Thursday, August 16, 2007

Turning Japanese, I really think so

In many things, we are lucky. Lucky to have such loving families, great friends, and one another as stalwart travel companions. Lucky to have jobs/graduate schools waiting for us upon our return and a lovely apartment in Cambridge. Lucky to be back in Tokyo, a city we love, for yet a second (or in Josh’s case third) time. One thing we are NOT lucky in, however, is major Japanese holidays. For, as happened to us two years ago when we were in Tokyo in March, it is yet again a major national holiday—only this time for a week instead of a day—and nearly everything you would want to visit or place you would want to eat is closed. OK, that is a minor exaggeration, but we have gotten very good (speaking and reading absolutely no Japanese at all) at understanding the signs on the doors of cute little bars and restaurants that we’d love to visit that say something to the effect of: “Down the shore with the fam. Happy memorial day week. Won’t be back until Monday, but that’s OK because probs no one is left in the city to read this. Only losers and Americans would be in Tokyo this week.” The real kicker is the Tsujiki fish market, a requisite stop on every foodies itinerary, that was basically all Josh wanted to see when we were here last (closed) and may now only be open Saturday morning before our flight. So you can bet we’ll be there at 5:00 AM Saturday before we head back to the states.

Suffice it to say, in spite of the hilarity of the holiday closures, we have constructed a busy couple of days for ourselves here. Having been to Tokyo before allows us to focus our energies nearly exclusively on eating and shopping since everything we “had” to do (that wasn’t closed) we did the first time we were here. I know, I know, even in cities we have never been to before we focus exclusively on eating and shopping. But humor me, OK?

The morning view at the Park Hotel yesterday (Wednesday) was lovely as always, though the haze that portended a 100 degree day ahead blocked the view of Mt. Fuji. We headed out and immediately ran into a Doughnut Plant New York shop – one of our faves from a tiny shop on the Lower East Side that has made a huge splash in Japan. When we were here two years ago, we made a special trip to find a Doughnut Plant in a random residential neighborhood; now, apparently there are eight around the city. Clearly the Japanese recognize a delicious doughnut when they see one. Our carb fix met, we joined the Japanese masses at the subway station downstairs and ordered a bowl of ramen from a ticket-dispensing vending machine that gave us no indication of what we’d get. So we crossed our fingers, got a number and brought it inside to the man, who made us a lovely bowl of soba, tofu and scallions.

Two breakfasts down, we hopped on the Yamanote line for Ebisu and wandered through Daikanyama, a sweet residential area we had particularly liked the last time we were here. We did a bit of shopping first in the giant mall complex attached to the subway station and then braved the streets. In our walking, we even stumbled upon the French bakery we had visited before, and so naturally that required us to get a chocolate croissant as a reward for such good location finding. (Breakfast tally currently at 3). We continued our wandering in spite of the astronomical heat through Ebisu and down to Meguro, where we hoped to try a tonkatsu (fried pork) restaurant that had been closed the last time we were here. Lucky for us, closed again through the rest of the week. Fortunately, the kind folks at Skadden Tokyo had given us recommendations for kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi right nearby, so we found the restaurant in the train station and took our place at the counter. It was such fun—conveyor belt sushi may be my (EB’s) all-time favorite way of eating—and the sushi was great. It was a total hit. In addition to the food, we enjoyed watching very small local ladies scarf very large nigiri sushi in a single bite.

Already in the train station, we took a stroll through the supermarket (located one level below-ground, of course; highlights included a $50 bunch of grapes) and then got back on the subway for Harajuku. Yes, like the Gwen Stefani song. There we walked down the main street and enjoyed the extremely questionable fashion choices of the Harajuku set. Right now, girls are into maid costumes and things that make them look like Little Bo Peep, boys are in flavors of punk and bizarre reimaginings of urban wear. From there, we cruised the main drag of Omotesando, which I describe as the SoHo of Tokyo: big fancy shops with funky architecture—think Prada store on Mercer Street. Keeping with that theme, at the end of Omotesando is the fabulous Herzog and de Meuron Prada store that is its own giant glass building with diamond shaped windows bulging in all directions. We feigned interest in the absurd clothes and walked through the store, clearly sticking out like the sweaty, unfashionable two-some we are. We knew we were outclassed when sitting outside a young couple drove up in their Mazerati, handed the keys to the Prada doorman and had him park the car for them so they could shop. Overwhelmed by our own inadequacies, we took back to walking, this time through the lovely homes of Aoyama. We stopped for a macha (green tea) soft serve ice cream, which provided us with sustenance to continue the walking.

One observation about Tokyo—teenage girls will queue up for anything and then shriek. We have observed variations on this theme now no less than seven separate times in two days – once in two separate instances directly across the street from one another. Not once have we been able to figure out the cause of all the hubbub. A new store opening? A Japanese boy-band-heartthrob? Cash prizes for winningest maid costume? Like so much about Tokyo, the trend is clear but the meaning remains obscure.

As it grew dark, we headed to Yurakucho and to an izakaya we had read about under the train tracks, notable for being run by an English expat. We had a nice chat with him and even nicer plates of agedashi tofu, fried chicken and sautéed mushrooms. The food was great, but because he spoke English it didn’t count as a real Japanese meal, so we checked out various other little yakitori like places under the train tracks (nerd city planner note—there were a ton of restaurants under the tracks that seemed popular and super successful. Clearly something we need more of in NYC. But the noise of the train overhead was sort of a pain. Perhaps if we has elevated train tracks but no trains. Like an elevated park or something. That would be perfect.) We had some beer and skewers and with eating occasion number seven for the day under our belt, we headed home.

Today began much the same way, with a pastry and a bowl of soup from a shop with the mystery ticket machine (this time cold noodles with raw egg dipped to be dipped in hot broth), only once full, we headed off for the Ueno neighborhood to the north of us. There we explored the park (saw the outsides of museums, visited a temple) and realized quickly that though it was only 9:30, we were already dripping sweat and the day was going to be a heat killer (final word from was 97° feeling like 105°). As any normal people would, when faced with sweltering temperatures we headed for a giant outdoor non-shaded market, where we explored much of the junk on offer. We bought a green tea ice cream but nothing more—I think our negotiating skills got used up in Vietnam and China. Also a curious food fact on display in the market: those wiggly paper-thin bonito flakes you enjoy with your misc. Japanese foods come shredded off a fish that has been dried and smoked to the consistency of a rock.

Post Ueno exploring, we headed east towards Asakusa, an older neighborhood with low-rise buildings and more historic character. It was charming, as we remembered, with little temples all over. We stopped in a local spot – just ducked under some otherwise unmarked curtains on an otherwise unmarked building on the street – for what turned out to be a delicious made-before-our-eyes tempura meal. We were the only ones there when we arrived, and so felt a bit ill-at-ease, but we’d been seated for about three minutes when the place became more-or-less instantly packed with locals appearing out of thin air. It was a treat and a perfect little neighborhood experience. We kept walking through Asakusa and visited Kappabashi dori, the kitchenware street where they sell every type of kitchen implement you might dream of, including the plastic food that is ubiquitous at nearly every restaurant in the city. We bought knives a)because it seemed fun—when in Japan, buy Japanese knives and b)because it seems like exactly the sort of thing pretentious foodies like us should come home with. “Oh these little things? I just picked them up in Tokyo. Oh yes, I’m a very serious chef. I cut things all the time. Sometimes I even dice.” Eventually, we gave our feet a rest at a do-it-yourself okonomiaki (Japanese pancake) place. The food was delicious, though the restaurant was a foolish choice for us as it was a million degrees inside (each table had its own grill generating loads of heat) and they expected us to make our own pancake, which we clearly had no idea how to do. Fortunately they took pity on us and made the pancake for us as we sat idly by, doing not a GD thing to help.

Bellies full of not one but two lunches, we walked through Asakusa to the river and then to the subway, where we headed to the excellent Edo-Tokyo museum. There we learned all about the history of the city including our three favorite facts: 1. Japanese commoners didn’t have last names until 1869; 2. In Edo, a typical family lived in an 8 sq meter row house—makes 340 East 11th Street seem like a palace; and 3.Commodore Perry was sent to Japan by the otherwise forgettable Millard Fillmore.

The museum was definitely worthwhile and we wished we had more time, but we had to rush back to the hotel and to Ginza to meet up with Suzuki-san, our Japanese godmother who housed first Josh on Whiffenpoof world tour and then both of us when we visited in 2005. As usual, it was a delight to see her and we had a nice Japanese dinner at a Ginza restaurant that featured a two-tiered feast of broiled fish, tofu, egg custard, sushi, tempura and soup. She has recently become a grandmother for the second time so we got to see her pictures, though sadly we had no hard copies to show off of baby Sam Olken. We did promise to send her some once we are back, so put on your smiling face baby Sam—we’ll be in Cambridge soon enough.

After saying goodbye to Suzuki-san, we strolled through Ginza and stopped for one last nibble and a sake at a tiny spot underground. The food was oden, or this sort of funny soup thing, but the sake was a treat and the whole scene very Japanese, so it seemed the right way to cap the evening. Another lovely food-filled day.


Ron said...

I'm exhausted, please come home!

Andrew said...

FANTASTIC! Makes me want to hop on a plane and head back to Tokyo ASAP!

aries_mom said...

How can it be that even after eating at least 12 meals each day you two look just as thin as you did when you left?

EB, your Harvard Law blog should be at least as entertaining as this one! Looking forward to it...