dylan has been to Japan many times and loves ramen, so you can imagine his confusion/horror after waiting all day for a bowl of noodle soup and the best bit is missing. With all that said, he was a good sport about the situation and smashed the large serving in no time.
Later that night Matt, Dylan, Ben and I had plans to visit Robot Restaurant in Kabukicho, the hot tourist spot in the red-light district of Shinjuku. We came across this place after watching a few reviews by travellers on YouTube. From what we could gather, the performance was meant to be absolutely whack. The videos showed girls in bikinis, dudes on motorcycles and of course robots all dancing around to music in a dark room whilst onlookers got shit-faced.
Due to heavy rain, we decided to travel by cab. As usual we didn’t really know where this place was so we got off at a main entry point to Kabukicho. Standing at the lights of a busy road, we had a hauntingly beautiful view of the area. Neon signs climbed up eight story buildings, thousands of people crammed into restaurants and gaming centres and even a building-sized Godzilla lurked in the darkness from behind a movie cinema. This, put simply, is the Tokyo that fucks with your outlook on life forever. Late for the show, we dived into the colourful streets and pretty much used instinct to eventually find a sign saying ‘Robot Restaurant This Way’. After messing around at the front desk trying to redeem our tickets and being forced to pre-order drinks, we were rushed down a florescent mirror-covered stairwell and pushed through a black curtain to our seats. Placed in the front row, we were right next to the impending action. Moments later shit got weird.
For the next 90 minutes we sat in the darkness knocking back various cans of alcohol, while we let the performers do their thing. And what a weird thing it was. As promised in the videos, there were plenty of attractive Japanese girls in bikinis hyping up the crowd. They beat on drums, danced around like cheerleaders, battled alien robots and even fought against a giant mechanical shark, which climactically ate one of the girls. To accompany the hotties were an array of masked men, robots and aliens. Some backflipped across the room, while others rode on circular motorcycles around a central robot DJ spinning mad rhymes. Amongst all the characters were explosions of smoke and sparks that cut through the piercing laser lights shooting in all directions. I was overwhelmed to say the least. With all that said, it really is something you have to see for yourself. My only advice is to probably not experience it sober. You don’t want to think to much about what you are seeing. Just get loose and go with it.
Drunk on a huge serving of weird, and of course alcohol, we all ventured back out into the bright streets of Kabukicho. The rain was still pouring down so we ducked into a nearby gaming centre with a large Sega logo at the entrance. We had to keep our buzz going so we continued to drink with the help of a friendly 711 (or 7 & iHoldings as it’s called in Japan) conveniently across the way. If you haven’t been to one of these four-story arcade gaming wonderlands, then you haven’t lived. All day and night they are filled with the roar of 8-bit songs singing over one another while gamers and geeks tap away at buttons and controls, often wearing gloves for maximum game excellence.
Somewhere between the gaming centre and slobbering over a few yakatori skewers, Ben left us, so we found the nearest karaoke place in hopes of keeping the party going. In true cheapskate style we managed to smuggle a few more drinks into our private room ready to sing the night away. We covered many of the 80’s classics such as: Journey, Queen, Billy Idol and Bruce Springsteen. But we didn’t forget a few other favourites by the likes of Smash Mouth, The Killers, The Strokes and even Kendrick Lamar.
The next morning I woke groggy and bleary-eyed. I was also sticky, smelly and still a little wet from the downpour the night before. But it was all worth it. I’m sure Dylan and Matt felt the same way as there was a unanimous decision to get out and eat something sleazy. The antidote was the best burger I have had in Japan. Yes, there is the popular Moss Burger or up-and-comer Freshness Burger, but both paled in comparison to J.S. Burger in Harajuku. It was juicy and covered in melted cheese. As we chowed down, we noticed a few great signs and slogans scattered around the interior. A couple of stand outs were ’Life is burgers’ and ‘Please do not hesitate to enjoy our burgers’. We certainly didn’t.
