By my 25th birthday on September 15, 2014, I had been working hard at a job that wasn’t right–right for my career trajectory or right for me emotionally–for about seven months. But on that day it didn’t bother me, because I was 7,000 miles away.
For what was, I believe, a much deserved paid vacation, I decided to visit the city that I had always considered most exciting. Similar to the way nearly every American white girl puts Paris on a pedestal, I have always adored Tokyo and thought of it as a place where I might “find myself.” I had a little money saved, just enough to buy the tickets and still maybe have some spending money at the bottom of the barrel. So one day in late summer, via iMessage of course, I proposed to my long time friend Sarah aka Cousler aka Cousler8 that we visit together over my birthday week. I hadn’t really spent much quality time with Sarah in the last five years, but I knew that she loved the city and when I say I always wanted to visit, I mean I always wanted to visit with her. She was thrilled at the idea, as I’d hoped.
So we put in our requests for days off. I bought a the Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo and highlighted the shit out of it. Even though we could barely get in touch with one another to buy the tickets with our completely opposite work schedules (and Sarah’s signature unreachability) we somehow managed to snag two round trip seats to Tokyo Narita Airport on Delta airlines, for $1,000 each. It was the exact amount we could afford, and the lowest price we’d seen in about a month of lurking Kayak.
Although no stranger to air travel, I had only been out of the country once before. Having failed to locate my passport (did I lose it in the fire that burnt down my college residence in 2010? Is it buried somewhere beneath a heap of Lifetouch photos in the back of my childhood closet? I’ve resigned myself to ignorance) I rushed around town on my days off, procuring the necessary forms of identification, while astonishing and dismaying myself with my inability to master the basic functions of a photocopier. I didn’t believe this was all really happening until I received my passport in the mail. I take that back – to this day I am not 100% certain any of this really happened. It’s now been a month since I returned from the trip, and some details are hazy, like trying to recall a dream, so to make it easier for me and for you I will tell the story of my journey one day at a time. For more photos (many, many more) peep the links to my Flickr and Instagram in the sidebar.
Day 1: #TokyoForever #ByeUSA
In an effort to not spend the nearly 24 hours door to door by our lonesome, Sarah flew to meet me in NY the day before departure. She arrived while I was still at work, and still unpacked for that matter, so we only had time for a few hugs that evening before she fell asleep on my couch watching The Killing and I piled my life into a TJ Maxx suitcase (it’s amazing) in a full-on state of panic. I packed every colorful item I owned, every bold patterned anything. I was prepared to serve a NYC meets Harajuku look every day I was to be there. I packed my big ass camera that I never use into my Victoria’s Secret backpack, put my pink Sharper Image luggage tags on my two bags and slept for five hours. The next morning I said goodbye to James, who’d be staying in Ridgewood that week to take care of the cats for me. Sarah and I ate sandwiches in the $80 cab ride to Newark Airport.
As soon as we got there, I spent $40 more on a memory foam neck pillow. I’m telling you this because it ended up being the best $40 I ever spent. I suggest you all buy one, even if you’re not traveling. My greatest aspiration is that one day everything I own will be memory foam. My clothing, my TV, my refrigerator. My car. Cutlery. Ah, that’s when I’ll know I’ve made it. Anyway-
Our first flight was no big deal. We had a short layover in the very sexy (no sarcasm) Minneapolis/St.Paul airport, then boarded a for the 10 hour haul to Tokyo. I was mentally prepared because I had flown Delta recently, and I knew there would be S-I-C-K entertainment options in the back of the seat in front of me. The main problem was I already had a post-nasal drip that would not quit, and it was soon to be exacerbated. On that flight, I probably watched 5 movies and slept for a total of 20 minutes. Sarah was out for a good bit and I would have been very jealous were it not for the KUSH-ASS memory foam supporting my lower back, and the unlimited beverage service that kept me pretty much wasted the entire time.
