The Other Side Of Tokyo

They don’t speak English or they don’t want to, we will never know. Finding a place on foot, in this metropolis, can be a task as opposed to hopping into a taxi with the address scribbled in Japanese. Nonetheless, we were determined to walk it to Alcatraz E.R in the city’s Shibuya district. Believe it or not, amid this entire hunt, setting out an hour early in Tokyo, because just in case, was the least bit testing.

Not like we were in any hurry, but we decided not to amble too far from our final destination. So with map in hand and a vague idea of where our themed bar may be, we allowed ourselves to be awed by the anime influence on the local youth. Stopping a few for directions didn’t irk them. They didn’t seem to be in a haste either, feeding our restaurant in Google maps and then walking a few meters with us, making sure we understood the way, before animatedly waving and bowing at us shouting ‘bye-bye’ as if we had shared some good times together.

Entrance to Alcatraz E.R

Entrance to Alcatraz E.R

Alcatraz E.R wasn’t sought after for its food – fries, nuggets, beer, and all the usual American fare. It was the whole experience of eating in prison cells, suddenly being left in darkness without warning and have neon skeletons jump out at us, which was worth the visit. The restaurant is pivoted on the idea of the infamous torture prison, mixed with a little bit of experimental hospital madness. Parts of the floor revealed ‘bloody bodies’ left to rot under glass panes. The walls had harsh lettering.

The entrance itself prompted you to ring the ‘bell’; four blood groups labelled the buttons. ‘To enter, press your blood type,’ they instructed. Waitresses dressed as nurses could be summoned by clanking on our cell’s bars. Beer was served in beakers, accompanied by nuts in tiny plastic cups as if they were those sedating pills. With such eeriness, one would half expect the staff to be true to the ethereal atmosphere they had created, and treat you like you were the scum of this earth. Au contraire, our hosts were quintessentially Japanese in their kindness and warmth, calming our jumpy nerves after being seated by a spookily mute zombie.

This isn’t the only themed restaurant in Tokyo that is designed with such regalia. To experience them all would solicit a dedicated trip altogether. There is even an Alice In Wonderland café, which is known for its exhausting collection of tea sets. Unfortunately that was one venue we missed. However, on our post-dinner walk to the station, a maid café was a happy happenstance. Well, with this 2006 craze that is here to last, it wasn’t unusual to spot one.

The first maid café came into being in 1998 after the mock-up dating game ‘Welcome To Pia Carrot’ where you find a job and work on yourself to upsurge the girl’s interest in you. It is rumoured that the first few of such cafes emulated this gameplay by allowing their customers to forget that their servers are humans, letting the men be themselves and flirt without inhibitions. With time, curiosity inundated these places and soon the 21st century saw them burgeoning all over the country, drumming to a more family friendly beat. You still need to wait at least 20 minutes for a table. Now when a customer pays extra, it is to have cute messages squeezed on your food with sauce, mustard or maple syrup, and even one-on-one hand games with the maids like you did when in junior school. Maidreamin is where we found ourselves. Unfortunately they were booked for an office party. Observing the disappointment on our faces, the maid-waitress didn’t deem a simple sorry would suffice. She repeated her apology several times over before offering coupons for our next visit. It was only later that we learnt of its function – getting a bunch of them to serenade us – another service at an additional fee.

Owl Shaped Bag

Owl Shaped Bag

That the Japanese are a courteous lot is a verity known to all, but to experience it is like quenching the pursuit of humanity in this man-eat-man world. At lunch the next day we waited in line (I wish someone could translate the name for me for it was typed in Japanese) for a soba noodle meal. It was just one of those places we spotted and decided on after walking through the Ameyoko bazaar, a brief walk from Ueno – the literally hub of Tokyo. From once being a nucleus of sweet shops to then being a black market for American goods post World War II, today Ameyoko is a labyrinth of Japanese and other Asian-manufactured shoes, bags, cosmetics, and fresh and dried piscetarian kiosks. Everything here had an element of few and far between styles with animal-shaped bags, multi-coloured straw-woven shoes, sunglasses in square, oval, flower frames…. What amazed us was the number of dedicated socks’ shops, and of a reasonable size too – woollen, georgette, neon, polka dotted, lace, frills, you think it and it’s there.

Once we were seated at the restaurant, through sign language we were made to understand the menu, if only slightly. With quick instructions on how to eat the noodles, tempura, rice and soup, our server left us to absorb whatever little we grasped. Luckily, the family seated next to us took it upon themselves to teach us their cuisine. They poured the ‘soup’ over our noodles and urged us to take a bite of the tempura after slurping the buckwheat ribbons. One of them, a mild mannered lady of petite built, Kana, could speak fluent English, and what a relief it was!

