Last year, Tokyo had more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world. As a self-defined foodie you would think i won the lottery moving here. Actually, its more of a frustrating situation then you would think. In New York, if you want to go to a fabulous restaurant, you usually have to wake up early and dial furiously one month before the night you want to eat out. And with any luck, you manage a booking some time during that night (it might be the 5:30 seating but at least you get the reservation). And when you arrive at the restaurant, you are presented with a detailed menu and a waiter who is just dying to tell you all about the food you are so fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to eat. And then the bill comes and you contemplate if it was actually worth the effort/price, etc… This procedure is pretty standard. In Tokyo, its not that easy. There are a few “expat” restaurants around our house that everyone goes to and the menus are in english and there are people who work at those restaurants that speak some english. Its not uncommon to bump into people we know, even though we’ve only lived here for three months. Saturday night, we had plans with our friends Libby and Doug to go out for dinner. Libby was pretty busy the week before as she had guests in from the U.S. and i told her i would find a place and make a reservation. I wanted to break out of the mold and go to a “real” japanese restaurant. Every day that I walk in Tokyo i pass another restaurant that has a small door that you need to bend to enter. Usually there are noren (linen curtains) in front of the door and the name of the restaurant is in japanese (usually a mix of kanji and hirogana). They only seat a handful of people. My mind starts to fantasize about all the fabulous food that is being served there but only for the people in the know (e.g. the people that can read and speak Japanese). I just don’t want to think that i am skimming the surface of good food in Tokyo. I want to eat where the real people eat. So i started doing some research, reading old Metropolis issues (the english weekly magazine) and looking on the internet and i came up with a small restaurant that wasn’t too far away that was Japanese/French. I thought the combination would help the transition from a gaijin restaurant to a Japanese. If it considered itself French in some way, the menu might actually have some French words which would help us figure out what was on the menu. I couldn’t actually make the reservation myself as that would require the ability to speak Japanese so i asked member services (my new best friends) at the Tokyo American Club to make them for me. They called me back later that day to say that we had a reservation for 4 at 8pm at HINOTOHITSUJI SAKA. I emailed LIbby and told her that i made the reservation and we were all set. Saturday night came and we took a quick cab ride over to the restaurant and it was exactly how i pictured it… down a small dark street, lit from within with a small door that Tom had to bend (and Doug who is 6’4) to get inside. I was actually very proud of myself at that point. When i stood upright and surveyed the very brightly lit, very small restaurant that was EMPTY, the pride started to melt into something closer to remorse. We were welcomed by an older woman and a younger man (who could have been her son). He quickly brought us menus that were completely in Japanese. And not the Japanese that Tom can read (hirogana and katakana) but most of it had kanji characters. One particular one did stand out for Tom – the character that represents a Horse. We asked for Eigo menus (english) and he quickly shook his head NO. After some hemming, hawing and teeth sucking, he told us there were three choices. Horse, Pork or Beef Cheek. He left us to decide and we all laughed at how it would be pork for 4. The meal began with a small dish of some type of green grass in salt water. Crunchy but very earthy tasting. The next course was shredded radish with shimiji mushrooms served cold. This course was followed by a clear broth with what looked like gefilte fish floating in it. It turned out to be very similar to gefilte fish but it was pressed crab. After the soup, we were served a chicken sausage with shredded cabbage that was actually quite good. Next up was the pork that was served with root vegetables and a semi-sweet glaze that was also very good. After the main course, we were served cold soba noodles that you dipped in cold soy broth and when you were finished, you poured hot water into the left over broth and drank it like soup. At this point, we were hoping there were no more courses but out came the dessert. It looked very much like coffee ice cream on top of brownie chunks in a custard sauce. Tom took a big bite and as Doug spooned some into his mouth, Tom warned him not to do it and at the very same moment what Doug put in, Doug took out. Turns out the brownie chunks were chunks of some sort of hard jelly and the coffee ice cream was tea flavored. Watching Doug take a big bite excited for the chocolate/coffee dessert and then watching him spit it out, i just couldn’t contain myself and i started laughing so hard that real tears spilled out of my eyes and at that point i just couldn’t stop laughing. of course all night i had to take the brunt of all their jokes (how from now on libby was going to choose the restaurants, and where exactly had i read about the place). We were there for over two hours and not another soul walked in the door. When the bill came, it was close to $200 per couple. Considering the amount of courses we had, it wasn’t really that expensive (for Tokyo). But I don’t think i’ll be going back. Even though it wasn’t the meal I envisioned, i’m not giving up on my exploration of the little doors with the Japanese curtains…
