Frouple in Japan: Tokyo

This past summer the Frouple was finally heading to the promised land of sushi, anime, and everything kawaii! Mangas, or Japanese comics, were one of the catalysts to Rachel and my friendship back in 7th grade. As fate would have it, we sat next to each other in the back of chorus class. We met through a mutual friend, but it was when I pulled those stacks of mangas out of my backpack, and I saw Rachel’s doodles of Hamtaro, that we knew we were destined for an inseparable bond. Now, fifteen years later, our friendship having blossomed into a Froupleship that took us halfway around the world…we booked our tickets to this most wondrous of countries.

We decided to dedicate the first half of our trip to the capital, Tokyo. Just like Seoul, the bustling metropolis has different neighborhoods or burroughs that all offer something unique. After some research, we discovered that our homebase should be in Shibuya. It was centrally located with a few subway lines, and the nightlife was some of the best in the city. The subway and train system in Japan is very extensive. If you are a foreigner visiting Japan, you have the option of getting a rail pass. You can pay a lump sum and ride some of the subways and trains with it. Make sure you check the details on exactly what is included. I think it would be the most cost-effective option if you were going to travel by train across the bulk of the country. Even though we did travel down to Osaka, we decided taking a short flight would be cheaper than a train, therefore we didn’t bother.

In Toyko we only needed to take the subway around. I recommend that you buy a Suica card. It is a rechargable subway and bus card. We have something very similar in Korea, and if you visit me I always make sure you get one. You can find vending machines for them outside of most subway stations. I recommend you get this before you leave the airport, otherwise you will have to exit the station you arrive at, buy it, and pay again to re-enter. This is the confusing dilemma we had to navigate. We booked our flight to Tokyo with Asiana airlines. It wasn’t too expensive and they served us some decent snackage. Most flights into Tokyo fly into Narita airport, which is technically in Tokyo, but it’s really at least an hour outside the heart of the city. You have a few options to get into the city, but the most convenient would be the express train. You will be able to find the ticketing stations quite easily as you exit from your flight and into the main area of the airport. In the airport, you can also rent a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, which you can keep with you until you return it upon your departing flight. A friend of mine warned that figuring out how to navigate Japan came with a learning curve, so I highly recommend securing a portable Wi-Fi. We booked our accommodations through AirBnB and ensured that each apartment we rented came with a portable Wi-Fi, so we didn’t end up renting one from the airport. But know it’s an option, and Wi-Fi is nearly essential.

We also booked our Tokyo apartment with a kind host who met us at the subway station and led us over to the apartment to get us settled. She informed us to arrive at Shibuya station, and take a local train over one stop. This was the tricky part because the local subway line had two different names and as you followed the signs, they would switch between the two. We finally reached the platform and desperately pored over the maps that were displayed, trying to figure out which side of the tracks we needed to depart from. Just like in Korea, the locals spotted our lost and confused foreign faces and a nice woman walked up asking if we were alright. I turned to her and blurted “No!” At first she was startled, but then she laughed and asked where we were going. We said our stop’s name and she calmly pointed to the train that was currently at the station, doors splayed wide. Now…if you’ve read our article about transportation in Korea, you know that we are used to the “we wait for no one” system the subways operate on. So we shouted a thank you and bowed before sprinting towards the door. It turns out the subways are much….much more relaxed in Japan. Breathing heavily, we expected the doors to close right behind us, but the locals just stared at us with polite confusion as the subway loitered at the station for a good five minutes. Guess bbali bbali isn’t a thing in Japan.

Akiko was our host in Tokyo, and she walked us from the small, local subway station over to the studio apartment we were renting from her. She had two glasses of green tea awaiting us and we sipped on them as she explained all about the apartment. Equipped with a portable Wi-Fi, directions to the main Shibuya station, and free from our luggage, Rachel and I ventured out in search of food and shenanigans.

