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Trip 20 -- Asia, Cold and Hot
Part 1: How to dine at Sushi Ichi (Japan)
A craving for Japan infects me every couple of years, so I started the trip with two days each in Tokyo and Osaka. My flight to Tokyo's Haneda airport -- so much closer than Narita -- arrived just early enough for me to enjoy the sunset on the monorail ride into town and make it to my lodging for its free-beer happy hour. I'd reserved two nights at a capsule hotel called The Millennials, partly for its location in Shibuya (exit 6-2 from the station), partly for its unique convivial-sounding atmosphere, and mostly because its cost in Iberia Airlines points exactly matched the number in my account that would expire if I didn't make a booking by the end of November two months prior.
My "room" was occupied entirely by a convertible bed, which could be lowered into the sleeping position via an app on an iPod provided at reception. The iPod also controlled the lights, the fan, access to the building and the floor after hours, and a projector. When I pulled down the floor-to-ceiling screen, I had privacy and a place to watch whatever was being projected. There was no television signal; I could choose from HDMI input, Apple TV, or Chromecast, which enabled me to broadcast video from my phone once I figured out the tutorial.
Behind and above the bed was an awkward-to-reach shelf, and under the bed were a locking safe -- just shallow enough not to hold my computer -- and a pull-out luggage rack, to which I secured my backpack with a cable lock. There was no way to lock the room itself, and with the screen closed there was no place to stand up in the room. In the mornings, people's butts protruded into the hallway as they crouched and fiddled with their luggage. Reception provided me with a towel and toiletries for use in the communal showers and lavatories.
Shibuya's hills and alleys lit up at night. I found my way into a maze of bars, shops, and colorful love hotels, and I failed once again to create a map in my head. Every time I thought I was walking a certain alley and headed in a certain direction I emerged onto the main road quite a distance away from where I expected, and at a different angle. The little curtained-off izakaya restaurants beckoned me, but it was tough to discern from the road whether they were accommodating to non-Japanese-speakers.
I decided on a place called Kaikaya by the Sea, whose name was optimistic -- it was a healthy train ride to anywhere near water. I had some of their signature tuna jaw, beef sushi, and sweet shrimp topped with a green chili pepper. "This pepper -- very dangerous!" the waiter warned me. The lengthy walk, all that food, some smooth sake, and the comfortable bed ensured that I slept soundly despite the cramped quarters and proximity to snorers.
On my full day in Tokyo, I had lunch at Uobei, a place I've been going for years, where you order off a screen and your food zips its way to you along a track. The concept has made its way to Hong Kong and Jakarta, so there would be further opportunities to enjoy the concept on this trip, but I like to make a point of visiting the original.
In the afternoon I walked leisurely across town from Shibuya to Ginza, stimulated by the pink shops of Takeshita Street and taking in the tranquility of Akasaka. In all my visits to Tokyo I don't think I'd ever walked through hilly Akasaka, an understated area of peace in the center of the city surrounded by, rather than part of, its most bustling districts. The walk took me through a cemetery and up and over a traffic tunnel; the homes were tidy and the restaurants varied and inviting. Akasaka is probably too far from the main areas for regular commuting on foot, but it's convenient to the whole city by other means and remarkably quiet.
I had a hankering for anago -- saltwater eel -- and so I concluded my walk at Tamai, in a small wooden building near Tokyo station. I started with hone-senbei, deep-fried anago bones, which dealt my mouth a satisfying and surprisingly non-spiky crunch. I moved on to fluffy, light anago tempura, and then I had a version of their specialty, meso -- small adult conger eel -- served two ways: grilled over charcoal and lightly marinated in a sweet sauce. To this I could add scallion and sesame seeds or scrape yuzu over it at my discretion. As I neared the end I was provided with a pot of light anago broth to pour over the last of the eel and rice. And to drink? Hot sake poured over a piece of anago, refilled once during the meal, leaving me with a final tongue-numbing bite.
After dinner it was pouring, so I ran to the nearest metro station and made for Shibuya. Now here's how vast Shibuya station is. When I alighted, not only could I not find exit 6-2, or any numbered exits at all, but instead I happened upon an entirely different railway line that I never knew existed. Fortunately, I also found a window, from where I could see that I was just above Shibuya crossing and therefore a mere three blocks from The Millennials once I figured out how to get to the street.
