Chapter 50: The Boys Go to Japan
I flew 18 hours to buy a Pokeball pillow.
Hello from Tokyo, and welcome to Backpackin'! If you want to follow this weird trip around the world, add your email below:
The cool thing about being back in school again is that I get to experience the very American tradition of spring break two more times. With no classes this week, and midterms that ended last Tuesday, I had ~12 days of freedom.
Instead of making a pilgrimage to an undergrad spring break Mecca like Panama City or Breckenridge, I headed somewhere a bit different: Tokyo.
How I ended up here was the same way you end up anywhere interesting: an impulse decision influenced by three IPAs.
In November, Ben and I had discussed a few different Europe trips as well as Southeast Asia, but nothing really stuck. I knew that Guillermo was going to Japan with a large group of 100 or so students, but we didn't want to join an organized trek that large. This was going to be a boy's trip for a small, but very capable, group of dudes.
So in December, after getting obliterated by a Business Analytics final (I didn't have an Excel plug-in that you need to do half of the problems, so as you could guess, I made a 56 on the final), I headed to The Craftsman, a watering hole near Columbia's campus, to watch the World Cup with a few friends.
The friends in question were Brody (Big Grizz), Tanmaye (Mr. Maye), Antonio (Toni), Ben (nickname is just "Benny" followed by basically any "B" word), and me. I headed back to the bar for beer number three, and when I came back, Antonio said, "What if the boys rip Japan?"
My first thought was that none of us wanted to join the big group (though it's not like there was any more room on that trip anyway), and my next thought was that Brody was hellbent on spending at least a month in Japan, and he didn't want to settle for a 11-day trip.
But Brody had since come around to the idea of a boys trip to Japan for 11 days, and we realized that we could just book our own lodging. So while we were sitting there, half-deleted Brooklyn Lagers in hand, I said, "Yeah I'm just gonna go ahead and book mine."
And I bought a plane ticket. And then Toni bought a ticket. And Ben bought a ticket. And by the end of the day, all five of us were locked in on Japan.
(Planning a trip really isn't that hard, is it?)
Now to the trip.
Tuesday, March 7th/Wednesday March 8th
After finishing my last midterm around 5 PM on Tuesday, I should have planned to go to sleep around 9. I had to be up 3:45 AM for our 6 AM flight (Antonio, Ben, and I were flying from NYC to Tokyo with an Atlanta layover, it was going to be a long day), and getting some sleep would have been ideal.
Instead, I went to dinner at Guillermo's around 9 (I was the only gringo in attendance, for those curious), and I didn't get home til ~11:15.
And then I needed to pack.
And then I went to bed at 12:30.
And then I woke up at 3:45 and hated myself.
I called an Uber, scooped Antonio from his place, and we headed to LaGuardia. Toni was actually down worse than me. He had arrived from Denver three hours earlier, got 0 sleep, washed his clothes, and headed right back to the airport.
I bought an Emergen-C (life saver) in some kiosk, then Toni and I met Ben in the Terminal. We also saw Laura, Ma Jo, Juan, and Marcos, four other classmates going on the organized Japan trip.
The flight to Atlanta was chill (I was a zombie), and we balled out on Sky Lounge breakfast in Atlanta. The flight to Japan was longggg though. 15 hours, give or take. Luckily, Toni and I had thought ahead and secured Premium Select seats for the Pacific leg.
I sat down next to a nice old Japanese lady, opened my Kindle, and read for a bit until meal number one. After that, I was in a sort of sleep, sort of work, sort of read haze for the next 10 hours, with a snack in the middle. And then at 2:40 PM (12:30 AM NYC time), we landed in Tokyo.
Thursday, March 9th
We basically time-traveled when we crossed the international date line, so I'm going to switch days here.
I've traveled a lot over the past two years, probably visiting 25 or so countries. But man, Japan is different. Like, when I landed in Argentina and Colombia they obviously spoke Spanish, but it wasn't "another world" different. It's still the western world.
Japan? Japan is very different. You can't read anything because the alphabet is entirely different. There aren't any of the half-speaking-slowly things that you can kind of do in Europe to find your way around. Japanese and English literally have nothing in common.
