2014 is definitely the year of travel. In January we spent a few days in Bali with family rediscovering the island. In March, a much-awaited return to Moscow (last time I was there was 17 years ago) to show A the new and improved MOCKBA. This was followed by two weeks in Manila with the kids and a trip to Tokyo in the spring. As it was my first time to Tokyo, I was lucky that my good friend Rumi had just returned home to Japan after several years abroad which gave me the best food tour guide for my initiation to the amazing gourmet offerings of Tokyo.
We stayed at the Imperial Hotel, a classic Japanese hotel, located close to the famous luxury shopping area of Ginza. On our first evening, we decided to see what the area had to offer. Close by was a small street parallel to the train tracks lined with restaurants on either side. A & I meandered along until we found a packed sushi bar towards the end of the road. I won’t even be able to tell you the name as all the signs and menus were in Japanese so we did what tourists usually do and just pointed out something on the menu. It was a 12-piece sushi platter with amaebi (sweet shrimp), maguro (tuna), hotate (scallop), ikura gukan (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin), negi toro (chopped tuna with chives), tamago (cooked egg), aji (mackerel), chutoro (fatty tuna belly), hirame (flounder), unagi (grilled eel) and the very strange kazunoko (herring roe) which neither of us ate. All that plus a side dish of fried egg with mushrooms set us back around US$25 each – a bargain after all those stories about overpriced Tokyo. We walked around the block a bit to digest our dinner and as we neared the hotel, we witnessed aTokyo phenomenon – hundreds of ladies queued up in several orderly single file rows waiting to greet a stage performer about to exit the theater across the street. No pushing and shoving, each one waiting patiently with a piece of paper (greetings?) or a bouquet of flowers to offer the star. The sense of order and respect – that was what my first impression of Tokyo.
The next morning, A set off for work while I had a leisurely breakfast and did my first day exploring Ginza which was several blocks away. I started off at Hakuhinkan Toy Park, Tokyo’s version of Toys R Us, and walked slowly up the street, window shopping and people watching. By the time I reached the middle, it was time for lunch so I followed Rumi’s advice and went to Mitsukoshi where there are five floors devoted to food – the 11th and 12th for restaurants, the 9th for smaller self-serve counters with a large terrace, B2 for the food court and B3 for grocery items. I went up to the the 11th floor and walked into the first one that caught my eye – a tonkatsu restaurant which has almost full with mostly Japanese and two solo diners, just like me, who looked like tourists. I sat at a corner table and chose the tonkatsu and ebikatsu (prawn) set which came with soup, rice and pickles. The food came quickly with the crunchy but not oily panko-crusted pork cutlet and the equally crispy deep-fried prawn set on a wire rack over a plate with some lemon and tartare sauce served with the brown rice I asked for. On the table were the two containers of homemade tonkatsu sauce – one sweet and the other spicy along with some implements that I had never seen nor used before. It was basically a shallow corrugated ceramic bowl and a piece of wood. I looked around and saw what my neighbors were doing and realized that this was like a mortar and pestle and was being used to hand grind sesame seeds to be added onto the tonkatsu sauce to thicken and flavor it. The tricky part out of the way, I finally began to eat my delicious lunch and finished it off with the tangy crunchy pickles. One of the things I enjoy when I’m discovering a city is eating on my own – it gives me chance to concentrate on my food and at the same time observe the locals and their rituals.
After lunch, I walked to Ito-ya – Tokyo’s premier stationery shop to have a look and ended up spending hours and lots of yen, ordering embossed leather luggage tags and purchasing cards and stationery. It was late afternoon by then and my energy was flagging so I went to the nearest coffee shop I saw – Le Cafe Doutor – which was filled with locals sitting alone having mostly iced coffee. I ordered a black coffee and enjoyed my caffeine for half an hour before walking the roundabout way back to the Imperial.
The following day while walking around Ginza again, Rumi and I stumbled upon a months-old coffee boutique – Toriba – where they roast their own beans on site and have a small coffee bar where we sampled two types of their funky-named music-influenced blends – Jamaican Dub Mix and the Deep House Mix. Later on, she also took me to the Bulgari’s Il Bar where she made me the typical cold coffee served with sugar syrup and lots of ice. This being the Bulgari, a tiny bowl of chocolate covered almonds also came with our coffees. On our last day, after a morning spent at mega-store Muji, A and I had lunch and coffee at the nearby Dean and Deluca in Yurakucho. For a coffee lover like me, the amazing selection of coffee and different cafes from the self-serve Doutor to the high-end coffee with a view at the Bulgari, was a pleasure.