PART 4: Party Time
The ride home from Ghibli was a lonesome one, but not necessarily in a bad way. I had time to reflect on my day and the walk back to the station was quite exciting. The station itself had a series of boutique coffee and fashion stores built right into the concrete foundation of the elevated tracks. I wanted to go inside, but I still didn't have any cash so what good would it have done me? There was a super cozy grocery store which I rummaged through, and a quick jaunt past the station landed me at a 7/11, which are a big deal in Japan. Finally...no, mercifully there was an ATM there that could read my card and I got some cash! Though I have no idea what the international ATM fee was and I have no desire to find out. I also walked past a casino/pachinko house. I saw a number of them on my travels, and they looked just about as depressing as any gambling joint in the states. I hot-footed it back to the station and got on the train.
My car was empty save the one dude down at the end. So my ride home was even more relaxing then the way there. Being on the train alone, I took the opportunity to snap some pictures of some of my favorite advertisements:
These Asahi beer commercials just made me happy. I'm not sure why. Also, if any of you were wondering about vending machines in Japan this is what they look like:
I like many of you have heard the tallest of tales of buying sex toys (most notably edible panties), weapons and other miscellaneous contraband from vending machines in Japan. But the only ones I ever saw were these. Purveying simple beverages and nothing more. I was slightly disappointed. You will notice a definitive lack of Coca-Cola or other sugary drinks. The Japanese seem to favor green tea, milk tea, and coffee over all things else. Apparently the corn industry hasn't sunk their claws into Japan the way they have here. No high-fructose corn syrup for them!
I made it back to Yoyogi with just enough time to chill at Merrick's before an evening of merriment began. We planned a dinner with Kevin and Trevor, though Trevor didn't end up making it. Not unlike the pancakes I had in Korea, "okonomiyaki" was on the docket for dinner that evening. The Japanese equivalent of "bindaedduk." So off we went into Roppongi for dinner.
Not stellar photography I know but I thought it was worth sharing these pictures in particular because of the Hello Kitty fence posts and Kevin's sweet boyish face. I'm not sure if Merrick or Kevin frequent this place but it ended up being an interesting culinary endeavor. The restaurant was tiny and had maybe six tables. The seating along the far side of the wall was communal however, so when the place got packed (which it did) people ended up sitting on top of each other. The table itself was a griddle and after we ordered our food, what was delivered wasn't a finished pancake but rather a thick goopy batter with tons of ingredients crammed inside. This was promptly dumped on the griddle and we waited in lip-smacking anticipation for it to cook. A few minutes later we flipped them over, and soon after we began scarfing it all down. There were three different types, all of them were pretty delish. There was also a variety of sauces to dip into and several pints of Sapporo to wash it all down with.
It should be noted here, though I liked Sapporo in the states, Japanese Sapporo makes American Sapporo taste like piss water. There was a good 2 inches of foam at the top of the pint glass, which gave me a healthy beer mustache as I drank it down, and to my surprise it was smooth, creamy, and simultaneously crisp. It tasted more like a root beer float or something...hints of creamy vanilla in there. So awesome.
All was going well until a drunken rabble piled into the restaurant, just like in the movies. They were loud, irreverent, disrespectful, and totally wasted. I found this very off putting but the waitress didn't bat an eyelid. Roppongi on a Thursday night...? This was probably nothing to her. Nevertheless I found it cosmically amusing (though I wasn't amused at the time) that the most inebriated idiot of the group sat himself down right next to Merrick at an empty table for four. Later more of his friends came and sat down with him, but at the time it looked like he deliberately sat there just to start some shit. Which he did...or maybe I did.
The truth is, I have an extremely short fuse for drunken dummies and always have. The look on my face must have been somewhere between disgust and repulsion. And seeing as those are basically the same thing you can imagine I did not look pleased. Our new drunken companion noticed this quite quickly and a tension started to grow between us immediately. Was this the moment that I get into a brawl with a knackered Japanese man? Read on...read on...
So I'm trying my damnedest to ignore this asshole but he keeps sticking his head into our conversation, and I do mean that literally. Time and time again he put his physical head into Merrick's airspace about 3 or 4 times before he started opening his mouth and letting whatever drivel start pouring out of it.
He looked at me but was speaking to Merrick, "sdkjfdkjf xkjdndo sdjkngrun KAWAII dfkjnkjd asdfkjndfk" The only word I picked out was KAWAII which means "cute" or "pretty" in Nihongo. This pissed me way the eff off. I pretended not to hear him, but tension was mounting and despite our best efforts to continue our own conversation, this butt hole kept interrupting and saying something about, "djkdnkjaoiwn KAWAII alknfijijeflk." I could tell he didn't actually think I was "cute" but rather trying to be extremely condescending.
Merrick begins engaging with the man and tries to calm him down saying, "no no no, he's a nice guy...he's a nice guy..."
This confused me and it seemed to confuse the dumb guy too...why would Merrick say that when he was calling me cute? Meanwhile I was reaching a fever pitch and I honestly didn't think I could hold out much longer with this asshole making fun of me to my face. Merrick again consoles the man, "no no no he's nice he's nice." This seems to appease the moron and he tried to give me a high five or some bullshit. From there he seemed to let it all slide and he begins barking inanities into Merrick's face. Soon it was discovered that everyone at the table was 32 years old, a factoid that brought this buffoon great amounts of excitement. His friends finally came in and filled up his table, and it was clear they too, were quite used to his ridiculous behavior. One of his friends condescendingly slapped him in the face when he wouldn't leave us alone.
Finally by the end of the meal, we were teaching him how to give American style fist bumps and we were all friends. Alls well ended well, or however the saying goes. As soon as we left I began ranting and raving about what an asshole he was and I told my friends I couldn't believe he would keep calling me kawaii like that. Merrick then corrected me and told me he didn't say KA-WA-EE, he said KO-WA-EE which means something entirely different if not the opposite. Kowai means SCARY. Suddenly I was no longer offended but somewhat pleased...even if he was just trying to pick a fight, he did say I looked scary.