Prawn Tempura with Soba Noodles

Prawn Tempura with Soba Noodles

There was a nagging question in my head that begged an answer. Each restroom I visited had inbuilt watering options on the WC pot, which were easy to realise, but for the extra button – flush sound. It didn’t make sense till Kana explained, “Japanese people are very shy. We are conscious of ourselves; and so when we go to the toilet, we don’t want people to hear us. The button covers all the sounds….” she blushed.

Wanting to emphasise on the coy nature of the Japanese, she went on to give the example of Mount Fuji. “The Goddess herself like to be hidden. So if you drive past her, you are lucky to see the mountain if she decides to come out of the clouds.” Apparently the Japanese population is not completely clueless about the English language either. The youth are more capable of English sentence construction, but most prefer gesturing because it would be a shame if they made a mistake.

Kana nudged us to visit the Kagurazaka area to get more acquainted with their “better part of Tokyo.” This is where the elite lot of them live, and exhibits a strong European frontage with its many French cafes. The first impression doesn’t call to mind anything that resonates extraordinary. Knowing that it was once a geisha district since the 17th century, and still holds a few authentic homes, is what let’s the psyche accept it as a niche locality. To actually spot a geisha here would be luck as it is a handful of them that can afford a place in such luxury. We were told they usually come out around suppertime, if at all – these would be the better-trained and more skilful ones, often entertaining the exclusive.

Little cobbled pathways are lined with traditional fine-dining Japanese eateries for the local palate – a few of them were licenced to serve blowfish. Bars with outdoor seating tattled of the light-bodied Sapporo being the more loved beer amongst them. It is one of the oldest brands here, brewed by a German trained Japanese denizen since 1876. From across the street, little stores beckon the curious visitor. A handful specialise in getas and zoris, slippers worn with kimonos, and tabi, the socks teamed up with them. One was filled with memorabilia – feng shui frogs, goodluck cats, Gandhi’s three monkeys – where idling away an easy hour couldn’t be helped. Those, I say, are the best souvenirs to bring back.

Daifuku

Daifuku

Whilst peeping into other shop windows, we couldn’t decline an inviting smile by one lady to sample her hand-made confectioneries. With whatever little English she spoke, she explained the plentiful use of sweetened red bean paste and sticky rice sheets in these desserts. Wanting to start from the very basic we picked daifuku, a rice cake of sorts. She carefully wrapped it in a cherry leaf before bidding adieu like most sweets are. No sooner were we about to turn around the corner towards Zenkoku-ji temple, in existence since the Edo period, were we tapped on our shoulder with a pant. The lady realised our limited acquaintance with Japanese foodstuff and wanted to make sure we didn’t eat the leaf that is always used as casing for these goodies; and a hearty laugh we shared!

Another area worth a leisurely stroll through would be the Koto-ku suburb. I happened to make the trip for its art space, all of which is stacked in a six storied building. My walk from the Kiyosumi-Shirakawa station to here was serene to say the least. A sprawling garden followed me for most part of the seven-minute foot-journey. Dome-shaped covered structures dotted the walking track. Stoned-pathways led to each un-gated house. The only security they had was a cubic pole with a camera and a bell just a few steps away from the main door. Children from the neighbourhood school were out jogging for their physical education class. Their coach guided me to the little lane where the art building stood. A lot of Korean and Thai artists were on display along with Japanese talent. One of the galleries even had the artist manning it. “It’s a complicated situation,” he explained, saying it was only as a favour.

By the time I left, it was drizzling. That didn’t stop me from exploring a small shrine, tucked into one of the lanes, stumbled upon by chance. The doors were closed, but the gates tolerated a quick dash-in-dash-out to photograph its adorably tiny zen garden. Continuing towards the station, the rain got stronger, forcing me to slide open the first door to what I reckoned was a commercial establishment. It was indeed a cosy restaurant. The floor was covered with straw mats; a fish tank filled the hole in the wall, and a mock-blowfish hung from a beam. What seemed like a space managed by a couple, the chef and waitress popped out from behind the kitchen counter that opened into this waiting area. To explain what they were, they opened one of the five doors to show me the floor-seating around a low table; an embodiment of a typical Japanese restaurant.

When I pointed to the blowfish, the man, very amused, took a live one out of the water in an attempt to incite it to poof up. My very fascinated expressions encouraged him to do the same with the second one. Not wanting to keep them from their work, I bowed with gratitude before making my way out. Before I had one foot out of the restaurant, the couple shoved an umbrella into my hands. I politely declined signalling that I had a flight to catch the next morning. They simply nodded with broad smiles, insisting it was a gift. Bless the Japanese for their kind-hearted souls!

For more images from my trip to Japan, visit Facebook.com/NehaGSpeaks

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