A major benefit of traveling somewhere you've already been is that, having already seen the places that everyone needs to see, you can do whatever you please. If I'm in a city, that means wandering around and eating. But I can't help treating the destination as I would Tribeca: taking photos of whatever catches my eye.
We just spent a few days in Tokyo, then two nights on the island of Naoshima, and three more nights in Tokyo. People often think of Tokyo as being like something out of Blade Runner, and I'm sure it has those moments, but it never strikes me as especially chaotic or even futuristic. If anything, it's organized to the point of rigidity. But there are magical moments, small and large, in ways that I rarely experience here in New York City. Some of that is just because it's a different place, but some is because Tokyo can be beautiful and strange in ways that are unique to it.
A surreal construction tarp:
An old water fountain for horses:
And indeed, a miniature horse:
The country's reputation for orderliness and civility is well earned. We would marvel when we heard a horn honk (maybe once a day), or a siren (maybe once every two days). As soon as we got used to walking on the right side of the sidewalk, matching the traffic flow, we realized that in the metro, signs occasionally insist on a different direction.
Ten Twenty years ago, I would've frolicked in that truck bed:
The little countdown lines at many pedestrian crossings are like electronic hourglasses showing how much time till the light turns green.
Two innovations that we never got a chance to use: umbrella lockers and dryers.
2. The hotels. (There wasn't actually a #1, but it's pretty clear this is going to be a long, rambling post, so let's impose a structure of some kind. Pretend #1 was the grab bag that often ends a list.) We stayed at the Peninsula on the front end and the Aman on the back end, and both were near perfect. I had complained to the Peninsula about something before our arrival, and my effort actually got (a) a response, and (b) an upgrade. Our room was among the biggest I've ever stayed in, with a luscious view. I have at least twenty photos of this scene in different light.
I was mesmerized by the lane markings:
The Peninsula did something with the unusable core of its building that I've never seen elsewhere. Through windows opposite the elevator bank you can see massive light sculptures suspended in the darkness, like electric, geometric jellyfish. There were others above and below this one.
And the Aman, while over-the-top in certain ways, had an even better view. The funniest moment of the trip came soon after we checked in to the Aman. Right after Adam took off his pants, there was a knock at the door: The hotel had sent up a welcome snack. (That's a phrase you don't hear enough.) As the hotel staffer and I walked across the room, Adam ran to the bathroom to hide. The problem was that the bathroom was set off from the room by a series of shoji-like sliding doors, so when he pulled one door shut, a gap opened on the other side. This happened over and over.... I'm pretty sure I saw the staffer crack a smile.
3. The cuteness. You would think that a country so obsessed with adorable little animals—like the mascots that are everywhere—would have more pugs, but we never spotted even one. The cats below are for a transport service, by the way. (You occasionally see it in New York City.)
4. The signs. On one hand, it's possible that, as with the mascots, I'm drawn to signs like these because I can understand them (as opposed to so much of the text in public places). On the other hand, they're just plain quirky.
5. The typography. When you can't understand a lot of what's written, you might be more likely to notice the typography itself. And/or these are just fantastic, simultaneously retro and futuristic.
I'm upset that I can't seem to find (besides on Café Press, which doesn't count) a T-shirt in the Tokyo metro's signature sky blue with the delectable M logo in white across the chest.
6. The taxis. I'm not a car person in the slightest, but I love the look of Tokyo taxis. They come in maybe five colors, and they're always spotless. Then again, in Japan even huge trucks tend to be spotless.
7. The food. As I've already mentioned, eating was a focus. The food wasn't quite as exciting as our last trip to Tokyo, 10 or so years ago, but it was still a definite highlight. The best meal was at Ristorante Honda, serving what's known as Tokyo-Italian cuisine.
The most memorable meal, for me, was kaiseki at Shimogamosaryo, in good part because I had to go alone after Adam fell briefly ill. I don't mind dining solo, but sitting alone in a room, at the center of a six-seat counter, and being served a multi-course dinner by a chef with whom I could barely communicate.... Well, I won't soon forget it.
The depachikas, or food halls on the basement levels of department stores, were as ravishing as ever—how do they make food look so good?!—and we thoroughly enjoyed buying (and eating) bento boxes for the train.
8. The drinks. During our last trip to Japan, we were bowled over by Japanese cocktail culture, so we made drinks a priority this time. At Bar Martha, the sound system was extraordinary, and the owner chose perfect music from his vinyl collection. At the tiny, essential Star Bar, a bartender asked us to take a look at the new English to see if there were any mistakes. I've waited my entire life to be asked to correct a menu. And at the Old Imperial Bar in the Imperial Hotel, each seat at the bar has a spotlight, which the bartender slowly pushes the drink into. But, my God, the smoke!
9. The kooky English. I could've spent all trip cataloguing amusing instances of misguided English. (Obviously, we were grateful for any English we came across.)
10. The shopping. If Adam had more shopping stamina and I had more room in my bag, there's no telling how much I would've bought. The Kitte mall across from Tokyo Station puts U.S. malls to shame: I could've stocked up on gifts for the rest of my life. At Hakusan I limited myself to three pieces of porcelain. And we made two visits to Akomeya, which has food on the ground floor and amazing housewares on the second floor. Everything we bought there, except for a brass tea scoop, had yuzu in it; I wouldn't be surprised if the staff referred to us as the Yuzu Twins.
P.S. If I never get around to writing about the "art island" of Naoshima, you must go if you're ever in Japan. Feel free to email me for recommendations.