End of Tokyo – Sanja Matsuri

This weekend was the Sanja Matsuri, a Buddist/Shinto festival that peaks on Sunday morning when three huge wooden shrines are marched through the largest crowds I have ever seen. Food and local crafts and drumming and drinking, spent about a half day here until the rivers of people started to make me insane.

After the festival I headed to Shibuya to a ramen place I kept hearing about. 
Lined up outside for about 20 minutes, then in side where the line slowly leads down a staircase into a dark, cramped, windowless basement. Eventually I came into the ordering room, should have gotten a picture, insert money into machine, select buttons for exactly what ramen you want, customize everything, then it spits out a ticket, take the ticket and get back in line.

Green curtains are kitchen, red curtains are stalls for diners.
The board below shows which stalls are available or about to be available.

My eating stall! It’s not sized for me, my shoulders touched each side, lol.

Handed my ticket through and 5 minutes later received ramen, curtain comes down, eat, slurp, go back upstairs and outside, wonderful.

But hey I’m big in Japan, I’m big in Japan

Sushi time! I budgeted for one special, Michelin star level sushi dinner. (actually I budgeted 3 fancy dinners but dropping my cell phone in Budapest erased 2 of those).
You don’t just call up the top sushi places in Tokyo, you need to go through a service, usually your hotel can help but as I am airbnb that wasn’t an option. Contacted a service a while back and they gave me a list of available places.  Selected Sushi Ichi after reading a Conde Nast  piece on it. They had one reservation for one person for 8pm, perfect.
 I was warned that I could not be late and that it was not an easy place to find so I left really early. Did take some time to find, down a little space between two buildings, around a corner, down an alley, to an unmarked bambo door, still an hour to kill so went to find a drink.
The highly reviewed Bar High Five is in a basement a few blocks away, in Ginza. Crowded but not too bad, they informed me that as long as I didn’t have any friends I was welcome at the bar, luckily for me I do not have any friends.
Ordered a Boulevardier and the bartender asked me where I was from, told him, we chatted some, he asked if I like nice cocktail places in Vancouver, I confirmed, he laughed and replied “I’m from White Rock!” Insane, Mexico City all over again.
Would have loved to chat with him more but cannot be late. Made my way back down the alley and rang the bell, a voice spoke in Japanese over the intercom, I replied “sushi rice” as I had been instructed, Nothing… then the door slid open and I could see a narrow bamboo staircase leading steeply up, climbed up and into a tiny dining room, just a sushi counter and about ten seats, all full but one.
No menu here, sat and started rolling. I won’t go through course by course, if you are interested I can tell in person but the way the chef worked things I told him into the courses was eerie and wonderful.
Look at that tuna!
Salmon row and urchin
A little tipsy on the subway home, luckily with this map on the subway wall who could get lost?
Zima! It’s not dead!

"He picks up a bus and he throws it back down"

Not sure what I did yesterday but my body is destroyed this morning, I did 26,000 steps but that’s not much more than average lately.
Didn’t manage to get out the door until around 11 and decided a day of parks and shrines might be better than the intense day I had planned, sorry fish market, you will have to wait for next trip and your new location.
Parks and paths:
Layed out here in the grass for a good while and then did my exercises to try and work out whatever is aching my bones, seemed to help as did the strolling.
Visited a Shinto shrine and performed the omairi ritual, hopefully one of the shinto gods will fix me up.
Hungry after the shrine, stopped by my fav ramen place so far, this chef was having a ball and did several different photo poses before deciding on this one.

Seoul Subway – 2.5 billion people can’t be wrong (annual ridership)

The map above is actually just part of the system, crazy.
If you include the lines that run out into the suburbs (and I do, it’s all the same system) Seoul has the largest subway in the world, nearly 1000kms of track on 18 lines. I only had time to ride lines 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 but I think I got the picture. The system is all fairly new, just over 30 years and impressive planning makes it appear as though the entire thing was built all at once, very harmoneous.
Technologically the entire thing is amazing, glass screens so you can’t fall onto the track, wifi and 4G coverage in all stations and on all cars, heated seats, an anypay system that allows you to pass the turnstiles with a credit card or smart card or your NFC equiped phone or tokens or cash… 
The NYC subway is usually listed as the system with the most stations, around 550 but this is because Seoul doesn’t count suburban stations, if they do then they have nearly 700 stations with 100 more being built. 
The status boards below show you where in the system your train is, you can tell how many stations back it is, cool.

Originally the trains were Japanese, mostly Toshiba and Hitachi trains but now most of the system uses the same Hyundai Rotems as the Canada Line does, some of the older trains are Daewoo but they all look the same as the Hyundai.

Gasmasks and emergency equipment are available in each station.

A few too many ads and they are a bit bright, plus the majority of them seem to be for plastic surgery, what is the deal with that?

The numbers aren’t referring to trains but to exits from the station, you need to know what exit to take to get to where you want to go to and currently Google does not have this info as part of it’s routing for Seoul, actually all of Google transit for Seoul needs work.

