The first few weekends of my stay were cold and rainy, but the weekend of Halloween brought with it decent weather, so I set out for downtown, planning to see some outdoor sights. I had been told that the bookseller's district in Tokyo (Jimbocho, make of the name what you will...) was having some sort of outdoor festival, which seemed like a good thing to see [1]. A quick check of my guidebook revealed that the larger area around Jimbocho (Kanda) contained the usual assortment of shrines and temples and architectural gems, so this seemed like a reasonable destination.

I had plenty of money in my pocket, having paid my rent (in cash) a few days earlier, so I proceeded directly to the Kanda region, bypassing my usual stop in Shinjuku to collect a fistful of yen. I wound up getting there at 11:00 or so, and spent the last bit of the morning wandering around and looking at impressive religious architectural stuff. I'll spare you the details of that, save to note that it's a bit difficult to figure out the deep and expressive symbolism of a centuries-old religion when the only signs discussing the artful carvings on the temple walls are in kanji... [2]

Instead, this story has to do with lunch. In perusing my guidebook, I had come across a rather enthusiastic review for a restaurant in the area. Now, the guidebook in question has no real qualms about being snarky on occasion [3], so a glowing review like "Fabulous unagi restaurant in a wonderful old-style house. Extensive gardens, friendly, kimonoed waitresses" is hard to pass up.

Unagi is, of course[4], the Japanese term for "broiled eels." A local delicacy, of sorts, and along with the compulsion to visit Places of Cultural Interest, I figure it's worth sampling some of the odder bits of the native cuisine. And "broiled eels" sounds a whole lot more palatable than "blowfish," at least in the sense of "less likely to contain deadly neurotoxins." It's a bit pricey, maybe, but Your Tax Dollars (in the form of the federal government per diem I was drawing to cover my living expenses in Tokyo) were paying for this, and I figured the government could afford to buy me a nice meal or two, especially given the number of times I had eaten at tiny little noodle shops since I arrived.

So, I set off for the restaurant. To fully explain this part, I have to first say a few things about the way I go sight-seeing. Being a tiny bit vain, I refuse to do the canonically American thing, and stumble around the neighborhood of some major attraction with my nose in a guidebook and a compass in my hand. Instead, I attempt to pretend as if I know exactly what I'm doing, and try to more-or-less memorize the maps beforehand, so I don't have to look like a complete jackass, trying to re-fold a map on some alien streetcorner.[5]

As a result, my knowledge of the location of the restaurant was not all that precise. I knew what street I wanted to be on, and more or less how many blocks from the next major street I needed to be (maps of Tokyo quite frequently omit minor side streets, seemingly at random. It's never a good bet to strictly count blocks). And I managed to locate this general area pretty quickly.

Once in the area, it quickly became apparent that there was only one place that could possibly be the restaurant I sought. In a block of grim and indistinct modern buildings, there was exactly one "old house," with a bit of a tree peeking over the wall hinting at the presence of a garden.

The only problem was, there was no sign. There was a door (one of those sliding paper-ish jobs that bad ninja movies have ensured that every American associates with Japan), with a large (lit) paper lantern next to it set back from the street a bit, in what was clearly the outer reaches of a garden, but the door bore no markings. Neither did the outside wall. The only indicator that this was, in fact, a place of business, rather than just somebody's house, was a small sign bolted to the street side wall bearing the logos of three or four major credit card companies. Which, for all I know, could've been an unusually subtle advertisement[6]...

This presented something of a dilemma. I was pretty sure this was the right place, but there was no way to know for sure without walking in and finding out. And the guidebook in question is several years old, leading to the annoying afternoon two or three weeks ago when I spent an hour and a half wandering around Shinjuku looking for a bookstore that had changed locations since the guidebook's maps were made. It was entirely possibly that the Kandagawa Honten restaurant could've closed up shop to be replaced by Madame Kudanshita's House of Sodomy, in which case, I really didn't want to just cheerily walk on in...