Shibuya is most famous for its four-way, extremely busy crosswalk. Any night you walk near it there are packs of people, and local musicians play on its corners. On one corner of the cross is Shibuya station and the statue of the famous dog, Hachiko. Hachiko is an Akita who used to wait for his owner outside the station to return from giving lectures. One day, his owner suffered a brain hemorrhage and died before returning to meet his faithful dog. For over nine years…Hachiko would appear at the exit, waiting for his master to return. He became such a symbol of loyalty and fidelity that people made a statue to remember him when he finally passed away. Now, the subway exit is named after him, and it’s a popular meeting point for friends. This was also our home exit during our time in Tokyo.

shibuya hachiko statue
The Frouple with Hachiko’s Statue.

On our first walk into the heart of Shibuya, we happened upon a giant, five-storied store that had flashy lights and signs. It was called Don Quixote, and apparently was quite famous for its wide selection and tax-free goods. Rachel and I disappeared inside and got lost for over an hour exploring the different floors. I even snagged some icy-blue contacts for dirt cheap.

When we finally emerged it was quite late, so we wandered over to a ramen shop that boasted an English menu. Having lived in Korea for over two years, we could read Korean quite well, even if we couldn’t always speak it. But here in Japan, we had no way of figuring any signs out if they weren’t graciously translated into English. We pushed aside the fabric fringe that hung across the entrance and revealed a fairly small kitchen that was rimmed by bar-like seating. It was then that we discovered how different dining in Japan was from dining in Korea. In Korea you are expected to go out to a restaurant in at least a group of two. You all order the same thing and it arrives in a giant pot in front of you and you share. Eating alone isn’t a normal or very accepted thing in Korea, meals are meant to be social. In Japan, it was quite the opposite. We shuffled over to two empty seats at the bar, unsure of what to do. The chef handed us an English menu, looking amused but friendly. He then motioned over towards the door and we turned to see what looked like a vending machine. It turns out that in ramen shops, you select your meal from the machine, insert your money and receive a ticket for each item you ordered. Then you sit and hand your ticket over to the chef and he speedily delivers your meal.

After a lot of tinkering, and a friendly worker helping us, we figured out how to pay for our meals. The bowls of ramen arrived, a healthy serving of pork bone broth with steaming slabs of braised pork balancing atop the noodles. The other patrons slurped noisily at their noodles and exited the restaurant as if they had some important meeting to attend and only had ten minutes to inhale a meal. It turns out, this is the proper way to eat ramen. Slurping the noodles helps you to pull up more broth and eating quickly gives the restaurant fast turnover, allowing more customers to come and the chefs to keep the cost extremely low.

Bellies full of ramen, we walked a little further down the street and climbed up a set of stairs to a bar specializing in local brews. Craft beer in Japan was something the Frouple couldn’t pass up. We tried a couple pints of the local flavor, marveling over all the bumper stickers plastered across the bar. To Rachel’s delight a great many had a splattering of Hebrew, or a Jewish pun.

Next, the internet told us the top club in Shibuya was a place called Womb. We paid a steep cover and entered the three-storied night club, the loud blast of EDM washing over us. I felt twenty-one again, neon lights cutting through the air, arcing through eachother as bodies jumped and swayed around the dance floor that stood before a raised stage. It was here that Rachel met an energetic, chipmunk of a young man named Takeru.

1st night out in Shibuya - womb
Partying with Takeru and friends!

The following evening, we planned to meet Takeru and his friend Kennichi at the Hachiko statue for dinner and adventures. First, they took us to a restaurant called Gyukatsu Motomura that is famous for beef katsu, or crispy fried steak. It was served rare, and a small stone grill was at each seat so you could sear your slices of beef to your desired perfection. Like the ramen restaurant, this place consisted of bar-like seating, and we had to sit separately. We tried to eat as fast as our new Japanese friends, while still enjoying the crispy beef that we dipped into wasabi or soy sauce.

