At 4:30, in the half-light of dawn, workers on the web of old streets that form the Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo were sorting crates and coolers, setting up tables of king crab and dried seaweed. Motorized carts with steering wheels the size of bicycle tires zipped to and fro, driven by men in rubber garb: aprons, long gloves, tall black boots. Keeping one hand on the wheel, they used the other to hold a sandwich or, more often, a cigarette, as they flew past NO SMOKING signs on the pavement.
I roamed until I spotted a long line. I couldn’t see where it led, though I was certain it was to Sushidai. It is widely known that at this tiny restaurant a breakfast of some of the world’s freshest sushi begins with a multi-hour wait near a parking lot, as if you’re outside Walmart on Black Friday hoping to snap up a flat-screen TV. I wouldn’t stand on line for a TV. But I’d do it for sushi.
It was July, the first morning after a typhoon that made the city feel like the tropics. An hour in line and I was lightheaded. Two people in front of me left. So did the man in front of them. By hour two, more had disappeared. The sun rose; the herd thinned.
Then came a voice.
“How many?” said the smiling woman who appeared at my side with a pad and pen.
“One,” I said.
She scribbled something and walked away. The sun, emerging after days of intermittent rain, was merciless. People were hunched on the curb, hanging their heads as if awaiting jail time, not green tea and fatty tuna. I put on sunglasses, opened a black umbrella and sank down, cocooning myself on the asphalt. For 45 minutes all I saw were shoes: white sandals, red sneakers, yellow ballet flats. At one point a man appeared, stood a few people behind me and said, “From here you have to wait three hours.” The two young women in front of me — for the sake of brevity I’ll refer to them by their accoutrements, Trucker Hat and Crop Top — derided those who had left the line.
“Hashtag weak,” said Crop Top.
Easy to say when you’re not traveling solo. The two friends took turns hopping out of line to buy snacks and smoke cigarettes. Nearly everyone around me who abandoned the line was alone. They didn’t have a collaborator to buy water or tea or tamagoyaki on a stick, the sweet brick-shaped omelet.
Around 8 a.m. the woman with the pad reappeared like a mirage, darted over, tugged at my elbow and said softly, “Follow me.” I did, like Alice after the rabbit, past the throngs pressed against the windows of the restaurant, beneath the noren curtains, through a sliding door, and at last onto a stool at a counter where moments later a chef placed a writhing clam in front of me and said, “Still alive!”
My wait for what would become one of the most sublime meals I’ve ever had was trimmed by at least two hours because I was there alone. I didn’t need two or four seats; just one. Trucker Hat and Crop Top looked on as I was led inside. The words on page 366 of “The Teaching of Buddha,” found in a hotel room drawer, come to mind:
“One had better travel alone than to travel with a fool.”
Many dream of visiting Tokyo, yet have trepidations about going alone. Perhaps you were told, as I was, that English is rarely spoken; or that the city can be dangerous for tourists; or that it is prohibitively expensive, especially getting into Tokyo from Narita International Airport. If so, what you’ve heard is wrong.
Or outdated. Tokyo is an ideal city for solo travel. Tables for two or more are not the default arrangement, thanks to standing sushi bars and long counters at restaurants specializing in tempura, ramen and soba. It is not uncommon to sit opposite a sushi chef and talk, or to order a meal from a restaurant ticket machine and enjoy it on a stool alongside other solo diners. At department store food halls, one can buy bento boxes, hot dumplings, and savory pancakes known as okonomiyaki and dig in at nearby tables. And at any 7-Eleven (they’re ubiquitous and a go-to lunch spot) onigiri, balls of rice filled with meat, fish or vegetables that fit in your palm, can be had for a couple of dollars for a tasty lunch on the run.
If you’re concerned about safety, consider that the general crime rate in Japan is “well below” the United States national average, according to the U.S. Department of State. Violent crime exists, the State Department says, but it’s rare.
And no, you don’t need to know Japanese to get by. For instance, airport workers speak enough English to help visitors find the ticket office (agents there also speak English) for the Narita Express (N’EX) train — which was recently offering a deal for foreigners (4,000 yen round trip, or about $33 at 122 Japanese yen to the dollar) and took about 50 minutes to reach the heart of Tokyo, a swifter and less costly ride than the Airport Limousine bus (4,500 yen round trip) that can take an hour and a half to two hours. Station announcements on the Narita Express are in English. Ditto for stops on the Tokyo Metro subway. And visitors will find plenty of people in Tokyo who, even if they know only a few words of English, are willing to play an impromptu game of charades to help a tourist.
