Something in the Way it Moves

Our first full day in Tokyo. Where to start? We thought coffee. Cafe Rie in the arcade under the hotel looked nice. It also had a logo that looked like Starbucks. Here began our language fun. First sign – yes, they had an espresso machine. Ordered a capuccino, a latte and an iced cocoa trying to keep it simple. Let’s just say the experience was unsatisfying from a caffeinated beverage perspective to say the least.

Some food hall delights…

We returned to the hotel lobby (don’t you just love saying lobby) to catch the complimentary shuttle to the Shinjuku station, which I’ve read is the busiest station in the world with more than a million passengers daily. Our bus dropped us at the west entrance and we stumbled out into the masses and were kind of swept along and into the Keio Department Store, where we followed our noses and ended up in the food hall. I need to stop here and wipe a tear from my eye.

We were overcome. The range of food, both prepared and not, was astounding. We had never seen anything like it. From french patisserie to marbled beef. From $100 rock melons to delicate chocolates. Fish, beans, sushi, dumplings, buns, rice, oil, sake, wine, sweets, biscuits, cakes… all presented beautifully and each with a separate counter and an army of uniformed staff bowing and greeting each customer. The staff we watched as they disappeared into the store room, stopped and turned to the store – bowed, then went through the door. They all did the same as they returned. I bought a couple of huge breaded fried prawns (ebi furai), while Eams and Pip opted for steamed dumplings. We then needed a place to eat them. We saw hundreds of people buying food, but not one eating any. We hid in a corner behind a cab rank and scoffed the delicious bites.

Food Hall

We had already decided to spend the day seeing how things worked and finding our feet and had no particular destination or activities planned. So we basically hung around Shinjuku and the surrounding areas, watching and learning. By mid afternoon we were cursing the abject coffee poverty of Shinjuku and found a nice looking little cafe with a logo that looked like Starbucks and a man who nodded wildly when we said espresso. My latte reminded me of camping in my youth – you know that taste of evaporated milk… Pip’s long black tasted like strong instant coffee. This is gonna be a long week from a coffee perspective. Home for a nanna nap and then, about 5, headed out for dinner. 

more food hall

Pip’s research had us headed for Kabuki-cho a kind of seedy, girly-bar and tiny restaurant area with clean streets. We managed to get there – it wasn’t far from some of the spots we had visited earlier in the day – and it was certainly worth it. Hundreds of tiny restaurants with their plastic fare in front of their shops. I don’t know how we came to choose the one we did – but we ended up in a smallish room up a narrow staircase. No sign of any english speaking anything – most customers were men in suits who were smoking as they ate – older men were waiting the tables and there was no where to stash our coats as we crammed around a tiny table. Menus arrived, fortunately with pictures, as we scanned the room for hints. As there were a number of people eating nabe, we decided that table cooking in a clay pot was the way for us to go as well (pointing enthusiastically to a picture of a pile of vegetables and fishy bits and holding up three fingers while we said “san”). 

Our host.

Fortunately, as it turned out, the man made gestures that indicated to us, nabe for two might be better, especially as we also ordered tempura and yakitori chicken. All was going well, tempura-ed things were fanstastic; chicken was excellent; large plate of raw vegetables and seafood dutifully delivered. While planning an approach, I thought I saw something on the plate move. Eamon drew a protective chopstick and we three of us stared at the plate till it moved again. Damn scallops were flexing their muscles and flicking the bits on top of them about. Pot of broth for them. Once we’d murdered the scallops, the already dead stuff was a cinch.

Sea Critters and the like.

Apart from the flinching scallops, there were mussels, white fish, salmon, some chicken, enoki mushrooms, piles of cabbage and a choy of some sort, two huge whole prawns and half a crab, a huge block of tofu, daikon and glass noodles. We piled it all into the pot and presto! Needless to say those damn scallops were stunningly sweet and fresh.

Nabe cook extraordinaire

We left the restaurant, all smoky and full and headed back to the shuttle bus stop at Shinjuku station. A business looking man accosted us near the station, explaining in japlish that he had overdone the sake because he had just become a grandfather – this we figured by the picture of a newborn baby he was showing us on his phone. Much hand-shaking, well-wishing and bowing later, he staggered off into the dark and we staggered off toward the bus stop.


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