Shinjuku night lightsTokyo & Kamakura
Shinjuku has the city's largest concentration of bars - all kinds of bars - and karaoke boxes and restaurants - its also home to the red light district and the gay area
Monday Evening: Rendez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?
Takeshi and I had met on the internet. I learned he used to live in Hiro, the next stop after my old hometown of Kure. He'd been manager at Moss Burger, a popular not so fast food chain, for eight months. It was a big change from Tokyo for him. He enjoyed the spacious apartment, four times the size of his Tokyo place and rent at a quarter the cost. He enjoyed his small town co-workers too, their motherly kindness and how they treated their new Tokyo-gin manager like a celebrity. Naturally, he found it boring.
We met out front Shinjuku
Station south exit. Considering three metro lines and five rail lines converge at Shinjuku, it was surprising how easily we found each other. Takeshi led me to san chome. We had a look around at what restaurants were the most enticing. The Irish pub was packed. A popular izakaya was full too and customers spilled into the street, standing round oil barrels turned tables. The night air in Shinjuku in May; imagine Spring romance, its pheromones and perfumes, mingling with steaming, broiled, fried and sautÃ©ed dishes from a dozen
Italian Bistro, Shinjuku San Chome
Normally, I'd probably not pay 10$ cover for a live singer playing too quietly to be heard but there was magic in the air that night
dozen eateries. I was up for anything but wanted to dine al fresco. We settled on a small Italian bistro. Neither of us seemed dissuaded by the 1000Y music cover. A wee bit of a thing sang in the back corner playing an instrument muted by my companion's engrossing conversation. Two things common to nearly all Italian restaurants in Japan: red wine is served chilled and pasta is served al dente. I've come to appreciate firmer noodles but I no longer order reds. The next hurdle for foreigners ordering wine, is to act very humble and apologetic if, rather than just pointing to the menu or assenting to the server's suggestion, you request to see the bottle. Wine tasting is still a very foreign custom in Asia. I chose a dry Tuscan with a spicy bouquet, easy to drink, fun to swish around the tongue, suggesting a slightly oaky taste in the back of the throat. Behind us the chef pulled out one after another crisp pizzas from the stone oven. Taking our cue, we ordered the quatro fromaggio, a crisp mushroom salad, followed by a seafood pasta.
Takeshi was in Tokyo on holiday as well, waiting to hear
from the UK Embassy and his employers, a hotel on London's posh avenue, Mayfair. His two year British work visa had expired in March. He returned to Japan and spent a few weeks with his mum in Kyushu before finding lodging at a gaijin house in central Tokyo. A gaijin house is a good place to begin one's stay in the metropolis. They are advertised on the internet, do not require key money or demand an initial two months rent deposit, and thus eliminate a few thousand dollars to worry about. Rent is paid weekly and so long as you abide by the house rules, that is, to keep tidy and show consideration to those sharing your bath and kitchen, a gaijin house can be a useful service. Takeshi soon realized the visa paperwork would take a while so he found a job at a hotel near Ginza. Hearing his stories, I commented that he must have an impressive CV. Yeah, "I do," he laughed. Not the typical Japanese humble response. His boss, however, and the serious Japanese work ethic disagreed with him - there is to be no talking while on the job except of matters concerning your job
The Blind Old Cat
tucked into the maze of Shinjuku's nightlife district, down a hidden narrow staircase, lies a beautiful old Jazz bar. Takeshi used to come here as a college student to read and listen to the music. I've rarely seen such thick ambiance
- so within a few weeks he'd given his resignation. For the moment he is living off paycheques still sent from his U.K. employers who seem anxious to have him back. I didn't bother speaking much Japanese with Takeshi. He has studied English for several years, including a year in Newcastle where he learned hotel management. I thought it cool that he and I both sought studies in Europe and that we both are interested in working and living abroad.
