This day was all about a day-long bike tour of the city. Biking through Tokyo allows you to cover a lot of ground while going slowly enough for pictures and historical tidbits. We were able to hit a lot of items on our list, and we learned far more about Japanese history and culture than we bargained for. It was truly a day well spent!
After another breakfast at the hotel (fish, miso soup, and rice never get old!), we hopped the subway. This was very different from the train rides up to this point, most notably due to the populous mob packed into each car. Every day, we knew this was a possibility, and we always tried to leave early to beat rush hour, but this day, the cards were stacked against us. But I won’t complain; it was a true Tokyo rite of passage. At least the men with the white gloves weren’t needed.
We met our (American) tour guide, Noel, and fellow tourites and exchanged some thus-far-in-Japan stories. English was a welcome relief after three days without! I was a bit surprised to note how isolated I had been feeling being unable to comfortably communicate with anyone (aside from Aaron).
Bikes are a bit different in Japan – not something I expected. First, they shift differently, with a rotating knob that encircles the handlebar (much like a motorcycle). Secondly, most people use bikes to commute across town. As a result, multi-speed bikes with a dozen or more gears are highly uncommon. Most had only three speeds, many one, no more than five. Also, most bikes have a kickstand on the back wheel (less common on American bikes but not unusual) that locks in the downward position (which is unusual on American bikes).
I felt bad remembering a bike ride we took with a Japanese guest in America. I had assumed all bikes were the same, so of course he would understand how to ride it, as bikes are everywhere in Japan. Oops.
With some of the spotty rain in the weekly forecast, we were fortunate to have a completely dry and sunny day for riding. Waterfront parks were beautiful (even more so during sakura season, we were told), and the bridges afforded unobstructed views of the city. I was disappointed only in the fact that it’s more difficult to snap a quick picture from a bike than it is while walking.
Our first stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. We parked our bikes in a designated area (you can’t park your bikes just anywhere) and “locked them up” (with the shortest cable lock I’ve ever seen – it loops only through the back wheel to keep it from being able to fully rotate and is apparently enough of a deterrent from potential thieves). The parking lot is hazardous; small carts zoom around transporting goods, and they don’t make a lot of noise. Inside, it was relatively quiet, but there was plenty of activity as vendors were cutting and wrapping fish, cleaning their areas, and packing up their wares. Visitors are only allowed during certain times; the inner market doesn’t permit visitors until after 9am.
It was fascinating to learn about some of the seafood sold there, from poisonous puffer fish to endangered bluefin tuna (which was a bit shocking). I was saddened to hear about some of the inhumane practices, like letting fish die in the crates so they’re fresher. It didn’t smell at all fishy in the market; they move fish so quickly through there that none has a chance to become fragrant. Despite all of the processing and carcasses, it appeared clean. However, the market sits on a cobblestone floor, impossible to ensure sanitation.
For this reason, and to make room for the 2020 Tokyo olympics, the market is actually moving next year (so go while you can, if it’s on your list). The market already has a new building across the bay, up-to-date in sanitation regulations, offering twice the space, and more accessible to ground traffic. I’m glad we had the opportunity to see this piece of history before it’s gone, but it sounds like the renovations are long overdue.
We stopped in Odaiba for lunch. Food courts actually offer some really good food (unlike most American food courts). The mayonnaise on my okasoba was slightly reminiscent of a Big Mac (how long has it been since I’ve even looked at one of those??), but the creamy ice cream we had for dessert was truly decadent.
Next, we rode the ferry across the bay and under Rainbow Bridge. Noel chatted with some Japanese kids on the boat and managed to fist-bump each one as they departed. He also educated us on how easy it really is to become an English teacher in Japan, but I would trust someone who’s done it to speak more on that.
Our afternoon saw a Buddhist temple (where I learned about the fascinating mizuko kuyou), Tokyo Tower, the Imperial Palace (might we soon see Japan’s first empress?), and Tokyo Station. We were regaled with stories from our tour guide’s five years in Japan, including some residual animosity from a few of the older, WWII generation (but he was always rescued by younger businessmen).
