If I'm being honest, I was nervous about Tokyo. I don't like grocery shopping during peak hours because it feels like I have no space to process what's going on around me. As someone who's never lived in a city with over a million people, the thought of being in one that's 20 million strong was daunting. I was nervous about not knowing cultural traditions (and things that might be considered disrespectful). I was concerned about hitting a point of sensory overload in markets and neighborhoods that had countless bright signs in a language I can't read in a city I'd never been to before.
But Tokyo didn't end up being all that I was nervous about. Don't get me wrong--Shinjuku and The Robot Restaurant heightened any anxiety that I thought had been managed. But I did okay. I even enjoyed myself. Tokyo is a multi-faceted city. In many ways, it felt like any other international metropolitan city. Then you'd turn a corner and knew you couldn't be anywhere else but Tokyo.
For starters, Tokyo is organized unlike any other city I've lived in or visited. If you need anything, you go to the corresponding district. Need a book? Go to Jinbōchō, home to 160+ bookstores. Need a camera? Television? Obscure electronic part? Head over to Akihabara and get lost in one of the many humungous electronics stores. We went to Yodobashi Camera. Don't let the name fool you--only one corner of one floor (out of eight) was dedicated to cameras. It was heaven. I've been debating what kind of camera I'd eventually like to upgrade to and I got to try out all of my prospects and all of the lenses I've had my eyes on. It was magical. But on that same floor were designer handbags, high end pens, cosmetics, scrapbooking materials, kitchen gadgets, and hair styling products. There was not an inch of exposed wall. Each shelf was stocked and well organized even though it looked like a Black-Friday spectacle. We didn't even make it to the TV floor.
One of the things that I loved about Japan is that everything was art--from everyday, utilitarian items to the niche interests, it seemed that everything was made with the intention to be consumed as art. At Meiji Shrine, sake barrels were intricately painted and displayed. Manhole covers were casted with illustrated scenes of their purpose. Wrapping cloths were folded around gifts as if they were paper origami. Everything seemed to have a purpose and an intent to delight.
There was no better display of this than when we went to Roppongi Robataya, a robatayaki (meaning fire-side cooking) restaurant. From the moment we walked through the front door our eyes were greeted with a colorful array of fresh vegetables, meats, and seafood (including a tank of still-swimming tiger prawns and abalone). Two chefs knelt in front of their charcoal grills and made each dish to order. This was not a line kitchen--each chef knew how to prepare, cook, and plate each dish masterfully, treating every ingredient with respect. From start to finish, each bite was delicately seasoned to heighten the true flavors of the main ingredients. If you have a few hours in your schedule and some room in your budget, please do not leave Tokyo without eating here.
I'm not an overly adventurous eater but in Japan I pushed past my comfort zones. For me, Robataya was not only an artful culinary experience, but the start of me trying new things. It felt wrong to travel all that way and not taste things that were of such significance. That night I tried raw tuna, tiger prawn, lotus root, and mochi for the first time, all of which I would eat again. The seafood was a particularly big feat for me as I do not like fish.
For an entirely different experience, I give you The Robot Restaurant. After Reese and I went, people asked if we liked it, which is usually a yes or no question. But neither answer felt sufficient. There was too much to take in to just like it or not. Instead I've decided that I experienced nothing else like it and it will forever be engrained in my memory. It felt like a live-action version Dance Dance Revolution combined with a story line from the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. For 90 minutes colored lights flashed and electronic music filled the air while the characters of the show danced and interacted with the animatronic robots.
The Robot Restaurant is filled with 99% tourists, however I still think it's worth going. While they serve food, book your show before or after dinner and enjoy some drinks instead. There's too much good food in Tokyo to waste a meal here.
If you're interested in visiting shrines or temples, make sure you plan a trip down to Kyoto (there are hundreds). But we visited a few in Tokyo as well. Meiji Shrine and Sensō-ji Temple are the two larger spiritual monuments in the city that we visited. But my personal favorite was Hie Shrine in Akasaka. There's a large white gate that you can enter through, or if you walk north for a bit, you will find a smaller staircase lined with Torii gates. For a couple minutes, it didn't feel like I was standing in the center of a giant city.
Planning a trip to Tokyo?