Besides feeding me, housing me and putting up with my inability to speak Japanese, the wonderful Koseki family has also been touring me around some of Tokyo’s hot spots.
Festivals & Fireworks
My first weekend with the Kosekis coincided with the annual Plum Festival. Our local shrine in Fuchu hosted a series of stalls and a boat-load of people. There were a few stalls dedicated to plum sales and the rest sold other Japanese foods. There were even game stalls for the kids. And all of the people were flocking to the shrine to get in their prayers/wishes. There was a scary long line of people but Mrs. Koseki showed me a short cut: we just did our prayers off to the side of the shrine!
That same weekend, Fuchu put on a huge fireworks show. Most people headed to the Tokyo Racehorse Track for good views. Mrs. Koseki walked me around the track that afternoon and by 4:00pm the place was already packed with people and countless picnic blankets to reserve spots. Lucky for us, we had the best seats in the house: our balcony! We decided to have a BBQ out on the balcony and then stay up there for the fireworks. At the same time, Mother Nature decided to throw down her craziest rain, thunder and lightning storm! Fortunately, all we had to do was roll out the awning but I felt awful for all the spectators, including my friend Sean and his host family, sitting out at the uncovered racetrack. For a while it looked like the storm was going to cancel the fireworks, but the show went on, with only a 20 minute delay.
And it was the coolest fireworks show I have ever seen! Not only were the fireworks themselves impressive (there were even ones with letters and numbers!) but they were accompanied by great music (including “Let It Go” in Japanese) and LIGHTNING! It was so cool to actually be able to see the bolts of lightning in between the fireworks; I have never seen anything like that before! The whole sky was going crazy. My host sister Yuko was trying desperately to capture the lightning on camera but was never quite quick enough. I guess some things are just meant to be enjoyed technology-free.
All Aboard the HATO Bus
The next weekend started early with a 7am wake-up on Saturday. We had to rise early in order to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market before all of the action was over. The real action begins at 5:00am with the daily tuna auction. Members of the public can attend the auction, but that involves arriving at 4:30am (or earlier!) to queue for tickets. So we went with a casual stroll of the stalls around 9:30am. Tsukiji is giant! It also reeks, being a fish market, and is boiling hot since it’s covered but not air conditioned. Despite the heat, and the smell, we trekked around the stalls and were able to take in all manner of seafood and sweaty men running around in galoshes, hacking at fish parts or riding on motorized carts. It was quite the sight!
After taking in the business side of the market, we walked around the even hotter vendor stalls where we stopped for some mid-morning sushi. We stood outside one of the restaurants on a street filled with market-goers waiting for their chance to taste the catch of the day. Finally, we entered the ten-seat restaurant and feasted on the most delicious, fresh and filling sushi I have ever tasted! The fish literally melted in your mouth. It was amazing, and had a price tag to match. Fun fact: I just found out that Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, who are in town shooting a movie, ate at the exact same restaurant a few days ago!
From sushi to skylines: we headed up to Tokyo Tower to take in the views. This would be my 2nd of 4 tower observatories I got to visit in Tokyo; that’s a lot of city views to take in.
All of the fish and towers were just to fill our morning before our actually sightseeing adventure: a HATO bus tour! Now, I am usually not a big fan of tour buses. And when our guide began the tour by handing out (mandatory) stickers we had to wear on our person, I had to suppress my eye roll. But, my host mom had done a lot of planning for this and had never been on a HATO bus herself. Plus, my host parents had even signed us up for the English tour despite their difficulty with the language.
Our HATO bus (air conditioned, thank God) first dropped us off at the pier where we took a ferry up the river to Asakusa. The views from the boat weren’t too spectacular, but it was fun to be on the water.
At Asakusa, our guide explained that the place would be packed due to the fireworks scheduled there that evening. But we pushed through the crowds and made our way to the oldest shrine in Tokyo! The Shinto shrine was built back in the 600s and our guide walked us through the traditional shrine procedure. First, you wash your hands (and possibly drink? Though whether you actually drink or just fake it seems to be debated) from a fountain in front of the shrine. Next, you approach the shrine and throw a coin (usually 5 yen) into a large basin. This offering is followed by two bows, two claps, a moment to introduce yourself to the god(s) and make your wish, and one final bow.
