Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fascination Street(s)

I'm not doing Tokyo any justice by staying here only three nights.

We went out and explored the area around our hotel and wound up covering a few of the city's neighborhoods: Ginza, Tsukiji, and Shimbashi. One could easily spend a few days on these little areas alone. Around every corner lurked something new and different, and I found myself telling my mom, "Hey, wait, stop!" every couple of minutes, often for a photo opp or because something smelled good. But mostly because I was simply having my mind blown.

For instance, did you know there's a statue of Godzilla in Tokyo?

Well, now you do.

How about a theatre dating back to 1889?

Peek around a random corner and you might find a little izakaya or yakitori stand or noodle bar that only seats a handful of people - maybe even under a railway arch. We opted for a cool little ramen joint - the kind where you pick your dish by buying a ticket from a vending machine, then further customize your order by handing the server your ticket and a checklist. Want the noodles cooked firm? Soft? Want your broth light? Heavy? Greasy? Spicy? How about some slices of meat. Check off what you want and it's yours. And should you want another bunch of noodles added to your leftover soup, you can slip a ¥100 coin into the slot in front of you and someone will drop a serving into your bowl from behind the counter. All that and it tastes fan-fucking-tastic. The perfect bowl of tonkotsu ramen, served up with precision and efficiency.

The ramen was the perfect foil for the chill in the air, and highly necessary for our walk.

We headed over near the Imperial Palace (as in where the Emperor's family lives, not the cheesy casino in Vegas) and my mom pointed out the location of our old house from back in the day. I didn't even know we had a house there. Now you might think that we must've been loo-ho-aded to own a house in Ginza, but my grandfather had bought the house back in the 50's in the post-war rebuilding days. She also pointed out the chanson bar (yes, there's Flench in addition to Engrish!) where she used to sing, a bakery that one of her old friends owns to this very day, as well as the building that once housed my dad's old Tokyo office. All this history I didn't even know about.

In return, I showed my mom the Sony Building, where I would've gone on junkets back when I worked for them, had I had a passport at the time. (Long story, and yes, there was a time when I couldn't get a passport!)

Then I showed my mom what I really know. Or at least, the type of thing I seek out when I travel. Like the 300 (Sanbyaku) Bar. I read about it in one of my guidebooks and thought, "¥300 for every single item on the menu? It must be a dive." Well, if dive bars in Tokyo serve name-brand liquor, make great cocktails, serve small plates, and are paneled with pristine hardwood, then I'm really gonna like this town. Hell, even my mom - who doesn't care much for alcohol nor the places it's served - liked the place. My ¥300 Manhattan was meticulously constructed, my mom actually enjoyed her girly cocktails, and I walked out with a buzz for less than the cost of a single drink at most area bars.

We continued our walk and I, of course, had to hit up a couple of record stores. While American and European imports are cheaper here, it's the Japanese versions I'm after. Because Japan-printed CDs are ridiculously overpriced, they often come with bonus tracks or artwork that makes them sort of worth the price tag. Unfortunately, the money wasn't only sort of debited from my account, but at least now I can say I have a copy of Daft Punk's Discovery with Japan-only cover art by Leiji Matsumoto.

Another history lesson: One of the music stores was where my mom used to go to back when she was in college. That was a looong time ago. Like, REALLY long, long, long ago. (Just seeing if you read this stuff, Mom...)

It wasn't long before I was hungry again. Ramen consumed in the 5 o'clock hour doesn't really make for dinner, at least not since I was in college. Also a really long, long time ago.

"How about something foreign? Wouldn't you like to try the Japanese version of foreign food?" my mom asked.

No. Nyet. Nein. Iie! "We're in Japan!" I said. "I think we should stick to Japanese food. As long as it's not more fish."

It was at that moment when I saw a place with a cartoon of a Chinese guy out front, along with the lettering, ヤン ヤン (Yan Yan). And behind the window, I saw the guy in the cartoon pounding and stretching Shanghai noodles by hand. "On second thought, Mom... Chinese sounds good."

Good? It was fucking great. We went upstairs and the place was packed elbow to elbow, with barely enough room to squeeze into the table for two that had just opened up. Always a sign of a good noodle joint. The dishes were served super-quickly, as fresh noodles need little time to cook. And the taste? Out of this world. My favorite noodles I had today. And that's a lot of noodles. For lunch in Nagano, we had what they do best: Soba. And they were great. Then there was the delicious aforementioned ramen, which had me going mmm *slurp* mmm *slurp* mmm - you get the picture. And then these Shanghai noodles? I wanted to go home and head to Chinatown - the biggest Chinatown in the world, you know - and slap all the noodle makers across the face, and tell them to go to Japan and learn how to make real noodles.

Afterward, I went downstairs to thank the chef profusely for his awesome noodles. I spoke to him in broken Japanese. He replied in broken Japanese. Because the dude's Chinese. And speaks Japanese as well as I do. Which is to say, hardly at all. That exercise verified that I had some authentic Shanghai noodles. I think. I'll just have to go to Shanghai to investigate.

But before that, I need to immerse myself in more surreal. Here's a good start: A film festival featuring Steven Seagal.

Folks, there are some things in the world you just can't make up. This is one of them.

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