Day 28: Rika

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Rika works in an office by day but in real life, she’s an artist.

I met her when I stumbled into a little square-roomed gallery in a little annex attached to Omotesando Hills, a shopping complex swarming with Louboutin-heeled women in their forties trouncing from store to store in their Burberry trenchcoats and Hermes scarves with labels turned nonchalantly (but conspicuously) outward. I’d just nearly gotten run over by one such fine specimen in a rush to exit the elevator we’d shared; with just a flick of her hand (not even a glance backward) she tossed a “sumimasen” into the air behind her, directed at me, I think.

Welcome back to Tokyo, I thought to myself, and wandered out onto the street when I spotted a little sign for a gallery. I climbed the stairs, where a perfectly-coiffed bright-smiling girl in a navy and white polka-dot dress, white and navy polka-dot shoes, and (she later showed me) navy and white polka-dot earrings popped her head around the corner. Her perfect coif didn’t move one millimetre. Neither did her smile.

Hallo, she said, konnichiwa! I answered. The room was filled with flowers of some form or other, it was her first exhibition in Tokyo, she said.

She’s from Osaka, went to university in Kyoto, did a lot of drawing and painting and had exhibited work down that way before but hadn’t done much art since moving to Tokyo; all her paint had dried up, she said, and when she decided to start painting again she had to go out and buy a new set of paints.

When I had finished looking at the art on the walls – bubblegum-hued, themed of life and death and lies and truth – she sat me down at a little desk and showed me a portfolio of sorts, full of cutesy drawings and paintings of ice cream flavours as feelings. Mint-chocolate as loneliness, for example.

I stopped on one picture, a painting of a head with a map where the brain should be. She must’ve noticed me staring at the map for ages, because she stopped and told me, back when she was in high school, before everyone used Google maps, she used to study maps all the time, try to figure out where things were, commit them to memory. Maps, and train schedules, she said. So etched in her head were roads and train tracks, stations and buildings, colours and lines and directions. What about this map, is it anywhere in particular, I asked. No, nowhere really.

Someone else said, it must take a really extraordinary kind of person to be able to translate what’s in your mind to this kind of picture. But I’m an ordinary person, said Rika. I mean, I get drunk and complain about people just like everyone else!

I liked her, a lot. She asked for my details. I asked for this photo. I wished her luck, we parted ways.

Day 5: Udon at Taniya

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Last night I was physically and mentally exhausted from five days’ worth of slapping my feet against the pavements in Tokyo and although there are still about a thousand ramen shops on my list they were all kind of far away, I was getting that tight-throated feeling that’s so often a precursor to a cold, and I just wanted udon.

Udon, udon. I don’t know why it doesn’t get me worked up in the way ramen does. Maybe it’s because it seems pretty standard, straightforward, plain. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, whereas ramen is full of variations, full of surprises. But there’s something about udon that’s pure comfort that you don’t get with loud, brash, in-your-face flavour-packed ramen. Udon is quiet, but self-assured, subtle yet sturdy. So last night I didn’t feel like ramen at all. Udon was the answer.

I went to this udon shop called Taniya in the Ningyocho neighbourhood just a couple subway stops from the place where I’m staying. It’s run by this guy (Tani) who’s the same age as me but has devoted his whole career so far to making udon by hand (you can tell; he’s got the arms for it). I’d heard it was pretty good, that they make their noodles from scratch, they’re freshly made, freshly cut, cooked to order, and really good.

I ordered the iwashi-ten bukkake udon; instead of the noodles being served in a big bowl of soup they come with a hot pour-over soup that’s a bit more concentrated in flavour. The noodles were neatly laid out, folded over one another, almost as if they’d been gently laid to rest. On the side there was a little dish of negi and freshly grated ginger, plus the sardine (iwashi) tempura I’d ordered.

It was the best thing I could’ve had at that point in time: the noodles fresh, thick, chewy but with a firm bite, slippery, perfect. The soup – made fresh daily from dried fish and kelp, no preservatives or flavour enhancers – was deeply, but not intensely, flavoured. The tempura – a butterflied sardine, plus what I think was shishito – was almost effervescent in its crispness. Everything tasted as udon should – no surprises – but nothing was off, it was how udon would taste in a dream.

It occurred to me that although udon is ubiquitous (even in Japanese restaurants in Wellington!), good udon like this is hard to find.

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Day 4: Makio and Mineo

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Am I cheating at this thing if the strangers I’m writing about are: (a) a captive audience – in the sense that I’ve cornered them at their place of work and they’ve got no choice but to talk to me – and (b) no longer strangers to me at all, after snippets of conversation over a three hour period?

