Sunday’s sunshine didn’t last long: we woke to pouring rain – and went back to sleep. After the week’s exertions we were pretty tired; it had been many years since we did such intensive sightseeing and I hadn’t realised how exhausting we would find it now we were older. At least we still had a whole week left in Tokyo and could afford to take it easy for a day or two. And as it was Monday, all the museums would be closed.
It wasn’t really the ideal day for it, but we decided to go and see the famous Shibuya ‘scramble’ pedestrian crossing since we could easily get there by subway, and perhaps get some sushi. Starbucks was reputedly the place for the best view of the crossing, but I prefer to take my custom elsewhere until they pay UK tax on UK profits instead of pretending all the money is made in Luxembourg, so we headed up to a walkway between two shopping malls which looked like a good vantage point. Perhaps we picked the wrong time, or the rain was keeping everyone indoors, but the crossing wasn’t particularly busy.
Back on the ground we went in search of a particular cheap sushi place that I’d read about, but we took the wrong road from the junction and got completely lost, ending up on Love Hotel Hill, Shibuya’s red light district – which is just as sanitised and inoffensive as Kabukicho. So we went back to the station and started again, this time finding Uobei Sushi fairly quickly, despite its lack of a sign in English.
We took the proffered numbered tags without really understanding what they were for, but immediately realised that we were supposed to sit in the correspondingly numbered seats at one of the long counters. Luckily we’d missed the lunchtime rush and were given so had room to spread our wet things to drip while we tried to figure out the modus operandi. At least there was an English option on the computer screen in front of us, so it wasn’t long before we had tapped in 3 selections and hit the send button. We barely had time to make ourselves a cup of matcha (from the box of green tea powder and hot water tap on the bench) before the first plate whizzed out from the unseen kitchen along one of the 3 tiered tracks and stopped in front of us, quickly followed by th e others. As instructed, we removed the plates and pressed the button to send the trays back. We helped ourselves to the soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger provided and tucked in. And just kept tapping the screen and pressing buttons until we were full – it was kind of addictive and unexpectedly good fun.
My previous experience of sushi was limited to little plastic trays from Waitrose, but this was much nicer (fresher tasting and less vinegar in the rice) and there was so much more variety. I wasn’t too keen on the sea urchin roe (as least, it was described as roe, but actually it was sea urchin gonads – gulp!), and the squid(?) one was too chewy. My favourite were the flounder fin, pickled mackerel and tuna. And the warm savoury custard with prawns and mushrooms. Dessert was less successful as the sweet corn things on sticks turned out to have a sausage in the middle, so I had to eat Mr Vagabond’s too. Incredibly the bill totalled less than £7 for the two of us. I’m sure a sushi connoisseur would find fault with the quality, but for novices such as ourselves it was just amazing value.
The following day was wet too although not as cold, so we explored our own neighbourhood a little more. Most visitors to Shinto temples just ring the bell outside and say a quick prayer, but at our local Shinto temple we stopped to watch the priest, who appeared to be giving some kind of personalised service or reading to a middle-aged man seated inside. Leaving the temple we followed a tree-lined footpath that seemed to be a well used shortcut and found ourselves in Golden Gai, a maze of narrow alleyways and tiny, ramshackle bars – all still closed, unfortunately.
I’d read about Don Quijote, a chain of discount stores, but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer variety of goods on offer in its cramped, high piled aisles. Descending into the basement it occurred to me that even a slight earthquake would be disastrous here. We bought a small bottle of drink that turned out to be a turmeric-based hangover cure (we actually just needed the little plastic bottle) and some green tea Kitkats that were on special offer. Then we wandered around the department stores south of Yasukuni Dori, and for the first time I saw Shinjuku as a shoppjng centre. Tokyo doesn’t really have a centre – it’s more like a collection of small cities all clustered together, each with a slightly different character and emphasis but all fairly self-sufficient and providing the whole range of necessary shops and services. Ginza is famous for upmarket shopping, Roponggi for nightclubs and Marunouchi for finance , but Shinjuku is an all-purpose, workaday kind of place. It suited us very well and I was glad we’d chosen to stay there.