This wouldn't be the last time I struggled with people using the words kawaii, kowai, and later, kakkoi. As they are all similar in pronunciation, and hard to understand in a flurry of other information.
We walked onward into the night, straight into the heart of Tokyo's "pleasure district"!
To see it, Roppongi looks just like any other busy Tokyo neighborhood. Lots of folks walking around, bright lights, busy nightlife etcetera etcetera. What separates Roppongi from others is the number of people approaching you, trying to jive you into their various strip clubs, touch bars, burlesque houses, and massage parlors. There were three types of these "hype-men" that I encountered. The Japanese guy trying to pawn his fellow country-women on to creeper foreigners, the miscellaneous south-east Asian woman asking if you would like a "special massage", and most interesting, many many Africans. Kevin tells me back in the 80s or early 90s many Africans were coming over for engineering work, for skilled and educated jobs. But when the market crashed they started opening their own clubs and night spots. Obviously I paraphrase here but a fascinating story nonetheless. Kevin also regaled us with his own story about getting ruffied by two beautiful Nigerian women in one of these clubs, and waking up the next morning (in his own bed) with many many thousands of dollars missing from his bank account. A scam the police were very familiar with. Lesson learned, for myself as well.
Merrick had it in his head to take us to a "Maid" Cafe. Let me dispel any worry you may have as to the type of joint a "Maid" Cafe is...it genuinely is a cafe. They sell drinks, eats, desserts and the like, the only difference is all the waitresses (no waiters) are dressed in infantalizing maid outfits, and talk in squeaky childlike voices.
For reasons I cannot quite explain I was thoroughly uncomfortable with this idea. Why we couldn't go to a "Cat" Cafe (a cafe filled with cats) or an "Owl" Cafe (a cafe filled with Owls) I don't know. But Merrick was adamant and as we approached the cafe I literally put my foot down and declared to the world, "I AM NOT GOING IN THERE!" What can I say...I get nervous around the ladies.
Unfortunately for me, my outburst aroused the attention of the hostess, who turned around and saw us through the glass doors. In an enthusiastic explosion of childish whimsy she burst through the entrance out into the cold and corralled us in. There was nothing I could do. I can say no to Merrick but not "Melon" our feisty hostess!
We sat down and I ordered a beer. I knew I would need it to survive the rest of the evening. There were very few people in the cafe, just a smattering of tired, sour faced salarymen. Entertainingly enough, around the table adjacent to our own, were four very elderly, very distinguished looking salarymen, all wearing bunny or cat ear hair bands. I don't know where they got them, but I thought it was amazing.
So obviously, like everywhere else in Japan, photography wasn't allowed...but I couldn't resist:
First of all, just look at how cute us guys are. Then feast your eyes on this menu! Cute animal parfait!? Maid's hand drawn pancakes!? Souvenir photographs?! GIGANT GIANT ICE CREAM TOWER?! And lastly, Merrick's adorable kitty parfait...awwww...SO KAWAII!!!
Our drinks arrived so I slammed my beer and what do you know...we were having a great time, fueled no doubt by the sheer ridiculousness of this place. And what's this? "You'll really enjoy the maid's mic performance?" Sure enough, our very own maid "Melon" busted out the mic and started dancing all over the place to hardcore J-Power-Pop. The lights went out and the Maid Cafe went from depressed salaryman hang-zone, to full on nightclub rager! Honestly, it was amazing...just the sheer spectacle of the thing.
Apparently Kevin ordered enough food to not only extend our "dream time" (Maid Cafe vernacular for getting to stay past the allotted 60 minutes one could stay), but it also bought us a souvenir photograph. And here it is, in all its glory:
Hands down, my favorite moment from our time at the Maid Cafe was our waitress either out of frustration or exhaustion or both, dropped character. Her voice descended about 2 octaves, from a squeaky adorable pubescent cartoon voice, to a sullen and deeply resonant alto, staring at the floor or perhaps through it, remarking in Japanese undoubtedly, that serving these 3 gaijin gringos was the last fucking straw. It cracks me up to think of this blemish on her performance, and it made me respect her in ways I never thought I would or could. Godspeed and good luck to you Melon-san!
From there we headed back into the Roppongi cold. I don't remember much more from that evening save getting into a long and cheerful (though explicit) conversation with one of the African hype men on the street named TIGER. He continued to make us offers that were so obviously too good to be true it was hilarious. That said, he was extremely cheerful and walked with us for several blocks even after we had declined his proposals. From there it was back to Merrick's, though the details are still a little hazy. It was the last night I was to stay with Merrick, as I was moving into Kevin's for the weekend, and the home stretch of my time in Tokyo.
The next day I awoke leisurely and without much to do aside from pass the time for the full throttle night of ridiculousness ahead, Merrick and I took a stroll around the neighborhood. We paid his bills at the supermarket down the street, and I grabbed some truly disgusting quickie-mart cakes for a morning snack. I think I had polished them off (all 6 of them) by the time we got back to his apartment. I did have one item on the docket that day, and that was a meeting at a place called JASRAC. I was under the (wrong) impression that JASRAC was the Japanese version of ASCAP here in the states. And in some respects they are. They funnel money owed to music creators from the various sources they earn it from. But as I found out, that's the extent of what they do. No outreach, no fostering of careers, no nothing. My trip there was essentially a complete waste of time save for the cute key chain I received as a concession AND, a pretty decent tsukemen recommendation for lunch.
I shouldn't say it was a complete waste of time, as the journey there was pleasant enough, with some nice city views. It was also the first day of clear skies in Tokyo and though still chilly, was a gorgeous spring day.
