Trip 15 -- Central & East Asia
Part 4: Narrow alleys and sliding doors
22 November 2013
The enormous terracotta army just outside Xi'an, installed 2200 years ago at the direction of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, contains at least 8000 life-size kiln-fired, painted warriors and horses and 10,000 bronze weapons (protected by chrome plating, a technique that wouldn't be "discovered" for 2000 years), in addition to fragments of chariots and the remains of pillars and brick streets that separated the columns of cavalrymen. More impressive than the army's magnitude was its secrecy: The emperor had it covered over and the entrances sealed off, and no one was to know of its existence. And no one did until 1974, when someone drilling for water struck a shard of something that turned out to be a piece of a soldier.
The excavators must have had quite a time putting all those people back together. Imagine doing a few thousand jigsaw puzzles that all look kind of the same, only you don't know how many puzzles there are, how many pieces are in each one, or whether you even have all the pieces to begin with. So far they've reassembled a few thousand infantry, kneeling archers, charioteers, and acrobats, each with a different facial expression.
It's impressive, but the mystique is somewhat dulled by the fact that flash-toting tourists seem to outnumber the soldiers. The noise level is high and the crowds are thick. You look down on the army from above, rather than walk among it, and the dim lighting obscures much of the detail. The weapons have all been removed to a different exhibition area. The wooden chariots have rotted or burned. Nearby is the emperor's mausoleum compound, with its tumulus concealing the old palace, and several other excavation pits whose contents mostly seem to have been relocated.
A short ride away is one of Shaanxi province's more audacious rip-offs, Huaqing Palace. I'm probably being too hard on poor Huaqing because I expected something different. What I'd looked forward to was relaxing in the natural hot springs, not least because I had spent the previous three nights in transit and it would be a means of cleaning up a bit. I thought the park entry fee of around $18 seemed reasonable for a couple of hours' soaking.
What I didn't know was that the hot spring is only one tiny component of the whole palace complex, which is almost as crowded as the terracotta-warrior museum; that the promising English signs saying "Tourism service center" are staffed by people who speak no English and are only there to sell you souvenirs; that the baths referred to by the signage are the remains of the emperor's baths (and thus little more than empty stone vats); and that, when you finally do find the unmarked building where you can bathe in the natural water, they want an additional 280 yuan for the privilege. I did the calculation a few times, thinking I was off by a power of ten -- but no, I wasn't: Including the park admission, a soak in a bath cost $64, about three times as much as a decent hotel room in Xian.
The complex was pretty, backed by Mount Lishan and full of gardens and pavilions. But with all the people there, the staff setting up the amphitheatre for a performance that evening, and the number of souvenir and food vendors, there was scant tranquility. I took the bus back to Xi'an and had a quick look inside the central landmark, the 14th-century Bell Tower (which used to have an important bell inside), and the almost-adjacent contemporaneous Drum Tower (which used to have an important drum inside). Both have great city views and are quite richly carved and colorfully painted, and the latter now has an exhibition of different kinds of drums used in China's past. I especially liked the "elephant's foot" drum, a kind of wrinkled stump. Historically, drums were used musically, to rouse soldiers into battle, and to sound the daily closing and opening of the city's gates.
Running up from the Drum Tower is Xi'an's most interesting lane for street food. I spent a very rushed ten minutes stocking up dinner for my train ride by pointing at exotic-looking things and thrusting money at people, clutching the limp plastic bags I received in exchange and hoping they wouldn't leak or break as I ran north and took the subway one stop to the station. On board, I examined what I had: a kind of empanada, a container of squishy rice cakes, a few sweet doughy meat-filled balls on a stick, and one little pastry that should have been much sweeter than it was.
This train, the through train from Lhasa to Shanghai, was a mess, with people trying to pass each other in opposite directions in the narrow aisle and nutshells all over the floor -- and my bed. I'd wondered whether they changed the bedclothes in between passengers, and the crumpled blanket, imprinted pillow, and left-over food on my berth gave me the answer. By morning, however, some people had cleared out, and the train was calm. It even had working power outlets.
