Food: Tokyo

My culinary adventures in Tokyo fall squarely into two categories: food I ate with my cousin (who speaks Japanese and told me what to order) and food I ordered for myself. Food I ate with my cousin was uniformly delicious, and while most of the food I ordered for myself in Japan was good (except in Kyoto, where stuff got weird), I also ended up making some big faux pas. There was the time I thought I was ordering tea, and actually the teapot was full of the water they had been cooking pasta in. There was time I thought I was pouring water from a pitcher into a cup, but actually I was pouring it into the container that they put your check in when they bring it to you. (That mistake I didn’t even realize until 20 minutes after I left the restaurant, where I put together the one waiter’s horror as he snatched the cup away with the other waiter’s surprise when there was nowhere to put the check.) And then there were the times when the food still had its eyes, but I draw the line at eyes. I just didn’t eat that stuff.

Overall, my food consumption in Tokyo was either noodles and onigiri, which were nice and cheap, or sushi, which was expensive but not ridiculous.

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My first real meal in Japan! A little bit of every kind of sashimi, all of which were tasty except for the snail. Turns out I am not a huge fan of raw snails.
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My cousin ordered this; I think it’s called pan? Kind of like a cross between a waffle and a cake, with matcha ice cream. Delicious!

Below is conveyor belt sushi! The way it works is that each color of plate is associated with a price. The chefs just stand on the inside chopping away and putting plates on the belt, and then as it goes by you pull off whatever looks good. At the end you stack them all up and they count your plates, and then give you the total. It’s a pretty good deal if you go with enough people; I think my share was only $20 or $25, which is amazing given how many different kinds of sushi I tried! (I did not eat the ones with eyes, although my cousin’s fiancé, who is Japanese, did.)

Noodles of Tokyo. Clockwise, cold udon with a poached egg and tempura sticks of shrimp and vegetables; mushroom soba, ordered from a restaurant where no one spoke English by pointing at a picture of what I wanted to eat (the soup was delicious but I ended up with a teapot of pasta water); and dumplings. No idea what was in them. In theory, I am a big fan of the picture menu in countries where the alphabet is completely unrecognizable, but of course those menus limit you to tourist restaurants if you want to understand ahead of time on what you’re going to eat. I don’t particularly like eating in tourist restaurants… which is why I ended up eating a lot of very weird, oddly gloopy things in Kyoto.

Plastic food. This was super common, and I have at least ten or twenty photos of amusingly shiny plastic food, ranging from crepes to pizza to udon. I’m guessing the point is to take the picture-menu-for-tourists thing one step farther, but maybe not.

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Serendipity

I just had one of those evenings that great travel stories are made of, and before I go to sleep (to sleep the sleep of the just, or, the sleep of those who are about to spend the following day jumping off cliffs and otherwise “extreme canyoning”) I just wanted to share the vignette. Especially since I have hardly been writing anything, which I blame on the fact that I came down with a cold in Budapest and spent all my spare hours (and hours, and hours) sleeping and/or napping and/or sitting in a steam room at a bath house.

I woke up at 6 this morning to catch a 9 am flight out of Budapest, connecting to Croatia, and by the time I finally dropped my bags off at my Airbnb I was pretty cranky. It was a combination of: being short on sleep, still having a cold, having to schlep all over every (ok, to be fair, both) terminals of the Budapest airport to pay 40 euros for having an overweight bag, the fact that they changed the gate at my Prague layover and then I had to go through such a long security line that it went from not boarding at all to final call before I made it to the front of the line, and then clearly someone had pissed in the morning coffee of the lady manning that aisle because she yelled at me six different ways in a strong accent and then yelled at me again for not understanding her, and then the flight was really bumpy so I started getting airsick and multiple kids were screaming and they made me take my headphones off so I had to sit there and listen to the screams. And then the ride from the airport to Split also made me motion sick, and then the guy who I’m renting from just left the keys in the mailbox and the wifi password on a piece of paper, so I didn’t have anyone to ask questions or advice from.