We next followed our new guides to what they described as a 1960’s style Izakaya. An Izakaya is a sort of Japanese-style gastropub where you drink and eat smaller dishes, most commonly food that’s grilled on sticks. This was the third one we had been to, each one being unique and different, but I’ll get back to the other two later. This Izakaya’s shtick was the retro decor. I felt like I was in a comic book shop, the walls cluttered with figurines and posters from 60’s Japan. We sipped on sake which was served in a strange, small teapot that made even Kennichi gasp. Takeru ordered a couple more things and a giant fishbowl arrived to the table, little flashing lights floating around it. Accompanying them were these long, fried doughnuts, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

After dinner and drinks, we decided to do some singing. Similarly to Korea, there were private karaoke rooms available, although this one was smaller than what we were used to. Also like Korea, we used a remote to enter the names of songs or artists into the system. This created a list of songs on the monitor for us to sing. For some reason, Rachel took to the Japanese remote much faster than those in Korea. A difference I noticed with this establishment was the telephone in the room. If we wanted drinks, snacks, or anything else, we could use our karaoke room service. This is a bit of a departure from the usual buttons one would press to usher in someone to order from in Korea. We did have a great time, and were pleased to learn that the K-pop group BigBang was just as popular there as back in Korea. We listened to the boys sing some Japanese numbers, and then closed together with a stirring rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (as you do). Later we went back to Womb, our dependable guides getting us a discount this time around.

Ikebukuro

Though our home station was Shibuya, we travelled around different neighborhoods of Tokyo in our time in the capital. We were told Ikebukuro was filled with wonderful restaurants, but the destination that lured us here was none other than…the Pokemon Center. Rachel and I are of the generation that bore witness to the first Pokemon games and TV show. Reaching the Pokemon center was more a pilgrimage than a shopping trip. It was a little tricky to find, which is why we recommend bringing a pocket Wi-Fi so you can follow google maps. We used these two sites for directions and information.

Sumo Stable

Something I was really interested in doing while in Japan was to witness a Sumo wrestling match. My research informed me that the only times Sumo matches happen is twice a year at the tournaments. Our trip wasn’t scheduled during one of those times, but I travelled a little further down the google search rabbit hole and discovered one could actually visit their practices at what is called a Sumo Stable. If you speak enough Japanese, you can actually call up the stable and request coming to see a practice. If you’re successful you may even get to watch for free. But having no language skills and a lack of such knowledge, I discovered that some companies will actually set it up for you. It wasn’t cheap, and we had to arrive very early, but honestly watching these powerful men do what they do best was one of the most memorable parts of our trip. We met our guide and the rest of the guests outside a small, unassuming building, which the location of was emailed to us soon before. We were in what seemed like suburban Tokyo near Kiyosumishirakawa station, and on the first floor of what looked like an apartment was the stable.

Soon we were ushered in and we took off our shoes, walking into the practice area. Most of the room was a big dirt pit, a thick rope circling the middle of it, signifying the ring. We stood on a raised wooden floor that rimmed two sides of the ring. We were warned we would have to sit on mats for the two hour practice. If we wanted to leave early we could, but wouldn’t be allowed re-entry and would forfeit our chance to take a photograph with the fighters. Thankfully, sitting on the floor for extended amounts of time wasn’t uncommon in Korea either, so we managed to survive sitting cross-legged. The first portion of the practice was spent doing warm-ups and stretches. There were a handful of fighters, all quite large, but clearly very strong. Then there was a smaller fighter, who we both mentally began calling Baby Sumo. We figured he was like an apprentice, there to learn from the more seasoned fighters.

Well into the warm-up, the side door that opened into the ring swung open and I had to hold back a gasp. Donning a white loincloth which they called a mawashi, that was starkly different from the black ones the others wore, stood one of the largest, most intimidating men I’ve ever seen. Not soon after his arrival, it seemed the sparring was to start. Baby Sumo entered the ring, and I had to stop myself from clutching Rachel in fear as the white mawashi-wearing wrestler stepped in to go against him. Luckily, the time spent in the ring was mostly him coaching the younger fighter on how to attack his opponent. The rest of the practice was filled with more sparring and exercises. The sheer speed and strength of these men blew my mind at each sweep of their strong legs. After they finished, some of the fighters sat along the raised wooden floor, and we could pose behind them as one of the other wrestlers snapped a picture for us. I hope one day I can return for a tournament.

