On the corner of 45th and 9th, down the street from the cherry cream scones at Amy’s Bread and in sight of an illuminated Al Hirschfeld’s bushy brow is my pocket of heaven. Is it their chocolate covered pretzel cookie, crusted with sea salt like a Dead Sea swimmer, that had me power walking with a single-minded need through Schmackary’s doors–without fail–every time my bus from Boston’s South Station disembarked on 33rd? Or maybe it was the crescent of lemon poppy, disintegrating in a cup of milk handed to me earlier by the tousle-haired staff member behind the register who’d laughed at my airplane joke.
I didn’t make nearly as many trips to the city during my four years of university in Boston than I would’ve liked (a theatre lover from California suddenly plopped four hours away from Broadway with only so many pretty pennies to spare? It was the test of a lifetime–not that Broadway’s the only theatre out there, far from it), but of the handful of long weekends and overnights (and the one possibly ill-advised, but wildly rewarding there-and-back of a day) spent in the shadows of that American colossus, it didn’t take long to find a routine: always a cookie–or three–from Schmackary’s, a poke through the Strand if I had time, and on to my show(s).
I miss it terribly.
I’ve missed you terribly! I’ve been trying to finesse this whole puttering away at a temporary desk job thing while trying to find time in my evening hours to work on posts; by all accounts I’m doing a rotten job, but it’s a work in progress! Not to say that I haven’t had moments shine through the monotony (aha! there really is a point to the Schmackary’s love fest happening here on what’s supposed to be the continuation of my Japan adventures, I swear): my beloved An American in Paris is nominated for 12 Tonys this season (among other accolades) and, well… something truly lovely happened.
On the Schmackary’s website, there’s a sweet little “Cookies on Broadway” ordering option where you can have an assortment of treats delivered to your favourite show/company member (if I don’t have the heart to have them shipped cross-country for my enjoyment, you bet I’m going to live vicariously through the joy of others). I’ve delivered edible well wishes a few times in the past and sent a dozen along to An American in Paris for their opening night, with another box following their Tony noms–fast forward to the first Tuesday of this month, my phone buzzing up a storm during the afternoon, and turning it on to find this.
I would’ve been pleased as punch knowing he received them, but getting a shout out?? My heart still gets fluttery thinking about it ♥ And I’ll have the perfect icebreaker when I see the show in August (It’s me: the Gluten-free Cookie Faerie!).
The weekends go by far too quickly now and what do you know, it’s been over one year since I left my life in Boston behind to return to the old stomping grounds of home. Whether it still feels like a home, well, that’s something I turn over in my heart–what is it they say about stones?–daily, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Now back to our regularly-ish scheduled Japan adventures!
Think of a hotel room, the most comfortable hotel room you’ve ever been in–cradled by lush thread counts, buoyant on more pillows than are necessary for one person (but oh, what a way to live)–I could not have dreamed up a more idyllic first night. What is it about hotels that allow them to exist so wholly out of time, be it the most raucous, Fat Tuesday and cigarette butt-infused Vegas casino, to the handful of hours we spent in the Imperial, where the lobby seemed drenched in a perpetual amber light, subdued save for the lilt of a lone pianist in the evening and the scuff of geta on the carpet as women in kimono passed us by. Palaces to the transient, on roadside and by high-rise.
I was out the moment I sank into bed (not before another round giggling at the range of options on our toilet… and the retractable clothesline built into the bathroom wall… and briefly getting lost trying on a complementary yukata, which had about a yard more fabric on it than I needed). It was the most restful six hours I’d had since the start of our trip–not in China, not in Hong Kong, but a hop and a skip from the Imperial Palace (you can see it from a high enough floor of the hotel). No familial obligations: just five days ahead frolicking through Kansai.
You can imagine my shock the next morning when the machines rose and our TV achieved sentience.
I meaaaan… it was very polite about it, as you can see: flickering on at 6:45am and gently brightening into an innocuous, hazy blue screen while accompanying itself on a piano melody.
I think I leapt a foot into the air–no push-off whatsoever, just plain ascended for half a terrified, Chicken Little second before I was swept up in a giggle fit and stumbled out of bed and through the darkness for my camera.
In retrospect, flinging open the curtains probably launched who-knows-how-many dust motes into my face, but to catch a sight of this sunrise washing over Tokyo? I took my chances.
The majority of our meals were included as part of the tour package, doled out to us the night before as tickets that were exchanged at each restaurant for meal sets arranged for our group. Our dining options that morning at the Imperial were a traditional Japanese breakfast at Tokyo Nadaman, the Imperial Viking Sal’s European/Japanese-style buffet, and Western/American-style fare at the Parkside Diner. It wasn’t a question where we’d be starting our morning off–when in Japan, after all.
My mum and I had spent a good hour the night before circling the floors of the Imperial in general wonderment, pinpointing the location of each restaurant while we were at it. That morning, we wheeled our luggage outside of our room for the hotel staff to pack away for the day’s travels and popped down to Nadaman shortly after it opened.