There are also, some anecdotal tidbits worth mentioning. First of all, I arrived about 25 minutes too early for my meeting so I took a stroll down the block, fantasizing about the food that would surely materialize there (though none did). On my way back up the block though, I noticed a garage. Nothing about this garage was surprising in terms of what was inside, but that was the surprising bit. There was no garage door. So this person's car, and all his tools (of which there was a plethora) and other items strewn about were completely available for the taking. And yet, this person felt comfortable enough to keep many thousands of dollars worth of tools and gear (some of it potentially dangerous) out in the open. Which as I mentioned in my first entry, calls attention to the Japanese way of life. People are inherently and deeply respectful of others and their property it seems. There is no garbage ANYWHERE. There are no garbage cans in which to place it either. Which suggests no one litters. I found all this so amazing, at least from an American point of view.
I returned to the JASRAC office and was greeted enthusiastically by the receptionists. I didn't have to wait long for my two hosts to appear robotically from the elevator and away we went to a meeting room close by. To reiterate, this meeting was quite pointless as they basically said in no uncertain terms, they absolutely cannot help me in any way shape or form. This is because they must remain "impartial" and not bestow favor to any particular organization over another. They pointed me in the direction of other music agencies and told me they couldn't help me either for the same reason. So it was pretty frustrating. However, my two hosts had a very interesting dynamic. One being the good cop, and the other being super negative about EVERYTHING. So if Guy A said, "it's a nice day isn't it?" - Guy B would say "well it's mostly this nice all the time, so it's not that special."
This was particularly humorous when a woman brought us some "green" tea, and Guy A said, "Japanese green tea is very good," to which Guy B responded, "meh, it just tastes like water." Guy A then inquired if I had ever had "green" tea and what transpired is as follows:
Me: well yes I've had lots and lots of green tea. But my experience with it has been mostly Chinese. So I'm not sure I've had much Japanese green tea.
Guy A: THE CHINESE DON'T HAVE GREEN TEA
Me: Well, actually my friend's Mom who is Chinese always gives me green tea from China, and...
Guy A: (interrupting) THE CHINESE DON'T HAVE GREEN TEA...they have "RED" tea.
After his adamant response I simply conceded my position and said I must have been mistaken. As it turns out, Guy B was right...it did taste like water.
So I left though not empty handed. As I mentioned before they did leave me with a consolation prize and the location of a decent Tsukemen place.
The walk to Taishoken was a brisk and brief stroll through the neighborhood, and I got to pass a few boutique shops and a grocery store which clearly only sold fresh produce (the kind of thing you don't see in the states). It felt very much like the Japanese equivalent of a Mom & Pop Americana joint, and nothing had been changed in 30 years. My waiter was a very friendly old man who seemed very excited that I was searching for Tsukemen. And it is here that I must write down some thoughts on my not only favorite Japanese food, but possibly my favorite food period.
Tsukemen in essence is ramen with the ingredients separated. A "dipping" noodle. My favorite restaurant in the world as I'm sure most of you are aware is called Daikokuya here in LA, and though it pains me to say it, each tsukemen I ate in Japan completely destroyed Daikoku hands down. Yes the ingredients are fundamentally similar, but there is a huge difference in consistency. The noodles are thicker and chewier, and were therefore more satisfying. The broth (and this is the most important difference) was viscous and thick, and would stick to the noodle. So as you slurp, you're also slurping up the broth along with it. The flavor was just more robust across the board, and the pork was damn delicious. This was true at all three restaurants where I ate tsukemen. Returning to Daikoku in LA I cried bitter tears of sadness into my broth.
After lunch I returned to Merrick's to via the densha and this happened:
I just found that amusing.
More hang time with Merrick and then we were off to Robot Restaurant. ROBOT RESTAURANT.
Robot Restaurant was, without a shadow of doubt, hands down, no question, easily, most definitely, 100% completely the most ridiculous thing I've ever witnessed in my entire life. We arranged to meet Trevor and his coworkers there for the 7pm show I believe, and I simply cannot describe in words what we saw, so I'll let the pictures do the talking:
The elevator to the main lobby
The main lobby was like a Persian night club on meth, crack, and speed simultaneously. Yes that is a robot band playing standards. I didn't take a pic of the walls which were made entirely of TV screens displaying some sort of nightmarish dream sequences on repeat. Then we were all shuffled down many flights of stairs to the main room...and this is what happened:
If you're feeling confused I can't possibly blame you. It was a baffling stream of the most ridiculous shit imaginable. Like, you literally couldn't imagine this stuff. Just look at the clowns driving giant women go karts for chrissakes! And just when I thought it couldn't get weirder, they would just keep one-upping themselves. It was unbelievable. I feel the need to describe it more, to make sense of it for you, so that you could better understand the progression and how it all played out...but that would be a fruitless endeavor. Why bother? Just look at this stuff...really look at it. The entire time I was there I kept thinking of Pee Wee's nightmare in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" - when Satan-Francis is lowering PW's precious bike into a vat of acid. That and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I just...CAN'T!!!!!!
On the way out I snapped some of the wall decorations in the stairwell:
After Robot Restaurant we were released back out into the Shinjuku nightlife and were all pretty desperate to use the bathroom. Across the alley from the exit was an arcade, like a real one. With video games and stuff. We all went in there and all us boys used the bathroom: that would be myself, Merrick, Trevor, and Bill, Trevor's co-worker (see Part 1). We spent a little time loitering in the arcade afterwards deliberating on what to do next and it was here that I really started raging.
[rag·ing /ˈrājiNG/ adjective: rocking way the f out with your buddies, usually in a drunken manner.]
