A perennial problem for travelers is the odd afternoon or weekend in a strange city when, because of a business trip or just impulse, one arrives without specific plans. There's always the ubiquitous city tour for an overview , but the really basic pulse of a city may be hidden: Shops and business are closed. Museums, galleries, even many restaurants operate on disconcertingly whimsical schedules. Even walking and windowshopping can be lonely after a while. Compared with many other big international cities, Tokyo is an unexpected delight on several counts.
It is remarkably personable, warm, and "walkable" for a large modern city; and, unlike most European urban centers, it offers nonstop shopping in an atmosphere that can't be duplicated.
Tokyo, especially on a Sunday afternoon around the Ginza-Dori and the Harumi-Dori, two of the wide avenues in the heart of town, becomes one giant family street fair, with stores wide open and major city streets turned into pedestrian malls, with scores of people enjoying themselves at cafe tables. Teen-agers, parents, and children alike line up at fast-food windows for an amusing final combination of traditional Japanese food and basic American McDonald's. But unless the weather is just too beautiful to think of moving away from the cafe tables and going into one of the department stores, such as the elegant (and most famous of them all) Mitsukoshi, you can find a fascinating array of food on the lower floors, and free samples for the adventurous.
Urged on by cheerful salesclerks, who really seem to enjoy the visitor's curiosity and reactions to the delicacies they offer, one can taste one's way through a whole meal-in-miniature. Bits of savory fish and meat, various blends of Japanese tea in tiny cups, dabs of delicious sweet bean paste, even small European pastries (a growing fad in Japan), are slightest trace of ill humor when the visitor smiles a thank you and moves on.
But save your appetite, and don't indulge in buying too many larger samples, which you can also do when a taste is just enough; if the lure of beautiful weather outside is still with you, there are gourmet versions of the traditional Bento boxes, a sort of small picnic box full of rice, vegetables, and fish sold on trains and on every other corner stand. They're a downright bargain at 600 yen (a bit more than $2.50) for eightm shrimp (they were carefully counted) and vegetables, including crisp slices of lotus root and garnish over a plump helping of rice. The boxes also come a plump helping of rice. The boxes also come with oysters or salmon trips (sound better than street-side hamburger?). Take it back out into the sun and choose a croissant, French pastry, or another bean paste swirl dusted with powdered sugar.
Or you might even slip up to the roof garden at the top of the department store, where an actual Buddhist temple features tape-recorded chants and browsers quietly leave offerings of incense and fruit. You can have Japanese tea in this bonsai garden and inspect the miniature trees for sale, which range from about one to 13 millionm yen.
If the weather's bad, there are still excellent little restaurants back in our gourmet food basement with inexpensive meals like fat fried prawns, vegetables, and noodles for 800 yen (at $3.50). There's also a cafe on the second floor that overlooks the main street and the activity that often verges on street theater. The Japanese are promoters par excellence, and a live advertisement for luggage can feature stereophonic jazz, and lively young women in silver costumes demonstrating packing tips for the traveler while a radiocontrolled suitcase on wheels weaves through the spectators like a friendly puppy. It's totally corny, and everyone in the crowd knows it and is having a wonderful time.
Another company promoting greenhouse products sets up shop around the corner, stacking up cardboard boxes full of gaily colored pansies, each packed in damp earth in a small plastic bag. Within minutes, this efficient crew has set up tables along the sidewalk, and realizing free samples are being given away, a sudden tidal wave of Japanese empties from the main street toward the tables. They don't push; no one shoves or takes more than the one offered. Men, women, and children queue up in long lines, two or three abreast, and move quickly past the table, delighted with the gift of flowers.
Smiling, a greenhouse promoter offers me a clump of yellow pansies, though I'm clearly an unlikely customer, and I can't help but laugh and accept it. I enjoy the weight and texture of it, untie the bag and sniff. But there is a long afternoon of exploration still ahead of me.
I want to watch kimonos being fitted in another department store, like Matsuya, and look through the displays of woodblack prints and antique art, china and lacquerware, and ornate dolls. A friend and I intend to find our way down to the colorful olf Akusaka market area (just a few subway stops or a short cab ride away), where a festive crowd in Sunday silk kimonos, orm blue jeans, is visiting the great Akusaka Kannon temple. We want to photograph the priests chanting near the great braziers of smoking incense and watch the worshipers sip ceremonial water from the dragon's-head fountain. And I'm already getting hungry for the hearty, simple fare we were told we could find at the vendors' stands near the temple -- crusty sweet potatoes or hot buttered ears of corn.
I didn't want to watch this delicate gift-blossom wither and be crumpled in the trek. A young Japanese mother with a flower bag in one hand, child in tow from the other, was walking past; I caught her eye and offered her mine, enjoying the weight of it in my palm as I held it out. She smiled and accepted, understanding, and walked on with both small blossoms in her hand. I would later find a pretty yakata, or simple "kimono-like" robe, which I bought. And I got my photographs of the Akusaka Kannon temple priests. But this was my real gift from Japan, one I could keep by giving it back.