Upon arrival at the the Haneda airport, I opted for an immediate trip to the washroom. There I found myself lost within the added functionality to the bidets. The fundamental elements remained unchanged from the time we lived in Tokyo but today’s offerings went above and beyond what I remembered. What was previously just pressure, temperature and directional controls were now supplemented by options for oscillation, massages, deodorizers and music. It was my “welcome to Japan” moment and a little taste into the detailed world of its people that made the most mundane of actions so encapsulating. And if my brother were not waiting for me for quite some time already, I would have stayed even longer to study the perplexities of this contraption.
As expected, my delay lead us to the tail end of the customs line up, and more than half an hour later, we were finally ready to get out of the airport, up until we couldn’t locate our luggage. And just as panic was about to set in, I was pleasantly surprised to find it nearby and personally attended to by an employee of All Nippon Airways. I didn’t think we took that long, but I guess the Japanese are just that efficient. A fitting end to the flight we just undertook with the airlines that also came in one hour earlier than expected.
The Japanese, known for their unparalleled hospitality, lived up tho their reputation and more within our first hour of being in Tokyo. But little did I know at the time, this was just a glimpse into the all-encompassing concept of omotenashi.
As many people say, omotenashi can never be fully explained. It is not simply good service, but also an attention to detail ingrained into the most subtle aspects of an experience. And what we experienced in Tokyo was impressive as details seeped into every aspect of their lives, even in a non-service-oriented environment. From the strands of bangs meticulously positioned on the foreheads of fashionably dressed teenagers at Harajuku to the beautifully monogrammed cuffs of businessmen on the streets of Chiyoda. It was extremely interesting to see the most minute of aspects bring out a distinct finesse to their style no matter how outrageous or conservative. And when I needed to find my way, the maps on every street corner and on each side of the train carts always reflected the visual perspective of our current orientation.
It is no wonder then, that the same level of care and attention was so evident in the food. Restaurants bore seafood as fresh and succulent as being plucked right out of the sea. Ramen bars with shio and shoyu broth were as hearty and rich as they were clear. Even onigiri and sushi rolls from chain convenience stores comforted me as well as only the food I grew up with could. And who could forget the plastic wrap of onigiris and sushi rolls from chain convenience stores that had visual instructions on how to roll the nori around it without ever touching the food? But most of all, no matter what you were eating, it was not just about flavour, but very much about the aesthetics. The visual presentation, no matter how simple, always had a note of classic refinement. And when it comes to beauty both on the plate and in our mouth, is there anything more beautiful than a kaiseki meal?
After some difficulty trying to get a reservation at the referral-only Matsukawa, the effort was well worth it. Subtle, complex, refined and almost regal. It was everything and more one could expect out of a kaiseki, and I still dream about the sea cucumber ovaries that lay on top of a scallop dumpling swimming within the depths of this clear indescribable dashi broth. There is no point of comparison for such perfection. The flavour of the broth, although extremely muted, contained so much depth. As I grasp for words in trying to describe its flavour, I have resided to the fact that there are some things in life one cannot explain, and this is one of them – including the overall experience of this meal, where my brother and I are still finding the words to describe its sublimity.
The three Michelin starred Kagurazawa Ishikawa too was a beautiful kaiseki meal. But where Matsukawa was understated, Ishikawa was bold, with these differences quite evident in their broths alone. But that is as far as comparisons go, as the two meals were substantially different. I now long for the sounds of wooden boards clamouring against the wooden counters, the constant grating of fresh wasabi and the serene sounds of running water that at times would be the only break to the prolonged moments of solemnity at these establishements.
A stark contrast to the environment of a sushi-ya, where we were thoroughly entertained by those at the helm. Yoshitake-san at his restaurant, Sushi Yoshitake, in Ginza entertained us as well as any professional – even posing like a samurai with the use of his knife at one point. But no matter how entertaining he was, the highlight of our time here was characterized by his brown shari rice. Strong and distinct in vinegar flavour which beautifully enhanced each individual fish served to us that evening. And his signature dish of abalone accompanied by abalone liver sauce during the otsumami was a rich meaty taste of the sea, I would go back to the restaurant just for that alone.
A few blocks away from Sushi Yoshitake however is another sushi-ya named Sushi Sawada. As entertaining as Yoshitake-san was a few nights earlier, Sawada-san was on another level. And although only two people worked the entire restaurant, the food was anything but minimalistic. If anything, it was the most copious meal of the trip, and I fondly recall being given an enormous goose berry for dessert and at one point wondering when Sawada-san would stop the endless pour of uni into my sushi. It was such a shame however that the stomach flu hit me hard only an hour before heading to Sawada causing the first portion of the meal to be internally tortuous. Luckily, the pain was momentarily quelled towards the latter half of the meal. Redemption however is now in the horizon for this restaurant and the ones we had to cancel because of my illness.
But they say everything happens for a reason and if there was any consolation prize to having to cancel the rest of our reservations because of this stomach flu, it was that it gave us the opportunity to explore more of the city, visit old family friends in Tokyo and eat more of the everyday food of the Japanese. Highlights of that included wagyū yakiniku, which melted like butter in my mouth. And the always formidable ramen, which really did wonders for my stomach. Subsequently ramen street in the massive Tokyo station in Chiyoda became our haven towards the end of our trip, and ordering straight from a vending machine now doesn’t seem so odd.
Neither does being given a cloth bag for your face in a dressing room (which I found out is given to women to slip over their head so as to avoid transferring makeup onto the clothes). And what were once cultural oddities have grown to become endearing idiosyncrasies of this place full of juxtapositions. From the organized chaos of the metropolis dichotomized by the calmness of the temples and gardens that lay within it. Or the women clad in kimonos on the streets of one of the most western shopping districts known as Ginza. Tokyo is in many ways the yin and the yang. Not too much of one of the other but instead a mix of contrasts wrapped into a perfectly balanced web of interconnected activity.
Some time ago, my brother and I were fortunate enough to call this place home. Although we were very young at the time, memories of biking around Komazawa Park, eating okaka onigiri, strolling through bazaars and taking the school bus with my brother still echo in my mind as if it were just yesterday, and I look back at those expat days fondly. Here and there, we found ourselves reacquainted with the memories of our youth, and in many ways, much has remained the same. From the simplest of reminders such as the omnipresent vending machines, Lawson convenience stores still carrying Meiji Choco Baby or Apollo chocolates, the Isetan in Shinjuku where our parents used to buy our school uniforms or even the koinobori laying around in preparation for Boy’s day. Much has indeed remained the same. So much so that the plateware at Kappabashi Dougu Dori (AKA Kitchen Street), the ornaments from the Oriental Bazaar in Omotesando Hills or the buddha souvenirs at Nakamise Dori would not have updated the inventory my mother had harboured from our time living in Tokyo more than two decades ago.
Maybe this can be attributed to their dedication to tradition. After all, some of the items I mentioned above have been around for hundreds of years. But perhaps it is also their culture, a culture with so much history and respect for what is around them that it seeps into many aspect of their lives. Leonardo Da Vinci once said that that details make perfection. The Japanese must have been listening because from the moment we stepped onto the newly minted All Nippon Airways route from YVR to HND, to the moment we stepped off it on our way home, rarely have my expectations lived up to reality, but in Tokyo it did and more.
To view pictures of our trip in its entirety, please visit our Flickr photo sets.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny