Two minutes with the Tokyo Police


We were short on cash and time, so in one of the stations Stoytcho and I split up to handle two tasks: getting money from an ATM (my job) and buying us train tickets (Stoytcho’s job). I walked up to an ATM in the station and stuck my card in to find it flatly rejected, something not uncommon for foreigners in Japan. That would’ve been the end of it, had a pair of police officers passing by asked if I was alright. I can’t remember whether they asked me in English or Japanese, but I remember that I responded in Japanese with a simple, “I’m fine, it’s just that my credit card doesn’t work.” I guess they hadn’t expected me to respond in their language and there was a pause. Then one of the officers asked “Could you please show me your passport?” This is normally not a problem, except Stoytcho had the passports in the bag he was carrying. Oh no.

One of the major problems with my Japanese is that certain phrases I use frequently are beautifully fluent, but when someone asks me an out-of-the-ordinary question I find myself struggling to put together a sensible sentence. It must’ve been bizarre  (and mildly suspicious) to watch a person go from fluent-sounding to half-coherent as I explained “My friend…he took them with him in a backpack, he’s just over…” and I couldn’t remember around the corner. I dug frantically through my bag, hoping to find a photocopy of my passport. I had one, but when I showed it, the officer asked for the original. She wasn’t unfriendly, but she didn’t use the cute, peppy voice she first addressed me with.

Stoytcho rounded the corner at that moment, saving me from potentially being arrested or brought in for questioning or whatever they do with foreigners who don’t have their passports with them. When he came over, the officers nodded and looked at each other as if they suddenly believed my story – at 6’4” and blonde, Stoytcho gave my foreigner story a thousand more points in credibility. The officers hardly glanced at my passport once I dug it from his bag, and they didn’t even want to see Stoytcho’s passport. They just turned around and walked off.

Why exactly the above scenario happened is hard to say. We asked an American friend who now lives in Japan about it over dinner, and he said that once upon a time several years ago they had an ATM fraud incident, and since crime is rare in Japan it became a huge deal and now the police are ever vigilant for people hanging out near ATMs. But I’ve got my own idea. I spoke Japanese my first few Japanese sentences perhaps a little too well for how I look and got mistaken for a Nikkeijin, someone of Japanese descent from abroad. While I’m half Chinese, it’s hard to tell that I’m anything beyond half-Asian, so it wouldn’t be surprising. But that’s also risky; the Nikkeijin are mostly viewed with mistrust. They were invited back to Japan from abroad on special work visas in the 90’s to quell a labor shortage, but face discrimination from the native Japanese population and now comprise a large number of the unemployed. I’ve heard people associate them with trouble and crime. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the officers saw a half-Asian kid who spoke Japanese a little too well loitering near an ATM and thought there was a problem.

Tokyo’s Seaside

A small Japanese ferry boat.

If you look at Tokyo on a map, especially from a bit further out, you might notice that Tokyo seems to have a bit of oceanside real estate to the south and east. You wouldn’t be wrong, but most of the water found near the center of Tokyo is taken up by the harbor and is, like most harbors, not great for swimming. To get to a usable, quiet beach, you would have to go quite a ways out, which is what we did. About an hour and a half of rail got us to the village of Kurihama, and a bit more of bus and walk got us to the beach of Tomyozaki.

What a small town looks like on the shore of Japan.

As far as contrasts go, there are few bigger than that of city and countryside. Japan follows the pattern mostly in terms of building height, density, and noise. Outside of Tokyo and other large cities, it is quiet. Very quiet. The cleanliness, safety, and convenience of the city continue while the rest fades away, leaving only a calm, clean, and modern town.

One of the more interesting things we saw along the walk was this ferry.
IMG_3967 It had gone about halfway across the bay, a few minutes worth, when it suddenly turned around. IMG_3977
It had heard this lady and went back to get her so she wouldn’t have to wait for the next trip!

IMG_3998 After the town had entirely faded away we found ourselves on a supremely quiet sandstone coast. We might have been the only visitors there at that instant, though later we did meet others. IMG_4019
The view out onto the water was as serene as could be. Though there had been a small harbor earlier along the walk, it was around the bend and back quiet a ways, fairly out of sight and sound.
IMG_4031 IMG_4034
We saw a few jellyfish swimming but most of our sightings were on land, quiet dead. The beach was incredibly clean, contrasted for us even further by having just come from Indonesia.
IMG_4045 IMG_4046
Tile and beach glass were to be found all over the beach. I felt there must have been a tile factory somewhere nearby, or maybe a ship had spilled a pile of it sometime ago. Either way, we gathered a good sized pile.
IMG_4068 The beach stretched on for thirty or so minutes at a slow meandering walk. We got tired of carrying the backpack so we left it near the entrance to the beach. Only in Japan. IMG_4075
As we walked we collected more beach glass.
IMG_4146 And had fun arranging it all at the end! Too near to sunset to really finish it though. And the tide was coming in to where we were working, if we’d left any sooner we would have had to wade out. The water was unfortunately too cold to swim in. IMG_4155
On the way back we saw a very cool insect, one of Natalie’s favorites. I thought it was an ant.
IMG_4177 But it was not an ant! It was our old friend the jumping spider, disguised as an ant. If you look closely you can see the differently colored legs and the tapered body. At even a pretty close distance it fooled me, and apparently it does well enough to fool ants. An amazing creature! IMG_4193
Our walk back down the side-road from the beach to the main road where we would wait for a bus.
IMG_4197 A hotel at dusk. It was one of the few large buildings in the area. IMG_4210
As we waited to go home a raven started hopping between some nearby buildings.

