Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tune In(to) Tokyo

I was expecting a chaotic city full of strange people who don’t speak English. Assumed I’d find myself frustratingly lost at every turn since Tokyo doesn’t have a traditional street address system. Was ready to battle the subways that were so overcrowded the city actually paid people to shove patrons on the trains. Envisioned myself blindly ordering off Japanese menus and cringing at the meals of poisonous blowfish, chicken heart sashimi and tofu skin that arrived. Don’t get me wrong -- I knew there would be good points. I just wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to enjoy them if these were the obstacles Tokyo was going to throw at me. I’m not what you call a laid-back person, so little things like these have the potential to be deal-breakers.
And here’s what happened:
I found a city so similar to New York it left me aching for the Big Apple. A city whose military-like organization and order is so ingrained in each citizen that millions of people can cross a six-way intersection with no yelling, honking or hesitation. A city that celebrates creativity, which is evident in everything from the insanely dressed teenagers to winding streets that boast seven different types of architecture. A city that has enough English to get by (a good English map didn’t hurt, either) and a graciousness for foreigners who attempt an “arigato” or “konnichiwah”. A city full of people so kind they offer you their own umbrellas when you’re caught in the rain. A city whose food is so delicious that even a timid eater such as myself enjoyed every meal – tofu and all. A city that made Hong Kong feel old and dull and almost third world-like. (Why did we choose HK over Tokyo?) And so it is that after three days (two and a half, really), I find myself a bonafide Tokyo-holic.
I figure the best way to share my Tokyo experience is chronologically, so here goes:
The most annoying part of the trip took place was getting there. The airport is an hour outside of the city and because Tokyo is so expensive (a cab would’ve cost $250 USD) we had to wait an hour for a bus that brought us directly to our hotel (after it stopped off at 3 other hotels.) The entire process tacked on a good 2.5 hours to our trip. With that out of the way…
Day 1 – Headed into the belly of the beast --Shibuya, which is Japan's equivalent of Time Square. Given my feelings for Times Square, I was fully prepared to hate Shibuya, especially Shibuya crossing which is one of the photographic landmarks that people associate with “Tokyo”. As you can see it’s a 6-way intersection whose stoplights direct everyone to cross at once. Though deemed the busiest intersection in the world, it was surprisingly efficient and pain-free because everyone knows where they’re going (take note, Hong Kong).
Decided to grab a latte at the Starbucks overlooking Shibuya crossing since it looked like a prime people-watching spot and realized that mine was not a unique idea. In fact, this Starbucks gets so much traffic that they only serve tall-sized (e.g. small) drinks. I tried to order a grande latte and the woman said, “tall size only”. It was just as well since trying to find a seat after getting my coffee was like trying to find a table at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. You basically have to just stand over someone who looks like they’re almost done and silently harass them into getting up. Had we spoken the same language, this Japanese woman and I would’ve had words because she was hogging 3 chairs (!!) for her and her coats/bags. I tried to take one and she got very tense. I figured getting into an argument with a local during my first sight-seeing hour wasn’t a good idea, so I didn’t put up much of a fight.
Right outside of the Shibuya train station is the Hachiko statue - -and before I delve into the story behind the statue you may want to grab a few tissues.
Hachiko was the Akita dog of a Tokyo University professor back in the 1920’s. Every morning, Hachiko accompanied his master to the train station and he would come back in the afternoon to greet his master when his train pulled in. One day at the university, the professor had a heart attack and died - -and obviously wasn’t able to meet Hachiko at the train station later that day. Hachiko showed up that day and every day for 10 years until his own death, waiting for his master to get off the train. The locals were so touched that they paid for a statue of Hachiko and put it at the spot where he went to meet his master. Pass this story along to anyone who doesn’t understand pets or like dogs. You have to be a cold-hearted bastard to not be touched by a story like this.
Amped up on coffee, I decided to walk around Shibuya and check out a few shops I’d read about. On my way, I passed by an arcade called "Play! Game!" that had only one type of game – those machines filled with prizes where you operate a claw that tries to pick up a prize out of a huge pile. You know the one – where you always manage to get the prize dangling from the claw and just before you bring it over the damn thing falls? This place had at least 50 of those machines and they were filled with all kinds of prizes. One was filled with just frozen desserts – including pints of Haagen-Daz ice-cream. Only a true gambler decides he’d rather play a claw game to get his Haagen-Daz than just buy it at the local 7-11. They wouldn’t let me take pictures inside, but I got one of the entrance.
Vin and I had lunch at the Sapporo beer garden, which is located right outside of Morgan Stanley. Like a lot of Japanese lunch spots, they have fake plastic food that resembles all the real stuff on the menu. While it sounds a bit juvenile, it’s actually really helpful for non-Japanese speakers. You just point at the plastic food that you want and they bring it to you.
Later that night Vin’s coworkers took us out for a traditional Japanese dinner in a neighborhood called Naka-Meguro. “Traditional” meaning how most Tokyoites eat; not traditional in a formal way. As with all places in Tokyo, the cab drops you off on a main thoroughfare (all the cabbies wear white gloves, btw) and then you walk up some alley that brings you to a bigger alley. This larger alley is where the front doors to all the stores and restaurants can be found. So, you can’t just get in a taxi and give the driver an address. You have to give him a block; he drops you off near/at the block and then you find your way inside the block and look visually for the place. Anyway, the food was to die for! They brought course after course --- all appropriately sized – of food: fresh sashimi, tofu with wasabi (real tofu doesn’t even resemble what they offer in the states; in Japan it’s super creamy, kinda like ricotta or mozzarella as Vin very keenly pointed out), grilled chicken and okra on skewers, asparagus wrapped in bacon, a crab and egg dumpling in some kind of soup and fresh mango pudding for dessert. Everything was fresh and clean and really tasty. We later learned that there was some crazy stuff on the menu (raw chicken heart sashimi, anyone?) that Vin’s colleagues wisely avoided.