Anyway. Like I said, cranky. But then that all went away when I was able to wash my face, drop off my heavy bags, and head into town. “Town” in Split, for the most part, means Diocletian’s Palace, which the guy built for himself as a retirement home in like 300 and then has been lived in continuously ever since. People still live there, with their washing hanging out to dry and everything, though it is mostly restaurants and hotels. When I was several hundred feet up a belltower, with the sun shining, and the wind blowing, all became right with the world.

I was pretty hungry, so I googled “best dinner in split” and also checked my e-book guidebook, and they all agreed that Villa Spiza was the place to eat. They don’t take reservations, and the line was quite long, but the benefit of being a solo diner is that they can usually squeeze you in in the corner of the bar, so you don’t have to wait that long. It feels less good to have such a short wait when the guy yells “Single woman! The lady alone!” into the crowd to let you know you can be seated, though. The food was SPECTACULAR by the way, if you’re ever in Split it’s well worth the wait but you should show up early before they run out of everything. I was seated at 8:15ish, and they were out of four or five dishes already. There’s one chef, and she cooks on a six-burner stove in a very relaxed way. And everything gets finished with olive oil, salt, and pepper, very mediterranean. Anyway, near the end of their meal I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, the kind of thing where if either party isn’t interested it dies after a few sentences, but if both are interested it continues for a while. (I got the sea bass, and the guy (Jack) told me how to get the meat off without getting all the bones. And it looked exactly like what cats eat in cartoons.)

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So we chatted until they paid, and then they said they were going to get a drink and would I like to join them when I was done eating. They were very nice and friendly, and so I ended up joining them for several rounds of drinks and chatting, and we also made plans to get dinner tomorrow night. They’re an Irish couple, she’s a pharmacist and he’s a cobbler, and they both have tons of interesting stories and are also both good conversationalists. I think I’m less likely to talk to strangers when I have a dining companion of my own, so. Score one sociability point for solo travelers.

Tomorrow I jump (well, ok, rappel) down a 60-meter cliff. So that should be fun.

Crabs in Cambodia

It’s been way too long since I posted anything, which I am blaming on a combination of being super tired at night, having bad wifi, and/or writing in my paper journal instead. But. Here I am in Cambodia! I have a half-written piece on Tokyo, which I will try to finish in the next few days, but here is the cliff-notes version of what I’ve been up to over the last few days:

Tokyo!

  • Day 1, went to Mariakan museum, the museum of emerging science and technology. Cool robots! Creepy androids! Out-of-place exhibit on ninjas, with shoes that they used to walk on water. Met my cousin, her boyfriend, and her friend for lunch in Asakusa, then went to the big temple (Senso-ji) and pulled a fortune. It was a metaphor about fishing. An afternoon visit to the Tokyo National Museum ended when they shooed everyone out by playing “Auld Lang Syne.” Then we had conveyor-belt sushi for dinner.
  • Day 2, went to Meiji Jingu, a huge Shinto shrine, and its beautiful gardens. Met my cousin and her boyfriend for lunch in Harajuku (cold udon is a thing, and it’s delicious), then bought cute Japanese socks. In the afternoon I went to a Hayao Miyazaki exhibit on the 52d floor of Roppongi Tower. Couldn’t understand any of the signs, but the drawings were cute and the views fantastic. Walked around my hotel’s neighborhood (Shinjuku), quickly stumbling on the love hotels and men-only massage parlors, but also passing the very cool neighborhood of Golden Gai. Four alleyways lined with tiny bars, each seating no more than 10 patrons.
  • Day 3, I had a 3 o’clock train to Kyoto. I went to the Imperial Palace in the morning and wandered around the gardens, then went to Ginza, where I went to a soba shop and ordered what I thought was the tea I saw everyone around me drinking. They brought me a teapot full of the water they had been cooking the noodles in. I missed having my cousin to translate/explain, and did not drink it.

