Tokyo: Santouka | Harajuku

When in Japan, one has to bathe in a hot spring – something I was well aware of, and wanted to do.

But going about it wasn’t easy. Detailed information in Singapore was scarce, and whatever options that was presented to me (by the JTB representatives), was clearly too exorbitant for me to consider, particularly because I was traveling alone. Once I stepped foot into Tokyo, I was quickly able to gather more information, and best of all, Japanese’ love for convenience means that I could easily score a customized package for a traditional Japanese ryokan and onsen stay with all meals included (and even a kaiseki meal) within the capital’s periphery like Nikko and Hakone, or as far afield as Hokkaido and Okinawa right in the comfort of the major rail stations, but I hesitated. My time in Japan was coming to an end, and there were still so many places in the capital that I hadn’t visited. What’s more, while the packages entailed an overnight stay, I was advised that the weather advisories of snow and ice (still rampant in the countryside) could mean there was a possibility that I had to extend my stay, something I was unsure I was willing to sacrifice. Already, I was advised by the Odakyu and Seibu staff that if I was intending to visit Hakone or Nikko, I should keep my sightseeing within the confines of daylight, and leave before nightfall. I was running out of options…

Until I accidentally dropped my guidebook, opened it, and there it was, in the section about Odaiba – Oedo Onsen Monogatari. Who’d have known there’d be a hot spring 1.4 km below Tokyo Bay while the Japanese were reclaiming Odaiba from the sea decades ago? Admittedly, it wasn’t the best (the guide says so) nor the option that has the best value for money (compared to the packages) but it was in the city, and God knows I needed a good bath.

Large and body-covering tattoos remain huge stigmas in Japan due to the “natural” association to the Yakuzas so as a rule of thumb, or palm to be exact, if you have a tattoo bigger than the size of your palm, you may will not be allowed entry to a public bath. Real onsens promote demand full nudity, and it was initially uncomfortable but with nobody bothering or taking any notice, I let my inhibitions go. The complex is pretty traditional looking, and there are separate baths for either sex complete with pools with various mineral content and various temperatures ranging from 37 to 42 deg C. The tradition and authenticity of it was however, occasionally and constantly disrupted by the sound of airplanes approach into nearby Haneda airport. While I’d usually visit a sauna, I skipped this one because the room was pretty small, and being naked and all, an erection you can’t hide wasn’t something I was ready to put out there.

While I was mostly left alone, I unconsciously took to “orbiting” a Japanese guy that looked exactly like Andy everywhere… and he took notice, and was thankfully, very cordial about it. Although our interaction didn’t translate more than an acknowledgment of mutual existence type of slight smile, he did, position himself close to me when I was clearly at a loss to the use of the myriad of hair products that were supposed to be used in tandem.

Then, a sushi lunch from fish sourced from nearby Tsukiji market.

After a good bath in natural spring water, I felt revitalized and refreshed, and continued on to the Tokyo Metro Museum which was not too far from Odaiba. Tokyo Metro is just one of the many rail operators which provide subway and commuter rail services in the Kanto area. Tokyo Metro and TOEI make up the Tokyo subway system, which is the world’s most used rapid transit system in the world. The other operators, including JR East, Seibu, Keikyu, Keio, Odakyu, Keisei, Tokyu, Soetetsu and Tobu, make up the world’s most extensive rail network. No matter how you look at it, the superlatives are astounding as they are impressive, so I thought I’d take a look at how one component of the network functions. The museum takes one through the history of the Tokyo subway network from inception to the first trains in 1927 till 2008 when the final piece of the puzzle, the Fukutoshin Line connecting Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, was completed. The latter was particularly of interest to me because I had been following the construction of the Fukutoshin Line since before my days in MI. The fact that the route runs between 20 and 60 metres above sea level, higher than any of Singapore’s elevated lines, but is still underground, boggles the mind.

Time for snacks at KFC…

Aboard JR East’s Joban Line E233-2000 series train running along Tokyo Metro’s Chiyoda Line route.

JR East Harajuku station

Even though it’s no longer my business to care for street-style, I’ve always felt that style should reflect one’s personality and I thought there’s no better place to visit than Harajuku. As fashion eccentricities go, Tokyo has been a major let-down, but in this time of year where people are more concerned about keeping warm, I suppose it’s a seasonal affair. Even then, it should be noted that even in this “low” fashion season, the average Tokyoite is still more stylish and fashionable than any other group of people. Almost immediately, I take a liking to Harajuku. For one, compared to the other districts, it’s the least complicating to navigate. The deeper you dwell into the narrow streets, the more indie the stores become. New and emerging designers give way to Japanese street-style brands, which gradually evolve further in to street-style indie boutiques, thrift stores… Things get cheaper as well, although I must add that the deeper you go, the more variety there is, the more you’ve to go in aware of your style or it’s easy to get lost. Here, multiplexes like H&M, UNIQLO and Polo Ralph Lauren get few if no customers at all. Individuality, even if it’s a little more expensive, and takes more effort to search, is king.

By now, Harajuku’s lack of food was getting to me. Most of the restaurants are clustered near JR Harajuku station, which was at least 500 metres back up where I came. I could go to neighboring Aoyama and Omotesando, but these places are ultra luxe districts and were unlikely to offer anything within my price range. True enough, a quick glance of the restaurants’ and cafes’ menus revealed meals going into hundreds, and even thousands (of Singapore Dollars). So I turned back towards Harajuku to source for food once again… There was Lotteria, but I wasn’t really feeling anything western (figuratively, since their burgers are all actually still very Japanese). As I walked, I noticed an alley with lit-up signboards, and one sign in particular stood out – 山頭火. I couldn’t believe it when I saw those three Japanese characters, since I really wasn’t expecting it to be in Tokyo at all. I mean, if there isn’t a Marutama in Tokyo, why should Santouka be here too?

The atmosphere inside felt poetic. The “traditional meets contemporary” gave the diner a very modern but still Japanese vibe while the piped-in jazz house music gave it a cosmopolitan touch. With no more than four other customers, it felt silent and tranquil, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the main street. I noticed two of four chefs joking around in Mandarin, and to break the ice, I ordered in Mandarin too, which sealed the deal. Japan’s been tacitly welcoming immigrants from China to offset the ageing and declining Japanese population. I’m not sure about the new Chinese immigrants in Singapore, but the ones in Japan, like the two chefs (studying at Waseda University, and ramen chefs in training) have absolutely no intention of returning to China, and why should they? Bar the increased likelihood of natural disasters, opportunities are abundant so long as you can speak the language.

Back to the noodles. I was expecting Santouka to be a lot better here, but the truth was, there wasn’t a huge difference, so I suppose it’s a good thing.

Heading back via the Tobu 50050 series running on the Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line

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