I'd asked to meet in Shinjuku because I figured I'd head to the bars that night until I felt ready to drag myself to a nearby capsule hotel I'd once stayed in. Dinner seemed to be going well though, or at least better than either of us expected. You're welcome to stay at my place but it's quite small and you have to be quiet, offered my companion. Red-faced, I accepted. We strolled back through san chome. Takeshi motioned me down a narrow staircase on a side street corner near the station crawling with little secrets despite the many neon light shop signs. At the bottom, a heavy door like those on a navy ship with a mesh covered
circular window led to a dimly light jazz bar, The Blind Old Cat. Twenty square metres, no larger than a single car garage, and furnished like the interior of an old bus with narrow shiny wooden benches along one wall. Along the other stretched the bar in the same dark walnut. The bartender, in his fifties, served two regulars, his peers, with whiskies and cashews. Takeshi explained he used to come here to just sit and read at the bar or study and listen to the music. He'd studied Economics at University in Tokyo. There were no adverts on the wall, no kitschy frames signed by half famous wannabes, no postcards. It was clean, simple and anonymous and soaked in atmosphere. I splurged on a double brandy on the rocks and when the other customers had left, requested a song, Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now. I needed to hear her simple truths and confirm for myself that she existed in the well keep secret turned fond memory. The bartender knew a lot about Joni and talked about her through most of the song.
Tuesday: Rain & strong coffee, Roppongi
Tuesday morning we lounged in bed a
Shinjuku night lights
the view from Takeshi's gaijin-house in Nakano, a 30min walk from the high-rise district
long while, a strange but welcome diversion to sightseeing considering the sudden shock of dark blue-grey cloud hanging over the city. Light blue punctures drifted overhead as we sat drinking coffees on Roppongi's main thoroughfare under a battle of northerly and southerly gusts. Umbrellas in tow we took to Roppongi Hills for a tour of one of the neighbourhood's resplendent art museums. According to a brochure I picked up, Roppongi is home to 69 of the total 127 embassies in Tokyo. It is more well known as a popular nightlife district for high-end bars and clubs. During the day, however, the main thoroughfares look unsightly. I have heard it argued on the other hand that Tokyo's expressways are a modern engineering marvel in their sheer size but I prefer them hidden by the night sky. The Mori Art Museum was charging 1500Y to gawk at Spiderman's outfit or an exhibit of Japanese Art depicting laughter through the ages. We found our own fun in the gift shop. A lot of Japanese art is very twisted, verging on obscene and merging classical with cute with pornographic. Takeshi dragged me through the shops - I loathe shopping and consumerism and malls and
seen from Roppongi Hills
advertising - where we found an outlet of my favourite brand, Zara! I even splurged on a new top. A few days later in Omotesando Takeshi dragged me into Energy, an Italian clothing chain. Their t-shirts cost nearly 20,000Y! (100Y = 1$cdn) Tokyo truly is a world unto itself. Here, people can defend such purchases. Personally, I don't feel the need to impress others and besides, though I may not have my mother's big chest, I have inherited her knack for spilling food all down the front. In the basement of Roppongi, reached accidentally on an incomprehensible escalator, we discovered a food court with a wine bar, a bagel shop and delicatessen, a sushi shop and a Spanish tapas bar. These I can defend spending my hard earned money on. Dinner was not as romantic as san chome al fresco but the meal was delicious, seafood paella, olives, sardines, a salad, baguette, and dishes too tasty to wait for their photograph to be taken. Most of the clientele seemed to be business folk including a rowdy group of Americans from the high security office towers. A new high-rise complex of high-end shops and apartments, offices, movie theatres, etc., opened at
giftshop tedy head, Mori Art Museum
the cover was too steep so we forewent the exhibits and entertained ourselves in the shop
Midtown, a short walk from Roppongi Hills. There seems to be some kind of relationship with the city's openings of new shop complexes every other year (Tokyo Forum, Omotesando Hills, Ikebukuro's Sunshine City) and the ever expanding system of metro and train stations. Tokyo does appear in some respects as a grand theme park with 12 million thrill seekers shuttling between bistros and cafes and boutiques and shopping malls. Following dinner, we took a peek at Midtown, discovered the basement supermarket was still open at almost ten, and bought a basket of goodies to enjoy on the balcony back in Nakano-Shimbashi. I introduced Takeshi to my favourite beer, the very strong Belgian, Duvel, accompanied with an expensive funny sounding Danish white cheese and fresh apple slices. Martha Stewart, eat my stocks!
