Just call me Penelope Cruz
Konichiwa from Tokyo, loved ones. If I had good Japanese manners I’d probably thank you at least twice for reading this. But I’ll just go with one time: Arigato for caring about my travels.
Here is just the first of what will likely be a number of journal entries from here. I’m very behind on daily posts, but ya gotta start somewhere.
I’m going to play the role of writer of the trip, while my loving boyfriend and traveling partner Dan is photographer. (He has a nicer phone, better eye and more patience than I.)
A flight through space and time
Isn’t it strange that we got in a metal tube and woke up in another world? That’s how Dan’s dad describes our flight from LAX, which was 12 hours but I managed to have my eyes closed for about 8 of them. A true feat.
The time with my eyes open was spent appreciating how nice and not in-your-face the Japanese flight attendants were, eating my decent fried noodle and veggies in-flight meal, and watching half of a teen Japanese rom-com with English subtitles called “Almost a Miracle.”
In that movie, the protagonist was this guy who is “famous for being a saint” as one girl says. He helps classmates carry trays, comforts friends who are sad, cooks dinner for his family. He loves everyone. But the question is: Does he understand the distinction between that and being in love?
Before I landed, the movie showed me some Japanese culture including plenty of polite bowing, like when you graciously ask someone out, and how some beef is apparently translated to Hamburg meat.
I’m assuming he got the girl but I didn’t wait around to find out. I put my eye mask and “turtle” neck pillow back (Dan got me this as a present because it makes me look beautiful) on and slept more.
Arriving in Tokyo, skipping a day
First thing to do in the airport: Go to the lovely ATM to get yen. The zen machine has animations of swimming coy and plays calming music that it incorporates your passcode into.
It’s true: Tokyo’s metro system is delightful. It’s clean. It’s unbelievably quiet (thanks to everyone being silent inside) and it’s efficient. Miss one train? The next is only a few minutes away.
Dan and I will come to rely on the subway, multiple times, daily, while in Tokyo. I will see people mopping the floor in the station and even dusting the coin lockers. This is how the place is pristine enough to eat off the floor.
I wrote about smart toilets for USA TODAY. But it wasn’t until I got to our hotel at Hotel Felice Akasaka that I experienced the seat-warming and the water-spritzing. I was ready for it— I touched the button for both the front (the lady image on the button) and back (a butt image)— and have a cleaner tush than I ever did in the U.S.
Our first day
Since we arrived early in the morning (two days later than we left because time zone), we had a full first day and night in Tokyo. In fact, we arrived before our room was ready for us. So starting at 8am-ish we grabbed omusubi at one of the only places open in Akasaka. I think I got tuna; I’m not sure what Dan got because we didn’t understand the Japanese signs and were overwhelmed. Dan, who avoids lox with bagels, said thoughtfully: “I think I’ll have to get over my ‘not eating a piece of seafood in the morning’ thing.”
After some brain rewiring about breakfast foods, we ventured into Shibuya, where we crossed the street a few times just to make sure it was good and crossed from different angles (also because we were maybe lost).
It was early enough that the so-called busiest intersection in the world wasn’t particularly crazy. Later, we had coffee at a cute spot with a sweet barista called Perch.
After some Daikanyama shopping where we began to realize that Dan is bigger than a men’s large here and my feet are giant-sized, we were quite hungry.
For our first proper meal: Fukoho Gyoza. The dumplings were thin and crispy, the ambience was quiet and non-touristy. We entered with one Japanese man right when the place opened at 11:30. A number of others joined shortly after. This marks the beginning of Dan and my obsession with cucumber and miso dip.
Some things learned from this eating: Cash, or even card really, is placed on a silver tray for payment. Also, it’s not unusual to hear the staff thank you several times for merely existing, ordering, eating and paying. Instead of dry napkins, Japanese restaurants often supply wet napkins wrapped in plastic. (In fact, Tokyo seems to use a lot of plastic which is an issue they’re apparently trying to cut down on with water bottle refill programs and our hotel’s shareable totes.)
Before arriving in Tokyo, Dan surveyed friends for food recommendations, I got tips from podcasts and I also read the book “Rice Noodle Fish.” This extensive research led me to suggesting the yakitori (fried protein on a stick) restaurant called Toriyoshi.
We got to what we thought was that place, and a nice Japanese man ushered us to the place next door. That looked similar but was empty. We shrugged. But also it was 5pm. So we sat down there and started ordering meats quietly so we weren’t being the annoying Americans we read about being dismissed from dining establishments.
The place filled up pretty quickly with Japanese people (yay, that meant we weren’t ostracized to the tourist table!) with a booth of men in fancy suits, middle-aged women sipping wine, a Japanese dude and his tall foreign friends, and a woman and two men who sat next to us. We saw them order something that appeared to be chicken with a cherry tomato. They encouraged us to order the same thing. We obliged (and also ordered many other meats and gingko beans that tasted like popcorn).
We were urged to taste the red ball and chickeny meat in one bite, which was a yolky flavor bomb of grilled goodness.
So what did we eat? The Japanese trio were struggling to translate. “What’s the word for where a woman has a baby.”
I looked it up later. We ate chicken fallopian tube and ovary. And it was oishi, as they say. Tasty.
The chef who served it to us took the art of frying gobs of meat to a high level, with a folded polka dot bandanna above his brow and a fan in his hand. The grilling looked precise: He needed the perfect amount of cooking time, best food placement on the grill, correct fanning amount. It looked delicate. It was delicious, smoky, cooked perfectly.
Some more sake and chicken thighs later, and the three Japanese people next to us were speaking pretty good English and telling us to give them a call when we’re in Kyoto so we could come see their condo. The woman, Joon-Ko (Spelling?) said I looked just like Pen-El-O-Pee.
It took Dan and me a while to figure out that she was comparing me to Penelope Cruz. So that’s when we became best friends.
Later I would find out that I misspelled the name of the yakitori place I meant to search in Google, and we actually went to a different place entirely from the one I had read about.