One trip to Tokyo is hardly enough time to fully grasp the massive city. But, with six full days in our vacation, my husband and I tried our very best to penetrate the ocean of over 160,000 gleaming restaurants that populate the global metropolis.
The first night, after we settle into our room at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Tokyo in the Shinjuku ward, we stumble out onto street, weary and slightly delirious from the jarring time zone change, in search of some type of food to placate our empty stomachs. Our mobile phones are lit in front of our faces in full-blown Millennial mode, set on Google Maps, as we try to navigate the winding streets behind our hotel. We pass by several small eateries, intimidated by the restaurant placards written solely in Japanese along with the occasional window display set of somewhat helpful sampuru (the plastic fake food models), and gaze through the windows into the spaces filled with Japanese salarymen eating dinner hunched over the tables engaging in hushed conversations with each other.
Our hunger becomes more ravenous and we make a bold step and decide on a noodle shop with a queue full of locals waiting outside. We get lucky and the host, after a few confused nods and looks of confusion, surmises that we don’t understand a lick of Japanese, and hands us the English menu to Shin Udon, a tiny 10-seat handmade udon shop. To our surprise and extreme pleasure after a full day of traveling, we landed at one of the best udon shops in Shibuya.
The bowl of beef bukkake udon noodles is palliative at the end of the night –warm with a salty, umami broth. The noodles are supple, but with a slight chew, and easily the best udon that I’ve ever tasted. I look over to the chef who is steadfastly kneading the udon dough in the corner near the window and gaze in quiet appreciation. The beef is savory, flavorful and gives each bite of noodle the perfect complement. A plate of burdock root tempura is placed in front of us and provides a nice textural juxtaposition to the warm noodles. Absent of any superfluous grease, the tempura is light, crunchy, and oh-so-good. Two bowls of udon cost us 2500 yen, about $21 USD. We pay at the counter in cash, which seems to be customary in most Tokyo restaurants, and shuffle off back into the streets, happy and eager to experience much more.
We stroll through Shibuya the next day and immediately notice that it tends to attract a younger crowd. It’s filled with uber cool shops targeted towards people much younger than us—everything from trendy clothing outposts pumping out the latest Justin Beiber tune to craft coffee cafes serving pour overs . Sensory overload overtakes us as we cross over Shibuya Crossing, the famed crosswalk where people from all sides file into the streets like armies of little ants.
The crosswalk is surrounded by towering multi-story department stores and flashing billboards all around. We take refuge in the Tokyu department store, next to the Shibuya station, and ride downstairs below to its depachika, where the basement department store food hall resides. It’s a wonderland of food downstairs—chock full of people swirling through the expansive basement space—some shopping leisurely and others picking up a snack or lunch on their way to the catch the next train. There are multiple bakeries and chocolatiers filled with trays of pastries, and display cases lined neatly with intricately boxed chocolates and layered cakes. There are vendors selling bento boxes and different assortments of salads sold by the pound, and employees are politely greeting each person that walks by almost in an eerily uniform manner. Everything food-wise you can dream of lies in the glass display cases: sui mai, unagi, yakitori, onigiri, gyoza, tonkatsu, mochi, and takoyaki. The biggest conundrum at any depachika seems to be making a decision. We vow to return later on, after an hour’s perusal and bewilderment, to pick up pastries for the next morning.
For lunch, we decide to pursue one of our goals: tonkatsu (pork cutlet). Luckily, for us, one of the most popular places to get tonkatsu is nearby, upstairs in the Tokyu department store on the ninth floor. We make our way up to Tonkatsu Maisen, and although it’s not the famed Aoyoma Honten location in Shibuya, this tonkatsu garrison suits us just fine.
