Monday, May 25, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 4 in Tokyo

On Tuesday, May 5th we woke up to a cloudy, gray sky (a change from the nice, sunny mornings we'd been seeing). Rainjackets in our bags, we headed out to Shinjuku-gyoen. The garden was quite pretty, with large ponds full of jumping carp and a Taiwanese Pavilion. We briefly met a woman from Japan who was hanging out in the garden, and was interested in where we were from, how long we were staying etc. It felt kind of weird and we hurried to get away from her, but afterward I felt really bad. She was just being nice, probably enjoying practicing her English, and we were so, what, cynical? Xenophobic? Ugh, I vowed to be more open from then on.

Taiwanese Pavilion, Shinjuku-gyoen

We had a tea ceremony in the Rakutei teahouse in the garden, which was a bit disappointing. We paid via the vending machine outside (definitely not traditional!), slid the wooden screen door open and sat down. A woman came out with two bowls of green matcha tea (traditional) and two little sweets. We were left alone to drink and eat, so it didn't feel all that special. I think in a more elaborate tea ceremony, the host actually makes the tea in front of you (which involves whipping the tea powder into water), so I guess we got an abbreviated version. The sweet was interesting, kind of a chalky, not-sticky mochi - similar in texture and moisture to the inside of a moon cake, if that rings any bells.

Tea ceremony elements at Rakutei, Shinjuku-gyoen

Leaving the garden in search of lunch, we came across a restaurant called Tsunahachi, a tempura bar of some renown. Tempura is obviously widely available in Japan, but this restaurant is a bit higher-end, because you sit at a bar where the chef actually fries up each piece for you to order. Hello, personal deep-fry chef! We were seated at a little bar in the back, and expertly guided toward the set menu which comprised tempura fish, shrimp, prawn, eel and veggies, with soup and rice. Delicious! Full on our set menus, we watched covetously as the people next to us ordered very fresh scallops, scooped right out of the shell.

Our tempura chef, placing some fried goodness on my plate

Our next stop was one we'd been looking forward to for a while, the Isetan foodhall. Now, to this point we'd been in several foodhalls, and been suitably impressed. As I mentioned in a previous post, these are the bottom (usually 1st or 2nd basement) floors of Japanese department stores, filled with prepared foods to go. There are always sections of sushi, cakes, fried foods, and hot items. And everything is nicely presented, of course. We don't have anything like it at home, and boy, do we wish we did! But back to Isetan, which had been touted in every guidebook we'd seen as the "king of foodhalls." We walked in and it was truly a sight to see. We tried to take pictures, but they just don't do justice to the selection, beautiful presentation, and the general busy-ness of the place. It was packed with people buying snacks or perhaps supplies for dinner. We didn't actually buy anything because it was not really cheap. It was enough just to look!

Stages of tamago(egg omelette, the kind that is often used in sushi) making

The rain had started falling while we were inside (I think God was crying with joy at the beautiful foodstuffs), so we donned our jackets and went to find the intersection that includes the Studio Alta building. It wasn't very impressive, just another big intersection full of huge, loud TV screens. So jaded, so soon - There goes another famous intersection, *yawn*

Studio Alta building, Shinjuku

We then made our way SW of the station in search of some more cool architecture. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a huge blue and grey complex that consists of 2 towers and a half-circular columnade. It was built to resemble Notre Dame, with Japanese accents (though we didn't quite get that part, other than that the facade kind of looked like a giant computer chip). You can go up to the top of either tower for views of the city, so we did that as a welcome respite from the rain. It was here that we made a big decision about the trip - no visit to Mt Fuji this time around. (It is apparently notoriously shy and so you need a perfectly clear day to see it. With the rain coming down pretty hard and probably continuing to fall into the next day, we figured that we didn't want to waste our last whole day in Tokyo, not to mention a bunch of money, going out to it if it wasn't going to be rewarding. So that was that).

The Kenzo-designed Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Back out in the pouring rain, we looked for "yakitori alley" (or "piss alley," as it is more crudely known) which is supposed to be a small lane of teeny yakitori (yakitori = chicken skewer restaurants) establishments near Shinjuku Station. We gave up after a few minutes, our attention spans probably being curtailed by the rain falling in our eyes. Instead, we got back on the subway and made our way to the neighborhood of Ikebukuro.

A cool art piece in Shinjuku Station

Off the subway, we beelined it for a ramen shop, Ramen Jiro, that I had heard about on Unfortunately, the line was longer than 10 people and the wait would have been in the rain. I was sad, as rameniac had given this ramen shop a rare 10/10 rating, but my spirits and stomach quickly rallied when I saw that a different ramen-ya (ya = store/shop) listed in the Rough Guide was pretty nearby. We ran over there and saw a thankfully shorter line. It moved pretty fast (it seems like people really tend to eat and run here), though we were still soaked by the time we were seated. I began to realize that my supposedly waterproof (not water-resistant) rain jacket was, in a word, not. Luckily it wasn't terribly cold, or I would have been really miserable!

The ramen went a long way toward making us forget about how wet we were. I'll just show you a picture:
Restorative ramen at Mutekiya, Ikebukuro

Full and re-energized, we backtracked to the station and went to the Japanese Traditional Crafts Centre, which was really a glorified gift shop, but a cool one nonetheless. It showcased (and sold) artisanal items, one of the requirements for the "craft"designation being that they are used in daily life. So there was beautiful washi paper, ceramics and lacquerware, kimono fabrics, etc. Too expensive for the most part, though I spent a bit of time trying to convince myself that we really need this lovely, 315 dollar bowl, so I should buy it. (We don't. I didn't. I kind of regret it.)

Next we left the station again and ran up to a store called Tokyu Hands. We had already been to another branch of this earlier in the day (up by Shinjuku), and I wanted to go to this one to see Nekobukuro. What is that, you ask? First, Tokyu Hands is an amazing store. With many branches, they all have no less than 8 huge floors filled with stationery, housewares, camping equipment, kitchenwares, woodworking supplies, art and design supplies, luggage, etc. etc. Like Muji, but not quite as cool, more supply-y than product-y. Another heaven, and a destination for me as I was looking for some specific screenprinting supplies (found them!). So that alone made me love it. This branch was also blessed with Nekobukuro, which is a part of the 8th floor where you can pay a nominal fee (around $6) to go in and play with the 20 or so cats they keep there. Yep. Apparently this really appeals to kids (duh) and adults whose apartments are too small for pets. Odd and fascinating. We didn't go in (being the non-animal people we are) but we definitely checked out the cute entrance.
Nekobukuro, the ultimate in surrogate pet-dom

Heading back to Ikebukuro station, Brian remembered seeing some fish-shaped red-bean pastries (tayaki) being freshly made when we had gone through the station before, and we decided we had to find them again for dessert. Now, this is not necessarily an easy feat given that Tokyo train stations in general are huge and mazelike, and Ikebukuro in particular is the second-most busy station in the city (in fact, the world, according to Wikipedia!). 2.71 million people move through it per day! Wow. Anyway, amazingly, we somehow found the fishcake stand, and watched as they made our red-bean and custard cakes from scratch.
The magic of tayaki, Ikebukuro Station

Happily, we decided we'd had enough for the day, and headed on home. Rain or no rain, we were loving Tokyo for all of its crazy, cute, dizzying, and decidedly tasty quirks.


riceandwheat said...

OMG i would have never been able to leave nekokeburo!! they would have to drag me out... which come to think of it, would be quite embarrassing for everyone involved.

riceandwheat said...

woops, i mean nekobukuro.

Amy said...

hopefully i'll get to take pics inside nekobukuro for you next week! danny would love to play with the kitties.

Amy said...

we went to this tokyo hands, but we were in such a hurry to get back in time for our flight home we didn't make it to see the kitties :o(

Amy said...

did your chef dude fry up the eel spine for you? we went to tenmatsu for a similar dinner and weren't quite sure what it was at first. not exactly my favorite thing to eat!!!