A real visit to Tokyo, Part II: Home invasion with friends.

Wednesday’s weather was clear and bright, which was perfect, since I would be meeting three of my Tokyo-area friends for the day. I’d been communicating with Takashi since before leaving Nagoya, and we were to meet near Kita Senju. First, I had to get ready, and since I’d never used a timed public shower before, this would be a new experience for me. As promised, they gave me the first coin on the house. Past the door was a sort of antechamber for preparation, and then the actual shower room. Small, of course, but not cramped, with the usual hand-spray head and wall hook. Ten minutes was doable, but it’d be tight, so I turned on the water and began. I actually made it in under the wire, and might have even had half a minute to spare. The rest was standard morning prep, and then I was out.

Under a bridge, Takashi and I ran across an older-style MOS Burger.

Finding the train station wasn’t a problem, but finding the correct exit was trickier than I expected. After a lot of trial and error, I finally found that going outside wasn’t enough; I had to go down and around and then back up in order to get where I needed to be. Takashi was patiently waiting for me in a plaza nearby a couple large department stores, and we set off. Initially, we weren’t sure where we’d go; we both wanted to get breakfast, but he also wanted to show me at least one famous Tokyo spot, and we had to remember we were meeting Meg and Yuuka later. We ended up deciding on Asakusa Temple (also known as Sensou-ji), but before entering, we stopped at a small restaurant near the grounds. Takashi got cold somen, while I got a bowl of ramen. The restaurant’s atmosphere and decor implied a history dating back at least before the second world war, and the food was just what we needed.

The temple itself is recognized as the oldest in Japan, but like most religious sites, it’s been rebuilt at least once over the years. The outside is fairly typical for Japanese temples, but the inside has an older feel, with marvelous paintings on its ceiling sections. This was the first temple where they didn’t sell ema, which was a disappointment. Still, it was nice to finally be able to visit, since it was one of the choices I had to decline last year.

From there, we made an attempt to visit Tokyo Tower, since I didn’t get to see it last year, either, but time was running short and the train ride was much longer than Takashi had expected. I came closer this time, but we were already running late. (I later told him that had I known we didn’t have time to climb it, we could have done something else. He later told me he found an even closer train station than where we’d stopped. Next time for sure.)

We finally caught up with Meg and Yuuka outside yet another station. I’d been planning to visit with the sisters already, and when I’d mentioned that Takashi would already be with me and asked if he could come along, Meg quickly included him in the plans. I honestly don’t think they’d really spoken since last year, when we all met near my hotel. Meg was driving, and Takashi took the passenger’s seat, putting me in back with Yuuka and her two daughters, Yuzuki (age 4) and Yui (age 3). Our destination was 江戸東京たてもの園 (Edo Tokyo Building Park), an open-air architectural museum. Yuuka’s girls were cute and shy, but Yuzu opened up quickly, especially when we were discussing miso soup. I was explaining that I wasn’t fond of miso, and thought it tasted like a fine cardboard broth, at which point Yuzu piped up, “You’ve never eaten THAT!” and giggled.

Warming our hands by the fire inside an Edo-period house.

We parked a place called Koganei Park and entered the building that serves as the entrance to the museum. Before you exit into the museum proper, they provide a bag for your shoes, and you’ll need it. To the left was what looked like a small residential neighborhood, made up of traditional middle-class houses and the houses of specific influential people from that era, all either complete replicas or at least partially made from the original (relocated) structure. I’d only ever seen that sort of floor layout in Kurosawa movies, so it was a treat to be able to take off my shoes and step into these houses. Wooden floors, sliding doors with low-clearance entryways, and narrow stairways led us through different types of period dwellings, their floor plans similar, but never the same. One of the houses was really large, apparently the home of an influential military man who’d been murdered in his home by a junior officer (something noteworthy in Japanese history, I gathered). Meg’s become quite the shutterbug in the last few years, and snapped photos with an expensive-looking camera every chance she got. The girls were well behaved and fun, eager to play along and not at all affected by a foreigner in their midst.

The other half of the park looks like a small town square, complete with public bath house, shops, and a pub. There’s also an old-model streetcar set off to the side, which caught our interest for a while before we finally ventured into the square. The shops and such weren’t actually functional, but very authentic (or at least what I imagine authentic old Japan to look like). As we approached the bath house, I overheard Takashi and Meg talking about how Hayao Miyazaki had visited the museum and used it for inspiration on the movie 千と千尋の神隠し (Spirited Away). We started toward the bath house, but took a detour off to the side and found a spot with traditional games and recreation.

Yuzu and me in one of the public baths. It was almost as deep as she was tall!

In addition to tops (which have to be wound with string and thrown), there were also stilts. Yes, stilts. Rather than stending on a perpendicular step for balance, the goal is to put your foot along a roughly-foot-length plank and walk. This means you’re automatically unbalanced to the rear, so have to compensate by leaning forward. The stilts were also adjustable, so some were set even higher off the ground. While it’s easy to explain and grasp the concept, it’s harder to do than it looks. I could barely manage, while Meg and Takashi showed some promise, but Yuuka was able to hobble about fairly well. (The girls were too small to try.) We ended up relaxing on some cement pipes (probably not part of the period stuff) before going into the bath house. The interior was set with mirrors and split so women and men could have their own halves. Of course, it wasn’t functional, and it being a museum, anyone could check out either side. We climbed into the big, tiled baths and took a lot of pictures, then moved down to the pub. Not much different than a modern izakaya, really.

Since we’d seen just about everything at that point, we made our way back to the car so we could go to dinner. We took our time, enjoying the fading daylight and letting the girls play with the pinwheels they’d gotten at the gift shop. Initially, Takashi and the sisters weren’t sure where we’d eat, but we eventually settled on a place called Coco’s, located only a few blocks from Meg’s apartment (we actually parked across the street from her building). It was a typical family restaurant, featuring Western-style food with Japanese alterations. We all ordered different things, but I also made sure to get a plate of fries to share, since Takashi had been paying for my train tickets all day and Meg had been nice enough to drive us around. I also got the drink bar, and got my money’s worth on melon soda. It felt good to see these guys again, and not just for a couple hours in one little spot. Tokyo may be a staggeringly huge city, but with public transportation, no one’s more than a few trains away. When I relocate, I’m glad to have friends in more than just one place.

After dinner, it was time to part ways. I’d hoped we could spend some more time, but Takashi had to get to work, and Yuuka had to take the girls home. The ladies were nice enough to walk Takashi and me to the station, and they made sure I knew how to get back to my hotel from there. We exchanged hugs and farewells, and Takashi and I went to our platform. For the first few stops, we’d be riding together. It was good to talk to him; when we used to play games online, we would speak often, but he’d stopped playing long ago. I told him as he left that I wasn’t sure when I could get back to Tokyo, but I’d keep in touch.

Of course, the night was still young, so I stopped along the way home and revisited Akihabara. I didn’t have too much time, but I managed to see different things from the day before. At the hotel, I tried their public computer, which was painfully slow; aside from it not having been updated for who-knows-how-long, it was loaded with unnecessary toolbars and ads. I eventually gave up and studied a bit before going to bed, as well as doing some preliminary packing. Checkout was at ten, and I’d have to find somewhere to store my things.

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