Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sept. 6: Tokyo

The first thing I noticed on the Narita Express in from the airport was the bundles of dried grasses, both in the fields and arranged on drying frames. I wasn’t sure what they were, but it was the first sign that I was somewhere new. (It turned out to be rice, which gets bundled, and the bundles split on the frames. I’m not sure if the grain-heads are still on or not, although there are also fires set in piles of what look like dust later in the process).

Not that I needed a whole lot of reminding. If the confusion trying to exchange my voucher for a rail pass and the subsequent buying and using of a telephone card wasn’t enough, there were other sights -- pagodas, a monorail in Chiba, the Right-On sporting goods store -- to hint at it.

Carl was there at Shinjuku station, and we left my luggage at the hotel, a respectable and inexpensive business hotel called the Shinjuku Park, and I suggested we start walking around, because otherwise the jet-lag was going to kill me.

Carl, me, and some poor guy advertising something at Shinjuku Station

So we started down the street -- one of the few, he said, in Tokyo with an actual name, Meiji-doro -- and soon hit the entrance to a shrine. Walking in, we came upon a nice pond with koi swimming in it and some turtles sunning themselves on the rocks. Carl clapped his hands, the koi came gathering to be fed, and eventually figured out that it wasn’t gonna happen. He thought we were in a section of the Meiji Shrine, but as it turned out it was a much smaller one with a four-story building that was evidently used for weddings and receptions, the first of the elaborate wedding facilities I would see. I caught the sight of an ornate red-and-gold building that was probably a temple, but there was no way to get at it. Eventually we drifted back into the street.

Next stop was a giant complex of shops all aimed at teenagers, who were there in abundance, mostly girls, buying clothes. There’s an art museum on the top of it, but it was closed for a Sony product introduction for some sort of robot toy, so we soldiered on. The idea was to arrive at this famous ramen joint he knew, but it was too early, so we wandered here and there, eventually winding up at Takeshita-dori, a long, narrow, Carnaby Street-like lane filled with boutiques and coffee shops, another teen mecca. At the end of it was Yoyogi Station, and, beyond that, the actual Meiji Shrine. It was hot, and cicadas were singing as we walked up a long wide path towards the shrine, stopping just short of the entrance to do a ritual purification from a stand with water and scoops. You wash your hands and then take a sip (the water didn’t taste too good to me, but this may have been my debilitated condition). The shrine itself was huge, entered through a torii made from a 1500-year-old cedar from Taiwan (there being, I’m sure, no tree of that age left in Japan) that a patron had bought in 1958. At the shrine we saw some people doing something incomprehensible, dressed in white and walking up and down some stairs.

I wasn’t getting much out of this -- time to go back and consult the book on Shinto symbolism and so on -- so we exited down another long path and found ourselves back in the maelstrom of the city. We soon got to the ramen place, Jangara , and although I wasn’t as hungry as I could have been, it looked too good to pass up. You order from a little old lady sitting in a booth, and she hands you tokens in various shapes and colors, which denote the ingredients you’ve ordered. When they call you to sit at the counter you hand over your chips and in seconds a huge bowl of ramen with fatty pork, cod roe, a whole hard-boiled egg (a chopstick challenge), and much more appears. We’d ordered supplementary deep-fried garlic, but, as Carl noted, “the flavor of this stuff is so baroque you hardly need to add anything to it.” Elvis was singing on the soundtrack, and it was oddly quiet as people slurped their noodles. I immortalized it by buying a ¥480 keychain which depicted the bowl in miniature with, I think, the name of the place on the side.

This, expectedly, brought on the jet-lag, and after a bit of getting lost -- something I think you have to factor in for Tokyo -- we got back to the hotel, and I slept for three hours.

Carl had made dinner plans with a woman named Mari, who, he said, was a friend of Ornette Coleman’s, and she was offering a choice between a Chinese place and a sashimi place. On my urging -- hell, I didn’t want to eat Chinese food, no matter how good, on my first day in Japan! -- we went for the latter. It turned out to be on the third floor of a tall building in Shinjuku, overlooking the street and a building across the street with a company called NO Loans, a great name.

After protracted discussion with the proprietress on the part of Carl and Mari, a course of action was set. First came a large bottle of Kirin’s fall beer, a crisp, hoppy brew, which we enjoyed while we waited for what came next. I immediately came to grief with ettiquette, since I didn’t know it was polite to raise your glass while your neighbor filled it. The next point of decision was sake, since this place advertised regional sakes. A draft and a bottled one were brought, both with a lovely anise-like start, but then going different ways as to sweetness and finish, the bottled one being less sweet and with a stronger finish. This was the one we chose. Then came the parade. The woman came back with a wooden tub, in the bottom of which was a small, ugly, triangular fish, not looking too happy. It had huge raised spines on its back, and I recognized it from aquariums, although I thought it was called a sea robin and it was, in fact, a lion fish. The spines were deadly, and this place (which also served fugu) was licensed to sell and prepare it. We would have it as sashimi, including its skin and liver (which was exquisite, very foie-gras like), as tempura (six small morsels) and with its head cooked in miso soup. We also had other sashimi, a mix of octopus, abalone (again including the liver), and a fish called hatta, which none of us could identify. There was a course of a red fish, grilled exquisitely, some vegetable sushi (including rounds of eggplant with sweet miso), a savory custard with fish baked into it which the woman decided wasn’t up to their standards, and, thus, didn’t charge us for, and, finally, some simple udon noodles with a dipping sauce. The whole thing came to a whopping ¥18,000 each. It was worth it.


Needless to say between the quantity of food and the sake, we were pretty gone, having gotten there around 8 and stayed to after 11, so we wandered around Shinjuku’s seamy streets being accosted by sex-show guys and “drink bar” guys -- many of them black Americans (or so I thought, but Carl seems to think they’re from Ghana) -- in search of a place where Mari could get a coffee. Things, however, tend to close at 11, so we had to settle for a weird upscale bar called éf. Before we got there, however, Carl spotted an amusement center with a taiko drum machine. He put his dough in and got to pound his way through two saccharine folk songs, accompanied by bizarre animations including what appeared to be a bunch of penises doing somersaults. This was the second-weirdest apparition of the evening, the first having been a huge video screen at Shinjuku Station on which digitized chihuahuas in various pastel colors wearing tutus and standing on their hind legs were put through choreography by a white one, also with a pastel tutu, and a halo. Kawaii: terminal cuteness, courtesy of Tower Records.

Mari found a taxi right outside the bar, we headed back to the hotel, and it was crashola.

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