Shinjuku Yokocho

12 03 2009

Shinjuku Yokocho is a little warren of two or three alleys under and behind the tracks of Shinjuku station. It’s reputed to have great atmosphere where you can sit on a beer crate, try some “cheap” Japanese snacks (known as yakimono) and generally have a leisurely and inexpensive evening out with friends.


The above statement is unfortunately completely untrue. Conceptually, based on the atmosphere of the place–buildings that practically lean in on one another, drunk business men stumbling every which way, and groups of people headed off to sing karaoke now that they have finished happy hour–would lead one to believe it’s a fun place to hang out. Sadly, our experience was horrible. I’ve been here before, about eight years ago, and had an incredible time. But times have changed, and the old fashioned experience of drinking and eating without knowing the price of anything has gone from the guy behind the bar undercutting himself to an exercise in exorbitant pricing.

Place #1 had two young foreign women working the stall. When we gave them our order, they turned on their grill…wait, did I say turned on? Yes, that’s right, instead of the famous charcoal that gives yakitori its phenomenal flavor, they had an electric grill that just cooks stuff. Why not put your food in a George Foreman?! So anyway, we get to the end of our very simple meal, a fairly moderate amount of food- we had our Otoshi (a dish that you are automatically served whether you want it or not)–in this case raw (possibly pickled) chicken skin and a little salt. Not the best Otoshi I’ve ever had. In addition to that we shared one bottle of beer and we had two skewers each of tsukune, shishitou, white meat yakitori, and one with chicken and negi. One skewer of each type: shio (salted) and tare (dipped in sauce). The total bill was around 3,200 yen.


That actually seemed kind of fair, but we were a little disappointed with the overall quality and flavor, so with some beer and food in our veins, we went seeking more authentic fare. It would seem that most of the little vendors that churned out good old yakitori have disappeared over the years to be replaced with places that have various specialties and interests. We decided to try a place that looked about as old-fashioned as you could get…biggest mistake ever.

Our barman, an elderly Japanese gent, looked petrified when we walked in and had no idea how to begin communicating with us. The cook on the other hand, started asking, in Japanese, if anyone spoke English. After asserting our knowledge of the language, he shouted at the old guy to take our drink order. The old fella found it in him to ask what we might want, and we got another bottle of beer. I noticed at this point that the place smelled pretty horrible but we were determined we would stay as long as it took us to finish the beer.

It was time to order. No menu, just a conglomeration of various items sitting on the counter top or held in jars full of fluid (an embalmed snake included) behind the counter. I have to admit that this place was beginning to scare me. It didn’t help that the cook was talking about how hot his girlfriend was to the two young guys sitting next to us and occasionally testing us by saying how weird we were. Of course when I saw him pull two freshly grilled newts off his grill (which I believe was also an electric model–what the heck is wrong with these people?) I started to understand why he couldn’t understand what we were doing there.

I ordered hotate (a full scallop roasted on the grill in all it’s liquid–here’s a great photo so you can visualize) and some mushrooms and asparagus for safety’s sake. We told ourselves we could sterilize our stomachs with beer. That’s pretty much what we did. When we asked for the total, it was another 3,000 yen. What?!? For a handful of mushrooms, three spears of asparagus and a single scallop that I could have bought in the local grocery store for about $2 plus a beer? Oh, did I mention that our otoshi here was far worse than the last one? Something the general size and shape of a piece of daikon but, well, soft and creamy, like curdled milk. It wasn’t very tasty and the texture (combined with the overwhelming smell of the place) started to make me feel sick. Rather than argue or deal with him I just left the money on the counter and we were out of there ASAP. I know I may not have left a good impression for foreigners everywhere, but it didn’t really matter to me too much at that point. Goal #1 was to get away from the horrible smell. Did I mention the smell yet? I think I may have.

So the moral of the story is that there are no street vendors worth their salt left in the Yokocho and all we found was disappointment. Maybe we went through the wrong doors and just got unlucky, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the stall just outside of Inokashira Koen is probably still the best place to get charcoal grilled yakitori that we know of. (Stay tuned for that post.)


Please note: because we were worried that we would end up chopped into pieces and embalmed like the snake, no photographic evidence is available for “restaurant” #2.

Also note: There are a surprisingly small number of photos of Yokocho on the internet. Click here for a nice shot and map of the area.

Reflections on Japan

15 01 2009

In honor of my upcoming trip to Japan, I am posting an essay I wrote in 2003, the last time I visited the country. I’m interested to see if I have the same reaction after my upcoming trip (maybe Matt will help me limit my “stuff collecting!”).

On my recent return from visiting Tokyo, Japan, I was unpacking when I broke down into tears and yelled, “I have too much stuff-why do I have too much stuff?” The answer was, I was unpacking two weeks worth of goods I bought in Tokyo-one of the cities containing the most “stuff” in the world. “Stuff” can mean many things but in this particular instance, it meant “objects that were too expensive but have no meaning and won’t fit in my tiny studio apartment.” You say you need an example? I bought about $70 worth of pens and pencils. These utensils are not “wonder pens” or “unlimited use pencils.” They do not magically correct spelling mistakes or erase by themselves. They are special simply because I chose them from about 100 varieties-not to mention their pretty pastel and fluorescent colors that a lot of U.S. kinds don’t bother with because darn it, the black pens and yellow pencils work just fine, thank you.

I also bought bags and clothes. For some reason, shopping at Uniqlo, the Japanese equivalent of a Kmart, to buy cute $10 t-shirts and hip $5 bags is OK-EVERYone does it and is proud of it. I stocked up. I bought six black T-shirts almost identical to each other because, well, they were cheap and I could always use another black t-shirt.
There’s a GAP outlet a few blocks away from me here at home and I wouldn’t have to sneak the black T-shirts I bought there through customs, but they don’t have the barely visible cute little blue flower on them like the ones I bought in Tokyo have.

Camouflage printed fashions were in full swing in Tokyo and I HAD to own a fatigued bag. I bought one, stuffed it in my suitcase, and proceeded to spy the almost identical one in I. Goldberg last week on Chestnut St. But the bag I bought in Japan had a cute little bunny on it and a compartment for my cell phone, of course.

Granted, many of the objects I bought were gifts for people that I bought in the 100-yen multi-plex stores so I ended up giving a lot of the stuff away, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that 100-yen multi-plexes even exist in Tokyo. Yes, for many people these are a life savior. Poor college students can buy school supplies and hangers there. Vagrants can buy a drink or can of soup. Tourists can buy cheap souvenirs for friends. If you run out of laundry detergent, gardening supplies, lip gloss, roach traps, or wrapping paper just go to your neighborhood 100 yen store. Just be aware that spending more than an hour in one of these 5-story black holes can cause the faint of heart to either go insane or end up spending 100 yen on a piece of gum instead of getting a bargain, like a 100-yen cooking apron. If you do not have a specific item you need, do not go in without either telling people where you are going so they can send a search party in case they don’t hear from you in a few days, or leaving a trail of breadcrumbs from the entrance into the store. And yes, these stores accept credit cards.

Everywhere you go in Tokyo you’ll find stuff. In the grocery store you will find nicely packaged and cute candy and snacks. In department stores you will find whole floors with dish gift sets that they will wrap up for you so nicely you won’t want to open them again. In souvenir shops you will find mini statues of sumo wrestlers.

Even the most recent fashion trends prove that Tokyo just has too much stuff for its own good. Young women wear jeans and t-shirts over which they wear skirts, dresses, long-sleeved button down shirts, sweaters, and leg warmers-in the middle of the summer. It’s like there were just too many options out there to choose just one thing to wear.

Tiny apartments in Tokyo will have wall to wall book cases, dressers, and cabinets filled with various TVs, VCRs, DVD players, and video games so there is eventually no where to eat or sleep. Even the toilets are overwhelming with stuff-no, not that kind of stuff. The toilet seats are heated and can be adjusted by the various buttons along the side. Also on the toilets are options for a bedee or noises of running water for those of us who are shyer than others. There are also a few unrecognizable buttons that I didn’t dare try in my trips to the public bathrooms in department stores.

But among all of the stuff to purchase and then cry over, there are places of serene quiet and contentment. You can seek out the shrines and parks and gardens hidden among the clutter and confusion. Spend a day strolling and meditating and hearing nothing but the birds chirping and the sound of the bells from the temple being rung in prayer. Because as soon as you leave the confines of the small natural and spiritual worlds in Tokyo, you’ll want to go out and choose from the hundreds of suitcases available to be sure you’ll have enough room for all the stuff you bought the day before.

Review: USAirways

13 09 2008

I recently flew USAirways roundtrip from Philadelphia to London and each flight was like being in two different worlds. On the overnight flight to London, the audio/video system was broken (slightly disturbing) and therefor had no reading lights or video entertainment during the whole flight. For someone who can’t sleep on a plane, it was literally like being in hell: sitting in darkness for seven hours with nothing to do. The bathrooms were atrocious–like a public bathroom in a park or subway, I had to roll up my pants and step with care whenever I went.

The food service wasn’t horrible, but being served dinner at 11:30pm was a bit much. At least it was free.

The flight back was another story. Maybe because I was flying on Sep. 11th had something to do with it but the flight was half empty so I got practically a row to myself at the bulk head with lots of extra leg room. The flight attendants were courteous and everything worked. Even though we left a bit late from Heathrow (figures) we arrived in Philadelphia practically on time.

Even the food on this flight was impressive. I chose the pasta, and it was very tasty with creamy white cheese sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. On the side, was a cold barley and diced pepper salad with a light citrus dressing. Fantastic! We also got a warm turkey and cheese sandwich before we landed as a snack. I was still full from my dinner but I ate it anyway–hey, I paid for it with that $950 flight!

I was surprised when I got home that I received in the mail a letter from USAirways, apologizing for the poor service on the first flight and offering me a $100 credit on my next flight. I had been planning on writing a letter of complaint and requesting some kind of compensation, and I was pleased that they had saved me the trouble. (Granted–I may have demanded more than $100 credit, but I doubt I would have gotten much more.)

Overall, with the state of the airlines and travel these days, I was generally satisfied with my experience with USAirways this month. I may even purchase my next ticket with them because of the credit. But I still hate flying much more than I did 20 years ago, and I don’t think any airline could solve that problem.