Our host Catherine greets us and we freshen up. She’s American (from NYC) and has lived in Tokyo for 4 years working in advertising (“I’m not Pete Campbell, but I do his job”). We’re starving. Catherine recommends a nearby restaurant and we’re off. 5 minutes later we’re lost, call Catherine for help and she’s kind enough to meet us and show us the way. She explains that some streets in Tokyo don’t have names, especially smaller ones, which makes it hard to navigate. She orders some of her favorites dishes for us and heads out. We’re seated at a table with a small grill in the middle and wait in anticipation with no idea what’s coming. Soon the staff brings plates of raw meat and veggies and lights the flame under our grill. An older Japanese woman (who Catherine described as her pseudo grandma) takes us under her wing – lots of pointing and demonstrating how to cook the meat, telling us when it’s been on too long, etc. Everything is delicious. We wash it down with a local beer. Perfection. Back to the apartment to sleep.
11/18/17 First Day in Tokyo
We wake up early (thanks jetlag) and get ready. The shower is a new experience – a small room of its own that’s completely waterproof. We walk towards the subway station and attempt to get some coffee along the way, only to discover that most places don’t take credit cards and we’re almost out of cash (yen). We learn this the hard way, ordering breakfast at a cafe only to leave in shame with many apologies when we realize we can’t pay. Still hungry, we try an ATM – doesn’t work. We try a bank but it’s Saturday and the currency exchange counter is closed (but they have an open branch at Shibuya, where we’re planning to go next). We realize we have enough yen to buy two small pastries and do so. Much better. Then on to the subway – again no money to pay for tickets but we board anyway with more apologies.
Shibuya – busy downtown center. We finally exchange USD for yen (after a few more unsuccessful attempts), get some iced tea, and walk around. Although crowded with cars and people, it’s very quiet. There are no conversations on the sidewalk, car horns, music playing, or unnecessary noise of any kind.
Sushi, sushi, sushi…
Catherine has made us a reservation at a sushi counter in the area open by appointment only. Marked by a small sign leading downstairs to a basement, we enter hesitantly and are at first turned away. We explain that we’re visiting and have a reservation and are immediately greeted as “Catherine’s friends” and seated at the bar. The whole place has about 8 seats and another couple sits next to us. Plates are set in front of us along with ice cold glasses of sake. The chef takes out slabs of fish fresh from the market that morning. He tells us that he goes every morning and picks it out himself (he doesn’t even serve dinner because the morning fish isn’t fresh enough). He slices the fish, adds rice and a little wasabi, and places pieces on each person’s plate as he makes them, telling us to eat “quickly, quickly!” and alternate between sushi and sake (“sushi, sake! sushi, sake!”). When one piece is too big I try to bite it in half, which he immediately objects to (“one bite! one bite!”). The chef’s wife explains that lunch in Japan, especially sushi lunch, is typically a short meal last no more than 15 minutes – perhaps to allow people to get back to work.
Once again full and (this time more than) a little buzzed, we stumble back through the market. Our destination is Ueno Onshi park which we’re told is the Central Park of Tokyo, complete with a zoo, museums, walking paths, and an ancient shrine which we take in. It doesn’t disappoint, and we spend a few hours just looking around.
Inspired by a notebook David had, one of Brian’s business cards that Asya found in her wallet (and probably the beers we had just consumed), we decided to do our own Tokyo version of Humans of New York. Extremely out of character, Asya chickens out and we decide to postpone this for another time. While we didn’t end up interviewing anyone, we did observe interesting characters, fashions, and interactions of the diverse crowd.
By this time it’s getting dark and we have a sushi-making class starting in two hours (scheduled through Airbnb Experiences). The class is in Nippori, a 30 minute walk away, so we decide to explore on foot. Once we leave the park the area is very residential. We don’t see any other foreigners or many open businesses, but wander the small streets and alleys in search of coffee, going in the general direction of Nippori. We stumble upon a tiny Italian restaurant advertising pizza and wine and sit near the kitchen. The menu is all in Japanese with no pictures. A young woman, one of two other customers in the restaurant, sees us struggling and leans over to help, translating for us. She is a consultant who does business in the US and coincidentally used to live in DC so we spark up a conversation. As a neighbor of the spot, she was impressed that we found this restaurant. We order espresso, a small snack of pate, and wine (why not). We ask the chef & owner where he learned Italian cooking and if he’s spent time in Italy. He hasn’t, but says that Italian and French cuisines are quite popular in Tokyo and he worked at a big Italian restaurant downtown for several years before opening his own.
Sushi take 2
On to our next experience – we walk the rest of the way to Nippori, stopping at a couple shops, and meet our local instructor/guide Tomok at the subway station. She’s surprised to see us walk into the station, as most of her guests arrive directly by subway. Tomok takes us on a tour of the local neighborhood, retracing our steps a little, but this time she points out interesting and historical things that we didn’t notice. She grew up here but lived abroad for a few years before moving back. We make our way to her kitchen and home.
We learn more about Tomok’s story as she pours tea and prepares the ingredients, with (minimal) help from us. She says that the traditional Japanese life is not for her, much to the dismay of her parents. Fine for her sister, who is happily married and has never left Tokyo, but somehow not enough for Tomok. She worked for years to learn her craft, studying and working at sushi restaurants across Tokyo. She tells us about the long days, inflexible schedule, and (worst of all) lack of creativity in this work. After doing this for 7 years she was burnt out. She also didn’t climb the ladder while others with the same skills did, which she attributes to being a woman in a male-dominated profession. All of this drove her to France, where she tried to make it as a chef in Marseilles.
She found lots of opportunities in France, where sushi is popular. She loved some aspects of life there, but ultimately missed home. She says that the dangers of living in Europe (especially terrorist attacks and violence crime, both of which are unheard of in Japan) are what made her return home. But she couldn’t go back to working in someone else’s restaurant.
We learn from Catherine that while the primary focus of the tea house is morning and daytime visitors, there are special “invite only” dinners that you can join if you get to know the shop owner. We actually learn that there are many spots like this throughout Japan which reward loyalty and strong relationships. The sushi counter where we had lunch is another example of this. We hope to come back one day for dinner. After a quick lunch of cold soba noodles and stopping at some local shops for gifts, we head home to pack and catch the train back to Narita airport for our journey to Thailand.
Airbnb Listing: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/3326920
Yajima Sushi: No website. Reservations can be made by calling +81-3-3499-6019.
Ichiran Ramen: https://en.ichiran.com
Bar Trench: http://small-axe.net/bar-trench
Tomok’s experience: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/109185
Yakumo Saryo Teahouse: http://yakumosaryo.jp/e/