Whether you have plans to travel to Japan or just like to read beautiful prose written by beautiful women, please settle in with a glass of wine—or better yet, sake—and start your weekend by reading this gorgeous dispatch from Tokyo with photos from my friend and fearless foodie Robyn Brown.
Not having the multi-tasking ambition of famed memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert, I did not travel to Tokyo to either pray or love. I only went to eat.
In the weeks preceding the trip, I made long, exhaustive lists. Cult favorite ramen spots. Soba masters. Hole in the wall sushi joints that open in the Tsujuki fish market at the crack of dawn. Pastry counters hidden in the basements of department stores. Restaurants with an obsessive zeal for a single ingredient, like the famed Obana which serves only unagi (eel). Shops that offer gourmet shaved ice: great, snowy drifts drenched in sweet bean sauce, tea, condensed milk, or all of the above.
As a former New Yorker, I pictured myself rocketing on the subway from eatery to eatery and clicking breezily over the city sidewalks in the kind of effortlessly chic, jet set outfit that I did not actually own but was certain would manifest itself once I had actually jetted somewhere.
In reality, Tokyo in July hovered between 95 and 102 degrees—there was no effortless chic; no effortless anything. Pink and puffy from the heat, I swapped my heels for flip flops and learned quickly why small terrycloth towels are an entire cottage industry in Japan. Getting from point A to point B took about half a day in the same way going anywhere in New York or Los Angeles is guaranteed to take about an hour. My many lists were painfully trimmed, then trimmed again.
For all my exhaustive planning, there were still some major culinary missteps. At the the gorgeous, magical Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, a café menu item translated only as “The fruit sandwich of your dreams” (below) turned out to be largely comprised of whipped cream and Wonderbread (Animation genius Miyazaki’s dreams are apparently very different than mine). But there were also meals so unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, that every bite made my inner voice squeal like a pre-teen girl.
At Kondo, in the tony Ginza shopping district (think: Upper Fifth Avenue but with Shiseido and Hakuhinkan Toy Park instead of Elizabeth Arden and FAO Schwartz), the chef delicately laid tempura on the white sheet of paper in front of me one single, golden piece at a time. One perfect stalk of asparagus, one perfect slice of lotus root, and so on. It seemed almost as though I was tasting each vegetable’s platonic ideal; its highest and purest form. After each crackling mouthful, the earthly versions I’d settled happily for, before, suddenly seem disappointingly flat.
And then there was Okajoki, the robatayaki in Nakano where the hostess pursed her lips disapprovingly that I spoke no Japanese. I wore her down with pleading looks, and she led me to a seat at the C-shaped counter around the raised hearth. A waiter swept over with a platter of fish, and I pointed a finger at a fat Kinki, a less-common Hokkaido rockfish with sunset-colored scales. I sipped sake as the chef flung a handful of salt on either side of my fish, speared it mouth to tail with a sharp stick, and jammed one end into the sand beneath the fire. Twenty minutes later, the whole fish was slid in front of me on a plate, crisped, salty and golden on the outside with an inside that seemed whiter than white.
A fire and a fish. There was something so primal and perfect about it, which was just how it tasted. I suffered mightily the next day for that Kinki fish (Though, it could have been the raw fish I’d eaten the day before. Or the raw chicken. Or the raw egg. Or…) but I’d do it again. There are flavors so intense that you’re left feeling a little more alive just for having tasted them.
Some foods can bring you up out of yourself, like art, theater, or music. In that sense, a meal can be like a prayer. Or, for that matter, like falling in love.
Obana, Minami-Senju 5-33-1, Arakawa-ku, 03-3801-4670.Tempura Kondo, 9F, 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 03-5568-0923. Okajoki, Nakano 5-59-3, 3228-1230.
Robyn Brown has written and edited for several women’s magazines including Glamour and Allure. Currently she works as a freelance writer in Los Angeles.