I traveled by bullet train to Osaka on an unreserved ticket. The friendly person who sold it to me suggested I board at Tokyo station instead of the closer Shinagawa, as the train originated there and it would be easier to get a good seat in one of the unreserved cars. There was a super-express every ten minutes, and I could take whichever one I wanted.
Let's just think about that for a moment. There's a train every ten minutes between Japan's largest and third-largest cities; it reliably costs $125 and takes 2.5 hours to go the nearly 250 miles. In contrast, the fast train from Boston to New York takes almost four hours to go a slightly shorter distance, and while it can be cheaper than $125 it is frequently more expensive unless you happen to book early and into a favorable fare bucket. For about $8 more you can reserve a particular seat on a particular train in Japan; even on Amtrak's Acela there is always a scramble.
Now, I am unlikely to routinely pay $125 to go between Boston and New York when there are often buses for about $20, even when the latter often has an unwanted rest stop and highway congestion is almost guaranteed. (Flights are often cheaper than the train, too.) So there is a problem of too much competition. But if Amtrak offered me an experience where I didn't have to worry about the price weeks in advance, train frequency was better, and I knew I would arrive when I was supposed to, I'm sure I'd pay extra for the reliability. Don't get me wrong: Japan has a long way to go in certain matters, such as gender equality and transgender rights. But they know how to get people where they're going.
All travelers find their own specific attachments to places that may be meaningless to others. For me and Osaka, that place is Sushi Ichi, a four-seat counter in an alley off an alley off an alley in the Dotonbori district. I discovered Sushi Ichi in 2013 as a replacement for my previous favorite spot, the almost identically named Sushi Ichiban, which had closed. That discovery was due to my having the right amount of curiosity and the little sliding door being open at the right time. In 2013 I'd walked right in and eaten. In 2014 the proprietor had said to come back later, but my partner and I were still able to dine. In 2016 we'd been told "yoyaku" -- we needed a reservation -- and didn't get to eat there at all that trip. And so this time I'd reached out to the American Express Platinum Card concierge to see whether they could really come through on their advertised services.
"Oh, yes, I've heard wonderful things about that restaurant. We get a lot of requests to dine there," the concierge had said. Really? So many Americans know this place? She promised a response within a few days.
Right on the deadline, the e-mail came in. "I do want to clarify that we are referring to Sushiyoshi at Japan, 7-5, 2-chome Ikeno ku Osaka shi Osaka prefecture 544-0031? if you could please confirm this information, I will be awaiting for your reply."
I responded that no, it was in fact a different restaurant, and I was assigned a new caseworker. A few days later:
"We just received a reply from our American Express counterparts in Japan and we have learned that Sushi Ichi will only accept reservations from their regular customers, much like Sushi Saito in Tokyo. Regrettably, we will not be able to secure this reservation for you as the restaurant will not accept our third party reservation. In case you do not have an alternate restaurant in mind, below are some additional options you may wish to consider."
I was sort of a regular customer, was I not? I mean, I'd dined there twice in the previous six years. I told them that, and they said, "Thank you for your reply and we can certainly check again. I do understand it is has been 5 and 6 years ago, but do you remember the month that you dined at Sushi Ichi for 2013 and 2014? I ask in case the staff at Sushi Ichi ask as well. I look forward to your response and anymore details you can provide regarding those last two dinners will help greatly. Thank you."
Well, I had plenty of details. I copied and pasted the entire travelogue section from my 2013 trip. This is the only restaurant to which I've had to submit an application. The concierge wrote back, "Thank you for your reply and I have sent over the details to our American Express counterparts to further inquire into the reservation....The blog was enjoyable to read. It almost seems like you need a treasure map to find the place. It sounds exciting but for myself personally, I do not work well in closed spaces, so reading about all the alleys did make me a bit claustrophobic. However, that family feeling at dinner with complete strangers does sound like an amazing experience. Hopefully they can accommodate your party one more time."
And a couple of hours later: "I hope this email finds you well. I just received a reply from our American Express counterparts in Japan and while the blog helped with Sushi Ichi listening to them ask for a reservation, they informed them that they are full for reservations for 2019 and 2020. Hopefully, should you decide to try as a walk-in, you may be fortunate again to be seated."