Day 2 – Tita Chu and Her Generous Boo
After walking through the bizarrely deserted customs area, and waiting by the wrong baggage claim for about a half hour, we met Sarah’s Aunt, Tita Chu and her husband, whose name I do not remember, so I will call him Tito. He and I didn’t communicate much other than nods and smiles, since the only language he speaks is Japanese. Did I mention I don’t know any Japanese? Doesn’t matter. I should still know his name.
How do I describe Tita Chu? Tita Chu is a hilarious Filipino woman, about 5’2″ and gorgeous with a shoulder length haircut. Tita Chu has the cackle of a witch, if that witch was also your favorite friend to take to the mall. She has the greatest and most effective side-eye I have ever seen. Tita Chu tells it like it is. She wears 4 inch heels 24/7, except in the apartment, when we all wear slippers. God I love slippers. I never realized how gross bare feet were until I was exposed to slipper culture.
What I also didn’t realize until I actually arrived in Japan is that I am far too big for everything in the country. Immediately upon entering Tita Chu’s minimalist apartment in Ryogoku, my arms were hitting Sarah’s family members in the face and knocking over Charmmy Kitty figurines. My suitcase was the size of Tita Chu herself. It took an unreasonable amount of generosity from her, then, to let us stay at her apartment for our first night in the city. It worked out pretty well since we immediately collapsed into Sarah’s cousin’s bed of stuffed animals and slept for 11 hours. It was 7 PM.
Day 3 – Culture Shock or Cold Medicine?
The next morning I awoke at the crack of dawn with a terrible sinus headache. Luckily Tita Chu wakes up as early as we do when we’re 13 hours ahead of schedule, and she gave me a packet of Japanese cold medicine. I have no idea what was in it, but I do know that it worked. That plus a humongous Filipino breakfast and I was feeling high as hell. I don’t think it was even 8 AM by the time we decided to go explore the neighborhood, and being that it was a Sunday morning, we were told nothing would be open. But it was a beautiful day, and we were antsy, so we set out on our first adventure.
The view from Tita Chu’s apartment
One of the first things I noticed about Tokyo was, despite crowded streets and sidewalks, how quiet everything is. I’m used to being one of the loudest people everywhere I go, but this was different. No horns were honking, no sirens blaring. And there was no litter anywhere. This was especially confusing since there didn’t seem to be any public trash receptacles anywhere either. We quickly realized that in Japan, you own your garbage. People just abide by the social contract there. You also very seldom see homeless people. It makes NYC look like a war zone.
Down the street from Tita Chu’s, we found a mall that was set to open at 10 AM. In the hour before, teens crowded around the entrance and waited for the doors to open. Waiting in line for things to open is another thing I saw a lot in Tokyo that I don’t really see here that often. I guess people just wake up on the weekends with a plan to hit the arcade, and they are so serious about it that they will literally sit on the sidewalk for an hour to be one of the first inside. I personally hate to wait for anything. This is one of my most American qualities.
We waited at the Starbucks next to the mall. If you’re wondering, Starbucks in Japan is exactly like Starbucks in America, except the menu is in both Japanese and English, the “small” size is really, really small, and there is no free wifi. I know because I figured out very quickly how to ask for a “wifi password” using my own fucked up version of sign language. When the mall opened, I was surprised at how much it looked exactly like an American mall. A lot of the clothes, though Japanese labels, were imitations of distinctly American and British styles. Burgundy plaid skirts and creeper-style loafers were in about half the stores we saw. I would quickly come to learn that the most common looks for girls in Tokyo under 30 are: Punk, Ivy League, Barbie Doll, and American Early 90s. What I’m trying to say is that everyone and everything looked great. But if I wanted to buy a pair of shoes, I was shit out of luck. When I tried on a pair of sky-high wedges and I could barely squeeze my feet in them, I motioned to the sales girl for a bigger size. She covered her mouth and giggled. I’d just tried on their biggest size.