So yeah, it's different.
Toni, Ben, and I got through customs, then grabbed a cab and headed to the Airbnb.
There were six of us staying in the crib, the above-mentioned five dudes plus Guillermo, who was with us for two nights until the "official" Japan trip started. Toni, Ben, and I beat the other three there by about an hour, and we dropped off our stuff, showered, then took a stroll through the town.
Tokyo is a massive city: the metro area has 40M residents (compared to, say, 20M in the broader NYC area), making it the most populous city in the world. However, the one thing we noticed immediately was that everything was so... quiet?
No cars honking, no one yelling on the street. 40M people, the streets were bustling, but it was tranquil. None of the "GET THE $%& OUT OF THE WAY" that you hear when you take 0.0002 seconds too long to cross a crosswalk in Manhattan. The other big difference is that 90% of people were masked, even outside.
Ben and Toni and I walked to "Golden Gai," or Golden Gate, a densely packed area with hundreds of small bars that seated 10 people max, before we found a hole-in-the-wall spot for dinner. This place had a bar, a few 2-seat tables, and a set of tables in the back surrounded by mats to sit on. The ceiling in the back seating area had like 6 feet of clearance, and we sat cross-legged while our bare-foot server/cook/bartender brought us beers.
He spoke maybe 12 words of English, and we spoke maybe negative 12 words of Japanese, so we just pointed at food, said, "chicken" and "pork" and hoped we ended up with something good.
Our man did not disappoint, Japanese cuisine is 10/10.
As we hit beer #2, Brody, Tanmaye, and Antonio rolled up. We have a pretty tall crew already (our group chat is literally called the Big Boys Club), but Brody, being 6'7, takes it to another level. He had to make his way through the restaurant in a semi-bow just to reach the table behind us.
We settled in and enjoyed our first meal on the other side of the world. After dinner, we returned to Golden Gai and hit some bars before Brody left us to meet with an acquaintance, then the rest of us enhanced our cultural knowledge (read: drink sake) at a small, 5-seater spot. After that, we linked with Marcos, Juan, Laura, and Ma Jo.
Dueces are a fav Japanese pose.
At this point, I was halfway delirious. I slept 3 hours the night before, and maybe 4 hours max on the flight. We tried to go to like 3 more bars, but none of them had room for all of us, so Antonio, Ben, and I called it a night.
On our walk home, Antonio referred to every other restaurant, bar, and iconic site as "fire" and "super fire." He is a walking mad-libs book of frat-star lingo.
Friday, March 10th
Toni, Ben, and Guille went on a run, then Tanmaye went on a separate run (Brody and I did not go on a run), and then all of us minus Tanmaye (who decided to take a nap mid-run, and tell us about the peaceful beauty of his run when we linked later) headed to Tokyo's oldest temple.
The city is littered with coffee vending machines (but it is not littered with litter. Zero trash, zero homeless people, in fact, zero "trash cans," so idk how there isn't any trash), and we bought some canned iced coffee for the road. Ben, who was our guide for the entirely of our time in Tokyo because the rest of us (minus Tanmaye, but he wasn't with us) are largely incompetent, led the way, and we took the subway to the temple. Japan has this payment app called "Suica" that you can add to your Apple Wallet to pay for everything: cabs, subways, regular trains, vending machine food, whatever.
So we Suica'd our way across the city. The subways are eerily silent. Like, no one was saying a word. Except for the group of tourists (us) who were talking about the sushi we wanted to eat for lunch, and other stuff.
Guillermo was visibly tweaking as maskless Toni talked nonstop, once again referring to everything in Japan as "fire."
This temple was peak-Japan, and some monks came in and did some sort of religious ceremony while we were there. It was also surrounded by a bustlin' marketplace, and we sampled some of the local cuisine. Whenever we asked a local to take a picture of us, they wanted to hop in too. We wanted pictures of old Japanese stuff, the local populace wanted pictures of tall non-Japanese people.
The duality of man.
