Every travel lover has that one destination at the top of their “bucket list” that maybe seems a little out of reach but is definitely a place they dream about and hope to visit someday. For me, it is Tokyo. I’ve wanted to go ever since I saw Bill Murray struggle with middle age malaise and insomnia in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. The idea of being in a culture so foreign to my own and having to navigate a world where few speak English sounded like a true traveler’s challenge and really fun. In the past decade or so, the food scene of Tokyo has taken off and Tokyo ranks among one of the top food cities in the world and that was also part of my excitement about Tokyo travel. So when my college roommate told me she had to fly to Japan for business, I jumped at the chance to tag along. With frequent flier miles burning a hole in my United account, I booked a free economy ticket from ORD-NRT. Chicago O’Hare to Narita International (right outside of Tokyo.) and the massive research for where to go, what to eat, and what to see began.
When I finally arrived in Tokyo after a 13 hour flight, it was an incredible rush stepping off the plane knowing I was fulfilling a long held wish. But would it live up to the hype? I was about to find out. I had travelled many places and experienced jet lag before but nothing quite like this. Every morning at 2am I was wide awake and ready to see Tokyo. Luckily, this city of almost 14 million people has a 24 hour pulse and plenty to do. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a coffee shop open until 7am! Thank God for 7-11. Because Tokyo is so massive, each point of interest is pretty far from each other and requires taking the metro or a cab. Cabs are very expensive and the metro while confusing at first is actually pretty straight forward once you get the hang of it. I was so impressed and amazed at the morning rush and how orderly it was despite the massive crowds. People line up in these little lines waiting to get on the subway and very patiently wait for everyone to get off the train before boarding.
For me, the real destination is sampling the food, studying the people and getting lost in the culture. And honestly, Tokyo may be one of the best places in the planet to do this. Below is just a small sampling of some of my favorite meals while I was there. They range from very, very cheap and casual to probably the highest end Sushi in the city and a little in between.
Sushi Dai is located in the Tsukiji Fish market and the line starts forming sometime around 3am. Partly because so many tourists get up to try and see the famous Tuna auction and then find out they didn’t make the cut. Only 120 people can see the auction a day so many end up just wandering around the market hungry. Sushi Dai is suppose to have the freshest and most incredible sushi and at only 40 dollars for the Omakase it attracts a line that wraps around the block. I got in line at 4am thinking it would only be 45 minutes to an hour. Well, two and half hours later I felt like I was in an episode of Survivor Sushi edition. It was a long wait in the cold. How much does anyone really want sushi? My pride kept me in line and not wanting to quit. Plus, I made a lot of great friends from all over the world. We were all in the same cold and dark boat together. Eventually the door did open and it was our moment. The tiny nine-seat restaurant was run by three sushi chefs that picked out the freshest, most delicious options and presented them. Along with green tea, miso soup and a maki roll. Overall, it was incredibly delicious and an awesome experience.
In contrast to my 2 and half hour wait in the cold for Sushi Dai, I also had the pleasure of going to one of Tokyo’s Michelin star sushi restaurants, Sushi Saito. It was also a small and intimate experience of Omakase (Chef”s Choice) where three master sushi chefs are constantly working to prepare fresh and interesting samplings of different types of sushi. Some of the options were eyebrow-raising. Sperm sack anyone? But that’s part of the Chef’s Choice. I loved Sushi Saito in a totally different way than Sushi Dai and I appreciated not having to wait outside to eat.
Harajuku Gyoza-Ro was also a long line in one of Tokyo’s most famous shopping districts. The menu is simple: steamed dumplings or pan-fried dumplings? Coca-Cola or Beer? That’s it. Simple. Delicious. and Fun. Kagari was probably my favorite dining experience because it was simply such a unique and delicious experience. Down an alley in the fashionable Ginza district you will see businessmen with their briefcases lined up at lunch to get a steaming bowl of ramen. With only a sign that says “Soba” you have to know where you are going and you also know what you are ordering. Your order is taken outside while in line. Different kinds of broth and styles of noodles and toppings are available. I chose the classic chicken stock style ramen with soba noodles and seasonal vegetables, bamboo shoots and an egg. When the doors open and it is your turn, your order is ready for you, along with a bib, to catch excess broth from all the slurping you are about to do. It is quiet (except for the slurping) and orderly and fantastic. After I was done, I stood up and said “Wow that was amazing. Thank you”. Everyone looked startled but delighted at my compliment. Since tipping of any kind is considered offensive, I’m not really sure how to express my appreciation other than lots of compliments and bowing! And smiling!
It’s fascinating how taking pictures of food is now a thing. It’s not just for foodies. It was everywhere in Japan even more so than in NYC or Chicago. Everyone including the Japanese businessmen were snapping away at every location I visited. Our instagram culture has really taken over and makes you wonder what’s next in the world of capturing our favorite food experiences. I appreciated it as so many of my friends laugh at my obsession with taking food snapshots in the US. I felt like I fit right in in Tokyo.
Finally it was time to say Sayonara Tokyo! With your beautiful gardens and breathtaking shrines, your soaring skyscrapers and dizzying neon lights that make Times Square look like child’s play. You are a study in contrasts. I loved every second of meeting you and eating my way through your delicious culinary scene….from your world class sushi to your strawberry filled crepes (even the snacks I got at 7-11) were awesome. But most of all, I appreciated your small and grand gestures of respect. Respect for all people in all situations. The way you line up to get on the subway in small perfect lines. The way you walk a guest all the way to the elevator and then wait to wave good-bye. Your attentiveness. Your care. Sorely missing from American culture today is the extravagant respect you show effortlessly. Thank you Tokyo. As I leave…. a deep and heartfelt bow to you.