Then it was time for our first Japanese bite. It was a little hard to choose where to go because everything looked so delicious and we had no idea what any of it was. We settled for a little ramen spot where you order from a touch screen vending machine, which then prints you a ticket to hand to your server. It was kind of brilliant, since we knew the only way we could order anything was by pointing at pictures anyway.
Later that day, while still cracked out on cold medicine and feeling like I was in an alternate universe, Tita Chu and Tito took us to the Edo-Tokyo museum. The Edo period in Japanese history is between 1603 and 1868, which I already knew a little bit about from Ninja Turtles III. The museum tells the history of the Geisha and the tradition of Kabuki, and had original paintings by iconic Japanese artists like Hokusai.
Afterwards, we traveled to our apartment in Roppongi, which we’d conveniently reserved on Airbnb a week prior for 65 dollars a night. On the way, we watched music videos on an iPhone propped to the dashboard of Tito’s car. Sarah and I had been talking about how much we love that catchy song “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit. It wasn’t until the music video came on during our drive through the city that we realized it’s actually about Japan. I pretty much get goosebumps and cry every time I hear it now, officially making me the cheesiest person that’s ever lived.
That night, we bought bottles of sake and Japanese whiskey and tried to turn up. So far we’d been too weak to do it, and I really wanted that to change. But jet lag is no joke – I fell asleep in a plate of overpriced dumplings that night while ringing in my birthday at a restaurant in Roppongi Hills.
The next morning it was officially my birthday in Japan, so I set out to do all the things I’d always dreamed of, like going to a sushi bar, a cat cafe and shopping in Shibuya. Unfortunately I woke up at 6 AM again, this time with screaming back pain, and felt compelled to do two hours of yoga in the middle of our tiny apartment, next to a kitchenette sink that smelled a little (a lot) like poo. I had time to contemplate age and what it meant to be another year older and where I wanted to go in life. September 15 in Japan is actually Respect for the Aged Day, funny enough. So I tried to show myself some of that respect.
That afternoon, after dressing myself up like an adult child, we walked from a sushi bar in Roppongi Hills through Ebisu to Nyafe Melange, a cat cafe. I will let the following photos speak for themselves.
When you arrive at the cat cafe, the girls at the front desk ask you to wash your hands and then you pay the entry fee. Admission comes with a drink, and is charged by the half hour with the option to purchase a “snack” for the cats. The snack is a small tupperware filled with katsuobushi, or bonito flakes, which are dried fermented fish flakes used in Japanese cuisine. The cats go NUTS over these, and it’s good that we bought them because they pretty much just sleep and ignore you unless you have food (same). I also noticed that most of the patrons were petting the cats in a way I had never seen before. Instead of dragging the palm of their hand across the back or rubbing the butt, they were patting the butt at the base of the tail over and over. I came home and tried the butt-pat with Kosmo and it was a major hit. Try it on your cat!
From there we walked up Meiji-Dori to Shibuya crossing. Again, the sheer number of people that manage to coexist in one space blows my mind. Maybe it was because I was a tourist, but this equivalent of Times Square in Tokyo was nowhere near as repulsive and unwelcoming as its New York counterpart. I think it’s just because foot traffic in Japan is so cooperative. In NYC people just stand around clogging up sidewalks and waiting to get hit by cabs. Oh, America.
That’s when we entered Shibuya 109. It’s basically a friggin skyscraper full of fashion stores for Japanese babes, and we were in shock. I wanted to buy everything and take pictures of everyone. I’m kicking myself now because I was so distracted I barely took any photos while I was inside. While the target market for many of the stores was a slightly younger girl, I did find a pretty awesome store with over the top hip hop gear called Baby Shoop. The mascot of Baby Shoop is the silhouette of a woman with an afro, and their slogan is “Black for Life.” A little cultural appropriation is tolerated in Tokyo, from what I could tell. I found a huge fuzzy sweater and the woman who checked me out had a deep tan, a grill and door-knocker earrings, not unlike a Japanese Kreayshawn. When I told her I was from New York she broke into a grin of familiarity. Fashion girls in Tokyo fucking love Brooklyn. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I technically live in Queens.
