It’s been a few days now since we returned to Tokyo from Taipei. A lot has happened in both places so far, so I can’t help but notice the similarities and differences between these two comparable cities.
As I said before, I really love Taipei. Our last couple of days there, Keriann’s friend was kind enough to take us up the Maokong 猫空纜車 cable car line to a really awesome mountain side tea lounge, open 24 hours (Keriann had some good laughs about the kind of people who might stay over night until the bus runs in the morning drinking tea. I don’t know, I think it wouldn’t be so bad. We spent like 40 minutes just playing 20 questions for one animal and everyone seemed to enjoy that lol). The serenity, the ease, and gosh, how cheap everything really was was so impressive. No guilt, just fun.
Our last meal in Taipei was great, too. We went back to Din Tai Fung for a second eating, and we went balls to the walls. Dumplings, pickled vegetables, pork fried rice, spicy peanut noodles, beef noodle rice, the whole deal. They mentioned that one is opening in San Francisco in the future. If they do I highly recommend it, obviously lol.
Of course, my favorite part was actually the fact that they had come over to our table at the beginning of the meal and asked if they could record us eating to use in their commercials. So the whole meal, we all had to be on our best manners knowing that we were being watched from several angles. After paying, they asked if me and Keriann could be interviewed about the food and experience (because you know, we’re white people in a Chinese restaurant :P. To be fair, the questions were also in Japanese, so I think they were most interested in increasing tourist awareness in general). It was alright, though, they were nice enough to give us free deserts, and the interview was pretty straightforward. They asked about how I thought the service was, if there was anything I would recommend to improve, etc. Amusing, they asked me why we had ordered the pickled vegetables as an appetizer because, and I quote “foreigners don’t like pickled things”. I was sure to correct that while “some” foreigners might have “some issues or hangups” about vinegar, that some of us have our taste priorities in order, lol.
My other favorite moment was actually when Keriann was interviewed. I swear I heard her just going on about how much she *loved* the sesame buns we had as dessert. “Oh next time, I’d try the taro buns, because THOSE SESAME BUNS WERE SO OFF THE HOOK YEAAA SON”.
Returning to Tokyo, there was a moment when I looked to Libby and she muttered, “I miss Taipei.” I understand why. For one, the Narita airport is not very convenient. Getting into Tokyo from Narita takes a good hour by train, but before that we had to move around quite a bit with our luggage between 3 floors with weirdly separated escalators, and then stand in a long line to exchange for our JR Passes. Once in downtown Tokyo, we still had to transfer between many train lines. Unlike the MRT in Taipei, this transition is not always easy, requiring alot of searching for signs and maps and running across extremely busy, not always efficient stations. To top it off, the metro subway lines that we had to use on our last leg of the journey had no escalators or elevators at all, forcing us to lug and lug up and down the stairs several times. It’s not a great experience.
Tokyo itself is also different. People are mostly nice, but not Taipei nice. They’ll push you around to get where they need to go. Trains are more crowded. Food is more expensive, even when it’s not always better or varied than Taipei.
That said, the city is vast. Tokyo itself is compromised of a core center of neighborhoods off the central loop, but then expands in all directions for miles with multiples of different suburbs accessible by various lines. We’ve spent alot of time thus far just visiting each of these neighborhoods; the fashionable Harajuku, the busy cross streets of Shibuya, the temples and sweet shops of Asakusa, the port and China town of Yokohama, and by far my favorite: Odaiba.
Odaiba is built on a man made island, a modest sized neighborhood of malls, hotels, entertainment, and museums. The best part of Odaiba, however, is the views: casting our in every direction of the bay is a florescent display of city lights, both ones cast by interior lightning and also more uniquely the large exterior light displays set up along buildings and bridges that create a gorgeous nightscape. Even just the light rail ride into Odaiba is a feast for the eyes. You really get a sense of how “futuristic” Tokyo feels there, how awesome the building structures are (very clean, modern, but varied in shape and character nonetheless). It sets Tokyo apart from Taipei in just this one major way.