After the temple, we met up with Tanmaye at a fish market, and we ate some unidentified fried street food from some vendor before running into a gaggle of ~eight girls from our class (there's like 100 Columbia folks in Tokyo right now too).
The boys then got sushi and beers at some spot around the corner, before Toni said he located a mochi ice cream place "really close."
This "really close" quickly became a 2-mile walk across the city in the heat. 20 minutes in, we were the only pedestrians in some industrial park, and then we were the only pedestrians walking across a commercial bridge. This was supposed to be a quick ice cream run before we hit Team Labs, an immersive arts museum, but after 45 minutes, Brody, Tanmaye, and Guillermo bailed.
Antonio the WOAT
Toni said, "It's right here," so Ben and I stuck around. I was expecting a Baskin Robbins-like ice cream stand, but he led us to some extremely mid food court connected to a factory(?), and when we finally reached our destination, they were sold out of mochi.
Ben and I got some vending machine ice cream, and we took the subway to the museum. (The museum had ice cream, btw).
While our ice cream run was a catastrophic, sweaty failure, the museum was wild. It had all sorts of light distortions, areas where we walked through water, and a variety of mirror mazes. Trippy stuff.
Post-museum, we headed back to the crib to nap, and Tanmaye and Guillermo went to some event with a friend of his, who happened to be a model, who lived in Japan.
So Brody has a brother, who has a friend, who has a friend who is allegedly "the guy" in Tokyo. We had made plans to grab dinner with this "guy," Taka, that night. But we woke up from our naps at 8 PM in a daze. Dinner was at 8:45, and we didn't know if we were going to make it.
But since we're dudes and it only takes us like 3 minutes to get ready, we were up and out the door by 8:30.
Going to this dinner ended up being a top 3 decision of the trip, and it wasn't 2 or 3.
We met Taka and his friend, Rei, at a spot called Beef Kitchen, and we instantly realized that Taka was a homie. Actually, he was the homie. First of all, Beef Kitchen was fire. We ate a Noah's Ark of different meats, deleted ~6 high balls (Japanese whisky and soda) each, and exchanged two hours of laughs with our Japanese hosts.
Taka's family had a house in the States and he had lived there for a bit, while his buddy Rei was finishing up med school in Japan.
Taka told us, "We like to drink in Japan. I hope you guys are okay with that."
Obviously we were okay with that. We're in business school, after all. Consuming questionable amounts of adult beverages in foreign countries is a prerequisite for graduating.
Rei, who we now referred to as Dr. Rei, joyfully told us that they had a three-hour head start, so we needed to catch up.
Meanwhile, Tanmaye and Guillermo were bar hopping with these alleged models (we did confirm later that they did, in fact, exist.) Once we were four high balls deep, we decided to troll Tanmaye by sending a "👎🏼" to every message that Mr. Maye sent to the group. Respectfully.
As dinner wrapped up, Taka asked us if we were ready for a big night. He said, "Check is on me, welcome to Tokyo," and we headed to the next spot.
It quickly became apparent that he was, in fact, the plug in Tokyo. We went to some exclusive bar with a delivery truck in it (it was sick, and yes we took pictures in the truck). We also slowly realized that Dr. Rei was actually insane in the best way possible. (Rei had the funniest laugh I've ever heard. If he did stand-up comedy in Comedy Cellar he could sell out a show just by telling stories in his Japanese accent and giggling.)
Feat Dr. Rei (front) and Taka (back)
Dr. Drip 😤
Next we headed to some church bar, which was a bar installed in a former church. Or maybe it was a bar built to look like a church? Idk. The bartenders were dressed like nuns, so the origins really aren't all that important.
This was also the first bar where anyone in the crew attempted to spit game with some locals. Complete language disconnect, absolutely zero traction was made.
Post-church bar, Taka took us to a club called Mitsuki, where he had a table lined up behind the DJ booth. We kicked it back there with him and Dr. Rei, and an Arizona ex-pat named Rena that he was friends with met us back there.
The vibes were immaculate until a group of Canadians posted up at the table next to us, and one of them (can't remember his name but this was easily one of the top-3 most annoying dudes I've ever met) wouldn't shut up.