That evening we ate at a three story hot dog stand in the middle of Shibuya, essentially a Japanese Crif Dogs, while watching a video performance by the Black Eyed Peas from 2005. Somehow Tokyo manages to be simultaneously futuristic, traditional, and just barely irrelevant.
When we got home, Sarah went out for snacks and came back with bags full of goodies, including a potato cake that she put a candle in, and sang me happy birthday.
Day 5 – Adventures in Harajuku
The next day we had a breakfast of Curry Cup o’ Noodles before taking the train to Harajuku, because we hadn’t shopped enough already. There we found more eye-popping street cuties and a store called Spinns, which pretty much had everything we could ever want – including an adorable sales girl Yuming, who we wanted as a best friend. There is an obsession in Harajuku with American vintage clothes and toys from the 80s and 90s, and Spinns is very much on this tip. Almost every item was pastel and covered in faux fur or feathers. The walls were lined in unpackaged Malibu Barbies I recognized from my childhood. Another store called Wego decorated with spray painted old TVs and troll dolls. I was right at home…more than I even realized. This store, like many others, had racks upon racks of vintage clothing imported from the United States. I even found old UNC and NC State sweatshirts in the men’s section. It was too weird.
After spending half our money and wearing our feet to the bone, we hit up a place called Kiddyland. It’s a four-story toy store with a Star Wars section, a Studio Ghibli section, a Nintendo section, and entire floors dedicated to Snoopy and Hello Kitty. I was in heaven, although I’d already learned by now that toys are EXPENSIVE in Tokyo (and everywhere. Being a mom must be so annoying) All I wanted was a reasonably priced Pikachu, and for some reason that was very hard to find. But I had already found some adorable socks, so I was pretty happy.
We comforted ourselves with some Thai curry, then stopped by the weird beauty garage on our way out of Harajuku to pick up some hair dye. Sarah had been talking about going purple, and because I was an expert (i.e – a receptionist at a hair salon) I offered to do it for her. We used Quis Quis Devil’s Trick hair color in lavender, because that’s all we could find. When we got back to the apartment, flavored Asahis in hand, we put the color on the blonde ends of Sarah’s hair and left it on for 30 minutes. Because Devil’s Trick is essentially just a temporary gloss, all it did was cancel out the yellow tones and make her hair look normal. She was not particularly fond of that.
Day 6 – Temples, Towers and Being Tourists
Being on foot in one of the biggest cities in the world can take a lot out of you, so we took it slow on Wednesday and decided to keep it local for the day. Luckily there are plenty of things to do and see in Roppongi and the surrounding areas. It was a cloudy day, and we appreciated this. The weather in mid-September Tokyo is much like the weather in mid-September New York: beautiful by night, and just a little hotter than you might prefer by day.
After guzzling our carton of iced coffee that we bought at the corner store and washing our clothes in the tiny, microwave sized washing machine (why aren’t these popular in the US? I could fit it in my bedroom and do my laundry every day instead of once a stinky month), we marched up the hill to Chinese Cafe 8 for some greasy cashew chicken. Upon arrival we were more than a little bit confused by the decor, but we took it with a grain of salt (and lots of MSG…mmm)
Zojo-ji is a Buddhist temple located in Shiba, which is just a short walk from Roppongi. The grounds are lush and mystical, even if they do partially overlap with a hotel and golf course. On the steps of the temple we could hear people chanting inside. The most amazing moment, though, was when the only stray cat I’d seen in Tokyo emerged from the bushes and sat next to me on the temple steps. I felt like I was in a Murakami novel.
Just across the street from Zojo-ji is the Tokyo Tower, the iconic Eiffel Tower-inspired observation tower that’s nearly 1,100 feet high. I have a pretty serious fear of heights so I got a little freaked out in the elevator (I’m a loser, I know) but I will say it was the smoothest ride up I’d ever felt. The view from the top is breathtaking and doesn’t even feel real.