I was already buzzing from several beers whilst in the titular Robot Restaurant, and who could blame me? No doubt I was acting the fool probably being quite loud, and it was around this time that one of those crane catcher games caught my eye, and I knew I had to play. Because there was this one adorable little puppy dog keychain/finger puppet that was calling out my name. I had enough coinage for one play and being unnaturally adept at these sorts of things nabbed him on the first go, and then, right as the claw was about to cross the threshold and release my new little friend, he slipped and fell back down. I probably let loose a painful bellow of disappointment, so passionate that one of Trevor's coworkers gave me enough yen to try for a round two (as I was out of change). I knew in my heart this would be the moment, and sure enough, my expert claw skillz were in full effect yet again. But right as I was about to win the game, my little puppy prize abandoned the claw's cold plastic embrace and returned from whence he came. I must have let out another bellow of heartbreak and this time one of the arcade attendees came over, opened the glass door, and manually put the puppy so dangerously on the precipice, it would be impossible for me not to win. I borrowed a few yen from another one of Trevor's coworkers and SURPRISE! I WON! This made me feel like a million dollars, or more accurately, like the king of the world. Take a look at this cutie:
So here we all were, a motley crew of USC alumni, and web designers ready to paint the town red! Check us out!
The girl on the bottom right is Izumi and she really became the "maitre d'" of our evening. From then on we all basically followed her instructions and had a ball as a result. She did some "yelping" or the Japanese equivalent of it and we ended up at a nearby sushi joint. For whatever reason we got seated immediately in a super cozy booth and then this happened:
This was a pretty nice joint, but it wasn't "sushi" in the traditional sense. Most of what came to our table was like that bamboo tray with the shrimps. And when the waiter with the platter of dead fish came to our table and Izumi spoke to him, I could only presume that she chose which of those poor previously living sea creatures was going to be in our tum-tums. We drank some more, and ate some more, and it was all on Trevor's company's tab too! Also Kevin showed up in the middle of dinner! So it was just a win-win win-win. That's twice the usual amount of win-win.
After much dilly dallying we once again were at Izumi's disposal, and it was decided that karaoke was the next stop, and there was much rejoicing. Ironically, only me, Bill, Kevin, and Izumi herself were very comfortable with singing at all, so when we got to our karaoke booth, Nobu went promptly to sleep, and Merrick just sat there, while the rest of us rocked way the fuck out. I hope he was entertained.
It should be noted that Izumi either through her maitre d' powers or through the joint's own policy got us bottomless beers. Pitcher after pitcher after pitcher came to our table, and it was up to myself, Kevin, and Bill to drink all this swill. It was just the worst lager you could imagine and drank it we did! With gusto, tenacity, and discipline! We must have been at Karaoke for HOURS. We sang and sang deep into the night, with Bill tackling all the Elton John, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen. Myself on the high poppy stuff like Bruno Mars, Queen, and MJ. And Kevin on everything in between. Merrick even dueted with me on our old college jam, "All the Things She Said" by T.AT.U. It was epic.
Over the years I've had many a splendid night at random unplanned karaoke joints and this came in on top. So much fun. It must have been 1 or 2 in the morning by the time we dragged ourselves out of there and it was time to go our separate ways. We all chipped in for the bill (I'm always astounded at how much karaoke costs) and I said goodbye to my new friends, and away we went.
Trevor's expression in the second picture, and Kevin's as well was how I was feeling inside. The walk home was a struggle, as I could barely stand from drunken exhaustion. Kevin was very reassuring and he would lift me to my feet every time I sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, blithering nonsense about how I "couldn't go on!" Kevin and I had an especially hard time of it because we had to go to Merrick's first to pick up all my stuff, and then go to Akasaka where Kevin lived. The walk was pretty nice though, and it was so unusual walking so late at night in such a big city, and not feeling even remotely the need to look over my shoulder. In fact there was no one out to look over the shoulder at! I don't know much about crime in Tokyo but the vibe was pretty peaceful.
Kevin and I grabbed my stuff from Merrick's and hopped in a cab as the train had stopped running a few hours beforehand. The cab ride was hugely entertaining as our cabbie was a very VERY old man, with about as good a grasp on English as I had on Japanese, and yet we found a way to have a pretty in depth discussion on California citrus. We stopped a few blocks from Kevin's place and I was too tired and or too drunk to properly survey my surroundings...so I didn't notice the escalator to his apartment building, nor did I give proper attention to the two huge luxurious automatic sliding doors that looked like something out of a sci-fi Yakuza film. I didn't recognize the concierge service in the lobby, and I definitely failed to see Kevin press the button labeled "21" in the elevator. When we got to his apartment I was given a brief tour, and then crashed down on his floor, closed my eyes, and slept...for maybe 4 hours. Maybe.
I woke the next morning with a surprising amount of energy. I suppose it's that permanent flow of vacation-adrenaline that keeps one going. The apartment was still very dark as the black out curtains in his living room were very effective. I putted around the apartment briefly, and then decided, since I was awake and all, to open the curtains and let the sun shine in. As I mentioned previously, I was too inebriated to really understand what floor we were on the night before and when I flung the curtains to the side I gasped for air, as the view took my breath away. LITERALLY:
It was then that I realized that Kevin is a baller.
[ball·er /ˈbôlər/ adjective US informal
1.extremely good or impressive; excellent.
"he must have some pretty baller pick-up lines to be reeling in all those ladies"
2. Someone who makes a lot of money.]
Just take a look at that view...OMG
There wasn't much on the docket for the day other then picking up Kiyoung from the train station, and then heading out to Akihabara (the "weird" neighborhood). There was a huge party being thrown that evening as well, one that Merrick and Kevin both had been talking about all week which I ended up bailing on, as the night before had left me in shambles. But Kevin powered through and didn't get home until 5 or 6am the following morning. He's a real machine.
