Earthquakes and Snow in Tokyo

Ravinder outside the Kabuki theater in Ginza, Tokyo

It was the first November snow in Tokyo since 1962.  It was one of the largest earthquakes since 2011.  It definitely shook me around in the bed of my small hotel room.  But these events, although newsworthy to the people of Japan, just seemed a small part of the excitement of life in Tokyo.  For me, the ways the train move, the somehow skinnier cars, the programmable toilets, and the massive scale of the city are much more surprising and exciting.

Majestic Mt. Fuji
View from Roppongi Hills City View, with Tokyo Tower in the distance.

The trains are impossibly full.  The riders entering a packed train actually push their way in, with their backs first, to squeeze everyone; human sardines.  But the amazing thing to me is how people leave their purses and backpacks on the luggage racks, without concern of theft.  This is the epitome of social trust and is lacking in many parts of the world, noticeably the USA.  Even Stockholm doesn’t have this level of honesty. I also love that each subway station has a free clean bathroom.  No smell of urine in the subways here.  There is no thought of tips from the bathroom cleaners, or at the restaurants, but the waiters are among the most helpful and gracious I have ever met.  It is just a special place that way. But in other ways, the people of Tokyo are somewhat behind.  Plastic is overused: plastic bags are given out generously, and the amount of fish and meat eaten is extreme.  Smoking is still allowed in many bars and restaurants. There is no gay marriage. There are very few female professors, although more than half of the students are women.  Conservative societies have pluses and minuses.

The Meguro Parasitological Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. Since I am considered a parasitologist, this was a must.  We met the curators for a backstage tour of the collections that include many monogenean worms of fish, and plenty of tapeworms.  The museum highlights the diversity of parasites and has lots of glass jars filled with icky helminths.  They say that hundreds of people come here on dates, up to 300 per day.  I wish I could do a field trip here with all of my students at SFSU.  I also enjoyed the Tokyo National museum with its treasures of Japanese art, and the Mori Museum with its incredible city view in Roppongi Hills.

Ravinder at the Meguro Parasitologial Museum
Mori Museum at Roppongi

We caught some nice birds in the research forest at Nihon University.  I showed the students how kingfishers “fall asleep” when they are placed on their backs.  I recognized that I have a very peculiar skill: I can erect mist nets in a logical way, and get birds out of them quickly.  I am treated like a prince, with gifts, special meals, and ultimate respect from the students and professors at Nihon University.

A tour of the ancient city of Nikko was my final day in Japan.  It took 4 trains to get there, including one Shinkansen bullet train.  The Tosho-Gu complex is the ornate mausoleum of the first shogun. Thousands of people visit to see the three monkeys, “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”, and the ornate gilded temples.  All of the shrines are surrounded by ancient cedar trees, in the foothills of the mountains.  There are waterfalls, and stone stair paths through the forest.  The temples just near the main complex are much less crowded and just as beautiful.  One of my favorite stops was the hall featuring the “Crying Dragon” painted on the ceiling. A guide claps two sticks together and only at a certain spot, just under the tears of the dragon, the whole room is filled with a magnified echo. They sell small bells as luck charms, and there are warriors for each year of the Chinese zodiac.  The tourists, including me, are convinced of the magic and readily purchase the differently colored bell-charms.

Ravinder in Nikko
Ravinder hiking among cedar trees in Nikko

For a final stop, my student guides took me to the Syungyotei onsen, a Japanese hot spring.  After a long day of hiking and visiting temples, this was the perfect spot to relax, in a hot bath outside among the trees. This is not a tourist spot.  The men strip off their clothes, rinse off, and rush outside to sit in the rocky pool.  It is a nice way for friends to spend a Saturday evening together, just catching up and talking while relaxing.  A perfect last night in Japan.  I love that I will arrive in San Francisco before I left, and be able to say that yesterday I was walking among trees and temples in Nikko.

Syungyotei Onsen near Nikko

Vegan Tokyo: à la Ravinder

Corn in Ueno, Tokyo

It is actually harder than I thought to find food without meat and fish sauce at restaurants in Japan.  In San Francisco, I know of two vegan Japanese restaurants. I expected to find one on every corner here, which was not the case.  But with the help of Happy Cow, I did find some delicious places. In fact the food is amazing and even just along the streets and at the train stations, there is plenty to eat.

Here are some of my favorite restaurants. I am not giving directions on how to find them: I am linking the websites. Part of the adventure is walking in the neighborhoods searching for these places.   I must say that my guides were very patient with me in my quest for vegan restaurants. We walked many kilometers, but in the end, they all were impressed with the food and my excitement:

For a special adventure night, I recommend Ninja Akasaka in downtown Tokyo.  They do magic tricks and have a great vegan tasting menu.  The servers are dressed as ninjas, and it is a deep cavernous experience. Here is what I ate:

  • 1.Shuriken star-blades grissini
  • 2.Vegetable Sushi
  • 3.Fried season vegetables
  • 4.Avocado carpaccio
  • 5.Season vegetables potage
  • 6.Tofu steak
  • 7.Vegetable roll
  • 8.Fruit sampler

Harukucchi in Fujisawa.  This was a nice surprise.  A tiny two-table restaurant with creative ideas and a sense of fusion among the world’s vegan cuisines.  I don’t exactly know what we ordered, but it was all excellent.  We just ordered the servers suggestions.