This was a tough weekend. But to keep my blog honest, I have to write the bad with the good. I got my first full blown cold this week and i refuse to go to the doctor (yes, you have read correctly, your friend the lover of doctors won’t go in Tokyo). I’ve been several times for the kids and the truth is, they are clueless and they don’t prescribe good drugs AND they cost a bloody fortune. So, why bother. I actually took the celephane off the neti pot i brought with me and tried to heal my self the old fashioned way. Lets just say i choked on a good deal of salt water and i won’t be using it again anytime soon. So, its day 4 and the cold continues. So, with my defenses down (literally) i had to brave the weekend knowing that Thomas Jr. was playing in the Exeter/Andover game 7500 miles away. He was going to start as the defensive middle line backer (i think i got that right) and i knew it was going to be the biggest day of his athletic career to date. The school was going to have a live web-cast starting at 4:30 a.m. in Tokyo, and Tom Sr. was geared up to watch the game as it happened. I was in denial about the whole thing and tried very hard to put it out of my mind. When it was time to go to bed and Tom was setting the alarm he asked if i wanted to get up with him and watch. Surrounded by my mountain of used tissues, my juice and my ricola, i said no, i think its best if i just get some rest. The next morning around 6:15 Tom woke me and asked if i felt good enough to come downstairs because the 4th quarter was about to start and exeter was ahead by 1 point. I sat up in bed and rushed downstairs. And there on my huge flat screen tv was my son. The one i haven’t seen in months, and thats when i started to cry. And pretty much, thats what i did for the 4th quarter. And thats what i’m doing now as i write this entry. Anyway, they went on to win 21 – 13. Tom had the game of his life. And then the emails started to come in from people who had watched the webcast and from those that were at the game (Big Tom’s parents were there with his sister Nancy and her son Evan and Tom’s old roommate from Exeter was there with his parents). I’ve been told that they are going to make the webcast available on Andover’s website in the near future for anyone who didn’t see it and still wants to. Tom Sr. and I decided next year, when Thomas is a Senior and the game is at home, we will be there, no matter what. So, this weekend, the fun and games were in Andover, Massachusetts…
As i’ve told many of you, the hardest part of living in Tokyo has been making new friends. I had the greatest group of female friends back home that were a major part of my life and i never had to think twice about what to say or where to go or what to do with any of them. Starting over is not easy at 43. Even though i consider myself a social person, i haven’t had to go out into the world and try to meet new people in a very long time. It’s been ten weeks since i arrived and even though i have met some very nice women, i hadn’t yet been invited to a girls night out and even though i had thrown out a few feelers, i hadn’t had any positive responses and so had not planned a night out myself. Last week, a new friend sent an email inviting six women for a korean scrub at Adam and Eve and then spicy ramen and beer afterwards. We were going to meet up at 8pm at the building up the block that looked like a ship, had no windows and said Adam and Eve on the outside. A building that advertised it was open 24hr. To be honest, i had heard it was a very unique experience and I would be required to leave my American modesty at the door. I knew each of the other five women who were invited, but the longest i knew any of them was two months and one woman i had met a few weeks before and was introduced to briefly. But as i said, i was desperate for a night out and slightly curious about the experience and never one to say no to a spa appointment, i quickly emailed back and said i’d be there. The night before the big night out, i actually had a mini-nightmare. I woke up remembering that i had dreamed about being naked in a room that looked very much like a morgue with other naked women around me but they weren’t moving. I put it out of my mind and the day passed. After i fed everyone dinner and cleaned up the kitchen it was time to leave. I decided to take my bike due to the new zero tolerance drinking and driving law passed in Japan. I met two of the women on the way and we arrived at the building and checked in. We left our shoes in little cubbies and were given a key for a locker inside. In the ladies locker room, we were instructed to remove all our clothes and take the small towel from our locker and wrap it around ourselves and go upstairs to the scrub room. The scrub room was very brightly lit and completely tiled from floor to ceiling. There were two nice size soaking tubs (one hot and one freezing), and then a few rows of low stools, hand showers and mirrors. As in every other Japanese bathhouse, you were to remove your towel, hang it on the hook on the other side of the room, walk across the room (completely naked) and sit on the low stool and begin scrubbing your body clean (yes, right next to everyone else doing the same). Once clean, we all got into the soaking tub together and waited to be called. From the soaking tub you could see into the next room which was wide open except for a low hip high tiled wall separating the two rooms. inside the treatment room there were six beds covered in plastic with an unbelievable amount of lotions and potions behind each one. While we were relaxing in the soaking tub, getting used to the fact that we hardly knew one another and now we were chatting completely naked but trying to pretend that we weren’t, the korean women who would be taking care of us entered the room. They were all short and stocky (some more stocky than others) clad only in black bikini panties and lace bra. They abruptly called to us and motioned for us to come into the treatment room to begin the process. I was instructed to lie facing up on the table and immediately a large bucket of hot water was poured over my body from head to toe. My eyes were closed. I heard pumping and soon was slathered with some type of body soap. And then she began to scrub my body fiercely with what probably was some sort of loofah but felt more like fine sandpaper. My skin began to come off in clumps. i felt them underneath me as i slipped and slid on the table. When she was finished with my front (the only place she didn’t scrub was my face), i was flipped onto my side, my leg hoisted up into the air and the scrubbing continued. This was followed by flipping onto my other side. I was then turned over on my stomach and i was able to at last open my eyes. What i saw out of the corner of my eye was my new friend Mona’s naked back covered in dead skin clumps and a woman in black bra and panties scrubbing her raw. i looked down at my own arm and saw the same dead skin and decided to close my eyes again. At this point i was past the embarrassment and i was now just physically uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to get the skin and the soap off my body. It didn’t come as quickly as i would have liked but finally, i heard the twisting of faucets and the hand held shower removed the skin, the dirt, the soap and i started to finally unwind. Once the treatment was over, i was sent back to the soaking tub to relax while the treatment bed was cleaned. We were all back in the tub in a little bit of shock. We didn’t say much to each other but i soon realized that all of us were stroking our arms and legs and shoulders, marveling at how soft we were. The nudity issue was behind us – we had been through the exfoliation war and we had survived. We didn’t have a lot of time to appreciate our new bodies before we were called back in. I laid back on the table facing up and bra and panty lady instructed me to close my eyes. she slathered thick goppy pulp that smelled like fresh cucumbers onto my face leaving only room for me to breath through my nose. i was covered in oil and salt and received a “full body massage” (as in, no body part was spared). It certainly was not the best massage i have had and it wasn’t exactly relaxing as a good part of the massage included smacking me around. but i kept telling myself it was an “experience”. when she turned me over to massage my back i got a glimpse of Mona again. Her face was neon green. Of course now i knew what i looked like too. When the massage was over, she washed and conditioned my hair, had me stand and then hosed me down. By this point i could barely stand. A few of us went into the sauna to dry. It was about 10:30 and i remembered there was promise of spicy ramen and beer. we went to the exit door, clad only in a towel and after sliding back the door, found we were in the restaurant. The TV was blaring, there were two korean women smoking and the rest of the tables were empty. we were motioned to come inside and give up our towels. Yes, that’s right. we were standing in a restaurant where food would be served, completely naked. and then we were handed robes. We drank our beer in reclining chairs, hair wet clipped on top of our heads with the elastic key to our lockers and wrapped up in our robes. above us, there was a large oil painting of a foreigner (non asian woman) naked from the waist up, with large breasts. our waitress came and took our order for ramen and gyoza and when it came, we moved to the tables on the floor and crossed our legs and tucked in our robes and ate and drank and talked until after midnight. When we couldn’t eat or drink anymore, we left the restaurant, returned to the locker and changed back into our street clothes. Within ten minutes we were back outside getting on our bicycles (i wasn’t the only one to choose that method of transportation) and riding home. My body was clean, my hair wet, my stomach full, a little drunk, the air was crisp and fall-like, the bike ride home all downhill (honestly) and i was smiling. I had found some friends, done something adventurous and had a really good time doing it.
The girls and I arrived back from Guam last night after a week away from Tokyo. I’m still trying to digest our experience so that I can explain to everyone what Guam is really like. The U.S. acquired Guam as one of the “spoils of war” after WWII and has a large naval base on the island. It’s history is spanish and their main reason for existence (besides the navy base) is to entertain Japanese tourists (the flight from Tokyo is direct, 3.5 hours and cheap). So the result is that Guam doesn’t really know what it is. The people look Mexican and their native food is latino in feeling, anyone living on the island that interfaces with tourists speaks fluent Japanese and the currency is the US dollar and they are big Obama lovers. Oh, and they have a Kmart and a Macy’s. Needless to say, its a confusing place. My attempt to listen to the voicemail in my room was met with Japanese instructions only – the survey slipped under my door when we left was in Japanese as well. But the weather was perfect (85, sunny, no humidity) the ocean is warm with unbelievable tropical fish (great snorkeling) and I spent a nice amount of time stocking up on Honey Nut Cheerios, trashy US magazines and decaf coffee. The girls were brave enough to parasail in the ocean off a boat for the first time and got to see the results of a native spear fishing for his dinner. We went to a tropical fruit orchard dense with fruit trees we never heard of and ate a buffet lunch of fruit pulled from the trees that morning (sour sap, egg fruit, and others i can’t remember the names of!) There were 7 weddings at our hotel in 5 nights and we got to experience “pair look” which is when the honeymooners dress alike every day on their honeymoon. i kept snapping photos whenever i would see another couple dressed alike and i will post those funny photos on the photo page. there were 9 in our group (me and the girls, my old friend kyoko and her daughter kyla and kyoko’s good friend Fumi (who is my age, and pregnant with twins and weighs 101 pounds – no kidding) and her 7 year old, her 2 year old and her sister. we were an interesting group wherever we went.
saturday morning, hayden had a game at 10 against a japanese team (the first japanese team this season). they won 13 – 0 but the score did not reflect the competitiveness of the game. it was 0-0 until the 4th quarter and the japanese team played really well. when it was all over, and the americans lined up on the field to do the customary shaking of hands, the japanese team ran over and swarmed our boys high fiving and shaking and say “good gamo, good gamo” and then they came over to our coaches and bowed to them. and then, they lined up facing our bleachers and counted out loud and then all together bowed deep to our fans. and we all went crazy. and then the two teams were hugging and laughing and took group team photos together, laughing and making the piece sign and falling all over the field. it was a pretty emotional experience – i’ve never witnessed two high school football teams get along so amazing after a game – especially one of the teams was shut out. they were just so damn happy to play the game of american football with the americans.