Sumo Stable in actionsumo stable collageSumo stable big kahuna vs baby sumoSumo Stable photo with the fighters

Harajuku

Having some free time during the day, we thought we would do some people-watching in the fashionable neighborhood of Harajuku. But upon pulling up a map outside the station, we discovered there was a large temple nearby. We followed the crowd and happened upon one of Tokyo’s most famous temples, the Meiji Shrine. We passed under a large torii gate that we discovered was the largest one in its style left in Japan. The stone path was lined with tall trees, lush in green foliage during the summer days we found ourselves beneath them.

We followed signs for the temple, passing beautiful structures as we strolled. Soon we saw signs for the inner gardens. It cost around $5 to enter but we wandered around, viewing the lake and plants. We also visited Kiyomasa’s well, a secluded little pool of water. Though the rest of the shrine was under construction, it was refreshing to find a little slice of nature in the bustle of Tokyo.

“The Meiji Jingu Shrine is a 1 minute walk from the Omotesando Exit of Harajuku Station (JR Yamanote Line), or the JR Exit of Meiji Jingu Mae Station (Chiyoda and Fukutoshin Lines). After passing beneath the large entrance torii gate, visitors will walk down a forested path towards the shrine. The entrance to the Inner Gardens is off the path, to the left, and theyare open from 9am-4:30pm between March and October, and 9am-5pm from November to February. In June, the hours are 8am-5pm during the week and 8am-6pm on Saturdays and Sundays to accommodate the people blooming of the irises.”

Shinjuku/Kabukichō

Shibuya may be known for its more modern nightlife and younger crowds, but for a glimpse into the past and a flashy, sometimes kitschy night, you have to visit Shinjuku. A great way to meet locals is to use a language exchange app. You can offer to help them practice English and in exchange there’s a good chance they will guide you around their city. This is how we met Taikio. He met us outside the Shinjuku station and gave us a quick tour with a brief history. The section of Shinjuku he was taking us to was called Kabukichō, which apparently used to be (and probably still is) run by the Yakuza, or the Japanese mob. He had us pose at the original gateway to the Red Light District for him to take a picture while a tall Godzilla lurked in the background.

Shinjuku godzilla statue
Had to take a picture with our new friend, Godzilla!

Next he took us to an Izakaya. From our research online we knew it was a unique Japanese drinking experience, and being the Frouple that we are, we needed to go. Luckily, our guide knew just where to take us. The streets were rimmed with tall buildings, neons lights flashing, and crowds of people milling about. We scurried across a street after him when he turned down a less populated and darker path that led to a staircase. Curious where our guide was taking us, we followed him up the stairs and into a park. Then we saw what he meant to show us. A beautiful shrine was nestled just out of sight of the busy streets. A few packs of young adults clustered around the steps, enjoying eachother’s company and the atmosphere the temple provided.

After cutting through the park, he took us to our first stop of the evening, an Izakaya called Yumcha Shoshonanya Nekozen. Neko is Japanese for cat, and cute little cat statues and paintings littered the Izakaya. Like most of these hole-in-the-wall places, seating was limited, and quite small. We ended up nabbing three stools at the bar. Taikio procured us a menu in English and we scoured it, picking out what seemed most delicious. Like in Korea, to get a waiter’s attention, you have to call out to them. Thankfully we had Taikio who went ahead and put in our order. One after the other, the small plates of steaming deliciousness appeared over the small divider that separated the kitchen from the bar seating. Rachel and I had requested karaage (deep-fried chicken), fried shrimp, potato croquettes, ginger pork, tamagoyaki (rolled omellete), and gyoza (fried pork dumplings). The portions were small, like tapas, and after sharing them between the three of us, we were still hungry. Taikio asked if he could take the liberty of ordering the next round for us. He wanted us to experience some authentic and unique Izakaya dishes. Nearly watering at the mouth, we nodded our consent.