I hovered in the entrance with a little ohayo gozaimasu–my tongue fumbling around the foreign sounds, anxiously trying not to swallow a syllable. The hostess at the door returned the greeting in kind, followed by an exchange of smiles and bows, and waved us warmly inside.
Nadaman offered two traditional breakfast sets: steamed rice or okayu (similar to Cantonese-style congee, but the rice in it is less broken down); the spread of side dishes was identical. I ordered rice and Mum the okayu–what we got was a feast. Not in the sense of proportions–one rarely eats to bursting in Japan, as far as I experienced–but… look at it.
Clockwise from top left: I love the chewier, denser texture of Japanese short-grain rice and this was one of the most fragrant bowls I’ve ever tasted (leave me alone with a pot of the stuff and I would have inhaled it all, no sweat); a tray of [l-r] bamboo shoots, thin-sliced pickled cucumber, cold tofu, and greens; a plate of broiled salmon with a cake of roe, a slice of lotus root, and what was either okra or some kind of pepper, I can’t recall; the obligatory bowl of miso soup down in the corner there; a poached egg cushioned in a ramekin of delicate broth, which I stared at for a good long while agonizing over whether there was a polite way to approach it before tilting the whole thing back into my mouth with a spoon; shibazuke (cucumber and eggplant salted and brined with red shiso, which gives it that punchy colour) and umeboshi (unabashedly sour and salty pickled ume plums); a sleeve of nori (dried seaweed).
Within Japanese cuisine there are two distinct branches that grow along a number of imported and adapted foods: washoku, which is considered not only “traditional” cooking, but also a school of thought that emphasizes sustainable practices, seasonality, harmony, and aesthetics, and yōshoku, Western-influenced dishes like curries and tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet). Growing up in L.A., I was no stranger to a good sushi and sashimi plate (and the not-so-good ones, pulled from a market fridge with the little plastic fringe of decorative “grass” and Fish of Questionable Origin), but that was the tippiest tip of the iceberg. Actually being in Japan and experiencing the breadth of their cuisine and the utmost care that goes into the production of it–you would’ve forgiven me for clapping when the breakfast trays were set down.
I did clap. A little. With my hands under the table. There would have been a lot more loud enthusing if I were left to my own devices, but the quiet from the other diners kept things in check and before long I found my own silence in wrapping sheets of nori around thimbles of rice and picking apart that cake of roe, smacking of the sea.
It goes without saying that it was all exquisite. I think that should just be the default expectation from here on out: I’ll tell you if something was mediocre (spoiler alert: don’t count on it this time around) and everything else can be the superlative of your choice.
(“Mom, do you mind if I put your photo on the internet? [pursed lips, then a laugh] “Thanks, mom!”)
We met our tour group in full for the first time after breakfast. There were just shy of 30 of us, mostly married couples and funnily enough, the majority were from California and we spoke amongst ourselves in Cantonese (the tour was led in Mandarin). Our guide, Yuri, was originally from Taiwan, but had immigrated to Japan forty-some years ago. She had the kind of smile that made her eyes crinkle and a pleasing, unruffled cadence to her voice. It was a little past 9am when we piled into a mini bus bound for Tokyo Station; a handful of the Imperial’s staff stood out on the curb to send us off with a bow, waving until we pulled out of view.
The drive to the station took less than 10 minutes and 27 heads swiveled to look out the bus’ windows as we passed the grounds of the Imperial Palace, where a handful of visitors were strolling through the parkland surrounding the main complex (the inner grounds are, understandably, not open to the public).
Tokyo Station was milling with morning commuters and it took Yuri a few emphatic waves of her little flag to keep us moving through the rotunda instead of gaping at everything around us. She went ahead to the counter to get our shinkansen tickets sorted and soon after we were waiting on the Tōkaidō Line platform, Kyoto-bound via stops in Yokohama and Nagoya.
2 hours and 18 minutes.
I love train travel and I think I’d love it even more if I had more occasions to enjoy it. Even if the trip isn’t the most comfortable one–2009, an overnight from Toulouse to Paris with luggage that was too large for the tight corridors, which insisted on rolling away from our panicked grasps every time we rounded a turn–there’s an unparalleled peace to the ebb and flow of passengers, your chin dipping into your chest as somewhere in the distance the conductor announces the next stop and you move on, the rails speeding underneath the muffled click of clock hands (or in the shinkansen’s case: just north of complete silence).
Our group was in a reserved seat car and so long as I was mindful of new passengers boarding at each stop, I was free to relocate to a window. A train moving at roughly 200 mph didn’t make for detailed observations of the passing countryside and it was a grey and misty morning, but pressing my cheek to the cool glass, my camera strap twined in my fingers–it was enough. Factories, farms, small towns: framed in my train window like a flip book and passing just as quickly. What I found most striking was how quiet it all was? Maybe it was because we were travelling on a Sunday morning, but there were only a handful of cars puttering along on all the distant streets we passed and the pedestrians were even fewer.