Kyoto:

  • Day 1, I arrived around 6 pm, just in time to drop my bags off and get to the place where the river split to see the huge (as in, the whole hillside) bonfires for Bon-Odori/O-Bon, a religious festival. Kyoto lights five fires, each a different character, and all symbolic. I got to the riverside at 7:30, and it was pouring. Pouring. Pouring. I didn’t have an umbrella, just a raincoat, because I was planning to buy a cute Asian umbrella. Goretex let me down, and by the time I got back on the subway at 8:15 (theoretically they lit the fires at 8, but I sure didn’t see anything), I was squishing with every step.
  • Day 2, I went to Kiyomizu-Deru temple, which is up in the hills. I walked down a gravel path behind the temple, and saw a path going into the woods with a little sign clearly showing it was a hiking trail. Could I read any of the words on the sign? No. But it went somewhere, so I started walking. I climbed up the mountain, until I was way above and behind the shrine, and couldn’t read any of the signs I passed, though it was obviously still a hiking trail. I did eventually find a 2-inch sign in English, and found another trail that led back to the other side of the temple. I got a lot of mosquito bites. Walking down the hill towards Nishkin Market, I stopped at Kennin-Ji temple, where I rested my feet and cooled down while staring at the Zen garden. What do you know, it was peaceful. Zen, you might say. I ate lunch at 3 pm, continuing my cultural misunderstandings by ordering something called sashimi (it was slimy… bean curd strips? I don’t know) and pouring tea into the check stand. I then bought way too many souvenirs, and went back to the hostel to do laundry.
  • Day 3, I went to Hiroshima. I got there around 10 am, went to A-Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and the museum. The museum hadn’t been renovated since it was built in the 50s, but they were in the middle of doing that, so half of it was closed. That meant a whole museum’s worth of people squished into half a museum. I couldn’t see most of the exhibits over the pack of people, which took away from an otherwise moving experience. Lunch was okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima treat of pancake, cabbage, bean sprouts, bacon, egg, noodles, and several sauces and spices cooked on a big griddle. There’s a food court that sells nothing but that, so I picked the most crowded place and waited in line. I had just enough time to hustle to a beautiful garden, where a couple in kimono were getting their wedding pictures taken, then I caught my train back to Kyoto. I went straight to the Fushimi Inari shrine, where there are red torii gates lining the whole path up the mountain. It’s a 2-hour hike to the top, and the sun was setting, so I only went halfway, but it was beautiful.
  • Day 4, I slept late and then went to Arashiyama, a western suburb of Kyoto. I had a kaiseki (Kyoto haute cuisine) lunch, then walked in the bamboo groves. After an afternoon visit to the monkey park (so cute!) I went to Gion in an attempt to see geisha. I saw one from a block away, and then bought a ticket to a super touristy show so I could see Japanese traditional arts, including the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and a geisha dance. I finally had ramen for the first time for dinner.
  • Day 5, I went to Nijo Castle, which was really cool. They had a nightingale floor, so you couldn’t sneak up on the shogun. I had tea in the traditional tea house. Then I caught the train to Hakone.

Hakone:

