8.26.2008

The Difficulty of Discovery

The second thing that struck me about Tokyo is how familiar everything could be if I didn't make a conscious effort to seek out the different. Sure, the signs are all in Japanese and people drive on the wrong side of the road, but the golden arches are the same wherever you go.

The beer comes in a can decorated with a badass dragon, but it all kind of tastes like Corona. The train that took me from Narita to Shinjuku was sleek and furnished in shiny black and lipstick red but, despite the decadent 1980s feel, it still worked the same way BART does.

I love it when I finally get past what just looks different to what really is. It usually takes a leap of faith and some cojones, but the reward has been well worth it so far.

The other day, I had just spent a somewhat listless time in Shibuya. I'd gone just to "check it out," which is never a good start to a trip. You check out a new restaurant's menu or a documentary on Channel 9, not a major neighborhood in a completely foreign land. It was drizzling - not even a real storm, which would have at least been mildly exciting - and I constantly felt like I was walking against the current of foot traffic. I spent most of this time avoiding the dreaded umbrella to the eye. Being taller than everybody else does have its drawbacks.

Finally, I decided to find a bar, preferably a place where I could sit down and enjoy a hot sake. This meant a more traditional establishment. This is always difficult, because this type of place rarely has a sign in English, much less bartenders from Australia. I could tell by the wooden exterior of one spot that maybe I had found my target. I couldn't quite tell, however, because I had to walk down some stairs to get there.

At the bottom of the stairs, I crossed some stepping stones set into a koi stream. On my first step, I almost fell in. I was caught off guard by a clamoring chorus of greetings and enthusiastic shouts from the staff. This is standard at any Japanese establishment, but this place was especially loud. I literally jumped with surprise. I then realized this was an izakaya: a Japanese pub specializing in getting you drunk and feeding you the right stuff to go with it.

They pulled me in and sat me down at a large communal table. I ordered shochu (somehow, in Japanese!) and when the waiter asked me a question, I responded with the one word I heard him say: mizu (water). Turns out, he was asking what I wanted the shochu mixed with (they never drink it straight). This shochu mizu was tasty and surprisingly refreshing.

Next, they brought a tray of small dishes and indicated that I could take one. I chose some small fish, served cold in a tempura batter. It was nothing special, but still good. As I was eating these, they brought me a menu (in English) and an entire cabbage with some sort of mayo-based sauce on the side. How the hell am I supposed to eat this with chopsticks? was my first thought. I saw somebody else with the same in front of him and decided I'd wait and see what he did, but the asshole didn't touch it. Am I supposed to wait for something else? A salad spinner? Some corned beef?

Eventually I just dug in and somehow ate the whole thing with my chopsticks. The older couple across from me seemed interested in what I was doing. I thought maybe it was just because I kept dropping cabbage leaves on my lap and then quickly snatching them up and slyly putting them back on my plate. These people must be admiring my couth, was my conclusion.

Soon enough, I saw others eating their cabbage with their hands.

I ordered pickled bonito guts and deep-fried tofu, both marked especially as dishes to be eaten with sake. The guts were great: salty and incredibly rich, they tasted kind of like liver. But like brined seafood liver. The texture wasn't great and it was difficult eating the goo with the sticks, but I happily finished the little bowl. The tofu was breaded with panko and topped with incredibly thin bonito flakes. It was clear that the flakes had just two seconds ago been thrown on top of the hot tofu: they curled and twisted and collapsed in on themselves. For a moment, I thought there must have been a living thing moving just beneath the surface.

8.25.2008

Compartmental

The first thing that struck me about Tokyo is how different everything looks. I'd heard about the ubiquitous vending machines, but seeing them everywhere - even adjacent to fields and other places that looked powerless - was a shock. There's something about a brightly lit, futuristic-looking machine in front of a field of green that is striking.

Before coming here, I'd heard about the contrast between old and new. That was supposed to be one of Japan's "things." What I couldn't imagine was the effortless, crisp cleanliness of this contrast. Everything seems to be compartmentalized as much as possible, like a bento box.

There's a small shrine near my house. The whole place is so silent and peaceful that a surprised cicada was enough to scare the living bejesus out of me. But, it's flanked on all sides by modern Tokyo: parking lots; vending machines; tiny, absurd cars; a 7-11. What struck me was the impermeable barrier between the two atmospheres. Even though the parking lot was visible from the graveyard, it wasn't intruding on it. Even though the shrine was visible from the 7-11, I didn't stop once to contemplate the torii from the frozen section.

I was at Tokyu Hands yesterday. It's a gigantic department store geared toward "do-it-yourself" enthusiasts. (Thus, the "Hands" part. Get it?) So, it stocks all kinds of things, from toys to lumber. I saw a sign somewhere in English: "A Place for Everything, And Everything in Its Place." They should put that on their flag.

