Jessica writing here…
During our 4 days in Tokyo, adventures found us at every turn. It was like swimming in absurd delights…the density of the city was reflected in the density of improbable happenings. We were mostly winging it, having eschewed traditional guide books and failed to pick out any veg restaurants, but everything was perfect. It just worked, and with ease, despite significant linguistic and culinary barriers. Every experience turned out to be an exceptional use of our time. What other metropolis would be so forgiving? We were welcomed with open arms, cradled safely in a garden of the absurd, and I loved it immediately. Astonishment, delight, and glee coupled with lots of gentle laughter were the dominant states provoked in me, perhaps surprisingly, by this city and surrounding area of 35 million people, the largest metropolitan area in the world.
The first thing that struck me about Japan was the impossibility of blending in. In a largely ethnically homogeneous nation, we sure stuck out. Accordingly, people did often stare at us, but it might have been due to Jacob’s delightful but loud and clashing jacket (thank you Esalen free box). Actually, people in Tokyo were just as likely to come over and help us, unsolicited, as to stare.
After being stuck on the train from the airport for 3 hours after our 8 hour flight (there was a “pedestrian accident” on the tracks), we couldn’t figure out how to make the fare gates work to exit the station. A sweet Japanese girl made her friend wait, took my ticket, told me to hang on, went and found the exit, then led us over and explained things to the station agent, who finally let us exit. This sort of thing happened repeatedly during our stay – us having no idea how to accomplish daily tasks and someone coming to our rescue.
I loved the way Japanese people giggled softly whenever I tried to say any Japanese words (‘konichiwa’ and ‘sayonara’ are so beautiful to say), how there wasn’t anyone around trying to scam me or in my face selling stuff, how there was no obvious tourist trap area. The city felt orderly and safe yet at the same time inspired and free. The crazy subcultures of kids were on display everywhere – we saw cosplay (costume play) girls dressed in tutus, in Medieval-looking robes, adorned head to toe in hello kitty gear, and even a girl with long bleached white hair, bleached skin, dressed all in white. Outlandishly costumed people popped up constantly, much to my delight, as if some percentage of the city functioned like they were permanently at Burning Man. Also disconcerting was the 5% or so of people who wore white hygienic masks over their nose and mouth. I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of etiquette around having a cold or a sensitivity to the air (which didn’t feel polluted – though it is, thanks more to China).
For some reason, I had never learned that Japan drives on the “wrong” side of the road! So in addition to being in a permanent state of delight and wandering around dazed and amused, I had to remember to walk to the *left* and look the other way when crossing streets. Phew, that was the toughest part.
It surprised me how good I felt in Tokyo and how much I loved it. It’s not necessarily pretty, architecturally. Most of the city was destroyed in earthquakes and WWII (only 1 in 10 buildings survived the war), so it’s full of skyscrapers and modern buildings that are just plain ugly. Plus, much of the city has narrow rectangular lit-up billboards sticking out from the buildings, so it’s kind of a sea of neon and blinking lights reminiscent of Vegas. Then throw in the seriously disturbing pachenko parlors, with insane loud music, smoke, and blinky lights, and the physical presence of the city can really assault a visitor.
Contrast that with the fact that we stayed in a traditional ryokan (in Ikebukuro, which was a great location), a Japanese hotel where shoes are removed by all upon entering and where our room was about 3×3 meters, consisting solely of a tatami-mat floor with 2 futons on top – not a single piece of furniture. This was a particularly Spartan ryokan, if I can say such a thing.
The Meiji shrine, above, dedicated in 1920. Below, Tokyo city Hall, completed in 1991.
When the women weren’t costumed up, they were usually tarted up somehow – a preponderance of bows, charms, fur, high heels, garish makeup, fake eyelashes, and glitter was the norm. I’m not sure why the obvious fetishization of the female didn’t disturb me more. Maybe it was because no Japanese men ever leered at me that I could tell. It was a completely catcall-free few days, such a rarity in my life.
You would think that getting around could be tough, since many of the metro stations are possibly the size of our entire neighborhood in SF, containing shopping malls, grocery stores, and fake french neighborhoods. And yeah, the hardest part was orienting ourselves and finding the right exit. Outside the stations, walking on the elevated crosswalks and taking in the sheer sea of lights and tall buildings could feel daunting, like we were ants on a giant metallic log. But the only time we had trouble finding anything was actually in metro stations, trying to find the right fare gates or a certain way out, usually while caught between intertwining rivers of fast-paced commuters. (On a side note [Jacob here] – About 2 million people pass through Shinjuku station on a normal weekday, for instance. It’s such a unique experience to be there during rush hour that it’s recommended by the guidebooks (at least the 2 budget-minded ones we referred to). The Disney-ride-like jingle accompanying arriving trains provides both a Baraka-like soundtrack and a solid marching rhythm to the mass of black- and white-suited humans. Sometimes we seem like nothing more than high-tech ants. I realize that can sound insulting coming from an individualistic culture, though it could be taken as a complement by some. Either way, impressive ant-hills we have built.)
I have to give Tokyo a lot of respect for being such a clean place that whenever we had to make a pit stop, we actually would think “oh, let’s go to the metro station,” where restrooms were invariably clean and great. In the US, using a public bathroom like that is generally a traumatizing experience or downright impossible. Imagine, in NYC or SF in the metro…
Food food everywhere, but nary a bite to eat.
That’s what you might think about a no-fish vegetarian in Tokyo who didn’t do any advance meal planning, but actually, it wasn’t really a problem. Yes, sometimes finding food took a few extra minutes of looking around, and there were moments of being hungry and only being able to see traditional Japanese restaurants smelling of fish and lacking English menus. Sometimes, a curry spot would save the day, Or a French cafe, where I could at least ask for no meat, no fish en Francias.
From the Tsujiki fish market to curry in Shinjuku, vegan in Shibashi, macrobiotic in a classy department store, and modern Japanese in the Park Hyatt, with a few random french cafes thrown in, we managed to eat incredibly well, except for some sad stale mochi I bought in a 7-11 for breakfast the first day. And that time I thought I was buying a cheese danish in the French bakery and then thought to ask “no fish?” at the last moment, whereupon I was told: “yes fish. fish eggs.” Right. Of course.
To my knowledge, I never ate any fish. Jacob did, and his was served with The Lord of the Rings:
I was pleased with our last-minute and often improvised itineraries. The first day we went from Tsujiki fish market at 7a to the no-entry gate of the old Imperial Palace and the beautiful area around Tokyo station, over to Harajuku, Takeshita (the street where all crazy Japanese accessories seem to come from), and the “Champs-Elysees” of the city (Omotesando) plus the Meiji Jingu shrine in Yoyogi park, back to the ryokan for a nap, and ended with dinner at a funky vegan place with antique chairs and tatami mats in the small, cute winding streets south of Shibashi. The restaurant played jazz music and had a library of slightly vulgar french comics plus pro-bicycling and travel zines for Portland, Seattle and SF. That first day, we accidentally rode the Yamanote line – the main circumference around Tokyo – the entire way.
A walk in Old Tokyo.
The second day, inspired by a book of “little adventures”, we set off for a seven hour (!) walk around Sendagi, Nezu, and Yanaka, near Ueno, an area that survived the fire bombing in the second world war. It’s a cozy neighborhood with a lively street life, full of windy little ways, temples and alleys crammed with bikes and plants. The houses are all only two story. Over the course of this day, we ate: coffee+cookies, a noodle bento box, Japanese candy (made on the spot), Japanese chutney (fermented yet sweet beans soaked in soy sauce?), rice crackers (also made before our eyes), the best curry I’ve had in my life, adzuki bean ice cream and, my favorite: a Japanese pastry that is like a cross between a waffle and cupcake, made from two thick round halves of warm, slightly sweet, waffle-consistency bread with (you guessed it) an adzuki-paste filling. We had it with adzuki and vanilla ice cream and green tea!
While browsing the rice cracker stall, 2 Japanese women came up and, unsolicited, starting sweetly explaining the cracker flavors to us. There was sesame, spicy, garlic, and seaweed, for example. One of the ladies mentioned she was a French teacher, and so of course I immediately switched languages. We had an entire conversation in French, marking the longest time I had been able to converse with a Japanese person. I could hardly believe my ears, and we were both a little dumbfounded. She said that Japanese people, too, love the old area we were in. They also love cats, especially in this neighborhood.