I actually thought he was doing a bit. Like, no one can suck this bad, right?
Narrator: He actually did suck this bad.
Our interaction went something like this:
"Oh what's up man, I'm Brad (he was probably a Brad). Where are you from?"
"Oh really bro? New York? I'm from Toronto. It's like New York but with a sicker night life, it's so chill. Have you been to Toronto? It's like, so sick."
*Brad proceeds to come sit at our table, Taka's eyes narrow as he glances at him.*
*Brad then spends 15 minutes telling me about how "sick" his boy is that "copped" a table back there. Everything was unironically sick to Brad, especially Toronto.*
*Brad then slides next to Rena, whose body language was screaming please don't talk to me, and Brad reenacted the meme of the guy yelling in the girl's ear while she looked annoyed*
*Taka tells Brad to go back to his table as I go to the bathroom.*
*I come back from the bathroom, Brad comes BACK to our table, sits next to me, and says "Bro can you believe that guy told me to move?" I am visibly restraining myself, Toni and Ben are cracking up seeing how annoyed I am.*
*I ignore Brad while he has a monologue until he disappears.*
Brad was the worst. Don't be a Brad.
It's now approximately 2:00 AM, and Taka said it was time to hit the actual club. We then head to a place called "Cé La Vi," a 20th-floor nightclub with an insane view of the city. Taka was boys with the owner (again, this man is the prince of Tokyo), and he introduced all of us before grabbing a table in the back.
Taka then walked up with a bottle of champagne, took a fat swig, and said, "Drink up boys."
So yeah I'm going to stop and say that our night was 10x more fun because we grabbed dinner with Brody's brother's boy's boy. 4th derivative homies are invaluable homies. Never discount those guys.
This spot had a very international crowd, and I glanced at Brody, made eyes at a nearby table, and said, "That girl is a smoke." Two minutes later, the girl in question walked our way. I was about to introduce myself before she walked right past me, headed straight to Ben, and asked him, "What's your name?"
Struck out before I even entered the batter's box. You hate to see it.
Brody just looked at me and laughed. Some other girl then walked up, mad that we were drinking her champagne (It wasn't her champagne), took it back, and Brody, Toni, and I bopped around the bar for a bit. At 4:00, we got ready to head back to the crib, when Ben walked up and said, "Well, she's French. She also has a boyfriend."
It turns out we all struck out before entering the batter's box. Ben just got a practice swing.
We attempted to procure some late-night ramen, failed, then headed back to the house, where Tanmaye and Guillermo were fast asleep in their shared queen bed ❤️
Not a bad night, 9/10. Would do again.
Saturday, March 11th
A slow start today, not sure why!
We finally got moving around 11, and we headed to a brunch spot across the street. The waiter didn't understand our order because everyone kept switching from hot coffee to cold and asked for random sides with their breakfasts, and we finally got a bunch of food that somewhat resembled what we ordered.
My French toast was good.
We asked Ben, "What does the doc have in store for us today?" and he said that we were headed to the Mori Art Museum. (We had a Google Doc, now called "the doc" that had a calendar that we semi-adhered to. I first looked at the doc about 30 minutes before we arrived in Tokyo).
So we looked at a bunch of weird paintings and sculptures, including, but not limited to, an exhibit of wood 3-D printed to match designs carved in wood by a group of badgers, and then we went to the roof (the museum was on the 40-something floor) to check out the views.
Tanmaye and I walked around a nearby mall for a minute, then Brody came down and met us and we Ubered to Harajuku to go shopping. I bought a hoodie and a cool hat with a surfing dog on it. We bopped around this district for a minute, Tanmaye and I grabbed some food, then Ben met up with us at a nearby bar.
We grabbed more high balls (Ben just got a coffee because "We ArEn'T jUsT hErE tO dRiNk GuYs" even though he was also high-balling 2 hours later), and then Brody called us to say that he bought a new jacket. I must say, the fit was immaculate.
Guillermo headed back to grab his stuff and go to another hotel (the "official" Japan trip was starting, and he was an attendee), and we bounced soon after.