So after all that appeal, there were no spaces anyway. It reminded me of that Victor Borge bit where a lady approaches him before a concert and asks him to play a certain piece that evening, but she can't remember its name. He suggests she hum a bit, but she can't remember how it goes. Then she says, "You're the musician. You ought to know the piece." And Victor regrettably has to say he can't help her. She says, "Well, it really doesn't matter because I'm not going to be there tonight."
I found the alley and was surprised to see a posted menu outside the restaurant, with per-piece prices as low as 50 yen. Well, no wonder the place was popular, then. I opened the sliding door in the alley and prepared the equivalent of "Is it possible to dine here tonight?" using Google Translate on my phone.
The person behind the counter wasn't the guy I remembered; he looked to be in his sixties. Slowly and purposefully he responded that I should come back at eleven.
I thanked him and headed across the way, to the old Sushi Ichiban alley, to celebrate my dinner plans. I pulled back the plastic curtain to reveal a seven-seat bar run by a man who, with his white cowboy hat, leather vest, blond hair, mustache, and cigarette, wouldn't have been out of place in a John Wayne film. "Come in!" shouted a patron who was clearly several glasses in. Her name was Kiyochan; the bartender introduced himself as Yuki. This bar, the bar across the alley, and the stretch of alley itself could have fit comfortably in my living room.
On the bar were stacks of compact discs, and Yuki changed them frequently, playing them off a white machine from several decades ago. His preference was light jazz, which Kiyochan hummed along to about a sixteenth of a step out of key. Yuki changed the offering to piano rolls once he heard I was a pianist. I stayed for a whiskey and a sake, and when I left Yuki fist-bumped me as if saying goodbye to a brother.
Promptly at eleven I opened the sliding door, and I immediately realized that this wasn't Sushi Ichi at all. I was one door off. But what could I do at this point? The place did look cozy, and while it could accommodate a whopping seven diners at a time -- nearly twice that of its neighbor -- it seemed intimate enough. And the prices were right. There was even an English menu advertising some unusual items, such as mantis shrimp. The proprietor handed me some ginger and a brush for applying my own soy sauce, and we were off.
A pleasant day trip from Osaka is to visit the Minoh waterfall and then a museum dedicated to the work of Momofuku Ando. I got up early and took the train for about 40 minutes, after which I enjoyed a brisk two-kilometer hike to the falls. It was moderately uphill but not bad; there are monkeys in the forest but perhaps it was too cold for them to be up and about. (The temperature was just above freezing. A week later, on Sakhalin Island, I'd yearn for such warmth.)
The pathway was popular with people and their dogs, and the water seems to fall to the right instead of straight down. On the way back I warmed up with some udon and sampled a local snack, deep-fried maple leaves. I definitely got more "fry" than maple flavor but they were tasty and crunchy enough.
Momofuku Ando, everyone should know, is the inventor of Cup Noodles. But before that, in 1958, he created Chicken Ramen in his backyard shed as a reaction to the long queues for food handouts he'd seen during World War II. His five-point goal was to create something that was tasty, cheap, easy, long-lasting, and safe and sanitary.
In the United States, he saw that people were breaking up the ramen, putting it into cups, and eating it with a fork. This led him to design a disposable cup that could be its own eating vessel. Due to the tapering of the cup at the bottom, the noodles would be suspended mid-cup, denser at the top, so as to allow the hot water to heat them evenly from below. And to prevent noodles from being dropped into the cup at the wrong angle, he had the machinery assemble the packages upside-down, putting the cups over the noodles, before they were then turned over and sealed.
The museum is free and everything is in Japanese, but one can download an app with English translations, which I discovered once I'd been there for 45 minutes. There's a wall displaying the hundreds of varieties of instant noodles that have appeared over the decades, and there's a section dedicated to Momofuku Ando's later invention, noodles that could be heated in outer space.
But the biggest draw is the make-your-own section: you can design a cup and pick your own toppings and seasoning, and you even get to turn the crank that upturns the cup once it's been placed over the noodles. In preparation for America's big football game I colored mine red and blue and wrote, "It's a Super Bowl...Go, Patriots!" And I topped my noodles with shrimp, pork, green beans, and kimchi. I like to think Tom Brady would approve, even if he wouldn't eat it.
