A week into my stay in Tokyo I had a chance to meet up with some of my old colleagues thanks to my friend Chiba-san. She and I were quite close when I worked in Tokyo back in 1998-1999 but I didn’t keep in touch with her for several years in the mid-2000’s. When I started traveling 3 years ago I reconnected with Chiba-san and she was kind enough to organize a gathering near our old office. She called it my “welcome back to Japan” party.
I had walked around the back streets of Shibuya a few days before and saw that while the old office building was still there, most of the places we used to frequent for lunch were long gone. I did see this tiny little takeaway bento place we went to at least once a week- I usually got the simple bento of white rice with 明太子 mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and nori (dried seaweed). It was definitely not the most nutritious lunch but it was one of my favorites (it was also dirt cheap, maybe ~$5USD). I was happy to see that they were still in business and most of the lunch boxes were priced below $10 USD. Some things haven’t changed much!
Simple menu and fake display samples of what is available for purchase at the neighborhood bento shop where I used to go.
Many Japanese restaurants/cafes/bars are small and/or hidden in basements or inside office buildings that even the locals have a difficult time finding them. It’s common for Tokyoites to meet near a metro stop or at a landmark (they’ll say “east exit” or exit number so and so), and then walk over to the bar/restaurant together. Some landmarks are so often used as a meeting point that it can get difficult finding your friend in the crowd- I remember circling the famous Hachikō statue at the Shibuya station in search of my friends…
Japanese addresses are next to impossible to figure out since they are never in any order, and 99% of the small streets are not named or numbered. I used to have friends or restaurants fax me a map (most times they were hand-drawn) to help me or to help taxi drivers navigate. Of course this was before GPS and smartphones, but still to this day most people will give you directions in Tokyo using landmarks and restaurants all have business cards with a map printed on the reverse side.
For my outing with my old coworkers we met at the Omotesando police box, another well-known meeting place right outside of Omotesando metro station exit A3.
I happened to get there first and soon saw Kubo-san (in black above). Even though 11 years had gone by since we last saw each other I recognized him right away. Horiguchi-san and Ikeda-san soon followed. Chiba-san, looking as pretty as ever, took a night off from looking after her daughter and husband to join us. She kept joking that she was an おばさん obasan (middle aged woman) now. Oh, please…
Just a short walk down Aoyama-dōri towards Shibuya we reached our destination, a basement izakaya (Japanese pub) that I probably would not have found on my own. When Chiba-san made the reservation she also booked a fixed dinner set for the evening so we just sat and waited for the food to arrive.
Our first course: sashimi plate for five. Look closely and you’ll see that there are five pieces of everything, including five little mounds of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) on the bottom of the plate.
Second course: grilled fish and tamagoyaki (slightly sweet omelette) served with grated daikon (radish)
Third course: stewed fish head. Each of us received a plate of fish head cooked in soy and mirin (Japanese rice wine used for cooking) based sauce. When the fish heads arrived they all looked at me and asked whether this was okay. もちろんです! mochirondesu! Of course!
Forth course: tempura (deep fried) of spring vegetables
There were many rounds of 生ビール namabiiru (draft beer) and 日本酒 nihonshu (Japanese rice wine pictured below), and some 梅酒 umeshu (plum wine) as well. I can’t read a lot of kanji (Chinese characters) so I asked for a “delicious nihonshu” and trusted the guys and the waiter for their recommendation. Nihonshu we ordered was served cold in large glasses with a red lacquered bowl underneath to catch any overflow. They usually pour you a generous portion so after taking a sip or two, you get to top up by pouring the overflow from the bowl into the glass.
I’m not sure how many countries in the world still allow indoor smoking but Japan is one of them. There are smoking rooms at the airport, inside building, and shopping malls, and it’s still common to see people lighting up at restaurants and bars. One thing to note though- smoking while walking is very much frowned upon. Smokers need to go to a designated smoking areas outside. I often see groups of people in alleyways hiding out to smoke and office workers taking cigarette breaks by large ashtrays outside. Huge clouds of smoke by train station smoking area are toxic enough to knock out a small animal…
When our last course of miso soup, pickles, and bowls of rice came, Ikeda-san asked me if I wanted the “egg option.” I said, “sure, I’ll try it.” A few minutes later the guys and I each received a small ramekin with a raw egg and some soy sauce delivered to our table.
I watched what the guys did and followed suit; I poured the soy sauce into the ramekin and used my chopsticks to break the yoke and mix in the soy sauce. I then poured the egg mixture over the hot rice.
All that was left to do was eat. Salmonella? Never heard of it!
Even though I hadn’t spoken Japanese in well over a decade once the evening got underway I was able to understand and speak enough to have a nice conversation with everyone. Chiba-san is now a full time Mom but the guys are all working, mostly for music and entertainment companies. I also found out about what happened to some of our other colleagues. A few had health problems, one of them sadly committed suicide a while back, some others no one knew where they were. But most shockingly, they told me that our old boss was recently arrested for embezzling $1.5MM from his company and will soon go to jail. Hmmm…
When the bill came they all insisted that the guest, me, cannot pay. Oy vey! I love AND hate this Asian hospitality. It’s a wonderful gesture but it puts pressure on me to do something nice for them in return. I’m going to have to figure out how I can treat them next time. I guess it’s a nice way to keep in touch and meet up with them again. Thank you again to Chiba-san for making this dinner possible. See you soon!