So Kevin and I watched a little american television, most notably "The People vs OJ Simpson" which was really good actually. And then we headed out to Nippori station to find Kiyoung! She had decided to come to Tokyo through a series of serendipitous coincidences involving a national holiday, frequent flyer miles, and probably just to see Trevor. That's the only reason I went to Tokyo anyways. (LOLZ) Nippori station is one of the biggest stations in the entire city if not the country. Kiyoung had given us some vague location to meet her, and were it not for Kevin's knowledge of the ins and outs of the subway system I doubt I would've ever found her on my own. After a little wait Kiyoung emerged from the throngs of people and there was much rejoicing. Ironically in all the time she had been in LA she and Kevin had never met. Which is funny because Kevin has met everyone. What can I say, he's a man amongst men.
All three of us were beyond starving and it was unanimously agreed that curry was on the menu. This was part two of two in my Japanese curry quest. Next time I return I will continue where I left off, as I left Japan very unsatisfied in the curry department. Not that it wasn't very good, simply that I did not have enough! We then shipped out to Akihabara, the land of all things NERD. And I'm going to try to breeze through this quickly, because it was the one and only part of my trip I wasn't thrilled with.
To begin with, both Merrick AND Trevor not only wanted to go to Akihabara with me specifically, but believed that I would really get a kick out of it! Having visited there, I am offended that my friends would think this of me. Akihabara is the neighborhood in which all the "weird-Japanese-shit" is bought and sold. Manga (comics), toys, games, cosplay (dress up) and most importantly, porn porn porn. Yes, you read that correctly. There were buildings 6 stories tall dedicated to porn and its subsidiaries. But as it was, every minute spent there felt like a minute squandered. That said, there were a few special moments.
Watching Kiyoung gallop towards Trevor in a long overdue reunion, and seeing the two of them beaming at one another was precious beyond all reason. This is us afterwards:
These little dudes were also a fortunate discovery:
And lastly some pretty awesome street musicians! These guys were playing some flamenco and it was burnin'!
After that we cruised around trying to find a place to eat. We sat down at a joint which was the official cafe of "AKB48" - a massive Japanese girl group. Our hostess sat us down quite sullenly and without an iota of enthusiasm. Upon closer inspection of the menu, both Trevor and I noticed the coffee was 5 bloody dollars. Pretty much everything on the menu was outrageously priced. But I wasn't about to pay 5 goddamn dollars for what was undoubtedly a horrible cup of coffee and neither was anyone else apparently. It was Maid Cafe prices without any maids! So we booked it out of there and headed towards McDonalds! Oh yes...
When in Rome...eat at Mickey Deez. Or in this case, MACK-OO DON-OH-ROO-DOH-SU. When I was in Tenerife, Spain I went to McDizzle and ordered something called the "California" burger. It was awful. And McDonalds in Japan was no exception. The rule of thumb is one must order the weirdest most "foreign" (as compared to the American menu) items at Mickey Ds abroad. No Big Macs! So I ordered the Ebi (shrimp) burger, and Kiyoung got a burger with mashed potatoes on top of the patty. Those were the two weirdest things on the menu and by god they were truly disgusting. I don't remember what Trevor or Kevin ordered but it was more traditional, and probably much better. Looking back on it, I should've tried McDonalds in Seoul too...just for the hell of it.
It came time for Trevor to ship off to his in-law's place, and Kevin, Kiyoung and I headed back to Akasaka. I never thought I would say something like this but I do genuinely miss the densha. It's an amazingly efficient way to travel, it's quick, keeps you on your toes, and most importantly, you're not driving! Back at Kevin's it was super chill time. The three of us just sat and watched copious amounts of Korean music videos for several hours, effectively until dinner. Which brings me to my second to last dinner in Japan, and arguably the best meal I had, and easily the most bomb tsukemen I've ever eaten.
Kevin had mentioned a delicious hole in the wall ramen joint right across the street from his house and my interest was peaked. This place had a method of ordering food more similar to an old school vending machine then a traditional restaurant, and it wasn't the first place I'd been to like it. There was a little machine in the corner of the room with pictures and descriptions of everything on offer. All you needed to do was put your money in and press the corresponding button. It was extremely simple and pretty convenient. I think we all ordered pretty much the same thing, tsukemen and beer! And this is what it looked like:
If you hadn't figured it out by now, I am an absolute tsukemen fanatic, and of all the tsukemen I've ever eaten, this was hands down the greatest. It may be that I've described in detail the inner workings of tsukemen in Japan several times over already. But even so I will reiterate. The thing that makes tsukemen from Japan different then any I've had here in the states is most definitively the broth. The broth in Japan was very thick and viscous, so that it would stick to the noodle when you dipped it in. In this way you're slurping up way more broth on the noodles themselves as opposed to eating the noodles and then drinking the broth with your spoon. This feels much more natural and gives the broth and the noodles a synergy I've never experienced here in Los Angeles. It should be noted that the noodles at this place were obviously hand made and had the perfect chew to swallow ratio. It was brilliant. That said, I could barely finish half of it. I was just too stuffed. And that was the small size portion!
From here our small crew splintered off into our own separate directions. Kevin to his party, Kiyoung to see an old friend, and I retired back to the apartment to turn in. But we walked around Akasaka for a minute, which is actually a pretty awesome neighborhood. It was very cozy, and peppered with shops of all kinds. Lots of Korean food ironically, a jazz club or two, and several boutiques. There was a courtyard with beautiful strings of lights interlacing between two buildings which had a very nice ambience. Lastly, a very oddly placed and futuristic building made of all mirrored black cubes was some sort of pleasure mall...apparently full of hostess bars and the like. We didn't go in, but it was fascinating to look at:
Back in Kevin's apartment it was mostly time to shut down for the night, but not before taking another epic photo from Kevin's balcony:
My last full day in Tokyo was very chill compared to most. It was spent milling about Harajuku passing the time waiting for all of my buddies to be available for dinner. I also intended to go back to Meiji shrine that day but didn't have the physical strength for it after all the walking. Kiyoung and I met up at Akasaka station later in the morning for breakfast. She wanted to head to Omote-Sando to check out some shops that were apparently much more expensive in Seoul. Omote-Sando seemed to me to be the Beverly Hills of Tokyo. The walk there was long but provided some unexpected and beautiful sights. Beautifully constructed pedestrian overpasses, an antique bazar, stray kitties, imposing lion statues, plum blossoms, and most unexpected, a vast cemetery that stretched on for as far as the eye could see.
