Noodles Mess With My Head

A ramen shop destroyed a dream today.

Ramen Jiro is one of Tokyo’s more famous ramen chains. The original shop is just a few minutes away from my apartment, but I have never gone in the year and half we’ve lived here.

I never wanted to wait in the shop’s long line, so I did the only sensible thing and talked about the shop like a grandmother watching the squirrels outside of her window:

“Oh, pretty good line today. That’s at least an hour and half wait.”

“Oh, it looks like they ran out of noodles today. Did they get a new cook?”

Ang normally nods, and says something sweet like, “You know, you could just go there sometime, dum dum.”

What Ang failed to understand was that I had turned Ramen Jiro into Holy Mount Ramen. I was never hungry enough to appreciate the notoriously large portions or didn’t have enough time in the afternoon to relax in a ramen-infused daze. It had to be right, which sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud, but so does any word if you say it out loud long enough. Shark. Shark. Shark. Shark.

Yesterday, everything lined up perfectly. I woke up at noon, hungover and starving – living the dream! – and decided to call it a day right there. I cleared my non-existent calendar and to-do list. “If I can put on pants, leave my apartment, and stumble to Ramen Jiro, I can count this day as a success,” I thought.

I waited in line at Ramen Jiro for over an hour. I’m pretty sure the smirks of passersby were smirks of respect and not smirks that said, “Look at those grown men standing in line for a bowl of noodles.” Still, I was feeling good about my plan, because I was having a memorable experience, and then at the end I’d get to eat delicious ramen.

The line wrapped around the tiny, triangular building. Lots of teenagers in school uniforms coming from Saturday class, and lots of adults taking full advantage of the time they are given on this earth. I was starting to get hungry by the time I got to the front of the line and I didn’t like the way the guy in front glanced back at me. To be fair to him, I don’t think he was actually looking at me, but point-counterpoint, I was ready to hunt down his family and eat all of their faces off. Maybe that was just the low blood sugar talking. Jesus, I hope it was just the low blood sugar talking.

No matter, I was finally getting to try this ramen that dominates every English language article about ramen in Tokyo. Go on, try to find an article that doesn’t mention Ramen Jiro. I’ll wait.

Let’s draw this out some more. I’ve loved ramen since my Oriental-flavored Maruchen days…Oriental-flavored! I looked past dated, possibly racist phrases for packs of dried ramen. And now I live in Tokyo, the best ramen in the world (Sorry, China). And now I’m getting to eat at the famous Ramen Jiro. I was still hungover – living the dream! – but was a happy man when I sat down.

Ramen Jiro is a tiny shop, and you have to politely shove your neighbor’s face into his soup to get to your seat. They have a reputation for big portions, garlic, and a broth that’s practically gravy. People go nuts over it.

But when I sat down, all I saw was a giant vat of gurgling gray pork mess. The ramen chef had a tub of pork meat, and would occasionally pull out a hacked-off piece of cooked pig. The fat slid down his arms. All of his fingers were heavily bandaged. I took a sip of water to stop thinking about what his fingers looked like under those grease-trapping bandages.

I love Tokyo’s ramen shops, and I’m familiar with boiling vats and grease, but Ramen Jiro looks more like a dare than a beloved shop.

Is it possible for food to be ragged? The chef set a massive bowl on the counter in front of me. Torn cabbage, torn bean sprouts and slabs of meat still clinging to other parts of the pig spilled over the sides of the bowl.

It tasted like pig. Not pork, or chashu, but the essence of pig. It was gross, and I felt gross for being there. And goddamn it, why did that guy keep looking back at me?! Uh oh, might not be low blood sugar.

I shuffled home defeated and with a cholesterol level a few points higher. The sun was starting to go down, and the night’s chill was setting in. The fat from the broth that I had gotten on my fingers started to congeal. The ramen was taking me to a dark place. Am I wrong about all the things I thought I loved? How many times have I convinced myself I liked something that was actually awful? God, my haircut is stupid.

“Is ramen stupid?” I asked myself. Just then, in the window of the convenience store I saw the newest edition of a ramen magazine I like. It was a sign. Just because one ramen shop was disappointing, it doesn’t mean I have to stop seeking out new places. Also, I have really, really small goals.

Then I had to quicken my shuffle to a stride to get home, because of pork fat physics.

Ramen Jiro: Mita 2-16-4, Minato-ku

One Fish, Two Fish, Oh No, Blue Fish

You know how you go out to a restaurant, order a meal, and then it comes out cooked and all around ready to eat? Funny story.

Ordering off a menu in Japan where we have a tenuous grip on the language  is always a mumble gamble. I see the kanji for chicken…but then what are all those characters after it?

“I’ll have the [murmermurmer] chicken.”

“You mean the chicken [somethingsomething]?

“Yep, that’s the one.”

And then we wait, and then it’s chickenmurmersomethingorother, and it’s delicious. Or, it’s chicken womb.

