Convenience stores and shops all over the country set up tables days in advance, overflowing with multicolored boxes selling all sorts of different flavors, sizes and substitute brands. It's almost like a mini-Valentine's Day, with couples buying Pepero for each other.
Tokyo. Aside from Fuji City, where I once lived, Tokyo is the city in Japan I am most familiar with. But despite having been to the capital more than a dozen times and having written a travel guide to it, I still feel that I only know it at surface level; my excuse will be that it's the largest city in the world.
Despite its notoriety, I firmly believe that Tokyo isn't the best place to be a tourist in Japan, that honor goes to the Kansai region, which contains Japan's second city, Osaka, and the ancient capital of Kyoto, home to best of traditional Japan. Tokyo is instead a fantastic place to get to know over the long term. Infinite amazing neighborhoods whose back-alleys are as interesting as they are difficult to find. Sub-cultures for everything. Insanity that is balanced out by order. This is what drew to my visiting Tokyo yet again during my summer vacation for 4 days, I simply missed hanging out and wandering around Tokyo.
Tokyo is different from how I left it. Indeed, very little of the world remains untouched since April of 2011, however, only one place in the world experienced the Tohoku earthquake, one of the biggest in history and the costliest natural disaster of all time. Power saving measures are still in place across the nation, especially so in Tokyo. Enormous Neon billboards turn off earlier, many barely even turn on. Convenience stores and train stations keep half their lights off. Signs around the country encourage the country to continue doing their best. It gives the city a slightly less alive, more bizarre, yet optimistic feeling than before; similar to the US after 9/11.
When I visited Tokyo for the first time I quickly felt that the people of Tokyo were different than those in Fuji, a city whose tallest building was a 13 story apartment complex and being behind 3 people in a line for anything was a busy day. They are in much more of a hurry and more pushy than what I was used to. Tokyo truly does have a reputation for being slightly ruder than much of the rest of Japan.
However, it's important to put into perspective that rude for Japan is still infinitely more kind and polite than anywhere else. Take my last night in Tokyo as an example. While out for yakisoba in Shinjuku, I got to chatting with the cook, he was the only employee in the small restaurant (pictured below) that only had counter space for 6. We spoke about the fried noodle dish, a speciality from the area I used to live, what makes Tokyo an expensive city and cultural differences between Korea and Japan. After I finished my meal, I thanked him for delicious fried noodles and I asked him if he had any recommendations for a bar in the area. After asking me what my preferences are, none, he knew the right place to take me. He proceeded to walk me to his favorite whiskey bar, leaving the restaurant unattended, with 4 customers still inside, two blocks around the way. This sort of friendly, out-of-the-way kindness is far from uncommon anywhere in Japan. Friends of mine just got back from a trip to Osaka and had nearly identical stories to tell.
Food is a reason unto itself to visit Japan. Japanese food is incredibly unique, and many of the best dishes rarely ever served outside of Japan. Additionally, a part of Japanese culture is to refine your craft overtime with the ultimate goal typically being to achieve perfection rather than profit. A likely reason as to why there are more than three times as many Michelin starred restaurants in Tokyo than in Paris. Meaning there's a lot of amazingly delicious food in Japan, and not a whole lot of terrible.
This dedication is not only limited to the high-end. Everyman food, such as ramen, is also the subject to dedication, probably even more so. Above is tsukemen ramen, a specialty of Toyko. Instead of the ramen noodles sitting in the broth when served, they are served separately, with the noodles being cold. I honestly don't like cold noodles, I throw the word "hate" around when anyone suggests icy naeng-myeon, but tsukemen is amazing. The broth smells of spoiled eggs and feet, but the taste is phenomenally dynamic (not "tastes like feet" dynamic) and the best tsukemen shops will always have a line.
This is a noodled up variant of okonomiyaki, the holy grail of Japanese food as far as I'm concerned. The truth is that okonomiyaki is indescribable. You'll read about how it's the "Japanese omelet," or even likened to pizza, but that's wrong; it's unlike almost anything else in the world. By it's own definition, it means "as you like it fried," so it can be anything. Good okonomiyaki needs to be sought out while anywhere in Japan. Good okonomiyaki had the power to change one of my friends from indifferent to the dish to considering a layover in Osaka while en route to the US, solely to eat at a specific okonomiyaki restaurant.
More from my trip to Tokyo to come.