Wednesday, August 01, 2007

10 Things to Love About Tokyo

1) Noodles are taken very seriously-Udon or soba, which noodle reigns supreme? Who cares! The noodles we ate were a revelation. I have never had udon or soba like this, and no wonder. One night we tracked down an udon restaurant (no small feat since it was a shoebox of a place on the third floor and had no English signage) and slurped silky noodles with the perfect firm, elastic texture. We also ate at a lunch place twice where soba was the specialty. Whether served hot with trimmings or cold and simply dipped in broth, these buckwheat noodles were a wonder.

2) Beef is taken very seriously-Whether it is grilled over charcoal or cooked in a bubbling cauldron a la shabu-shabu, the Japanese have a way with beef. Their choicest cuts are a lighter red color than the typical American beef with more fine marbling. The thinly sliced shabu-shabu meat looks a bit like graying deli roast beef when you pull it out of the cooking water, but it was some of the most luscious, flavorful beef we’ve ever had.

3) Fish is taken very seriously- This probably comes as no surprise. The wonderful fact that hit home for us during our 5 days in Tokyo is that sushi is not the only thing for dinner. We had wonderful, pristine sushi (the fatty tuna looks like a seafood version of bacon, but tastes like the finest, most buttery tuna sashimi imaginable), but Japanese food is so much more (see items 1 and 2). We also got up very early to wander around Tsukiji Central Fish Market (the largest fish market in the world) where the sheer volume and variety of sea creatures moving in and out each day is a marvel.

4) The vending machines sell beer- It’s a funny (and sometimes convenient) novelty…what can I say?

5) Traditional Japan is easy to find- One morning, we walked around Shitamachi (the low city), visiting Senso-ji, an impressive Shinto shrine with a 5-story pagoda on the grounds. Afterwards, we walked around the Asakusa neighborhood, a place that somehow escaped the consumerism of Ginza, the glamour of Aoyama and the youth-crazed glitz of Shibuya. Buildings are low and old, shopkeepers sell traditional clothing and trinkets, and the general pace feels a bit slower.

6) Modern Japan is easy to find (just go shopping)- “Easy” may be an understatement. Technology and the signs of a thriving modern city are all around you. Perhaps not more so than when you go shopping. The department stores are the kingdoms of the retail world, with floors upon floors full of anything you desire. The food halls in the big department stores are a Candyland for foodies and not to be missed. Roppongi Hills is a beautifully designed complex with office space, a gorgeous museum, and a very high-end (and slightly sterile) mall. Go see whatever exhibition is on at the Mori Art Museum (we really enjoyed a well-curated show on French architect, Le Corbusier), then enjoy Tokyo City View, a 360 degree observation Tower that lets you take in this massive city.

7) Pierre Herme! Pierre Herme!- Tokyoites love all things French, especially when it comes to food. I meant to see if there was a Pierre Herme shop in Tokyo, but it slipped my mind until we walked right past it while checking out some of the great retail architecture in the ritzy Aoyama shopping district (the Commes de Garcons and Prada stores are stunners). Pierre Herme is perhaps the most famous pastry chef in the world, known for the flawless execution and innovative flavors (rose, jasmine tea, olive oil) of his French macarons. Honestly, I was more tickled about visiting the Herme shop than I was about a lot of things, and it lived up to my hopes. There is a dessert bar upstairs from the retail shop where we ordered this beautiful raspberry and rose-flavored napoleon. I was in heaven. And of course we got macarons to go.

8) Everybody walks- I love cities where walking is the preferred mode of transportation. Of course we used the subway a lot (not as complicated as it looks) and took the occasional cab. But with picture-perfect early summer weather, we logged major miles everyday.

9) Even the locals get lost sometimes- Everything in Tokyo is orderly and logical…make that almost everything. The system of street addresses (I’m not going to attempt to explain it here), is utter madness. If a restaurant does not have a clearly displayed English sign, there is a very real possibility that you will never find it. Think I’m kidding? Just wait. The only consolation is that even locals don’t always know what’s around the bend. My advice is to remain calm, ask for help and go with the flow. Even our guide book’s directions did not always provide adequate support. But getting lost is half the fun, right??

10) They even take fake food seriously- A lot of casual Japanese restaurants display their entrees in a front window. But wait, look closely…that’s not real soba with seaweed and bean curd. That food is fake! It’s a funny phenomenon, and restaurants have to get this fake plastic food somewhere. There is a restaurant supply district on Kappabashi-dori not far from Senso-ji temple where all this plastic food supposedly originates. Vaguely curious, we went strolling and found store after store stocked not with plastic food, but with every possible size of tart pan, cooking utensil and gadget you could imagine. I loved it and fervently wished I had the money and luggage space to shop for real. As Mike pulled me away from Kappabashi-dori so we could catch an act at Ginza’s kabuki theater, we passed this fabulous tea cup building.

Tokyo was a joy from start to finish. A lot of people have asked if it’s expensive—It’s just as easy to find a deal here as in any American city, so don’t let cost deter you from visiting. The great thing about eating in Tokyo is that the everyday “fast” food that workers eat on their lunch breaks is not Big Macs and Subway sandwiches, but simple, delicious Japanese fare like the soba noodles I mentioned.

If there’s anything else you want to know about Tokyo, Thailand, Vietnam or Singapore (I don’t profess to be an expert, but I can speak from my own experience), leave a question in the comments or send me an email.

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