Now you ask me, was the system confusing? Yeah, actually it was, even just figuring out how to pay and get started when I was in the airport took ten minutes. BUT I really can’t think of any easy way to simplify a system this large, you need to just jump in and see what happens, I did get on a couple incorrect trains to start but got the hang of it in an hour or so.

Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band

 Made sure to get out the door early enough to not miss the morning subway rush hour white glove shove into the train treatment.
These two pics are not mine but are at my station, Shinjuku and are pretty much what I saw this morning, somehow I got lucky and got on a train after only waiting through 3-4.

40 minutes on the train and made it to Ueno Park, when you see pictures of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo it’s usually a pic of Ueno Park. Gorgeous huge park full of half a dozen museums and a zoo and science centre and aquarium.
First stop was the Tokyo National Museum, very cool audio guide, you pick your areas of interest and it gives you options for different audio programs you might like, loved this, it boils down a museum that could take all day to 45-60 minutes of things you are probably into.
 The pic below is the oldest piece of pottery found in Japan, dating to around 14,000BC.


A whole room of amazing masks, these are only displayed once a year.

 This metal flask is the piece I went to the National Gallery to see, it is mentioned in one of my Silk Road books because it is a Japanese flask based on a Persian design with a Chinese dragon stopper and etchings telling the Greek myth of Pegasus, fusion! It is on the Japanese list of national treasures.

I always say how happy I am in a crowd, I love being lost in the mayhem but man, Tokyo is like nothing I have experienced, more than Mexico City and much more than New York. I had to eventually give up on visiting the Tokyo Met and the Science Centre as I couldn’t even get near the buildings or figure out where the end of the lines were.
I didn’t want to miss the Tokyo Museum of Western Art and was willing to wait in line for it. Interesting how you could tell which paintings were touching people based on where the crowds were gathering. Nice Picassos and Renoirs and Cezannes and over a dozen wonderful Monets, big highlight. 
Who is this guy and why does he keep following me, saw him in Montreal and in NYC and in Prague.
After the park I ventured down into one of the big subway stations for the first time, christmas morning for me, it’s more like an underground airport than a subway station, the scale is hard to grasp. Realized I was starving but literally every restaurant has a line and I am hungry now. I had read about the restaurant lineups but wasn’t really expecting it, feeding 40,000,000 I guess.
Eventually found a Japanese curry stall in the subway and got some drooly drool chicken curry.  
These little, single shot cans of iced coffee are in every vending machine every 20 feet, $1 and really addictive, may not sleep tonight.
Spent the rest of the day just walking around different neighborhoods, should have taken more pics but it’s hot here and I’m a bit worn out, the level of input here is kind of staggering. 
Walking around Harajuku, 2pm on a Friday, rivers of people in all directions.

Shibuya Crossing
 Japan is the last market that still buys CD’s and DVD’s and the only place that still has Tower Records. This I learned from Colin Hanks. T.Hanks.

Picked a random sushi place (sushi is absolutely not as common here as in Vancouver, just in terms of sushi spots per block) for dinner. Sushi was really good, nothing mind blowing, I usually hate Japanese beer but the local draft in an ice cold glass after the heat and humidity today was pretty bliss. 
No idea what this stuff is but it’s “New” and awesomely addictive. Sort of a better, smoother Smirnoff Ice.

Also addictive:

"Where is the NHK TV camera? Hello, Tokyo!"

Half a day in Tokyo and jaw still open, they might not seem to have much in common but this is what I wanted Vegas to be when I first visited, alive, bright, loud, neon, up all night to get lucky, no sleep, repeat.

This is a city built for the solo traveller, apartments are tiny, look lost long enough and someone will ask where you are trying to go, most restaurants are just counters, staff talk to you, bartenders talk to you, if you are walking past a ramen shop and made eye contact with the chef through the window he will nod and motion that you are welcome to stop in.

Landed at Haneda around 2pm, it’s a two hour flight from Seoul on a big new 787. Got a little confused by the massiveness of the train/subway system at the airport but just went instinctual and somehow ended up at my Airbnb, it’s a cool little tiny townhouse down a couple alleyways, love it. Got a PASMO card and loaded it with cash, PASMO gets you on all trains and all subways and pays at vending machines and storage lockers and 7-11 and such, so cool.

Grabbed a bowl of rice and meat and gyoza at a place around the corner and stocked the Airbnb fridge with various canned coffee products from the plethora of vending machines around me (they really are everywhere).

I was pretty night before Christmas in Seoul last night and didn’t get much sleep, plus Kurtis wouldn’t leave me alone.  Laid down for a short nap aaaand woke up 3 hours later, at 8pm, woo-hoo night owl mode activate!
Walked about a kilometer to Piss Alley, a wondrous nest of tiny alleyways packed with little 6-8 seat restaurants, most of which only serve one item, but an item they do really well. Unfortunately I’m still full so just wandered around a bit and then headed for a drink.