Day 2: Headed to the iconic Harajuku district, a place where Japanese teenagers don the craziest of crazy outfits (everything from naughty Little Bo Peeps to eye-popping punks) and pretty much preen around hoping they look the most insane. It’s similar to St. Mark’s Place in NYC, but even more outlandish. Sadly, I wasn’t there on a Sunday, which is when they all come out and walk in an unofficial parade. Since it was a Tuesday afternoon and most were in school, I only saw a watered down version of Harajuku. This is also where Gwen Stefani plucked her famous Harajuku girls from.
Not to get back to food so quickly, but I had the best doughnuts of my life in Harajuku. It was a take-away place and the woman made them for me fresh. There were a few different things you could put on them – coconut, chocolate, maple syrup, etc. but I chose good old-fashioned cinnamon. They were so delicious I had to make a special place for them on the blog. Also, how cool is the façade of the store?? (This is trademark Tokyo – they realize the importance of making the outside so interesting looking that you just have to check out the inside.)
After wandering around Harajuku, I stumbled into Omotesando, the coolest neighborhood I’ve ever been in. I want to live in Omotesando. It’s a mix of winding little alleys and roads that are filled with amazing boutiques and cool architecture. Here’s a mix of what I’m talking about.
Later that night Vin and I set off for 35 Steps, a restaurant that a friend had recommended. The night did not start off well: Vin’s Japanese colleague had given him a map of how to get there… in Japanese! We get off the subway and find ourselves in the middle of a Japanese winter storm; our Hong Kong-climatized bodies weren’t ready for a mix of freezing rain and snow. So we got lost and ducked into a random store to get directions. Typical Japanese, the store clerk stopped what he was doing, Googled the place and printed out directions for two drenched Americans who weren’t planning on buying a thing in his store. Frozen down to our bone marrow, we opted to hop in a cab and show him our new map. He drops off of in the block and it’s up to us to find the alley that will ultimately lead to the restaurant. So off we go up and down alley after alley, finding ourselves at dead-ends and having to turn around and retrace our steps. I realize that we’re in the middle of a labyrinth of what are called “love hotels”. Love hotels are basically “by the hour” hotels where people slip away to… These are all themed and lit up with neon signs; a lot of them have vending machines in the doorways that sell sex toys. I read in my tour book that you can’t make a reservation ahead of time and can only stay the night if you show up after 10pm. So here Vin and I are walking in back alleys among all the love hotels in freezing rain.
About to give up, Vin randomly walks into the Shibuya Hotel (jury is still out on if it’s a love hotel; we didn’t ask) to see if they know where the restaurant is and oh yeah they know… because it’s in the basement of their hotel. I still don’t understand why the person who gave us the recommendation and the other person who printed out the map failed to tell us it was inside a hotel and there was no sign outside. We finally get inside 35 steps, with water literally dripping down our faces and the woman who greets us helps us take off our shoes (it was one of those places), helps us dry off with towels and then brings us to a table. At the end of the meal, as we’re putting on our shoes, she presents two umbrellas to us – for us to use on our way home, free of charge. Japanese hospitality is a wonderful thing.
The food, you ask? The food was to die for (a phrase I can’t seem to stop using for Tokyo). We started off with a cheese tofu bathed in honey and served with hot French bread.
This was followed by a salad with a light vinaigrette and some prawns that were served in a great sauce.
Next, the big event -- the stone bowl rice with beef. The waiter brings these razor-hot stone bowls out that have cooked rice, kimchi-looking cabbage and raw beef in them. He then proceeds to push everything in bowl around with two spoons so that the beef cooks as a layer covered by the rice. When he was finished tucking our beef between the bowl and rice, he instructed us not to touch anything for 1 minute for rare beef or 2 minutes for medium rare. Words won’t do justice to the feeling we had after 2 minutes… We had some tofu for dessert and had to roll ourselves out of the place.
This divine meal was only marred by the only two annoying things I could find about Tokyo – smoking and giggling. Somehow Tokyo hasn’t followed in the footsteps of Paris and New York and still allows smoking inside restaurants. They think they’re doing the right thing by offering smoking and non-smoking sections, but that’s pretty much null and void when the two sections are right next to each other. More than once I was seated in the non-smoking section only to find the table right next to me smoking. I went into Wendy’s (yes Wendy’s; you live in a place where Wendy’s doesn’t exist and trust my Wendy’s will seem like a gift from God when you spot one) one day for lunch and literally couldn’t read the menu on the wall through all the cigarette smoke. Sadly, I couldn’t take it and had to leave. The other annoying thing is that Japanese women (particularly teenagers) giggle… non-stop…at ear-splitting decibel levels. And they don’t stop. It must be something cultural because there’s nothing so funny that you would be giggling for two hours straight during a meal. This happened a few times.
All in all it was a magical trip – and I was only there for two and a half days during winter. There’s so much I didn’t get to see – cherry blossoms, a sumo match, Mt Fuji, the famous fish market, the food courts in the basement of department stores, Harajuku on a Sunday, a baseball game….

PS-- In the middle of an early March winter storm, I happen to come across one lone cherry blossom tree in full bloom. I like to think it was Tokyo's way of telling me to come back!


  1. wow - what a trip. it sounds amazing. Is it Hachiko? My heart breaks for him...can you imagine victor b without you and vin?

  2. THe dog story - so amazing. And the food, YUM. I love Japanese food. Now I am hungry, must go get some. I think I have had the stone bowl rice thingy at this Japanese restaurant in LA called "Gyu Kaku" which apparently is really a chain in Japan too. LOVE IT!