Ramen, then pancakes, then a 20-course meal
You know how sometimes you wake up early and worry that you’ll never again be able to experience another REM cycle as long as you live because your eyes will not close like you want them to? I felt this several times on Thursday morning.
But, miraculously, I did manage to doze off jet lag and all, and wake up for the umpteenth time, ready for a noodle adventure.
Best ramen I’ve ever had
Finally awake at a time when it’s reasonable to be out of bed, Dan and I headed to so-called “ramen street” in Tokyo Station.
However, there were some things in our way of enjoying noodles and soft eggs dipped in broth: The sky was falling.
I’ve lived in LA for long enough that drizzle is always unexpected; rain is wild. But this was blankets of water drenching the streets of Tokyo. At least we had rain coats and borrowed umbrellas to protect us on our way to the subway.
But then there was another barrier to getting a steaming cup of carbs: So many humans. Even in DC I’ve never seen subway cars as packed as the one Dan and I were in on our way to ramen. Someone’s backpack was in my side and I used other humans (instead of handrails) as protection from falling.
Once in the station where the ramen was, we had yet another obstacle: Train stations are confusing AF. The signs aren’t in English, and even if they were honestly I don’t think they’d help much. And so it took much circling and stairs climbing and almost giving up before we got in line at Rokurinsha. But it was worth the hassle.
We ordered “morning noodles” at a machine, with the help of an employee, then sat down and noticed the Japanese couple next to us were wearing bibs. The woman understood our “Where’d you get that bib?” Gesture and pointed to the counter. Dan misunderstood her direction and walked past the bibs, she and I laughed at his utter cluelessness despite the fact that I also had no idea where she was pointing.
Bibs on, we were ready for noodly goodness, but we weren’t prepared for just THAT much goodness. The broth was meaty, salty, fatty, fishy in a good way. The best way. I think there was green onion, bamboo shoots, that white vegetable with the pink swirl on it that has its own phone emoji but I never know what it is. A radish? The noodles were in a separate bowl ready to be dipped into the broth and slurped (which isn’t rude to do) into our faces. The egg was perfectly soft. We were satisfied.
But wait. Before you end the meal, it’s a pro move to take hot water and pour it into your remaining bowl stuff and slurp down what’s left. Done and done.
Tokyo National Museum
Welcome to the city’s thorough examination of historical art, where bird demons (pronounced day-mins, and a word we will jokingly used for the rest of the day) offer protection.
We saw bowls and screens and paintings from around 3000-2000 BC. We learned about old dudes like Matsydaira Harusato, who were masters in both samurai and tea ceremony— seemingly opposite activities that actually require similar ritual, artistry and elegance. We saw elaborate robes worn by the women in samurai households including with that had a stitched scene from a romantic story (so said the description). That’s when I decided that if I were a samurai lady, I’d have a robe with a story, too. Maybe aquatic scenes inspired by Little Mermaid?
We pretended we could read some ancient calligraphy. We admired statues of protectors of Yakushi, the Buddha of healing and medicine. They looked fierce but also all had animals on their heads.
We looked at women in paintings. Dan said their (feminine and dainty?) hands looked like mine. I took this as a compliment.
After admiring more robes and samurai swords and calligraphy — and toasting the fact that Dan got an email that UCLA wants to interview him! Chin chin! —We went back into the typhoon to get to Harajuku.
Taste the rainbow
Soggy, but filled with joy and culture, we went to the youth fashion capital of Japan. In Harajuku, I had two missions: To buy shoes and to eat pancakes.
The shoe shopping proved difficult as there were so many wild options that it was hard to remember what a not-super-extra sneaker looked like. Shops like Atmos are unafraid of neon colors, loud patterns, squishy soles and cutouts. I tried on some obnoxious platform Filas that I considered buying were they not too small. I ultimately settled on retro-looking Pumas that are white with blue, black and red detailing (which match the fanny packs I brought on this trip, score!). The man who rang me up wrapped the shoebox in plastic to protect it from rain.