A great meal swings on the hinge of chance?

In Kyoto last weekend, my finger got stuck in the hinge, and then when I tried to pull it out, my pants ripped, but then it turned out that I was already naked. You know how the old Abraham Lincoln saying goes.

Ang and I were snacking at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. One of those classy ones, where there’s no reason for the conveyor belt because everyone is ordering their meals off iPad menus.

There was a giant fish tank behind the sushi chef. The tank had a strong current, and the fish were swimming with purpose, swiftly. It was a nice touch. In Japanese, you’d say the place was moody.

But then a panel opened behind the tank, a net went in, a fish came out, and a chef in the back kitchen was waving a horse mackerel at us (Angie).

Our chef told us, “Oh, you have to try the [mumblescrumble] aji. It’s our specialty.”

“Oh it’s [somethingmumble] aji? Sure, good.”

“Really? Wow. Ok. Grrreat,” the chef said, now slipping into his only English.

Net in, fish out, horse mackerel waved at us (Angie).

The chef in the back disappeared.

“This is where he goes and kills the fish,” I said expertly, stupidly, feeling a little bad that we had sentenced a fish to its death.

The expertly carved sashimi came out with the fish carcass presented on the plate, a macabre garnish we’re used to at this point.

We went in with our chopsticks, and the fish carcass wriggled. Then the fish carcass tried to breath. Then the still-very-much-alive fish didn’t really do much of anything, because it’s pretty hard to move when someone carves off most of you.

Ang let out a little whoop of a nervous giggle, like if Annie Oakley saw someone slip on a banana peel.

I let out a “whooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaarbfl.”

No, I didn’t keep my cool, because I was uncomfortable keeping an animal alive just so it can watch itself being eaten. Yes, I continued to eat the fish, because rule number one of dining etiquette is to not let your meal see itself go to waste.

We ate slowly, just hoping the mackerel would stop moving, but also dreading the moment when it would stop moving.

A waitress came by and said they would fry the skeleton for us when we were done eating. We decided the best we could do by the fish was to put him down quickly. We shoved the sashimi in our mouths and let the waitress take the fish to his deep-fried grave.

Feel free to discuss the ethics of this in the comments. I’m going to watch a video of a chimp washing a cat for the next 30 minutes.

The Things They Carried Were Cats

When I see a cat cafe in Tokyo, I try to peer in the window, but Ang says no, laughs, and then steals my candy.

Ang is aggressively allergic to cats, and I’ve been denied, DENIED from entering cat cafes. But when a friend visits, there is great pressure to entertain. So while Ang worked, I took a visiting friend to a cat cafe in Shinjuku, and it was special.

We wash our hands before we enter the cat room, take off our shoes, and put on a visitor badge. Is this a cafe, or an institution?

We’re given instructions. Let sleeping cats lie. Do not suppress the cats.

As an employee opens the door for us, a cat darts out into the entrance room, but then slows to a crouch. The cat knows it has nowhere to go.

Forty cats lounge around a two-floor cafe. This is the nursing home rec room of a crazy cat lady’s dreams.

The furniture is a bit slick, easy to clean I suppose, and the smell is akin to 40 cleaned cats. An unpleasant smell, but a clean version of it.

A couple of young girls play Wii, ignoring the cats. The cats do just as good of a job ignoring all of us. Shelves on the walls and staircase give cats places to be out of reach of our frantically affectionate hands. I feel a bit like I’m in a remake of The Birds, but with cats. With cat eyes on us from above,we descend the stairs, and we descend into madness.

More cats.

Cats on totem pole constructions, cats on the counters, tables and shelves. I hear a cat snarl upstairs. Perhaps the Wii teenager has finally taken interest. Perhaps the Wii teenager is now dead.

A young salaryman in a white shirt and black pants pulls a sparkled ball out of the toy box. He rolls the toy toward a cat, but the cat doesn’t move. The ball jingles as it hits the cat in the paw, but still, the cat doesn’t react. She just looks to her left, looking for something that isn’t us. We all laugh, and then move on to the next cat, which had hoped to be invisible in its stillness. We see you cat. We see you.

Only one man seems to have mastered the art of affection. He is slumped in the corner on a floor cushion. His rumpled suit is too big for him, and six cats surround him. He stares ahead, paying no attention to the cats, or to us. He alternates between sipping his iced coffee, staring ahead, and pulling out pinches of shredded chicken from a plastic container. He barely looks at the cats as he feeds them, and he does not pet them.

My friend tries to pet a cat, any cat. They wait for her to approach, and then dart off, trying to catch a few winks before someone else comes for them.

“Come here, kitty. Come here.” There are equal parts frustration and joy in her voice.

But the cats only speak Japanese.

