// Mid-afternoon, Shinobazuno Pond, Ueno Park, きょわ素晴らしいです
“I wish there was more green around here,” my spontaneous explorer friend and food buddy for the day remarked. “The gardens back in Argentina or Germany always looked greener”. Looking around I couldn’t agree more. Concrete paved most of the park and the few patches of grass were covered in park-goers and fellow tourists. Still, it was hard to complain with the the sun out in a cloudless sky and a light breeze playing across the water. It was the rare nice day since I arrived in Tokyo and with Asahi beers and a Sakura Yakimochi (Charred Cherry Blossom-flavored rice cake) between us, I could forgive the otherwise grey landscape.
We met as most solo travelers are wont to do, in our hostel lobby in broken Spanish, English, and Japanese, in chance encounters all too common amongst the forever wandering. I happened to forget to grab a Goshuiin-cho – a temple stamp – from Sensoji the previous day. She happened to be headed there today and so I found a stranger to share meals, gaijin gripes, and a distaste for the obviously touristy with. She grew up watching anime dubbed in Spanish and dreamed of coming to Japan, her Pokemon team tattoos a testament to just how meaningful this trip must have been. My excuse was far less weighty…I just happened to love the food and thus our day was punctuated with frequent food breaks.
Breakfasts of Tamago Kake Gohan (raw egg over rice) and Nattou (fermented soy beans), tender and savory-sweet Unadons (Eel over rice) and okra, Kibi Dango (sticky millet/rice cakes) coated in roasted soybean powder, all paired with stories of wanting to get lost in foreign lands and the joys of solitude. It was the perfect recipe: perfect rice topped with perfect seafood, in a perfectly un-gaijin-like setting, tempered with perfect weather, shared with a perfect stranger. Kyo wa subarashii desu.
// Dinner Time, Somewhere in Shinjuku, ちょっと寒いです
What started as a sunny day quickly turned into a gray, wet one, highlighting the already imposing and austere Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Featureless, sharp, angular, and entirely functional (a plaque on its observation deck noted its earthquake-resistant features rather than its aesthetics), the building stood in sharp contrast to the green Meiji Jingu and Shinjuku Gyoen Parks and the frantic Shinujuku station nearby. Its observation decks held little more than an overpriced cafe and fellow gaijin hiding their disappointment in a rapidly darkening and un-photogenic horizon.
After spending almost the entire day on foot, hopping from temple to temple collecting temple stamps, people watching, my attempting to sneak a work meeting in, and us navigating the intricacies of the Japanese language, the chilly air and grey surroundings only heightened our end-of-day exhaustion. It was that time of the day when you run out of things to say and thoughts give way to hunger. We both wanted something hot that wasn’t the usual bowl of ramen and I was in the particular mood for a comforting pot of Nabe. But with phones running out of battery and WiFi and our patience wearing thin from the rain and closed restaurants, we were close to just picking the next open joint of potentially mediocre fare. We found ourselves in a small collection of alleys housing the now freed corporate drones; more grey suits draped over grey attitudes. Sushi restaurants were no go. The various Italian spots advertising pasta were out of the running too. And the places advertising English menus in big letters? Definite nos.
After more wandering with neither of us willing to give up the search for fear of settling, we finally threw all our chips in on a place that had no English letters, a small dark doorway in a quieter corner leading up stairs, and pictures of steaming bowls of…something. We climbed the stairs, took off our shoes, and slipped into a warmly-lit izakaya that was largely empty save for a few couples who sat on the floor, legs hidden beneath low slung tables. A glance around the room showed rectangular slips of paper advertising the menu written in Japanese on the wall and large posters of sweating bottles of Asahi and Nihonshu against backdrops of idyllic mountains and fields of cherry blossoms. We asked the question that’s become all too familiar throughout the day’s food trips: “Eigo no menu ga arimasu ka?” <<“Do you have an English menu?”>>. The hostess bowed and apologized profusely shaking her head and slowly walked towards the door to usher us back out. Instead we glanced at each, smiled, and shook our head. “Daijobu desu“; it’s all good.
Chewy chicken gizzards grilled and paired with yuzu kosho, large cubes of silken tofu resting in a light broth with katsuoboshi, sides of radish, aged miso, squid sushi; a half bottle of warm Nihonshu, two large mugs of Asahi, followed by the now familiar High Balls; and in the center of it all, a large pot of simmering enoki mushrooms and thinly shaved spring onions sitting aside a plate covered in glistening slices of chicken and beef. Something hot. Not ramen. In a warm room. Where the only English heard came out of our mouths. The drones finally filtered in, grey suits amidst warm food. The room including us raised our collective glasses in exhaustion, them from desk jobs, us from temple runs. Otsukare.
[to be continued…]