Bar Ben Fiddich has been on my list of cocktails bars to visit someday since I first heard about them, amazing place. Took me a while to find it, addresses in Tokyo are weird and I wandered around for ten minutes before I spotted a tiny opening between two buildings that led to an ancient elevator, in the elevator was just a business card taped up saying “BAR 9F”, ok let’s try the 9th floor, bingo!

The bar was amazing but was FULL of North American dudes who read the same articles as me, not the bar’s fault but something is taken away from a relaxing cocktail when people are standing two deep behind you waiting for a seat, still amazing drink, man!
Finished my nameless but wonderful cocktail and walked home, passed a million ramen counters and picked one at random, had to have help ordering from the machine, which spits out a ticket which you hand to the chef, unassuming place, unassuming looking ramen, best I have had by a mile, flavour kick in the face.

Almaty Metro

Almaty’s metro was opened just a couple years ago, if it isn’t currently the newest subway in the world it probably was when it opened.
The system consists of one line and 9 stations running the same Hyundai Rotem trains as the Canada Line in Vancouver.
No pictures allowed in stations so here are a couple stock ones.
The system is gleamingly clean and residents are rightfully proud of their new toy (wedding photos in the stations are a popular thing).
One quirky thing was this escalator, it isn’t that big, the system is not a deep run yet for some reason it is the slowest escalator I have ever seen, taking over 3 full minutes to leisurly carry you up or down.
I never quite figured out paying for tokens while I was there, you buy them from ladies like this but it seems like they only want to sell them one at a time, the most I ever managed to get them to sell me was 2.

Seoul – Day 3

Started the day with a visit to a couple of Seoul’s old markets, amazing, busy, wild. Ate unidentifiable lunch in a dark, cramped, hot alley stall where you walk through the kitchen of dozens of places while looking for somewhere appealing because the alley IS the kitchen, dangerawesome.
Really enjoyed watching the market ladies making rounds taking orders from all the other market workers which they bring back on trays piled high and balanced ontop of their heads.

I didn’t get a great shot of the lunch trays balanced on heads but you can see it in this pic.

After lunch I headed back into the subway (after 20 minutes wandering around looking for the steps down into the subway from the market) and crossed back under the river and headed to this huge, huge city park full of amusement parks and chairlifts and hiking and the city zoo and the national gallery of contemporary art, spent most of the day here.

After the park and gallery I picked a random place for dinner, if anyone has seen the Portlandia episode about not knowing the correct way to eat at the Korean restaurant… yup… every single meal is a maze, usually I just try to look clueless until someone comes and shows me what is what.
This stew was insanely good, way too spicy for me but loaded with great bits and tons of pork belly.
I wanted to eat more of the broth but my lips are blistering, so many peppers.

Stopped for a cocktail on the way home, some very old, very very very impressive Japanese single malt.
If you read this James please forgive me the ice cube, can’t take it neat.

Day 2 – Seoul

Out the door around 9, down into the subways, got some sort of Korean breakfast pastry in the subway for $1, bakery lady laughed as they all do at my attempt to order any language other than english.

This city is amazing, the size and scale of Mexico City with an additional layer of money and tech overtop.

First stop the National Museum of Korea, great museum but the robotic Stephen Hawking voice in the audio guide was so distracting I eventually had to turn it off. Learned about the Jikji, a Buddhist text printed with metal movable type 80 years before Guttenburg, had no idea. Also had no idea that humans were here pre stone age, I had assumed the human migration happened later.

I don’t know if it says anything or not but I found it interesting that all the items in the museum list the year they were found rather than the year they date from as you would find in a western museum. A vase exhibit would have no indication of when it dates to but would say “Discovered in 1978″… different.

The original 1377 copy of the Jikji is in France (Korea keeps asking for it back, no luck so far) but I saw a replica as well as one of the metal characters from the press.

Acceptable Korean lunch at a sort of buffet, was fine, cheap. Still feeling the effects of the mountain day in Kyrgyz and it’s pouring rain here so I headed  home for a quick nap, was awakened by the building intercom making some very important sounding announcement, no clue, all in Korean of course.

This is crack and I will miss it.

Headed out again to the Samsung Museum of Art. An extremely impressive example of how to do a gallery right, in terms of subjects and the technology of the place.

I love cocktail bars that really get it, headed to d.still, a well reviewed speakeasy. Great drinks, great atmosphere, unfortunately very little English, my problem not theirs but I headed back out after a couple (they tried their best to make conversation and their mixing skills were impressive, my fault for knowing no Korean)

Hmmmm…so far I love Seoul, it’s a much more 24 hour city than I’ve ever seen before, including NYC. But…I was looking for dinner after a couple d.still cocktails, entered first place, sat down, waited ten minutes, went looking for waiter, Nada, nothing, just got stared at, OK fine, left.

Went to another random restaurant, sat down, waitress came over, I got halfway through ordering when she started yelling and pointing to the door, OK lady I can take a hint. Sulked to a third place and found them more typically friendly Korean, ate some sort of amazing fried chicken and soju and headed home for the night.