As I’ve gotten older, and done more traveling, I’ve all but lost the cynical snobbery I once had towards tourist attractions. Even if an attraction is manufactured or highly commercial, what a place wants to show to visitors does show you something about that place. I’ve embraced taking the same picture that everyone takes on Abbey Road; I admit that you really should see the Statue of Liberty; I wear a tank top with the name of a hotel in Vegas printed on it. While tourist attractions aren’t the only thing to see, and don’t tell the full story of the place.. its worth getting over yourself and at least taking a glance.
But that’s not what this post is about.
This post is about some of my favorite things that probably won’t be (and probably shouldn’t be?) your reason for booking a flight to Japan.
Onigiri, or “those little triangle sushi/sandwich things”. These are cheap, portable, readily available, decently healthy with the right fillings and (also with the right fillings) delicious. Full disclosure: this wasn’t why I went to Japan, but since seeing them on a YouTube video a few years ago, eating them was on my personal “must do” list. You can buy them at 7-Eleven or other convenience stores or in train stations. There are a variety of fillings available – most of the ones I encountered weren’t labeled in English, but did have pictures. Either roll the dice and grab something with an appealing picture, or Google Translate it up. I like them with chopped tuna or salmon – that will be familiar to anyone who eats sushi – or the tuna and mayonnaise variety which is not entirely unlike a tuna salad sandwich.
Aside from being a reliable food option for traveling, Onigiri also feature a stroke of package design brilliance. There’s a layer of plastic between the seaweed and the rice that prevents the seaweed from getting soggy. You need to follow the instructions on the package when you open them in order to enjoy the full cleverness of the packaging.
I’ve heard that you can get onigiri in the states, but I’ve not found a place to get it near me. I thought that H Mart might carry it, but the one near me does not. For now, at least in my world, this remains a traveling-only treat.
Under a raised rail line near the Marunouchi exits of Tokyo Station sit a series of tiny bars and cafes. One of these is Lad’s Dining. I wondered if I should include this in this post – with the proximity to Tokyo Station I thought that these bars might be frequented by tourists more than I originally thought – and they had an English menu after all. A quick search reveals that Lad’s has one Trip Advisor review – one star – with the comment that they ignore foreigners. Our experience did not have that issue at all. The service did not, of course, follow the norms for service in the US, but that wasn’t what I was looking for in a bar under a bridge in Tokyo. The servers were friendly and the drinks were good, and the outside seating was a good vantage point to watch commuters come and go from the station, just out of the drizzling rain.
Drinks come with a bucket of pop corn, and there are many choices of food that can be ordered in buckets as well. I had a sparkling sake cocktail; Thom had something citrus-y with whiskey. The other customers appeared to be people stopping for happy hour on the way home from work. One of the waiters asked if we were American (pretty sure it was rhetorical) and high-fived us (pretty sure that’s a stereotype?). Its exactly the type of place that follows up a loud, chaotic and flashy environment perfectly – stop here, or someplace like it, after doing one of Tokyo’s busy “must see” attractions.
Earlier, when I said that these things “probably shouldn’t be” your motivation for going to Japan, I was thinking of the love hotels. I was thinking that they might in fact be your motivation for going.
Love hotels are becoming more widely known, and becoming a check-box on the Japan list for more tourists, but I included this under “not a tourist attraction” because they aren’t traditionally meant to be a tourist attraction, although some are realizing their novelty appeal and facilitating tourist interest. Accounts of the “original” purpose of love hotels vary, but they conveniently solve a number of problems:
- Providing a place to pursue.. uh.. romantic activities if you live with your parents/kids/other relatives/in a very small place with thin walls or other lack of privacy.
- Providing a place to crash for a few hours if you stay out too late and miss the last train – there’s a late night train gap for a few hours in Tokyo, before the trains start running again around 5 am.
- Providing a place to have sex with someone you don’t want people to know you are having sex with.
- Providing a potentially novel sleeping (or not sleeping – heh heh) experience that you might be into.. for whatever reason.
Love hotels aren’t limited to certain areas, but some neighborhoods are more specialized than others. I’d heard a lot about them in Shinjuku. There’s also an area in Shibuya nicknamed “Love Hotel Hill” – its actual name is Dogenzaka. That is where we headed to see what the big sleazy deal was. Its walkable from Shibuya station – some sites provide detailed directions, but we basically just left Shibuya station and wandered west until the neighborhood turned to night clubs and an unnatural number of hotels.
You will know the love hotel by its two prices – one for “rest” and one for “stay”. Stay is to stay the night; rest is to rent hourly. Generally, just inside the door is a screen that displays photos of the rooms and shows which are currently available. You select your room on the screen, select the number of hours, and then pay a clerk.
According to the internet, some love hotels will refuse gay couples, or foreigners. I can’t confirm or deny that from personal experience. The clerk who booked us into Hotel Lai seemed remarkably disinterested in who he was taking money from.
The internet would like to show you photos of crazy love hotel rooms with water slides or dungeon themes (often without listing the name of the hotel) but Lai – and most of the hotels whose “menu” screens we looked at – had fairly standard rooms. There was a jet tub (the size of a typical bathtub), a graphic of a tree decorating the wall, and all the supplies you might need to put yourself back together in a couple hours – think blow dryer, razor, toiletries, hair gel, ect. Cheap wine was available and porn was on at least some of the channels, if you could figure the remote out. (Spoilers: we couldn’t really.) (Also note: like Ellen Freeman – cited below – I found 3 out of the 4 porns we encountered to be distractingly non-consensual.)
In case you are wondering -the room was cleaner than the average cheap motel in the US, and certainly much cleaner/in better repair than what you’d picture if I said “hourly rate” in reference to a sleeping establishment in the states.
To give credit where its due – I used a few blogs for guidance on this quest. Some of the posts I read are:
Sometimes love is simple, and this time it is. I love Japanese vending machines. I love the variety of drinks you can buy in them from (actually good) canned coffee, either hot or cold, to beer, to six varieties of green tea, to fruit sodas with flavors that are so much more “fruit” than American soda. I also love the less functional treat of buying crazy plastic figures in plastic bubbles. I love the magic of paying for a vending machine purchase with a passmo card. I love how there’s always a vending machine right up ahead along the way. We should all have more vending machines. Not a reason to visit Japan, but a place to spend your miscellaneous Yen before you go home?