Three and a half years ago, at the ironically dark Lamp Guesthouse in the icy town of Abashiri, Japan, I met a retired Honda engineer named Yoshi from the Tokyo area. He'd come to New York a few times since and we'd met for dinner or lunch, and I figured when I got to Tokyo -- the end of this trip -- we'd do the same. Instead, he flew all the way to Shanghai, one of his favorite cities, to give me a tour. He met me at the train station, armed with a subway card for me and an ambitious paper schedule for my two days in Shanghai. That afternoon was to include lunch, a trip out to the old-town area, a walk around the colonial-style riverfront buildings (the Bund), a circus performance, dinner with his friends, and drinks at a jazz bar. But my train was 15 minutes late and his intended lunch spot was closed.
"Change schedule!" he said. "We'll see the old town tomorrow." Before I could protest, we were in a taxi heading west on Shanghai's main shopping thoroughfare, Nanjing Road. We stopped near the lively, richly decorated Jing'an Temple, and went up into a shopping mall. Near the top we sampled Shanghai's famous soup-filled dumplings, giant shark-fin dumplings, a spicy fish head, steamed pork buns, veal ribs with black chili, and vegetable dumplings. It felt good to be back in a place where I wanted to eat everything and subject my readers to the details. We lingered for a while. Yoshi looked at his watch and shook his head.
"Change schedule!" he said. It was almost four and the circus was at 5:15. "We will see the Bund tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a very busy day. Now we will go to Tianzifang." That was another old neighborhood of narrow lanes that had been turned into a fairly touristy area, with eastern and western restaurants, hookah bars, and boutique clothing shops. Yet it was somehow compelling; I like little streets full of activity.
The circus was in a theatre, not a tent, and there were no animals, but the acrobatics certainly rivaled anything I'd seen elsewhere: ten people on a bicycle, hundreds of spinning plates, hoop jumpers, and feats of strength. The grand finale was five people riding motorcycles in a tight sphere, narrowly missing each other.
Dinner was some ways out from the center of the city and not until 9:30, a late eating hour by Chinese standards -- in smaller towns on previous trips I'd struggled to find places open after eight. But this was an all-night place specializing in the seasonal hairy crabs. Our companions were Japanese-speaking tour guides Yoshi had met on a previous visit. One spoke a little English, but for the most part I tried to remember what Japanese I could from my year of it in college, having Yoshi fill in words when necessary.
"How do you say 'study'?" I asked.
While Yoshi and the others caught up, the other English speaker and I talked about housing in Shanghai. A basic one-bedroom rents for three thousand to five thousand yuan per month, or about $500 to $830 -- by American standards quite reasonable for such a lively, populous city.
The waitress brought a bottle of Chilean wine, which somehow sufficed for the seven of us for the night.
"How do you say 'drink'?"
In addition to the hairy crabs, we had large prawns, Shanghai's "red pork" with a little connected fat, skewers of meat, and a most welcome steamed vegetable similar to spinach -- greens had been sorely lacking on this trip. There was also a plate of fruit wrecked with mayonnaise. At the end of the meal, the waitress brought out apples.
"How do you say 'apple'?"
The next day we accomplished the things on Yoshi's schedule without changing it. We visited Yuyuan, the large public garden with streams, statues, bridges, one-room buildings, pretty rock formations, and a much lower entrance fee than Huaqing. We walked along the Bund, the waterfront area lined with colonial-style buildings erected when Shanghai was divided up into foreign-controlled autonomous settlements. We went out to the old town, with narrow alleys of old buildings and an entire street devoted to street food -- Yoshi saw me in a frenzy. At his insistence, we walked through an area of Western shops, restaurants, and malls, which was just as dull as I thought it would be. And we had dinner at his friends' apartment, which included more of the hairy crabs and an exchange of piano performances by me and her young daughter.
Shanghai would have been a logical ending to this trip, but Japan was tantalizingly close, only two days away by ferry. That land of fantastic food and punctual trains (where they'd never leave a minute early, ahem, ahem), would be my dessert -- a place to hang out for five days, two in Osaka and three in Tokyo, and eat everything in sight.
The Xinjianzhen ferry leaves once a week from Shanghai, with its destination alternating between Kobe and Osaka. (Another ferry leaves weekly on a different day.) My compartment had room for eight people, but there were only three of us, including two Japanese. One, a knowledgeable man from Kobe named Maruyama, spoke excellent English. He worked near Shanghai for a month at a time. He called his occupation a janitor, but it was more dignified than that. His job was to clean and keep orderly the areas where goods were inspected for companies such as Adidas. As a neatness-prone Japanese man, he was often appalled by the slovenly habits of the Chinese.
