I got back from Japan just over a week ago and my body clock is finally back on track. Having to wake up at 8am for work has been pretty miserable but with every sad morning, I think — I can’t believe I was in Tokyo!
Since I have been terrible about posting lately, I figured some Japanese adventure stories would be a great way to re-live the fun I had and get me back in the blogging saddle.
So, for the back story, my husband and I were part of a Portland group (he was one of three chefs, but we also had a brewer, a wine maker and a coffee guy with us) that traveled to Japan as part of a “PDX meets Tokyo” festival. The event was primarily sponsored by Columbia Sportswear, Airbnb and Travel Portland, which means I got a sweet new rain jacket and we had a free place to stay. Can’t beat that!
The whole trip was a lot of fun, but it was a good amount of work too: we sold Portland products at the UNU Farmer’s Market, the chefs each did two cooking demos, we toured three urban farms and catered a Seed-to-Table dinner for 100 people on Halloween night. While I’ll be posting about those adventures later, I’m going to backtrack to the very beginning — our 24 hours in the city.
My husband and I arrived in Tokyo on Monday, Oct. 25, around 7pm. We had been traveling for more than 14 hours, ten of which was the final flight. I love flying so it didn’t actually didn’t seem that long to me. My husband, on the other hand, is antsy by nature and was dying to get off the plane.
Going through customs, we totally baffled the agents with our declaration forms. We confessed to having a lot of weird stuff in our luggage: 6 jars of honey, 12 jars of salt, cured duck, wild boar bacon and puffed wild rice krispies plus our full allotment of alcohol. Happily, after some serious side eye, they waved us through the gates to collect our bags. I’m pretty sure they just didn’t want to deal with us which was just fine with us!
Bags in tow, we boarded the Narita Express (the N’ex), a bullet train that makes the trip from the airport to Tokyo in just over an hour. It’s so much easier than taking a two-hour bus ride and it’s pretty affordable since you can buy round-trip tickets.
We got off at the Shibuya Station, which was thankfully a quick 10-minute cab ride from our apartment. (Yes – our apartment! Thank you, Airbnb!) That’s not to say the cab ride was easy — there was plenty of confusion due to language barrier issues but eventually we got to the right spot.
While we had big plans to go out that night, as soon as we sat down we were out for the count. Since it was nearly 10pm, it didn’t seem too terrible just to crawl into our teeny tiny bed and go to sleep.
But, of course, we both woke up around 5am. We looked at each other, looked at the clock and then forced our eyes closed again. The same thing happened again around 7am, and finally at 8am we decided it was time to hit the road. We were definitely jet lagged but the excitement to check out the city outweighed our exhaustion.
The first thing we did was hunt down breakfast and there was only one thing on our minds — ramen!
While I don’t think I’ve ever had ramen for breakfast before it seemed perfectly appropriate for our first day in Japan. Also, many places — even bakeries, which is just cruel — aren’t open until 10am so finding a good meal before then can be a bit difficult. But I had read about Ichiran, a 24-hour ramen spot that was within walking distance of our apartment.
After walking down a steep set of stairs from the street, we came face-to-face a common sight in Japan, a vending machine. We inserted some yen, pressed some buttons and then awkwardly stood around holding our tickets until a worker handed us a form and directed us into a curtained room. Inside the room were two long rows of cubicles, each with its own stool facing a bamboo curtain. We took seats next to each other and looked at the form, which was blessedly in English.
Once the form is filled out, you press a button that rings a bell. Within seconds the bamboo curtain in front of you will roll up and you will be greeted by one of the cooks. He will take your form, your ticket and give you a quick bow before disappearing. Moments later, a steaming bowl of ramen will be set in front of you and the curtain will roll back down, allowing you to slurp away at your bowl of noodles in peace.
The whole experience was awesome. I loved the cubicles, which you could open up on the sides if you were eating with friends, and I loved the efficiency of the whole situation. At nine in the morning, we were two of only four people in the place, but later in the week we went back around midnight and still the rhythm and pace was perfect.
The only thing you can order is ramen so the kitchen staff can focus on just making it fast and delicious. The only other options, besides how you choose to customize your bowl, are adding extra pork, an egg (which will come unpeeled in a side dish) or extra noodles.
Each cubicle also has its own water spout (absolutely brilliant) so unless you decide to get more food, there’s no reason for any additional human contact.
Move in, slurp it down and move out!
The ramen was also straight-up delicious. I’m sure it wasn’t as good as the fancy places on the “best of” lists but still, it blew my mind. The tonkotsu broth (even at medium rich) was sublime and silky, the spice was great (just enough to make my nose run) and the noodles were perfectly cooked. My husband got his extra firm and he was in heaven.
Within fifteen minutes, our bowls were empty, our stomachs were full and warm, and it was time to explore Tokyo.
Since we weren’t sure how much free time we’d end up having the rest of the week, I thought we should make the most of the afternoon by checking out Yoyogi Park and the adjoining Meiji Shrine. The park was beautiful, not necessarily a must-see spot for visitors, but at the same time, a perfect way to work out the kinks from our long day of travel. The ginko trees were lovely with their colorful autumn leaves and it was amazing to find such a peaceful spot in such a busy city.
The shrine was much more interesting. The first thing that captured my attention was the rows of sake barrels wrapped in straw and the stacks of barrels of French wine near the entrance. These are donated as offerings to the shrine, you can read the finer details in the photographs.
After we entered the inner grounds, we could see many people praying or leaving offerings. For 500¥ you can buy an ema, a small wooden plaque on which you can write a prayer before hanging it on the prayer wall. There are literally thousands of ema hanging at the Meiji shrine — it was fascinating to read the ones on top and to see how far people had traveled to leave their prayer behind.
Next we made our way back towards Shibuya Station, which would be a useful landmark for us throughout the week. The station is a bustling one — it’s where you can catch just about any mode of land transportation: subway, bus, train, bullet train or taxi. It’s jam-packed with people at all hours and is great for people watching, especially at night.
One of the sights at the station I wanted to make sure to see was Hachikō, a bronze statue of an Akita dog famous for his unfailing loyalty to his owner. I won’t go into his full story here, but it’s an interesting read, though a total tear-jerker. The statue is one of the area’s most famous meeting points because of its prime location.
After that, we ventured into the Tokyo Food Show, a variety of specialty grocery stores grouped together underneath the station. If I had known we wouldn’t really have time to go back and browse, I would have stayed longer but as it was we had some fun exploring the various treats available.
Later that night we headed over to Craftheads, a small, very Portland-esque beer spot run by a man named Koji, friend to two of our travelmates.
We met our fellow Portlanders there, half of whom had just arrived in town an hour prior and were totally exhausted. A few beers and some smoked quail eggs later, a fraction of our party succumbed to their sleepiness and started the trek back to their apartments.
The handful of us who decided to have one last round were offered the chance to join Koji for an insiders look at late-night Tokyo eats. While my husband and I were starting to droop there was no way we were passing this chance up. Even though midnight was approaching, it was time to rally!
After all, in Tokyo, where the bars never seem to close, the evening was just getting started…(to be continued)