Shoes, check. Pancake time! We went to Rainbow Pancake to sample fluffiness from the one of the places know for popularizing the Tokyo pancake trend. Indeed, there was rainbow decor. I ordered macadamia nut pancakes (milky, nutty, sweet, decadent, delish).
So much sushi
I don’t want to say that I regret eating pancakes for lunch before our omikase sushi dinner, but I will say that it’s not something I plan to do in the future.
Dan and I went to Sushi Manten for prefixed fish and beef and miso and egg dinner on Friday night. We knew that the meal would include several rounds of food.
There were about 20 rounds.
I say “about” because I’m pretty sure I lost count after the miso soup with tiny clams began to send me into a food coma.
The courses included:
- The gooiest seaweed salad ever
- Octopus sashimi
- Smoked bonito (littttt)
- Mushrooms that tasked kinda like mac and cheese
- Two kinds of mackeral, but only one that the chef deemed “not too fishy” for Dan, who despises white fish
- Tofu disguised as cold pudding
- Marinated tuna (hell yessss)
- Some vegetable in rice we referred to as “alien sushi” because it looked like a centipede or something
- Salmon roe
- Something that looked like white brains but was either “a kind of intestine” (as the chef said) or sperm (which a Japanese woman later told us). I tried one bite but had to stop for fear of regurgitation. Dan ate several bites of the creamy stuff after a petite Japanese woman goaded him on and finished her platter.
- Grilled toro (yumkins)
- Fish liver (tastes like chicken liver)
- Uni aka sea urchin aka orange “ocean butter” as Dan likes to call it.
- A cube of egg that tasted like kugel
- Giant ass grapes
I was embarrassed because I left some scraps on my plate. So I tried to kinda hide the food so as not to disrespect the very young and hip chef who wore a headband— as opposed to a chef’s hat— so high on his head that it actually wasn’t a sweat catcher and more of a fashion accessory.
When the meal was over I said something I had practiced saying a lot in my head: “gochiso sama deshita,” which means something like “it was quite a feast, thank you.” He bowed, we bowed, he bowed, we rolled ourselves out.
Some fancy ice
Still miraculously awake and alive, Dan and I went to the David Chang-recommenced classy drink spot Bar High 5. Fortunately, we ran into two people going to the same place (we know because we overheard them) and so when they took a hidden elevator, we did, too.
We were seated at the intimate, smoky (you can smoke in designated areas in Tokyo) bar and a slender Japanese men who spoke English with a slight Aussie accent became our drink doctor. He needed the answers to certain questions in order to prescribe the perfect drink. My answers to his questions (which I didn’t write down because there were rules about picture taking and phone use): tequila, refreshing, complicated, aromatic. The medicine for me: Plum Beauty, a sublime cocktail with sake, soda, tequila, cinnamon liqueur and lemon. My beautiful beverage was perfectly chilled, thanks to the bartender’s meticulous attention to the shape of ice used. He picked out the perfect cubes— sometimes grasping one and putting it back when it didn’t seem right— to fit into a separate glass. Then he’d take a long spoon and spin the ice, creating an icy twister that would shrink the cubes and apparently make them the perfect temperature and shape for my drink. Dan got two drinks with Japanese whisky including what is likely the best Old Fashioned of his life.
When there was no fighting the jet lag-induced wave of exhaustion, we rolled back to the hotel.
Things I learned
Some tidbits from a couple days of being a tourist:
- When you arrive at a restaurant, very politely say/gesture how many people you are and then close the door and wait outside.
- Many toilets have an option to sound a FAKE FLUSH while you go. Sometimes this button translates into “privacy” or “sound.” There are also often toilet seat wipes that are available to use.
- Every thing that ever existed in Tokyo had a mascot. The train station has a penguin who announces rules. Even the fish market has an animal— but it’s more like a bear because if it were a sea creature that would be morbid with all of his friends dead. Restaurants and vending machines feature cute cartoon creatures of some sort.