"Look at that!" he said, showing me a picture of a room littered with skewed heaps of boxes. "I tell them they can't throw the boxes in the aisle like that, but they do it anyway!"
The Xinjianzhen's amenities included a cafeteria, open for very limited meal hours; a lounge, open only for very strange hours (two hours in the morning and two just after lunch); a duty-free shop; a mahjong room; a ping-pong room; a computer room (but no Internet access); a karaoke bar; and, to my astonishment, washers and dryers. The boat could accommodate more than 300 people, but I saw from the roster when I checked in that there were only 80 of us for this trip.
"Is the boat ever crowded?" I asked Maruyama.
"No," he said. Indeed, I was surprised there was a boat from Shanghai to Osaka at all, when a flight was just two hours -- rather than two days -- and not much more expensive, if not sometimes cheaper. I took it because I thought it would be fun, but I doubted anyone would use it regularly. Maruyama proved me wrong.
"The ferry is cheaper than the plane," he said, "and every third round trip is half-price. Also, on the ferry you can bring as much as you want."
Among the other passengers were Tim and Mary, a couple from the United Kingdom who, at breakneck pace, had taken trains all the way from London to Shanghai, except for a small hiccup when they were taken off a train at the Belarusian border and forced to fly because their travel agent hadn't warned them that they'd need a transit visa. By taking trains instead of planes, they could reduce their environmental impact. They were about to spend six weeks in Japan.
The Xinjianzhen took about two hours to crawl through Shanghai's harbor area, past giant half-built cruise ships and endless construction zones. "I heard that twenty percent of the world's cranes are in Shanghai," Tim said.
"Really? I heard the same about Dubai a few years ago."
Our fellow passengers also included a few middle-aged and elderly couples. But the vast majority were people who looked to be students in their 20s. I asked Maruyama about them.
"They are not students," he said. "They are going to Japan for three years to work. They can earn much more in Japan than in China. After three years they will have enough to buy a house in China."
"But they are wearing the same jackets," I said.
"Then they must have come from the same agency." They were on their own eating schedule. The cafeteria opened at six for dinner, but a special announcement had them rushing in to tables of preset food at 5:45. They were out in 15 minutes.
"I see there are washing machines. Would you mind helping me find the right setting?" Everything was labeled in Chinese characters rather than temperature markings.
"How is the food in the cafeteria?"
"Awful." I was glad I'd stocked up on pork buns and the like, but I had dinner in the cafeteria anyway. I had what they ambitiously called Beijing duck -- it had a similar sauce but none of the accoutrements or camaraderie of a whole duck with scallions and crepes shared among friends. It wasn't bad, but it was clearly important to get a dish freshly hot.
The next morning, before breakfast, they took everyone's temperature, as they had before we boarded the ship. And we adjusted our watches an hour ahead -- the first day on the ship runs on Chinese time, the second on Japanese. I sat with Maruyama and Tim; Mary had an appropriate temperature but didn't feel like breakfast.
"What did you do last night?" Maruyama asked.
"I went to the karaoke room, but there was no one there. There was no one in the mahjong room, either."
"Do you like mahjong?"
"I've never played. Do you?"
"Would you show me how to play?"
"Whenever you're ready."
"After I shower."
Maruyama chuckled. "Do you need me to show you how to shower, too?" he asked. "Yesterday you asked for help with the washing machine. Now you need help learning mahjong." I liked his sense of humor.
I showered and was astonished to come back to see the TV set on in the compartment with a live feed of the sixth game of the Boston-Detroit American League baseball championship series.
"My Red Sox!" I said. "Do you like baseball?" I asked Maruyama.
"Yes. I like the Yankees."
I crossed my arms over my chest in an "X" pattern -- the Asian sign that something is a no-go. "I don't know if we can be friends."
We watched for an hour or so. Boston scored one, then Detroit scored two. A message appeared on the left side of the screen -- something about 11:49.