Shinjuku 1st izakaya
Izakaya round 1! From top left going clockwise: karaage (deep fried chicken), fried shrimp and croquette, ginger pork, boiled chicken skin and shredded tuna and wasabi octopus and natto, tamagoyaki, and gyoza!

Now, after moving to Southeast Asia, I have had some questionable dishes slid in front of me, not limited to chicken feet, grilled beef intestines, fried chicken buttholes, and all manner of foreign vegetables. Rarely do I back down from trying something new, and almost always I have enjoyed everything I have tried here. Grilled beef intestines is probably one of the best meals I have ever had in my entire life, and still I daydream of that one little place in Daejeon that simmers it just right. But, it was that night that I had to add something else to my now very short list of foods which I will no longer mess with. First for us to try was raw chopped octopus served in a wasabi sauce. We’ve already eaten san-nakji (산낙지), which is octopus so fresh that it’s still moving, and had no problems. So this dish turned out to be one of my favorites. Japanese food isn’t spicy at all; the only form of heat seemed to come from the wasabi, which can punch you in the nose and then fade away as quickly as it came. Needless to say, wasabi was a welcome condiment to me on this trip. The next dish was finely chopped, boiled chicken skin, which was laid over shredded tuna. This wasn’t bad, but not one of my favorites. The flavors may have been too subtle for me.

But the last dish was one I had been excited to try. It was on my list of foods I needed to sample before leaving this country, mostly for the fact of how odd it looked. It was called Nattō, or what is best described as fermented soybeans. I still had a mild aversion to the texture of beans, but on top of that, the fermentation had caused it to create a sort of mucus that was ropey and sticky. But, I was still down to try it. Taikio handed it to me and told me to stir it with my chopsticks about 100 times. I did, and the white sticky substance intensified. I was mildly horrified, so he took over, mixing like a pro. Then it was time to taste it. I scooped up a bunch of the beans, a string of white ropey goo trailing from it and back to bowl, and reluctantly put it into my mouth. Slimy beans squished between my teeth, a bitter, sickly taste accompanying them. I swallowed quickly, looking very worse for wear. Rachel tried it after, not having as bad a reaction as I did, but declining a second bite. Taikio laughed at our reaction, and happily gobbled up the rest of the bowl.

After finishing our meal at the kitty Izakaya, Taikio wanted to take us over to what has become known as Memory Lane. We followed him down the tiny alleyways, and suddenly it was as if we were transported back in time to the post-war Japan of the 1950s, but back then it was so packed with drunks just relieving themselves where they pleased, that it used to be referred to as “Piss Alley”. After a fire tore through the maze of restaurants and bars, it was rebuilt with a new, and seemingly sentimental, image of its history. We followed our guide through the paths that were big enough for only two people to pass through. On either side were tiny openings to Izakayas or little doors leading to dark bars. Puffs of smoke would occasionally waft out from an open-walled Izakaya, the scent of the grilling meats on sticks (yakitori) curling in your nostrils like luring rods. Taikio ducked into one, the two of us following suit, saddling up to another bar right within sniffing distance of the young man who manned the grill. Laid out on the small divider was a plate filled with more meats and vegetables than I could name, all skewered and waiting to be sizzled to perfection. Taikio asked what we wanted and we blurted, “everything!” Then we feasted on sake and beer while our food was prepared. The grill master placed the finished pieces before us and we passed the sticks between us, biting off chunks, severely satisfied.

shinjuku izakaya 2
Izakaya round 2! We had yummy pork intestine soup, veggie skewers (best was the asparagus! Who knew?), and meat skewers (all of them) with beer and sake! 

After a wonderful night lead by Taikio we were to return to Shinjuku for one more night of festivities at a “restaurant” that could have thrived in Las Vegas: the Robot Restaurant. The building took up about a block of the Red Light District and was billed as being “fun for the whole family” while also showing women dressed in skimpy robot costumes and flashing neon lights. Needless to say, a quirky dinner theater was something I couldn’t pass up, and on top of that, robots? Rachel and I bought our tickets in advance and had to show up a half hour before the show began. We were ushered into the building past two giant animatronic robot women who you could sit on and take pictures with, and into the lounge. Chrome, neon, and fake colorful fur assaulted your eyes when you entered the room. We grabbed seats in giant fur-lined clams and sipped on our samurai martinis. Not long after we were settled, a “robot band” marched onstage to entertain us.