A bit perturbed by this, I walked around the block, pondering what to do. Then I came to a realization: I'm an American, and thus crazy by definition. I could shove chopsticks up my nose, and waddle down the street making walrus noises, and not do any measurable harm to the global reputation of Americans.[7] If it's the right place, I get myself a nice lunch, if it's the wrong place, I just walk back out, mumbling "sumimasen"[8] and "wakarimasen,"[9] and "Thanks, but no sodomy for me" as appropriate, and go find another place to eat. No worries.

Thus emboldened by the knowledge that everybody already thinks I'm an idiot, I strode back to the (probable) restaurant, and boldly[10] threw open the door. Beyond the door was a little stone-floored lobby area, leading to a step up to platforms with tatami mats. To the right of the door was a little room housing the cash register, credit card machines, and providing a resting place for the maitre d' type guy when bewildered gaijin weren't blundering into his restaurant.

On hearing the door open, said maitre d' type guy came running out into the lobby to greet me with the customary "Irasshaimase!!"[11] Or, more precisely, "Irrashai--" as his jaw literally dropped when he saw me. I'm guessing there aren't a lot of 6'6" 280lb Americans wandering into this place at one in the afternoon...

To his credit, he rallied well, and a few quick shouts set the waitresses scurrying to locate a table for me. After confirming that I did, in fact, know what I was getting (by asking "You know... is eels?" accompanied by a pantomimed sinuous swimming motion. "Hai. Unagi desu.")[12], I was instructed to take off my shoes, and follow the waitress upstairs.

The organization of this restaurant was different from any of the others I've been to. Each party (in this case, just me) is given a separate room with a low table and tatami mats to sit on (basically, sitting on the floor), and more or less left alone. The waitress comes in to take your order, and bring the food (and a pot of tea), and that's about it. You never see any of the other customers.

This turned out to be rather nice, actually. I had picked up a paper at the train station, and other than the five minutes it took to place my order (in the usual slapstick mix of broken English, mangled Japanese, and mime), I was left alone to read it. The decorations were pretty sparse- one scraggly little potted plant, one painting of bamboo- and the window provided a glimpse of the garden, and the whole thing was very relaxing. Save for the fact that sitting on the floor like that quickly cut off all circulation to my legs...

"How were the eels?" you ask. Pretty tasty, actually. It's a little like eating trout- fairly light, not all that "fishy," with tiny little bones in the meat. Good stuff, vaguely disturbing though the concept may be.

The waitresses were, indeed, both friendly and kimonoed, though I was spared the usual hovering and associated Politeness Feedback Loop[13]. She did, however, manage to prevent me from actually doing much of anything for myself- she took my order, brought my food, arranged the plates, cleared away the empty plates, brought the bill, came back for my money, and finally brought me my change. At least five minutes passed between each of these steps- more like half an hour was allotted for me to finish eating. It was almost excessively relaxing, and by the time my change came, I was pacing the room and fiddling with the window latches...

(This almost gave the waitress a heart attack, actually. The one who waited on me was not the same waitress who had shown me to the room, so she hadn't seen me standing up until she came back with the change... The gasp when she opened the door was pretty impressive...)

On the whole, it was probably the most pleasant meal I had had in Japan to that point. If I'd had company, I think it would've been even nicer (at the least, I should've brought more to read...).

The cost? 4,860 Yen. Which works out to a little more than US$42. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that this place won't be making the Tokyo-on-a-budget list any time soon...