"You have three minutes," Maruyama said. "Then the game is moving to another channel" -- one that of course we didn't have on the boat. Sure enough, the game feed abruptly stopped, leaving Boston stranded with two on and two out, down by one. I wouldn't find out the outcome until the next day.
"We should be able to see the Goto Islands at noon," Maruyama said. "Yesterday we seemed to be running late, but today we've been going very fast." The islands appeared right on schedule. "And this evening at six we'll enter the Kanmon Straits."
Maruyama taught me mahjong, a game that had always looked confusing to me but is surprisingly similar to rummy. I wasn't ready for a game of it with the die-hard Chinese players, but I spent the afternoon playing cards with them. I went outside in the evening to find an enormous orange full moon just above the sea. And right at six we entered the straits.
That night the karaoke room was hopping, with, oh, six or seven people singing Chinese pop. Tim took a turn, and then I serenaded people at random with pretty much the only song I knew in the book, "On the Street Where You Live." And the bartender sang one song in perhaps the loveliest voice of all of us.
The next morning we docked in Osaka at 8:30, but it was another hour before we were finally off the boat, and another half hour before I was through the unbelievably lengthy luggage-inspection process. Yoshi found me and we took the subway to the Apa Hotel, in the Dotonbori district, a warren of narrow alleys situated around a canal.
"What do you want to do here?" Yoshi asked.
"No plans. I just want to be here. The only place I want to go is Sushi Ichiban." That was a tiny sushi place I'd found on my previous trip, three and a half years before. It was in an alley too narrow for cars to squeeze through. There was room for only about seven people standing, and you ordered what fish pieces you wanted and then brushed them with soy sauce, helping yourself to ginger as needed. No-frills and friendly, and the fact that it was hard to find led to its allure.
"I just want to be here" was indeed my favorite reason for going to Osaka. Apart from the castle, the city didn't have any must-see sights; it was simply fun to hang out and people-watch on the bridges, eat street takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (grill-them-yourself savory pancakes), go into some of the novelty stores such as Don Quijote, and browse the alleys for compelling-looking places to drink. Yoshi and I had a lunch of kushikatsu -- skewers of fried, grilled food -- and then walked up to Osaka's strangest building, the Gate Tower. It has a highway ramp running through its middle floors, the result of a negotiation between the city and the owners of the air rights. Just after dusk, we went up the 101-year-old Tsutenkaku tower, which would have had wonderful views of the city if the interior lighting hadn't been reflected in its windows.
Yoshi had made plans for dinner at a Hawaiian restaurant, but as long as I had my Sushi Ichiban fix I didn't care that much. We tried for a quick trip to the sushi bar in the late afternoon, but the gate was down and the sign said it wouldn't open until six.
The Hawaiian restaurant was on one of the little alleys and Yoshi had trouble finding it; he had to ask several people. The only reason we had to go there was that he had found a coupon for two meals for $40 -- which would have been fine if he had asked me first and the coupon hadn't restricted us to the least interesting things on the menu. It's hard to fault Yoshi too much for locking us into a subpar dinner, though -- not everyone travels two days on a ferry just to eat. And at least I'd have my Sushi Ichiban later that night.
Yoshi took a rest after dinner and I went out for a drink. My quest was to find a bar that was cozy, open to the public, not empty, not too loud, and up one of the tiny elevators that lead who-knows-where in Dotonbori's morass of buildings. More importantly, it had to not be a hostess club, where men pay a set price to enter and drink for a fixed period of time and then have the opportunity to buy additional drinks for ladies in exchange for conversation and various degrees of physical contact. Many hostess clubs were given away by their names -- I figured "Hot Leg's" wasn't my cup of tea -- but others required further study.
What made it hard to find the right bar was that the doors were always closed, so any investigation into a particular place involved opening its door, sometimes to the sound of a chime, and suffering the temporary embarrassment of the gaze of all its patrons and staff. If, in a one-second assessment of the place, I deemed its appearance and inhabitants satisfactory, I then had the privilege of asking questions to determine whether it had a cover charge ($100 in some places) and whether it was a public bar. Then I could either enter or back away hastily with an abundance of apologies for intruding.
I took a little elevator up to l'An du Cheval and put my ear to the door. There seemed to be the right amount of activity. I opened the door and revealed a white chair and a flower. "Irasshaimase!" called one of the staff -- the polite greeting in any establishment. She ran over and informed me that it was a private bar.
