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"Wait, how long have you known this guy?"
"How do you know he's not a serial killer?"
"You're going WHERE for Thanksgiving?"
These were the usual questions I got from just about everyone I knew when I informed them of how I was planning to spend my 2012 Thanksgiving break. Brian and I had hit it off on Halloween just a few weeks earlier and one night decided a spur of the moment Tokyo trip was a great idea. A couple of friends who had just started seeing each other as well caught the travel bug with us and spontaneity prevailed.
I hadn't been out of the country (with the exception of Mexico in college) since high school and was pumped about going half-way around the world with this guy I had just met. Taking a half-day from work, I expedited a passport and literally received it just days before take-off. With very little vacation flexibility during the school year, we planned a short four night getaway in the New York City of Asia. Luckily for us, Brian had a connection through work to get international cell phone service so the fact that we didn't have a plan and didn't speak the language didn't completely foil our plans.
After an hour long bus ride from the airport we arrived at our hotel, the Hilton Tokyo which was, much to my delight, already decorated for Christmas. The luxurious lobby held a beautiful tree whose grandeur matched that of the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet which was definitely worth a trip to. We got a few recommendations from acquaintances in the area and came up with our plans as we went.
We quickly learned that no matter what type of food you are trying to eat, chances are there's a hint of a fish flavor coming through as well. This was particularly funny to us since the other couple we were with were two of the pickiest eaters imaginable, both with a disdain for seafood. For those with culinary open minds, the food was enjoyable and exciting. The only time I regretted a food choice was the morning after a late night when we thought the safe choice to nurse our hangovers would be to hit up the Denny's. In addition to whatever American-type dish I had ordered, I got miso soup (yes for breakfast) which happened to be my saving grace. My counterpart's french toast tasted like fish and our other dishes were not much better. Conveniently we had found an all-you-can-eat Italian spot that combined pretty good pizza and pasta with Japanese cuisine options as well. After we recovered from Denny's via a mid-morning nap, we reconvened at the Italian place and fueled ourselves for another afternoon on the town.
Some highlights of our culinary tour included Ippudo, a ramen restaurant in the Roppongi neighborhood that came highly recommended and did not disappoint, and Sushi Zanmai, a chain, but incredibly fresh, delicious and affordable sushi. The Roppongi neighborhood is comfortable to westerners and comes off a little less big city and a little more quaint. It was definitely one of my favorite areas.
On the flip side, were Ginza and Ebisu, upscale shopping districts that were anything but small town. I loved both but quickly realized I would not be able to afford much in Ginza. That didn't stop us from admiring the jewels at Tiffany's, checking out cars we would never even be able to touch, and playing with up and coming technology. Back near Shinjuku Station I did find a Japanese boutique with some awesome boots that were worthy of my once-a-trip shoe splurge.
Other must-sees that we stumbled across during our short stay included the Metropolitan Jindai Botanical Garden, the Meiji Shrine, and, if you're feeling a little wacky, the Akihabara neighborhood for some trippy arcade fun at Club Sega or any number of other game stops. To be honest, this part of town was a little overwhelming. Literally, think Japanese arcade/anime music and animations everywhere. The beats just permeating the streets and the locals flaunting a style and a love for it all that is so uniquely them. We stuck out like sore thumbs for sure. In fact, Brian even got snagged by a local media outlet for an on-camera interview about why he wasn't wearing a coat. "We are sick at this temperature" was the interviewer's response after taking Brian's temperature. "I run a few degrees hot..." was probably along the lines of Brian's rebuttal. So the lesson to be learned? Bundle up despite moderate temperatures unless you want to be stopped in the streets and highlighted somewhere on Japanese television.
While the gaming neighborhood was borderline terrifying, the botanical garden was just the opposite. A calming walk through the pathways from traditional tea houses to shrines was a wonderful break from the chaos that is the big city. It was beautiful with the leaves changing and falling which leads me to my next recommendation. Stop and play in the leaves. Throw them around, swim in them, whatever. The locals loved it and asked to take pictures of our goofy western ways. Cue round two of goofy Americans caught on Japanese media.
Final recommendations? When in Tokyo, do as the locals do. If an emergency alert in Japanese characters appears on your iPhone, don't panic. If no one else is running to avoid a tsunami, chances are you'll be just fine too (and there's just no outrunning an earthquake). If staying in the heart of the city, find a landmark building to guide your way home. The narrow winding roads paired with a foreign language, make it easy to lose your way and get directionally turned around. We luckily had an enormous and unique building nearby that was visible from almost anywhere we strayed to. The Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower was always our shining beacon calling us back to the comfort of the Hilton.
All-in-all this was probably one of my all time favorite trips. It is definitely a location I hope to get back to as these few days were far too short to see all one would want in such an amazing region. Despite the shortness of it all, the last minute nature of it made it all the more exciting and memorable. Who would have thought my first Thanksgiving away from my family would be spent at the Hard Rock Cafe Tokyo with these three goofballs?!