We had lunch at a tiny all-wood curry shop where the owner was the sole worker. The ‘kitchen’ was a low counter behind which he could barely fit, and from which we could see what seemed like more than two arms pouring gravy, placing herbs, and wiping drips like a pro before presenting the dish. The shop grew all its own herbs and there was only 1 option to eat: the curry of the day, which could be made with veggies, meat or seafood plus a special topping of ginger or sesame. The veggies were colorful, fresh, and artfully arranged. I loved the dish so much, I wrote a thank-you note and left it on the table along with a generous tip (before I learned tipping is not customary here). In return, he gave us “lucky” coins with holes in the middle. Jacob put one on his necklace. Later we learned it was a 5 yen piece. He may have looked silly going around with the equivalent of a nickle around his neck!
This walk was full of treasures, including unique old Japanese architecture, a cool sculpture museum in an unusual house, cute boutique stores (a printing press, a place selling paintbrushes, another one selling powder dyes), and good food. We ended in the posh area around Ueno park, which is the only place we also saw a public trashcan (it was stuffed full).
That night, as if we hadn’t already been walking all day, we went to Shinjuku, checking out Kabuchiko and the Golden Gai, too. East of Shinjuku station feels very much like Times Square, with lots of lights, crowds and big-box plus junk shopping. Kabuchiko (part of the same area) was definitely the worst place I saw in Tokyo. Also called the red-light district, it was full of sad, unhealthy looking people, and had a slightly menacing vibe. It was also more ethnically diverse. Passing the clumps of shifty-looking men in the middle of the street, with people calling to us to enter the neon-gated establishments featuring naked pictures or more, I was definitely sad and uncomfortable. We got out of there as fast as we could.
The area around Shinjuku also includes places like “The Lockup” – a dinner spot that is fully decorated like a haunted prison, where you are handcuffed and led to your table. The ad we read warned that occasionally a jail-break is staged and super scary actors run into your cell. Wanting to go along with something bizarre Jacob wanted to do, we found the address and went up the escalator. Upon entering, a loud siren rang and something flew out of the door toward us, emerging from theatrical smoke inside. Our hearts jumped; it was too scary for me to eat there. I was even more terrified of what the food might be.
We headed for refuge further east of east Shinkjuku, toward the gay district, searching for a bar called the Advocate. We ended up in the Golden Gai, an overlapping historical area that has small narrow streets and tons of tiny bars, many seating only 6 people. Literally thousands of different places to drink, and most don’t serve foreigners, but we found one completely covered in jasmine that had a sign saying “welcome”. Its exterior – a bit of steampunk’d Alice in Wonderland – appealed to us. We hesitantly opened the door to find it empty save for the bartender, an older Japanese man with a head-cold who didn’t speak English. We sat anyway for one drink. The interior was resplendent with beads, furs, old pictures, books, and charm. That man was a consummate bartender – he sat and doggedly tried to have a conversation with us, despite the language problem and the evident fog in his head. Between our 15 words of Japanese, a metro map, the pictures in a walking tour book on my kindle, and his 15 words of English, we actually did have an entire conversation. It was a beautiful thing.
Yep, this hotel, where ‘Lost in Translation’ was filmed, gets its own section. I thought it might be a silly tourist thing to visit, but boy was I wrong. 52 floors up, it’s worth a visit just for the views of Tokyo. Beyond that, this place is serious luxury. I have been in a lot of fancy hotels in my life (recently, the St. Regis in Princeville, Kauai, where they valet-parked our car while we went to the local beach even though we weren’t staying there), and this one takes the cake. It felt special, not mass-produced, and elegant without being too stiff. Welcoming and cozy while being vast. I loved the library room. We had, by far, the best meal of our time in Tokyo at their Japanese restaurant. Jacob’s dish came with its own coal oven on the table. We were surprised the food took as long as it did to arrive given he had to cook it himself. They substituted my shrimp with tofu that looked and felt like buffalo mozzarella cheese. My plate also had something that seemed like candied seaweed. We finished with a dessert of red bean soup with mochi and umeboshi plum paste – it really deserves a better name. We gasped in delight upon tasting it. The bit of sour umeboshi paste balanced it perfectly, completing the 5 flavors as promised in a proper Japanese meal.
