Japan has been a bit of a whirlwind so far! We’ve been here a week and haven’t had much time to write, so I’ll catch up now. So far we are loving it. It’s orderly, neat and clean everywhere. Eric feels he has found his people, in tidiness at least, if not in height.. People obey the crossing lights, so much so that it took me a full 24 hours to realize that they drive on the left here – I simply haven’t had to avoid a car at all and all those skills we learned in Vietnam are fading. We can finally drink water from a tap again, and I can’t tell you how wonderful this is.
Our first day we were so exhausted from the red eye we mostly slept, only leaving to find lunch and dinner. After 30 minutes of wandering through Shinjuku, we happened upon a tasty soba noodle restaurant.
For dinner, we found ourselves at a cheap conveyer belt sushi restaurant! The sushi itself was just okay – but the novelty of it was so fun! There’s a screen at your table where you can either order the sushi you want or you can take whatever comes by off the belt. The prices of the food are according to the color of the plate, and at the end of your meal your waiter adds up the plates to see what you pay. The first time a plate came by for us, the screen lit up and played music and said “food ready for pickup!” We looked around because we had no idea what was happening, but then the girl noticed some cucumber rolls going down the line, well out of our reach. Aha! Now we got it and whenever we heard the music again we snatched our plates off the belt. The next day was our time to go to the Studio Ghibli museum, one of the stops on this whole trip that I have been looking forward to the most. Studio Ghibli and it’s recently retired director Hayao Miyazaki are behind many beloved animation films popular all over the world. My Neighbor Totoro is one of my favorite movies, though Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are more known in the west. I love his children’s movies for their magical feel, strong girl characters, and bittersweet thoughtful endings instead of the cloyingly happy endings most children’s movies have. If you’ve never heard of him, get thee a rental now and watch. Tickets sell out months in advance and I had purchased our tickets in June. From the moment you enter, you feel as if you could be in one of the movies. They do not allow any photography inside the museum, I think to preserve the air of walking through and just feeling the place instead of having people constantly snapping away. Mostly I liked this as it added to the atmosphere, but there were times I really wanted a picture! You will have to be satisfied with my descriptions.
The museum is a three story house with rounded roofs, an open atrium in the center and rooms arranged around the periphery. There are narrow round stairways to take if you wish, and bridges across the open space. Clocks abound on the surface and the windows are stained glass scenes from the movies. Each room has a different focus – one shows the evolution of filmmaking using characters from various movies – from zoetrope, to early stop motion animation, to film. Every single exhibit is explained only in Japanese, and not for the first time did I wish I understood the language. I’m sure I missed out on so much. Other rooms were set up like Miyazaki’s studio, complete with paint pots. Others showed the creation of hand drawn gel animation and how a scene was created and imagined. There were storyboard books for the movies “Ponyo” and “The Secret World of Arrietty” which described how they would draw out a scene and then have the camera pan over it and around.
The favorite spaces by far were the catbuses. If you don’t know what a catbus is, go google it now. I’ll wait. You back? Okay – there was one room which was set up like a giant catbus. We sank down into the furry seats and relaxed for a bit, looking out the windows which had animation cel panels, imagining we were running through the countrysitde. The other one was a smaller catbus only for children 12 and younger (unfair) where you could crawl in slide down, go through the catbus and pick up and roll around large plush dustmites! There’s also an original animated short only seen at the museum, a young girl goes on a trip to the countryside, greets the nature spirits along the way, but has to escape from an unexpected visitor!
In the gift shop the girl bought a plush catbus, which we have named “meowcedes”.
We left and walked along a road where the internet told us that there were a bunch of restaurants. We didn’t see anything at first but then saw a small “open” sign on the other side of the road. We walked over to see if the menu was in English, and the lady behind the counter saw us through the window and beckoned us in. It was a tiny space, with only seats enough for five people. We asked if there was vegetarian food, and there was! It was a little place serving homemade japanese food. You had your choice of roasted vegetable main dish, fried sardine, or tofu burger and two vegetable sides. I had the sardine, the boy had the veggies and Eric and the girl went for the tofu. Everything was unbelievably delicious. There was another man sitting there with his toddler girl, and we all had so much fun chatting and laughing with them. These are my favorite, when you just happen upon a place and it ends up being so delightful.
Then a walk through a verdant and nicely arranged neighboring park for a while where the mosquitos made a delicious feast of me. Eric said I was just being paranoid and looked ridiculous slapping myself, but when I began to break out in welts he had to eat his words.
Everywhere we went in Japan we saw families riding this bike – seats for the kids on the front and back, and these neat bike parking areas. I never saw a bike locked to anything stationary, only to itself, as theft is low in Japan.
Then came a train ride to Shibuya to see the famous pedestrian scramble! I had imagined getting there, finding a seat in a little cafe overlooking the area and relaxing for a while to watch the scrum. Instead, Eric stated he wasn’t going anywhere that didn’t serve beer. I happened to not be the only tourist with this idea and it was a madhouse trying to find somewhere. Some words may have been exchanged – we were hot, tired, hungry, and squished. Finally, we did what everyone else does and got coffee at the Starbucks overhead and sat to watch. It truly is an incredible sight. Thousands of people going every which way and in such an incredible orderly fashion!
We looked up a place with reportedly good vegetarian food, and walked over. On the way there we passed by a ton of shoe stores selling Converse in every imaginable flavor, and some I’d never seen before! Metallic silver, rainbow, wedge converse! If I hadn’t just bought a pair of Tiger kicks in Cambodia I might have caved and bought another pair. I might still yet. The restaurant looked depressing, so we stopped at the brewpub across the street first where Eric ordered a Lagunitas IPA and nearly wept in relief at the biting hop flavor he’d been missing since we left the US. Sorry world, the US just does IPAs better.
We had walked by places advertising vegetarian ramen on the way over, so we headed back and saw a popular place with veggie ramen. You ordered from a machine out front! You put money in, pushed buttons for what you wanted and it spat tickets out at you. We ordered veggie ramen, an egg, sprouts, scallions, and beer and headed inside. We sat down and handed over a fistful of tickets to our chef, who smiled and laid them in neat stacks. A few minutes later we were slurping down a delicious bowl of steaming hot ramen. Amazing. There were a lot of Japanese people there too, so my guess is it’s a decent ramen place overall and not just for tourists.
We walked back to the train station, Shibuya lit up in neon colors and blinking, looking like the Tokyo we’ve all seen in pictures, giving a colorful coda to this splendid day