I hope not, because I really want to write about Makio and Mineo, and because my other plan – to chat up someone at the cat cafe (!!!) – didn’t quite pan out: I was the only one there, and the cats weren’t all that impressed with me.

And does it count that Makio, at least, was known to me even before I visited his tiny sixteen-seater restaurant in Nishiogikubo in the western side of Tokyo? That though we’d never met, we had a (very brief) Twitter interaction last week: I made a reservation at Norabo! I said; he: please come hungry!

So I make sure of it – on the day I have a light breakfast and a snack for lunch and bang on six p.m. I walk into the tiny little restaurant I’d been waiting to go to ever since my hairdresser (who’s from Tokyo) recommended it to me almost two years ago. And I’m unbelievably hungry (do you know how much willpower it takes not to eat everything in sight in a city as full of good food as Tokyo?). I glance at the menu: I want it all. So without really thinking about it much more I order the omakase menu, a 12-course feast which is, at its core, a showcase for the local and seasonal vegetables Makio so reveres.
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Makio, Mineo and the two female staff at the other end of the kitchen swiftly get to work, their movements precise, a well-choreographed dance. And for the next three hours, in between the slicing and stirring and serving we share snippets of conversation: disjointed, yes, but altogether genuine.

Mineo and I talk travel: he’s been to New Zealand, to the South Island once, ten or so years ago when he was still studying, he’d like to go again. He’s been to Europe: to Spain, Finland (why Finland? He wanted to go somewhere where not many people would think to visit, he went during summer and the weather was pleasant, the days long).
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Some of the vegetables I haven’t heard of before, and Makio produces a thick encyclopedia of ingredients: fish, meat, fruit, vegetables. (“Food’s Food”, says the English inscription on the cover.) Have a look through that, he says, let us know if you have any questions.

It is through this book, through Makio and Mineo’s patient explanations, and through the food on my plate that I learn of the winged bean, the purple daikon, and (well, not on my plate, this one) the restaurant’s namesake, the norabo.

Makio grew up west of here, near Mitaka where he now gets many of his vegetables. (Even in this era of hyper-local, seasonal eating, in a city as massive as Tokyo it’s a bit of a surprise to hear the vegetables on your plate were grown just a few train stops away.) He called his restaurant Norabo after a little-known green vegetable that grows near where he grew up; it’s been used for centuries but practically no one has heard about it these days. He flips Food’s Food to a page full of greens and explains:

About this time of year they’ll be planting the seeds. They stay in the ground all winter, beneath frost and sometimes snow, waiting for spring. And in about April they start to come up, green, tender, sweet from withstanding the cold winter soil. Towards May they flower – little clusters of yellow – and after that they’re pretty much done. So they’re only around for a short period, and hardly anyone knows about them.

But, if you come back in April, he says with a grin, we’ll have Norabo on the menu pretty much every day.

Okay, I will, I say. If not next April, then the April after, or the one after that. I’ll be sure to come back.

The meal eventually ends, after what seems like endless refills of iced bancha and chatter. I put on my sweater, say gochisousama. Makio and Mineo take a reprieve from their hectic machinations in the kitchen, and see me out to the dark, narrow street. They smile, bow, arigatougozaimasu!, bow again, wave, please come again, sayonara, goodnight.
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ps. the food – all of it – was delicious, real, unpretentious, but incredibly, incredibly good. Definitely among the best meals I’ve ever had.

Day 3, Part 2: swanky black-broth ramen at Gogyo

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The name of the shop is Gogyo and I think there are a few around Tokyo but the Nishi-azabu outpost is, I think, the original, or at least the most well-know, or at the very least it’s the most well-known to me. (No, this is not a well-researched blog post, unfortunately; I’m travelling!)

The shop feels posh, unlike the bright, no-frills ramen-ya I’m used to: dark, red and black-panelled walls, big wooden shared tables, leather armchair-like seats. It’s more like a fancy bar than a frenetic ramen joint; the clientele are well-dressed and imacculately groomed. Yes, it’s unmistakeable: we’re in Azabu. But the ramen itself is relatively inexpensive – the standard bowls are around ¥850, which is more or less standard.

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I’d heard about Gogyo from a ramen shop owner I’d interviewed a while back, and then at my hostel in Tokyo I saw a write-up in this magazine I found devoted entirely to ramen shops in Tokyo. I wasn’t even that hungry after finishing that whole serving of tsukemen at lunchtime, but when I found myself in the neighbourhood after a late-night jaunt up to the Mori Art Museum and observatory in Roppongi Hills, I couldn’t pass it up.

Gogyo specialises in kogashi (burnt) miso and shoyu soup. It’s striking in appearance: artfully arranged toppings in stark contrast to the oily, black (yes, black) soup.