As darkness fell, I learned something else about Japanese bikes: most have a built-in headlight next to and powered by the wheel. Some automatically turn on when it’s dark enough, others have a manual trigger to have the spinning wheel illuminate it. I totally want one of these!
The tour gave us a good taste of the city, and I learned a lot of little things I think would have been useful before I ventured out into the world of misunderstanding (like common sidewalk etiquette). Overall, it was extremely informative, but on a do-over, I’d put it earlier in our schedule; it would make a great Day 1 introductory activity (though the weather simply couldn’t have been better the day we did it).
Our tour concluded, we dropped off our bikes and said our farewells. We then hopped the subway once more to Mitaka to see about retrieving our bag. Armed with a few key Japanese words to convey our sad story, we stopped the server from seating us (much as I wouldn’t have minded another bowl of ramen) and attempted to make ourselves understood. One gentleman saw us, recognized us, and quickly ducked away and returned with our bag. We were relieved, bowed, and said our arigatou gozaimasus. He seemed pleased to have made our evening; we were just glad to not be out the funds dedicated to Christmas presents and the time taken to select them (without the possibility of re-purchasing them).
We stopped in to a vending machine restaurant for dinner, something I had heard about and wanted to try. We found that a pleasant experience being foreigners. Simply peruse your options arrayed in 3D plastic displays in the window just outside, choose the corresponding number, enter this into the vending machine just inside the door, pay, and hand the printed ticket to the chef behind the counter. A few minutes later, he calls your order, and you’ve got dinner! No need to trip over a menu; simple food.
We took some time to write up a couple of postcards home and reflect on the day, still calming down from the anxiety of recovering our bag. We caught the train back to Akihabara and crashed once more.
- Some hotels DO have hair dryers! You just have to find the hidden drawer in the desk.
- The yellow strips everywhere are guides for the blind. They’re on every sidewalk and in all stations and malls. Straight lines mean go forward, dots mean stop. The Japanese are very cognizant of their citizens with special needs.
- Sardine subways are an interesting experience. Avoid it if you can, but it’s worth the Japanese rite of passage so you can fully appreciate the spacious, packed-to-the-brim buses and trains of the States.
- English is so refreshing! You’d be surprised how much you take something so simple for granted and how lonely you can feel despite 12 million people surrounding you.
- Some staircases have ramps down the center for bikes (walking them, not riding them).
- People drive like crazy. Cars will inch into the crosswalks and turn in front of you. Bikers are even crazier, zipping between pedestrians on the sidewalks.
- Pedestrians really don’t pay attention when walking. Be very careful to not hit a fragile elder; he might not get back up.
- Stay to the left. Unless arrows direct you otherwise. Bikes also have their own lanes to the right of pedestrians on some paths (usually to the side of traffic). Still stay to the left in this lane.
- Most people only lock their bikes with a tiny loop through their back tire (if they lock it at all). This only keeps the wheel from spinning, but this is enough of a deterrent to secure your bike.
- Bikes typically cross streets on the side of the crosswalk closest to the intersection.
- Japanese kids are SO much cuter than American children – and much better behaved.
- It’s apparently quite easy to move to Japan if you are willing to teach English. According to Noel, you must have a 4-year degree and minimal teaching credentials. You’re not even allowed to speak Japanese to the students, and a Japanese teacher accompanies you in the classroom.
- Women’s squatting urinals aren’t anywhere near as scary as I made them out to be.
- Having an English tour around Tokyo is an awesome introduction to the city and cultural information. A bike tour is an excellent way to hit the biggest attractions.
- Never underestimate how awesome Japanese integrity is. I had heard stories before, so I went into it with high expectations, but it was still such a relief to recover our bag.
- Some glass doors slide automatically.. after you push the button on it that says “push.” Don’t try to use this handle-looking button to slide it open.
Baka gaijin moment of the day: Pasmo cards are swiped at the wickets. Don’t try to insert them like you would with paper tickets. Especially during rush hour.