I went to McDonald's for dinner (I must try McDonald's in every country, it's a rule of mine), and then I went home and showered before we went out. The remaining 5 of us went to some dinner spot, then Toni and I, who didn't want dinner, just went to a bar down the road.
We proceeded to crush 6 high balls apiece, ate some dank chicken (he decided to order food and they accidentally brought double because once again, communication totally broke down), and had one of those funny heart to hearts that dudes have when they're inebriated. Before dinner we didn't know if we had the energy to go out. But after the chicken skins, we were oh so back.
We met up with the other guys and Taka at another bar, and five more Columbia folks: Ross (total homie), Abby, Simone, Mauricio, and Will, linked with us too. Taka took us to another spot: he had a private bar with beer pong tables, darts, and a private karaoke room rented out for the crew.
Once again, Taka is the freaking man.
Toni and I smoked the field in beer pong (we were both in fraternities, obviously), then the karaoke machine got fired up. One of Taka's friends, June, joined us, as well as two Japanese girls that just giggled super Japanesily when we tried to give them the mic.
June had the voice of an angel, like a mixture of Fergie and Jesus.
Tanmaye challenged me to a game of darts for $1,000, I agreed, we then revised down to $100, and we played. I won, he wanted a double-or-nothing rematch, I initially declined, then figured "why not?" and accepted, and unfortunately lost the rematch by 1 dart.
It was an even battle, I'm looking forward to round 3.
We went back to the karaoke room where, as is Japanese tradition, it was cig-friendly. (People were ripping heaters in multiple restaurants this weekend like it was a 1970s Waffle House). I partook in the local culture because it would have been rude not to, no? And let's be real, vapes are infinitely worse than cigs. Plus they're lame. Cigarettes are, objectively, cool.
Then we headed to some night club called Harlem, which seemed like a night club that was trying way too hard to be American. Toni and I left and went on a 1-hour pizza hunt that ended without any pizza before heading home.
Everyone else got back at like 4:30, we hung out til 5, then passed out.
Sunday, March 12th
After the previous two nights plus the complete lack of sleep I had subjected myself to over the prior eight days, I felt like my body was decomposing. I got up around 9:45, went for a run, found an outdoor gym (singular pull-up bar), and exorcised my demons through some sweat equity.
I called Guillermo to see how his night went, he informed me that they met someone who was 10x cooler than Taka and stayed out with this dude til 8 AM, and he was now on a tour bus at 11 AM.
When I got back, Toni had headed back to the Mori Museum to return a $20 shirt that didn't fit (such a waste of time), Tanmaye and Ben were grabbing breakfast, and Brody was in bed playing his Switch. When Ben and Tanmaye got back we headed downtown to explore a bit.
Brody and I ate at some tempura spot before grabbing coffee, then we linked back up with the crew at the Pokémon center. (It wasn't like Disney World or anything. Just a Pokémon super store). Brody bought a Blastoise, I bought a pokéball pillow (very useful object, you can just peg people with it), and then Brody and I headed to see some robot statue he wanted a picture with.
After that we explored a shopping mall, I snagged some new shades, we found another dog-related apparel store (Dog Department. Woof), and we were going to an arcade before he realized he had a dinner reservation with some other people at 7.
I passed out at like 8:45 PM when I got back. Dead.
Monday, March 13th
I did a whole lot of nothing today. Tanmaye and Antonio headed to Hakone a day before us, as they were going to bike around for a couple of days. Brody and I went to Denny's (yes, they have a ton of Denny's here) before Brody and Ben linked with Guillermo to hit a VR arcade. I sent a bunch of emails, sold some ads, and did newsletter stuff to ensure that I can afford to keep eating sushi in Tokyo.
I linked with Ben and Brody for dinner, and we were sad to see that a dank Wagyu beef burger spot was closed, but we ended up at a similarly dank ramen spot. We hit a bar down the road, befriended the bartender, and drank some sake before heading home to pack.
Last day in Tokyo! Gone, but not forgotten. On to Hakone tomorrow.
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