On the way back home from Thailand, I opted to take a 12-hour layover in Tokyo and go into the city to walk around. I miss Japan just enough after having lived there sixteen years ago to want to visit every now and then, and I had some spare yen to spend.
I took a train on Japan’s precisely on-time and efficient railway system, transferring trains with ease, buying my tickets at windows or asking for help when necessary. It’s immensely easier to travel when you know enough of the language to help you get around and ask basic questions.
One thing I have discovered from traveling is that all foreign languages are stored in the same folder in my brain. When I travel somewhere, and I try to use the language to communicate, I sometimes spew out words and realize it’s the right word, wrong language. Dangit!
And it’s horribly difficult for me to switch back and forth if I haven’t used one of them in a while. I kept almost saying “thank you” in Thai instead of Japanese, because although I can use either one with ease, I had been using Thai for the past two weeks and was used to saying it.
(The fact that the flight attendants on all three of my flights back home seemed to be a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai-speaking women only confused my tired brain even further. Half the time I couldn’t tell what language they were making the announcements in, so I just gave up trying to understand them and hoped they weren’t saying we needed to brace for a crash landing.
They weren’t…and I’m home.)
Where was I?
Oh yah, getting around Tokyo asking for directions.
Except that I couldn’t remember if migi and hidarimeant “left” and “right” or “right” and “left.”
This led to a pissed-off security guard at Meiji Jingu Shrine Park, when I asked for directions to the nearest train station and he told me to go hidari, and I swore I had just gone that way, but there was no train station there. Turns out I had left and right mixed up, because I was listening to them in the train but looking backwards…are you confused yet? So was I…!
Back to food…
I had decided to go to the Omote Sandoarea of Tokyo, not because it is noted for fashion and style (which I care absolutely nothing about), but because it is supposedly rich in vegan eating places.
However, despite having several names, addresses, and asking many, many Japanese people, including clerks at the Body Shop and some aromatherapy shop–likely places, no?–nobody could point me toward any vegetarian or vegan eating places, nor could I find any of them. Grr.
I finally found an organic cafe in the basement of Bulgari Department Store.
When in doubt, go to the basement of any department store you can find. The food shops are always down there. On a good day, you will stumble into an enormous grocery/deli/souvenier floor, where you can choose from groceries, already cooked foods ready to go, and packaged specialty items from the area, just perfect for fulfilling the obligatory Japanese custom of taking omiyage, souveniers, to all your co-workers, neighbors, and friends back home.
I wasn’t so lucky. But I did find Cinagro, Organic Kitchen and Market, that had a lunch special. I opted for the soup and salad bar set for 800 yen (about $9.00 U.S.–very cheap by Japan standards, pretty ridiculous, from ours.)
I chose Green Potage, which was a velvety deep green mix of green peas, broccoli, spinach, Welsh onion and milk.
The flavors of the vegetables were the clear stars, which is nice, since in many dairy-based soups, the cream is relied on to impart flavor. In this case, the milk flavor was nearly nonexistent.
I filled up with the salad bar, which contained mesclun, tomatoes, marinated carrot salad, marinated dried tomato and cabbage salad, seaweed, blanched broccoli and green beans, a stew of deep-fried vegetables in soy sauce, and fried onions, walnuts, and toasted, slivered almonds as topping. Dressing choices were umeboshi (pickled plum), olive oil, or Japanese style (soy, ginger).
I enjoyed the braised root vegetables, which were thin shavings of gobo, burdock root. That’s the first time I had seen it prepared that way. Normally it is cut into matchstick-like pieces and cooked with chilies and soy in kimpira gobo, where the texture is almost like eating damp, chewy wood. I preferred this style, which was a much friendlier texture.
But because I wasn’t sure it was completely vegetarian, I only had a little. The main seasoning in a Japanese dish like this is always dashi, broth typically made from bonito fish flakes, and I’m allergic to seafood, so I wasn’t about to risk anaphylactic shock for a few slices of gobo,delicious though it may have been.
Afterwards I was tempted to try something from a crepe sidewalk booth, which had an extensive display of options. Crepes were partially rolled, so they were V-shaped, and filled with everything from blueberries and cream cheese to chocolate, and everything in between.
I decided I didn’t need what was probably hydrogenated fats, not to mention all the saturated fat and sugar it contained. Instead, I hopped into a mini-mart and picked up a few Meiji Black dark chocolate bars, and one green tea chocolate bar for a friend to try.
I’m not a green tea fan, although I will likely try a bite before giving her the rest; it’s hard for me to pass up a new, unusual flavor combination.
Besides, how will I ever know I don’t like something if I’m unwilling to even try it? Just because I don’t like green tea doesn’t mean I won’t like chocolate and green tea, right?
Isn’t everything better with chocolate?