Wednesday: Wisteria, Fishcake & the river by night
Wednesday turned out be my favourite day of the trip but ultimately a real shocker as well. Although it was great weather, we didn't venture out til afternoon. Mornings were slowly taking on a ritual of preening then picnicking out on the balcony on 7-11 yoghurts and veggie sticks . After joining the salaryman lunch rush at Doutor's coffee,
KamiRobo Baadoman, Mori Art Museum gift shop
Paper Robot Birdman - yeah, its a wee inflatabe toy but there were paper ones too
we caught the metro to Shimbashi, at the bottom corner of Ginza, the closest station to Hama-rikyu Gardens. Built in the Edo Period, it's a square mile or so of tranquility squeezed in between Tokyo Bay and the new Shiodome sky scraper district, an Italian entertainment and office complex. In fact, the garden's Shiori-no-ike pond is connected to the bay and ebbs and flows with the tide. This is why I like Tokyo, old and new, green and steel, side by side. Just one stop from Ginza, the garden provides an incredibly tranquil stroll. There's not much wildlife but it's a great place to sample green tea or sit and listen to the water lap the concrete jetties.
The other side of the garden backs onto Tsukiji fish market, a vast complex where most whole salers and serious restaurant owners do their shopping. We arrived far too late to witness any of the excitement. Guidebooks suggest a morning visit. Several blocks of narrow alleys packed with shops and restaurants surround the fish market, all of them selling fish in one form or another. I watched one man closing up his shop removing from a tank the most massive Hokkaido crabs
I'd ever seen. As the sun set we walked along the bank of the Sumidagawa, admiring the lights of Shinagawa and Tokyo tower and the friendship bridge. Takeshi led me across to Tsukimi, a neighbourhood he once lived in, famed for its monja, a Tokyo style okonomiyaki. The neighbourhood feels unlike any other in Tokyo. There are canals full of small boats moored alongside narrow old houses between which grow small jungles of plants. There are few cars and many pedestrians searching out their favourite monja restaurant. And despite there being easily six dozen places within a couple square blocks, all advertising pretty much the same menu, nearly every place was full and customers sat on benches outside smoking, drinking beers from the vending machines, waiting to be seated inside. I let my host order our dishes. I ordered myself umeshu roku, Japanese plum sake on the rocks. We first fried up some potato butta and mushrooms, followed with monja. There is a special way to making it, unlike Osaka or Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. First, fry the dry ingredients; second, gather the dry ingredients into a donut shape; third, pour the batter in the middle; four, mix it all together
Tapas Bar, basement of Roppongi Hills
Seafood Paella, Marinated Olives, Mushrooms just like the ones I had in Barcelona, sardines & the rest was too quick for the camera
and spread it thin across the pan. And there is a special ay to eat it too, using small frying spoons to press the sticky mixture into the pan, make it crisp so it sticks to the spoon. It makes each bite a small endeavour and the taste more tangible by this memorable experience. In the words of my old high-school students, "I will always good memory of monja. I want to eat monja again someday." Belts a notch looser, we strolled back along the river, across the bridge and into Ginza. Not much doing. Its lively on the weekends and during the early evening when the salarymen get off work but other times most of the sheen gets ignored. We continued under the tracks past a couple blocks known as yakitori alley, a row of cheap eateries selling small orders of fried meat and draft pints. A beautifully designed building, the mass complex, Tokyo Forum, on one side curves with the train tracks. The architect created a ship shaped hall of glass and steel. We climbed up the criss-crossing gang planks for a view before calling it a day.
Unwinding back at Takeshi's, my ex texted me, "I know
Tokyo Metro Nakano-Sakaue
only an Art Historian can appreciate that these five yellow lines date back to classical Greek temple sculpture
what you did" and minutes later, "come get the rest of your things". I'd broken up with him because I'd lost any romantic feeling for him. I couldn't fit together all his different selves: the one for work, the one for family, the ones for his friends he likes and for his friends he doesn't much like, and the one for me. At the same time, I'd come to depend on him for most of my companionship since so many of my other friends or acquaintances or colleagues had returned home or gone elsewhere. I let a lot of the relationship problems slide. I figured it was a good lesson in understanding, accepting, etc. Until I just snapped one night and, unbeknownst to my partner, feeling coaxed by too many cocktails and by my drinking companions, two Brits down from Tokyo for hanami, I left the bar with another man. A day later that deleted scene ends with me realizing my attitude towards Seiki. I told him the next weekend that I couldn't be with him but I didn't tell him about the other guy.
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