When I can’t sleep because I’m jet-lagged, I like to go for a walk, particularly in those early-morning hours before the streets fill with people. By 6:00 in the morning in Tokyo, I was wandering around the Shiodome area trying to figure out where the 7-11 was. I had two reasons for this: one, 7-11 stores usually have international ATMs, which are otherwise hard to find in Japan, and I needed to pull some cash. Two, I wanted to buy some novelty potato chips and an energy drink as a precursor to the hotel breakfast. I took the convenient, High-Line-esque above ground walkway from my hotel to the Shiodome Caretta building, a hefty half-moon shaped complex of shops and restaurants that theoretically had two 7-11s inside of it. It ended up taking me about 20 minutes to figure out how to actually get inside the building, but I did.
The 7-11 was everything I had been promised it would be. I’ve been to really good 7-11s before – Bangkok does them particularly well – but Japanese 7-11s are the OG, based in the country that had truly created the unskeezy, gourmet 7-11 concept, taken it from mysterious rotating hot dogs to a beloved phenomenon. (While 7-11 was founded in Dallas and still has headquarters there, the Japanese have owned the chain since 2005).
I looked happily at the pretty rows of triangle-shaped rice balls, tonkatsu sandwiches, and pre-prepared pasta carbonara bowls, fresh noodle salads, and nigiri assortments, and selected a crab-and-mayo filled nori roll. The potato chip aisle was even better, with everything from cheese-and-cod filled variants on the inferior American Combo to caffeinated chewing gum, whole dried crabs, and strawberries coated in mochi: I settled on freeze-dried potato wedges with mayonnaise. I should probably note here that I absolutely love mayonnaise:I am one of those Mayo People who goes through a thing of Kewpie mayonnaise approximately once a month. If you’re one of those poor, weird souls who can’t stand the stuff, you may want to tread carefully in Japan. Because they put it on or in everything here.
I returned to the hotel to meet up with my partner. The Villa Fontaine hotel breakfast was lovely, although I’d pregamed as mentioned above and didn’t eat much. Japanese breakfast buffets usually feature a nice salad bar, which I appreciate deeply and wish was more of a thing in the US. There was also beef Japanese curry, Japanese omelette (tamago), natto, rice porridge with fresh octopus and other toppings, Western-style bacon and eggs, and a selection of Japanese sweets.
We met up with my parents, and we collectively decided that we’d make our way towards the famous Meiji Shrine, after which we’d head towards Harajuku. My mother had wisely purchased Pasmo cards for all of us at the airport, which are refillable smart cards that can be used for a wide array of travel services, including buses and trains (and even some shops). After some initial, inevitable confusion over which line we should get on, we were on our way. As Boston-dwellers, my partner and I marveled at how much nicer the Tokyo trains were than our gazillion-year old, mildly urine-scented T. While it is nice that we have some semblance of public transit in the U.S, I’m regularly reminded of how desperately underfunded and out of date it is whenever I travel abroad.
We got off at Harajuku station, but before we went to the Meiji Shrine, we needed to have lunch. I’d picked out a place called Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki, which is located on the third floor of a building on Omotesando Avenue, very close to the train station. We had to remove our shoes in the bamboo-lined entry of the restaurant, after which our server led us through the impressively quiet restaurant to our table, which overlooked the tree-lined street. Matsubara-an focuses on handmade soba (buckwheat) noodles and the snacks that accompany them: they have a selection of set menus from ¥1,500-¥3,810 at lunch time, which come with noodles and a selection of appetizers.
Our appetizers included some deliciously vinegary cold noodles, a bit of fried taro, tofu with preserved beans, and a few slices of cold duck.
We also tried the super-light vegetable tempura (some of the best we’d have on our trip) There’s a dizzying array of options on the menu, from soba with shrimp and squid tempura, to soba with fried eel, to hot soba with clams. I considered trying the cold soba, which I’m partial to, but it seemed somehow wrong in the depths of winter.
Three of us ordered the duck soba, which isn’t exactly commonplace on U.S. menus. We didn’t regret it: the super-rich broth matched perfectly with soft leeks (very popular in Japanese winter cuisine), soft and fatty duck breast, and a little bit of shungiku (chrysanthemum greens).
Suitably fortified, we walked roughly five minutes to the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, or 明治神宮, Meiji Jingū. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the departed Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken: The Meiji Restoration of 1868 that toppled the Togukawa Shogunate and restored Japan’s emperors to power was carried out in this Emperor’s name. The Meiji Period from 1868 to 1912 was a period of incredible change in Japan, as the nation industrialized and opened itself up to Western commerce and to Western technologies and cultural influences. Meiji’s reign also coincided with Japan’s two successful wars against China from 1894 to 1895, and with Russia from 1904 to 1905, announcing the arrival of Japan as a major world power to other wealthy nations. The Meiji shrine is sometimes confused with the much more controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which Emperor Meiji dedicated specifically to Japan’s war dead – including people found to be war criminals by International Military Tribunal for the Far East – and which is still favored by nationalists and conservatives today.
Emperor Meiji’s time may have been especially action-packed, but the Shinto shrine dedicated to him is decidedly not, at least if you don’t go there during the peak of sweaty, jostling tourist season in the summer. The shrine sits in the middle of a 170-acre forest park (which is attached to Yoyogi Park), and we found it to be a delightfully quiet departure from the buildings that surround it. When we arrived, the late-afternoon light was absolutely superb, painting everything in wonderful golden and green shades.
We walked through the huge torii gate at the entrance of the park (which is made of 1,500 year old cypress) and meandered up the forest path to the main shrine, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the few trees that still retained blazing-bright fall colors. We watched a few people who appeared to be some flavor of Instagram influencer take many, many supposedly casual shots of themselves posing in front of the huge collection of decorative sake barrels at the shrine. Sake factories from all over Japan contribute barrels here. I was very happy to spot a gigantic yellow and black Jorō spider in its web, which it had built in one of the lamp posts lining the walkways.
The main shrine is a reproduction of the 1920 original, which was destroyed by US air raids during World War II: this particular iteration was completed in 1958. The shrine’s 100th anniversary takes place in 2020, so there’s some renovation work going on in the area, which means that the treasure house building is closed. There’s also an inner garden area, which requires an entrance fee. We didn’t visit this because the light was fading, but I’d like to see it sometime, especially during the spring flower season.
The shrine itself was beautiful, but what we were most struck by was what appeared to be an intense crow civil war happening in the trees above it. Tokyo is absolutely full of jungle crows, which are hefty, 18-23 inch long beasts that are quite happy to make unblinking, fuck-you eye contact with you if you happen to walk by one as it’s tearing apart a badly-secured trash bag. Which I don’t mind, because I love crows. I deeply appreciate their incredible disinterest in taking human bullshit, and I’m fascinated by how eerily similar they are to us when it comes to both their personal habits and their intelligence.
The Japanese jungle crow population has soared in recent years, quite possibly due to a rise in the quantity of delicious, unprotected garbage produced by the Japanese public. Tokyo first began to wage wars on crows back in 2001, when former governor Shintaro Ishihara was viciously attacked by one while he tried to play golf: deeply pissed-off, he told the Washington Post that he intended “to make crow-meat pies Tokyo’s special dish.” Efforts to ward off marauding, bitey crows in the capital city have ranged from the traditional (shooting, trapping) to the, um, creative, like using swarms of bees to scare them off. The crow extermination campaign that began then obviously hasn’t succeeded. Tokyo’s crows are still the bane of people who must put out their garbage. There are also plenty of people, like me, who enjoy them for their attitudes and their intellect: there’s even a 2012 documentary, “Tokyo Waka,” that delves into the parallel lives of urban crows and people.
It was getting dark by the time we left the main shrine, and the park was closing, as the loudspeakers arrayed throughout the park at regular intervals helpfully reminded us, complete with a very recognizable, gently-cajoling “please leave” chiming sound. So we did, walking towards Harajuku, because we figured we ought to see it. If you’re even vaguely aware of Japanese culture, you’ve probably heard of Harajuku before, a district of Tokyo that has become internationally famous as a bastion of weird fashion and particularly daring street-youth-culture styles. Harajuku first became “cool” in the 1990s, as colorful Japanese youth fashion became internationally famous, thanks to the efforts of talented fashion photographers and a media world increasingly fascinated by the prospect of an ascendant Japan. Tourists began to go to the area to gawk at groups of kids, while many of the kids in turn became justifiably annoyed at being treated like zoo animals dressed in exqusite gothic-Lolita attire (or whatever, there’s a lot of possibilities when you’re talking about Harajuku fashion through the ages).
In 2018? Well, influential Tokyo street-fashion photographer and magazine publisher Shoichi Aoki feels that the scene isn’t what it used to be, diminished by millenials and Gen-Zers who prefer the muted tones of Uniqlo to wearing fifteen thousand day-glo accessories. Others, of course, beg to differ, noting that many of Japan’s most daring boutiques are still in the area, and fashion-conscious kids these days continue to hangout in the area, including local art and fashion students who presumably have a far better sense of what’s actually cool than anyone who’s old enough to grumble about how everything was better when they were young.
What I am sure about is this: I am hilariously unqualified to ascertain if a certain area is actually cool, and I will make no assessments of the coolness level of Harajuku here, because that would make me look like an idiot. Our arrival at Harajuku lined up perfectly with the end of school, and the street was heaving with both high school kids dressed in uniforms and rubbernecking, ambling tourists, many of them eating enormous puffs of rainbow cotton candy with fuzzy ears and LCD lights stuck into it.
Attractive people dressed in maid outfits and extremely tight pants handed out leaflets for shows, maid cafes, and fashion sales. I browsed through a few boutiques, but I was starting to get tired already thanks to the effects of jet lag, and my heart wasn’t really in it, even if I do happen to love things like sweatshirts with creepy two-legged brains on them. We stuck our heads into a sock store to escape the crowds, and then we bought a bunch of practical, cute pairs of socks with little Shiba Inus on them. Being an adult is terrible, but, then, you also have warm feet.
We headed back to the Shiodome-Ginza area afterwards on the train, which had become a little bit more busy as rush hour began, but still hadn’t attained the nightmarish, sardine-like heights you often see on American TV shows about how exotic and weird Japan is. (It really isn’t). Daniel and my dad were going to go out with some of my dad’s former Japanese colleagues, so my mother and I had decided to go get sukiyaki, one of our favorite Japanese dishes, and something that is oddly difficult to get in the United States.
The hotel concierge had recommended Seryna, one of Ginza’s startlingly large number of high-end sukiyaki and shabu shabby restaurants. It is in fact located in the basement level of the Tiffany building, in case there were any doubts about what you’re getting into. We opted for the sukiyaki set that wasn’t made with ultra-high end Wagyu beef (complete with a birth certificate), just the regular, bog-standard Wagyu beef, which is still the best beef you’ll ever eat ever.
We began with a delicious stuffed crab appetizer and drinks. I ordered yuzu wine, which has a marvelously tangy, light flavor, and is very refreshing served over ice.
Sukiyaki is often presented as a pre-cooked meal in the USA, but in Japan, it’s cooked in front of you in stages. A very nice young woman in a kimono swirled beef fat in a cast-iron pot as the first stage, then began to put in a few slices of beef. This flavors the broth that the rest of the ingredients, including vegetables and tofu, are cooked in. She spoke some English: we mentioned to her that my parents live in Orange County. “Wow, Orange County?” she said. “I was just there. Visiting Disneyland!” (A lot of Japanese people that I spoke to during our vacation had recently visited Disneyland, in what I found to be an amusing cultural exchange. Jesus, is that the most exciting thing about the United States to non-Americans? Don’t answer that).
She passed the beef to our plates with tongs. It really was the most exquisite beef I’ve ever had. It melted in my mouth exactly like all the ad copy for high-end Japanese beef says it should. We also were given bowls of raw egg to dip the beef into, which I did: it’s a nice unctuous compliment.
At this point in the evening, the jet-lag was hitting me hard, but I was determined to finish this meal. Our server added vegetables – chrysanthemum greens and onions – to the cast-iron pot next, which took on an exquisite beefy flavor. This was alternated with beef, then tofu. It was a small portion of beef, but it was really all you needed. I was about to pass out into my rice bowl by the time we ate our last slice of beef, so we headed back to our hotel through the pretty, lit-up streets of Ginza, which had been decorated for the Christmas holiday. Well, I’d managed to stay awake past 10:00, anyway. That’s an achievement.
Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki
鎌倉 松原庵 欅
Location: Harajuku Quest 4F, 1-13-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Location: Ginza Tiffany Building, B1, 2-7-17, Ginza, Chuo-ku,Tokyo