Saturday, June 1, 2013
Letters from Tokyo: a Month in my Favorite Place on Earth - Part 1
How are you! We are fine, enjoying the neighborhood and the food here.
Everything was fine. The taxi driver was 5 minutes early to take us to SFO airport; there was no heavy traffic on 101 and no lines on the check-in. Security was easy, and we had time for brunch before departing.
The flight was good. I thought it was 11 hours long, but it was 10 and the pilot managed to do it in 9:30. Nicolas didn't throw up, but I almost did it during landing. It was so bumpy! From Narita we took a one hour bus to a hotel, and then a 2 minute taxi ride to the apartment. Nicolas didn't sleep during the flight, but was sleeping heavily during the bus ride. It was so difficult to take him off the bus. I was carrying a heavy backpack, and wasn't strong enough to carry him in my arms. He was walking like a zombie, poor baby.
When we arrived at the apartment he was wide awake. It was around 2 am California time. We went out for dinner in our favorite place (they serve pork Tonkatsu), just a 2 minutes walking from where we are living. We came back, I gave Nicolas a bath in the ofuro and put him to bed at 7:30pm. He slept till 7:45 am next day (Saturday or today... when we are one day ahead saying "day" is kinda confusing).
For lunch, I found a child friendly restaurant. I ordered some ramen from the English menu, but it was full of seafood (not mentioned in the English menu). Conclusion: Nicolas and I have a rash on our backs. It was worth it. I have no idea how they cooked that, but it was soupy and creamy at the same time. Nicolas recognized Ropongi Hills because there was a Lego store that we visited last time. He was very excited to get a new, small and not so expensive Lego set, but the store has closed and now there is a new toy store there. He chose a Japanese ice cream truck whose owner's name is Antonio. Hilarious! I found a huge map of Roppongi Hills for Nicolas and that is his play city now.
Breno forgot his swimwear, so I was the one who had to ask salespeople where to find it. Imagine me trying to ask about trunks in English to people who barely speak English (ridiculous when I got to pretend I was swimming, but pointing to Breno and then my legs). The "problem" is that Japanese are too helpful. Two ladies printed a map in Japanese showing how to get to Shinjuku by subway and the step by step till a department store specialized in swimwear. Coming back to the apartment, I asked the girl at the front desk to translate the names for me. She translated everything and even said, "thank you for waiting". I quickly replied "thank you for your time". Oh, the swimwear is because there is a very nice warm pool here with Tokyo Tower view that we want to enjoy.
Actually, we go to sleep and wake up looking at Tokyo Tower. It is so funny how N.'s memory is amazing. When we got at our apartment he pointed and said, "Look, mamãe, Tokyo Tower. Can we go, get the elevator and see everything from up there?"
Oh, the weather is nice. When we left Narita there were huge patches of 2-days-old snow everywhere. Beautiful! And I was soooo happy that I bought my snow boots and brought snow jackets. Because of that (plus the underpants and warm socks) we were not feeling cold outside. I even got hot today walking to Roppongi. The sidewalks are kinda of slippery, though, where the snow has become sort of a packed ice.
Besides going to Nagoya on February 1st, we have no other plans. We are trying to take it easy on our touring, so we won't be done sightseeing too sooNicolas I found a bookstore specialized in books from the 70's. It's in Minato-ku, very close to here. I want to go and ask if they have 2 of Murakami's books that are from the 70's and are sold out in the US. I found one today at a small bookstore and bought it for 1000 yen (little more than 10 dollars). It's called "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman". I don't want start reading right now. I don't know; I feel I want to let the book "live" here with me, absorb all the smells and air from Japan and then take it with me, so when I open it in California it's going to be extra special. I'm sure you understand what I mean.
Breno and Nicolas gave up and went to bed before 8pm. I woke up at 2am, but I think I can still stay awake until 10 or 11 pm. I should have told Breno that I wanted to go out by myself tonight. I guess all the nice hotels around here in Akasaka have nice bars. I wanted to feel like Aomame ordering some fancy cocktail in a trendy hotel bar (minus the other things that she was looking for, ok). However, I don't think it's fair or wise to go out by myself without a working cellphone and not telling anyone. So, I will just think about Aomame. I had a Sapporo, though: very Tengo.
I will write to you again!
It’s a different experience to be living in an apartment this time in Tokyo. With so many foreigners visiting the city, I kind of feel robbed of an authentic experience. I remember the first time we visited Tokyo. The few Westerns we saw would make eye contact and smile, like saying "hey, buddy, we are the aliens". Nowadays, there are blue eyes everywhere. At least it feels good to speak Portuguese. By the way, in two days we heard Brazilian speaking on the streets. I guess some Brazilian are being smarter to spend their money on traveling around the world, instead of just buying things back home.
