I'm back in Japan after a holiday here earlier in the year with the Mouse in tow. At the time I had planned a great photo essay to show off the meals we enjoyed in Tokyo, through Nagano for some skiing, and Kyoto. Unfortunately this never materialised and the trip was somewhat dampened by a torn ACL on the moguls in Nozawa Onsen, a traditional Japanese ski resort. But this a story for another time.
I'm here for 5 weeks on a work secondment, and much poorer since David Chang's Lucky Peach website has shut down. It was an excellent curated resource for Tokyo restaurants and bars. I owe some of my all time favourite meals to the site and it will be sorely missed.
Now, guideless, and having failed to find any compelling Tokyo food blogs barring the odd instagram (Ivanramen, ramenadventures), I'm groping blindly at what's out there.
I've started near to my apartment in Nakameguro, an enclave of artisanal brew coffee stores and the home of Tokyobike. Ogling the £700 cycles at Tokyobike the staff very kindly gave me a map of the area with some of their favourite spots.
Most of the people I knew here have moved on, so staring down the barrel of a solo Friday night I went for a double header of evening meals. London was a constant battle to say no to events and invitations to limit alcohol consumption and maximise sleep. No such trouble in Tokyo. There is something particularly wretched about feeling alone in a big city which hiterto I've never really experienced. It feels like such a waste of a brilliant city, to be alone and not sharing it, even for just one night. I'll bet that there's no country on earth where there is so much mutual enmity between expats. Tokyo's foreign settlers are constantly railing against their foreign cousins and belittling each other. The bankers hate the JET language teachers who hate the comic book nerds who hate the tourists who hate each other. The Reddit page for Japan consists almost entirely of firmly entrenched expat users complaining about tourists, ranting about other foreigners and how they embarrass the international community, and abusing midwesterners who ask how to get a Japanese girlfriend. I don't claim any great insight into where this comes mutual loathing from. Perhaps back home expats are fêted for their willingness to endure the quirkiness of the country and don't want to lose their sense of uniqueness when they come back out east. Alternatively they're mocked for being out here and assumed to have a penchant for Japanese girls or nerd culture, and so are heavy handed with anyone who perpetuates this stereotype. The international community in Tokyo is small, and very visible in such a seemingly homogenous society. Maybe this adds to the effect.
There doesn't seem to be much of an infrastructure that facilitates expat networking here besides from the Tokyo American Club, a huge fortress-like structure near Roppingi with 8 restaurants, a pool, tennis courts, and a calendar of Burns nights and Halloween parties. All this comes at an eye watering price (upfront membership fee of $15,000 and $220 per month thereafter) so precludes most young people. This city and the great people scattered around its neighbourhoods deserve better.
I'm conflicted on the mutual hatred of expats point. It's absurd and wholly irrational that we want to have a city of however so many millions of people to ourselves, and that we resent the presence of other foreigners in bars and restaurants. In February the Mouse and I went for udon and tsukemen one night. The udon was excellent, with a wholesome broth, slightly salted, that laps at the walls of your mouth. More than half the customers inside were certainly tourists. This seemed to have had no discernible effect on the the quality of the food of course but it detracts from the overall experience - less special. Next up was the inimitable Fuunji, a near religious noodle experience. All the other customers lined up against to wall to wait for a seat at the counter were Japanese. It was just so much better. So be it.
Friday night started off at Red Book, a bayou bordello themed curry spot. Well worn red velvet bar seats give the place a swampy sleaze. After consulting with the chef behind the counter I plumped for a thali-type selection of goodies. Raita, biryani, chicken curry and extras piled on a metal platter. It was good, but now I'm wondering if the meals in February felt so special because of the company. I was a de facto guide for the Mouse and loved seeing her face light up when we walked through dark neon-stained alleyways to find a well researched dive.
Slightly deflated next up was Buzjenbo on the northern edge of Nakameguro. White tiled and filled with catrearing manuals it's like walking into the kitchen of a modern day Miss Haversham, though one with a far more active social life. The Buzjenbo udon consists of fish cakes, deep fried tofu, and seaweed piled up in a generous bowl.
The thick wheat noodles lie suspended in a semi-transparent broth, barely thicker than water but with a savoury hit to fill your cheeks. When you slurp up the noodles the ends writhe about violently, like you're devouring some dreadful space worm as a last resort. I've previously had little patience for udon, often finding it a poor vessel for the satisfying girthy noodles. Buzjenbo defied my expectations of dignified mediocrity. Superb.