Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tokyo Over n' Out

Here are some odds and ends from my last few days in Tokyo. I'm writing this from Taoyuan Airport in Taiwan, as I await my transfer flight back to LA. FYI there is an absurd girl watching YouTubed music videos from her laptop at max volume, in full view of half of the waiting room.

I couldn't quite figure out what this sign on the other side of the tracks was supposed to mean.

The Kanda River, near Ochanomizu Station in central Tokyo.

A Russian Orthodox church in the heart of Tokyo.

Ueno Park on a chilly autumn day.

More ramen adventures:

Hakata-style ramen from Danbo in Kanda-Jinbocho.

Let it be known that this was the best bowl of ramen I had during a 16-day trip that contained far too many ramen meals. The broth was manna from the porkivore gods. The only thing that could have improved this was a soft-boiled egg, which topping escaped my attention despite being featured prominently on the menu tacked to the wall. I thereupon vowed not to make this mistake again in future ramen meals.

The Menya Musashi ramen, to be known as the Hot Bowl of Hubris.

Let's rewind a little bit: I'd spent most of the noontime hours circling the immediate vicinity of Harajuku station in search of a ramen shop I'd visited back in 2003, during my first trip to Japan. I remembered neither where the ramen shop was nor whether it was actually any good. Harajuku is famous for its dubiously fashionable wares and their corresponding hordes of teenaged patrons; in other words it is no place for a humorless and half-starved thirtysomething with an iPod stocked with latter-day Wilco albums. Thirty minutes later, I'd carved a rough circle through an unending sea of squawking humanity and decided to bail to Shinjuku.

Trying to avoid crowds by going from Harajuku to Shinjuku is a little like substituting Diet Coke for regular Coke with your Double Quarter Pounder meal. The crowd is a little older and the streets are a little wider, but it's still overwhelming. I headed off to a hip but pricey bar district called Golden Gai, in search of a ramen joint I'd had my eye on.

There are no street names in Japan, and consequently no street signs, so after another 30 minutes of trudging aimlessly through concrete jungle, I elected to cut my losses and go to Yoshinoya. But quite literally one intersection before reaching Yoshinoya, I noticed a storefront down the cross street with 麺屋 (MENYA) written on its entrance curtain. Upon closer inspection I discovered that it was a branch of Menya Musashi, one of the most famous ramen chains in Tokyo.

Inside it was bar seating only, with a line of expectant patrons stretching down the entire length of one wall. While placing my order at the vending machine, I remembered my failure at Daipo Ramen a few days earlier, and thus took special care to get a topping ticket for a soft-boiled egg. For the hell of it, I also ordered extra menma (cured bamboo strips).

The host receiving the orders asked me how I wanted my broth. "Light or heavy?" Heavy, of course. What kind of question is that? Then: "Small or large?" I put my arms out to either side and measured the length of my contempt for the idea of a small ramen bowl.

Thus, the Huge Bowl of Hubris:

  • Mistake 1: the base ramen came with not only two large, melty slabs of stewed pork, but also half of a soft-boiled egg. My extra egg ticket thus made my meal the protein equivalent of a punch in the face.
  • Mistake 2: the extra order of menma, at 150 yen, offered what must be the largest food-to-yen ratio in all of Japanese dining. It was a fuckload of menma.
  • Mistake 3: in any ramen restaurant where the guys behind the counter look like they know what they're doing, just get the smallest amount of noodles on offer. Most of the time, the initial noodle order is free, regardless of size, but so you're kind of obligated to finish what you've asked for. If the base quantity of noodles is somehow not enough (and it is never not enough), then you can always get a refill for something cheap.

This was a damn good bowl of ramen, but it was relentless and inexorable. I felt subject to events large and beyond my control. I tried to pace myself, but by the end I resorted to the decidedly juvenile tactic of obscuring a half slab of pork and the remains of my menma (still comprising a small forest of bamboo, despite my sustained efforts) beneath a puddle of opaque broth. It was under such physical duress that I then proceeded to get lost yet again trying to get from the east side of Shinjuku station to the west, and ended up walking around the entire perimeter of what I later read was purportedly the largest train terminal in the world.

