You can read part one here, except it has nothing to do with Japan and more about Hong Kong, hurricanes, and calling a place home
1. The typhoon didn't come to Tokyo in the end, but it did wreck havoc in northern Japan. Nine people were buried inside an elderly care home, thousands more stranded. Around 17 people were killed. A weekly occurrence in Japan at this time of year: not knowing if next week's wind and rain could destroy your entire life. When I arrived at my first hostel in Tokyo, jetlagged from a monster two-day trip and essentially awake purely on adrenalin, I was told to expect the worst. Lionrock was due to be biggest typhoon in 30 years. It was going to hit during the night, but by morning had been moved to that afternoon, and at that point I was advised to just keep an eye on the clouds. So I did. I walked around feeling very small under that big dark sky, amazed at how people seemed to be carrying on with their lives as normal, as if the worst typhoon in 30 years wasn't about to tear through the streets. The clouds turned white and grey but never rumbled, and by evening the sky was smooth again. Lionrock changed lanes; Tokyo was safe for one more week.
2. When I was about 4 or 5, we spent a few weeks in California with my dad on business. My grandma came with us. My grandma, who fled her home with her five sisters and mother to a better, safer life in East Germany during the war. My grandma, who was hidden from soldiers when she was 16, fearful they'd take one look at her long hair and that would be it, who cooked and cleaned and looked after her five younger sisters after their mother died. Fast forward 60 years, on a ride through one of Universal Studios' most rickety and horrifying attractions (across a bridge that 'broke' halfway, so you dangled above robot crocodiles in the river below) and while everyone was screaming and covering their eyes, my grandma sat perched up near the sides, looking over the expanse of the crocodile-infested river as if admiring a particularly charming view. I remember peeking out from behind my dad's arm and watching my grandma rock back and forth as the train clattered back onto the bridge and we rode away from the fake fall of death. My grandma will not take shit from many people, including Nazis, robot crocs or Universal Studios. Here's where I come in.
2.5. My mum wanted to visit a Japanese restaurant while we were in San Diego. She loved Japanese food, especially sushi. There were four of us: my grandma, me, my dad and mum. I remember taking one look at the food and thinking it was the worst thing I'd ever seen, and I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave so badly, I was prepared to do anything. So I whined and I cried, and my dad felt sorry for me, his little girl, bored with fancy restaurants and funny looking food. I put my head down on his lap and watched my parents’ legs, listening to them argue about whether or not to go home. They'd only just ordered and my mum and grandma were trying to convince my dad that I was acting up and I wasn't tired at all. They were absolutely right – which was the first mistake my dad made: not listening to two mothers. In the end, we left early, my dad carrying me over his shoulders all the way home, everyone's stomachs grumbling. I smiled sweetly at my mum and grandma from behind us; they knew I’d won. I knew I’d won. It was the last time I ever acted up in front of my grandma. And the first and last time I rejected Japanese food.
3. Asakusa is not what I imagined Tokyo to look like; there are no towering skyscrapers or complicated crossings or neon signs. It almost has a rural feel to it – crumbling buildings and tiny streets and girls in kimonos walking in pairs, always in pairs. This was where I was staying, at the Khaosan Tokyo Origami, near the Sensoji temple. To get there, I had to either walk underneath the Kaminarimon (‘thunder gate’) and up Nakamise – a wonderfully crowded shopping street that leads all the way up to the temple, packed with hot, sugary smells and souvenirs and lots and lots of tourists. Or I could snake through the streets branching away from the market and temple, which basically means more shopping and little mercy for my purse. In what should have been an ordinary 15 minute walk from subway to hostel usually took me a good hour, because there was always something to look at. It was easy to get distracted, to try macha ice cream or dangos (a sweet, soft thing on a stick) or browse through hundreds of tiny keyrings and charms and fans and yukatas. At night, with the market boarded up and closed, the lanterns lit, the walk to the temple felt private – a quiet retreat from the louder, brighter parts of the city. This was my favourite time. A few locals stood outside the temple to pray, and the girls in kimonos took the last of the sunlight to pose in front of the temple and take selfies. I will forever be fascinated with the Japanese love of photographs and taking pictures, like they’re trying to hold on to every beautiful thing. I very much don't blame them for trying.
4. Plastic food is an art form in Japan. Outside almost every restaurant and café, you will see plastic food – a perfect replica of what to expect inside. And it works. It’s tantalising; so shiny it’s hard to look away. Sometimes I wonder what comes first – the fake dish, the real dish, or the recipe? Back in the 1920s, fake food was used to entice people into restaurants and make it easy for them to order a dish without looking at a menu, which wasn’t very common in Japan. Now, it still makes it easy for people to order a dish without looking at a menu, but it's become an art, and part of the dining out experience. Ironically, some restaurants sometimes spend more money making the fake food than they do selling the real food. On the other hand, they last forever, and they’re pretty to look at, and they make you hungry – so potentially very, very worth it in the long run. I relied on the fake dishes in Tokyo, even when I was given an English menu – mainly because I still wanted to guess what it was I was eating, and in part to see if it really did look like the fake food. (It always looked like the fake food.)
5. Shibuya crossing is way less stressful than I imagined it would be. Tokyo, and Japan, are way less exhausting and confusing than I thought they would be. If you don’t understand, there’ll almost certainly be an English translation. If there isn’t, there will be someone to ask, someone who will gladly walk you to exactly where you need to be – even if you didn’t ask them to, even if you don’t know how to thank them enough and get a bit teary. If you still don’t understand, learn some languages, read more. I didn't get lost, not once, not in the way I thought I would: completely stranded in a city full of symbols and characters that I couldn’t work out. In some places, tourists and foreigners get free WiFi, and there is always a map. There is fake food. The big Starbucks overlooking the cross-section has a good view of the crossing, but the fight for a seat is more chaotic than the actual crossing. If you find yourself in the centre of Tokyo, my #toptips are: keep walking, look up, look down, and learn how to say arigatou gozaimasu.
6. Tsukiji Market was my last stop in Tokyo. I’d heard about the tuna auction at 5am, a place where ‘men argue loudly about fish’, and it sounded perfect. But I’m not a 5am-kinda-girl, so I arrived for the public opening at 9am instead. A few of the sushi bars (and there are a lot of sushi bars in the outer market – most of them with only enough space for about 6-12 people) notoriously have queues 2-3 hours long every day. I am not all about that life, despite the wonderous order of a Japanese queue, so I found another bar instead – a little hole in the wall with one sushi chef. I ordered the most delicious looking thing, and watched him prepare, slice and handle the freshest fish I’ve ever seen. I started talking to a man from Singapore, who helped me work out when and how to drink my miso soup. I learnt that green tea really goes with sushi. I learnt that you can make a sushi chef smile if you look curious and hungry enough and take enough pictures of his fish. I learnt sushi for breakfast works, but probably only in Tsukiji. The market is set to move later this year, taking with it hundreds of years of history and leaving behind a very wobbly infrastructure. It’s so packed with tourists that over the years it's become a little shakey, so parts of the market are off limits to visitors before 9am, and most are encouraged to stay in the outer market. I learnt that the Japanese probably have one of the most sociable ways of eating: at a bar, in front of the chef, next to strangers. I learnt to love chop sticks. I learnt to never, ever reject Japanese food again.