Here’s a top tip for getting from Narita to central Tokyo- Keisei Bus run a shuttle direct to Tokyo Station. It takes about 1 hour, costs 1000￥, runs every 10-20 minutes, and means you don’t have to struggle with all your luggage across train platforms and up and down stairs straight from the airport.
My bus was so warm and smooth it was like stepping into the perfect bath. I found myself nodding off into little cat naps repeatedly, my fellow passengers likewise, only to wake up to the gentle sleepy protests of my brain saying “no… don’t… don’t you remember this is exactly how Battle Royale starts?”
Tokyo station is a total warren and it was only through the grace of dumb luck that I stumbled across an info desk where a nice lady gave me very precise instructions and a little map to help me get to the Ginza Line station that would take me to Asakusa.
Asakusa (浅草- the kanji translate literally to “shallow grass”) in is Taito, in the West part of Tokyo and adjacent to the Sumida river. It’s where I stayed last time I was here, be it in a different hostel, and it’s most famous for an ancient temple and shrine complex called Sensō-ji with huge red gates and giant hanging lanterns. After hostel check in, that gasping sigh of “omg I made it”, unpacking, shower, remaking myself as a human being, and locking up my valuables…
… I stepped out to explore, hunt down some dinner, and look at the full moon. Needless to say, it was beautiful.
They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but Tokyo to me has always felt like a city that makes the most of the night in this strange and perfect harmony that I struggle to understand or describe. It’s as if the people running the show simply believe that everyone has a right to beauty no matter the time of day, and so from dusk lanterns glow and a sublime sense of peace descends. In some places night feels like it belongs to the others. Here it felt like home.
At the temple, I decided to get a fortune. I popped my 100￥in the donation slot, and shook the tin filled with numbered sticks that would tell me which drawer to retrieve my fortune from. None of the sticks wanted to emerge. I shook the tin harder, trying and failing to not look like a goon. After what felt like 5 minutes of frustrated tin shaking, stick number 三十九 emerged, and from the corresponding drawer came this fortune:
Luckily, Japanese temples have this fantastic system when it comes to fortunes. Got a good one? Take it home with you. Got a bad one? Tie it to a little rack and the temple will take care of you.
Tomorrow, I decided, I would buy an お守り. For tonight, tying this fortune on the rack would have to do.
The night air was as soft and warm as a lover’s sigh as I slipped away from Sensō-ji and down side streets lined with traditional restaurants. One of my favourite features of Tokyo is the tiny gardens people have outside their homes; often a mismatch collection of pots, sometimes even little ponds and stone lanterns or figures. Some had carefully pruned miniature cherry trees, starting to bloom just like their larger brothers and sisters.
Asakusa’s side streets had plenty to offer food wise, but being on a budget I was wary, and many of the little restaurants were not showing prices outside. I traipsed around for a bit, letting myself indulge in street after street of divine smells until I caught a whiff of curry and traced it to source. Outside, no signs, except the notice that they were open. I surreptitiously stood like a meerkat and glanced in through the glass of the door. Inside glowed in warm yellow light, catching curls of steam from behind the bar. Trying to remember as much Japanese as I could after 5 weeks of slacking off on my studies, I pushed the door open.
“いらっしゃいませ!” said the lady behind the counter as I slid onto a bar stool. “Japanese menu only.” She pointed and I turned to look behind me. My brain looked at the beautiful handwritten kanji and went “why are you doing this to me, I’m old and tired and hungry…”
I turned back. Chef was ladling out two portions of curry onto rice for the French couple in the corner. My mouth started to water.
“Pork or chicken?”
“Uh… pork”, I said.
“Oh wait”, said chef, looking up. “no pork.”
“Okay. にわとり”, I replied, saying the word for a living breathing chicken and not the meat.
Chef got to work behind the bar, chatting with the おじさん who sat next to me, and magicking up a beautiful plate of curry which she placed on a tray and slid over to me with a spoon.
“はし？” I asked, probably requesting a bridge rather than chopsticks and hoping I wasn’t already looking like an idiot.
I’m not going to lie, it was not the best curry I’ve ever had (I have eaten a lot of curries in my time), but it felt like heaven. Everything about the cafe just felt like a warm hug, from chef’ in her linen apron to the soft yellow light, to the rustic tiles on the bar and shelves piled high with handmade trinkets. I wish wish wish I could have taken a photograph of this cosy place, but something within me just told me it was wrong, as if by getting out my phone I would break the fairyland spell and open my eyes to find myself sat on a crate in an empty carpark.
おじさん and I chatted back and forth in the limited Japanese I could rustle up. Many, many mistakes were made. Much laughter was had. At some point I got asked both where I was staying and if I had a Japanese boyfriend, and in trying to think up the word “area/around here” said “power” instead, which caused おじさん to adopt a muscle pose and cry “BOYFRIENDO POWEEERRRRRR!”
When it came time to pay (800￥, an absolute bargain), he looked at my frog purse.
“this is a good wallet”, he said, point at Mr Keroppi. “かえる means frog, and 帰る means return. That means your money will always come back!”
I looked down at the little plush frog in my hand and hoped おじさん was right.
“ごちそうさまでした!” I said to chef, giving a little bow and hoping I was doing this right.
おじさん turned to me one last time smiling earnestly. “When you come back, boyfriend will be waiting for you here”, he said with utter conviction, as if he was telling me I could pick up a package that was being delivered. I smiled back, knowing that in all likelihood my awful sense of direction would never again lead me to this door.
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