As we arrived in Omote-Sando a deep, bordering on painful hunger set in and I was getting cranky. I could only envision pancakes in my tum tum for some reason, and Kiyoung knew of a Hawaiian joint a few blocks down - but first...shopping. I will bypass this experience as it is so very similar to shopping in the US that it doesn't warrant much by way of description in this case. Kiyoung got herself a fancy sweater and by then I was seething from lack of nutrition. Still, I couldn't help but stand in awe of the Prada building:
So onward we pressed into the heart of Tokyo's uber shopping district. The Hawaiian joint had a line out the door, but we waited all the same knowing a similar fate would befall us elsewhere. It was after all, Sunday and the brunch lines would be in full swing. As everything in Tokyo seemed in general, to be over priced, the pancakes were no exception. That said, they were quite delicious and provided just enough energy to keep eating elsewhere. Kiyoung truthfully had a sort of Tokyo restaurant "bucket list" and we were aiming to grab them all in one afternoon. She had heard rumors of a legendary gyoza shop, AND a lobster roll joint. As it turns out, both restaurants were not only right next to each other on the same block, but just a hop skip and a jump away from our current location! So immediately after leaving the Hawaiian brunch spot, we meandered into Harajuku, and got straight into the queue for GYOZA!
I don't know the name of the gyoza joint, only that it was truly spectacular. It was a tiny greasy hole in the wall, tucked into a back alley (as all great Japanese restaurants are and ought to be). Maybe the joint had room for 25/30 people tops, and if there was a menu, it was so small it was barely necessary. The choices were, gyoza - pan fried or steamed - and beverages. The end. In my experience the smaller the menu the better the food, though there are always exceptions to the rule. Suffice it to say, these little beauties were delicious and possibly the best meal I had in Tokyo. Right up there with the tsukemen from the night before. Gyoza (like tsukemen) is a comfort food. Simple, heartfelt, and apparently, when hand made right in front of you, more delicious then you ever imagined it could be!
After that there was no need for lobster rolls.
From there it was off into Harajuku to window shop. As I mentioned before Harajuku is the one neighborhood I deliberately returned to for sightseeing's sake. In the end it's just shops and the like, but it had a really cool vibe, lots of youthful creative energy. Or perhaps that was just my own creative energy mixing up with the environment. In any case, all was well, and my credit card was secure and safely sleeping in my wallet, when out of the blue...not one...but TWO Reebok stores appear before me like a desert oasis. Only this was real.
[Editor's Note: for those unaware, Brendan is completely obsessed with Reeboks]
I bought a sweet track suit, and some super next level Classic Leather sneakers which look so gorj, I knew they must be mine the moment I laid eyes on them.
I have yet to wear them outside...I'm saving them for a very special occasion. A "formal" occasion. Though it was my intention to return to Meiji shrine that day, both Kiyoung and I were crazy tired after all the walking, eating and shopping. Dinner was a few hours away and we both thought it best to chill for a spell rather then cruise around aimlessly. I suppose moments like that are wasted as I could've seen more of the city simply by heading off in any direction...literally. But not overdoing it is also important. So it was back to Akasaka for pre dinner chill time. Kevin was at a muay thai fight of all things that day and wouldn't be able to join us until after dinner, but Merrick and Trevor were onboard for good times. So after a brief respite, it was off to Ebisu for Izakaya!
When it came time to head out, I was wearing my brand new Reebok track suit, looking good, and feeling like a million bucks. It was my last night in Japan - I was spending it with good friends - the evening was primed for epic-ness. Ebisu was exciting because it was outside the usual circumference of neighborhoods I had been to. We met up with Merrick and Trevor in Ebisu station and headed off to get "izakaya". I have done a little bit of research into the proper definition of izakaya and as best as I can figure, its like Japanese style street food...? But it's also a type of restaurant, a gastropub as defined by wikipedia. In any case, the place we went to was more like a food court, though not in the bright, shiny, 90's neon pink way you might be imagining. This place was dingy, greasy, deep fried and over crowded to fire hazard capacity. It had no common area, just small tables in or around various food shacks one after the other, down long treacherous hallways. Complete with incredibly low ceilings. It was great! Each eatery seemed to specialize in its own cuisine, from seafoods, to special cuts of beef prepared in a European style and more.
While we were wandering about trying in vain to pick a place to eat, I passed by a table of sour-faced 20 somethings who were eyeballing me and chattering amongst themselves. I could only assume they were talking about me and I once again felt a little miffed and insecure about it. Was it my vaguely samurai-ish hair style that attracted so much attention? When we had passed by I told my companions about it and Trevor said that as he passed the table he heard them saying something like, "that guy is kakkoi." Kakkoi meaning cool (amongst other things). This put me at ease, though looking back at it now, Trevor was probably just lying to make me feel better as he is a mischief maker of the highest order. Hopefully it was the former. But I suppose I shouldn't care one way or the other...that's the lesson I'm supposed to learn...yes? I'm KAKKOI no matter what anybody says!