Following the Huge Bowl of Hubris, I felt as if my relationship with ramen had changed: the honeymoon having flamed out spectacularly in an orgy of fatty protein, empty carbs, and some acres of cured bamboo, what was left between me and ramen was a more mature and conflicted affection, tinged equally with resentment and nostalgia. Post-HBB, I managed just one more ramen meal, the above serving of serviceable tsukemen from a six-seat stall Chelsea and I stumbled upon in Shimokitazawa. I was still an idiot and ordered the "medium" size noodle plate, as if it was somehow close to the amount of noodles a normal human can physically eat.

Sukiyaki: strips of beef cooked in lard, soy sauce, and sugar, and then dipped into raw scrambled egg. Relative to certain other meals I've had on this trip, this counted as a tasteful and restrained lunch.

In a deliberate attempt to experience The Best Sushi I Will Ever Eat, I sprung for the 16000-yen omakase at Karaku in Ginza. Karaku serves sushi in the edomae style, which means that the fish is usually adorned with a small amount of sauce or seasoning. As such I didn't bother with the little dish of soy sauce you usually get with sushi.

So as not to appear as some kind of asshole, I will refrain from waxing poetic about this meal. Suffice it to say the following: it was indeed the best sushi I will ever eat, but not quite the linear extrapolation of mind-blowing flavor one would expect for the listed price, but anyway the price wasn't the point.

Katsuo sashimi (bonito), daikon, and green onion. Slightly tangy.

Miso with clams. Not salty. Very clammy.

Salad: cucumber, daikon sprouts, katsuobushi, sesame seeds.

Top to bottom: hirame (summer flounder), maguro-zuke (pickled tuna, glassy texture, candy-like), tai with goma (red snapper with sesame dressing).

Left to right: hotate (scallop, crunchy), kohada (gizzard shad), ika (squid, even crunchier). I couldn't taste much on this plate except for fresh-grated wasabi, which made me cry.

Sanma (Pacific saury), seared, with nice "rare"-looking flesh. Not pictured, because I suck at food blogging: kazunoko (herring roe). Like chewable plastic, if plastic was tasty.

Toro (tuna belly). Okay, look: it tasted about what you think toro should taste like at a great sushi restaurant.

Ikura (salmon roe). The individual eggs burst open when chewed, which made this a little like eating tiny fruits.

Anago (saltwater eel). Similar to unagi, its frequently-barbequed freshwater cousin, only less sweet, and with a cake-like consistency.

Tai skin. Bacon-like. Let's just say they saved the best nigiri for last.

Cucumber rolls which were more like wasabi rolls, and negitoro maki (toro with green onion).

A chaser of tamagoyaki (folded custard-like egg) and pickled daikon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tokyo by foot, mouth, and train

Here are vignettes from approximately ten days' worth of wastreldom and sloth in Tokyo.

Chelsea, my host in Tokyo, is accosted by inanimate bulls.

Bic Camera in Ginza, a multi-story electronics superstore with vastly overpriced wares.

Existence in Tokyo is a symbiosis with trains.

A train overpass in Kanda (神田), near the northwest corner of the Imperial Palace.

The evening commuter rush.

Commuter advertising, visible from the elevated train platform.

Outside Yūrakuchō (有楽町) Station. Pretty much every train station in eastern Tokyo has a surrounding neighborhood like this: bustling and crummy and crammed with off-work salarymen, with plenty of crappy cafes and beer-and-yakitori joints nearby.

More streets along the JR Yamanote line.

Late-night welding beneath the train tracks in Tabata (田端).

A boutique shopping street in Kichijōji (吉祥寺), about half an hour west of central Tokyo.

The entrance to a horror-themed bar in Kichijōji. With Halloween around the corner, this seemed like a fun place to be, but I also sorta wonder who actually goes to this place in like say mid-April.

"Shiro bukotsu" (武骨) ramen, with an intense, thick broth blackened with squid ink. This bowl came with four hefty slabs of fatty pork. And oh my god, the slabs of pork.

Chelsea has found an excellent escape from her fieldwork in food-porn blogging. This is a pretty nice deal for her short-term boarders, who get to sample her brilliant improvisations, such as this fried rice with bell peppers.

Another photogenic home-cooked meal. The noodles were handmade from chestnuts and flour.

