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Japan. No problem.

Many people in Hawaii have been to Japan many times, know their way around. This story is not for them.

(page 4 of 5)

It must be some storm. The trains run on time here. Even the subway has a schedule.

The rain stops beating on the windows of my 35th floor room, with its panoramic view of the Akasaka skyline. The wind howls. The building, designed to flex, creaks a little. I take refuge downstairs. Here, everyone seems entirely calm. The concierge does suggest that while I am, of course, allowed to go out, the hotel prefers I stay indoors. In the lobby bar, I pass the time over the world’s most elaborate $10 cup of coffee, in a porcelain cup with a silver spoon, little cookies on the side.

Then nothing.

The typhoon obligingly veers out to sea. There’s been heavy rain over most of the area, some real damage south of Tokyo. In Akasaka, it’s actually nice out. All I’ve had to eat are two cookies and the package of green yatsuhatchi—the bell girl told me the name—given to me by the girls in the train station.

Here’s the happy ending: The first night in Akasaka, I’d found a little restaurant on one of the narrow streets not far from the hotel. A little shoebox of a place, full of Japanese businessmen eating, drinking, smoking, chattering, laughing.

Now, you could eat at Anna Miller’s not far from here, yes, the same one that’s at Pearlridge. Same menu, too: You could have a cheeseburger and apple pie. In fact, you could exist in Japanese cities on American food, especially American fast food, if you wanted. But why would you want to?

The Japanese are as fussy about their food as the French. They will not serve you anything that isn’t fresh and good to eat, even if you’re shaky on what it is. (In fact, the best preparation for a trip to Japan isn’t a Japanese phrase book; it’s trying as many different Japanese dishes as possible.)

People think eating in Japan is pricey. It can be. In the same way that New York is pricey if you eat at Alain Ducasse, or Chicago if you go to Charlie Trotter’s. However, you can tell a high-end restaurant from a reasonable one at home; you can do the same thing in Tokyo.

The little place I’d found was far from fancy. In fact, it had a display of plastic food outside and signs indicating that every item cost Y300, less than $3.

I’d tell you the name of place. Unfortunately, the only part of the sign I could read was the big red Y300. It’s on Misujidori Street, no sign there either, but I could find it because at its intersection with Aoyamadori, there’s a Kinko’s and a Starbucks.

After the storm and the escape from Hakone-en, the little restaurant felt like a refuge. On the way through the door, I deferred to an older Japanese businessman. Tokyo is so crowded, being as polite as possible is the only way to cope. We sat down next to each other and began to talk, in English.

His name was Haruhiko Utsumi (“Call me Harry”). He came to this place every night after work (he works hard, it was after 8 p.m. on a Saturday). “I come to eat and DRINK SAKE!” he said. That we proceeded to do, for hours.

 
The traditional tofu restaurant at Ryoanji, Kyoto.

Photo: John Heckathorn

Haruhiko’s English was less than conversational, but it was a thousand times better than my Japanese. We talked about our families, about Hawaii where he’d honeymooned more than 20 years before (“Ah, Princess Kaiulani,” he recalled). We discussed baseball, American movies, his trip to New York, his desire to go back and take flowers to Ground Zero.

We ate yakitori, the best I’ve ever had, four different preparations of chicken on skewers. We ate some raw tuna, and then something Haruhiko ordered that was deep-fried on a stick, that night’s special. He had me dip it in katsu sauce. Didn’t know what it was, but it was good.

Each time we ordered another glass of sake, the 20-something waiter in a T-shirt would fill our glasses so full the sake would overflow onto the saucers beneath.

Finally, Haruhiko jumped up to catch the last train home. When I got my check, I’d only managed to spend Y1300, a little more than $12. I’m guessing Haruhiko bought most of the sake.

I staggered a little on the way to my hotel. It was the accumulated fatigue of the day, I assured myself, not my attempt to match a Japanese businessman glass for glass. But here’s the magical thing: I felt right at home in Tokyo. After being in Japan all of 48 hours.

After that, traveling in Japan was a piece of cake. Without much trouble and for a few dollars, you can subway all around Tokyo. To the ancient and beautiful Meiji Shrine, a complex of wooden buildings surrounded by trees, where you see Japanese wedding parties, the bride, groom and priest in traditional dress.

For contrast, you can subway to Roppongi Hills, the brand-new and quite stunning glass and steel complex of shops, apartments, hotels, office buildings, theatres and restaurants, so big even the Japanese would stand studying the maps to find their way around. The maps, of course, were also marked in English.

You can walk along the Ginza, its vast video billboards, glittering department stores and luxury shops—Bulgari, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton—which just sort of ooze affluence. The crowds are startlingly well-dressed; there’s the occasional black limo pulled up against the curb.

And you might also walk the entertainment district of Shinjuku, where the definition of entertainment is pretty broad. Among the theatres and nightclubs and crowds of young people huddled on the street, smoking and playing with their cell phones, there are unabashed sex shops and little hotels that rent rooms by the hour or two, “For Rest,” with giggling young couples disappearing up the stairs.

Or to Harajuku on a Sunday, where thousands of teenagers throng down narrow Takeshita Street. From the shops there, they assemble their astounding variety of dress—from American jeans and T-shirts to a look I came to think of as “Little Bo Peep Gone Bad.” Girls would wear little petticoat dresses and matching caps, sometimes with fishnet stockings and high boots.

There’s more, of course. Tokyo is a city of 12 million, the first 21st-century city; it’s hard to even scratch the surface. I hated to leave, but I also wished to see Kyoto. Kyoto’s smaller, only 1.4 million people, and it’s more spread out than Tokyo. Full of ancient temples and cultural sights, it’s the kind of place the Japanese themselves travel to see.

I had barely more than 24 hours to see a city that is worth at least a week’s visit.

Since the Kyoto Prince Hotel was obliging enough to collect my bag at the train station, I went straight from the station by bus to one of the city’s main attractions, the Silver Pavilion. Guided to the right bus stop by a pair of young women from Nagoya, I trudged up the hill to the temple, regretting the coat that had seemed necessary that morning in Tokyo.

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,March

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