In a sleek-looking, white, curvy building, I tried a place called Balloon. I was welcomed into a Philippine karaoke party with plush couches. Someone sat me down and said I could drink all I wanted for 5000 yen (just over $50) an hour. Nice, but not quite what I wanted. Couldn't I just get a cup of sake?
A bar on the street had an interesting concept: With each drink you received casino chips, with which you could gamble at any of several card games. You couldn't win money, though -- just chits for more drinks.
Finally I found a bar called Queue, a somewhat dive-like place with a cover charge of a few hundred yen (which got me a snack) and a few kinds of sake and whiskey available. There was also a dart board, and the bathroom had a garden of stones and one of those fancy toilets that open by themselves and spray warm water on you. No matter how tiny or run-down the bar, it was sure to have a high-tech toilet.
I had a couple of glasses of sake and went outside to the smell and smoke of skewered meat. I collected Yoshi from the hotel and we walked back to Sushi Ichiban, about ten minutes through the alleys. It was midnight. There were people there, but they were closing up, and there was no food to be seen. What had happened?
"Sushi Ichiban closed about six months ago," someone explained to Yoshi. "Now it's a stand-up bar."
For a second I felt crushed, but not as much as someone might be who had waited almost four years to return to a restaurant and just traveled two days by ferry to get there. The energy of Osaka still had me in its grip. This little alley had several stand-up bars, each with its own festive group. There were thousands of sliding doors to open in a ten-block radius. I'd be sure to find somewhere that could replace Sushi Ichiban.
It wouldn't be that night, though. I was in the mood for sushi, but I wanted it quick; I didn't want to hunt for it. We walked a couple of blocks to a rather large place and had our fill, and then, at the suggestion of someone on the street, had a couple of drinks at the tiny "Relaxing Bar Triple R," run by a woman from Ethiopia and a man from Ghana.
The next day, Yoshi and I searched for lunch the same way I had searched for a bar: by opening up sliding doors or lifting noren curtains to see what was inside. We ended up at the Uminchu ("shellfish diver") restaurant, which specialized in Okinawan cuisine, with which even Yoshi was unfamiliar. We let the chef make recommendations and feasted on fried tofu, four-hour-simmered pork (meat and fat) with flat noodles, bitter cucumber and tofu, pork knuckle with marrow and radish, sweet long cucumber and tofu (with hot pepper), leeks with bonito flakes, and noodles with barbecued meat and fish cake. The food kept coming with no hint of an end, and we kept devouring it.
Yoshi left Osaka the day before I did -- he would meet me in Yokohama -- and so I had the rest of the day free. I walked and shopped, giddy with overstimulation by electronics, pachinko, and novelty items. I grilled myself an okonomiyaki -- sort of the Japanese version of a pizza -- and took a nap before heading out for the night.
I was determined to find a hole in the wall that would take the place of Sushi Ichiban. I walked Dotonbori's alleys multiple times, recognizing the same pimps for the hostess bars. I listened for the clatter of plates, sniffed for fish and soy sauce, and peered through noren curtains. Eventually I found it, right near Sushi Ichiban, on an even smaller alley.
This place had just four seats, and two of them were occupied. I sat at the third. If anyone wanted the fourth, I'd have to get out first. The chef had a haphazard array of fish behind the glass in front of him, as well as some meat and a few vegetables. A thin sliding door revealed cutlery, and a steep staircase -- which the chef accessed by squeezing out from behind the bar, side-saddle -- led to ice and other necessities. The entire restaurant wasn't much bigger than most of the elevators I rode in Dotonbori.
I didn't recognize a lot of the fish, so I pointed and the chef explained: shirauo (skeleton fish, reminiscent of white bean sprouts), hamo (dagger-tooth pike conger eel), tachiuo (largehead hairtail, a sleek, silver fish with a comb-like fin, with a taste a little like mackerel), torigai (large cockle), and lightly seasoned anago (saltwater eel, with a warm, flowery fragrance). The chef also made a sushi piece from menegi (a bunch of little scallions), and I tried sushi of grilled cow and raw horse -- wonderfully buttery, fatty, and juicy.