A visit to a Thai restaurant near Yūrakuchō.

My Japanified Thai meal, consisting of pork belly, salted mustard greens with egg, and a fish curry.

I've come to believe that the chief distinguishing feature of Japanese cooking is a kind of studied and pleasant blandness, so it's a manifest curiosity to cross this sensibility with so emphatically florid a cuisine as Thai food. Incidentally, it ends up tasting a lot like the food I'd been eating in Shanghai a couple weeks before. Apparently both the geographic and culinary average of Thailand and Japan is China.

I celebrated a 5K run around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace grounds with a huge pile of fried pork cutlet. That the rice was served on a plate seemed highly non-Japanese, and yet totally appropriate to the meal.

About 50% of my caloric intake during my year with the JET Programme (2004-2005) consisted of the above snacks: lightly-salted potato chips (which I ate by the bag), the incredible Chococo cookie (certainly the greatest item in the entire Lotte catalog), and Pocky, which surely needs no introduction.

Self-portrait, at the main gate of Waseda University.

A view eastward from the edge of Waseda University.

A very strange and cool building along Sodai Dori, near Waseda University. The hair salon on the street corner had a full DJ station in the front window, but I was disappointed to find that nobody was actually manning the turntables; instead there was a stylist fidgeting with an iPod.

Next door was Guren (紅蓮), a tsukemen restaurant that we visited on the strength of a recommendation from Chelsea's ramen-crazed friend Nate. Tsukemen is like ramen, only with the broth and noodles served separately, which seems to provide the excuse to make both components much thicker and richer than they would be if combined.

In fact, Guren really only had one item, which was a shrimp-based tsukemen that could be ordered with varying quantities of wobbly, spring-like noodles. The broth was thick and briny, with a slightly bitter bite. I won't lie: it was pretty fucking incredible.

As with many noodle shops in big Japanese cities, the ordering process at Guren is mediated by a vending machine. You pick the amount of noodles you want, throw in some cash, punch a button, and you get a ticket. If you want a side, like a soft-boiled cured egg, you get another ticket for that specific purpose. Then you hand your ticket(s) to the server, who utters a few phatic pleasantries and then scurries off to the kitchen.

This is one of several procedures that one encounters in Japan that seem designed to obviate the need for any conversation between customer and server. Another example is the little placard at the checkout counter of my local supermarket--you place the placard in your shopping basket, and without further utterance, the cashier will refrain from handing you a plastic bag. Things like this are kind of fun at first, although it sort of dawns on you that they operate the principle that human interaction is somehow an impediment to convenience, or just basically somehow bad.

Outside a model gun shop, whose name I believe was actually "Model Gun Shop". Like any properly-civilized modern nation, Japan does not grant its citizens the right to bear arms. But said citizens sure do seem to fantasize about it.

Chelsea lives out in a sleepy east Tokyo neighborhood near the Sumida River, an area that would be classified as shitamachi (下町), or the "low" city. Historically, the shitamachi is associated with the working class and minority groups, namely ethnic Korean and Chinese, as well as the burakumin. It also evokes a hazy nostalgia for seedy streets and the quaint figures of the urban proletariat: salt-of-the-earth tradespeople, gregarious old folk, and prostitutes.

Here are some images from a walk along the river and through the neighborhood:

A view of Shinjuku, Tokyo's bureaucratic center, from a rooftop in Mejiro.

A festival procession held by members of the community in Mejiro, which felt a bit non-sequitor against the nondescript urban backdrop of the local JR statin.

To date, my sole excursion out of Tokyo was a hike up Mount Tsukuba (筑波山) in nearby Ibaraki Prefecture. This was billed as an "easy" hike by guidebooks, but was in reality comparable to a ninety-minute joyride on a Stairmaster machine. The trees were fantastic, but my enthusiasm for them was mitigated decisively by the vertical brutality of the terrain.

A stone "egg of the universe", supposedly a symbol of mu (無), or nothingness.

The reward for our hasty slog up the mountainside was a tasty bowl of Tsukuba udon, a local novelty dish that mysteriously sold for 900 yen at every single cafe on the summit.

Somewhere near Shinbashi, atop an elevated pedestrian concourse, I looked over and saw a--you know what, I really don't know what the hell this is.