Many people have a list of places that they would like to visit at some point in their lives. Some lists are longer than others and some don't come near to checking off every exciting city, high mountain, or seaside village that they long to see with their own eyes.
My list is endless. I add places to it constantly. Japan has always been on mine, but knowing so little about it, and it being so far away, it wasn't the highest of my travel priorities. How could I have been so naive?
Japan is a place that I will visit often. Notice I said "will" and not "hope to". I want to share this place with everyone I know. I certainly want to go back to the fish market and delve into a bowl of sushi. After we said Arigatō (thank you) to the market and headed back out into the still bustling morning market, we took a walk which would eventually lead us to the Ghibli Museum (there might have been a short train ride somewhere in there).
Once at the Ghibli Museum, we were issued tickets and scurried in to discover and wonder. The museum is all about Ghibli Studio, a Japanese film studio. Think Disney, but with anime. They make lots of shorts and feature films, some of which have had Academy Award recognition.
We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, so the outside will have to suffice.
A few hours in a museum and it builds up one's appetite. We picked up some essentials from a nearby store and decided that lunch in the park would be nice. Students were training for track, parents were kicking soccer balls around with their kids, and there were a few sightings of young love.
I made sure to get my seaweed fix daily and of course I needed some chopsticks which the cashier was more than happy to give me, over the so-last-week fork and knife.
We sat, ate, relaxed, and people watched for a bit in the park. Once the heels of our feet had a slight green tint to them from rubbing in the warm grass, we decided it was time to continue through the park and see what else we might come across.
A temple in the distance made for a beautiful backdrop to the fountain.
A street performer dazed and mystified some young kids, who were honestly more entertaining to watch than the performer himself, as they jumped with excitement, surely wondering if he'd lose a hand while expertly juggling the knives into the air. He finished with both hands intact.
Then we saw a cat on a man's shoulder, yup. One of the parents asked for a photo and he misunderstood her to mean that she wanted the cat on her shoulder for the photo. So it went, cat on a shoulder, in Japan, totally normal.
I lived in Maine for eleven years, the home of L.L. Bean, so you might understand my amazement when I was lead to this store. Can you blame me for taking a photo?
Eventually, we arrived at a large, pretty, shiny, and flower filled entrance, through who's gates were shops made for the young and fashionable of Tokyo. We had arrived in Harajuku. The main shopping street is Takeshita-dori. Though you can't see it in the photo below, you could see yourself under the street name which was kind of neat.
Some of the clothes were pretty standard (there seems to be a fascination with denim skirts at the moment), and other garments were a bit more, shall we say, adventurous. We went into a "cosplay" store with some students who couldn't wait to get their hands on some authentic anime apparel. The whole idea of cosplay is dressing up as your favorite or own creation of an anime character. It's been huge in Japan and is sneaking its way internationally, making it a growing sensation.
I can't resist a good candy store like Godzilla can't resist chasing crowds down a busy city street. The candy is bursting at its plastic container seams, lollipops are bigger than your head, kids are sampling pieces when their parents aren't looking, and the staff is always smiling and cheery.
Next on our agenda was a trip to Shibuya, a popular shopping district in Tokyo. It is home to all of the high-end shops, such as Dior, Chanel, Gucci...the list goes on. As I gazed into Dior with a look of desire in my eyes, I spotted a man sitting at a table, being served champaign, and picking out his accessories for the year, month, or week. I wish I had taken a quick photo.
We walked down Omotesandō, the main shopping street a bit slower than normal. We were tired and had been walking for what seemed like miles. Food was heavily on the mind. We had been promised dinner at a great ramen joint and I believe that is what kept us going, despite blisters and sore feet.
Before we could get to our stomach satisfying destination, we had to brace for an experience unlike any other, a walk through Shibuya Crossing. Maybe you've heard of it? It's a popular film location for many movies filmed in Tokyo and also one of the busiest intersections in the world. Crowds are almost always present, people lining up at the very edge of the street, waiting for the red man to turn green.
This photo was actually taken after dinner, at a higher vantage point. I'll get more into that later. Let's dig into a bowl of ramen for now.
Our tour leader lived in Japan for 19 years, so he has some insider knowledge that greatly improved our entire experience. Thanks to him, I was able to eat one of the best meals that I have ever had the pleasure of consuming.
We walked up to Kamukura. It serves ramen, which is a Japanese noodle soup dish. You can have it almost any way that you want with either meat (usually pork), fish, chicken, or miso broth. Then you can have a variety of veggies and toppings.
Before you even enter the restaurant, you have to order outside at a contraption that resembles a vending machine. The menu glows above you, willing you to try everything (I'll be back soon dear menu). I chose menu option #2 which was a pork based broth with noodles (obviously), a hard boiled egg, and cabbage.
Once you put your money in the slot and retrieve your ticket, you are graciously ushered in by one of the smiling employees and asked to have a seat at the bar. The bar encircles the chefs who each have a different colored scarf around their necks. A student and I decided that this represented what their duties were in the kitchen; he does the noodles, that guy cooks the cabbage, the other one adds broth, and so on and so forth.
After only a few very short minutes, that I hardly noticed pass by, due to my mind being engulfed by the smells and concise movements of the chefs only feet away, a bowl of glory was gently placed in front of me. For me? Yes please!
I wasted no time in taking my hair in one hand, holding it behind my head, and leaning forward, my nostrils wide open (lovely, I know) and taking in the scent of what is now one of my favorite smells.
They have these small bowls on the bar that are filled with scallions that have been bathing in a chili paste, which I also added to my bowl. I like a little heat in my ramen. I was given a spoon and a pair of chopsticks. I used the chopsticks to grab anything that wouldn't fit in the spoon and slurped up the broth. Yes, I slurped, and almost as loudly as the man sitting to my left, who had ordered a bowl twice the size of mine. Slurping is allowed, if not encouraged. This is my kind of place.
I didn't stop thinking about this meal the entire time I was in Japan. I must try to recreate it, or I might go broke flying to Tokyo every week.
Having eaten every last fragment of noodle, we went back to Shibuya Crossing to get a drink from Starbucks and take in the hectic yet organized precision of it. Starbucks is located in a book store that is many stories high. On the second story however, there are tables and a bar lining the windows which face directly to the crossing. There, people sit and sip their caffeine, while just watching, time and time again, the masses below them.
It was pretty clear where some people were headed. Men and women in suits were mostly heading towards the train station, while the more casually dressed were heading out for a night of excitement and maybe ramen.
Across the way were two very large advertisements, but I noticed that they were moving and in addition there seemed to be people hanging from above. I put my camera in super zoom mode and saw that there were indeed people hanging from high above, installing two new ads. They worked quickly and efficiently, finishing in what must have been some sort of record time.
I continued breathing once I saw the workers safely on solid ground and refocused my attention back to below me.
Wouldn't it be fun to take a scooter around Tokyo?
Tomorrow would be our last day in Tokyo before taking the bullet train to Kyoto. We wanted to make the most of it and did we ever. A place "where dreams come true" and adults can be children once again, sign me up every time.