I don’t remember landing in Tokyo. I don’t remember the flight. But the moment my feet hit the pavement marked the first leg of what would be a three month journey. What I do remember is that I had just said good-bye, and that I was heartsick, drunk on lights, and hungry.
The night before I left Tennessee, he & I stayed together, and he drove me to the airport the next morning. I usually took the shuttle; it was something new & wonderfully horrible to have anyone to say good-bye to. That morning I awoke pre-dawn, easing myself out of the bed so as to not wake him but staring at him for what seemed like a long while. I finished packing methodically in the dark—my life for three months summed up in a backpack. I ran a last minute errand to the 24 hr. drug store as daylight broke. I felt in control, like I could do it, like I could leave for three months without falling apart. I woke him and showered. He grabbed us coffee & pastries from his shop, and we left.
On the two hour drive to the Atlanta international terminal, we smiled as much as we could, listened to the radio—pop music exclusively at my request—and talked, my hand on the back of his head the whole way. Our tenor was frantically positive. I couldn’t look down. I was going to Japan! A lifelong dream. But I was leaving him, the man I’d only just found, for what felt like an eternity. My emotions weren’t on the up and up as to what to do with all that information. At that point, I didn’t even know what we were, but I knew we were in love. Still, three months is a long time, and I didn’t feel I had any right to claim him. We’d only known each other for a few whirlwind weeks. I remember telling him if he saw other people while I was gone that was fine but to please not tell me. I was trying to be whatever it is I thought a grown up was. Reasonable. Measured. Detached even. It was a laugh. I was out of my mind in love. And leaving, leaving, leaving. So far away for such a long time. The only way to look was forward.
As we drew closer to the airport, he cried at a red light while singing along with an inane song which in turn made me laugh-cry. None of it was very dignified, and all of it was very sweet. That song would, in my mind, become our song, and I would listen to it hundreds of times as I wandered the world over the next three months. Within 15 hours of watching him drive away, I was standing in the heart of Tokyo for the first time in my life, hundreds of people pulsing through the fluorescent night streets. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being sleep deprived, in love, and alone in Tokyo. It seemed as it should be.
Hungry. That’s right. I was hungry. I wandered Shibuya with it’s arcades and drunks and drug stores. I found myself a tourist in what I can only assume was the Japanese equivalent of a Walgreens. It was all fascinating to me. There seemed to be a lot of products dedicated to the beautification of feet. It was excellent. I possessed the dumb wonder of a child those first few jet lagged hours. I sent him photos of everything thing I saw and ate. I was alone, but I wasn’t. The entire three months I was gone ended up being that way. From the other side of the world, he was my constant companion, always by my side.
For my first meal, I ducked into an unassuming noodle bar, a Japanese diner of sorts. It was dark and there was one narrow bar facing the kitchen where great pots steamed beneath shelves lined with ceramic bowls and one man with a kerchief on his hand tended the pots with military precision. The counter was lined with utilitarian pitchers of ice water, and one lone middle-aged Japanese man sat at the far end of the bar, head down over a bowl of noodles. It had to have been no earlier than 1 AM.
It took me a moment to figure out the system, how to order. I finally discerned, through not-so-surreptitious watching of another fellow noodle goer that trickled in, that I needed to insert my yen into what looked like a vending machine plastered with shoddy photos of each dish. I studied them carefully. My obvious lack of literacy in Japanese meant I was ordering by sight alone. I went for one with a broth that dark shade of red that promises heat topped with a creamy poached egg, fatty pork, and bright scallions. During my time in Japan, I ended up going back to that ramen bar three times, always for that bowl.
That first evening I got yelled at for trying to snap a photo, quickly learned to mind my manners, and then found myself shame-facedly googling “how to properly eat ramen” on my iphone beneath the counter. I realized that despite my illustrious career as a collegiate ramen consumer, I didn’t really know the drill. After a quick scan of ramen-eating-how-to’s (which are things that exist), I too slurped dutifully, my head down, chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. Once full & finally back in my concrete room overlooking the city, I collapsed, exhausted. My first night in Japan.
The next two days would be spent exploring the Tsukiji fish market (where I consumed copious amounts of sashimi, stubbornly obtained myself a delectable bowl of what I can only call “delicious brown fish parts on rice” from an old woman despite the language barrier, and ate absolutely every curiosity I passed by from sweet omelet slices to sticky grilled eel); seeking out little coffee houses, minimalist shops, and slow food eateries friends recommended; wandering Asakusa & Shimokitazawa; and generally letting both the city & I mutually swallow one another whole. After two short days I hopped a train, that inane pop song on repeat in my ear, and headed to the Kiso Valley…
Find my Tokyo recommendations below. They are hardly comprehensive, but they are some of the best places I found & loved in Tokyo. Add your own recommendations in the comments so we can all share what we love in this vibrant, diverse city…as this was certainly the first of many explorations to come!
1. life son
3. the little shop of flowers
4. fog linen
5. bear pond espresso
6. omotesando koffee
7. tarui bakery
8. tsukiji fish market
9. wander shimokitazawa
11. asakusa – street food & temple in the old town
12. Arts & Science
13. Aji Gen Ramen, Shibuya