Down at the far end of the hallway it was much less crowded. In fact there was hardly anyone there at all. We nestled in together at a small table and proceeded to order. Better still it was all on Trevor's company's dime. FREE FOOD = GOOD TIMES! And order we did. I don't remember the name of the joint (if I ever knew it to begin with) and it turned out to be a Spanish style tapas place. Our table became a revolving cornucopia of yummy delicatessen. Noodles, various cuts of pork, clams, muscles, oysters, shrimps, greens, and on and on. All of it was quite tasty and fun to eat to boot. Amongst all the luxurious items, buried in the middle of the menu was Japanese style chicken wings. Available in three different flavors: regular, spicy, and VERY SPICY. Merrick reasonably suggested we order 1 wing a piece, as we were getting pretty full by that point, and if we needed more, we only had to ask. Very wise Merrick very wise! Merrick got regular, and the rest of us asked for VERY SPICY! Our waitress (Nami-chan) who had been very sociable and attentive throughout our meal grimaced at the request. She then, in a mixture of Japanese and broken English said, "very spicy, very spicy!" - not being able to find the proper words of warning she concluded -"MOUTH HURT!"
Now, if I had a dime for every time I had to pressure a waiter into giving me the "level 10" stuff, only to receive something that was as spicy as a wet dish rag, I would be a rich man. A richer man anyways. But this time...this time I was SO wrong.
Merrick's regular flavor wing was a crispy, delicious, golden brown. Ours were the color of sacrificial goat's blood...a deep black with a red sheen and a cheerful sprinkle of sesame seeds. Bravely Trevor, Kiyoung, and myself took our first bites. Like with all morbidly spicy foods, the initial hit was nothing, ignorable, a total disappointment. And then, moments later...the pain.
Please observe Trevor's reaction.
It was incendiary. I don't know what else to say. I had to stand up and pace to back and forth, cavorting and spasming. I had no other recourse. At one point the spice got into my nose (presumably from the napkin I was using to wipe my snot faucet) tearing away at my soft spongy mucous membrane interior. And that was just the first bite. Making matters worse, Kiyoung abandoned her wing, putting the responsibility on Trevor and myself to finish the job. And finish we did. Unless I'm delusional, I do believe that we hunkered down and ate those chicken wings until there weren't no meat left on the bones! That's what real tough hombres do.
After that we traipsed around Ebisu waiting for Kevin to arrive. We got some gourmet ice cream, sang happy birthday to Aya (Trevor's wife), and there was merriment all around. I think by the time all was said and done it was close to 11 or 12 and it was time for farewells. I wouldn't be seeing Trevor in Japan again, but that's fine because I can see him whenever I want (we're practically neighbors). But as I was still going to see everyone else the next day, I kept my impending sadness to myself. A great finale to one of the best experiences of my entire life!
Monday morning came along as any other, only this was going to be a definitively sad day for me. I had so enjoyed my time in Japan and Korea and I genuinely didn't want it to end. Had I something else to do or accomplish over there aside from hang out and eat, more time would have been warranted, and it is my ambition that some day soon my work will take me back (or anywhere for that matter). But as it was, though my time was running out, I did not feel it was running short. In fact, it felt like I had been in Tokyo for much longer then I actually was, so it was perfect timing in all honesty.
The details of that morning are a bit hazy, but I do remember Kevin in his "salary-man" outfit (for work) and I thought it simultaneously odd and perfectly natural on Kevin. He's such an iconoclast. He had to be off so I thanked him and we said our goodbyes. All I had to do was make sure the door locked behind me on the way out. Not long after that I was due to meet up with Merrick and Kiyoung at Yoyogi station for an early lunch - I'm not sure when my flight left Narita but I want to say it was around 3 in the afternoon? So I hopped in the shower (which was larger then my entire bathroom back home) and packed my things. I noticed Kevin's kitchen was in need of a little sprucing up so I thought I would be a courteous house guest and do his dishes. One of the first things you'll notice about the Japanese home is everything is tiny...well aside from Kevin's shower. But in general, all appliances and various amenities are half the size they would be in America. What I'm trying to say is the dishwasher was very small. I wrapped up the dishes, and with some uncertainty found the dishwasher fluid and started the cycle. From there, I put what remained in my backpack, went to the front hall, put on my shoes and nearly headed out the door when I realized I left some garbage in the living room. This was a very key moment in my morning and proof that I still have a little decent karma left, because when I went back to the kitchen to throw away the trash, THE DISHWASHER HAD COMPLETELY EXPLODED!!!!
Water was oozing out of the bottom and clouds of suds were billowing out the top and sides of the machine. What had I done?! Suddenly it dawned on me that the dishwasher fluid I was so very uncertain of, was not dishwasher fluid at all, but dish soap...or who knows what...and now I was flooding my gracious host's kitchen! Not to mention that I needed to be on a train to a plane in just a few short hours. Here's a glimpse of the damage:
These were taken long after the worst was over. I would empty the dishwasher of as many suds as possible and then run the cycle again, and within a few minutes the suds would come back. When I had used nearly every towel I could find, I realized it was time to let Kevin know what I had done, as I was running out of time. To this day, I do not know how Kevin actually felt about my transgression. He just very politely asked me not to do his dishes next time. Later that night he also informed me a quick google search said white vinegar and a little olive oil help clear out the soap. In any case he was gracious about it. Thank you Kevin!
I had to abandon the mess I made and leave for Yoyogi if I wanted to stay on schedule. I felt, SO bad.
For some reason Yoyogi station was a sight for sore eyes. I hadn't been there in a few days and it seemed fitting my journey to Tokyo ended the same way it began. I met up with Kiyoung and there was much rejoicing, though by this time I was suffering from a very palpable sadness and doing my best to disguise it. Merrick arrived and we decided to go to this little hole in the wall called "Popeyes". We had walked by Popeyes a dozen or more times since my arrival, and in the three or more years Merrick has been living in Tokyo he hadn't been there at all. So it was decided Popeyes was the choice destination for lunch. Can you guess what they served? Deep fried tempura is the correct answer!
