Saturday, December 12, 2009

5 hours in Shibuya, a foreigner's account

Last night was one of my most fun nights ever. I’ve been writing lists of things I’ve been doing each day in Tokyo, but Yesterday is worth a thorough narrative. It took place in Shibuya, a neighborhood in downtown Tokyo. (warning--this is a long!)

It started at Ichiran Ramen around 7pm. I had read about this ramen place on this website and it seemed so bizarre that I wanted to experience it for myself. So J and I took the bus from Waseda, changed to the above-ground train at Takadano"baba" Station. There on the train platform we had an elevated view of a neon-lit boulevard, I wanted to get a picture, but by the time I reached for my camera the train had arrived. On and off 4 stops later, exited at Hachiko Exit. Amazing! (see pic) I read this is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Unlike most crossings, people from all 4 sides of the street cross simultaneously while traffic is stopped (on all four sides). Since Tokyoites are so civilized (as it seems to me), a massive sea of people was more welcoming than frightening.

After spotting and eating one of my favorite and very hard-to-find chocolate bars (milk chocolate strawberry filling from Germany) we found Ichiran Ramen. It’s a basement place. We went down the narrow stairway to the vending machine. It seems that the payment method at a lot of the cheaper food places in Tokyo is via vending machine (I’m sure this will catch on in the rest of the world soon).

We selected 2 Ramen, inserted the cash and out popped two tickets. The customer has five options for tweaking his/her Ramen to his/her liking, he/she controls the level of oiliness, spicyness, and firmness of the noodle, and pork or not and green onions or not. One's preferences are indicated on a card that can either be printed from their website or picked up at the establishment. After getting our tickets from the vending machine, we entered a small waiting area where there is an illuminated sign indicating which seats are available. Seats 5 and 6 were lit blue, which means available, so we proceeded along the narrow row of seats to numbers 5 and 6. The stool-seats and desk-like tables have dividers between them (reminds me of something I saw on Comedy Central once, “table dividers for dysfunctional families”…), and individual red curtain hung between the back of the desk-table from the kitchen area behind. We individually placed our tickets towards the back of the desk-table and Mystery Waiter slid his hands under the curtain to pick them up.

(After having read that online article, I thought the place would be dauntingly impersonal and cold and that we’d be hurried in and out, like an inhumane assembly line for eating, but people ate slowly, it was surprisingly lively and fun, with the waiters and chefs yelling out at one another, upbeat music playing, and those who came with company were chatting over the dividers.)

Probably about 5 minutes later the disembodied hands slid a large boiling hot bowl of soup onto our desk-tables.

I peeked over the divider to see what J’s looked like--like mine but with more red spicy sauce, a slice of lean pork and green onions. Then we ate, I laughed and took pictures, the whole situation seemed hilarious to me! The soup was good, especially the noodle, I usually don’t like spicyness, but whatever the red spicy paste was that they put in the soup—it was very very tasty and didn’t burn my mouth (though did clear our nostrils a bit). At one point J wanted an egg and some extra rice to add to her leftover broth. She got up and went back to the vending machine to purchase them, but Mystery Waiter assumed she had finished and left, so the curtain was lifted and her bowl of broth was swiped away. Since I barely speak the language and the protocol was unfamiliar, I didn’t know what to do. (What lies beyond the curtain?) Over the divider I lifted J’s curtain and with my hands I signaled to the dark vacant space to bring the bowl back, but no one saw me. J came back with her egg and rice tickets to find her table-desk cleared off. I told her what happened, she raised the curtain and caught a waiter, the waiter lowered his head attentively (he did have a face, it was wearing an anti-germ face mask like many Tokyoites do), and J told him that they accidentally took her bowl. He apologized and within a couple seconds someone brought her bowl of leftover broth back, untouched. [. . . ] After we finished we left Ichiran Ramen.

Then we walked a bit down some wide avenues with a lot of neon-lit shops and skyscrapers, the sidewalks and roads were immaculately clean with a couple yellow fall leaves here and there. J knows I like paper/notebooks/pen/stationary stuff, so she led me to a 7-story home-and-office type of Department Store called Loft. We spent a while there, they had a lot of beautiful origami paper and notebook styles I had never seen before and every kind of pen you can imagine. It was 9pm, the store was closing, so we had to leave.

