To celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I fulfilled a longtime dream and traveled to Japan in November. We spent five marvelous days in Tokyo (and I mean that literally, as we marveled at the endless curiosities the city has to offer) before moving on to visit Singapore and Hong Kong. (We couldn’t resist a stop in Hong Kong, our all-time favorite city, since we were already flying out to East Asia.) It was our first time in Singapore, and the food was incredible, a unique blend of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine with a twist, but a discussion for another post.
Tokyo was a wonderland to me, every corner of the city offering a glimpse into a world I knew I could not fully comprehend. No, not even close. From the meticulously polite and self-effacing culture to the seemingly infinite variations on the food we know as “Japanese cuisine,” e.g. soba, udon, yakitori, Japanese BBQ, to the beyond strange experience of certain Tokyo nightlife attractions, I made a feeble and wide-eyed attempt to absorb it all. Each and every alleyway, every tiny yakitori joint or 8-seater bar, every small boutique or coffee shop we passed seemed like a can’t-miss. We did a healthy mix of walking around the Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku areas, exploring whichever shops and bakeries we came upon that looked intriguing, and visiting our designated points of interest, including the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro, of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” fame. Yes, Jiro himself hand made and placed each piece of nigiri in front of us. It was a pretty incredible experience. And a fast one! We were in and out in 25 minutes. We ate 19 pieces of sushi, beginning with a firm and flavorful sole fish and ending with that unrivaled Tamago that plays such a featured role in the documentary. The piece of Tamago, an egg cake of sorts, was revelatory. Sweet and fluffy and truly unlike anything else we’ve tasted. We had Sea Eel the consistency of custard, and Ark Shell, a clam I had never even heard of before.
We also had some incredible meals under $20, most notably those we found wandering down Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku, an alleyway near the train station dotted with tiny yakitori restaurants, each one similar in its coziness and offerings. We had no way of knowing which was a good one, our only guide being our noses and an intentional passing over of anywhere boasting “English menu.” We pointed. We ate. We drank cold Asahi Super Dry and feasted on chicken meatballs and whole salted coal-roasted fish. It was a delight.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that an artisan coffee culture has blossomed in Tokyo and there are now dozens of wonderful coffee houses to rival Intelligentsia or Blue Bottle here in California. Easily the best coffee experience we had was at the wonderfully cozy Chatei Hatou in Shibuya. Tucked away in an alley, with only a small sign featuring a decorative bird to indicate its presence, Chatei Hatou is both lavish and quaint inside, a little sanctuary of deliciously strong pour-overs, chiffon cake, and mismatched gilded china. An oversized vase bursting with flowers and branches that reach the beamed ceiling tops a wooden table adorned with small art nouveau style lamps. The wall is lined with different glassware and hundreds of pretty teacups, no two alike.
Enticed by the photos on the restaurant sign next door, we ventured downstairs to a Japanese BBQ restaurant. The host quickly ushered us to a back room, our own little stone cave with a sliding door shielding us from view (perhaps the foreigner treatment)? We removed our shoes and slid onto bamboo mats in front of a grill built into the table. As in most worthwhile establishments, the menu was again all in Japanese and we pointed to our selections from a plate of different raw meats the server brought to demonstrate our options. We asked for beer and he delivered two steins of Kirin the size of our heads. The marbled meat sizzled on the grill, curling and dripping and developing delicious sear. It was fatty and chewy and meaty, and we dipped it in thick Worcestershire-esque sauce and ate it over rice. The lunch also included a fresh side salad with tofu, and the entire thing came out to around $10/person.
We did more than just eat in Japan, surprisingly enough—we visited some lovely gardens in Shinjuku and Bunkyo, and walked for hours around Yoyogi Park, saw the Meiji Shrine there, and came out the other side to shop in Harajuku. We contemplated purchasing a small monkey from a pet store near our hotel, but settled for a video of him hopping around in his little cage and emitting tiny howls. We also stopped into a number of Tokyo’s famously tiny bars and sampled cocktails and Japanese whiskies. At one such establishment, a refined and intimate underground bar in Ginza known for its mixology called Star Bar, we passed an hour drinking G+T’s with fresh pear puree, chatting with the bartender about Tokyo and comparing its bars to those in the US. At one point, the bartender had come out from behind the bar to help a businessman who had been sitting next to us with his coat. I felt his hand on my shoulder, and when I turned he said, “Excuse me, but this gentleman would like to say something to you.” The businessman, who spoke too little English to participate in our earlier conversation, smiled and said, “I hope you enjoy your time in Tokyo.” That was all.
That moment really stuck with me as an indication of the extreme kindness, politeness, and humility we encountered throughout our short stay in Japan. I had about a thousand questions I wished I could ask about the culture there, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to explore them. For someone without any knowledge of Japanese, navigating Tokyo is not easy. But the city offers so very many rewards for your efforts.