First Foods

My first night in Japan, I didn't really get a chance to eat much except onigiri (rice triangles filled with a selection of fishes and wrapped in nori; see picture at left) from the convenience stores that are everywhere. They're cheap (100 yen), delicious, and everything about them is oh-so Japanese. Not only are the ingredients classic, but they come in an ingenious packaging that one could only expect from Japan. Basically, the dry, crackling nori needs to be kept separate from the moist rice until it's time to eat. The package accomplishes that perfectly: you pull a tab that splits the package on the outside, then pull apart two corners to remove the plastic on the inside. And BAM!, you've got yourself a Japanese sandwich. The really fun part about these is that I can never tell what's going to be inside. I'm lucky if there's a picture, but there almost never is. Often, there will be funky stuff inside involving roe or some sort of stringy, over-salted, indistinguishable meat.

It wasn't until the next day that I was able to take any time to find some great food. In the morning, near my new house, I discovered a French bakery, a very common sight all around Tokyo. All of the bakeries seem to do something unique with their breads. This one had these egg-toast things. The toast was thick, fresh, and delicious; the egg on top was cooked perfectly to just-sticking-together-lava consistency; and there was a sour, lemony cream between the two that tasted familiar but whose name escapes me at the moment. The result was one of the single most delicious things I've ever eaten for breakfast... for 150 yen. The sign below it reads, "eggu tosuto"... whatever that means.

At the same bakery, I found two things that I never expected to see outside of Brazil: pão de queijo and acerola juice. Pão de queijo is a tasty little ball of soft, gooey bread, baked with plenty of cheese mixed in. Biting into one, I felt a little bit of saudade (look it up) for Brazil, but mainly noticed how little cheese was in it. Acerola is the cherry's tropical, exotic cousin (she's off-limits, Cherry): a little sour, it's packed with flavor. I had to take a picture of the acerola juice box; it's another great example of Japanese packaging. There's nothing special about how the package works, but the color and format is really pleasing to the eye. I love the simplicity.

It wasn't until later that day that I was able to sit down to a real meal: ramen. I've loved ramen since Maruchan, and didn't even know that anything except the stove-top stuff existed until relatively recently. This bowl of ramen was just beautiful. I ordered the chashumen, which featured these thin, delicate slices of very fatty pork; it's basically like Japanese bacon. I think you can see my love for this bowl of ramen in how well the picture came out - and the fact that I wasn't able to snap a picture before digging in. The way the pork slices hung over the bowl (they originally circumnavigated the whole thing) was one of the most appetizing things I've ever seen. I was provided with red chili powder to sprinkle on top, which you can see dusting the pork.

The little ramen shop couldn't hold more than ten people, and inside the tiny space was a cacophony of slurping sounds. Slurping is something I still haven't gotten the hang of: I'm always afraid I'm going to somehow inhale my noodles. I would have to go to the doctor, complaining of noodles in the lungs, and I'm sure he'd have some cheesy quip ready for me. ("You really just inhale your food, don't you Noodlebrain?") I gave it a try anyway, and after one successful slurp, was unable to reproduce it. What I didn't slurp ended up in other places, and I was forced to walk much of the day with grease spots speckling my shirt. Seeing as I only paid 700 yen for the best ramen of my life, I was still able to wear a smile along with the broth.

The Beige Capsule

I arrived at Narita Airport around 17:00. If I wanted to get to my new home that night, I would have to reach the housing office by 19:30 - by subway and foot, lugging a gigantic backpack, a surprisingly cumbersome duffel bag, and my trusty man-purse. Needless to say, I did not make it, although I give myself endless credit for trying. It was a valiant effort, but Japanese customs and a confusing map got the best of me.

I headed to Kabukicho - an area in Shinjuku known for it's seedy clubs and less-than-reputable businesses - to find a capsule hotel, my back-up plan. From the Lonely Planet guide: "Smack in the middle of sleazy Kabukicho, Green Plaza Shinjuku offers standard-issue capsules as a last resort." So, this is where I ended up spending my first night: a nondescript beige capsule. Perfect.

Walking around, I'm pretty sure I actually heard somebody offer me some "sucky sucky." I didn't think they said that any more. One man (a pimp, presumably) made the universal sign for a blow job: fist in front of mouth, tongue substituting for cock in cheek. It was the least enticing thing I'd seen in quite a while. Maybe if a good-looking girl were to do it while longingly gazing into my eyes, it would be different. But this man did it with a mechanical, detached movement; it was a hollow gesture meant for hollow eyes.

The capsules are for men only, and include access to a sento (public bath) in the same building. When you check in, you leave your bigger bags in a holding room, and head to the locker room. There, you find your locker (it's the width of about two thick books) which is stocked with your official uniform: short pajama pants and an oddly fitting tunic that ties around the belly, like a robe. Then, it's off to the sento.

The whole place sort of felt like an overnight camp - or maybe a prison. We were all stripped of our possessions at the door, and dressed the same. We all had the same standard-issue clothing, furnishings, and accoutrements to work with. Simply in these similarities, some sort of group harmony was to be found. I woke up at 4am, thirsty. Going to the bathroom, I saw several guys sitting in the lounge area in their identical pajamas, watching a documentary on ducks.

The next morning, I found the garbage looking like this. I guess we weren't all watching the ducks. Maybe this is the beauty of the capsule hotel for the Japanese man: it's a place where one can go to sort of disappear. With so much homogeneous conformity around, it's easy to turn the environment into white noise, and concentrate on - ahem – oneself.