[1] Even if I can't possibly hope to read 'em, I like seeing huge book sales. Restores my faith in basic literacy and human culture, and whatnot... [back]

[2] Of course, on the plus side, this does leave you free to make up your own symbolism... [back]

[3] "The 333 foot [Tokyo Tower] is well worth avoiding." "Lodgings in Atami: Atami is overpriced and tacky. The following hotels are in [another town]." I like this guidebook. [back]

[4] This is the professorial "of course," meaning "you don't know this, and I'm going to attempt to make you feel small by suggesting that you should've known this." Of course. [back]

[5] Why I do this in Tokyo is a little hard even for me to figure. I mean, in the U.S. I might conceivably pass myself off as a local, or at least hide the fact that I'm a tourist. But here? It is to laugh... [back]

[6] Despite the fact that this is a culture famed for its restraint, and noted for things like the tea ceremony and austere Zen painting, the Japanese are, in general, anything but restrained when it comes to advertising. This is a city in which a fifty-foot high HDTV screen mounted on the side of a building blazing product logos and diffusion-lens shots of scantily clad models using the product with that "If-only-you-{drove, drank, smoked, shaved with}-this-kind-of-{car, beer, nasty unfiltered Korean cigarette, safety razor}, I'd-be-on-you-like- white-on-rice" look that is only found in ads aimed straight at the deep reptilian sections of the brain out for the whole world to see is considered "understated." Not two blocks from the restaurant was a toy store capped with a fifty-foot mannequin of the store's logo/ icon/ whatever which bobbed its mechanical head and waved its limbs in time to tinny music blared over rock-concert speakers. [back]

[7] Indeed, given the rate at which slightly inebriated Marines flatten pedestrians in Okinawa, this might actually improve the Japanese image of Americans... [back]

[8] Quite possibly the most essential word in Japanese, meaning "I'm sorry," "Excuse me," "Waitress!," and "I am an idiot foreigner, please speak to me as if I were a small child." Also useful is "gomen nasai," which means "I'm terrible sorry for having inadvertently elbowed you in the head." Given the preponderence of 4'2" little old ladies on the bus I took to work every morning, I used this one a lot. [back]

[9] "I don't understand." Another useful phrase, though the reaction to this one was somewhat mixed- in a nice reversal of the normal role, many people seemed to take this as "I'm rather slow, and a bit hard of hearing, could you repeat that much more loudly, and in a patronizing tone?" This is presumably revenge for every Japanese tourist ever given the Better Off Dead treatment ("What's the matter with you? Don't you understand English?") in New York. [back]

[10] But carefully. I'm not so bold as to want to start off my visit by putting my fist through their spiffy paper door... [back]

[11] A phrase meaning something like "Welcome to our business" or "May I help you?" and shouted to every customer by every server. And I mean every server. Sometimes I think they trot out the Vietnamese dishwashers from back in the kitchen to welcome me... [back]

[12] The Japanese show an inordinate concern with my ability to eat their cooking. At one point, I was asked by one of the students here (perfectly seriously), "You can eat rice, yes?" "Of course I can eat rice, jackass. Would I be in Asia if I couldn't eat rice, of all things? I might draw the line at raw horsemeat, but rice is not a problem..."

Evidently, all previous contact with American has been with the kind of Midwesterners who find egg rolls dangerously exotic. [back]

[13] The custom in Japan appears to be that you're not expected to be polite to service industry people. There's no tipping, and you're not expected to say "Thank you" for anything that they bring you. They're doing their job, and don't need to be thanked.

As an American, this was completely foreign to me (well, duh), and I would reflexively mutter thanks whenever they bring something to the table. This created a dilemma for the waitress, as I had thanked her unnecessarily, which means I had to get thanked, in a more polite form (there are levels and levels of politeness), just to even things up. So my mumbled "arigato" was met with a "domo arigato," and the next one got an "arigato gozaimasu," and then "domo arigato gozaimasu," until either I paid the check and left (to the relief of all), or they run out of polite phrases.

The whole thing was terribly awkward. The obvious solution would've been to just walk all over the help, in the Japanese manner, but I was reluctant to condition myself to that, for fear of getting my drinks spat in upon my return to the States. I eventually settled on a compromise of nodding and smiling vaguely whenever a waitress brought anything. Thus, I'm sure, leaving much of the Tokyo restaurant community with the lasting impression that I was about as sharp as the guy in Sling Blade. [back]

Last modified: 14 February, 2000