March 13, 2011
The morning of the 13th was when the danger started to become palpable. At this point Fukushima was all anyone talked about and the hostel was ablaze with people making plans to head home or south towards Kyoto. I decided to finish my trip to Japan, skipping my stop in the Izu Peninsula on the Pacific (in case an aftershock caused another tsunami), and going directly to Kyoto, leaving the next day. I made my train reservation and then joined the shabu-shabu group to visit the Meiji Shrine.
The shrine complex sits in the middle of a forest, carefully manicured and tended by people like this:
All of the pathways are gravel. This old man in his white gloves and crisp uniform kept them tidy, taking slow, wide strokes across the gravel with his whisk broom. This particular path was at least thirty feet wide and several hundred feet long. He groomed it all, methodically and deliberately.
After seeing the main shrine, we paid the small fee to enter the inner garden. The booth at the entrance hands you a token which you in turn hand to a police officer. This police officer:
Once he realized one of us spoke Japanese and English, he politely asked if she could teach him how to say “stay on the left.” He wrote it down—that’s what’s in his hands—and bowed to each of us in turn.
We continued to Harajuku, world capital of teenybopper fashion and cosplayers. Cosplayers come out on Sundays to show off but few were out that day. The bridge they normally gather on today just hosted this guy:
We had lunch at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, stopped in some of the Harajuku’s quirky stores and then walked to Shibuya, stopping for takoyaki along the way. The sun was beginning to set so we decided to watch the sunset from one of Tokyo’s skyscrapers. The best choice is normally the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building as it’s free but its observation deck was closed due to the disaster. Instead, we found ourselves in a restaurant that hadn’t opened just yet but was willing to let us take a few photos if we left before any customers appeared.
That building on the right is the Park Hyatt Tokyo of Lost in Translation fame. Off in the distance (from another angle) we could just barely make out Mount Fuji.
Dinner was at a curry joint near the hostel where we decided to go to Tsukiji the next morning. I had already gone but I didn’t mind going again and I enjoyed this group of friends I’d made over shabu-shabu and sukiyaki and countless rides on the metro.
Since the only way to get there in time is by (very expensive) taxi, we decided to spend the night in manga cafe near Tsukiji. Across Japan these cafes offer tea, manga, large chairs and internet access as ad-hoc overnight accommodation, ideal for those who’ve missed the last train.
We declined an invitation from another group to party in Roppongi and headed towards Tsukiji, making our way into the fourth-floor smoke filled manga kissen with the Japanese-speaking girl in our party negotiating with the somewhat surprised clerk—he probably doesn’t see a lot of gaijin show up late at night.
We took seats in a small side room with a few computers and whiled away the entire night there. I slept a bit. One person in our group was going to be interviewed by a newspaper in her hometown, she awkwardly Skype’d with the reporter while the night clerk of the cafe timidly admonished us for violating their “no talking” rule.
The entire country was diving headfirst into its biggest crisis since World War II and I was watching from a plush chair in front of an old Windows XP machine.