Monjayaki in Asakusa
By late evening, once the shutters of tourist shops are down, Asakusa resembles a ghost town with deserted alleyways — occasionally lit by an array of yellow lanterns. It’s hard to distinguish one alley from another in the dull street light. It’s harder to stay focussed on the route when there’s so much vying for your attention. Old wooden doorways, painted streets, curios, some more lanterns, and quirky signs call out. It isn’t too difficult to get lost in this carefully preserved time capsule. Basil’s Japanese colleague, Ai, ensured we stuck to the track. She had volunteered to be our guide for the evening. It wasn’t our first visit to Asakusa, but it’s different when you have a local to show you around.
Our day had started at 3 a.m. in Incheon Airport, in Seoul, and I was famished by late evening — in Tokyo. A cold winter’s wind had dipped the temperature and I looked forward to eating a warm meal without having to cook it. But, surprises are a prerequisite for good travel and the discerning traveler welcomes it — even on an empty stomach. Our quaint eatery was homely and had a table with a hot plate ready for us. Our chef/host was an elderly Japanese man with an eye for perfection and a good sense of humour.
Kaori, our Japanese friend, was the fourth diner at the table. Shrimps were stir fired on the sizzling hot plate and topped with sauce. Leftovers were mixed with an assortment of colourful veggies. The same method was repeated for other seafood delicacies. There’s no wastage here and our chef was quick to notice the shellfish that I’d tried to hide. His solution was to place it on Basil’s plate.
I had never heard of monjayaki before and didn’t know what to expect. Now, it takes skill and experience to make a crisp monjayaki. Self-confidence will definitely go a long way and quivering hands will do you no good. Fortunately, our chef had no troubles on that front. He stirred a watery batter of eggs and veggies; inverted a bowl of it on the hot plate; and deftly flattened it to a crisp pancake. The pancake was then quickly cut into pieces and shared with everyone.
Making and eating monjayaki is a collaborative effort. You learn from the master and then have to try it for yourself. Ai and Kaori had their turn at recreating our chef’s recipe. They had moderate success and he was reasonably happy with their efforts.
Basil had to follow suit and it was a bit unnerving with his watchful eyes observing every move. I thought, I’d be able to skip it, but our chef ensured we all worked equally for our meal. My fingers quivered as I stirred the batter and our Japanese friends were quite amused. I may have forgotten to breathe when I turned the bowl on the hot plate. Our chef was quick to assist and flatten the batter. He was smiling. I guess, I did something right after all.
Okonomiyaki at Meiji Shrine
The next morning we head out to explore Tokyo. By afternoon, we had interesting meal options to choose from at the food stall counter of the Meiji Shrine. It was hard to resist okonomiyaki with its savoury sauces and toppings. The best part: we didn’t have to cook it. The pancake is thicker than monjayaki. An assortment of veggies, seafood, and meat (I tried not to guess what it was) is mixed with a thick egg batter. The fried pancake is then topped with sauce, mayonnaise, and fish flakes. One pancake was good enough for the two of us and lasted till our next pit stop in Shibuya.
Desserts in Shibuya
People watching tops the list of activities in Shibuya. And yes, there’s also a popular crossing that everyone tries to get a picture of. There are many cafes that boast of great views and we dropped into one that seemed to have a place to sit. We got lucky and also got a view.
On our first visit to Japan (in 2012), Basil’s colleague had compared Japanese deserts to French pastries. Five years later, judging by Basil’s happiness, I’d have to agree.
Tempura Rice & Yakisoba in Ueno
We reached Ueno by late evening and although there were many eating options — most of them were closing. Ueno has a shopping market, but we were too late to explore it.
It was nearing 9 p.m. and we didn’t have many options. We found a small eatery, quite literally a hole-in-the-wall, at the bend of the street. There were few diners inside and we got the last seat. The hostess of the eatery spoke English (as well as Mandarin) and had a warm smile. Clearly, this restaurant catered to foreign tourists.
I was craving for some tempura (fried shrimp) and was happy to find tempura rice in the menu. Basil ordered Yakisoba (stir-fried buckwheat noodles) and a fried cutlet. We washed it down with sake. For music: we had the subway passing over us and cheerful chatter.
Soba noodles & Tempura Udon in Jimbocho
Jimbocho was our base during our 3-day stay in Tokyo. Back in the day, many years ago, Jimbocho was the residence of Japanese samurai. Today, Jimbocho has all the trappings of a business district (even if its known to be a college town and paradise for book lovers) with its global cuisine restaurants, luxury and business hotels, used bookstores, and even an adult video parlour. By night, the streets around our hotel were desolate and silent. Nichikei Campus (Nihon University College of Economics) was a stone’s throw away from our hotel and we could see some students burning the midnight oil.
On the last night, we scouted the area for eating options and were fascinated by the innovative seating arrangement of this (pic above) restaurant. We placed an order for soba (buckwheat noodles) and tempura udon on the coin operated menu.
We were amazed by the functionality of this restaurant. It made sense for those who don’t mind sharing their table with a stranger. And if you’re travelling with a spouse — you have a choice of a time out — to cut the noise.
But if your spouse/travel partner is tall — you may have a problem there.
But when the food comes out, there’s no complaining and no worries of prying eyes or stealth chopsticks. Barring slurping sounds, it’s a great way to enjoy your meal privately — knowing that you’re not alone.