Then we took a turn into what I’d call a sub-neighborhood, which was similarly neon-lit, many clothing, shoe, and music shops, entertainment places (photobooths, peekshow shops for males, arcades…) and bustling with good-humored people (probably ages 15 to 50), but the streets in this sub-neighborhood were narrow, just for pedestrians, overflowing with small places to eat, and the buildings were a bit lower (maybe 3-6 stories). I smelled soups and fried seafood and Teriyaki BBQ. A lot of the men were still in their black work suits (J says they work late and then go out with their coworkers to drink sake). We passed by a place where people were sitting and eating around a circular belt on which different sushi items slowly moved along. We walked through an arcade.

Then J spotted a place “Oh! Do you want custard?” she asked me. I looked, it was a corner place that was making pastries in fish-shaped iron molds. J ordered two, a chocolate pastry with custard filling for me, and a vanilla pastry with sweet black bean filling for her. YUM! Crunchy on the outside, hot and creamy on the inside! J later told me that the place and the pastry are called Taiyaki, and that the sweet bean pastry is a traditional Japanese dessert.

After that J wanted to find a certain coffeeshop called 名曲喫茶ライオン(known in English as Lion, literally "Famous Song and Enjoy the Tea, Lion") that she had found online. It was about a 10 minute walk from where we were. The area, another sub-neighborhood of Shibuya, was a little seedier, J thinks it one of the older parts of Tokyo. It was hard to find the place because Tokyo doesn’t have regular street names, each establishment has 3 numbers (if you’re interested you can read here about the complex system of Japanese addresses). Anyway, she eventually found it. We entered—classical music was BLARRING from darkness! This place was SO gothic and baroque, high ceilings, long chandeliers, everything painted black, or gold, old hand-carved wood, everything covered in natural patina, very low lighting, old chairs covered in maroon velvet tapestry, dark green linoleum floors, old dark wooden tables, small wooden crooked windows, rickety dark wood staircases... I expected an emaciated Edward Scissorhands type waiter to appear out of the darkness, but instead a teenage girl in fluorescent pink Crocs approached us to ask us what we’d like to drink. The music was coming from a wall that looked like an 18th century European stage, each side was cornered by dark-colored spiraling wood column, and connecting the two columns at the top was a triangular dark wood pediment. In between was an enormous set of speakers embedded in an even larger wood frame from which the classical music boomed… there were very few people there, a couple people smoking, and/or reading and/or sipping some beverage (absinthe would have complemented the atmosphere, but no alcoholic beverages were served there), one couple looked like there were sleeping, but they were immersed in the music. In spite of the kitsch gold painted cloverleaf-form arches, the atmosphere was very serious and no picture-taking or loud voices were allowed. We stayed there a little while until it closed at 10:30.

Lastly I didn’t want to leave Shibuya without trying sake so we walked around a bit more and J kept her eyes open for a izakaya (sake place). At one point a teenage boy approached her with a menu, telling her about the restaurant he worked for. In Spain that is a clear sign of a tourist trap, but J says “hai, let’s follow him” and so we followed the boy to the 3rd floor of a building where the restaurant was. It turned out to be a nice informal and inexpensive (Tokyo standards) place called Sai; and it wasn’t a tourist trap, almost everyone there was Japanese.

J ordered some food, much of which I delightfully had never tried before, it all came in miniscule but delectable portions: a piece of teriyaki chicken, a grilled rice ball, 5 gingko nuts, a small bowl of soup, and 4 pieces of grilled asparagus. She ordered sake for herself and plum sake (called umeshu) for me—it was THE BEST alcoholic drink I had ever tried! In fact, it was so tasty that I would have never guessed it had any alcohol in it, but my cheeks turned bright red. J said umeshu is made out of fermented plums.

We needed to catch the last train so we left a little after midnight. Everyone else had the same idea so the train was packed shoulder to shoulder, stomach to back, as packed as humans can possibly be packed. Luckily Tokyoites seem to have good hygiene so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds, and because I was taller than the majority of the others, my air higher up was fresher. Again I found the situation to be humorous, but maybe if I had to ride like that everyday the situation would lose its humor. I thought about how vulnerable the situation was, anyone could easily steal from you or grope your body, and you’d have no idea who it was, I told J about that and she said it’s true, and it does sometimes happen, but that the laws are strict, if someone is merely accused of groping someone else they have to pay a large fine…

That’s a lot of stimuli, learning, and company for 5 hours. Arigato gozaimasu, J, for making it possible!


Paul Boshears said...

awesome! Thanks for writing it out; now I have a twinge of homesickness. Safe travels!

Amanda said...

Wow, what a great experience, and AWESOME food!

Ichigo Tamago said...

Glad you're having a great time!