Yen Rules Everything Around Me

Three stories dominate the news right now in Japan:

1: We may or may not be eating radioactive beef/spinach

2: In the U.S. the Tea Party may or may not be but definitely will send the world back into economic turmoil

3: The Dollar vs. The Yen. The sweet, sweet yen is strong right now, and everyone in Japan is checking their salary to see how much it would be in dollars so we (ok, I) can feel good about the fake raise we (but I can’t be the only who does it) got.

But it also means I do the math in my head when I’m grocery shopping. It’s a weird thing to tie my current home to my previous one.

“Why the hell is this apple $4? Yesterday it is was $3.50.” I grumble and hunch my shoulders. And then I don’t buy the apple, because maybe it will be down to $3.50 again tomorrow when the dollar will trade a bit stronger. But the apple is still ¥300, just like it was yesterday. It doesn’t make any sense for me to think about the dollar, but I do.

The moral of the story is that I’m not a rational thinker. Or maybe it’s that I don’t understand basic economics.  No wait, I need to eat more apples. Yea, that’s it. Apples.

Isn’t this supposed to be an adorable craft blog? Hurry back, Ang. I’m getting my grubby weird mitts all over this thing.

Git Nekkid

Last post, Ang wrote about all the internal organs we come across in Japan. She failed to mention all the external organs we see, so that’s where I step in. We’re yin and yang like that.

A friend invited us to a resort town in the mountains last weekend to escape the Tokyo heat. So nice. Super nice. And then super naked.

Japan has more hot springs than McDonald’s. I don’t know if that’s true, but you’re the one on the internet. Look it up. Any resort town worth its seaweed salt has onsen in the hotels, or an onsen park, or a hike with an outdoor onsen. They are very enjoyable. But to enjoy them, you have to be very nude. Nude-ish won’t cut it.

When I go to a gym, I’m a fairly modest guy. I don’t shower in my clothes or anything like that, but I don’t do naked lunges to dry off either (I’m talking to you, every old man at a gym ever). I move briskly. Disrobe, robe, go. People are in various states of dress, and that’s the part that throws me off. If there’s a room full of people, and some are dressed and some aren’t, I know which group I want to be in. It’s definitely not the group with the guy in just his socks.

But at the onsen, evvvvverybody is naked. More naked than possible. Don’t tell me zero divided by zero has no solution. I’ve seen the wrinkled answer.

Three generations of a family get naked as quickly as possible, shower, and then continue being naked in scalding water. If people get too hot, they hop out of the onsen and sit on the edge. For those of us still half-submerged in the pool, that puts us at eye level to a lot of person. It’s like staring at a celtic ring. So many twists and knots, but with flesh.

Then everyone stands around to cool down, grandpa does some lunges, they dress and leave. And it’s fine, because you can’t be caught in a compromising position if everything has already been compromised. That’s logic.

More On Mayonnaise

When friends visit, we take them to an Okinawan restaurant in Shibuya. There’s nothing special about the place, but it was one of our first restaurants in Tokyo, so we keep going back. It’s the same reason why one of us still listens to C&C Music Factory.

Some Okinawan restaurants in Tokyo keep it classy with flashing lights and tacky decorations:

We always get a dish made of shrimp and mayonnaise. It’s good. Better than a scoop of mayo, ketchup (?) and shrimp deserves. (Serious face: shrimp farms destroy mangrove forests, so I try not to eat shrimp that often. I’m sure the Big Shrimp lobby is discussing how to deal with my inconsistent boycott.)

Before I moved to Tokyo, I had an unrealistic view of what Japanese people eat. Sushi…edamame…uh…other kinds of sushi. I had an image that everyone in Japan was extremely healthy, and that once I got here, I would become this sleek, Vitamin-D-glowing guy that smelled vaguely of freshly cut grass.

But now that I’m here, I use my own money willingly to purchase sausage/sauerkraut/mustard-flavored Doritos. Or Anchovy & Garlic Pretzel Bites. As it turns out I have an awful habit of seeking out odd-looking junk food and then being shocked when it tastes exactly as expected. And based on some of the smells emitting from guys on crowded trains, I’m not the only one.

Tokyo residents DO look healthy. But I don’t think it has anything to do with an all-fish-and-vegetable diet. I have friends here who hate sushi and vegetables and put mayonnaise on their pizza. Try to say with a straight face: “I’m a responsible person making sensible decisions and I’m putting mayonnaise on my pizza.”

Perhaps it comes down to portion control. My first few weeks in Japan I felt hungry all the time, but I wasn’t skipping any meals. It just turned out that when I bought lunch or went out to dinner with friends, the portions were smaller than what I was used to in the U.S. But it didn’t take very long to get accustomed to it, and when we visited the U.S. last year, I was that annoying person at restaurants saying, “Wow, I can’t believe how much food they serve here. There’s no way I can finish this,” (there was a way, and I did).

So take hope, world. Japanese people are just as willing to eat junk. They just stop a few bites earlier. Also, they have this weighing on their souls: