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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.

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…

Death in the middle of life: secrets of a samurai

Watch out! This guy is guarding a secret…

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It’s the Zenkoji Temple, a Buddhist temple from 1601, before Buddhism split into different sects. We stumbled upon it, quite by accident, on our way to a business meeting. It’s hidden in the middle of the Aoyama district…

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This Google 3D map shows how it’s tucked back behind everything. On a busy Tokyo street, there’s a narrow gap between buildings, where an alley leads to this entrance:

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Once you pass guardian Scary-san and his equally scary friends, it opens into a large courtyard with the main temple:

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To the right is a smaller pagoda with a large bell that’s struck by what appears to have been a tree at one time. To the left is this smaller shrine:

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Behind that are these graves:

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And behind that is a path into traditional Japanese cemetery. It’s a pebble path winding through rows and rows of ancient headstones, with wooden stakes that the monks paint prayers on, for the dead. A very sacred and spooky place. It didn’t feel right to take pictures but I found this on the interwebs:

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The most famous person buried there is the samurai rebel Takano Chōei (1804-1850). He wrote a book criticizing the government for firing on an American merchant ship in 1837. He was sent to prison for five years. Then he set it on fire and escaped!

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He was finally caught in 1850. Rather than face execution, he killed three policemen with his bare hands before he was either beaten to death or cut his own throat — it’s not clear exactly how he died. And they never found his body. So it’s not really his grave, more like the ghost of his grave.

Tokyo is full of these glimpses of its history, if you know where to look. And even if you don’t…

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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First night in Tokyo…

So we dropped off our stuff at the Cerulean Tower hotel and hit the streets. This is the famous Shibuya Crossing…

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You’ve probably seen it in every movie that ever had a Tokyo scene. Shibuya was hopping. We walked all over that mama-san, checking out all the wackness, crazy stores and bars everywhere…

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Eventually we stopped at a tiny ramen bar called Afuri. You order on a vending machine inside the front door…

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How it works is, you pick the ramen you want, then put your money in and press the button. The machine spits out a ticket and you take that to the counter and hand it to one of the cooks. They made me a vegan ramen and it was oishii!

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Tokyo exists on many levels. Roadways over roadways, tall buildings with rooftop bars and basement shops too. And there are cranes everywhere, construction everywhere. It’s overwhelming. Especially at the end of a long day of travel. We made it back to the hotel bar before our feet melted, for some Suntory times…

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So… after a 15 hours of travel and another 7 hours bopping around Shibuya, I fell into bed at 10PM. Which was still yesterday back home. Good times!

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