Ain Soph Journey at Shinjuku. Wow, the pancakes were fluffy and delicious with vegan whipped cream.  They look and taste just like the pictures on the website.

Delicious meal at Kamakura Fushikian

Kamakura Fushikian at Ahikabara.  This is an inexpensive Zen restaurant in a food court. Very tasty miso soup and a plate of traditional Japanese salads.  Everything tasted great. So nice to have miso soup sans fish.

Ts TanTan.  This is one of my favorites because of its convenient location at Tokyo station, on Keiyo street within the toll gates.  The ramen here was hearty and full of black sesame flavors.  Delicious and inexpensive fantastic ramen noodles.

Then in Nikko, Meiji-No-Yakata is a must.  This is a beautiful stop just near the Tosho-Gu complex.  They have a relatively inexpensive bento box menu (20,000 yen) in a traditional Japanese restaurant with glass windows facing the bonsai garden.  This is serene and even my two carnivore student guides said it was among the best meals they have eaten.

Very expensive boxes of fruit for sale in Ginza, Tokyo

Vegan inaris, and sushi rolls are available in the supermarkets and just about at every train station.  Corn on the cob is easy to find in Ueno, however fruits are more scarce, and expensive.  At Ginza there is a fruit shop, Sembikiya, that sells beautiful boxes of select fruits for more than $100! But there is the abundance of different types of mochi.  The possibilities at every stop along the way are for exploring.  I certainly didn’t lose any weight despite all the walking.  Enjoy!


Transported in Tokyo

Ravinder at Shibuya

Arriving at Tokyo Station on a Sunday morning, the crowds were manageable, but still crowds.  The shops underground sell mochis and bento boxes. There are bakeries and candy stores, for all the commuters to snack at, before they get on their trains.  Tokyo is an amazing story in efficiency. How can it be possible that the trains work so flawlessly, and that everything is so clean? On top of it, people give me polite smiles and try to answer questions when I get lost in the underground mazes.  Personnel at the little shops are so incredibly polite, it is almost unnerving, mainly because you know that in real life nobody can be that obsequious and helpful.  Does playing that role eventually wear a person out, and make them resentful? It doesn’t seem like it, in the most livable city on the planet.

I love Tokyo.  I am here on a short one-week trip, to give some lectures at Nihon University.  Based in a little hotel room near the Shōnandai Station, I can get to anywhere in the city (or maybe the planet) seamlessly.  When I was here some 5 years ago, people had flip phones with little ornaments hanging off them. Now the phone gazers in the trains have iPhones and similar models that don’t accommodate the charms.  At the shops, women wear their work costumes, and talk in high pitched voices to outcompete the polyphonic synthesized music jingles that come from the trains, and supermarket speakers. This whole city has the atmosphere of a giant pachinko machine.  The metal balls are like moving people with an electricity that dominates this massive metropolis.  Here cute kitschy items are commonplace. At the university there is a little colorful magnetic animal that you place by your name, to let you know whether you are in the office, in a classroom, or out to lunch.

As with everyone else that I know, the people I’ve met in Japan are surprised and disappointed by the USA election results. This is a homogeneous society, with few immigrants, so it is not simple to compare the two countries.  This Japanese culture is rich in traditions and societal norms. Today’s USA was built by immigrants, including many Japanese, and is incredibly diverse.  But what is remarkable to me is that modern Japan renewed itself and came out of the second world war as a powerhouse. Based on my experiences here, people have respect for the environment, and nature.  I haven’t seen overt rudeness, but the opposite; a sincere respect for other people.  I can’t say the same for the USA where I am constantly shocked by the trash in the parks and on the streets of San Francisco.  I haven’t seen homeless people here, but I read that there are approximately 1600 homeless in this city of 16 million.  San Francisco has about 6 times that number in a population less than 1 million.  I would like everyone in the USA to visit two megacities, Tokyo and Delhi (the most polluted city on the planet), and then vote again.

Vegetable sushi, tempura, soba noodles, mochi, tofu and pickled vegetables make a vegan happy.  At Ninja restaurant, I had a vegan tasting menu, with all dishes creatively displayed, and Ninja accented waiters performing magic tricks.  A boat ride down from Asakusa to the lovely Hama-rikyu gardens frames the tall skyscrapers and gives great views of both the Skytree and Tokyo Tower.   Shibuya, with its renowned mega-crosswalk, also has the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who returned to the station every day to wait for his owner, years after the owner had died.  The statue represents undying loyalty and faithfulness in one of the most hectic busy places in the world.  Small surprises like this make it ok to be sentimental and small in the technical universe of Tokyo.

Ravinder with Hachikō at Shibuya Station