Whenever I am hungover in Tokyo, I find that shopping is the best cure, so after the revitalising burger we walked over to Shibuya, a popular central shopping district. There are plenty of really cool stores local and international, but the highlight of the day was Tokyu Hands – a massive multi-level building primarily catering to hobbyists and craftsmen. We were still exhausted from the night before so we did the smart thing of catching a lift to the top and working our way down through each level and section. This place has everything from model toys and science kits to pets and stationary. To give you an understanding of how much shit this place has, there was even a section dedicated to mushrooms and mushroom related paraphernalia. While I wanted to take home everything, Matt and I managed to escape with a few kitchen items, while Dylan bought over $50 worth of stationary and picture-covered notebooks. The highlight cover of the bunch was a llama with a comb-over, which for some reason made us laugh out loud for a solid minute and a half. I think we had caused some minor brain damage from the night before.
Once we finally exited the monolith building, it was starting to get dark so after some delicious sushi and a few more shops we headed home. A few hours rest were sorely needed after a long day. Amazingly our accommodation had a garage full of bicycles, so later that night we all agreed to use them to ride around and find a spot for dinner. To my surprise Harajuku was dead at night, which was great for riding around the tight streets and alleyways. Earlier in the day, the same streets were filled with shoppers, but now we had them all to ourselves. Without all the chaos you could actually take in the surroundings and architecture. Eventually we landed out the front of Freshness Burger, which Dan and Lou were dying to try. Although this was the second burger of the day, it went down a treat with a cold beer. After exploring a few more dark streets we retired for the night with the plan to wake up relatively early and check out the Tsukiji Fish Markets.
The next day we ended up getting to the markets at around 10:30am, which was perfect. Up until that time the market had long finished it’s auctions and sold most of the produce for the day. It would have been mayhem and we would have just been those dickhead tourists in the way of business. Walking through the grid system of small stalls we witnessed the last sorting and shipping of produce. We saw bins full of discarded tuna heads and guts, men and women handling knives of all shapes and sizes, people in hard hats driving forklifts and unusual sea creatures that hadn’t managed to be sold.
Once we were satisfied with our behind the scenes look at the infamous fish market, we wondered over to an area selling the freshest sashimi around. Not surprisingly every single place had a line out the front. All except one. Usually if a place is empty it isn’t that great, but we didn’t feel like waiting in line so we took the last remaining seats at the counter. The head chef was quite young, but we recognised his passion, speed and attention to detail as he worked. And man did he deliver. It was the best sashimi I have ever had.
From the fish markets Matt, Dylan and I hopped on a train to Akihabara, the geek district of Tokyo. This place is made popular by the many stores selling everything a geek could need. Video games, anime, manga and electronics to name a few. Also scattered throughout the area are maid cafes, which I recommend checking out for a quick laugh, but we decided to give it a miss this time round. Dylan soon left us in search of the much cooler snowboard & guitar district, so Matt and I scaled an eight level toy store. Inside was wall to wall with icons from popular anime and manga series. I walked out with a couple of build-it-yourself toys. One was a tank from the video game ‘Metal Slug’ and the other a bizarre robot with wings and machine gun arms.
To close out the day we all ended up walking along a street dedicated to professional grade kitchen knives. We all fancy ourselves pretty good home cooks, but some of the knives went for hundreds of dollars and others into the thousands, so we stuck to the $50-$100 range and were on our way.
After a short regroup at the apartment, we rode the bikes once more through the streets of Harajuku towards a popular gyoza place. It was quite late at this time, so the wait wasn’t too long. Along with a beer and about twelve gyoza each we discussed the last few days in Tokyo. There were very few regrets, plenty of laughs and of course some great memories. The bike ride home was the perfect moment to silently think to myself about what a unique place Tokyo is. Each time I visit I discover new people, places and things and leave with an even greater desire to come back again. From the conservative conformity of the business world to the dark and bizarre subcultures, there is no place in the world quite like it.