These five flavors are worth a bit of an aside. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Umeboshi plums, often pickled, are sour, not umami. So what’s umami? Distinct from saltiness, the taste receptors for this flavor were identified, only recently, in 2000. These receptors on your tongue detect glutmate, and the flavor can be described as a “meaty” or “brothy”. Think kombu seaweed broth with dried fish flakes; called dashi in Japan, this is the quintessential umami flavor. The pleasure of umami may incline us to eat proteins, some scientists think, just as the enjoyment of sweet urges us to eat refined carbs. Perhaps a familiar difference in flavor is the difference between vegetarian miso soup at home (assuming no fish flakes) and miso at a Japanese restaurant, where bonito flakes are usually added. Both are salty, but the later has that, hmm…umami flavor. Makes your tongue a little furry and gives your throat a warm rich tickle. You’d hopefully never eat strictly umami, it needs to be in perfect balance with at least salt. MSG (a glutamate salt) can be added to foods to give umami flavor. Want an umami bomb? Put bacon on your miso-glazed Japanese eggplant.
I never really liked mushrooms (another source of umami), we’ve established I don’t like fish, and I’ve been happily meat-free for years. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that I find umami incredibly unpleasant. I’ve read that some vegetarians have a hard time since they crave umami, but it’s been so easy for me to give up meat. Since I didn’t like umami to begin with, it all makes sense.
After our meal, before leaving the Park Hyatt, we tried to to check out the main bar from the movie…it’s the American bar, but we were too early, and we could only catch a glimpse of where Bill Murray drank all that Suntori before they quietly but firmly ushered us out. It had a nice view of the ocean.
Macrobiotic and Depachika.
The day we left Tokyo, we spent several hours in a department store (Depachika). I know, I know, what was I doing there, the last thing I need is more clothes, right? But it’s not what you think. We went for the food. There was an entire floor of it, like a playground for wealthy and hungry adults. Departments of mochi, aisles of sake, case after case of dried fish, tofu, crackers, candy, tea, pickled things…all high-end Japanese food products. I loved looking at the fancy mochi displays (I can’t tell the difference between mochi and daifuku yet, so forgive me…one is made with rice apparently, and the other with gluten) – each row of white spheres presented as different flavors, but each one invariably filled with either adzuki bean paste or chestnuts or both. I love mochi, but I am dreaming of one day finding one filled with dark chocolate. I think this may be my next baking adventure when I get home.
There was also a good third of the floor devoted to French foods, including a number of bakery and pastry areas, plus a Pierre Herme macaron section! And a lot of chocolate, some of it Japanese. It was the first place I had seen chocolate. There was one thing missing, though, as you might expect: cheese.
On top of the department store was the restaurant floor where we found a French-Japanese vegetarian macrobiotic sit-down restaurant. I was hoping it might finally be the place where the health-oriented Japanese come to mingle and post flyers of yoga, hoop dance meetups, massage offerings and whatnot. You know, a kind of laid-back community food spot. But no, it was just as stiff and formal, and the seats were filled with lunching ladies. I suppose I should have figured the Japanese don’t need special healthy food gathering spots since their traditional diet is already perfectly healthy and still very much dominant.
The food was moderately yummy there, with things like vegetable croquettes, salad with sesame dressing, turnip soup, and a seitan stew that was like a veg beef bourguignon. I was ecstatic to be served seitan. I had a chocolate-pistachio cake for dessert, the first time I had seen anything chocolate on a menu for dessert.
For a moment, though, I felt squeezed. Sometimes the wildness of Tokyo is freeing, but other times it is like all the air has gone out of the room. Suddenly even the exuberant subcultures seemed stiff. They grew from restriction rather than freedom, from a system’s over-emphasis on order. It’s like forcing yourself into Spanx. “Your fat doesn’t go away when you put those on, you know,” a friend told me years ago. “It has to come out somewhere.”
And then it was time to go. Sadly, we took our leave of Tokyo, a city that had, despite it all, stolen my heart.