  • Day 1, I arrived at the Ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) around 3:30, having had to drag my bags uphill a kilometer in the rain. But they fed me cold tea and a sweet as a welcome, and then I could get straight in the onsen (traditional hot springs), which was why I had come. They’re public (though segregated by gender), and naked. I did not like the way the 5-year old girl stared at me, it made me self-conscious. The ryokan had 4, and I tried all of them: one before dinner (the genders switched for each one at 7 pm), one after, one when I woke up at 4 am, and one before breakfast at 8 am. The place was super traditional, tatami and sliding doors, and a six-course meal served to you in your room. So many kinds of fish. Some good, some gross. Sleeping in a traditional Japanese bed is like camping on a good camping pad, if someone chopped the bottom of your sleeping bag off (my feet stuck out the end).
  • Day 2, breakfast also had lots of different kinds of fish. I didn’t eat the baby sardines, I have a thing against eating eyes. Then I left my bags and went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, basically a big outdoor sculpture garden in the mountains. They have a public foot-onsen, which was odd but fun. Then I walked to the train station, caught the switchback-single track-mountain train, walked down the hill to the ryokan, picked up my bags, walked to Hakone station, took that train to Odawara, caught the Shinkansen to Shinagawa, changed to another line, took that one stop, changed to another line, walked two blocks, and finally ended up at my airport hotel.

Singapore:

  • Day 1, I woke up early in Tokyo, had sushi for breakfast, and made it out about an hour before a typhoon hit and they closed the airport. It was a bumpy ride. 7 hours later, I landed in Singapore. My hostel (a “capsule hotel,” not really, do not recommend) was in Chinatown. I went to the Chinatown Cultural Heritage Center, a cool museum like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, tried and failed to get chicken rice at a hawker center (they were closed, I got rice porridge and mystery meet from another stall instead), and saw the sound and light show at the “Supertrees” in this big public garden.
  • Day 2, I went to the zoo. There’s this cool place where you go through like 4 doors, and then there are whistling ducks, mini deer, 2 kinds of parrots, ring-tailed lemurs, bats, butterflies, all just hanging out around you inches away. The elephant show was entertaining but also maybe exploitative, I felt somewhat conflicted. Then the botanical gardens, then Little India, then Arab Street. I did some shopping in both places, and had very spicy Indonesian food for dinner. I went to the People’s Park Complex and got a foot reflexology massage, my first, which was very painful but seems to have worked because my feet don’t hurt as much as they used to and the weird cramp on the bottom of my left foot is gone. I had a durian milkshake, but could only down four or five sips before I had to throw it away, it was so gross.
  • Day 3, I went to the gardens by the bay to try to go on the catwalk up in the Supertrees, but it was raining so that was closed. Then I went to the national museum, then I finally got my chicken rice. The airport has a sunflower garden on the roof. And I arrived in Cambodia around 6 pm.

Cambodia:

  • Day 1. My friend who’s doing her Ph.D. research in Cambodia met me at the airport, and we took a long and winding tuktuk ride through all the bad parts of town (the roads were big craters full of mud, so we kept turning around), past karaoke bars where the women sit in rows of chairs so customers can pick one, and past big piles of burning trash. We stayed at a hotel a few blocks away from where she used to live, in the hipster ex-pat part of town, and had a very nice dinner of Khmer food. We went to a hotel’s rooftop bar for drinks, and ordered cocktails based just on the name. Mine was good, fresh apple juice with liquor (tequila I think) mixed in, but hers was a little fishbowl of bright blue liquid balanced on a bigger fishbowl full of lights, a battery pack, and flashing multicolor LED lights.
  • Day 2, today! We woke up early and a driver took us down south to Kep, a town which used to be a French resort town back in colonial days. We dropped our bags, changed into bathing suits, and walked over to the crab market. They wade out, pick up a trap, bring it onshore, and then cook the crabs then and there for you. It was too early for crabs, I had a mung bean waffle instead, and then we went to Rabbit Island. You get on this narrow wooden boat and just head over the bay for about half an hour, then have to climb down a ladder and wade in (there’s no dock). The beach was beautiful, and the sun came out. We both got sunburned, stupidly. Then we hung out by the pool, had crabs for dinner, and here we are, surrounded by a mosquito net to keep out not the mosquitos but the geckos and giant-ass spiders who call this bungalow home. Seriously, the spider that crawled off the toilet paper when I tried to use it was a solid 3 inches.

And that’s it, I’m finally caught up! Japan, Singapore, and Cambodia part 1 in a nutshell.