Bike Journey

Today I bought a used bike.  I took the subway for 30 minutes to my meeting point at Nakano-sakaue Station, an area just northwest of Shinjuku.  Then, I had to get my new wheels home, without the help of the train.

First, agh!

Then, ah.

Next, wow.

Then I started to recognize where I was…

And finally, home!

The whole trip was just over 10 km and took me 2 hours, which is funny because the walking directions on Google Maps are listed at 2 hours and 5 minutes… well, OK, I did stop and buy beer.  I couldn’t bring my new mamachari home with an empty basket!

It’s true, this little mama chariot doesn’t look quite as mama as it could, which is just fine by me.  It gets my precious cargo home just the same.

ps – You can see my route here.

Tsukiji, say what?

One of the best things I’ve done in Tokyo thus far is visit the Tsukiji fish market.   Officially called the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji (pronounced “skee-gee”) is where 2,000 tons of seafood come into Japan every day.  Did you get that?  Every day!  With the auctions beginning at 5:00 am, I dragged my feet a bit in getting around to visit here — I thought, if this place requires me getting up so dang early, it better be worth it.  Since I had a friend visiting who was up at the crack of dawn with a bit of jet-lag, it seemed as good a time as any.  With iced coffee and onigiri in hand, we set off soon after the subway started running.

A gigantic warehouse complex packed full of tiny stalls where wholesale vendors peddle their goods, the market is not for the faint of heart.  We picked our way through the skinny walkways, trying to avoid the remains of who-knows-what at our feet.  The place was busy and packed so full of people doing their daily business that it felt like a place we really shouldn’t be.  But one of the great things about visiting Tsukiji is that you get to see the real deal.  No one asked us to leave, and a few men in rubber boots even nodded or smiled at us as we passed.  Fish flop at every corner, or are gutted and sitting on styrofoam platters.  Every sort of sea creature is for sale, some still alive, all packed on ice or in huge plastic tubs.  One live shrimp jumped out of its bucket as we walked by, and at one point I’m pretty sure I was fish-slapped by a stray in a passing tank.  Water mixed with fish guts sloshed around the floor.

The market was almost chaotic, but perfectly orchestrated.  By far the loudest place I’ve found in Tokyo, people shout and little three-wheeled motorized carts speed by (seriously, they are fast), but everyone is respectful and no one crashes and everything moves together in unison.  It was really amazing and beautiful to watch, despite the glassy eyeballs staring up at me from the styrofoam.

Then we found the tuna.  Tuna is a big deal in Japan, and once I saw them at Tsukiji I understood why.  I was mesmerized by them.  They are as big as me and flash frozen, so the giant fish literally look like ghosts.  They’re stacked on palettes, driven around by carts, sent through table saws, and hacked up for sale.  Their insides have a deep red color unlike any other fish in the market (they’re warm blooded!), and create a dramatic contrast to the other fish in mostly whites and grays.  A slab of tuna looks like a juicy t-bone steak, and could cost you $50 or more.  I watched the bright white and red tuna parts being carted around the market and was incredibly moved.  I actually felt haunted by them.

After learning that bluefin tuna is seriously endangered, Dan and I have tried to stop eating it, a difficult undertaking while living in Japan.  I’m still not quite sure what I was feeling at Tsukiji, I suppose simultaneous awe and heartbreak.  It is a very weird feeling, and I remain conflicted.  Tsukiji is an amazing place to experience, but part of what makes it so is exactly the thing it hurts.

In case any readers wander upon this post and want to visit Tsukiji, the closest subway station is Tsukiji-Shijo on the Odeo line, though it seems the Tsukiji stop on the Hibiya line works as well.  If you want to make it in time for the fish auctions at 5 am, you’ll have to take a taxi or walk.

Also, if you’d like more information on the peril of the bluefin tuna, there’s a hefty yet worthwhile article here.

Tea for Three

We have a friend in town for a visit, which has been a great excuse to check out some of the guidebook sites we haven’t yet seen.

Hama Rikyū Teien is within walking distance of our current apartment, and is a pleasant diversion from Tokyo’s humid June weather.  Now a public garden, the area was owned by a feudal lord during the Edo period (1603 to 1868) and served as duck hunting grounds for the shogunate.  It opened to the public in 1946, and includes a flower field with blooms for every season, a saltwater tidal pond with floating tea house, and a 300-year-old pine tree.

While we wandered through the gardens, we came across a bride and groom in traditional kimono having their pictures taken.  It was amazing to think that we were in the center of the city.

Matcha (Japanese green tea) and sweets in the tea house were our aim, so we wandered over the bridge and inside for some welcome shade.

Tea was served in the style of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which I hadn’t yet tried for fear I would make an offensive mistake.  The casual atmosphere of the tea house was a great place to try it for the first time.  As we sat on our knees on the tatami mat, kind women in kimono smiled, brought out our tea, and then slipped us each a cheat sheet.

Sweets are eaten first, placed with the paper in your left hand while you use the wooden skewer in your right to swiftly cut it into pieces.  It was just the right amount of sweet.  Then on to the matcha.  Place the bowl in left hand, then turn it clockwise 3 times, so to display the fancy design of your bowl outward.  Three sips is all you get, leaving as little foam as possible.  A slurp is always polite.

I was a little worried I was going to scald my tongue, but by the time I got to my tea it was just the right temperature. I should have known — a few centuries of practice, and the Japanese have their tea to perfection.