Monday, February 12, 2007

Duomo Origato (Gozaimasu)

The next morning, we took a more uneventful bus ride back to the airport (and one in which a kind Honoluluan helped unload Vik’s bags from the bus and then proceeded to pat him on the back while shaking his hand). Luggage in tow, we approached the United check-in counter with three hours to spare before takeoff.

We then proceeded to wait for two hours as the United agent inexplicably examined every leg of our ticket on the phone with United’s rate desk in a mysterious back room. The process was ostensibly undertaken to ensure the validity of our tickets, but we suspect that the two United employees, when out of earshot, were mocking us for being stupid enough to use United to fly around the world. Either that or the United rate desk heard Vik’s earlier Indian government productivity crack and decided to give him the business (how you like us now, Murthy?).

Nine hours later found us on the ground in a new city, a new country and a new continent. Tokyo was seemingly created with Kaberi in mind. She loved the order, precision and logic found in the workings of the city, from everything to the airport buses and subway trains which ran like clockwork to the impeccably-groomed public spaces of the sprawling metropolis. Every person we encountered in Japan was unfailingly courteous and patient. And it was impossible not to be charmed by the Japanese convention of bowing, undertaken with exacting precision. Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore.

Vik managed to book surprisingly-hip accommodations at a corporate apartment in Roppongi, an eclectic neighborhood in inner Tokyo trafficked by expats. We were given a charming, spacious studio for our stay and at much cheaper rates than the local hotels. The space was modern with clean lines, and the attention to detail was beyond expectation. In addition to a kitchenette, washer/dryer and flat-screen TV, we had heated floors which made it a treat to walk around, even without the slippers provided. Our unit featured a remote control that heated the shower to the desired temperature at precisely the desired time, and (craziest of all) a toilet with a massive control panel to regulate the heat of the seat, the force of the bidet and the pressure of the follow-on (ahem) backside-dryer. The heated seat was a godsend in the middle of the Japanese winter, but Vik was admittedly not a fan of the other features.

Once we ventured out of our apartment, we could explore the city with ease. We checked out Roppongi on our first night and sampled yakitori (which translates literally in Japanese to “burnt chicken”) served alongside exorbitantly-priced edamame and diet Cokes at a joint up the street. We also found a cool, chic housewares and travel store called Axis where Vik had to muster all of his persuasive abilities to keep Kaberi from taking out a second mortgage.

The next morning, jet lag had us up at 5 am, so we headed out promptly to the northeastern district of Asakusa. After managing Tokyo’s superb subway system, we arrived early enough to enjoy the tranquility of the temples and shrines without having to brave any large crowds. We especially liked the large urns with incense representing the breath of the gods. In the hour that we wandered about, we watched the local vendors set up in preparation for the inevitable mass of tourists pouring in.

We ended up having a breakfast of street food, a theme of our trip as it proved an effective way to minimize the cost of meals. We’re not exactly sure what we ate (one woman told us we were buying vegetable cutlets but the piece of squid that was clearly identifiable once we bit into it suggested to us that maybe something was lost in translation), but it was still delicious. After a little sustenance, we wandered into the many artisan shops that dominated the area. Kaberi, of course, immediately found a number of things that caught her eye, but controlled the impulse to shop given the lack of space in our backpacks. After another hour or two of walking around, we took refuge in a cup of Green Tea Latte at the local Starbucks to get back feeling in our extremities before continuing on to another part of town.

At Vik’s insistence, we then made our way to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district located just south of Asakusa. Our visit was a short one as even Vik’s enthusiasm for gadgets waned in the face of a million gaudy, blinking lights and endless booths hawking anything and everything boasting a screen and a microchip.

From Asakusa, we journeyed to Hibiya and its imposing Imperial Hotel complex, where on the suggestion of Kaberi’s cousin Amit, we had a drink at the bar that was the only original feature remaining from Frank Lloyd Wright’s design. Wright’s hotel managed to withstand earthquakes and world wars, but could not survive an unsentimental Japanese property developer’s bulldozer in the 1980’s. Nevertheless, as a Chicago girl, Kaberi enjoyed seeing such familiar patterns in the bar’s walls halfway around the world. And the Asahi Dry hit the spot too.

On our last day in Tokyo, we woke up at 4:30 am to get to Tokyo’s famed Tsikiji (pronounced Tskeejee) fish market where we labored to dodge the numerous oncoming, singlemindedly-driven mini-tractors. The sight of assorted marine life, in various states of presentation, was a sight to behold as was the backroom auction of tuna ranging from the size of motorcycles to passenger cars. Unfortunately, Kaberi’s brand-new, high-powered digital camera decided to stop working properly midstream, so we weren’t able to get all of the pictures that we intended. Kaberi was not at all pleased by having to revert to a lower-resolution existence. But the breakfast of fresh sushi with our last 3,400 yen still made the excursion worth it.

After Tsujiki, we made a quick stopover in the western Tokyo district of Shinjuku (site of the elite Park Hyatt hotel showcased in the movie Lost In Translation). Navigating Shinjuku’s railway station proved a bit baffling to us, but we eventually made our way to the Park Hyatt lobby, where we regaled ourselves with a magnificent birds-eye view of Tokyo. After collecting our bags en route, we caught a subway train to Ueno, in northeastern Tokyo. When the subway ride there took over an hour, and the 56-minute Keisei Skyliner express train to Narita Airport took an uncharacteristic 80 minutes, the thought of missing our flight to Seoul made our pulses quicken considerably. Fortunately, we encountered the world’s smoothest, white-gloved check-in process at Narita with Asiana Airlines. The only downside to this is that Kaberi will have to endure for another 8 months Vik’s oft-repeated refrain that “if you’ve never missed a flight in your life, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

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