It’s definitely a day’s excursion from Tokyo to go to the seaside, and to get to swim you have to go even further. One of the major downsides of living in a sprawling megacity is that all the land nearby must be specially preserved or else it will be put to use serving that city and its residents. Japan solves the problem of getting people out of the city through its amazingly ontime and superfast rail system, which we explore next!

Crowds and Quiet in Tokyo

The weekend crowds in Harajuku, Tokyo

Aside from the cleanliness and the bright colors, being crowded is near the top in adjectives to describe Tokyo on a weekend. It’s a low-key kind of crowded, at least where we visited – there’s no hustle like the markets we visited in South America, and it’s not the near-paralyzing shoved-together roiling mass that we experienced on a Saturday night in Taipei’s nightmarkets. It’s a casual, bubbling with energy, happy kind of crowded – there are more people here than you can possibly imagine, but nobody is being shoved into anyone else and there’s no point in time where the stream of people has to stop moving. IMG_20170611_154347
We’d spent some time during the weekends visiting the Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinjuku districts, mostly for me to see what all the buzz was about. All three are trendy neighborhoods surrounding massively active rail stations. Each one is a bit different, but the common thread is that young people gather on weekends to shop and eat, with a focus on Harajuku. Shibuya station’s surrounds are a bit more downtown, with financial hubs and the famous Shibuya crossing right around the corner. Harajuku is fashion friendly and full of modern cafes and eateries. Here is where, generally, cosplayers and people wearing fantastical clothing might hang out, but we didn’t see too much out of the ordinary. The shapes, patterns, and colors permitted in decoration and dress in Tokyo are already far outside the norm in any western country I’ve been to. This becomes especially true on the weekends when people don’t have to wear suits for their job.

The train station at Harajuku

Shinjuku lies to the north of both the other districts and presents two different neighborhoods on either side of the station. To the west is something akin to Manhattan – tall buildings, lots of shops on the ground floor, famous labels and marks taking up much of the real estate. To the east is a much calmer feeling, low-building occupied neighborhood with plenty of its own shopping but without the big-city feel. It’s incredible how quickly Tokyo can transition in character, usually just in a matter of streets, while still maintaining a very distinctive feel.

The wall of sake barrel offerings at Meiji Jungi Shrine.

Once the crowds have gotten to be too much, each neighborhood presents a calm place to retreat – sort of. Harajuku and Shibuya have the Meiji Jingu shrine and surrounding park, while Shinjuku has Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Meiji Jingu is one of the most famous shines in Tokyo and is regularly packed with worshippers and visitors on the weekends, especially when the weather is nice.

The gate and walkway during rain.

We found it really nice to go wandering down the impressively wide and long main entrance path during the rain – there are much fewer people and the atmosphere is charming, calm, and reflective as opposed to excited. On a sunny weekend it’s beautiful to visit, but while it is away from the city noise of the nearby neighborhoods, the sheer number of visitors can be overwhelming.


One of the many colorful blooms at the National Garden

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a much better place to go and relax. It’s a huge park, fastidiously maintained, with a pond and river, beautiful trees, and vibrant flower displays all over. We mostly walked around and took pictures, sat on the grass, and enjoyed a late summer afternoon with everyone else. For the low cost of a train ride and 200 Yen, a day of quiet meandering walks and nature saturation await.

Relaxing on the large lawns in the park.


One of the many winding paths, alternating shade and sun.
It’s not quite a painting, but it’s close.
Traditional buildings dot the park.
Taking pictures is a group activity near some of the park’s more interesting sights.
A span of branches reaching into the sky.
The view found when lying down.

Hostel, Brothel?

A street on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Our first night in Tokyo, we stayed on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift capsule hotel/hostel. This was one of the most bizarre, uncomfortable nights that we’ve ever had, partly because our room looked like this:

Stoytcho stands in our ‘room’, which has barely enough space to fit our packs and ourselves.

And partly because, well, I’m pretty sure our hostel was also some kind of brothel. Stoytcho fell asleep early, but I huddled on the lower bunk for several hours writing for the blog, with our room’s accordion-screen door cracked to get some airflow into our tiny crevice of a room. Around one in the morning, I heard some shuffling noises outside and low voices speaking Japanese, and two figures drifted into view through the crack in the door. They stopped at the empty room across the hall, where they seemed to be having difficulty turning on the room’s light. Minutes passed, and their talking grew louder, probably because they were drunk, and the smell of cigarette smoke started drifting into the room, probably because one (or both) of them had decided it was ok to smoke indoors. I found it unlikely they could have missed the no-smoking signs in the well-lit reception area, but, Japan.

