SYNOPSIS:  About the final shopping trip and a glimpse of the nightlife of Tokyo.


There is one rule I would tell anyone who might be listening: when you travel and you see something you like, buy it!  Don’t assume that you can find it later, somewhere else.

It was nearly 70 days ago on my way to Tokyo’s “Eiffel Tower” that I had stopped into a small antique store along the way.  There were beautiful things at what I thought were reasonable prices.  I stood in front of a number of small, wooden and gilded Buddha figures no larger than 10-25 centimeters, that were so delicately carved, that I just marveled at them.  They were of high quality and obviously old.   Why was he not asking for a lot more money?  It was only my second day in the country.  I had no sense of what was around, no idea of what prices were like, and more than two months of travel were ahead of me.  I could not possibly make a major purchase this early on, could I?  Ignoring my own trusty travel advice, I walked away.

More than a month later I still had not seen anything even close to comparable anywhere in Japan.  But I had seen a lot uglier, newer, and a lot more expensive everywhere.   It began to dawn on me that I had made a terrible mistake.

I had taken a card from the shop but it had no email.  The website was all in Japanese…  I finally made a skype call and left a message in English asking for these Buddha figures to be held if they were still around.  Would this message be understood?  Would they hold these figures for over a month?

Yesterday, I went back to the store and there they were, sitting on a special shelf waiting for me.  The owner remembered me well.  We had spoken the first time I had come.  I could not believe my luck!  I asked him why new things were so much more expensive in Japan than old ones — in one of my blogs I had mentioned my suspicion that Japanese in general value new more than old.  He confirmed that only a few treasure the old and often new things cost “one Zero more” than comparable old ones, as he put it.  Well, that is just my luck!    After all those shrine visits, I now can have my own shrine at home and some of my students will see some very special and very Japanese Buddhist figures. 🙂

One area of Tokyo is famous for secondhand bookstores, and one store in particular has a reputation for old maps and ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints.  It wasn’t easy to find but with the help of a few locals I ended up in the most amazing, cram-packed narrow space with shelf after shelf of printed and hand written notebooks from the Edo period and stacks and stacks of woodblock prints.

Thanks Nikko!  I am so glad I bought my ukiyo-e there.  Prices here were about 3 times as high as I had seen before.  If I had relied on getting my woodblock prints here, I would have been out of luck.  But to look through them was a trip to the past which was amazing.  These ukiyo-e show all facets of the human experience and looking at them gives you an amazing sense of what daily life was like, then — from relationships to quarrels, from Sumo wrestlers to kabuki actors, from the frivolous to the mundane, from the pious to the drunkards.   I got so lost that I did not even notice that hours were passing.  This was like a hands-on museum.

What to do for the evening?  In Nikko, I had met two American ladies, one of whom, Lesley, was going to have dinner with me tonight.  Despite three emails to her, I did not hear back.  Something had gone wrong. It’s probably just one missed letter in the email — all it takes in cyber space.  I was quite bummed about that!  Now I was on my own.  I could do the usual $1 noodle dinner in my room, or I could venture out on my own.

Hell, why not?  And why not choose one of the famous themed restaurants that you can only find in Tokyo?  Should we go Sumo, Vampire, Alcatrez, Alice in Wonderland or dare the 10 Million establishment with enough neon lights to supply all of New York, featuring girls dancing with robots?  Looks like there are choices.   I went for the middle of the road and chose the “Ninja” theme.  Ninjas are, after all, historic Japanese assassin figures.

Since I did not have a reservation, I was out of luck.  No table or 1.5 hours of waiting.  I had come this far, so I opted for the latter and decided to roam the neighborhood killing some time. This was obviously food heaven.  Several streets were lined with easily 100 restaurants total.  Most of them, except for the Swedish one which was literally empty, were busy or outright crowded.  I just decided to photograph interesting details, deliberately in a way that they would become an abstract photo essay rather than a representation of a neon-lit restaurant street.  Enjoy.

It is a bit sad to go to a place like this without a companion, but I tried to take it in stride.

They mean business at the Ninja place!  All waiters are dressed up as Ninjas, jump out of hidden doors, know magic tricks (these guys are pros!) and even serve you food with hidden weapons, poisoned leafs, etc.  They unexpectedly burn secret messages — like my desert menu, or make floors disappear as you walk.  The entire establishment is kept in black.  Narrow corridors lead through winding passages into the “Ninja village”,  where there is a total of 27 tables.  I was in an area with a Swiss family to my left and a Brazilian family to my right.  The best part of the night was right after you paid your bill, the “master” ninja would appear and do a full 10-15 minute magic show at your table.  This was mind-boggling.  I watched three of them on the tables around me.  Each was different and each was absolutely professional.  The best thing was that the Brazilian guy gave his performer a 1000 yen note as a tip which that guy transformed instantly before his eyes into a receipt!

Time flew and it was 10 minutes to midnight when I got out of the subway.  Even at this hour, the subway runs every few minutes and is filled with people.  No shady characters, nothing creepy about being out that late.  Except that all of a sudden I remembered that my hostel had a midnight curfew.  There was a pin code which would allow you to enter later, but since I am never out this late I had not even asked for it;  there was only one thing left to do — run.  I made it with a couple of seconds to spare.

Whew.  Let’s have a good final night in Japan.