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So long, and thanks for all the fish…

Sayonara, Tokyo, I’ll miss your Blade Runner views…

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Your bizarre advertising…

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Your determination to fit everything in…

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Your constant battle between order & chaos…

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The way you get around…

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Your almost indecipherable offerings…

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Your constant energy, 24-7-365…

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The way you always try to make me happy…

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Your subtle sense of humor…

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Your many bridges…

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And, of course, your general overwhelmingness….

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As I write this from my hotel room, I just want to thank you for all the good times…

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So long, Tokyo. I’ll be back one day, but until then… sayonara!

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Weirdest experience in Tokyo: a Maid Café!

So, there’s lots of weirdness in Tokyo. Vending machines that sell everything from canned bread to cigarettes to used panties. “Capsule hotels” where you sleep in a glorified coffin. Space-age toilets everywhere, some that even talk to you. There’s even a book store that sells one book. Yep, just one book.

But the weirdest thing I experienced was a Maid Café. What the heck is that, you ask? Well, it’s where young ladies dress like maids and act like children and serve you strange things in bizarre ways.

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Let me break that down… let’s say you and your friends are walking down the street in Akihabara, minding your own touristy business, and this happens…

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An invitation to a café with coffee and drinks? Well, sure, we could all use a tasty beverage. So the four of you go in. Up five escalators. And you’re here…

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When you first go in, one of the maids walks up to greet your party. She calls the men “master” and the women “princess.” She hands you a menu which describes the food, drinks, games, services, and rules…

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Yes, “It is not allowed to take photos on maids…” I think they mean of the maids, but you never know. And “body touch is prohibited,” as is asking the maids for any personal information. So right away you realize, it’s not your usual coffee shop. I had to steal some of these pics off the interwebs. You’re cool with that, right? You perv.

Anyway, your maid leads you into the inner sanctum: a large room with a small stage in front of a counter/bar, with booths in the back. She sits your party in a booth and begins doing weird hand-jive that she calls “magic”…

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It’s so pink and cute in there you think, “hey, I might just barf!” But she explains the menu. Coffee drinks, boozy drinks, sugary desserts, omelettes…omelettes, WTF? Do people actually eat breakfast here? Terrified and yet oddly drawn to the “magic,” you and your giggling friends place your order.

When your coffee arrives, your maid whips out a squeeze bottle and asks, “Master, what would you like me to draw?” Well duh, an octopus, of course…

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She calls the octopus a taco. Okay. One of your friends gets a boozy drink. “Are you ready, princess?” the maid asks. Ready for what? Then she leads you in a “magic spell” that is a lot of cute rhyming gibberish. Yes, four grown-ass adults sit there singing a nonsense song with some girl dressed like a cartoon maid.

After you’re done drinking however much you can take of what can best be described as liquid sugar, you’re called up to the stage for your souvenir photo…

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Then they issue you and your friends a “Master card” (get it?) with your name in Kanji… and, of course, a bunch of cutesy hearts…

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Then you run screaming into the streets of Tokyo. You know, to burn off the sugar. And the cuteness. Oh god, the cuteness!

If that’s not weird enough for you, there’s a toy designer who made a kinky little doll and took it to a maid café for a photoshoot. He walks you through his whole fetish-doll-in-fetish-café experience here. And the weirdest thing is… in Tokyo, nobody considers that weird.

Sexy-time shops & other Tokyo weirdness

Definitely NOT taking my kids to “Fun Assy Island” Kiddy Land

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Crazy about condoms? Welcome to Condomania

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One thing that won’t be allowed through customs: Forbidden Fruit.

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Trump House, only a little less fancy than his other joints…

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Are they talking to me? Café de F.O.B

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Lazy Hazy Planet pretty much says it all…

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Can you hear it? Listen Flavor!

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Hungry? How about World Breakfast All Day

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Got GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)? Try 246 Guitars

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Which of those cartoon characters is Angus? ACDC Rag

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If you want to eat in a basement, Tabasa might be just the place…

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Apparently my brother owns a seafood place here… Luke’s Lobster

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Private Spoons Club! No public spoons allowed!

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This one was actually named by an Anglo… Anglomania

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Ya think Woolrich has a thing for plaid?

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I don’t know what this says… maybe “Recycled Drinks”?

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Lost In Translation… in a Little Red Corvette

Couldn’t resist watching “Lost In Translation” on the way to Tokyo. Who can forget that classic Bill Murray moment, trying to “close his face”?

“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”

Here’s the one that the bartender recommended for proper face-closing… the dangerously smooth Hakushu

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Remember the scene where Bill & Scarlett go to the strip club? Thank you!

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Funny thing is, the strip club was one of the few sets in the movie — it’s actually an expensive boutique called APC

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But the real highlight was going to the Tokyo Park Hyatt where all those hotel scenes were filmed, and getting a drink (or three) in the New York Bar & Grill. I knew it was going to get weird when I saw the brass dog-heads hanging in the elevator…

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The bar is 52 floors up… and what a view…

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The view inside wasn’t bad either…

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Although it made us a little fuzzy…

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“You close your face when you’re talking to me!” We found a karaoke bar, so… nope!

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I did “Little Red Corvette” with mad love for Prince, because that morning the newspaper under my hotel room door told me he was gone…

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Such a tragic loss. Life is short. Do what you can, while you can, and leave life’s stage like a legend.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else: the afterworld.” – Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”

Sayonara, Prince, and arigato for all the great music!

Architectural porn

Tokyo goes outward and upward forever, a brave collision of sprout and sprawl. Tiny shops hide wedged between giant skyscrapers. Architecture here is a constant barrage of new and old, sacred and profane. And there are cranes everywhere, making and remaking the city over and over again, this latest push for the 2020 Olympics. Witness the profanity!

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Cheers! I mean, “Kanpai!” Now drink up!

Kanpai is Japanese for “cheers!” And we kanpai‘ed the hell out of Tokyo. Seems like it’s always Suntory time somewhere in this town…

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Japanese whisky is a big deal. Suntory is the most popular brand, and the oldest; they started making whisky in 1923! They make two single-malts — Yamazaki and Hakashu — and both are excellent. They also make a bunch of blendeds which aren’t too shabby either. If you’re going blended, the craze right now is what they call a haibōru, or highball: whisky and soda with a slice of lemon. Yes, they say “high-BALL-oo” but pronounce the L‘s like R‘s. Seriously.

“For relaxing times… make it Suntory time.”

But then there’s sake. Ahh, sake. We think of it as rice wine, but actually it’s more like beer. Fermented from grain, right? Whatever, it’s oishii!

It was a hot night in Shinjuku so I ordered mine cold. They brought out a chilled glass and a little box called a masu. They put the box in the glass, then poured the sake in and over the edge, overflowing about halfway up into the box. Our host said they do this to show generosity but I think they were just trying to get us hammered. I noticed a curious effect when I lifted the glass out of the sake in the box — the glass seemed to glow!

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When we were in Harajuku we ducked into a tiny four-seat bar called MOCH.  They had everything from rare Japanese whiskys to Southern Comfort.

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The place was tiny. Our coworker needed to stand in the doorway to take our picture.

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The proprietor used to work at a large bar on the other side of town but decided to open up his own little place close to home. He made little homemade snacks for us while we drank.

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We also went to a tiny bar called JBS. I thought it stood for John’s Bull Shit (arigato!) but it’s actually Jazz, Blues, Soul. That’s what the bartender plays from the hundreds of records that line the walls…

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Hmmm, must have been Honky Night? I sent this picture to my wife and she said it looked like a Mission hipster bar. Can’t argue that. Anyway, we were the last people he let in, apparently the place hits capacity at ten people. And he closed it down at midnight, to an instrumental version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

Kanpai y’all!

Food… or “your stand-type digging so that you do loose and relaxed”

After a whole day of worky things I can’t tell you about we were famished! Hungry in Japanese is sashimi, right? Maybe not, but it should be. Our Japanese hosts reserved a private room for dinner:

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Very cozy. As the restaurant’s web site says:

The private room becomes your stand-type digging so you do loose and relaxed.

So true! Every time you sit down to eat, at every restaurant in Tokyo, they give you oshibori — a warm towel or a wet-wipe to clean your hands with. So you do loose and relaxed!

And the sashimi was just as digging. The wasabi was different than I’d had before, much lighter in texture, almost grainy. One of ourJapanese hosts showed us how he eats it. He doesn’t mix it in the soy — he takes a pinch of wasabi with his chopsticks, then grabs the sashimi and dips it in soy sauce. The taste is more complex, since the wasabi and soy aren’t mixed. Try it! So loose and relaxed, you will be digging!

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We also had shabu-shabu, which is a dish you cook for yourself at the table. They bring in a big bowl of piping hot broth and gint plates of vegetables and raw fish or meat. You grab it with your chopsticks and swish it through the broth back and forth — shabu-shabu — it’s an onomatopoeia. Also, it’s oishii!

And you know what they eat for breakfast? Japanese food! But they just call it food.

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The hotel had a classy buffet — I know that sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true. On one side they had American food: scrambled eggs, potatoes, waffles, assorted meatpiles, killer French toast, fresh-squeezed OJ, homemade yogurt, even an omelet station manned by a chef. On the other side everything was Japanese: various pickled vegetables, seaweed salad, radish salads, even iceplant salad. Lots of things I’ve never had before. Most of which I liked.

This was a lunch I had, a bento (sort of) called kaisen:

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You put rice in a bowl, then fish on top, then all kids of other tasty bizarreness, then pour tea over it. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to eat it with the little wooden spoon or chopsticks, so I did the combo move, to make sure I was doing something right half the time. That’s just good policy.

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We didn’t have Japanese food the whole time. The night before a coworker was craving wine so we stopped at an Italian restaurant and had a delizioso Italian dinner, but you know what that stuff looks like so…  Oh, we also had dinner at the hotel where “Lost In Translation” was filmed… but that place is its own story…

Welcome to Electric Town!

Every since the 1940’s, the Akihabara district has been known as Electric Town…

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It’s where all the giant electronic stores are.

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These shops are up to 10 stories tall, with escalators going all the way to the top. Advertising everywhere, recordings blaring, salespeople hawking stuff. The stores even have their own songs. I was going to shoot some video but I thought my head might explode.

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I don’t think Mr. Dime is okay. Judging from that pie chart, I’m going with only 23% pink okay.

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And if you think it looks crazy in the daytime…

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Yow! We gonna rock down to electric avenue, and then we— no. Onward to our next adventure!

Harajuku freakshow!

Harajuku Station is the destination if you want to see what the kids are into…

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Especially down Takeshita street… and yes, I know what that looks like it says…

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Photobombing the Harajuku jumbotron!

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Checking out the fashion…

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Even the older folks are stylin’…

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And, uh, there’s this thing…

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Watch your step!

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That’s a quick stroll down Harajuku way. Sayonara for now!

Shrine on, you crazy diamond…

Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine, in a large park, in the middle of Tokyo.

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Not that Tokyo really has a “middle” but the effect is the same – one minute you’re walking past Harajuku Station where all the freaky fashion kids hang out, and the next minute you’re standing in front of a giant wooden gate in a forest. Like this guy…

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The gate is called a torii, which means birdhouse. It’s a passageway from the mundane to the sacred. Coming straight from Tokyo’s teen fashion hub, the effect is stunning. Time to leave it all behind and get your zen on.

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A wide pebbled path leads through a lush forest filled with Japanese maples. There’s a guy who rakes the rocks, and another guy who sweeps the leaves off the path. Constantly. I don’t know what they call him in Japanese but I call him “Leafman” and he has mad skills.

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On one side of the path is a huge collection of sake barrels. Sake is called wine but it’s actually brewed like beer. Go figure.

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You keep going down the path and come to a place where you wash your hands and mouth, cleansing yourself and focusing. Then you walk on to the shrine. The outside has huge wooden doors…

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Through the doorway you see the shrine itself…

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It’s actually a collection of buildings…

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And a prayer wall, to which you can add your prayer…

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Pictures are forbidden at the main shrine itself. There’s a giant taiko drum on the right, and a place to stand near the middle. You drop some coins into the collection crate (today it was for the Kyushu earthquake victims). Then you bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once more. If you close your eyes you can feel the world turning. At least, that’s what happened to me. There’s a lot of mojo in Meiji. And even the occasional Japanese wedding…

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Walking out, I was struck with just how hard it has been for Tokyo to keep this part of its culture. The shrine was destroyed in World War II and they rebuilt it. Since then, Tokyo has become a fast-paced city, a crazy mix of cultures from all over the world. Many aspects of the West have been embraced, and in many ways the Western style is overtaking their culture. Signs of American and European cultural adoption and imitation are everywhere. But authentic places like Meiji Jingu survive as a testament to the old ways of this proud island people.

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Heading back out of the forest, you can see tall buildings framed in the gateway. Back into the world of the mundane…

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