We got up early (well, I did, I had to wake poor Tom who usually prefers to sleep in as much as possible), to avoid big crowds at the breakfast buffet. The hotel had a sign next to the lift downstairs saying that the buffet would be very busy the following morning between 8 and 9, but I didn’t realise at the time that they just leave it there permanently and that the crowd situation wasn’t nearly as bad as they made it out to be. Still, we were eager to go exploring, so it didn’t really matter.
Breakfast was held in one of the hotel restaurants and the choice was amazing. On one side was a table with Japanese-style breakfast foods (rice, rice porridge, fish and miso soup were about the only things I managed to identify) and on the other side, a table with slightly more Western food, with some Japanese influences (mini pancakes made with pumpkin or purple potato, for example). When we were shown to our table, the waitress asked us if we wanted fried eggs or an omelette. I chose fried, having already had omelette the night before, and was later presented with two fried eggs in a perfect circle, the yolks positioned in the centre like large yellow eyes. They were perfectly cooked and Tom assured me that his omelette was equally delicious (the eggs were so nice in each of these forms, in fact, that we both stuck to our same personal choice for the rest of our stay in that hotel). I also had some fruit, yoghurt and granola, and some mini viennoiseries (the mini pains au chocolat were surprisingly good for a country that is so far from France). Unfortunately I managed to embarrass myself at the hot water dispenser first by missing my cup by several centimetres, then overfilling it (and scalding myself in the process). My fingers are very sensitive to heat and it was difficult to carry it back to the table (being Japanese, it was a mug with no handles… unsurprisingly, it’s not something I miss), but luckily the waiters didn’t laugh.
After breakfast we took the metro to Shinjuku again and went to Tokyo’s town hall that is shaped like a giant microchip. There is a free observatory on the 45th floor. Unfortunately the view was obstructed by clouds and smog (and perhaps some of it was due to the volcanic eruption that had happened recently, but I guess we’ll never know). We couldn’t see Mount Fuji or even all of Tokyo, which with all its suburbs is bigger than the whole of Luxembourg as a country. I bought a couple of souvenirs from the gift shops and then some postcards and cute stickers from the bookshop downstairs. We decided we’d use the stickers to decorate the postcards, to recreate some of the cute if slightly tacky elements of Japan.
After that we went to Yoyogi Park to see the Meiji Shrine, our very first “traditional” Japanese building. We saw a newly-wed couple in bridal kimonos posing for photos. I paid 100 yen (a bit less than 1 Euro) to shake a wooden box, turn it over and wait for a stick to fall out of a little hole at the bottom. I then had to give the number written on the stick to the girl behind the counter and she gave me the corresponding poem. I got number 13 (which has always been a fairly lucky number for me) and ended up with a poem quite relevant to my writing ambitions. It was nice and comforting, and I felt the whole process fit in well with the slight mystical feeling of the place (it was easy to forget we were actually in the middle of a huge city). We then went to the park’s gift shop and bought a few more souvenirs for people, then headed back into town.
I’d looked up “Harajuku Gyozaro”, a gyoza restaurant near Yoyogi park, before our trip and written down some instructions. We got to the right street, which had a couple of restaurants, but it wasn’t really clear which one was the right place because there were absolutely no signs in English. In the end I had to read the name out loud from my notebook to one of the guys behind the counter of the smaller restaurant and was incredibly relieved when he nodded. The kitchen was a square area in the middle of the room, with a counter running all around it and a few tables to one side. We sat at the counter. The menu was written on several blackboards in Japanese and we could only understand the numbers written below (the average plate of gyoza cost 490 yen – about 4.60 Euros), but luckily they brought us an English menu too. There were mostly Japanese people eating there and I was glad I’d picked the place, as it seems simple and authentic, which was what we’d been hoping for.
We ordered all four sets of gyoza on offer: plain boiled, plain fried, chive and garlic boiled, chive and garlic fried. I also ordered some cucumber in miso sauce as a starter, which turned out to be very refreshing. The gyoza came in sets of six. Two guys sitting beside me ordered all four sets to share as well, so I guess we had the right idea. I watched as the guy closest to me took all three types of sauce available and mixed them up in the little dish provided, and decided to copy him (I had no idea what any of the sauces were, but when in doubt, trust the locals… 🙂 ). The gyozas dipped in the sauce were heavenly (although we both preferred the fried ones over the boiled ones) and we left very satisfied indeed.
After lunch we got the metro to the pier where the Sumida river cruises start. We had tickets but no reservation for a specific time. Luckily, we only had to wait about 20 minutes until the next boat left. The cruise was pleasant, but all the explanations were in Japanese, so we didn’t really know what we were looking at. Also, my camera chose that exact moment to splutter and die. I’d been having problems getting it to focus and now the lens wouldn’t retract properly. The very last picture I took with it was so blurry I knew I would have to get a new one. At least we were in the right country for it! In the meantime, I took photos with Tom’s camera instead. We passed the docks of Tsukiji Fish market along the way, but mostly saw a lot of skyscrapers.
As we got off the boat, we saw another more traditional-looking boat with some women in kimonos rehearsing for a show on board. It made me wonder whether the night-time dinner cruise suggested by the travel agency might have been nicer than the simple day cruise, but the exorbitant price had put me off at the time. Tom and I agreed that our cruise had been nice, but definitely not all that memorable. If we go back to Tokyo, I don’t think we’d do it again.
After that, we went to a train station nearby where we found a camera shop. I showed the shop assistant my old camera and asked her if she had any ones that had the same battery (I wanted to be able to use my old battery charger at home, rather than the new one which would have a Japanese plug on it). She did, but unfortunately the nice purple model that had caught my eye was not on the list. In the end, we got that one anyway, as we realised our international charger would work the other way at home (Japanese plugs are like American plugs). We got a case for it (I wasn’t having any more lens accidents after the last one) and made sure I could use the memory card I’d bought the previous day with it too. The camera was still in Japanese, but I was sure I would be able to find the English language setting without too many problems. If not, I could always ask the people at the hotel reception to help me out.
From there we went to the Imperial Palace (or the surrounding wall and moat, rather). We took some pictures of the famous bridge in front (me trying out my new camera, while struggling a little with the functions in Japanese), but couldn’t get into the gardens. I had mistakenly thought they were open to the public, although we may just have arrived too late (everything closes early in Japan, make sure you take that into account when planning a visit somewhere). We ended up walking all around the huge moat to the nearest metro station, which was at least 30 minutes away (less than a quarter of the way round the entire park though). We saw lots of runners and I wondered how many of them were running around the whole thing, and whether that would be something I might do, if I lived in Tokyo. I don’t think I’d enjoy breathing in all that pollution while running, but I would definitely like to explore the city that way. I find that running does give you a different perspective on places.
When we reached the metro station, we realised it wasn’t actually that far to our hotel, so we ended up walking through lots of little streets and almost got lost down a road parallel to our hotel’s. By then, we were just as hot and sticky as we had been on our first day. We just had time to change at the hotel before heading out again to the place I’d booked for dinner: Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511. It was perfect timing, as we managed to get to the restaurant only two minutes after 7, after a 40-minute metro journey. I would like to point out that this whole time, we were navigating Tokyo with the help of our guidebook and the instructions I’d written down in my notebook for the different places we’d chosen. Not a smartphone or GPS in sight. 🙂
The restaurant itself was rather swanky, but seemed to mostly attract foreigners (we think we might have seen one Japanese couple during the whole evening). It was a far cry (although excellent in its own way) from the little gyoza place where we’d had lunch. The staff spoke excellent English and some of the dishes on the menu definitely had a French influence. Still, we chose the more Japanese-style “Complete Kobe Beef Course Menu” and it was really good. With each dish we were told which part was made with Kobe beef (the broth in the soup, the marrow in a little foie gras and beef dumpling), and which part of the animal the meat came from. The standard of the preparation matched the (very high) price we were paying, but I felt sometimes that they could have been a little more generous with the beef.
For example, we had a nice pumpkin and Kobe beef ham salad, but the ham was basically two miniature squares (smaller than Lego pieces) on top of a large dollop of pumpkin purée. It just seemed a little disproportionate and stingy, but I guess it was deliberate so as to create anticipation for the main event… which certainly didn’t disappoint (again, apart from its tiny size). 5 thin but perfectly cooked slices of hearth-roasted Wagyu sirloin steak, medium-rare as recommended by the chef. Basically it tasted like extremely fine beef marbled with foie gras (ironically, it tasted more of foie gras than the aforementioned dumplings); it was so tender and delicious and magical. An absolute delight from start to finish. I think that if I was to go back there, I would just order their largest possible slab of beef and nothing else. It is definitely the star dish.
This was followed by two rolls of beef and cucumber maki sushi, and a beef nigiri. Again, because the meat hadn’t been transformed into something else and was presented plainly (and raw) on the rice, it was perfect. As a bonus, Tom discovered that seaweed in Japan is milder than the stuff we get back home. He usually hates seaweed (especially the smell), but found he could easily eat this kind without any problem. We suspect it’s because the seaweed in Europe has been sitting on shelves for quite some time and been allowed to develop a more pungent aroma… that or it’s due to the preservatives they use to stop it from going off.
For dessert, I had another red bean crème brûlée (nicer than the one from the previous night) and Tom had a raspberry and vanilla dacquoise. After we’d finished, the manager came to thank us and gave us a “make your own ramen in Kobe beef broth” kit as a parting gift, which was nice. That way we would be able to replicate some of our culinary experiences at home (without me botching it too much, hopefully – I did make it a week after we got back and it didn’t turn out so bad after all!). I still think it was a little on the expensive side compared to what we would pay in Europe for that kind of meal, but it was definitely worth the experience if you’re a beef aficionado. On the bright side, though, the small portions meant that we were only comfortably full and didn’t have to waddle back to the hotel (something that happens far too much on holiday, I find). Always a bonus!
To Be Continued…
Photos – 2014 © Zoe Perrenoud (unless otherwise specified).