PART 1: TOKYO
12:41pm – Takeoff ✈️
14 hours later we landed in Tokyo. The flight was long but bearable. Read, slept, ate, watched movies, slept some more. We arrive at Narita airport, 75km outside of the city. 1.5hr ride on an express train, followed by a transfer to the subway. The transit system is so neat and orderly with passengers silently waiting in single file lines to board, something you would never see in DC let alone NYC. After a little confusion and undoubtedly offending some type of cultural norms, we made it to our stop, Jiyugaoka. From here it’s just a short walk to the Airbnb. Really nice area, quiet and suburban, but not like American suburbs. Very compact with small houses and narrow streets (it’s been called the “little Europe” of Tokyo).
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.
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.
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.
Despite his strict rules and shouted instructions, the chef is incredibly warm and friendly. He tells us he’s been making sushi for 35 years, the same length of time he’s been married to his wife (who stands behind the counter with him). He wants the food to be experienced in the way it was intended, and the results are hard to argue with. Best sushi ever. Food: 10/10. Experience: 10/10.
Full and a little buzzed, we walk back through Shibuya towards Harajuku, the fashion center of Tokyo the world. We make our way through block after block of shops – a mix of big international brands we recognize and Japanese designers or local boutiques (we prefer the latter). Very cool. Many stores and two coffeeshops later (a local Hawaiian-themed cafe to refuel, followed by a 6th floor rooftop Starbucks to get out of the rain) we’re ready for dinner at another one of Catherine’s recommendations. She’s warned us that we won’t be able to sit together. We're intrigued.
The restaurant, whose Brooklyn spinoff has been featured on Buzzfeed, boasts an experience with absolutely no human interaction required. Right outside the entrance is a vending machine where we place our orders, pay, and get printed receipts/order sheets which we’ll use later. We are directed to two bar stools at a counter with wooden dividers between them (see photo). At least we’re next to each out. We slip our orders to the kitchen through a small opening directly in front of us, not big enough to see what’s happening on the other side. A few minutes later, bowls of ramen are delivered through the same opening, and it’s promptly closed by lowering another wooden panel. Dinner is served!
We begin to enjoy our meals in silence, but want to share the experience. On the counter there are blank paper forms for ordering extra items, which we repurpose for passing notes to each other, slipped through a small crack under the divider. Food: 7/10. Experience: 8/10.
We head to Ebisu and end the night at a tiny cocktail bar hidden in an alley. It's easy to miss - in fact, we did How did we find it? I’ll give you one guess (thanks Catherine). The bar is easy to miss - in fact, we walked by it twice before finally noticing it. Drinks are $15 each and it’s full of Europeans and Americans. Great if you want to feel like you never left home. Not so great if you want to experience the local culture (though expats have a culture of their own which is interesting to observe).
Second day in Tokyo
We get up and head to the station, enjoying some pastries and coffee at a French bakery and looking for a copy of the New York Times (Brian has an article on the front page, his first in the Sunday paper) – no luck. Even Catherine couldn’t find it so you know it was really unavailable. In the process we check out a Japanese grocery store which is very cool, lots of freshly prepared food items to go. Back on the subway (this time with paid fare cards), we head to Ueno on the north side of Tokyo.
The market is similar to others we’ve seen around the world. Lots of colorful stands where vendors sell clothes, bags, souvenirs, and knick knacks, along with delicious smelling food stalls. Outside a small outdoor restaurant, a cook assembling a huge batch of dumplings catches our eyes, so we stop in for lunch. We order the dumpling (or so we think) and beers. When the food arrives it’s not at all what we expected: a big bowl of soup with noodles, veggies, and a couple dumplings at the bottom. Delicious though it is, we’re still hung up on the dumplings, and a nearby table has them and they look great. So we order them too, pointing at the neighboring table. A great decision. Fellow travelers, always order the dumplings.
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 two
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.
Tomok begged her parents for months to let her live on her own and start a business. Eventually they agreed, renting a small house for her and paying to have the first floor converted into a professional kitchen with industrial appliances. On the second floor was her residence, along with a second bedroom which she rented out through Airbnb to make ends meet. She also found work as a tour guide for French travelers, using the language skills she gained in Marseille, and eventually got some catering jobs as well, making use of her new kitchen. After a bad experience with an Airbnb guest who left a huge mess, she decided to stop renting her second room, but this was around the time Airbnb launched the Experiences program, allowing local guides to advertise to tourists through the site. She signed up and soon the business took off (enter: us).
While we’ve been focused on the conversation (and learning some new techniques), Tomok has been hard at work and finally, the meal is ready. The verdict? Not great. While beautifully presented, the tastes are not at all to our liking. Perhaps Tomok has experimented too much with the menu, taking artistic liberties in pursuit of her unique culinary identity. In place of fresh fish used a whole soft shell crab (fried and heavy on the shell, not so much the crab), lettuce, and vegetables. In place of seaweed, thinly sliced beef. While we respect the creativity, it doesn’t work for us. Food: 5/10. Experience: 10/10 Thankfully this doesn’t take away from the experience too much. We stay long past the end of our scheduled time, sipping tea and talk about our impressions of Japan and her’s of America. Overall a great evening. We walk back to the subway and call it a night.
Last day in Tokyo
It’s our last day in Tokyo and we only have a few hours before we have to make our way to the airport. We decide to spend it exploring Jiyugaoka a little more. On previous mornings we always walked towards the subway station, past cafes, shops, and offices. Today we head in the opposition direction and see a different, quieter side of the neighborhood.
Our moment of zen
First stop and the last of Catherine’s recommendations: a Japanese teahouse. She tells us that this particular one offers the experience of a traditional tea ceremony with a modern twist. As we approach the spot (a corner house on a residential street), right away it stands out. The building and grounds are beautiful, incorporating elements of ancient and modern styles. We’re seated at big wooden table overlooking the gardens. We’re the only people there so there’s noone to look to for guidance. We’re presented with a box of at least 18 different teas, all loose leaf, and asked to choose three each. As we wait, listening to the sounds of the tea being slowly roasted behind us, we find ourselves looking out through the large window right in front of us with a garden so serene it felt like we were in a Monet painting. Then our host brings out the “first course,” a tea with a small dessert as beautiful as it was delicious. Unsure if there is any correct protocol, we go in for the first sip: perfection. From there, we’re transported through two more teas and small desserts that rather than being sweetened by sugar gained their flavor from figs, nuts, sweet potatoes and black beans. Somewhere between the soothing tea, near complete silence, and beautiful setting, we find inner peace, if only for a few minutes.
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/