“Konnichiwa. Senso-ji Temple. Domo arigato” (“Hello. Senso-ji Temple. Thanks a lot”), I said one rainy morning, nearly exhausting my Japanese while sliding into a cab. In Tokyo I walked (looking down on occasion at decorative manhole covers emblazoned with flowers and fire engines) or rode the subway (buy a 1,000 yen day-pass for the Metro and the Toei subway if you want to simplify things). But on this particular outing I decided to see what it was like to take a taxi in Tokyo, where drivers wear white gloves and passenger doors open automatically, as if by ghosts.
On the way to Senso-ji, one of the city’s oldest temples, my driver and I carried on a conversation using broken English and Japanese, friendly smiles and the Google Translate app on my iPhone. When I urged him to accept a large bill because I liked him and lacked exact change (tipping is generally not done), he declined. I insisted. This went on until he turned to me with a wide grin, took less than the cost of the ride from my pile of yen, and said with perfect clarity: “Discount!”
The entrance to Senso-ji Temple is not unlike the exit of a Disney World ride. Through Kaminarimon Gate, beneath the enormous red lantern, past the wooden statues of the Buddhist gods of thunder and wind, the processional road to the temple is lined with stalls selling key chains, plastic Kabuki masks, and kimonos.
Smoke from incense rises as you approach the main hall, originally built in 628, destroyed by fires and World War II, and rebuilt in 1958. Believers let the smoke waft over their bodies and cleanse their hands in a nearby fountain, where water spouts from the mouths of dragons. Those who hope to glimpse the future give a few yen to read their fortune on slips of paper. Up the stone steps and inside the main hall, adherents stand before the inner sanctum with its sculpture of bodhisattva Kannon, “sent to relieve human misery on earth,” a sign says. They press their palms together; they pray. Coins clang as visitors toss them into a large bin at the foot of the bodhisattva.
Tranquillity can prove elusive amid the clank of change and the packs of tourists, undeterred by passing downpours. The quiet side streets around the temple, the color of silver mackerel after the rain and empty save for a rickshaw, beckoned. So did a dark sign below a tree limb around a corner: “Enshrining Benzai-ten (the goddess of fortune).” How could one resist?
I was her only visitor. Known as the goddess of music, wealth and literature, Benzai-ten is on a small hill in the tidy Benten-Do Temple. Its black and gold doors were thrown open to the damp summer air. Inside, a candle flickered. A priest, his head shorn, knelt before her. I stood outside looking in.
Shrines even more serene are hidden throughout the city. And I do mean hidden. One afternoon in Ginza, the ritzy shopping district, I passed a temporary billboard, which noted that Shinto priests have been conducting religious rites at nearby Toyoiwa Inari, home to the god of marriage, since 1928. Finding a spouse is easier than finding his shrine. A red sanctuary where a pair of regal-looking fox statues stand sentry, the shrine is wedged between two tall buildings at the end of an alley that at first blush seems as if it could only be home to mice and trash cans.
The brick streets surrounding Toyoiwa Inari are lined with upscale boutiques and international chains, from Apple to Zara. The architecture is not as eye-popping as that in the Aoyama district, where the glass Prada store by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, architects of the Tate Modern in London, is a tower of huge green diamonds. Nor are the stores as playful as those in Shibuya, like Mandarake, the manga and anime chain.
Ginza, however, has luxurious mega department stores where Japanese brands such as Double Standard Clothing (shopping bags said: “I saw you sad. And your sadness is very sexy”) mix with international labels. At Ginza Mitsukoshi this summer, the French house Lanvin was selling pieces from a less expensive, “only-in-Japan” line, as the saleswoman put it, called Lanvin en Bleu, where skirts could be had for $100, instead of $1,000.
Of course, in Tokyo, you don’t go to stores just to shop. At another Mitsukoshi, moments before opening, a woman in traditional Japanese clothing came outside and thanked shoppers for visiting. As the first wave of customers flooded the store, staff members on each floor bowed in unison.
Indeed, department stores are a must-see if only to gawk at basement food halls such as Mitsukoshi’s Ginza Food Garden, where the Paradox of Choice is in full effect thanks to display cases that dazzle with meticulously presented bento boxes, fluffy tempura plates, mochi, and chocolate discs adorned with edible pigs and bears.
Some of the most rewarding food is found in basements. In the labyrinthine bowels of Tokyo Station, in the Marunouchi business district, is a section known as Tokyo Ramen Street, the realm of top ramen makers, including Rokurinsha Toyko. At this modest restaurant, where the rumble of trains is offset by the slurping of contented customers, the line is routinely out the door.