After the cigarette smoke smell permeated the air of our room, I’d had enough and mustered my broken Japanese to do something about it. I poked my head out and called to them to please not smoke. 「タバコを吸うあないでください。」I could make out two figures in the dim light, a man and a woman, in front of the doorway across our narrow hall. They stood surprised. The man fell silent, and did not speak again. The woman, holding the burning cigarette, stared at me for a second before crying out softly 「ああ、ごめん!」She looked around for a way to put her cigarette out, but found none.

I stared at them for a few seconds longer, but I could feel the man’s growing discomfort and so I returned to my writing. After a minute, I heard the woman call out to me, asking if I knew how to turn on the room’s light.「あのう、どう電気をつけますか?知っていますか?」I set my computer aside and crawled out from the bottom bunk, squeezing myself into the narrow space between our beds and the wall, and then through the narrow crack of the door into the hallway. To avoid embarrassing any of us further, I kept my eyes toward the ground as I reached into their room and flipped a light switch. A soft yellow light flooded the room and spilled into the hallway, illuminating the three of us, with at least one of us no longer wishing to be here.

I have no idea what happened after that, because I closed the door and went to sleep with earplugs. There was no sign of the two in the morning and the reception was unstaffed when we checked out. Even if someone had been there, I have no idea what I would have asked because my Japanese wasn’t up to snuff to ask about prostitution, and I have no idea why I would have asked beyond sheer curiosity. Prostitution is quasi-legal in Japan, and I hold no particular sense or desire to pass moral judgements. But the incident felt like a glimpse into the private life of the Japanese, a peek behind the veil into something deeply personal in a culture obsessed with hiding one’s private feelings and thoughts.

The room in question, the morning after. No sign of anyone remains beyond the faint smell of cigarette smoke.

Impressions of Tokyo


Tokyo is a huge, sprawling, swarming city. A day is maybe enough to see and experience one district, but not in depth. On our first day we took a walk towards the center of the city. We ran into a shrine almost immediately.


This one was fairly small, like a large garden. After the walk through the the torii gates comes the shrine itself, and on the deck a small box for donations and a large rope attached to a bell for prayers. For those like me who were not acquainted with the required ritual, the temple provides a handy guide.


The order is important if you’re trying to be respectful and do it right, but as a foreigner you get a million and a half chances to mess up, so no one will bat an eye if you do it wrong. They may think of you as a silly foreigner however.


Along our route to the center of town we went through a long local park, bike path, greenery, and even a small fishing area. There retirees, mostly old guys, fished in a pre-seeded river segment.


While we were there they caught one! Natalie chatted with them for a bit while I smiled and nodded. While the park was a peaceful space, it was littered with memorials from the war – in one segment the remaining pylons of a bridge were maintained and enshrined with a plaque.


We stopped for lunch at a very typical fast-diner sort of place. Small and quick, they serve set meals of different combinations of marinated beef, rice, curry, and noodle soup. I chose what would remain one of my favorite (and most affordable) meals, the sliced beef with rice. Slightly sweet in flavor it’s very filling and tasty.


Natalie had the curry and rice, a spicy and flavorful dish not as fully developed as the katsu curry you might get at a more expensive establishment, but still good.


Before long we wound up in Asakusa, a district in central Tokyo, and entered the Senso-ji, an enormous Bhuddhist temple. One of the main gates contains an amazingly large lantern and is both a tourist attraction and a completely functional and oft-visited temple. In Japan the Bhuddism and Shinto live side by side and most Japanese follow the traditions of both. The Torri gates are associated with Shinto, while the more traditional ‘temple’ style is associated with Bhuddist. Many families have a shrine to each in their house, and the people pray at both sites regularly.


One of the fun things to do at temples is to get your fortune – omikuji. For tourists this is fun, for believers it can be a genuine question asking. You pay a small fee, usually about 100 yen (or close to a dollar) and shake a box of sticks.


As you shake you think of your question, and then when you pull out a stick it directs you to one of these drawers. Inside is..


Your fortune! Or prediction, or answer. The translation is kind of vague on the details, a bit like a horoscope, but the short of it that, in regards to your question, either things will go great, ok, badly, or very badly. There’s also some life advice on there and if you look up your sign you can get a horoscope prediction.


If you like your fortune, great! Keep it. If you don’t though, you can wish it away by tying it to one of the many lines strung around the area, and let the wind blow away your bad luck. There are many, many of these tied fortunes around the temple.


To wrap up the day we visited a small mall, and inside was a Seria! A Seria is like a dollar store in Japan – everything is 100 yen. Unlike a typical dollar store though, the stuff they stock is usually of usable quality, and is sometimes a steal. They’re a great place to get usb cables and the like, as well as fancy looking but inexpensive chopsticks. The kid’s sticks are fun but pretty flimsy when it comes to actual use.


With that we returned to our ‘hotel’ in Sumida, which was both affordable and bewilderingly tiny. We are also pretty sure it moonlighted as a brothel.