Today we went to Tokyo Tower. It was crowded with long lines. I thought we could walk there, but apparently things seem closer when you are in an higher building. So, despite my pleadings to go walking, Breno said we should take the subway. I'm glad he was right. It took us around 30 minutes from walking and transferring stations to get there. After that, I just don't feel like visiting the "Sky Tree" right now. Ok, it's the tallest self-supporting tower in the world, but I've been to Tokyo Tower and Tokyo View in less than 8 months. Come on, from up there almost everything looks the same!
The basement of Tokyo Tower is full of fast food Japanese restaurants and a Mac Donalds. I spotted a small shop with plastic food displayed outside where we went to try to find a table. Nicolas chose our entrees. It was the best looking one: a big plate of Soba with a side of rice and raw tuna. I took a quick picture and showed to the host (who was the waitress and the cashier too) with 3 fingers. Sign language is the best!
We were supposed to go to Shinjuku, but our full bellies made us too lazy for adventures, so we came back home. Later we bought some tofu, rice, miso and smoked fish for dinner. It's really difficult to buy produce without knowing what is really written on the package. It feels like a game of Battleship. I guessed right the rice, the roasted seaweed and miso, got close on the tofu (I got one that had azuki flavor) and totally sunk my ship by buying a very salted fish instead of a smoked one. I'm glad I had boiled some eggs just in case.
I'm hoping to go to the Pizzeria we talked about before. Breno has not mentioned it because of his diet, but I haven't forgotten. Being from São Paulo, we don't really have pizza for lunch, but my cravings just don't care for these kind of silly rules.
The air is really dry here. Nicolas nose started to bleed and we would give each other static electricity shocks all the time. So, I asked the front desk if I could borrow a humidifier. They sent a janitor with the tech machine to show me how to use. The only English words he spoke were: on, off, strong, child block. Ten minutes later and I was able to turn on, adjust the flow, put a child lock and a timer on the humidifier. I guess we don't really need to use words when you can sign.
Today I asked for a rice cooker. I'm gonna do as the Japanese do and cook my rice in a machine! No instructions this time. The porter dropped off the rice cooker with irasshamaise, sumimasen and arigato gozaimasu. Oh my, they are so polite I feel bad sometimes. I wish I could speak more and say I'm the one very thankful for all the help.
From my living room I can see many office rooms. On Friday night I saw a suit hanging on a wire by an office window. I guess the guy was planning to work for long hours and took off his suit to take a nap. The lights are off now (Sunday night). I hope he went home for some rest.
I'm alone again. Husband and son went to bed early. I woke up at 5am, but I'm feeling I can still read for some time. Actually, I really enjoy my alone-time.
I chose a Yebisu today. Not very Tengo, and not very good. I'm definitely a Sapporo girl.
PS: I'm gonna buy pickles tomorrow. You remember why, right?
I woke up at 4:57 am with my bed shaking sideways. I heard the drawer squeaking, and I just kept still waiting to see if it was going to shake some more or if it was done. It was done, but that was the second one last night. On the first shaking I was too sleepy to be disturbed.
The quakes here feel different. Or maybe it's just the fact that we are at the 15th floor and the buildings are made to go with the flow. Hehehe. And I always get a little sick from the motion.
Today was rainy and cloudy, but I wanted to go out anyway. It's not really an option to stay home and watch CNN, BBC or Japanese Disney Channel. So I dressed Nicolas with his snow boots, snow jacket and borrowed 2 black umbrellas (the ones that office workers use) from the front desk. It was not a very good idea. At least not for N., as the umbrella was huge and he kept bumping into everybody on the sidewalk. So, I stopped at the mini market to buy a small blue umbrella for him. By the time we left it was pouring! "Mamãe, I think we should go back." Yeah, we came back and played few games, like cars and signals (we made stop, slow and go sigs), treasure hunt (you know how Nicolas plays that), and we watched a huge crane working far away.
We had a break from the bad weather exactly at lunch time when we headed for a Yakitori place, that is just around the corner from our building, to have lunch with B.. The waitress didn't speak any English and the "English menu" just had the names of the plates. So I ordered 2 rice bowls with chicken for Breno and Nicolas and one that was different for me. I thought that it would be impossible for the food to taste bad, and I know that the only thing I don't like in this world is mole (at least I haven't tried a good one yet).
After lunch we had a walk around the corner and I saw a different building that looked like a Buddhist cemetery. It was closed, but that led us to a garden. It was very beautiful and it's winter time. I imagine what it would like in Spring or Summer.
The sun started to shine and, besides the snow forecast, the sky began to clear. Breno went back to Facebook and we decided to look for a pet store that has small animals (Japanese love cute things). We saw two mini monkeys, many mini puppies and the most beautiful kittens in the world! I thought they were "ready to shoot cute advertisement animals". And we could pet any one of them! After disinfecting our hands we pet some of the small dogs (but they didn't offer the sanitizer afterwards). I really dislike monkeys, even the cute ones, and my allergies don't permit me get close to cats, you know.
From there on, I felt adventurous and decided to keep walking. We ended up in Midtown Tokyo, saw beautiful modern architecture, and an ice rink! I followed a sign saying "Garden Terrace" thinking it to be a park place, but it was a restaurant. There was a park outside, but it looked more like a garden. I wonder if there is a sandbox kind of park for children here. Maybe not. I don't know how they would keep it perfectly clean.
I noticed that buying groceries is as expensive as eating out at restaurants. So we are going to try eating breakfast home and we are going to try eating lunch and dinner outside. I don't mind at all. The good thing is that I can eat whatever I want and not gain weight due to the walking. I guess I have being walking around 2 hours per day, including a 20 minute climbing to get to Roppongi Hills (because that street should not be called anything else but a hill).
However, I have to tell you that I already figured out where to buy what. Some groceries (as rice, oil, soy sauce, dry noodles, miso paste) I can buy at a really inexpensive store called Doki (Don Quijote). It's better to buy the fresh produce at a store called Union that has everything from apples to zucchinis on sale after 3 pm. The down side is that the only beer that market doesn’t sell is Sapporo. I got an Asahi Dry Black today. You know I like dark beer, so I thought it would be ok to give it a try. It's not bad, but it is not Sapporo.
We have being trying to go to that Pizzeria I told you. So far, we haven’t been lucky. I'm starting to think they only open during the weekend. They were close today (Tuesday night), so we found a bucket wheat noodle place. It's interesting how often the Japanese restaurants are specialized in just one type of food. Nicolas enjoyed so much the noodles that he kept quiet until he finished. And then, he laid on B.'s lap and sighed.
By now, you can guess, that I'm by myself at the living room enjoying my Asahi and writing, right? Yep. Breno Breno and Nicolas are sleeping. I guess Tokyo air makes them sleepy. Or is it the excitement that makes me awake?
My reading is not going really well. Besides reading the travel guides I brought, the other books I got on Kindle are not really catching my attention. I was reading a book about Somalia's pirates on the airplane, but I think there's something fishy about the writer. He kind of justifies the pirate's actions and blames all the politics. So, I gave up yesterday and I started reading "The Call of the Wild" by Jack London. Have you read it? The story begins in Santa Clara. ;)
I'm so tired today. I walked a lot and I gave Nicolas a nice workout too.
Today was cleaning day here at the apartment, so I wanted to go out before the maids came. We didn't have any plans, so I just asked Nicolas what he wanted to do it. He said he wanted to see the dinosaurs. We left at 9:30 dreading the crowds at the subway, but it was not crowded at all. I got my PASMO card, a kind of ticket that you charge with as much money as you want (actually, up to 10000 yen) and use it to ride the metro, the bus and the trains.
The dinosaurs live at the National Museum of Nature and Science at Ueno Park. This park houses many other museums, a huge garden, the famous Cherry Blossom walk, a lake and the zoo. I guess we are going to go back there few more times.
I tried a different way to get to the Museum this time (we had visited this museum April last year) and we got luck that the shrine was opened. We took some pictures from the outside, but pictures are not allowed inside. Before going in, you have to wash your face and your hands in a fountaiBreno There is a wood gate where you hang your O-mikuji (random fortunes written on stripes of paper). If you get a bad luck fortune, you should hang it on the wall to null the bad effect. If you get a luck one, you should hang it so it becomes true. Japanese people are very superstitious.
It was windy today, so we felt colder than usual. There were just few students, on school trips, walking around the museum. That place is huge, though. There are two big buildings each with 4 floors. Last time we visited just the Global Gallery. Today we visited the Japan Gallery too, and it was my favorite. Both galleries had dinosaurs, but the Japan Gallery had an exhibition about the history of human evolution in Japan. The figures of caveman to modern man were perfectly made, I thought it was creepy. I was waiting to see the statues start to move and say "I got you, we are actors".
From there on, we decided to take a walk around the lake. The crows here are huge. And when I saw huge, think about humongous. There were four crows fighting another one to its death. I swear it was horrible. It was much worse than watching a lion hunting a gnu on Animal Planet, for example. It kind of reminded me a little bit about the book I'm reading, "Call of the Wild". It's about a dog who was stolen from his owner in Santa Clara and ends up pulling sleighs in Alaska.
We had lunch at a Starbucks, trying to escape the cold weather. I think the Japanese Starbucks are the best in the world. I had a green tea frappuccino, Nicolas had a hot chocolate and we split a box of small sandwiches (tuna, egg salad, cucumber and potato salad). Even the sandwiches were delicious.
On our way back home, we stopped at Ginza so I could buy my favorite pickles for breakfast. Not quite Aomame pickles, but I could eat these every day, every meal. And yes, I said breakfast. I've been cooking Japanese style breakfast: rice, miso soup, fish, seaweed and pickles (plus eggs, yogurt and fruit for N.).
For dinner we finally had sushi! Beautiful and delicious. I was so hungry I devoured my first plate super-fast. We had to walk 10 minutes there and 10 minutes back. When I tell you I'm afraid I'm gonna lose weight, I'm not kidding. I'm already 46.5 kilos. I have to snack and include carbs in the main meals every day.
Nicolas was so tired he had a meltdown. When we got to our floor, I raced to our apartment to get there first. He was totally pissed that I hadn't warned him I intended to race. Well, life it's not always fair.
I had my Sapporo at the restaurant today. I'm gonna have a scoop of green tea ice cream and get ready for bed.
We took it easy today. My main goal was to find a playground, a good pizza and some chocolate cake. Mission accomplished!
As soon as we left the apartment, something funny happened. There was a group of 8 tourists from India walking and one of the guys tried to take a picture of N.. I stopped and asked Nicolas to pose for a photo doing a peace sign. The guy was very happy and all the ladies were smiling. Let's see if my boy becomes famous overseas.
Nicolas had a lot of fun at the playground. Besides the swings, slides and play structures, he was most happy running down a hill towards my arms. He did that a hundred times. Once he tipped, fell and rolled down hill. It was harmless, and he even had a laugh attack. Me too.
We were so dirty I was afraid they would not let us in the restaurant. I tried my best to clean the dust from our pants and the dirty from under our nails.
Our waiter, Valerio, was from Italy, and was very friendly. He even gave Nicolas free orange juice. Pizza was delicious. I'm going back there with Breno later this week and maybe twice a week with Nicolas while we are here. It's a 20 minute walk from home.
I have to explain that there is this street that I have to "climb" every time I go towards Roppongi Hills. The playground is on that direction too, but then I have to turn right at the first big intersection, take a short cut through a mall and get to the glass tunnel. Very interesting. You would swear I have a sense of direction. Something I've told you so many times I don't have. I'm not afraid to get lost here. And there are many reasons for that.
- I can ask anyone to help me
- I can ask a police officer (there is no crime here, just lost people)
- I can find the closest subway entrance
- I can find the closest hotel and ask for help
- I can get a taxi and hand over the apartment address (good thinking, I just have to write it down and put in my bag)
- I can look up and find Tokyo Tower.
After pizza, we went looking for a chocolate cake. Nicolas spotted a cookie, at a mini market, that he was asking me since we got here. But we always see these big boxes and I didn't want to buy something that size. So he saw a small package and I gave him the money. He was very cute going to the cashier and handling the cookie and the money.
Then, I found this patisserie that looked like a dream. I wanted to buy one of each thing that was inside. There was a "no picture" sign up front. I guess it wasn't just me that couldn't believe my own eyes. They had these macaroons that were filled with fruit jam and dipped in chocolate. So expensive! 480 yen each, and they were small (I put the whole thing in my mouth because Nicolas was eating his 100 yen package of cookies and I didn't feel like sharing that). I did find a small slice of chocolate cake that I shared with him later.
We came back home and I did the laundry. We took a shower while the clothes were drying. Then, we went out again. We visited a kind of outlet store to find new gloves for Nicolas (I lost his somewhere), some plastic bowls for soup and a tiara for me. The hat I brought to wear is not really helping because my hair is too long. I can see your face now saying "your hair is not too big, you are just not used to it".
Every day at 5pm I hear a music that sounds like a telephone alarm. I've been looking everywhere inside the house and I can't find the source of that noise. It's not my phone, not the tablets, not the land phone, not the fax, none of the appliances. Then I heard that noise on the street today when I was coming down from Roppongi Hills. It seemed like something out of a movie because it sounded as coming from the sky! I asked at the front desk what it was. They told me it's just for letting people to know that is 5pm already. However, Breno will have to ask his coworkers at Facebook more about that for me.
We had Tonkatsu for dinner today. This restaurant is the one we go when we are too lazy to walk or to make a decision about where to eat. Believe me, we have so many restaurants/food options around here I could eat in a different place every day for a year (or more).
In Japan, Breno sleeps early and Breno I sleep late. I wake up early, he wakes up late. Nicolas goes from 8:30pm to 7~8am, not bad for him.
Last night I was reading in bed and then I woke up, in the middle of the night, with my Kindle on my nose. I guess I was so tired that I kind of blocked out.
I'm liking the book. Jack London was a San Franciscan and I want to read more local writers this year (besides finishing Murakami's books).