Tokyo, Thursday 20-Oct

On this day we a more successful shot at seeing the Tsukiji market, looked through some of the Tokyo National Museum, went through a lot of Ueno Park, and not much else after that.

As those who have traveled with us know, we often stay at hostels, but rather than staying in dorms, we rent a private room and use the bathroom down the hall. Where we're staying in Tokyo, the sink area of the bathroom is open to all, and there are individual rooms for toilets and showers. As I was getting ready for bed Wednesday night, there was a woman who had just come out of the shower and was going through her post-shower routine as I left to go back to our room. When I went there Thursday morning, she was there, same sink, same clothes. It was fun to consider that she hadn't moved all night.

We had gotten a bit of fruit the night before, and ate that as enough to get us going for the day, knowing we were going to try to get breakfast at the fish market.

Tsukiji fish market

The route to Tsukiji fish market was familiar to us, having done it the day before. This time, once we went up from the platform level, there was the distinctive smell of fish. That was a good sign to us, and we exited the station. Since we had arrived at about 9am, it would be an hour before we could go through the wholesale sections of the market. We could, however, go through the public market area, which is several times the size of Pike Place Market, and much more densely packed.

We happened upon the information center, so we dropped in and one of the workers gave us a map and some recommendations of where to eat, including one place with reasonably-priced sushi sold by the piece.

Wandering around the market, we saw all sorts of things for sale, including dried fish fins, fish tails and whole fish. We saw someone walking around with a skewer of grilled unagi (eel), which looked really good. We saw the place where that was sold, and kept it in mind. There were stalls selling katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) in bulk bins. Produce, meats, and of course, raw fish were plentiful.

Finding the recommended sushi place, there seemed to be quite a wait. We decided to wander near the wholesale area where there were restaurants, but their prices were a bit higher than we wanted to spend (about $20 for a meal, and they didn't allow splitting a meal; by-the-piece sushi was also pricy, and there was a five piece minimum per person). Figuring we would have more opportunities for sushi through the trip, we went back out to the public market; the restaurants out there were about the same price for meals. We decided to grab some grilled unagi, and also got a skewer of grilled squid; both were great. We also picked up an assortment of tempura, found a place to sit, and finished our breakfast.

It was finally 10am, so we went to the wholesale area and got in line. Because it's a working fish market, priority is given to the workers trying to move around. There were uniformed guards directing tourists, and indicating when we should hurry across between carts moving around.

While we were dodging carts, we saw an ice station where one worker was hand-cutting large blocks of ice into pieces that would fit into an ice chipper, and shredded ice came out of a hopper. That was used to keep fish cold for shipping.

The variety of seafood in the wholesale market was even larger than out in the public market. There were some vendors which sold a wide variety of items, and others which seemed to specialize.

Tokyo National Museum

Our next stop was the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, so I tried to find the best way to take the subway. Now is as good a time for a mapping sidebar.

We recently got transit support for Apple Maps in Seattle, and it's been pretty good to use. Google Maps has had it for a while, and City Mapper got Seattle support a while ago. Unfortunately, Apple Maps doesn't have Tokyo transit support, probably because it's so complex.

I've been having pretty good luck getting transit directions with Google Maps, until I tried to get from Tsukiji fish market to Tokyo National Museum. I was surprised, so tried again, and again it said it couldn't get a route. I ended up getting a route to the station at the south end of Ueno Park (the museum is at the north end), and we just did that and walked the rest of the way. Looking back, I should have tried City Mapper to see if it had more success.

Having reached Ueno Park, we started walking through, and looking at the map to see how far we had gotten, realized that it's huge. There were lots of people strolling along the paths, and as we got closer to the museum, saw that they were setting up for some sort of festival.

Purchased tickets in hand, we entered the museum complex and around the pond to the Honkan building, which houses the Japanese Gallery, especially pieces considered to be culturally important. Our Japan guidebook recommended some suggested works to view, and the map we got at the museum also had recommended pieces. We went to the second floor which had highlights of Japanese art. Not knowing where on the floor particular pieces were, we picked up a brochure which pointed out selected works in each room. Things started out fine, but we quickly saw that most of the recommendations weren't on display; museums often rotate things in and out, but we were finding probably one in eight pieces actually on the floor.

