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I remember always fast-walking through the tunnels of the Paris subway, plunging into a run, slowing down, then sprinting out and twirling to avoid unnecessary contacts as I ended up fast-walking again. Once in front of the metro doors, I would shamelessly elbow people, looking straight ahead and very high above my nose like the truly disdainful Parisian I was. I sometimes wondered why people made such a fuss about French elegance, it was nothing more than a quick recipe of three: never care, always be in a hurry, and above all never queue!
So how the heck did I find myself forgetting it all in just one lousy afternoon? Wasn't the saying "they can take the Frenchman out of the country but not the French out of the man" also applicable to women? It's true, I had just landed in Tokyo, the queuing capital of the world, and it was also true that travel guides said to look for the longest lines for there you found the best restaurants. But, everywhere my friend Camille and I looked we saw people and lines and people again. How were we to distinguish restaurant lines from any other type of lines in Shibuya? It was late, I was jetlagged, and above all I was hungry. I can be a mean hungry. I was really hoping, for the sake of my friend, that we were indeed lining up in front of one of the best restaurants in Tokyo, although at this point any food would feed my inner beast!
Camille and I had been friends since college, being two out of only 10 girls in our engineering class. It started as a self-serving friendship but it had already been seven years since graduation and we were still in each other's lives. It was extremely tricky managing to stay in touch as our jobs had made both of us move abroad: me to Belgium and her to China. The last time we had spent any real time together, she was wearing white and I was in my orange bridesmaid's dress. That was two years ago. But, time has no impact on friendship. She was still the same Camille and I was still me. Nothing had changed, or maybe one thing had changed: our alone time was now limited and becoming more a one-on-two time, where if I wanted to spend any time with her, I needed to spend time with her husband Alban too. So, I was determined to enjoy the oh-so-rare two days that we had to ourselves before meeting up with Alban in Kyoto. I had longed for this trip to Tokyo for almost six months and had already imagined how we would spend this precious time together. I pictured Tokyo as the capital of raw fish and bubbling night life with a splash of kawaii diluted in Genmaicha green tea and accompanied by a spoon full of Tokyoite delicacies and 7-Elevens around all street corners.
As soon as we reunited everything felt familiar, even Tokyo. We talked, we whispered, we hugged, we tried with little success to take attractive selfies, we giggled and laughed much too loudly for our Japanese friends as we recalled our endless partying and childish bickering. We also acknowledged what would render this trip the most pleasant possible: Camille needed to feed me repeatedly and I agreed never to comment on her relentless texting to her hubby-hubby.
Day one had started with us checking-in in a Ryokan in Asakusa, a typical and traditional Japanese inn situated in one of the last genuine part of Tokyo. We had booked one room with two beds. "Beds" being a bit of an overstretch, basically we each had a mattress that was folded in three layers which needed to be unfolded for bedtime and folded back up in the morning if we wanted any kind of space in the room. The first thing I did in arriving was take a shower. The fact that the shower had no shower base made me realize I had crossed a whole lot more than just one continent and two seas. There was no curtain separating me from the toilet, no steps, no floor towel and no noticeable slope which could prevent any major flooding catastrophe. I figured I wasn't the first one to shower in this Ryokan and I should manage not to make a mess of my much needed hygiene break. Camille showered first and her five-year-experience of Asia through Shanghai helped her shower properly while I made a pool out of our bathroom floor and tried my best to soak it all up with toilet paper. After much wasted toilet paper—which would later turn out to be a problem—we finally headed out to discover Tokyo and the surroundings of our Japanese inn. We decided to spend our first day in Asakusa and Ueno, walking, eating, laughing, and drinking coffee to trick our jetlagged minds into thinking they had no impact over us.
After walking a few miles, we encountered the renown Atom Bakery. We were capturing at the same time a must-see and a must-eat in Asakusa and that was my kind of activity! Contrary to most shops in Japan—that would prove very challenging to find because of our inability to read Kanjis—Atom bakery had been easy to spot. The shop owner was an uberfan of the popular manga Astro Boy from the 1950s and many figurines populated his window display. In addition, on a sign hanging outside the bakery you could read in French: "Our bread oven is made with Mount Fuji stone". Camille and I absolutely wanted to try their bread and specialties made on a hot volcano rock. I reasoned myself into buying only one small brioche that was filled with sweet red bean paste. The reasoning did not last long as later that day I went back to buy two more. Camille, on her side, bought two croissants right away which was atypical for her as she had always been so careful with her weight. I figured, two years in a marriage will do that to you, she could finally let herself go! Although, Camille was still in a much better shape than I was which rendered my theory a bit wobbly but reassured my hidden competitiveness towards her. Of course, the good friend I was made sure to tease her a little.
After breakfast, we walked. We walked in very similar streets as in Paris, the only differences seemed to be the lower height of the houses and the absence of kids. No children playing in the street, just clean grey streets, small doors and impressive silence for a city of fourteen million people. "Where are all the kids?", I wondered.
We walked some more in the afternoon and stumbled upon the Hanayashiki amusement park in the middle of Asakusa, the oldest park ever built in Japan dated from the year 1872. There was no life-threatening roller coaster or high speed carousel and it looked like everything had been carved into wood and designed for a five year old (so, that's where all the kids were)! A very eager me and a very reluctant Camille took place in the fastest train ride of the park. A pirate ride, three meter high going three miles per hour. We were far away from Space mountain but Camille managed to throw up!
We went back to our Ryokan to rest for a while and then headed back out for dinner. That's how we ended up in Shibuya queuing for 45 minutes. Thankfully, the line led to the best ramen in town! After dinner, all the energy had wiggled out of us and we hurried back to our Ryokan without seeing much of Shibuya.
The next morning, we rode the subway back to Shibuya. It was everything I had ever expected from Tokyo, we were in the very heart of the futuristic robot-driven city with such a large crowd, so many bright lights, so much colors in the clothes and in the hairstyles. I was obsessed with dying my hair like a unicorn at the time so I noticed every ground braking empowering look the Japanese were wearing with no fear nor embarrassment. We couldn't be further away from French elegancy but Japanese were managing to give elegancy a whole new color. We spent the morning in Takeshita street, the heart of Kawaii life. We went in all the shops trying on all types of funny hats, over-cute sunglasses, Hello Kitty jewelry, and whitening creams. At some point we stepped into an underground store where 20 photo booths were gathered. Although below street level, the shop was blinding white. We were surrounded by groups of Japanese teenagers all dressed in school uniforms. We decided to give it a go although we looked like cougars during happy hour. Hundreds of pictures and hours of Photoshop later, I ended up as a panda with big blue eyes riding a Hello Kitty horse!
All this creativity had made me hungry. I loved sushi and sashimi and absolutely wanted to visit the Tsukiji market which is the biggest fish market of Tokyo where you can have fresh raw fish and a glass of wine. Camille, said she didn't feel like it which aggravated me.
"I heard there's an artistic area, a bit south. Don't worry, we'll stop for food along the way. I'm famished too", she said winking at me.
She had a way about her and you could never stay upset with her for too long, plus she had talked about food so all was forgiven! We discovered Japanese street art and multi-function shops selling paintings and clothes made from recyclables while offering shaving possibilities and reading areas. It was new and at the same time it felt like home. I always love how you can travel anywhere in the world and always find something or somewhere that makes you feel like home. We went inside Sunny Store&Cafe, a pancake restaurant. Each of us ordered a special detox water with lots of fresh fruit and a platter of pancakes. Extra Banana, chocolate chip and whipped cream for me and strawberry glazed with honey for her. Each platters came with seven pancakes built as a tower. It was a lot even for me.
"I'll never be able to finish", I said while swallowing more than I could bargain.
"Really? Can I have some of yours?" Camille asked as she lounged to grab my plate.
"Wow, what's gotten into you?"
She paused, looked inside her bag and handed me a red envelope, usually used to celebrate Chinese new year.
"Is it money?" I laughed knowing this was the common new year's tradition in China.
"Just open it!" she said rolling her eyes at me.
"Fine. One thing, though, before I open it. I'm really appreciative of these two days we spent just you and I! It's been a really long..."
"Oh my god! Just open it already", she interfered, ripping the envelope from my hand, opening it and handing me a small black and white Polaroid picture. I looked at her, unsure of what I was seeing.
"Well...Let's just say, it won't be just you, me and Alban anymore!" she whispered as we both started to tear up but for probably very different reasons...