I think Tokyo, in the end, is a city that takes more time to learn and love. It’s just so big, sometimes things tend to blur together and you can easily miss the finer details that differentiate even individual stores in the busiest neighborhoods. Taipei, on the other hand, is grokable. It’s easy to digest, understand, and it welcomes you from the first day. I still believe, as a result, that Taipei is really a better short vacation destination. That said, from Tokyo, we will soon have an opportunity to explore beyond to some of my favorite parts of Japan: Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe!
It’s true; I will miss Taipei for sure and hanging out with my good friends. Taiwan feels homey. A bit grungy, a bit familiar in terms of food and traditions. I liked how comfortable it felt in terms of pacing. I didn’t feel as nervous as I would be at home, running for the BART train that only comes every 20 minutes or braving the 101 traffic.
Taipei has also made me rethink about learning Mandarin. Pre-Taiwan, learning Mandarin to me was like the extra gravy on top of my mashed potatoes; if I didn’t get to it that would be okay and I would make learning more Cantonese vocabulary a priority. I only have so much room in my brain to fit so many languages. After Taiwan, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to learn more Mandarin. Maybe not conversational level, but at a basic “How much are those sausages and can I have two?” level. Mandarin is a jump away from Cantonese, snipping and cutting down some tones here and there.
I think for sure, a goal through this whole wandering Asia thing is at least learning more characters. I will most definitely need it to survive Japan. In Tokyo, there’s a lot of information to process at one time while everybody is speed walking towards their next destination. Zach is right in saying there is a lot more to study before going anywhere. There’s less English everywhere and I’ll need to keep notes and look things up when I get home. Japan is very much for the Japanese and those that love Japanese language.
In addition to studying more Japanese, it’ll take time to get used to the trains. There are many trains, and very different lines to go to the same places. One of our first uses of the trains, we exited one gate from one train system and then had to exit again out of a train system surrounding that first system we just exited! Well, crap! This is definitely not Taipei MRT! It makes me feel a lot better though when I see locals that need to consult the train maps. I’m glad we are all lost together!
But enough panicking! The number one thing I like about Japan so far are all these automated gadgets. From toilet bidet options, vending machines for restaurant ordering, all these drink vending machines, and the various amounts of toys you can buy from Gashapons on every corner. I literally squealed when I saw the Sailor Moon card machine in the Sega building of Akihabara. It was so satisfying to push the coin in and hear the clack-clack-clack turning of the wheel as the cards slowly came out of the slot. This is just like my childhood on weekends in Chinatown! It is so easy to buy things from a vending machine, with all the nice displays and nifty buttons, and we are both really excited to find new vending machines everyday.
The food in Tokyo is good too. My favorite meal was sushi boat surrounded by a bunch of business men. It only served nigiri, no rolls. You take your first plate and it is amazing! The rice is warm, perfectly seasoned, still maintaining its fluff unlike the solid rice you’d find on the nigiri back home. The fish is sliced thin but it is oh-so-flavorful. I had my first chu-toro nigiri, which is a fatty part of the tuna and it is soooooo good. It’s like a really good piece of New Zealand or Australian piece of beef. You are really happy that the fat lingers over your mouth and lips because those two pieces you ate was $4 and you should probably stop before things get out of hand! Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures since there was an ambiguous sign saying you shouldn’t use your phone so that it would bother others. Anyways, would go again for sure.
In terms of sightseeing, Tokyo has a lot of modern buildings that are nicely designed and shiny. There are a lot of great malls and stores everywhere. The advertisements on train and on the buildings are interesting to look over. I want to buy a lot of things since everything is so nicely displayed and pastel-colored but have no idea where to start. But I think I’m ready to see more traditional sights like castles and more temples and I can’t wait to ride the shinkansen to our next cities!
p.s. I get the feeling that less soap is used than I would think in the ladies’s restroom here? I either see no soap or maybe a small bottle of soap? I notice people just putting their hands under the faucet for a couple seconds and then using the hand dryer. Will need to investigate more for sure.