On our way back to Roppongi we walked through Roppongi Hills, a gigantic skyscraping complex with luxury retail, condos, offices, restaurants, BMW dealerships…basically everything rich people need to survive without leaving their neighborhood. We’d walked through it almost every day so far, but this time we stumbled into a record release concert for a boy band called 2 PM, complete with thousands of screaming teenagers. I thought Directioners were serious, but the teens are not kidding about their boybands in Tokyo.
The inside of Gonpachi
“Legend” has it that Quentin Tarantino got his inspiration for the set of the Crazy 88 fight scene in Kill Bill Vol.1 from the layout of a Roppongi restaurant called Gonpachi, so naturally it is a major tourist attraction, and naturally we succumbed. The inside of the restaurant was similar to the movie, although not nearly as grand or badass. And the food could be described as “aight.” Still, it was fun to overhear dumb conversations between other tourists and get to peep the open kitchen, complete with a yakitori grill. The best thing about traveling with Sarah is that she’s a cook, and it seems like she knows everything there is to know about food. After all, the dining in Tokyo is, like, 60% of its appeal. If the experience at Gonpachi taught me anything, it’s that the quality of a Japanese restaurant is usually inversely proportional to the percentage of white people inside. Roppongi is known as the “foreigner’s neighborhood,” so most of the spots are A) really expensive and B) crawling with rich people, jet-setters, and Japanese-American teens attending English speaking schools. That night at Muse nightclub, we drank cocktails while eavesdropping on two American college girls cry about their roommates. It was glamorous.
Day 7 – Delicious Mistakes
The next day started off pretty damn slowly. We knew we wanted to go to the Tsukiji fish market at some point, and this seemed like the best day, even though we woke up long after the infamous auction ended. Still, we figured the market would be operational all day, so we headed over there in the early afternoon. When we arrived it was a ghost town, and we could tell it would have been really amazing had we just gotten there a few hours earlier. Luckily we found a sushi restaurant right in the middle of the market that was just barely still open. Even though I could tell we were annoying them a little bit with our American straggler vibe, they still gave us the best sushi of our lives. Everyone was a happy camper.
From there we headed back to Shibuya for more shopping. Most of the day was sucked away by a 7-story gift store called Loft, which has everything you ever wanted, a gift for everyone you know, and things you never even knew existed. Once we’d finally eased our guilt by finally buying gifts for all our loved ones, it was time for karaoke.
I honestly can’t even talk about karaoke night without getting a little sick, although the experience itself was amazing. We went to Karaoke-Kan, a tall building with floors upon floors of private rooms you can rent for your party that have microphones and little TVs with lyrics on them (and terrible accompanying video footage of American cities). You order your drinks when you rent your room. We started with 1 hour of singing and 2 whiskey highballs, which is like a whiskey ginger in a beer stein, I guess. Ten minutes before the end of your hour, they call up to your room and let you know its almost up. Of course, an hour of drunk karaoke with your best friend goes by pretty fast, so by that time we were just amped for more singing. We extended our stay by another hour and asked for more highballs and shots…and did this FOUR MORE TIMES before leaving Shibuya for the night, bringing our tab to $80 each. By now the subways were no longer running, and cabs didn’t want to pick us up. But I had us covered! I was drunk and I had a map on my data-less iPhone…I could definitely lead us home by foot! We walked for over an hour, in a direction that remains unclear, at 3 in the morning along Japan Rail tracks that were under construction. It wasn’t safe or remotely advisable, and my stubbornness was pissing Sarah off. We finally dove into a cab, and it took him more than 15 minutes to drive us home. To this day I have no idea what random part of Tokyo I so confidently led us into.