Finally, the main show was announced and the audience was ushered over to the staircase which looped down a few floors to the main stage. If the lounge was an assault on the eyes, the staircase was so cluttered with statues and psychedelic decorations I wondered what we might find when we reached its depths. Rachel and I were sat in the front row, and right beside us…sat a row of elementary school children. I glanced at Rachel, eyebrows creased in worry at what these children might witness, and what we would have to witness them witness. But as the show began, I stole glances at them, their eyes lit up with such wonder and excitement. Giant robots clamoring across the stage, battling dragons and huge animatronic sharks; I know I would have nearly died from joy if I were their age too. Even at twenty-seven, I sat beside these well-behaved little ones, cheering just as loudly and waving at the enthusiastic dancers with glee. As strange as it was, the Robot Restaurant is something you don’t want to miss!

 

Cooking Class with a Local

Another discovery found during my voracious google searching before our trip was a chance to take a class about Japanese home cooking right in someone’s kitchen. If you know the Frouple, you know we have a fierce love of cooking, so we decided to sign up. There are many different and great teachers with varying menus, one of the most popular being sushi, but Rachel and I decided to sign up for something a little unique. The main dish we would learn was Wagyu Gyudon, or a beef bowl. The side dishes were fried gyoza (dumplings), miso soup, and a tea ceremony at the end. Our teacher, a wonderful Japanese woman by the name of Yuka, met us and two other girls at a subway station near her house. She took us to her apartment in a richer neighborhood of Tokyo and revealed her well-prepared kitchen with a large dining room nestled in the middle. She had even prepared printed out copies of all the recipes for us to take home. She was a patient teacher, pulling each of us up for different tasks, explaining along the way. The two other girls in the class with us were another set of best friends from the Netherlands. The blonde one and I ended up folding so many Gyoza (dumplings) we were turning them out like machines.

Not only did Yuka explain each step clearly, she was filled with the history of the different ingredients. Miso, which is seasoning made from fermenting soybean paste, came in different colors. The earliest form was white miso, which had the most delicate of tastes. Most restaurants you went to in Japan would serve a brown miso soup, which is made from the older miso. Yuka decided we should make our miso soup from the white paste, and try a subtle, complex taste that wasn’t readily available in most restaurants we would visit. Not only did we enjoy a wonderful meal, but she also gave us lists of places to go and foods to try, or as she called them, “missions”. It truly was an afternoon well spent, and now I can whip out gyozas like a seasoned pro.

class picture
Our teacher Yuka had us take a class picture together!

Tokyo Tower

Our last day in Tokyo was also the day our friend Marley joined us. We met her at Shibuya station, and after getting her settled into the apartment, we set out to try one of the recommended meals from our cooking teacher Yuka, Tsukemen Ramen, or dipping ramen. She sent us to a restaurant called Menya Musashi, where we were finally able to use our ramen knowledge to order at the vending machine for ourselves and Marley. The noodles and toppings came out separately from the broth, and it was at your leisure to dip them into the cup of steaming goodness and slurp them into your mouth.

Next on the list was a trip to Tokyo Tower, an iconic structure of the capital. Nearly in the heart of the city stretched the tower, striped red and white and strongly reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. We took a subway out as close as we could to the structure. It was easy enough to find after we emerged, and we trekked the rest of the way to the towering beast. We purchased a ticket and took the elevator up to the observation deck. It wrapped all the way around the tower, giving you a full 360 degree view. It was misty and overcast that day, so the wispy clouds clung to the buildings like soft whispers, hanging a sense of mulling calm over the city. The next day we would leave this metropolis for the ancient sights of Kyoto and the culinary delights of Osaka. After all of our adventures here in the capital, staring out over the misty Sumita River with two of my favorite people was the perfect ending. See you next time, Tokyo.

 

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