The last seat got taken. We were four diners and a chef, talking and eating -- a family by coincidence for an hour and a half, much as fate brings a family of four passengers and a driver together to talk and ride for a while. The garrulous Giljis from Kyrgyzstan would have been proud. Kyrgyzstan...wait, was Kyrgyzstan this trip? Here I was in a tiny sushi bar amidst the crowded alleys of Osaka. I had been in Kyrgyzstan, hitching out of Sary Tash, that almost desolate crossroads of the world, just twelve days before. It felt like years. The walled city of Khiva was a lifetime ago.
"You were lucky to get in here," said one of the diners. "Usually you need a reservation a month in advance."
Really? It surprised me that anyone else could find the place; it was astonishing that they even took reservations. I paid the bill and the chef gave me a package of dried squid as a present.
So, how do you get there? First find the alley where Sushi Ichiban used to be -- go west along Sennichimae-dori, pass the Gamba store, and turn right into the next alley. Take this to the end and turn left into another alley. Look very closely for an even smaller alley on your right. There you'll find the noren curtains that lead into my new favorite sushi bar, called...Sushi Ichi. Well, if Sushi Ichiban had room for seven, it followed that Sushi Ichi -- three fewer letters -- had room for four.
Outside, at one of the stand-up bars, someone bought me a whiskey and we celebrated the birthday of a bartender from another nearby bar, and then I tried to find a cozier place to settle into for a while. The elevators kept leading me up to private clubs and hostess bars, or to spots with no one in them.
The trick, I learned, wasn't to go up the elevators but to go down the little pathways between the alleys. These were also lined with bars, but some of them had their doors cracked open so I could see what was inside without making a fool of myself. One place managed to be quiet and festive at the same time. I took the only open bar stool and had a Miyagikyo single-malt whiskey with a giant hand-shaved ice cube. I had a snack of scallop foot (hotate no shiokara) and a glass of sweet-potato shochu. And I told someone I had just eaten at Sushi Ichi.
"I have a reservation there in a month," he said.
I took the Nozomi bullet train from Osaka to Yokohama, a trip of two hours and 17 minutes to cover 490 kilometers, about the distance from Philadelphia to Boston. Can you imagine if we had a service like that in the United States? Before boarding, I bought pressed mackerel sushi and a bento box of vegetables and rice, so that I could indulge in that great pastime of eating a meal on the train. I was tired, but I didn't want to sleep -- it was too exciting to try to catch the world going by so fast.
Yoshi met me at Shin-Yokohama station and said he had a surprise: We were going to take the ferry around to the main part of town, so that I could see the newly sprouted buildings in Yokohama's modern center as well as the parks that line the shore. Yokohama is actually Japan's second most populous city, even though on the map it seems like a suburb of Tokyo. We walked along the flat park near the ferry dock, with its pleasant garden, fountain, and peaceful statue of a girl in red shoes, and then uphill for views of the sea and the foreign cemetery. And we had lunch in Yokohama's fantastic, massive Chinatown, though the appeal was somewhat lessened since I had just spent nine days in China.
We rode up to Tokyo and found my hotel, the Shinjuku Park, and then had dinner at a place serving kushiyaki (a broad term encompassing all kinds of skewered, grilled meat). This was the result of another coupon Yoshi had found. The food was good but the menu restrictive and the service so slow we both got bored and frustrated. We asked for the bill after the fourth of seven small courses and were relieved that they then brought the remaining three together. I was still hungry. The restaurant was in Ginza, an upscale district, under the Japan Railways tracks on a street lined with two-story buildings, all of which contained restaurants. I wanted everything in every one of them.
"Come on!" I said to Yoshi as I suddenly turned through a door leading to an oyster bar. I ordered a plate of giant Hokkaido oysters, which were so fresh and had just enough saltiness that they didn't need any of the five dipping sauces laboriously explained and placed next to them.
Yoshi went back to his home in Yokohama; I went back to Shinjuku. I had chosen my hotel for the express purpose of being within walking distance of the Golden Gai, a grid of six narrow streets with intimate, tiny bars, each with a different decor and personality. The area was more intimate than the alleys of Dotonbori; here the buildings were two stories, made out of wood, and seemingly from about 1800, though they really date from around 1950. Some of the smaller bars just occupied the second floor and were reached by steep, twisting staircases entered from the street.