Miso soup, rice, curried beef patty, slaw, noodles, and shrimp tempura. Not a bad spread for 700 Yen. I remember the water was insanely delicious as well. I was sitting right in front of a massive filtration system on the counter, so I could serve myself. As far as hole in the wall eateries go, Tokyo had it down. I don't know why you would ever need to go to a gourmet joint in either Tokyo or Seoul when so many amazing flavors were available down the street and at such fair prices. Places like this are really hard to find in the US.
After lunch I was determined to get back to Meiji shrine to pick up some souvenirs for my Mom, as well as re-address the serious emotional reaction I had to the place on my first day. The shrine was actually accessible from Yoyogi, so we didn't need to get on the train. It was just a ten minute walk away. We wandered leisurely to the gate, and this was where Merrick and I parted ways. He needed to get back to work and it was time to say goodbye. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart, as none of this would have been possible without him, and Kiyoung and I went into the shrine, while Merrick headed home.
Meiji shrine was much easier to process the second time around. It was also much less busy being there on a Monday. We stopped at the fountain and I washed my hands and rinsed my mouth out before going in. The weather was becoming progressively more overcast, which gave the shrine a moodier if not an altogether darker vibe, but cozy too. To be honest I could feel a similar wave of grief begin to percolate within me as I did the first time, but I was braced for it this time, and I let it go on its way peacefully. All in all, I still don't know why it happened, or what I was supposed to learn from such an event, perhaps nothing. But I was glad to have control over it the second time around. I stopped by the gift shop to pick up some charms. Four or five women were sitting behind the counter, dressed in traditional Japanese garb, making these charms by hand, presumably all day. Admittedly, the charms themselves were put together from various pre-made fabrics and beads and what not, but I think it's the thought that counts. They were made in a holy place, by people whose soul purpose (while they are on the job) is making charms. I bought a travel charm for my mother, a charm for healthy children for my niece, and a charm of health for myself. I wish I had more to say about this experience...but sadly it was time to go, and catch my train to Narita airport.
The walk back to Yoyogi station was pleasant, and a light rain began to fall. Though refreshing, it felt like a warm bed for my impending sadness to cozy up in. Kiyoung traveled with me back to Nippori station to see me off, and when we made it to the "Skyliner Narita Express" we shared a very fond farewell. I hadn't seen Kiyoung in many years, nor had she seen any of our other friends on this trip in as long. I hope she will come back to the states soon to hang with all of us here! With that, I got on the train, sat down in the back - very much alone, and no sooner had the train lurched into motion did I burst into tears.
The journey to the airport was oddly reflective. From most major cities you would expect to be rushing through traffic and seas of pedestrians and concrete and buildings and lights and sounds. But the way back to Narita was mostly peaceful countryside. Bamboo forests, small suburbs, farm houses, thousands of acres of arable land, verdant hills with sad and solitary trees gnarled with age off in the distance. I couldn't remember the last time I wept openly out of grief for leaving a place or a circumstance. I think the memory most similar would be leaving camp Gallagher my last year as a camper. That too, was only nine days, but the adventures I went on were immortal. Can I say with confidence my journey to Japan was just as life changing? It certainly felt that way. I've been wondering why...why was it such a powerful experience? Conversely, why wasn't my time in Tenerife Spain, or Cost Rica equally as powerful? Not to disparage those experiences at all, they were fantastic! Perhaps the simplest answer is familiarity? Those countries are mostly "westernize." I suppose I'm implying that Japan and Korea are so different from these other countries that I was already by default, more in tune with them. But I don't think that's right. It may in fact be that Japan and Korea were actually MORE familiar then these countries. Time and time again I was reminded of my own hometown of Bellingham Washington and the great Pacific Northwest. So much of the landscape made me feel right at home. Not to mention seeing old friends after years apart. Admittedly, the nostalgia of the whole thing was overwhelming. How can one experience nostalgia in the midst of nearly entirely new situations and circumstances I'm not sure. But I must confess, the whole time I was out there I felt like I was 21 again. I felt like the hero of my own movie. I distinctly remember feeling like that every day of my young life, and at some point it faded away. I think it faded away for a few reasons, not the least of which was the reality of being an artist and musician, and making the transition of merely dreaming of being those things, and actually being those things. But for ten epic days I was just that, and it made me thirsty to have it again. But not thousands of miles away, not on vacation...everyday.
Life doesn't always work out the way you want it to. Last year I got a disease that left me forever changed, a disease from which I am still recovering and may never recover fully. Almost exactly one year before I was in Japan, I could barely walk, or taste, or see, or touch anything...since then I've been through many many hours of physical therapy and countless doctor visits...I had to relearn the piano and guitar all over again. I've had to rehabilitate my voice which sounded like breaking glass when I got out of the hospital...I've had to live with persistent blurry and double vision, and hands and feet that periodically fade away for no reason whatsoever...
I think what I've learned or have been trying to learn from all of this, is that I just don't give a shit anymore. And not in the callous-give-up sort of way, but in the drop all the bullshit and be grateful way. Grateful that I'm a frickin' rockstar, and grateful that I can still function after what happened to me. Grateful that I've got all this music inside me. And yes its hard, and its beyond frustrating...and I must confess, most of the time I feel I am burning down more often then burning up...but for 10 days in February I was who I was meant to be. Or, reminded of that.
I imagine all of these thoughts were buzzing through my head on the train ride to the airport. The way back was nothing to write home about. About 20 hours later I was home at my doorstep. Exhausted, jet lagged, and most likely very cranky. I dropped my travel pack on the floor of the front hall, walked straight into my studio, and picked up my guitar. It was time to get back to work, though it would take me weeks if not months to finally leave Tokyo behind.
It was a grand adventure.