Columnist: Ted Pigott Ted's Beyonder Story
Even though I have lived in Asia for more than twenty years, up until January of 2016, I had never really spent any time in Tokyo. Of course, I had spent plenty of time in Tokyo’s airports, particularly in transit on flights between Taipei and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
But, for a number of reasons, I’d steered clear of Tokyo. Perhaps I had been put off by how expensive I had always heard it was there. The fact that I don’t eat seafood of any kind, and particularly sushi and seaweed, also made me wary about racing over to the capital city of this island nation, where, it seemed to me, fish of some sort featured in most every meal. Plus, to be honest, I really like Taipei, and I enjoy spending my free time exploring my adopted “home city.”
However, my wife and my son both expressed a strong interest in traveling to Tokyo, and I figured I should at least check out one of the world’s leading cities at some point while I’m in Asia. So, that’s how I found myself at Taoyuan International Airport in January of this year, waiting for a Jetstar red-eye flight with a 3:30 a.m. departure to Tokyo.
Yes, it was an early start to our trip to Tokyo, but when all was said and done, I had to admit that the nine days we spent in Tokyo were definitely a highlight of all of the trips I had ever been on.
And while I know I’m definitely a long ways from truly understanding this city, I’d like to share a few of my impressions and sketches of Tokyo.
Tokyo for the Non-Seafood Eater
OK, let’s get this out of the way first. Seafood is big in Japan, and from what everyone says, it’s pretty amazing.
But for those of us who don’t eat seafood, it was actually easier than I thought to find plenty of tasty non-sushi, non-seafood options in Tokyo.
- Tonkatsu—This was my go-to dish in Tokyo. When in doubt, you can probably find tonkatsu, which is simply a deep-fried pork cutlet. You really can’t go wrong with that, though I did notice that the quality varied from place to place. The best I had was at Maisen, where the tonkatsu set was made right before our hungry eyes.
- Curry—This is another popular option. Please note that this is Japanese-style curry, which is quite different than Indian or Thai curry. Good on its own, great when paired up with tonkatsu, Japanese curry is thick with a touch of spice, but not a lot of heat. It kind of reminded me more of a flavorful thick stew, served with white rice.
- Gyaoza—OK, these are basically “jiaozi,” or pot stickers. Sort of a Japanese take on Chinese dumplings. The ones I had were usually quite large, and very filling, with a nice flaky, fried bottom.
- Yakitori—Grilled chicken on a stick? Brushed with a tangy sauce? Served with a large draft Asahi? At an outdoor table? Underneath the train tracks near Ueno Station? Yes, please. On several different occasions.
- Taiyaki—I’ve joked before that this is the only fish that I like to eat, especially when it’s served fresh and warm from an outdoor stand. Similar to the “wheel cakes” or “egg cakes” found in Taiwan, taiyaki has a pancake-like outer layer, with a filling inside. My favorite taiyaki has a cream filling, though the red-bean is also quite good.
- Snacks and Beer—I enjoyed going into one of the many convenience stores (Lawson’s was a favorite) and picking up snacks at random. Cheese crackers, mixed nuts with soy-sauce-glazed sticks, guacamole-flavored crackers—well, pretty much anything that caught my eye.The beer selection in most convenience stores was large, too, though it was mostly Japanese with a trend toward “craft.” It’s always good to end a long day of sightseeing with some beers and snacks back at the hotel room.
A Yen for Value
When I was growing up in America, I heard tales of twenty dollars Cokes in Tokyo and two hundred dollar cab rides from the airport into the city.
Perhaps this was a bit of hyperbole, because I didn’t encounter any of that. To be sure, Tokyo isn’t exactly a budget destination, and like other world-leading cities, such as London or Paris or New York City, you’ll have to be ready to spend some money while you are there.
Having said that, though, I was pleasantly surprised by how crazily expensive Tokyo wasn’t.
Generally speaking, while prices were somewhat high for many items, the quality of these items was also very high, as well. At the same time, the size or amount received wasn’t exactly overly generous.
Take coffee, for example. Not exactly inexpensive in Tokyo, usually of pretty good quality (depending on the place), but seemingly always served in a thimble-sized cup, three-quarters full (never filled to the brim).
My general take was that in Tokyo the quality of items was often high, with a tradition of dedication to making one thing very well, be it coffee or stationery or stickers or pizza or pretty much anything. I didn’t see many “super-sized” items, though, or extra-large, “value” deals.
Maybe it’s the city, with its limited spaces; maybe it’s a part of Japanese culture; maybe it’s just a realization that less of a higher quality item is the way to go.
In any case, we spent about what we had budgeted for each day, but we were pleased with the quality and value we received for what we spent.
A City for Sketching
Though I have traveled a fair amount throughout North America, Europe, and Asia over the past twenty years or so, this trip was the first one where I really focused on sketching.
Fortunately for me, Tokyo turned out to be a spectacular city for sketching. I drew pretty much everywhere I could, and no one seemed to notice or mind. We walked a lot, and I loved all of the little lanes and alleys, especially near Asakusa.
At the same time, I also loved the skyscrapers of Shinjuku and all the activity near Ginza and Harajuka.
My favorite place to draw had to be Tokyo’s extensive subway system. I enjoyed sketching the commuters on their way to and from work, especially since they were usually so well-dressed. In fact, I created a series of sketches entitled the “Riding the Rails with the Dapper Dandies of the Tokyo Trains.”
We also took a day-trip from Tokyo to nearby Mount Fuji, and I created a series of drawings inspired by this iconic symbol of Japan.
And sketching at Studio Ghibli was a dream come true for a long-time fan of Hayao Miyazaki like me.
Altogether, I filled up five sketchbooks of varying sizes during our trip to Japan, and to be honest, these are my most cherished mementos from our trip to Tokyo.
I could go on and on about our trip to Tokyo, about how it was such a clean city but how it also boasted a vibrant street art scene; about the stores selling stickers that were heaven for a sticker-head like me; about the stationery stores; about the markets and temples and museums and neighborhoods that we were lucky enough to visit; and about all of the places we still want to see.
Without a doubt, I am already looking forward to our next trip to Tokyo. And one thing is for certain—it definitely won’t be another twenty years before I visit this amazing city again.
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(All Photo Sources: Ted Pigott)