The soup itself – I got the miso – has this sweet, light, smoky charcoal flavour, a slight gingery tang hiding beneath the earthy miso umami. There’s a thick layer of black-flecked oil on top which helps the soup retain its heat. So: it’s hot. I burnt my tongue. I didn’t really care.

This oil also gets everywhere if you’re slurping noisily as is customary in these parts, so if you’re wary of black-flecked oil splatters on your clothes there are bibs, of which I hastily availed myself after getting ramen soup on my top on my first mouthful.

The noodles are beige and straight and just a little bit flat and rectangular, medium-thick and chewy. Moisture content probably higher than Hirugao’s noodles, lower than the tsukemen from earlier in the day. The runny yolk from the egg spills out into the soup. The charsiu is relatively small compared to other shops, but delicately seasoned and entirely delicious.

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Just when beads of sweat are starting to appear on my forehead, a guy comes over with a complimentary unsweetened peach iced tea. It’s just what I needed. I’m impressed by the level of service.

Now this is kind of gross, but hear me out. I think you can judge the quality of a bowl of ramen (or at least the soup) by the resulting burps each bowl produces. (I told you this was going to be gross.) So for instance, with that bowl of instant cup noodles I had on the plane, every time I burped afterwards it was a queasy reminder of just how average and artificial that experience was. Not so this bowl; I’m writing this as I walk back to the Roppongi metro station (the long way to walk off some of that full-stomach feeling) and, get this: every burp, and there have been a few, has carried with it a delicious memory of that delicate smoky taste, the gingery-sweet miso, the depth of that broth. Ew, I know. But. Good quality ramen, good quality burps.

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Day 3, Part 1: tsukemen in Oji

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Yesterday I had lunch and a massive catch-up with my old friend Sarah in her home neighbourhood of Oji in the northern area of Tokyo. Sarah has a brand-new baby (six weeks and just perfect and I’m so in love) so our quest for a lunch spot that would accommodate Tai-kun’s giant pushchair led us to Gosaburo (つけ麺屋 五三郎), this little neighbourhood tsukemen* shop not far from Oji station.

I got the kokugoma (or was it gomakoku?) tsukemen. This was a good choice. The soup was rich, thick with tahini-like sesame paste and chilli oil that clung to the noodles. The slices of pork (submerged in the photo above) soaked up the salty, unctuous soup: holy shit this was really good. And, also hiding beneath that thick layer of sesame and chilli: bits of sour-spicy kimchi. Awesome.

The noodles were on the fat side、chewy in texture, almost like a cross between udon and spaghetti; they were a good match for the intensely flavoured soup. Any thinner and I think they’d have gotten lost.

Here’s a tip when getting tsukemen: if you order the noodles atsumori they’ll come out hot. I learned this trick from Sarah and am definitely converted: with hot noodles, the soup takes longer to cool down, the noodles stay warm, it’s an all-around good thing. Thanks Sarah!

And! With a bit of chair-shuffling there was plenty of room for baby, who slept through the whole thing. A perfect outing.

*For the uninitiated: tsukemen is a variety of ramen where instead of noodles in a soup, you have a plate of ramen noodles that you dip into a concentrated tare sauce, which usually has the usual ramen toppings – charsiu, beansprouts, etc – in it too. It’s really good. I highly recommend it.

Day 2: Imocchan, or: I’m a bit smitten in Aoyama

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He’s impossibly cool, in spite (because?) of his boyish green cap and his big black-rimmed glasses. Tall, broad-shouldered, hint of muscle beneath the sleeves of his chambray shirt. I walk by. He looks up. “Good morning!”

His real name’s Yoshihisa but everyone calls him Imocchan (いもっちゃん), and he sells potatoes (imo). I thought it was a clever marketing ploy – give yourself a cute nickname after your product – until he gave me his business card and I realised it must’ve been the other way around. His last name’s Imoto and he got into imo-mongering only a few weeks ago. Why not.

The potatoes he sells are called ribbon fries which are a shape of fried potato I’ve never seen before: spiral-cut and thin and round, almost like big, flattened curly fries, and there’s a choice of salt or spice or cinnamon and sugar. ‘Cinnamon and sugar? On fries?’ I think, but before I even open my mouth to ask, Imocchan says “if you’re wondering what to get, Mika-san, get the cinnamon and sugar.” I’m doubtful, but something in his manner of speaking has got me trusting his judgment.

He works in advertising most of the time but comes out to his little ribbon fry cart in 246 Common, an undeniably adorable farmer’s market in Aoyama (only in Japan, I think, will you ever describe a farmer’s market as “adorable”).