Day 8 – Respite in Roppongi
The next morning is where the story gets dark. I awoke early with a splitting headache and what I can honestly claim as one of the worst hangovers of my entire life. My first thought – okay, third, behind barfing and crying – was to take a long shower to relieve some of the pain, so that I’d hopefully not have to run into traffic and kill myself. I’d been Whatsapp-ing James about how miserable I was, so I set my phone down by the toilet, stripped and stepped into the tiny tub. Like most Japanese shower heads, this one was detachable, so for about an hour I lay back with my knees bent aiming the hot water at the center of my forehead. By the end of it I didn’t feel much better, but I figured it was probably time to get the fuck out of the bathtub since I was as wrinkled as my vintage coach bag after a rainy Spring. When I pulled back the curtain, I lost my breath. I had flooded the entire bathroom in no less than two inches of water and completely submerged my iPhone for what had to have been at least thirty minutes. I tried my best to save it while my brain felt like it was bleeding out of my ears. The flashlight had turned off and for some reason I couldn’t shut off the phone, so it just sat there buzzing at its insides fried beyond repair. What was going to happen to all my photos? Would I even survive this hangover for long enough to figure this out? Was this the worst day of my life?
I strapped on my boots and forced myself out the door zombie-style to walk to every convenience store in Roppongi to look for rice. I finally found some (it came in a convenient 3 kilo bag!) and made my way back to the apartment, bent almost fully over at the waist, moaning and nearly puking on every tiny car and polite person I encountered. But first – I stopped in a Family Mart and spent $35 on prosciutto, croissants and assorted cheeses. I needed western food to get me through these times. To top it off, we also ordered a pepperoni pizza from a fucking Domino’s. Thank you based cheese god.
After that I slept until about 6 PM, and the only thing we did for the rest of the day was see Guardians of the Galaxy at the Roppongi Hills Movie Theater, which itself looks like a space station. I pretty much wanted to live there. Something about how miserable I felt made me homesick as fuck, and all I wanted to do was eat cheeseburgers in a strip mall and watch cable until I passed out in a California king. No such luck, but I was in fucking Japan, and I was kind of being a pussy.
Day 9 – Death by Shopping
Suddenly it was Saturday, and it was time to check out of our apartment. This meant packing our bags, putting the keys back in the mailbox and taking the train back to Tita Chu’s. We dropped off our stuff and hopped back on the subway to check out Akihabara, the neighborhood in Tokyo dedicated to all things Nerd – electronics, anime and video games. And hentai. Lots and lots of hentai. In fact, there was so much hentai that we were actually really uncomfortable, and had to leave the neighborhood for fear of seeing anymore cartoon semen. I did see some cool ass dolls though, and I finally found that stuffed Pikachu for James. We spent the rest of the day in Harajuku again, shopping until we couldn’t take it anymore. It got to a point where if I saw one more furry purse I was going to flip the fuck out. I really needed a nap.
That night, Tita Chu made us two dinners. Beef curry and Filipino spaghetti. We ate so much that we couldn’t move, then somehow Facetimed everyone in Sarah’s family at once across in three separate countries (don’t ask me how), and watched youtube videos until we fell asleep.
Day 10 – Arigatou Gozaimasu
When it was time to leave neither of us could accept it, but we had reached tourism overload by that point and I think we really needed a return to our reality. It was tough, because back home the two of us weren’t exactly living perfect lives and had a lot of things to sort out when we got back. And, even though we’d been close friends for eight years, we’d hit that point where we just needed some time alone. As we packed our suitcases into the car, a minor spat drove us both into tears, and we rode the whole way to Narita airport without speaking. That is, until the lyrics to Tito’s new Chris Brown album had us laughing so hard that we had to make up.
Five in-flight movies later, one being the now underwhelming Lost in Translation, we arrived at the Atlanta airport. Sarah and I parted ways and I flew back to Newark, took NJ transit into the city and met James at Penn Station. I don’t think I’ve ever missed someone, or someplace, so much.
A week later, when I’d just settled back into my routine, I was laid off from my job. It came as a shock, but sometimes the universe does for you what you’re too afraid to do yourself. I have no idea where I’m headed next, but I have some idea of who I am and what I want. For now, I’m in New York, with 25 years behind me and 75 more to go. And really, there’s no place I’d rather be. (Wink)