Japan-tastic

As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart  convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn. 

Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)

Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.

Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.  

Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.  

There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.

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Japan by mouth

There’s a popular documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” As I plan a trip to Japan, I also dream of sushi. And ramen. And Sapporo. And yakitori. And sake. And squid. And Godzilla. 

If Jiro, a wispy 90-ish sushi master, merely dreams of sushi, I fully rhapsodize about sushi. (OK, I exaggerate. I only think about sushi, mm, twice a week. But it excites in ways other foods do not: Its silken, room-temperature raw-dacity; glistening, quivering slipperiness; palate-dancing umami-ness. Does that make me a sushi master? I think it does.) 

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Sushi swirls around the dreaming Jiro’s head. He dreams of sushi. He swims in it. He wonders: Why so much sushi? He dreams of retirement.

What I’m saying is I will ingest gobs and globs of raw fish during my 12-day fall journey, to the point of possibly getting mercury poisoning, which would be one hell of a souvenir. Sushi, that artisanal seafood delicacy, isn’t cheap, one reason why I eat it sparingly. Another reason is that where I live fine sushi is as rare as Rodan sightings. And mediocre sushi, like a half-ass steak, makes one ponder existence darkly. 

Therein lies the miraculous ingenuity of Japan’s conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-sushi) — not amazing, not bad, but invariably cheap and gratifying seafood that winds through the restaurant on exactly that, a conveyor belt, like an assembly-line of deliciousness. Its brilliant utility blots out its majestic absurdity.

Round and round the little plates go, each saucer’s cargo a slab of prepared-before-your-eyes nigiri, circling a seeming mile on a tiny conveyor belt, waiting for you to snatch it at your desire as it rattles by. Each plate or piece costs about a buck-fifty or less, so a meal, for me at least, ranges a not-bad $10-$15.

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Conveyor-belt sushi, like a buzzing food factory.

But why not try Jiro’s sushi shrine, the tiny 10-seat Sushi Jiro, a Michelin three-star establishment/closet located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station? For one, it’s $300-plus a meal, no exceptions. Two, it is nigh to impossible to net a reservation, though I did spot the so-called Jiro Dreams of Sushi Jiro Dinner & Luxury Tour at a fee of $1,500 per head. This one’s for Jiro cultists/completists and FOMOs only. Plus, men have to wear a blue or white shirt and a blazer and we know that’s not going to happen.

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Edo-style sushi

So I’ll go back to school. Namely Sushi University, a two-hour tutorial pig-out in which you learn while you nosh at a fine Tokyo sushi restaurant. The pitch:

“How would you like to sit at an authentic, Edo-style sushi counter, enjoying sophisticated conversation with the chef? Each excursion includes a skilled interpreter who joins you from start to finish, allowing you to experience the culture and history of sushi as well as learn about the chef’s specialties and style of the restaurant.”

(Smoking and the wearing of perfume are forbidden lest they corrupt the delicate fishy.)

If I’m not a sushi master by now — though I think we’ve established that indeed I am — then surely I will be one after graduating Sushi University. Hai!

On my two prior trips to Japan I was gastronomically rudderless, lost, quite pathetic. I just ambled about, making impromptu eating choices based on whatever looked yummy and inviting in the neon-soaked Shibuya and Shinjuku areas where I stayed. I’d duck into an inevitably minuscule and packed yakitori place or busy conveyor-belt sushi joint, or simply grab some street food. (I ate whale. So sue me.)  I must say, I did eat fine.

Structure is the operative word this time. And learning (see: Sushi University) is part of it. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve enrolled in, aka Signature Sake-Tasting Course, a 10-plus glass sake tasting including sake snacks (or tsunami) and a lecture in English. It’s conducted at one of the most famous members-only sake houses (izakayas) in Tokyo, or so they say. (It could be a bar owned by the instructor’s cousin Rocco.) I don’t even like sake. But I am going for liquid enlightenment, to open my buds and brain. By course end, I will be a sucker for sake, otherwise I will upend the table and demand a refund. And then I’ll probably get roughed up and tossed to the curb.

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My Tokyo hotel is smack in the thwumping heart of kinetic, cornea-cooking Shinjuku, famous for its oceanic bar scene, insomniac nightlife and seedy red-light district — and for sucking up half the world’s electricity in hyperactive signage. I want to dig in with a little help from my friends, so I’m taking the Tokyo Bar Hopping Tour in Shinjuku — Explore the Hidden Bars in Food Alleys. I beg it’s as bulging as that unwieldy title, as our small group weaves through itty six-seat pubs and sake houses of the Golden Gai for food and drink and, I hope, staggering wisdom. Keep your tawdry Love Hotels. I’m not playing around. I’m here for elucidation and libation. Now where in hell do I get a stiff whisky? 

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Shinjuku — batshit.

Capping my Tokyo culinary explorations is an obligatory trip to the famed Tsukiji Fish Market for an early morning, 3.5-hour “food and culture” walking tour at the outer part of the massive market. Here’s some copy that’s as canned as Chicken of the Sea:

Rub shoulders with Michelin-starred chefs as they shop for ingredients at this sprawling, 80-year-old market for all things aquatic. Investigate the various stalls selling fish, shellfish, and everything in between, and sample Japanese favorites such as sushi, dried bonito, fresh oysters, and sake. Eat and drink like a Japanese local.”

Exactly. I want to eat and drink like a local, not a western bobble-head boob. That’s the point of this Edo-education and sake schooling — to figure how it’s done and cultivate an experience of maximum authenticity. I’m more about learning the history and culture than the language, though I do know three words in Japanese. Maybe four. No. Three.

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Tsukiji Fish Market. Looks disgusting. Tastes great.

At this point, I’ll be full up to the gills in raw fish, sake and sundry seafoods. I will have relished a moveable feast, an embarrassment of fishes. I will have been transported, spirited away. Jiro, that old master chef, will have nothing on me. I will have dreamed of sushi, and worlds more. I will at last be sated, and ready to start all over again. After you …