I don’t know how I finally found the place, or what I ordered from the machine at the entrance. I looked at photos of ramen bowls and pushed a button. Or three. I put in yen. Some spat out. An attendant came over to help, then showed me to a banquette near other solo diners facing the open kitchen. Ramen of one sort or another was on its way.
Confusion is part of the Tokyo novice experience. It was a relief, at least for this traveler who likes to be in charge, to surrender to the unknown, to not have, or even know how to get, all the answers. Someone would always point me in the right direction. Or I would do the pointing — at photos of objects, at food, at myself. At Temomin Suite at the Tokyo International Forum, one of the city’s affordable walk-in massage shops, I stretched out in a cabana and pointed at my sore neck. The masseuse needed no further instruction.
There was something appealing about not speaking much. Communication was reduced to the bare essentials. No more, no less, than what needed to be said. And what couldn’t be said was expressed through looks and gestures, or simply forgotten.
Similarly, it was by observing that I learned how to eat whatever it was I ordered. At Rokurinsha on Tokyo Ramen Street I received two bowls: one with thick, chewy tsukemen (heavenly dipping noodles) and a soft-boiled egg; the other included broth, bones and nori (dried seaweed). I observed the technique of the woman next to me, also dining solo, as she held her egg aloft with chopsticks, then used a spoon to cradle it from below as she took a bite.
Such was my education and entertainment. Tokyo has an overwhelming number of highly produced diversions, many of which can be comfortably enjoyed alone: arcades, Kabuki shows, amusement parks such as Tokyo Joypolis and Tokyo Dome City, and cafes where women dressed like maids will treat you like the millionaire that you aren’t. After dark, areas like Shinjuku pulse with kaleidoscopic lights and carousers.
I prefer to turn in early and rise with the fishmongers.
“Where are you from?” asked one of the chefs at Sushidai at the Tsukiji market (which will be moving to a new location in 2016) when I took a seat at the counter. So began the conversation: with him, with the Canadian couple to my left, with the family to my right. The family didn’t speak English, but that morning we all spoke sushi, nodding in appreciation of what our chef put in front of each of us: a dozen vivid, moist, generous pieces of fish including fatty tuna, snapper, sea eel and mackerel.
“My favorite,” the chef told me.
It was like eating sushi for the first time. The stuff I regularly had at home is pale in comparison. And puny. And shrouded in sauces and add-ons like “crunch.”
A woman put a mug of green tea and a bowl of miso soup in front of me. You forget, as you sample the chef’s selections (omakase style), that you’re sitting on a small, backless stool. You forget that there are eyes on your sushi from the hungry people peeking through the window.
The chef placed another piece of fish on the bar. “It’s from Tokyo Bay,” he said.
It was only after I chased the clam that was “still alive” with a piece of sea urchin that I became racked with Woody Allen-grade anxiety. What if I had an allergic reaction? What if I fainted? I was alone, after all. I opened a Japanese language app on my iPhone and took a screen shot of the phrase “I need a doctor.”
Still alive. The chef’s fingers pressed and rolled the final pieces of sushi. The meal (4,000 yen) lasted less than an hour. Nonetheless it felt luxurious. It had been revealed slowly, piece by piece, the chef describing each in Japanese and in English. “Domo arigato,” I said, bowing to him, and to the other two chefs farther down the bar. It was still morning. The day was ahead. The chefs sang out goodbyes as I slipped out the sliding door and into the crowd.
IF YOU GO
Visitors can find bird’s-eye views of Tokyo at vertiginous observatories, including Tokyo Skytree (tokyo-skytree.jp/en) and Tokyo Tower (tokyotower.co.jp/eng), above, though Tokyo City View (roppongihills.com/tcv/en), which offers 360-degree scenes from the Roppongi Hills cultural center, may be quieter; I was one of a handful of visitors. Here are some other details for Tokyo beginners.
Narita Express (N’EX) train, Narita International Airport; JR East Travel Service Centers or ticket offices; jreast.co.jp/e/nex. You can also buy combination passes for subways, trains and buses; ask at the counter.
The free Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists app, provided by Tokyo Metro, is a must.
Tsukiji Fish Market, Outer Market, 4-16-2 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; tsukiji.or.jp/english.
(Sushidai is nearby; Tsukiji 6). Bring water and a snack.
Rokurinsha Tokyo, Tokyo Ramen Street, Tokyo Station Ichibangai B1, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda; rokurinsha.com./
Ginza Mitsukoshi, 104-8212 4-6-16, Ginza, Chuo-ku.
Aoyama District; Prada Tokyo Aoyama, 5-2-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, prada.com.
Mandarake, Shibuya BEAM B2 floor, Udagawa-cho 31-2, Shibuya-ku.
Senso-ji Temple, 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku.