As the rikishi of Arashio Beya (2-47-2, Hama-cho Nihonbashi Chuo-ku, Tokyo) began their morning practice on Black Saturday, I was still in bed surrounded by Pikachus in the Pokemon-themed room I had found on AirBnB. Guests can watch the sumo wrestlers through large windows between 7:30 to 10 a.m. during this almost daily session (see www.arashio.net/tour_e.html) and by the time I got there, practice was just wrapping up.
Inside the ring, they were a picture of strength and intensity. But away from it, they were relaxed, even playful, joking with guests, teasing one another and laughing as they iced their sore muscles.
More wrestlers emerged, changing from their loincloths into colorful yukata and speeding off on bikes. Soon, only a few were left, including Wakatakakage, a relatively new recruit who has joined his two older brothers at Arashio. He was being interviewed by a TV crew.
I approached him and two other wrestlers, his brother Onami Wataru and Kotokuzan, who I eventually discovered was half-Filipino. I asked if I could take their picture and Kotokuzan replied in a deep voice, “Selfie. iPhone.” I handed over my phone to him.
A family arrived, too late to catch the action. “Come back tomorrow,” Kotokuzan said. “Training every day. Monday off.”
The life of a sumo wrestler is one of discipline and dignity and it felt like a privilege to be able to see a tiny slice of it. I ended up staying too long, long enough to be called a sumo stalker.
I tore myself away from Arashio Beya. It was time to continue my adventures with PayMaya.
Hello Kitty land
My next stop was Sanrio Puroland (1-31 Ochiai, Tama 206-8588; entrance fee is 3,300 yen for adults and 2,500 yen for kids from 3 to 17 on weekdays; 3,800 yen for adults and 2700 yen for kids on holidays, cash only), a place I have been dreaming of visiting since I was a Gift Gate-hopping 10-year-old.
The Keio-tama-center Station was Sanrio heaven, with Hello Kitty and her friends all over the place—from the stained glass-style ceiling and the Little Twin Stars-themed elevator to the Sanrio-themed ticket booths and maps.
I was there for Gudetama, the depressed egg, one of the strangest mascots ever created (anyone who uses bacon as a blanket will win my heart).
I swam through a sea of cosplayers that had invaded Puroland. There were so many of them, in their brightly colored wigs, wielding selfie sticks or being trailed by photographers.
Although you can only use cash to pay the entrance fee (get discount vouchers from the Puroland website: en.puroland.jp), you can use your PayMaya card to eat and shop inside Puroland. I ate Gudetama at the Sanrio Rainbow World Restaurant—he stared at me forlornly from the top of my mango parfait.
I explored Puro Village, walked by Cinnamoroll’s Dream Café and went to Gudetama Land where Gudetama in all shapes and forms was waiting. There was a wall of Gudetama gashapon machines and, naturally, I couldn’t resist. I dropped my coins and tore into my first capsule eagerly but, instead of finding Gudetama inside, Gudetama’s human assistant came spilling out. I cursed loudly. (Sorry, kids.)
The line for the Sanrio Character Boat Ride was long so I decided to skip it. It was time to say goodbye to kawaii and experience New York in Tokyo.
New York in Tokyo
It was a scenic train ride to Odaiba, a manmade island first built to protect Tokyo from enemy attacks in the late 1800s. It is now home to shopping malls, science museums and, yes, one of Japan’s three Statue of Liberty replicas.
Guys dressed as Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and, oddly, a Minion, whizzed by me on go-karts. Real life Mario Kart (maricar.com) in the streets of Tokyo. I watched them with envy. I wanted to do it but their website was clear: “NO LICENSE NO DRIVE!!” I felt like kicking myself for not owning a driver’s license.
Odaiba’s 40-foot Lady may be a lot smaller than New York’s but she was a sight to behold, with Tokyo Bay and the Rainbow Bridge in the background.
You can take a bigger bite of the Big Apple in Tokyo: grab burgers at Shake Shack, go to Café Habana and drop by Dominique Ansel Bakery for some frozen s’mores.
But what I wanted was a real taste of Japan and so I headed to Brasserie Kyushoku Toban (1-4-4 Moto-Asakusa Taito, Tokyo), a place that recreates traditional elementary school lunches. Inside the resto were bits and pieces from Japanese school and the second floor looks exactly like a classroom. There was no English menu so I pointed to a photo of a set meal.
My food arrived on a metal tray: noodle salad, fried fish cakes, soft noodles with meat sauce (it tasted like Pinoy spaghetti sauce), curry stew, chicken dumpling soup, creamy baked fish with enoki mushrooms, frozen Mikan orange and agepan. Oh my god, the agepan. The soft fried bread was so good. Mine came covered with kinako (roasted soy bean powder).
My meal at Kyushoku Toban turned out to be one of my all-time favorite meals in Japan. The attentive staff spoke little English and I speak zero Japanese but that didn’t matter. “Oishi, oishi,” I told the beaming staff. Good food can break language barriers.
Alice in Fantasy Book
There are several Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurants in Tokyo and I ended up in Alice in Fantasy Book in Shinjuku (T-Wing Bldg. B2F, 1-6-2 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; cover charge is 500 yen).
One wall, which looked like an enormous page from Lewis Carroll’s novel, was actually a door, making diners feel like they’re walking into a giant book as they enter the restaurant.