In the late afternoon I decided I'd go to Spa World, a multi-level experience of saunas and hot baths about 20 minutes' walk from Dotonbori. The walk would take me past Sushi Ichi. It was 4:30 and I bet the proprietor would be setting up. I'd resigned myself to not dining there, but was it worth trying after all?
I opened the door and there was the younger guy I remembered; he seemed to remember me, too. I showed him the same question using Google Translate. He looked up at the handwritten monthly reservations calendar hung on the wall; there really did seem to be two years' worth of already-worn pages. He gave me his sorry-we're-full-up-and-I-don't-know-if-it's-possible face and I returned with my I-know-it's-last-minute-and-really-don't-expect-to-be-accommodated face.
Then he said, "Come back at ten."
Spa World seemed a confusing maze at first, but in true Japanese fashion they funnel you along so that you can't go wrong. I bought my ticket from the vending machine and exchanged it at reception for a bracelet, to which items I purchased would be charged. Then I put my shoes in a locker on the first floor and put the rest of my clothes, including the key to that locker, in another locker on the fourth floor. That locker's key was attached to another bracelet, and I made certain not to lose either.
The men's and women's floors are swapped every month; when I visited, men had the European floor and women the Asian floor. Everyone always has access to the outdoor swimming pool and water park on the eighth floor (donning swimwear) as well as the restaurants on the third (donning the establishment's prisoner-like pajamas). On the sex-segregated floors, people were expected to enjoy the baths and saunas naked. I started on the eighth, where a better layout and a deeper pool would have enhanced my enjoyment of the sunset; still, it was nice to be in warm water under the frigid sky.
Back on the men's floor, I found the Michelangelo-inspired statues at the center of the "neoclassical" bath a little gimmicky, but the lagoons were pretty. There were saunas of different styles: the Finnish sauna was too hot for me, but the Greek herbal sauna was soothing, and in the salt sauna I could exfoliate on my own and then rinse off. When I'd completed the rounds I took a bucket shower, and then I put on my prisoner's rags and had an okonomiyaki and some sake in the communal food court.
The two reserved seatings at Sushi Ichi are at six and eight; I was afraid I'd caused the proprietor to stay longer than he wanted to. But I wasn't the only diner to show up for the "secret" seating at ten; three others arrived, and we became a family for the next two hours. The others all ordered the fish they wanted, and the chef turned to me.
"Omakase?" I said. Let the chef decide.
Every couple of minutes a piece of fish appeared in front of me, usually lightly seasoned with salt or a garnish. "No sauce," he would say. Don't ruin his work by dipping it.
The other diners talked among each other until one of them asked me, "Where are you from?"
"The United States," I said.
"New York," said the chef.
Wait -- did he remember me that well?
"You remember?" I said. "I was here almost five years ago."
So the chef and I finally got to know each other. His name was Tetsuya, Tets for short, and he was forty-eight, though he looked younger. I told him I was a pianist, so from now on "Seth, the American pianist" might be enough to get me in. He remembered that I'd brought my partner there the last time.
"American Express!" he said a few minutes later. "They called me. For you?"
"Yes, that's right! I tried to reserve."
"And last night I saw you eating next door."
Well, that was embarrassing. Why did he think I'd gone there -- because I was too timid to try to wangle my way into his place, or because I'd opened the wrong door? Which reason was worse?
I savored several kinds of fish, including adult yellowtail and magnificently buttery tuna, whose gentle glide along my tongue brought me right back to the Tsukiji fish market (now relocated, alas). Some of the fish I could find no translations for. He asked if I wanted anything else, and I said, "Shirako?"
This was the only place I'd ever had it, and I remembered the other diners nervously trying to explain it on my previous visit. I'm sure Tets remembered that awkward series of gestures as well. He crafted a piece of it for me, and the flavors blended artfully, a slightly smoky, somewhat citrus-tasting, gooey piece of cod milt.
The aftereffects of those flavors lingered through the next afternoon, when I flew to Hong Kong. The plane glided just above a foamy mattress of white clouds, as if cross-country skiing. I fell asleep halfway through a film about a professional mahjong player. We touched down, and I stepped happily out into the seventy-degree air.