Put your forks away, toss your napkins, take off your shoes, and have a seat on a pillow. So goes the tradition of eating in Japan. I don't think not having napkins is necessarily traditional, but I found that they were far and few between.
So, I promised a post dedicated just to my first dinner in Tokyo. After a day of visiting temples and tasting different sweets, we were all ready to sit down to a great meal. On our way through the busy streets, passing businessmen on their way to meet colleagues for a drink, young adults heading to do the same, and tourists searching their maps for a clue as to where they were, we managed to take a short trip back in time. It was a tiny sliver of space in between concrete buildings that held something truly magical, tucked away in Shinjuku, known as "Memory Lane".
Filled with lots of small bars and restaurants that seat no more than 12, it's a perfect place to pretend that you are no longer living in the 21st century, but instead are back in the 1940's when it was then a black market drinking quarter. Each place has its own charm, but they all share a similar smell of delicious yakitori (chicken skewers) being grilled to perfection and stews simmering away. The patrons look content and unaware of my snooping in on them, curious as to what they're eating, drinking, talking about, and why they picked the place they did.
It was hard not to sneak away from my group and have a seat at one of the bars and tell the chef to bring me anything and everything. I was enchanted by this place, how could you not be? I didn't see any other obvious tourists, which made me think that this was a kind of hidden jewel, that unless you knew someone who knew about it (as we did, thank goodness!) or accidentally stumbled in between the cracks of the city, you would never find it.
Once we stepped back into present time, it took a second to readjust to the crowds of people and large neon signs blaring at you in ever direction.
Dinner was next. We eventually turned left into a building and stepped into an elevator. It took us up four floors and we stepped back out; we were in a restaurant named Tsubo Hachi. It had a room to the right for smokers, blocked off with curtains, which surprisingly did a good job of containing the scent of smoke. We continued past it and were asked to remove our shoes, as I did gladly for two reasons: 1. My feet could use a rest and 2. I had been looking forward to this authentic dining experience.
Once we sat down, I took in my surroundings. There were hangers on the wall where people could hang their suit jackets, nice big pillows on the floor and a hole in the floor under the table for you to put your legs. The table was set with chopsticks, soy sauce, and other seasonings (I bought a bottle of the S&B stuff). There was a large bowl with popcorn (what?!) and krupuk (prawn crackers). The popcorn tasted like shrimp and was addicting. I may have hoarded them just slightly.
Big pitchers of water, orange juice, and sodas floated around, but then this came my way. It tasted like bananas and was sweet and mouthwatering. I don't remember what it was called, and I forgot to write it down, so let's just call it yummy.
Food started arriving in waves and it was really hard to sit politely and wait for someone to begin to serve themselves, so I grabbed some chopsticks and began, quickly passing it along though so I wouldn't be the only one eating. It wasn't hard to get everyone else on board.
A custom in Japan, that makes a lot of sense, is to use the opposite ends of the chopsticks you are eating with, to serve yourself (no double dipping here). We began doing that, but a parent realized that it might just be easier to put a pair of chopsticks on each dish and use those. This first dish was so refreshing and light. It had a nice salty and subtly sweet flavor to it that I adored.
Duck made its way to us as well. Cooked perfectly and served with a mayo of sorts, it melted in my mouth. The crunch from the vegetables made it that much better.
So, let's have a little chat about the edamame shall we? I have seen it before and have always thought that I would like it, but for some reason, never ordered it at any restaurant. When it landed in front of me, I grabbed one and popped it in my mouth. I chewed and chewed, and then began to worry. This wasn't pleasant at all. It was so fibrous and it felt like I was never going to be able to get through it. I had to get rid of it. I grabbed a tissue from my purse (remember, no napkins in sight) and ever so discretely did away with it...well I wasn't discrete enough. The parent sitting next to me laughed and then proceeded to grab a piece of this mean veggie and bite down on one end. I wanted to shout, "Don't do it! You'll never be able to chew it!", but she then showed me that all you eat are the beans inside, then discarding the shell. Ohhhhh...that makes sense. I felt completely silly, but that's how we learn right? Please say that's how we learn. After this new unearthing, I became hooked. I love edamame.
French fries? What were these doing at my authentic Japanese meal? They had been sprinkled with a seaweed powder or something along that line and were quite pleasant.
The smell of teriyaki passed by my nose as the waiter placed a plate of meat on sticks at our table. It was pork that had been gingerly placed around the stick and grilled and sauced and sprinkled with sesame seeds. I'll take two more plates please.
Rice is present at every meal in Japan. Sure, rice might not seem that exciting, but Japan does rice right. Maybe it's the way they prepare it or maybe it's what they put in it, but either way, plain or mixed with egg and seasonings, it's incredibly flavorful and accompanies every meal wonderfully.
Let's ignore the octopus resembling hot dogs for a second and move to the fried stuff on the plate. To the right was fried chicken. It really wasn't greasy and wasn't overly breaded. I had a piece, but it wasn't my favorite thing on the table. Behind that were these round shrimp balls of sorts. They had fish flakes on top and made the whole thing addicting. They were perfectly salted, not too fishy tasting, and had a wonderful texture. I didn't have a hot dog, I mean it's a hot dog.
As we were talking, or in my case, eating, a loud noise started coming from the dining area next door. Come to find out, it was a tennis club that was out having a great Friday night, maybe celebrating a victory. They were college students and were playing a drinking game that involved them chanting something I didn't understand, while, in turn, a student stood up at his or her seat and drank the night away. It was fun to watch. There wasn't an unhappy face in the room (and there were a lot of them).
My stomach started to fill and I gulped my last glasses of yummy (the banana drink) and slinked my way out of our table. We put our shoes back on, headed down the elevator and back into the city night. We were all pleased with what we'd just eaten and couldn't wait to see what else we'd be trying during the upcoming week. The evening air was warm, with a slight breeze that brushed up against you just enough to make you comfortable with the humidity.
On our walk back to the train station, we passed by Setan, a high end department store. It houses all of the big names, including Bottega Veneta who had some pretty interesting window displays. With a kind of Tim Burton look to them, I was immediately distracted by the mannequins themselves (if you can call them that, and not gigantic dolls with huge heads and eyes) and totally ignored what they were wearing and advertising. The garments were breathtaking as expected, but some of the students were probably going to see huge floating doll heads in their dreams that night.
I became so absorbed by these window displays that I nearly lost track of my group as I took one last photo before heading to our hotel. It had been a wonderful evening, but I had to focus on sleep now. We were getting up at 5am in order to visit the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market in all of its busy, wet, fishy glory. I didn't bring my rubber boots, so my sandals will have to do.