He says he got into advertising because he likes communication. He’s good at it; a born salesman. “try some of our homemade ginger ale, you’ll be really happy if you do”, so I try it, and he’s right; I am happy. It’s sweet and cold and has an incredible ginger kick, tempered slightly by the warmth of cinnamon.

He’s good at reading people; he talks sweet. After the initial “good morning” we conduct our whole conversation in Japanese, he asks how I can speak Japanese, I answer that my grandma’s Japanese. “You don’t look a quarter Japanese,” he says, “but when I saw you there was something about you that made me think, ‘I bet she speaks Japanese.’ I don’t know why.”

He asks where I’m heading after Tokyo, and gives me the number for a restaurateur friend of his in Okinawa. “Look him up,” he says. “Tell him Imocchan sent you, he’ll tell you where to go.”

Soon my ribbon fries are ready. It’s time for our conversation to end. I find myself wishing they’d take five more minutes to cook; his smile is infectious, we’ve been joking like old friends, he keeps a good pace of conversation that I’ve craved after a morning wandering Tokyo alone. “It was nice to meet you, Mika-san,” he says with his ever-present smile.

It was nice to meet you too, Imocchan.

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Day 1, Part 2: Hirugao and the friends that could’ve been

Noodles with Strangers: shio ramen at Hirugao, Tokyo Ramen Street with Kumika, Yujiro and Shimajiro

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This was a really, really good bowl of shio ramen.

Tucked away in the labyrinthine warren-like tunnels beneath Tokyo Station there is a little arcade called Tokyo Ramen Street, with outposts of some of the best ramen shops from around Tokyo, each with its own specialty ramen style.

You make your selection from a vending machine outside each shop and then get in the queue for a seat. When I got there just before closing the place was still packed and I took my place in line behind these three friends on their way home from a night of drinking. Are you alone, they said. Come sit with us. This whole strangers business was going to be easier than expected, I thought.

There was Kumika, 28, works in international sales for a large company (Southeast Asia division), she’d been to Melbourne for a month in high school and studied in Bangkok during university and was keen to practice her English. Best friends with Yujiro (pictured) a telephone operator (“I hate my job”), who kept cracking jokes about Kumika’s five boyfriends (one for every day of the week) and trying to drunkenly flirt with me (“you are a pretty girl!”) Kumika meanwhile shooting me apologetic looks and rolling her eyes at him.

Dutifully sweet Shimajiro (I suspect that was his nickname as he’s from Okinawa – shima means island in Japanese) was a lot younger (22) and stayed quiet for most of the conversation though he seemed to enjoy the antics of the other two. He’s a software developer and still had that youthful, unjaded enthusiasm for his job (“I love my work!”). I said I was going to Okinawa on Thursday. He: “I really wish I could show you around but I work in Tokyo, but I’d be really happy if while you’re over there you tried some Okinawa-soba”; me: noted.

As jokey as this trio was, they all knew their noodles. They weren’t your typical boozed-up group looking for any sort of end-of-night feed. They’d come out of their way to hit up this well-known shio ramen shop, leaving the bar slightly early to get to Hirugao before closing time. When the steaming bowls arrived the chatter stopped and the slurping began, punctuated by the occasional “umai!” (which dutiful Kumika would translate: “yummy!”; she was at this stage totally aware I could speak Japanese but too far into her simultaneous interpretation shtick to let it go). A brief pause in slurping saw some serious commentary on the noodles (thin, straight, with a lower moisture content than a lot of other places, a really good vehicle for the salty, oily yet still somehow clean-tasting broth).

I wanted to pay more attention to how incredibly perfect each element of this dish was – thick, flavorful charsiu, texturally intriguing bits of sea vegetable, the lightly salted, soft-yolked egg, the yolk of one topped with a tiny, plump shrimp – but the banter soon resumed and I wasn’t about to miss out. The important thing was that the ramen was good, and I liked these guys; somewhere in their lighthearted manner and affability I could see my own circle of friends. If I’d been Japanese, or if they’d been in Wellington, maybe we would have been friends too.

As we were leaving Yujiro tried several times to give me his number, trying different approaches (him “what’s your ideal man like?” Kumika “so sorry, don’t listen to him” me, looking over at him perhaps a bit cruelly “um… tall?” at which he proceeded to walk on his tiptoes for the next ten or so meters “see? Tall!”).

If he had been fifteen or twenty years older, or any more or less drunk than he was I’d have found it a bit annoying or weird but there was something so jovial and lighthearted about his advances (and something comical about Kumika whacking him with her wallet every time he said something) that I politely shrugged him off and got back on the subway, lost in a sea of people and the happy afterglow of genuine human interaction and a good bowl of ramen. Success.

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