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.