As in Osaka, it could be a challenge to find a bar with just the right mood, but here it was usually easier to see inside, or at least less embarrassing to stick one's head in. Most of the bars had cover charges of three to ten dollars, but they sometimes included a snack. Some bars had surprises -- I went into one and the bartender was brewing a tofu-and-seaweed soup, which she served us all an hour later. Another bar, which was too crowded for me to enter at the time, had a piano -- I'm sure of it -- but I could never find it again. At another, someone's face was being painted -- but then again, it was Halloween weekend.
On my second night in Tokyo, Yoshi took me to his cousin's family's house for dinner, a three-story upper-middle-class house (for some reason Yoshi emphasized the architecture in relation to the family's wealth) in the northwest of the city. It was spotlessly clean. They served us an enormous dinner of sashimi, homemade dumplings (steamed three times, because we were late owing to my poor luck in finding flowers to bring them), pork, chicken wings, and soup, and their ten-year-old daughter played "Für Elise" for us. Then they had me play it, and I gave her a piano lesson.
As we left I said goodbye to Yoshi and told him I wanted to have my whole last day to myself. He understood and didn't mind. I spent the last full day of my trip walking around town, trying to get the geography of all of Tokyo's districts in my head. I walked from Shinjuku through Yoyogi Park down to Shibuya and all the way over to the Imperial Palace, then to Tokyo Station and the Imperial Theatre and down to Ginza. It took the whole day but I finally had something of a sense of the size of the city, at least from northwest to southeast.
For lunch, I went to Uobei, a sushi restaurant that takes the well-known concept of "conveyor belt" sushi even farther. I sat at a video screen that was a computerized menu. I punched in my first order of three plates of sushi, and after a minute or two they came whizzing toward me on a tray on a track, stopping at my seat. I picked up the plates and hit the yellow button to send the tray back to the kitchen. Then I ordered three more plates. It was like a slot machine but I was always a winner -- of sushi! Once in a while I got to play rock, paper, scissors to try to win a coupon for my next visit, but the computer's rock always beat my scissors. The only time I dealt with a person was when I ordered a Coke -- I guess it would spill if it were sent hurtling down the track -- and when I paid my bill.
For my last dinner, worlds away from the meze I'd had in Istanbul six weeks earlier, I hopped around Ginza. I started with a few more Hokkaido oysters at an oyster bar, plus a glass of white wine. The bill included a mysterious 300-yen charge that the waiter said was "like a cover charge" for the two little crackers and butter that had appeared when I sat down. I taught him the word "insidious" and he removed the charge.
A few doors down, I went to a stand-up yakitori restaurant and was crammed in right in front of the grill, next to two drunk Philippine women. I ordered a bunch of skewers, some of them quite spicy, and chased them with a highball.
Then it was time to get serious. Behind a sliding door in a small alley I sat down at Sushiya, an elegant, intimate place with eight seats around a sushi bar. The chef started me off with a cup of salmon roe so fresh it must have been scooped out of the fish that day: cold, slightly salty, a little sweet, and crunching with just the right amount of pop. Next came sashimi of flounder, a glistening piece of bonito, abalone in a green sauce made from its own liver, brain-shaped codfish egg, sardine in onions, and a grilled shishamo (smelt, or, more poetically, "willow-leaf fish" in Japanese). Then came several rounds of sushi, starting with kamasu (a kind of barracuda) and ending with tamago, the omelet that usually ranges from moist and sweet to dry and tasteless in the United States but here at Sushiya was a sweet-savory firm custard, the perfect dessert.
I was on a food high that lasted until morning. It was the day of my flight back to the United States. I didn't really need to walk around, but I still wanted to eat. Where to go, to put the cap on six weeks of traveling? Nowhere but the Tsukiji fish market. I had done an extensive tour of the market a few years before; all I wanted this time was a quick walk-through and a simple sushi lunch nearby.
I got there at around eleven. Most of the fish had been snapped up by restaurants and most of the purveyors were closing up shop, but a few sellers still had take-away packages on display. I bought one of three lonely-looking open Hokkaido oysters and ate it on the spot, and then I bought a dozen giant raw scallops to eat on the plane. Then I found a restaurant near the market's bustle and stuffed myself one last time.