Tokyo

The attendants bow outside on the curb as our airport bus departs from Haneda Airport. About an hour later the bus drops us off at Shibuya not far from the famous intersection that 3000 people cross every time the lights change. We take a cab to our Airbnb in Motoyoyogicho and meet Keko, our host who shows us to our tatami mat covered room with futon mattresses on the floor. We’ve embarked on our 21 day Japanese adventure.

We marvel and big things and tiny details in Tokyo. The bathrooms everywhere are spotless and are equipped with lux Toto models that have heated seats and various washing options. The traffic, both automobile and human powered, at building exits and around construction sites, is deftly directed by men in white gloves and glowing batons who bow and wave gracefully. Mothers (usually, though there were a few fathers) take toddlers to school in the morning on their bicycles with double child seats and rain covers, pedaling their way through narrow streets and park roads. Children younger than Evan board the subways on their own, in smart navy uniforms and hats and backpacks, to and back from schools. We pass through Shinjuku station where tens of thousands of people transfer smoothly with no jostling, forming neat lines to get on to escalators or into spotless trains. We stroll through Harajuku filled with young people dressed in the most interesting ways and Vivian and Evan buy giant cotton candy. We get take away lunch at the gourmet food shops below the Takashimaya mall that make Whole Foods look like a country outpost, but realize that there is no place to sit and eat because the Japanese don’t eat in public. We wander through the serene grounds of the Meiji Shrine and read about the history of Japan opening up to the rest of the world after 250 years of self imposed isolation (though their version stresses on the actions of the Meiji emperor while the American version pivots on the arrival of Commander Perry and the militaristic might of the US navy). We walk past displays of KitKats in dozens of flavors and colors, ready for Valentine’s Day. We sample onegiri (salmon and rice wrapped in dry seaweed) from various corner stores in our quest to find the very best. We eat at izakayas, tiny restaurants where a single chef prepares everything and you have to select the cup for your hot sake. Vivian and Evan get pretty good at navigating the seeming labyrinth of the Tokyo rapid transit system (over 800 stations serviced by a dozen different operators providing 40 million passenger rides a day) that turns out to be amazingly user friendly and the best way to get around. They can find our home station of Yoyogi-Uehara on the maps and learn to look for it and other connecting stations when it is time to hop off the trains. We visit the old Senso-ji shrine and walk past the rows of wooden stalls selling everything from Hello Kittys to dorayakis, red bean paste filled pancakes, and Evan buys his fortune by randomly pulling a numbered bamboo stick from a box and then opening one of a hundred small drawers filled with notes about your future. We spend a day with our friend Prartho, hiking to the top of mount Takao, an hour west of Tokyo, and follow it up with a lovely long dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant near the Shimo-Katazawa station. We visit the famed electronics and video gaming hub of Akihabara and Vivian and Evan buy souvenirs for their friends in Austin from the gacha machines that swallow three hundred yen and spit out a plastic egg containing a plastic toy. We are beckoned on the streets by “maids” from the maid cafes and by building sized posters of child-faced anime girls with big boobs, and are reminded everywhere of the uncomfortable intermix of the cultures of cutesy and smutty.

We try to find answers by sampling tiny slices of life in the city and end up with dizzying collages of wonder and surprise and more questions and an appreciation for the impenetrable urban experience that is Tokyo. Evan is excited beyond anything he’s seen so far and slumps onto Jo’s lap at the end of each day on the train ride back home. Vivian vows to return here when she’s older, “probably for college”. Our work here is done. Thank you, Tokyo.

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