Last night Tom and I hosted a dinner party at our apartment for his desk at work. I spent the day before shopping at Costco (a four hour round turn event – 1 hour to drive each way and 2 hours to shop in the extremely crowded store). There were ten of us for dinner and I decided to cook Greek food. My thought was Greek food is very rare in Tokyo – I had only heard of one Greek restaurant in Tokyo and that was confirmed by the dinner guests. Not sure why it never caught on here. Anyway, i attempted to make taramousalata because that is such an authentic thing to eat and I thought the Japanese would love a good fish spread. Well, what I made was definitely a fish spread but it definitely was NOT taramousalata. Good thing they weren’t familiar with the original. I can just imagine them the next time they actually try the real stuff. I also made baklava which looked authentic and the taste was right, but it was very messy and difficult to eat. And after dinner when everyone was comfortable (and had a few drinks) they told me I had served the special water that has Fiber added to it so I’m pretty sure the guests were having a laugh at that when I put it on the table. Embarrassing. But most importantly, I had a lot of alcohol and a good variety and that was what made everything go smoothly. Japanese people hardly ever entertain in their homes because they are small. Most dinner parties are hosted at restaurants so i was happy to do something different. and there was the most beautiful full moon hanging over the Tokyo Tower.
Today is a national holiday in Japan – Sports and Culture Day. Tom didn’t have work but the girls had school (score!) and Hayden went with his friends to O-Daiba to hang out at the Sega Theme Park. It was a beautiful Indian Summer day and we took our bikes and rode to Happo-En a Japanese garden not far from our house. (i recently bought a mamacharie – which is the Japanese word for the type of bike the wicked witch of the west rode). I would assume the name derives from Mama Chariot. Anyway, its what all the woman ride here and they are cheap and get you from point A to point B and there is a nice big basket to carry your packages. When we arrived at the garden there were two weddings going on. They let us walk around anyway which was very nice of them and we saw an entire row of bonsai trees, some of which were over 500 years old. That was astonishing to us. Can you imagine caring for a little tree over the course of 5 or 6 generations? Tom said he was happy to have his grandfather’s cufflinks but thats about as far as something has passed in his family from one generation to the next. There was an insane amount of carp going bananas in the pond and Tom pointed out the “life bouy” in case anyone fell in (see photo). While we were walking through the gardens, the bells started chiming calling the guests to the ceremony – which was held in a small chapel with stained glass windows with a big silver cross on top. I’m pretty sure neither one of the couple were christian. Its just something the Japanese love to do – imitate other cultures (especially western ones) to make things look and feel legitimate. It was pretty bizarre in the middle of this very japanese garden. as we were leaving, we noticed a sign in the parking lot that we thought was pretty funny. See the photo attached. It reads like someone was actually drunk while writing it. You would think they would ask someone who spoke English how to translate the meaning.
Our three day weekend in Tokyo started off very much like it might have if we were back in New York. Tom left work early and we drove out to Hayden’s school – The American School in Tokyo for a Friday night football game. When we arrived, the school was packed with kids and fans and the grill was fired up and moms and dads were making hamburgers and hotdogs. There were cheerleaders and a half-time show, just like at home. The kids were even playing against other Americans as they hosted the Edgren Eagles, an Air Force team from up north in Hokkaido. Hayden’s team won and we stayed for part of the varsity game.
On Saturday, we spent the morning doing errands, returning videos we rented, dropping off shoes to be fixed, having some pants altered at the tailors. All things anyone at home might do on a Saturday morning. I took the girls to a nearby international school fair and spent a lot of money on nothing and walked home with a headache, but the girls had a good time. School fairs in Japan serve alcohol and lots of it. Probably why I saw many more Dads than I would usually see at a school fair back home.
Tom and I got our absentee ballots in the mail today. Tom opened it, voted, signed and sealed it. Tossed it on my desk to mail asap. Mine is sitting next to my computer staring at me. I am still undecided and may have to vote for Ralph Nader. Even though I know deep down our votes won’t count. Please…absentee ballots… what chain of events has to happen for them to even open those envelopes? But for some reason (not sure why because I would never categorize myself as political) this election, it means something to me. I’ll have to sleep on it…