After visiting the shrine, we had a bit more time to explore Asakusa. I particularly loved the five-storey pagoda and giant lanterns. The main shopping strip was filled with people but I weaved my way through and managed to snag some delicious Japanese pastries.
The next stop: the Imperial Palace! En route our guide explained that the current emperor, who is symbolic and has no real political power, is eighty years old and had married a commoner (the first to do so). His eldest son, in his fifties, will inherit the emperor-ship (I’ve decided that’s a word) once the current emperor passes. However, this eldest son only has one child, a daughter. Women are not allowed to be emperors (boo!). So after the eldest son, the crown (do emperors wear crowns?) passes to the second eldest son’s son…who is four years old at the moment! Of course, he’ll have lots of time to grow up and get ready for his role, but it was pretty comical when the tour guide passed around photos of a buck-toothed toddler proclaiming him as the future emperor of Japan!
Unfortunately, all we did at the Imperial Palace was walk a number of sweaty paces around the perimeter. I thought we’d be going inside! But after reaching the front gates, we were herded back onto the bus for our final stop: (another) observatory! Our guide walked us around the top floor of the World Trade Center Building (way too eerie to be in that elevator) for another crazy view of Tokyo. Finally, after 4+ hours of touring, we were dropped off at Tokyo Station. Mr. & Mrs. Koseki hailed a cab and I slept soundly in the back the whole way home.
And All That Eating
I honestly don’t think I’ve eaten better than these last three weeks in Tokyo. Mrs. Koseki is a wonderful chef; every night is a delicious Japanese dish and she has yet to serve the same thing twice! But sometimes we take our eating adventures outside of the house.
After hearing about my love of sushi, Mrs. Koseki found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant nearby and we all headed there for dinner. Conveyor belt sushi, which has a much nicer name I’m forgetting in Japanese, is literally a conveyor belt that surrounds the sushi bar from which diners can pick up plates of sushi. It was fun to watch the delicious plates slide by our table and dive in to pick up the ones we wanted. But, being serious sushi people, we could only put up with the conveyor belt for so long before we just ordered directly from the waitress. And, at the end of the meal, a waiter came by with a scanner gun and quickly scanned our mountain of 30+ plates. And with that, the price was determined!
The Sunday after our crazy HATO bus tour, the Kosekis and I journeyed to their family friend, Keiko’s, house for dinner. Keiko’s husband is actually Mrs. Koseki’s English teacher, and was eager to speak English with me. It was nice to have someone to communicate with but awkward to have so much attention put on me. He kept insisting that everyone practice their English and interrupting conversations to translate for me. But, the entire family was so lovely. Their daughter, Mari, and her husband, a famous Japanese chef, joined us for dinner as well. They were both very well-traveled and spoke great English. Later, Mrs. Koseki showed me a cookbook she had that was actually written by Mari’s husband! But that night Keiko did most of the cooking. We ate outdoors, enjoying a BBQ of ribs, corn, fish, potatoes and a few other items I’m forgetting. At first, everyone was trying to eat the items with chopsticks (including the ribs) but eventually most of us gave in and used our hands. A few hours later we finished the evening with peaches, cake and coffee indoors.
During my last week here, we went out for dinner twice. Once, with some LABO ladies and a second time for my host-sister Yuko’s birthday.
We met up with our local LABO tutor and a few LABO moms for a traditional Japanese girls’ night feasting on traditional Japanese foods. It was really fun to hang out with these kind women and eating as well as we did. The meal consisted of 8 courses which included sashimi, lettuce pork wraps, teriyaki fish and soba. Everything was so yummy!
And the next night, we walked over to same area and settled into an Italian restaurant for Yuko’s birthday. Suffice to say I didn’t think I would ever be going to an Italian restaurant during my 3 weeks in Japan. But overall, the food was actually quite good….I just don’t know how authentically Italian it was. Instead of ordering individual dishes, Mrs. Koseki ordered a series of dishes for the table. We had appetizers, salad, steak, fries and, of course, pasta. The homemade lasagne was probably my favourite. At the end, our waitress brought out a cake for Yuko and we all sang to her before diving into the chocolate-y goodness.
And today marks my last day with the Kosekis 🙁 Last night they gave me a mini photo album to document some of our adventures together. It was very sweet and I’m sure I will never forget the Kosekis and how kind they have been to me.