January 28 – February 3, 2017
Ah, to be in a small town trapped in a big city. In just a week’s stay, I felt in the zone in Taito-ku, one of Tokyo’s more traditional wards encompassing the quaint districts of Ueno and Asakusa. I could live here, I thought. Having been welcomed so warmly by friendly, familiar faces accounted for that sense of home. My student-turned-friend Taka came by within minutes of my arrival.
Keisei, express train from Narita, deposited posh traveler Melissa and poor me right at Ueno. Miss Posh, oppressed by flying coach with me, could not drag her luggage for a few blocks. I flagged down a cab. Out of character for me. The fare was not as prohibitive as I expected. Our hotel was, after all, less than five minutes away.
Our first accommodation was a homey backpackers’ inn, Stayto Hotel. The young staff was accommodating with some of our little requests. We had a cozy room where everything was within reach. This was the closest I could get to a capsule hotel which The Posh One objected to, mainly for its common bathroom. Our room was en suite with a touch of the traditional. In place of a bed, we slept on a futon spread out on a tatami mat. A yukata was provided for a more comfy experience. Stayto was a foretaste of our authentic ryokan experience later in the week. Sure, the room was cramped for two occupants with mid-sized luggage; good thing Her Poshness flew to Osaka the next day.
My former student Jun Awano made the long trip from Yokohama first thing in the morning to see me. We walked to a nearby Jonathan’s, a popular Western-style chain, for a full-on Japanese breakfast: Rice, raw egg, nori, and miso soup – way heavier and healthier than my usual coffee and bread.
Energized by that nutritious meal, Jun and I braved the cold and explored the vicinity on foot. A building with a stack of giant multi-colored cups on its façade marked the corner of Kappabashi-dori. Jun explained that the street was known as Kitchen Town, lined mostly with shops selling cooking and dining utensils, crockery, ovens, restaurant furniture and decorations. Was it commercial zoning or it just happened to be this town’s cottage industry? No matter, it added quaintness points to the area. We combed both sides of the street. He bought me a hand-painted ceramic teacup and a plastic sashimi fridge magnet, typical Kappabashi souvenir items.
Jun pointed at a row of curious figures suspended above the sidewalk. I dismissed it as some animè character. But no, it was the street mascot: the kappa, a mythical river creature in Japanese folklore. The street was not named after it; both words just sounded alike and the community appropriated it as their avatar, reinvented to look kawaii rather than the original yokai (a demon!). And I guessed kappa was Japlish for cup, like the huge ones I saw on the corner building. Assumption fail again.
Taito straddled the middle ground between traditional and modern. Pounding its backstreets was criss-crossing Tokyo’s timeline. It was not uncommon to come across private shrines between residential high-rises, rickshaws among cars and buses, small retail shops and restaurants at the shadow of towering department stores. Something old, odd, or oishi could turn up at any given moment.
Like the traditional meal that my youthful students, Mariah and Takuya, let me have a taste of at Kamameshi Mutsumi in Asakusa. Mariah, with just a bit of help from Kuya who came fashionably late, explained the restaurant’s eponymous dish – a rice topping (we chose seafood) cooked in a covered pot called a kama. The delectable contents were piping hot; I had to practice restraint to let it cool down a bit before digging in.
A few days on, my travel squad Melissa (aka The Posh One) and Donna joined me from Osaka. We needed a bigger room. Asakusa View Hotel was true to its name. As the curtains were drawn, our room opened up to Taito’s dense cityscape with the faint but distinct outline of Mt. Fuji jutting out of the horizon. In the evening, Taka shone a flashlight from his window, a couple of blocks opposite mine, and I acknowledged it with the feeble backlight of my phone. How endearing it was to say hi the old-school way despite the aid of our gadgets.
The street buzz of Asakusa shoppers and tourists was broken by strains of rock music. The sound, though, was more delicate than a guitar’s. The convoluted harmony was emanating from just three strings of the traditional shamisen. It was a musical mash-up of the old and new, the East and West. After his set, I struck up a conversation with busker par excellence Pierre Ono and asked for a photo. I had become a fanboy!
After a couple of nights with a view, my travel squad and I packed up and moved…again…this time to a ryokan. Any Japan visit (first for Melissa, second for Donna and me) would not be complete without a stay at an old-school Japanese inn, a tradition of more than a thousand years.
An aside: the hotel and ryokan were so close but on opposite sides of the avenue. Of course, we took a cab for reasons already known to me, haha!
One of the few ryokan in ultra-modern Tokyo, Sadachiyo didn’t feel anachronistic in Asakusa. The façade was new, undergoing a facelift at the time, but the parked rickshaw by the front door gave it away. The front desk was dimly lit, the interior decked out in Edo Era antique. We suddenly spoke in hushed tones in deference to the bygone time we had entered into. Upon check in, we were each given a rubber luggage tag embossed with our first names. It was our first brush with omotenashi (Japanese-style hospitality) in a ryokan.
We left our shoes in our room’s foyer closed off with a sliding door. Soiling the wall-to-wall tatami mat was strictly a no-no; otherwise the replacement of the ENTIRE mat would be on the guest’s account! Only that threatening rule cramped my style. It was comfy otherwise. I slept in the yukata provided in place of a bath robe or pajamas. A surprise treat was a box of chocolate for each of us – all to make up for the unsightly scaffolding on the façade that didn’t even bother us one bit. I skipped the ofuro (bathing pool) as I had my fill of onsen a few days earlier.
A week flew past and it was time for pasalubong shopping, not my strong suit. Thank goodness for Don Quijote, a one-stop chain store that reminded me of emporiums of old. Well-stocked and well-stacked, it carried everything from gadgets to groceries. Several floors of goods saved me from a repeat of souvenir-hunting on the long stretch of Kappabashi-dori.
Props to Donna for stepping up and choosing/booking our varied accommodations for this trip. I just laid down my non-negotiables (Asakusa, budget hotels, ryokan); she came up with the goods through hostelworld.com. Melissa and I had the luxury of just showing up. Arigato!
Alas, all good things must come to an end. When I decided on Asakusa, I had no idea Taka lived there. As good fortune would have it, he became my main host who taught me skiing in Yamanashi. Before my red eye out, he took me around his hometown for one last look.
I thanked him with a lunch treat at the original Uogashi Hinatomaru at the bustling Shinakamise-dori. Known for its kaiten-sushi (revolving sushi) fastfood style, the restaurant’s first floor was a bar around a conveyor belt bearing color-coded plates (according to price) of various kinds of sushi. This way, more diners could be served more quickly with fewer servers. Taka let me try a variety of raw seafood: tuna, crab, eel. My favorite? Fatty salmon for the win! The bill was based on the stack of sushi plates we had accumulated. Kudos to Japanese-style efficiency!
There was some time to kill back at the ryokan’s entrance hall. I met his lovely wife and played traditional games with his two adorable daughters. The elder one drew my caricature and scribbled her farewell message in English.
AJ I’ve never been to foreign country. I hope to go to Philippine first and I’m looking forward to seeing you again in Philippine.
It was the best souvenir from this trip.
Planning for this trip months before, I was compelled to choose Asakusa as my home base in Tokyo for a week. I belatedly knew the reasons. I experienced the hospitality of its people, their culture and traditions, the vibrancy and brilliance of their city. More significantly, I had a local host who was close to my heart and it was a place after my own (conflicted) old urbanite heart.