Before we went downstairs, we stopped into the netsuke room, where they had recent works (within the past few decades). After descending the staircase we went through an inter-building corridor to the Heiseikan building where Japanese archaeological artifacts are on display. There were several hands-on displays, including a bell you could ring (and several people did as we wandered through the exhibits).

Lunchtime! We decided it made sense to eat somewhere in the museum, rather than finishing up and finding food outside. We ate at the garden terrace café, which was our first experience of a western-style restaurant in Japan. It was pretty faithful to what we're used to, except there were nods to Japanese culture, including a small towel for hand wiping and a Japanese-style vinaigrette. The food was pretty good, notably the french bread was pretty much the same as we're used to.

The restaurant was in the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, which was the last building we were going to explore. This building was very modern, as was the way the displays were set up. What I found most interesting was the artifact lighting, which was embedded in the display case floor, and a small door to prevent the light from spilling out to the viewer. The lights pointed straight up, so the lighting wasn't too harsh and had pleasing coverage.

Throughout all the galleries, we saw almost all foreigners. We figured the locals would probably go to the special exhibitions. We did see very few foreigners during lunch, so the Japanese were definitely in the museum.

One thing I noticed was there were very few guards walking around the museum, mostly around objects where photography was prohibited or in areas where there were a lot of items which were easy to touch.

Ueno Park

After we collected our bags from a locker, we exited the museum grounds and walked back to the other side of Ueno Park to begin a walking tour. In addition to temples and shrines, there was a zoo, several museums, and at one point we walked past a huge Starbucks, which looked more like a large restaurant than a coffee shop. There was also a huge pond with a temple in the middle. As you walk to the temple, you can barely see the water on either side of you, since a thick growth of plants is all you can see. Even those were less visible as we walked on the bridge, since there was an art installation of huge white weather balloons with speakers under them playing music.

We ended up walking around for over an hour, so we were ready to leave the park and followed the tour's recommendation to walk the short distance to Ameya Yokocho, which is a narrow street tucked next to elevated tracks. It contains stalls selling discounted everything; food, clothing, souvenirs, phones, whatever. There were even the stereotypical barkers waving signs and shouting about their wares.

Since we were only about a mile away from our hotel, we decided to walk the rest of the way, which leads me to another sidebar. There were several places with construction projects, small and large. At each one, there is at least one safety officer in a uniform, and each one takes his or her job very seriously. As we were walking back to the hotel, there was a construction site where a cement truck was getting ready to back in. There were two safety officers in addition to a construction worker who was starting to spot the truck driver. The officer near us had his arm out to indicate that we should wait, but the other officer was trying to wave us past. The two of them kept going back and forth over whether we should wait or go, then the cement truck started backing up. The further officer and construction worker both waved and yelled for the driver to stop, who did, then the two officers both waved us past, and we moved as quickly as we could, nodding our heads towards them on the way. We safely made it the rest of the way back to the hotel, and by that time we were content to settle down and relax for the rest of the afternoon.

Dinner

We didn't feel like going very far for dinner, so we walked about a block away to a 24 hour ramen shop. As with the previous night's dinner, there was a kiosk where you place and pay for your order, but this one was a touchscreen and had various categories of items. We looked at the menu and figured out what we want, then worked our way through the kiosk displays (no romanji, so we had to go purely by pictures). Feeling accomplished, we took seats at the bar and handed our seats to the attendant, who confirmed noodle firmness and broth strength with us. Within minutes our dinner arrived.

As with the ramen for lunch the previous day, this was quite good. This night's noodles weren't as fine as the lunchtime ramen, but the broth was nearly as good. We had ordered an egg with our ramen, and it ends up it came with a quail egg anyway, so we each had two kinds of egg. Very good.

Leaving the ramen shop, we went across the street to a small store to pick up dessert and breakfast food.

It was back to the hotel, where we ate our dessert, then went up to the room to relax until it was time to sleep.