We got up early again and did round 2 of the breakfast buffet, which was as good as before (and thankfully I didn’t embarrass myself with the tea this time). After breakfast, we checked our emails and confirmed the reservation for that evening’s meal at Sushi Bar Yasuda (the news had come a week before that they’d had a cancellation and we were off the waiting list – miracles do happen!!). We then left for Mitaka, where the Studio Ghibli Museum is, with plenty of time to spare as we weren’t entirely sure how long it would take to get there. Our 7-day Japan Rail Pass became valid on that day and it turned out to be really easy to get a train almost all the way into the suburbs, needing only one change to get to our destination.
Once there, we walked along a river towards the museum. It was an incredibly hot and sunny day and we could hear insects buzzing about near the water. We stopped in the park surrounding the museum and sat on a bench facing a tennis court to kill some time. Our visit was scheduled to start at 10.00 and I had checked over and over that I had the tickets safely tucked away in my bag.
(Note: foreigners wanting to buy tickets to the Studio Ghibli Museum need to get them from a licensed seller abroad beforehand. You need to pick the date and time you want in advance and stick to it, otherwise you won’t be able to get in. I know it sounds complicated, but it’s totally worth it.)
I played with my new camera and discovered “vivid colour” mode – not great for photographing people (unless you like a glaring over-tanned look) but fantastic for outdoor scenery. I chased a big green beetle around for a bit, taking pictures. An old man came up to us and asked where we were from. When we said “Luxembourg”, he told us the only sentence he knew in German: “Schönes Wetter heute, night wahr?” He seemed very proud of himself. And it was “schönes Wetter” indeed after all.
We went to the museum at 9.45 and queued to get in, but thankfully the wait wasn’t long. There were quite a lot of schoolchildren in uniforms, but also a lot of adults and a fair amount of foreigners. The building itself was stunning, far more elaborate than I’d expected with beautiful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from different Ghibli films. I made the most of taking some pictures of the outside, as all photography is banned inside the museum itself. The reason is they want their visitors to enjoy the museum itself, to treasure an ephemeral moment that they can then revisit through memory alone. I kind of like that philosophy.
Our tickets came in the form of a piece of actual Ghibli film (one of them I didn’t recognise, but the other I’m sure was from My Neighbours the Yamadas, which I haven’t actually seen yet). As we entered the building, we were immediately ushered into a lovely little cinema to watch a short animation made exclusively for the museum. All the explanations at the beginning were given only in Japanese, which was a bit disappointing. The film was about a rabbit and a boy who fight over a cane, which ends up belonging to an old lady rabbit. It was cute, but the style of the drawings didn’t appeal to me as much as some of the studio’s other work.
We then visited the rest of the building, which is deliberately chaotic to encourage visitors to lose themselves in it. We went up to the roof garden, where we could take pictures again, and saw one of the robots from Castle in the Sky. We went round the different rooms in the museum, including the one with the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro. Children were swarming all over it and we both felt quite jealous we couldn’t go on it too. We vowed to bring our own children there one day, just so they could go on it for us.
I then made us brave the gift shop a second time (the first time, we left empty-handed, feeling a bit distressed because of the sheer number of people in there and the length of the queue for the till). Determined to make the most of it, I went a bit crazy on the Jiji the Cat memorabilia, from Kiki’s Delivery Service. I ended up with a soft toy, a key charm, a flannel (bizarrely, flannels seem very popular as souvenirs in Japan, they’re everywhere!), a mug and a t-shirt. The t-shirt has characters from Spirited Away on the front (as well as Jiji on the back) and says “Lets lose ourselves together”, which is the museum logo. I was tempted by many more things, but a lot of them were quite expensive collector’s items and I had to make myself stop. We queued for at least half an hour to pay for it all, but it was worth it.
All in all, the museum was a wonderful experience that we’d both like to do again, but some explanations in English would have been nice in certain places. But we were both very happy to have visited it.
Once we’d finished, we went into the nearby park to look around and find something to eat. Soon the park ended and we found ourselves in a small street with little boutiques and restaurants, which five minutes later turned into a bustling city road with karaoke bars and electronic shops. The contrast was as astonishing as it was fast. We chose a fast-food restaurant in the small street in the end and had what was probably our most “Western” meal of the entire holidays: a burger with avocado slices in it, and potato wedges. It was alright, but quite messy and not very memorable compared to the other food we’d had so far.
We went to a large department store after that, where I succumbed to a lovely pair of black flats with sparkly material on the side. The right shoe has a miniature metal spoon on it, while the left has a fork. For someone who loves food so much, they were perfect (yet still elegant). I’d brought my old black flats to Japan with the intent to replace them anyway, so I was happy. They felt a little tight (Japanese women do have tiny feet, as my size was the biggest available!) but I hoped the material would prove stretchy enough in time.
Then, we headed back to central Tokyo and to the hotel to drop off our purchases and walked to La Qua, part of the amusement park complex we’d seen on our first day. This was the bit with the big wheel (which we realised was actually going round on a rail, as it didn’t have any spokes) and a huge roller coaster, as well as a log flume. I’d been begging Tom to go there for the last two days because I’d seen an advert for a Moomin Café. It seemed a fitting place to go after the Studio Ghibli Museum that morning and it was even better than I imagined. We had lattes with the faces of Moomin characters drawn on in cocoa powder on the top. I had a huge stack of pancakes with fruit and syrup, while Tom had some sort of square cake with ice cream and bananas. All in the company of a giant Moomin Troll sitting next to me, guarding our bags. The waitress even insisted on putting my hat on its head.
It was there that we witnessed our most astonishing example of outstanding Japanese customer service. The people at the table next to us had their order forgotten by the waitress for maybe 15-20 minutes. When they pointed out that they were still waiting, she came over with a couple of mugs from the gift shop and let them choose one to make up for the lateness. We couldn’t believe it! If that happened in Luxembourg, we’d already have a lifetime’s supply of mugs to keep us going. It was very impressive and kind of made us wish our order had been forgotten too…
After that I had to visit the gift shop as well (yes, I’m a total sucker for all things cute, especially involving cartoon characters from my childhood) and hesitated over at least five different things, before choosing a set of cookie cutters shaped like Moomin characters, as well as some stickers to put on the postcards we were going to send to people. We then left before I could cave in and buy anything else.
We then tried to go to a park that the guidebook told us was nice, but everything in Japan closes fairly early (it was about 4.30 by that time) and so we just took a walk around the outside of the park before heading back to the hotel for a bath and a rest before dinner.
Due to the cancellation, the only available time for us at Sushi Bar Yasuda was 9pm, which felt incredibly late by Japanese dining standards, and so we left the hotel at 8.10, hoping we’d have enough time to get there. We got to the right metro station and started along the road that I’d written down in my notebook, but couldn’t find the place. We asked someone who pointed further down the road, and so we carried on for another 5 minutes, but still there was no sign of the restaurant. We ended up asking a woman who searched for it on her smartphone (okay, I will admit that they are useful in these kinds of situations) and we looked at the map on the screen… which directed us to a place just 10 metres away. We felt really silly, but it was kind of funny and the woman didn’t seem to mind. We arrived only about 5 minutes late (again) and descended into a basement that was painted all in white and mostly occupied by a long counter. There were also a couple of tables (which I was surprised about because the restaurant website had only mentioned the counter seats) and these were occupied. Tom and I got the last two seats at the end of the counter, which suited us just fine. I felt rather self-conscious again, feeling all hot and bothered after our mad walk to find the place on time.
All the other diners seemed foreign (apart from one guy next to us who was Japanese, with a foreign girlfriend who spoke some Japanese and some heavily-accented English). The others were loud Americans and Canadians who had to say everything at the top of their voices so everyone else in the room would hear as well. They seemed intent on showing off what they knew about Tokyo and what they thought about Western-style sushi (“inauthentic and terrible” of course), etc. Tom and I both found them quite exhausting by the end of the evening.
The chef, Yasuda, was behind the bar, preparing the different sushi with lightening speed. He asked what our favourite “fish families” were. Tom said “salmon” and I said “tuna”, hoping to try the elusive toro, or fatty tuna, that I’d heard so much about. As the chef started to serve us one piece at a time, we learnt that he’d lived in New York for nearly 30 years, hence his excellent command of English. He’d been very successful there, but had always regretted not serving sushi in Japan. He’d decided to return to his home country in order to fulfil his dream.
We both decided to try some sake, as we’d never really had any and were curious, and ended up having a fairly dry one from the chef’s hometown. It was very pleasant and a revelation to Tom, who’d always thought sake was a spirit rather than a wine.
Because we’d asked for the omakase (the “as the chef decides” menu), we agreed to try anything he wanted to give us. This included two kinds of tuna (and I can tell you the fatty tuna is like the wagyu beef of the fish world – simply amazing, delicious and soft), two kinds of salmon, two kinds of trout, three kinds of shrimp, a gunkan topped with what the chef called “fresh-water fish” (tiny, worm-like fish eaten whole with the eyes and all), another with fish roe, then some sea urchin, squid, scallop (which, surprisingly, we both liked as it had a squeeze of lemon juice on it), snow crab, grilled eel (a new favourite of mine), a nigiri topped with finely-chopped spring onions (probably the least exciting), another with oyster (Tom didn’t like that one, I thought it was weird but okay), then half a roll (3 pieces) each with toro again, spring onions and some kind of yummy savoury paste inside.
I’d read somewhere that it was traditional to finish a sushi meal with a tamago (omelette) nigiri, but none of the other diners (who’d thankfully all finished and left by that time, leaving us in blissful quiet) had had any… but when the chef asked what we would like for our last roll, I couldn’t resist asking, even though I was a little embarrassed at the thought of making him work some more when it was already so late. Luckily, he smiled and said it was a good choice, and pulled out a container with some omelette he’d prepared earlier. It held the perfect amount of sweetness and was really excellent. Feeling traditional, we then rounded off the meal with some miso soup.
Our luxurious sushi experience ended up costing almost as much as the kobe beef place (more than what you would pay at home for a tasting menu in some Michelin Star restaurants), when I’d anticipated a little less, but it was so worth it for both the food and the atmosphere. After all, we’d travelled so far and had luckily budgeted for a couple of really lavish meals, so we just went with it. It wasn’t like we would get that kind of stuff at home anyway. We were both very full up, but again not in an uncomfortable way.
On the journey home (it was midnight, at this point), we watched with great amusement as two business men next to us on the train started to fall asleep. One was sitting next to me and ended up with his head on my shoulder, while the other was standing next to Tom, holding on to the handle that dangled from the ceiling, his face in the crook of his arm. He was swaying rather dangerously with the train, but didn’t seem in the least perturbed by it. At one point the train turned a corner and I thought they were going to crash into each other, but the guy sleeping standing up managed to hold on somehow. It was very hard not to giggle and I was trying not to let my shoulders shake too much with laughter because of the other gentleman’s head.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was gone midnight and we were both absolutely exhausted, but it was such a great experience that we didn’t really mind.
Photos – 2014 © Zoe Perrenoud (unless otherwise specified).