Yuri told us to keep our eyes peeled for a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, but I was either too busy trying to commit every passing signpost and upturned roof corner to memory or being geographically unawares to see that iconic peak. Until next time (I’m counting on many next times)!
1 hour and 30 minutes.
Within a few hours of acquainting ourselves with all the folks in our tour, we became chummy with a family from Dallas: a husband and wife, with their [newlywed] adult son and his wife. The father was an old hand at cracking jokes, easy company, and, as we would find out soon enough, a masterful wielder of the Selfie Stick. He came up the aisle bearing gifts:
Pleasant caramel and crunchy wafer create new and fond memories. The aroma of crispy caramel and the inviting taste of wafer form an original setting of deliciousness which is now complete. Its light and rich smell comes from Tokyo. Please have some!!
I’m a hopeless sap when it comes to packaging that woos me with words. Discount rosé that tastes like the sounds of a cello drifting through a smoke-veiled Paris window? Sign me up. The taste doesn’t usually measure up to the storytelling, but this wafer was deserving of those exclamations!!
The clouds were starting to break when we arrived in Kyoto. The shinkansen doesn’t idle, so we made our way hastily out of the station to where our bus was waiting to take us to lunch (the Imperial had already arranged for our bulkier luggage to be shipped ahead to our second hotel in Kyoto, so we had a carry-on a piece for our first night at [redacted*])
Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for eleven centuries and remains the bedrock of its culture to this day; the Beijing of Japan, if I want to very roughly draw from my understanding, e.g. the dialect of Mandarin spoken in Beijing is broadly the basis of Standard Chinese and in that same vein the Kyoto dialect was the Japanese spoken by actors, news anchors, et al. Yuri waxed poetic on how the dialect is the most ‘beautiful and proper’ in the Japanese language–even to excess–riddled with honorifics and proudly indirect (if you’re a guest in a home, your host might make a casual mention that it’s time to ‘eat [insert name of rice dish that I can’t remember here]’, which is your cue to leave… I might also be remembering this completely wrong, so take that as you will)
We disembarked at one of the entrances to the Teramachi Shopping Arcade in downtown Kyoto, a covered avenue of art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, clothiers, etc. that intersects with Shinkyogoku Shopping Street, which will put you nose-deep in all the souvenirs and miscellaneous amusements you can dream of. Kyoto’s referred to as the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines”, which seems pretty lofty regardless of its storied history, yet there we were, ambling down the arcade with locals and fellow tourists alike–passing display cases of restaurants’ menus gleaming in plastic perfection, the odd sign for a basement pachinko parlor–and without warning there would be… space, cool and green and unquestionably old. Instead of another clothing boutique or handicraft store there would be a little temple or the historical residence of some political/spiritual/military/what-have-you personality or another, set back from the shopping arcade in its remarkably quiet recess.
For lunch we stepped off Teramachi and down into the dining rooms of Ichiba Coji: its dark paneled walls made the white plates and kaleidoscopic small dishes at each table pop like nothing else. The restaurant was divided into your typical Western-style tables and chairs and zashiki-style seating–low traditional tables in raised rooms carpeted in tatami mats (or wood floors). Servers shepherded us into the latter (we removed our shoes before entering the seating area) and we bumped and tittered our way over to the pillows, our legs resting beneath the tables on sunken floors.
I think about those Savory Mochi Things often.
Kyoto is famed for its Japanese haute cuisine, kaiseki, but its characteristically delicate palette is reflected in its sweets, Buddhist vegetarian fare, and our favourite humble soy product as well, which has been elevated to just short of aria-status within the region. The milky, vaguely quivering bricks we’re so used to seeing in American supermarkets have no place here, would turn themselves to slop from the sheer depth of the shame. Ichiba Coji is no venerated artisanal tofu shop, but what bites we had had presence–a round of tofu, at once firm and custardy, with shards of bonito flakes folded in and dressed in a touch of lightly-acidic ponzu; a gently concave slice sans accoutrements, lounging in its own tofu-ness as confidently as oyster on the half shell.
But onward! Because there’s no rest for the
weary wicked “incredibly overstimulated from half a day’s worth of galavanting through a captivating new country.”
I hope you all had a restful Memorial Day weekend (if you’re in the States) and a lovely weekend elsewhere! I didn’t do an awful lot, unless you count watching an episode of Chef’s Table and spending far too much time hand-chopping pesto for spring vegetable panzanella… in which case, not too shabby!
Next week: Day 1, Part 2, or more accurately, too many people and a kimono show, “You Can’t Make Me Leave, You Can’t“, and Slightly Awkward Karaoke Hour.
P.P.S. I love Hozier. I love dance. “Work Song” is, bar none, my favourite song of his to date and this entire video is a dream.
* All will be revealed next week 🙂