As we boarded a passenger boat for a cruise down Tokyo's Sumida-gawa River after a long morning of sightseeing and shopping, my husband, Scott, and I chatted with my Japanese cousin...
As we boarded a passenger boat for a cruise down Tokyo’s Sumida-gawa River after a long morning of sightseeing and shopping, my husband, Scott, and I chatted with my Japanese cousin, Yukari, about how well we were doing in seeing Tokyo on the cheap.
The three of us marveled at how we had spent about half as much money on hotel rooms, food and other expenses as we had on previous trips to Japan by staying in “businessman” hotels, using the subway and buses instead of taxis, taking advantage of free sights, dining at small eateries and staying away from costly restaurants and clubs.
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But as the boat pulled away from the pier, I had another bout of a recurring, sinking feeling. I was lost and deep in debt in Tokyo.
Lost, because much of our time was spent guessing where we were or where we’d be going next. Deep in debt, because of the legendary Japanese hospitality.
My cousin is a master at this art form. Seamlessly, Yukari arranged for sumptuous meals at an aunt’s cafe, offered insider help on navigating the huge city, escorted my mother to and from the airport, and when we weren’t watching, tucked gifts into our bags. I would pay her back, which turned into a polite shoving match in a hotel lobby. I tried shoving money into her hand while she tried to shove it back to me. I finally tucked the money into her bag. However, try as I might, I knew I could never repay her kindness.
Just that morning, Yukari had risen early to wander around Tokyo’s vast Tsukiji Fish Market with us. How can I ever repay someone who is willing take a tour amid seafood muck and then sit down for a breakfast of raw fish?
Our plan was to dine at Sushizamai in the market. The 24-hour sushi bar had been recommended by an uncle who goes to the market daily for fresh fish for his cafe.
After wandering for an hour amid hundreds of stalls brimming with every imaginable seafood and food supply, we came to the sushi bar. It was well worth the search. For about $35, the three of us ate enough sushi for a day’s fuel, including delicious sour-plum handrolls and aburo toro, a slice of toro tuna lightly grilled with a kitchen blowtorch.
But at the checkout counter, my cousin and I resumed our tug of war. There was a struggle over who would pay. I ended up surrendering to Yukari of course, the bill was written in Japanese, and … well … I should have been a better student in the language classes I’d taken over the years.
From the sushi bar, we rolled ourselves onto the subway to the Asakusa neighborhood to visit Senso-ji temple and Nakamise-Dori.
Walking from the subway, we passed through the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, where the thunder deities scowled down at us, and onto Nakamise-Dori, a pedestrian street lined with stalls selling trinkets, traditional foods and crafts. The vendors of Nakamise-Dori give way to a giant smoldering urn where people rub incense smoke on themselves for good health. Beyond is a five-level pagoda and Senso-ji, one of Tokyo’s most visited Buddhist temples.
Legend says that a golden image of Kannon, the goddess of compassion, was pulled from the nearby river by fishermen centuries ago. The original temple, founded in the seventh century, is said to have been built to house that image; the present buildings are mostly post-World War II reconstructions. (Some guides and maps may list Senso-ji temple as Asakusa Kannon-do.)
From the temple, we headed west toward Kappabashi or Kitchen Town. After about a 15-minute walk, we found what we were looking for, seven blocks of shops featuring nearly everything you need to run a restaurant or home kitchen.
As Tom Jones belted out tunes over the street’s loud speaker, Yukari and I looked for bargains among the cookware, restaurant supplies and dishes. My husband concentrated his efforts on the realistic-looking fake food used to draw customers into restaurants. Although Scott had thought he might like to take a platter of fake sushi or a bowl of steaming ramen home, he opted to save his money . The waxy-looking food can run from $50 for a bowl of noodles with garnish to more than $100 for a sushi platter.
Then again, looking at all that fake food made us hungry, so we headed back to the Senso-ji temple area for a quick, cheap bite before boarding the boat for the Sumida-gawa River cruise to Hama Rikyu Gardens.
(Note: We raced to the boat dock. We were not in danger of missing our ride. Instead, we were running to see who would pay. I won this round.)
The Hama Rikyu Gardens were once the hunting grounds of a shogun and later gardens for royalty. Today, the gardens offer lovely river views, ponds including some with koi more than a foot long, a teahouse and a massive pine said to have been planted 300 years ago.
From the gardens we headed to the hotel to put our feet up for a short time before jumping back into the subway for a quick ride to the Shibuya area for shopping (the prices for some things are lower here than in Ginza), dinner at another sushi bar and a chance to catch bands playing in the streets after the shops close.
The second sushi bar of the day didn’t have the same quality as the Tsukiji restaurant, but it proved to be an adventure. Its draw was sushi for about $1 apiece however, you had to eat at least 10 pieces in 20 minutes. The tightly packed room was filled with laughter, as everyone tried to quickly grab and munch sushi from a mini conveyer belt wrapping the counter.
Later, as we headed back to the hotel, my cousin nodded off for a moment on the subway. It gave me time to slip a thank-you gift into her bag. Still not enough to completely repay her for all she did, but it was a start.
Judy Averill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8252.