[I'm exhausted and fact checking and spell checking have thus gone out the window (which only opens a quarter of an inch, but I made them fit). Sorry about that - just take it all with a grain of salt.]
So ... when in Tokyo, do as the Aussies do ... As far as I could tell, the three on the airport bus into town with me had stepped off the plane and gone directly to a vending machine to buy Asahi beer. Legal here, but kind of hilarious to a Canadian. There are vending machines everywhere, with almost every drink known to man. The one down the hall at the hotel sells Suntory whisky and water.
My first significant strangeness (aside from Aussies drinking beer and playing city-building games on a communal tablet on a bus) was the toilet in my hotel room: I'd been warned, but it's still entertaining to see a toilet with as much electronics as a modern stove. The staff had left the seat heater on for a special surprise when I sat down. And my guidebook warns I shouldn't play with the other buttons while standing unless I really want a shower. And then there was the pillow on the bed. On one side it's sort of soft, more or less Western style, but if you flip it over it's ... dried beans. To my surprise, I liked that side better.
Substantial heartbreak awaited me at Lawson (one of several ubiquitous corner store chains) this morning when I attempted to buy tickets to the Ghibli Museum: they appear to be sold out throughout my stay. I called the Toronto company who carry Ghibli tickets two or three weeks before my departure, but they were sold out too: I had hoped that there might be tickets here. I had really wanted to go to that.
"Pocari Sweat" was something of a disappointment: I had thought that it was one of those infamous non sequiturs, but the "Sweat" part is very much of a sort with Gaterade, ie. an electrolyte and salt replacement fluid. Although I still don't know what a "Pocari" is. It tasted kind of like a weak grapefruit Gaterade, if Gaterade ever made such a thing.
I said mean things about the complexity of the London metro a year ago. While they were true, I only complained because I hadn't encountered Tokyo yet. Tokyo has the biggest metropolitan area in the world (exceeding even that of New York City), and has (at a guess) twice as many train stations as London. Note that I said "trains" not "subway" as it has both. They occasionally share the same lines to add to the confusion. But here's the real joy: the trains in the city are run by approximately five different and competing companies: what this means is that any map of the train system usually only shows the lines run by the company you're currently traveling with. Of course a full map of the system is essentially incomprehensible - especially (to me) if it's printed only in Japanese. Adding to the joy is the fact that each ride on a separate company's line is a separate fare: you usually gate out of one system into another, and pay fares for each. One of the saving graces of this is the Pasmo (or Suica) card: rather than buying separate tickets and calculating the fare to your next station (a possible but less than optimal solution), you just put a wad of cash on your Pasmo and the right amount is automatically deducted when you exit.
On my walk to the Imperial Palace this morning I used a subway entrance as an underpass. Going down the steps I nearly fell over at the regimented order I encountered coming up toward me. The exit was wide enough for two people to pass. I was the only person going down, and a 100 meter long single file line of people were ascending the stair. This was not because I was descending, this was simply how they were doing it: the other side was kept clear, even though there was no one in sight before I arrived. That single file line really did go about 100 meters back inside the station - through broad halls. Could not happen in Toronto. But Japan is a consensus society, and politeness is required. That was the day's biggest instance of culture shock.
I visited the Imperial Palace, or at least I walked around the outside: it's a massive property dead in the heart of the city that my guidebook says, with current Tokyo real estate values, is worth approximately as much as the entire state of California. It's very lovely - or at least the moat and walls are. I thought I'd walk around the gardens, but it seems they're now by reservation only. <sigh>
Next up was the Zojo-ji (temple), where I had a snack of octopus balls at one of the several stalls on the walkway to the temple. A large ball of breading surrounding a good hunk of octopus, slathered in a sweet and sour (mostly sweet) sauce and topped with dried fish flakes. Very chewy. Good as these things go, but I probably won't do it again.
Beside the temple was a huge array of miniature stone baby Buddhas, all carefully dressed in little knit hats and bibs, mostly with flowers beside them. (One had a sports team jacket and a bandanna wrapped around its head - but it was definitely the odd man out.) At first I thought it was a child's graveyard and found it deeply creepy, but when I asked someone I was told it was just Buddhas. Could be some interesting photos from that.
Tokyo Tower was built in 1958(?), a new attraction to try to get people coming to the city again. So they made a white and orange Eiffel Tower - without one of my favourite features of the original, the diagonal elevators. The Tokyo Tower ones go straight up the middle, not quite as much fun. Good views - this is a very heavily developed city. Even being on a hill and with an observation deck 150 meters up, there were a number of buildings as high up as I was.
Next stop was Nichi-Ogikubo, a bit out of the centre, where Trine lives. To get there I had to go through Shinjuku station. Shinjuku sees something like 2.5 million people pass through it every day, as most of the commuter trains from outside Tokyo arrive there. Something like ten lines pass through there - and to get from one line to another sometimes involves a 500 meter hike along with a thousand of your closest friends. Pay attention to the signs.
It was good to see my friend Trine from library school again - it's been eighteen years. Within six months of graduation, she came here and has been here ever since. I asked her if she'd intended to stay, or if it just kind of happened: "After Hurricane Katrina, they acted like animals. Fukushima was worse - but everything was organized. I can leave my wallet on a park bench and go back and pick it up five hours later - there's almost no crime. They're _civilized_." She saw my subway underpass story as perfectly ordinary - but also indicative of both the organization and civility so common in this country.
She served some Umeshu - plum liqueur made with shochu. Very nice stuff.
We went for a walk in Inokashira park, a nice place with a good-sized artificial lake (complete with rental row boats and pedal-swans) at its centre. She'd forgotten it was Hanami (cherry blossom viewing festival) and, even after calculating that in, was still surprised at how packed the park was on a Monday afternoon. Blue plastic tarps lay around everywhere there were cherry trees, with heaps of food, huge quantities of alcohol, and drunken Japanese on them. It was ... an experience.
We had dinner at Za Watami, a chain izakaya. Izakayas are essentially Japanese pubs: they provide a variety of small dishes: we had salads, tofu, a bit of sushi, okonomiyaki, and even the infamous natto. Of course they also have alcohol: I tried plain shochu and decided that it really wasn't going to be necessary for me to try that again. It reminded me a bit too much of vodka: a single-minded distillation that doesn't concern itself with taste so long as it gets a decent percentage of alcohol ... which is about the only thing you taste. I still like hot sake though. Natto is fermented beans: they apparently smell horrible, taste weird, and have a texture reminiscent of snot. They are apparently an acquired taste - one that Trine has, in fact, acquired. I didn't get the full treatment though: they were inside an omelet mixed with kimchi. It tasted a little like slightly bad meat to me - certainly not appealing. Trine snarfed the rest of it.