The black pork loin cutlet is so juicy and tender, each slice melts like a pad of butter on the tongue. The fat from the Japanese pigs makes the cutlet taste so moist, and each bite oozes with evocative unctuousness. The breading is light, airy, crunchy and its perfection makes you wonder: how did they do this?! Each cutlet set comes with a mound of shredded cabbage, miso soup and a bottomless bowl of steamed white rice with condiments on the side to drizzle on top of the pork. The sets, depending on which type of pig (like the Okita Kurobata) and cut of pork you choose, aren’t cheap. For two, we walk out paying a shade under 6000 yen, or $50 USD for lunch (but no tip). Yes, it’s pricey, but the tonkatsu is worth its weight in swine gold at Tonkatsu Maisen.
On the Sunday morning, we wipe the sleep off our eyes, finding ourselves more adjusted to the new time zone. We venture out to outskirts of the Takashimaya department store where it’s eerily desolate at 9 a.m. in Shinjuku during a part of time that’s usually bustling with millions of people a day traversing through. Luckily, for us, we spot a familiar logo in the window in our search for a cup of good coffee. It’s a Tokyo branch of Blue Bottle, the Oakland, California-based coffee company. My husband attempts to order in English and some hand gestures. The need for coffee via a bleary-eyed countenance seems to translate very well internationally and the barista gently advises the daily single-origin grind is sourced from Kenya.
We sit in the Apple-white, pristine digs of the coffee shop and sip on the coffee as we peer over into the Joël Robuchon boulangerie next door and contemplate about the large population of Tokyoites that seem to be mega-Francophiles. We then map out our short 15-minute walk over to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden to check out the park and catch an early glimpse of cherry blossoms.
The long park walk zaps of us some energy so we head to Isetan’s department store depachika for a quick zap of comestible energy. Everything looks so good and irresistible, yet we limit ourselves to only a few goodies that consist of an avocado and broccoli salad, some yakitori and onigiri. Each little snack adds up quickly and we realize that we’ve spent nearly 3,000 yen ($26 USD) on just a “few” snacks. Oh well.
The filling snacks turn out to be a good idea as we walk into Shinjuku’s red light district area and into the Robot Restaurant. The experience at Robot Restaurant (“restaurant” is used very lightly) in the past has been described as akin to an acid trip and I can confirm, yes indeed, it is. The 90-minute show is perplexing in every way, with no discernable semblance of a coherent narrative, yet you can’t help feel mesmerized by its astute weirdness and the comically enthusiastic bikini-clad actors. Between multiple intermissions of the laser light and robot show, workers try hard to coerce attendees (which are nearly all tourists by the way) to purchase drinks and cheap “Robot Restaurant”-emblazoned tchotchkes. It all feels all of a bit opportunistic and slimy, but we shrug it off, assuring ourselves that it is only a once-in-a-lifetime experience, much like our previous weird immersive theatrical experience at “Sleep No More” in New York City.
A little aimless walking later, we decide to try Ichican Ramen. It’s a popular choice with locals and tourists alike and there’s a line snaking from downstairs to the street. A line enforcer is outside asking people not to hold spots and to not cut in, and the line moves swiftly downstairs into the basement ramen-ya. Once inside, there’s another line until you reach the vending machine. We deposit our yen and quickly make a decision to opt for the most popular dish there, the tonkotsu ramen. While we wait more, the host hands us another sheet where we can personalize our ramen even more—do we want dashi? Spicy or mild tare? With or without char siu? Then we get an escort to individual stalls, slide our sheet under a bamboo shade, and wait. Seconds later, a ramen chef, face obscured by the shade, pushes a steamy bowl underneath, and lowers the shade completely to allow us to enjoy in privacy.
And, enjoy we do. The broth is hot, milky, and thick and it oozes with a depth of pork flavor. The noodles are on the thin side, but they still allow for the thick broth to cling on the strand with each bite. The slice of pork is tender and the soft-boiled egg is satisfying. The ramen is enough to wipe away some unfortunate, recent memories of the Robot Restaurant and we walk away happy as we emerge from Ichiran Ramen and amble onto the streets of the crazy populated Tokyo nightlife.