(A Remarkable Lack of) Fear & Loathing in Japan, Part 2
Welcome back! When last we left off, Sheila and I had returned from the Keyaki Beer Festival and the frivolity thereof. With our first weekend concluded, we looked forward to Monday morning and the week ahead. But before I can get too much into that, I need to get something out of the way.
We Need to Talk About Chu-Hi
So, chu-hi. Or chūhai, or chuuhai, or however you want to write it. You may recall a passing reference to it in Part 1 of this very blog series, but I'd like to take a moment to describe what exactly it is. Chu-hi is big in Japan. It's a beverage of the adult variety, a refreshing concoction that comes in one of numerous light fruity flavors. Our favorites were lemon and grapefruit. Lest you be fooled by this seemingly innocuous description, chu-hi is potent. Deceptively so, in that it doesn't really even taste like it contains alcohol, but is actually packing a quite respectable 6% or so. And if that wasn't enough, there is a variety we nicknamed "Strong 9" that has a whopping NINE percent alcohol while still tasting like a glass of your grandmother's lemonade. "Wonderful" is not a strong enough word to describe chu-hi. It is possibly mankind's greatest achievement. It's a little slice of heaven that makes the mouth water and the liver call up its lawyer to draft its last will and testament. Also, it opens up endless possibilities for "what are chu, high?" jokes.
After Shela and I got our first taste, our fiending for chu-hi was severe. We purchased it at 7-11, purchased it at the train station, purchased it from vending machines, purchased it at an underground robot restaurant (let's put a pin in that one). The only thing we did more often than purchasing and consuming chu-hi was singing the chorus from Usher's "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)." And on Monday morning, waking up somewhat groggy from our beerfest adventure the day before, we decided to purchase some for breakfast. We might have also eaten something, I don't know, who cares. In any case, fueled up by this divine nectar, we sought out to explore Shinjuku, the neighborhood we were staying in.
The Golden Arches and the Rising Sun
Naturally, one of our first impulses when wandering around a neighborhood we were completely unfamiliar with, in a foreign country we had never visited before, was to check out their McDonald's. One of the recurring themes of our trip was the vastly smaller portion sizes of food in Japan compared to the United States. It was almost as if it were a signal that we eat far too much in America, but I know that can't be true. Knowing this, however, we made a shocking discovery when we entered the Shinjuku Micky D's: they had an item on the menu more decadent than anything a Western extra value meal can provide. Yes friends, fall to your knees and bear witness to the processed-patty spectacle known as the Mega Mac.
No, you're not seeing double: those are four all-beef patties to go along with the special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on that sesame seed bun. Naturally, I had to experience this behemoth for myself, and it was exactly like you'd expect, which is to say, delicious. I felt like a kid again, and not just because I was surrounded by cartoon characters and people talking about things I didn't understand. The word "glorious" gets tossed around too much these days, but this was an occasion where it was truly fitting.
Sheila got herself a Filet-O-Ebi, a shrimp burger not entirely unlike the one I had eaten earlier at Mos Burger, making it another winner. Overall, it was a satisfying meal, and we applauded ourselves for not taking the safe culinary route and really going out there to explore foreign dishes.
After that, we had a pretty low-key day. We wandered the area, exploring little nooks and crannies, while the pale flabby blob that is my body panicked about the sudden increase in physical activity.
We attempted to go to the National Park nearby, but like the pack of bewildered tourists we encountered there, we were saddened to find that it was closed on Monday. Instead, we went out in search of a large Godzilla atop a building that we had been informed of the evening prior. Sure enough, when we rounded the correct corner, there was ol' Gojira against the skyline.
This led us into a very interesting section of Shinjuku known as Kabuchiko, which was far different than the quiet urban utopia immediately surrounding our hotel. This place was chaotic and bustling, chock full of neon lights, eateries, drinkeries, and images of scantily clad young women promising forbidden delights beyond curtains and dark stairwells. Fun stuff!
We even bumped into a random couple from Orange County, and I experienced the jarring sensation of hearing Southern California accents for the first time in days. Perhaps most significantly, we saw the exterior of Robot Restaurant, an attraction that had been recommended to me by several people.
Even standing outside of it and looking at the pamphlet the staff handed out, I still had no idea what it was, but I got us two tickets for a show on Thursday so we could find out.
After begrudgingly leaving Kabuchiko's breastfest behind, we tried to figure out dinner. There were countless restaurants in the vicinity, but precious few had the elusive "English Menu Available" sign in the window. As time went by and the stomach rumblings grew more angrily acidic, we began to wonder what on Earth we were capable of ordering for dinner. Finally, Sheila just picked a place that she had a good feeling about, and ended up being right on the money, as the ordering system there was done through machines that had English translation options. Soon we were chowing down on a delicious meal while slowly deciphering what our server's initial flurry of gestures signified (unlimited rice, as it turns out).
Satiated, we headed back to our hotel room as a light rain pitter-pattered around us. We only made one brief stop: a 7-11, to buy some more chu-hi and a bag of the most ominous-looking foodstuff I've ever seen:
Ralph Wiggum described these pretty well.
We had a bit of a problem on Tuesday morning. Up until then, the relatively minuscule portion size of Japanese entrées was something of a novelty, just another charming Japanese quirk. However, after several cumulative days of dealing with this, our stretched-out American bellies began to complain, loudly and violently. So when we ordered breakfast at a coffee spot and were handed a sandwich the size of a baby's fist, things took a turn for the ugly. Our methods of acquiring food were going to have to change, and soon, lest we find ourselves gorging on sweet, sweet human flesh out of desperation and some tiny kernel of shameful curiosity. We determined that the best course of action was simply to go visit a more touristy area, wherein we could see some sights and find some readable menus.
We took the subway to Asakusa, a lovely area laden with temples, gates and other impressively spiritual architecture, while also boasting a plethora of shops, restaurants and street vendors. There's some observation about the base material elements contrasting with the purity and ceremony of religion, but I was more than happy to look past the yin-yang factor of the area and simply enjoy it for what it is.
It's quite a feeling, standing in a giant temple with hundreds of people praying around you, peering into an ornate golden room just minutes after buying a cartoon sumo keychain from a street vendor.
We visited the massive Sensoji Temple, a sprawling area located beyond the awesomely-named Thunder Gate.
The variety of structures and statues there is truly remarkable, ranging from the awe-inspiring to the quaintly pretty to the kinda creepy.
Also, there was a pagoda that can only be described as "dope."
And despite being on hallowed ground, it was still super easy to find vending machines full of coffee and water. Bonus! We also found ourselves surrounded for the first time by a group of Japanese school children, whose uniforms caused Sheila to remark that she felt like she had stepped into Battle Royale.
After touring the temple and explaining to Sheila that the symbols we kept seeing everywhere weren't actually swastikas, we decided once more, with great trepidation and even greater hunger, to try our luck at getting a filling meal. After searching once more for the "English Menu" sign, we found a little sushi place that looked quite delicious.
This time, we tried the novel approach of simply asking the staff if they had an English menu, and lo and behold, they did! Fortune, as they say, favors the bold, and we felt quite fortunate indeed to be sitting down with some beer and nigiri. The cherry on top of our sushi sundae (probably a bad choice of words there) was that, in a restaurant that seated maybe a dozen people, thousands of miles from home, we ended up seated next to a gentleman from Fremont, a city not far from San Jose. We talked about the fact that he's from Fremont, and we're from San Jose! The world is weird sometimes.
Our primary goal, however, was the lofty observation deck, which promised an absurdly expansive view of Tokyo. And, despite being an overcast afternoon, it certainly delivered!
As if this view wasn't enough, you could give your acrophobia tolerance a workout with a glass floor you could stand on, staring straight down at the tiny buildings and vehicles below.
As we gazed at the Liliputian city beneath us, two older ladies shakily tiptoed around the foreboding floor pane, refusing to put so much as a toe on it. "Muri, muri," they nervously chuckled.
After seeing Tokyo from above, Sheila and I nearly left...until we saw a sign for a place called the World Beer Market. Quicker than you can say "dehydration," we were chowing down on sausages, drinking strange beers from the depths of Africa and the forbidden land of Cuba, and seeing more white people in one area than we had at any point since the airport. We sat outside, and though we hovered above the nearby rooftops, after the observation deck, our location felt positively subterranean.
Our last stop before returning to our hotel room was a walk through what felt like a city block of shops, all colorful and inviting to the extreme. Absent were the trudging, bedraggled masses of humanity and overly aggressive cell phone vendors so often seen in American shopping malls. Instead, row after row of smiling, adorable salespeople offered us their wares amidst a dazzling backdrop of pristine white floors, pastel walls and an armada of cookies, cakes and candies, some in the shape of the very Skytree we were exploring. Of course, us being who we are, we bypassed the sweets and headed toward the liquor section, where we purchase a bottle of delicious Yamazaki whiskey and the cutest bottle of mediocre sake you've ever seen.
And all of this underground, like a magical kingdom of mole people that look just like you and me, but much more chipper.
Exhausted but thrilled by the sights we had seen, Sheila and I headed hotelward. Now, that day I happened to be wearing the signature t-shirt of New Japan Pro Wrestling stable Bullet Club, because I always do my best to advertise my dorkiness to the world at large. As we walked through the subway station, we happened to bump into a guy wearing a matching hoodie. "Aw, yeah, Bullet Club! This guy gets it!" I yelled, perhaps too enthusiastically. The stranger and I high-fived, and I went on my way, elated. Truly, it was just too sweet.
Joey Marsilio loves to write about many things. In fact, his novel Henry Garrison is number one with a BULLET...get it? Well, it's number something, at least.