“Please excuse limited English,” said the waitress. She was dressed in a blue Alice costume. She opened the menu which was a pop-up book and told me that on top of the cover charge, I had to order one drink and one dish. “You decide and then call Alice,” she said before flouncing away.
I ordered the Cheshire Cat-inspired cocktail. Beside it, Alice placed a plate with a cracker with a heart-shaped cutout and a tiny teacup filled with creamy soup. On it was a little card that said, “Eat Me.” I wondered if they would make me grow.
I drank in my surroundings. It was like being transported to another world—Wonderland? There were green hedges and giant flowers, seats of all sizes, hearts everywhere, tables that looked like clocks, Alice murals, bunny ears on the guests’ heads and my cocktail which glowed persistently.
Alice returned with my Mad Hatter’s Profiteroles, a beautifully stacked pile of cakes and chocolates made to look like hats, strawberries, profiteroles, mango sauce and a lot of cream on an Alice in Wonderland plate. I tucked it away like Tweedledum and Tweedledee would.
Another Alice handed me a farewell present. On the packet was a sketch of the Mad Tea Party and the words “Drink Me.” She curtsied as I got into the elevator.
Dr. Mario cocktail
Walking into 8bit Café (Q Building 5F, 3-8-3 Shinjuku; cover charge is 500 yen) feels like walking into your uncle’s messy apartment if your uncle has been hoarding all the video games that came out in the ’80s and ’90s. Its nostalgic chaos is a gaming geek’s dream come true: consoles are everywhere, Game Gears and Game Boys and Family Computers, along with cartridges, toys and accessories. Everyone has to buy a drink on top of the cover charge and the drink list is video game-inspired. I ordered a Dr. Mario—a delicious mix of vodka, gin, cola and Dr. Pepper—and it arrived in a beaker with a test tube containing two capsules. I was instructed to toss the capsules into my drink. I knocked it back quickly. Dr. Mario would be proud.
I was really excited about my last stop of the night. Everything I had read about Detective Café Progress (2-47-12 2nd Kizuna Building 9F Ikebukuro Toshima), a café run by private detectives, promised that it would allow me to feel like a detective. And because I have unfulfilled fantasies about going into forensics, I knew I had to go. I wanted to lie on the chalk outline, learn how to take fingerprint samples and solve a case.
But the first mystery was finding the place. I had to seek the help of an old parking attendant and a promo girl who walked with me like we were conjoined twins so we could follow Google Maps.
A Japanese man led me to the bar. I looked at the wall of mugshots and the chalk outline of a body on the floor. On the far side of the bar were three Japanese girls sipping on cocktails. Where were the detectives?
Crocodile arm stew
“Please order at least one dish,” commanded the menu. I scanned its pages and the word “crocodile” jumped out at me. The place specializes in crocodile dishes: spaghetti crocodile tongue, crocodile arm stew, sautéed tail of crocodile and the most alarming: “Crocodile meet, 1500 yen.” No, I don’t want to meet a crocodile. I looked up at the man and said, “What do you recommend? Please, no crocodile.”
He paused and poked the menu with his finger. He could have pointed to the mixed nuts or the omu rice. But nope. “Namul of cactus.” Cactus it is.
“Uh, and a Coke please,” I said.
I noted the spy gadgets on display. On the bar in front of me were surveillance shots. Soon, a slim glass of Coke and a small bowl of chopped cactus in sticky sauce were in front of me.
“Hey, not bad,” I thought, chewing.
The Japanese man, who barely spoke a word to me, was having an animated conversation with the other girls. They were shrieking and groaning as he told them what I presumed was a really interesting detective story. I kicked myself for having a Japanese vocabulary limited only to what I learned from Ellen on Oh Tokyo.
My bill came, handing me the biggest mystery of all: 3,240 yen for two small glasses of Coke and that little bowl of cactus?! (To compare, my bill at the Alice café was 2,620 yen.) I guess that’s what happens when you eat cactus. You get pricked.
I stepped out and discovered that the subway had shut down for the night and I was stranded in Ikebukuro. Damn that damn cactus.
Because my phone was dying, I couldn’t even call an Uber. I took a deep breath, hailed a cab and started praying to the gods of taxi meters. It’s a known fact that cab rides in Tokyo are expensive. And as the taxi meter ticked away, I felt my hopes and dreams evaporating. Goodbye, Shima steak. I knew we could have been good together.
Cactus Plaza wiped out the cash I had left in my wallet so I used my PayMaya card to pay the driver.
Back in my room, I flipped through Metropolis, which calls itself “Japan’s No. 1 English magazine,” and stumbled upon my horoscope. “Venus moves direct on the 15th—with the focus on you! Spend money to treat your soul and your reflection.” It was the 15th. I guess my soul needed cactus and an expensive cab ride.
PayMaya is treating the #NowNation to a Travel Blowout. You have until April 30 to win an all-expense paid trip to Japan for four. To join, download, activate and use your PayMaya app or card. Earn a raffle entry whenever you pay your bills in-app or make a single purchase receipt worth P1000 and up. Entries are cumulative from February to April. PayMaya works anywhere Visa or MasterCard is accepted. Visit www.paymaya.com and follow PayMaya on Facebook (facebook.com/PayMayaOfficial), Twitter and Instagram (@paymayaofficial).