Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tokyo, Days 2-3

My last two days in Tokyo were spent in Jimbocho, which I remember from previous visits to Tokyo as having some of the best bookstores in Japan. The only problem, of course, is that I really can’t read Japanese. I really like the atmosphere of Jimbocho, its many cafes, and the browsing is still top-notch despite the general lack of books available to me. There is, in fact, a bookstore with English-language books, and it was here that I got a paperback of copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I doubt I’d be able to find in Hanoi.

The food in Jimbocho is also quite good, especially for people like me – about to leave Japan after overspending in other parts of the country. In other words, for people suddenly finding themselves on unexpectedly tight budgets. One such place was near the A5 entrance to Jimbocho station. Yudetate Soba Udon is a place where you order at the chef’s station and then take your food to a counter without anywhere to sit. That is, you eat while standing up. I’d seen these places before in Tokyo but never felt like trying them – I’m a sitter, not a stander during meals – but today I thought I’d give it a try.

I ended up ordering soba with tempura-fried fish and a small bowl of rice with tempura-fried greens. It was a lot of food for ¥750 ($8.87), and it tasted pretty great, too. I asked the cook how long he’d been in business here, and he said 35 years. You know he’s doing something right when he’s been doing this for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

As if that wasn’t enough food, I made the mistake, sort of, of buying taiyaki afterward. What made this a mistake was simply that I didn’t recognize that my body was rebelling against the idea of more food. But my eyes, miscalculating as usual, convinced me to order one.

The taiyaki sold here tastes a lot like a waffle, but as you can see it doesn’t have a honeycomb pattern. Instead it has a fish design, raised and filled with hot adzuki beans. It’s sweet, almost cloyingly so, and on an emptier stomach probably would have been more enjoyable. I was so full for the rest of the day that all I ended up having for dinner was a banana and a small carton of yoghurt. And even those things I could barely get down.

The next morning found me with little appetite still, and the breakfast the hotel provided me didn’t exactly spark an interest in food. I ate what I could.

What I really wanted and needed, though, was coffee, so I took a walk around Jimbocho until I bumped into a Tully’s Coffee. I’m not usually a fan of chain cafes – I succeeded in avoiding Starbucks in Japan this whole trip, which is about as telling a statement as me saying that I succeeding in not sticking my finger in a light socket the whole time I’ve been in Japan – but Tully’s somehow seems like a different animal to me. I kind of like their coffee, though I’ve been in Vietnamese coffee withdrawal for nearly two weeks now. In any case, I came here, ordered a coffee, read a little, and people-watched. After that I bought the book I was looking for and shopped for omiyage.

By the time lunchtime rolled around, I decided I was able to eat something after all. The lure of a set menu drew me to Korya Ume, which was across the street from yesterday’s lunch stop and another minute’s walk up the sidewalk.

I got there at 11:30, and while there were shoes at the genkan, I couldn’t actually find any other customers there. Which was fine, because that meant I had the waitress’s full attention and was able to get my food quickly.

I orderer a kampachi set, which included miso soup, fried tofu, pickled veggies, sliced eggplant, tea, and rice.

I was also surprised at the end by a custardy dessert with strawberry sauce that was fantastic. The set lunch only cost ¥760 ($8.99), and it was more than enough to last me until dinner.

Which makes my stop at a doughnut shop a couple hours later kind of hard to explain. Basically, I was passing by, minding my own business, when a sign-front with the words “Coffee & Donut” passed before my eyes. From there it was just a matter of angling myself about 15 degrees to the right and continuing to walk.

In a matter of moments I found myself in front of a doughnut display case and someone behind it, in a black shirt, red apron, and funny hat, asking me if they could take my order.

I’d started to pant at the sight of a very chocolate-looking doughnut scattered with crushed peanuts, and said I’d like to have one of those and a glass of iced-coffee. It wasn’t as good as it looked, but it was still pretty good. I ate the whole thing, in any case, stopping to breathe maybe once or twice. The damage for this little pit-stop cost me ¥610 ($7.21), which is about par for the course in a Japanese café.

I spent the afternoon wandering through bookstores and looking for more omiyage, including a quick trip on the subway to a department store in another part of Tokyo. I didn’t accomplish much, but by evening I was pretty wiped out. I settled on a curry restaurant up the street from where I had lunch and ordered small salad, a half-size squid curry, and a glass of oolong tea. It might not look like much in the photos, but this was a satisfying meal. It cost exactly the same as what I’d paid earlier for a doughnut and iced coffee.

The next morning I skipped the hotel breakfast and went back to Tully’s, where I got a coffee and a muffin. I checked out of my hotel at 10:30, grabbed a subway (dragging my luggage through the crowds) to a bus depot for Narita Airport, paid $35 for the 80 minute trip there, then waited 40 minutes for a hotel shuttle to come pick me up in front of the arrivals terminal (terminal 2). I got a late lunch at the hotel for ¥900 ($10.64) – six small pieces of fried chicken, French fries that were in fact potato chips, and a wad of newspaper more than a month old.

I had time to kill, so I got a free hotel shuttle into Narita city – it looked more like Narita Airport Town – and wandered around for about 75 minutes until the shuttle returned to pick me up. At a fancy supermarket I found one of the cheapest sushi meals I’d ever found (¥580/$6.86), took it back to my hotel, and scarfed it away along with an Asahi beer I’d bought in a hotel vending machine.

Oh, but I’m going to miss those vending machines…

The next morning, at 8 a.m., I caught a hotel shuttle back to the airport and flew back to Hanoi. The shock I felt at Hanoi’s traffic and noise was truly like being immersed in a bath of cold water. But I’m getting used to it again. The cheap and delicious coffee helps.

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  1. I was talking with Roy last night. He requests a dozen of those doughnuts. Hup, hup, hup!!!

  2. Love this post, great photos very entertaining read the only downside being I'm now absolutely starving! Thanks!