THINGS WE ATE WHILE WALKING (Tokyo, Japan)

by Claire Moshenberg on July 12, 2012

My boyfriend and I went to Tokyo to eat.  Some people cross the globe to sightsee, to spread their arms and smile wide in front of monuments. I wanted to rest an open palm on my belly and say, “Oof.” I wanted to challenge the tensile strength of my waistband, to wake up sweating from the nocturnal phantasmagoria that only late-night eating can spur. The only smiling monument I actively sought was a grinning pancake filled with shrimp, avocado, and whole pink peppercorns, flanked by cheerful french fries.

There were breakfasts, lunches, dinners. There were second dinners, sparse plates of yakitori nuzzled against tall bottles of Kirin. To really eat your way through a city, you move and consume at the same even clip. We ate while walking to shops, where I bought sacks of sugared yuzu peel and creamy green tea candies. We ate while pacing markets, with pyramids of honeydew melons wrapped in velvet and gold ribbon, sold as holiday gifts for close to one hundred dollars each. We ate while watching gaggles of girls in wool capes huddle under clear plastic umbrellas, as men in crisp suits, their hats tilted just so, walked with furious precision, as if trying to outrun the rain.

None of us could outrun the rain that first day. Under my own clear plastic umbrella, I comforted my shivering, jet-lagged self with a crepe. Pastel stands — curved on top like scalloped clouds and manned by impossibly pretty girls in crisp caps and aprons — dotted Harajuku and sold slender triangles of crepe. Displays covered in convincing plastic crepe replicas boasted ice cream, geometric chocolate-sauce patterns, strawberries flanked by piped swirls of whipped cream. I bought one filled with whipped cream, dotted with translucent half-moons of apple. The surface gleamed with burnt sugar, and a thin, almost caramel sauce clung to my hands and lips.

That day, at a counter in Shibuya, we ate chicken skins, deep-fried and sprinkled with scallions and vinegar, served with crisp cabbage leaves and cold beer. Wooden skewers piled with raw chicken and mushrooms were fried and devoured, tongue-scorchingly hot. We wandered into a neighboring market, where we watched long rows of waffle irons transform golden dough into fish-shaped waffles, which then became piping hot sandwiches slathered in red bean paste. We chased those with a basket of breaded octopus tentacles, chewy and sharp with lemon juice.

Our first 24 hours in Tokyo foreshadowed what would occupy our week: food. Impossible varieties of food that appeared left and right wherever we went, that sneaked into our pockets, that showed up at 6-person bars, on rotating chains, at convenience stores swimming in florescent light. If our meals were novels (and they were — complex, chapter-filled things, often narrated by a raw-fish protagonist on an epic quest for wasabi and beer), then the foods we ate between meals were poems. They were small and lovely, complicated yet somehow not, full of a sensory density that lodges each dish in your thoughts, rolling through your mind and over your tongue.

We spent most nights drinking beer from tall bottles, eating chicken meatballs wading in raw egg yolk. We befriended Japanese businessmen who loved Motown and Morrissey, who always wanted another round, a Beatles song on the jukebox, and a bowl of tripe stew full of butter-soft carrots and entrails. When the night ended, sleek glass cases full of lustrous, egg-washed pastries met us at the train station. One night, we walked home eating a slice of yellow cake, dense and creamy, like cheesecake’s airy cousin.

Other nights, we slipped into convenience stores to buy crinkly doughnut-flavored cookies, Royal Milk Tea Kit Kat bars, and chocolates laced with ginger or rum. We unwrapped them as we left, or ate them in the morning before breakfast. Sometimes I slipped the remnants in my pocket so that wherever we ended up, at some point I could pull out a handful of white chocolate Pocky, or two melting squares of chocolate studded with rum-soaked raisins. During the day, we returned to the convenience store for sticky-rice triangles wrapped in seaweed or sweet tofu skins, stuffed with fish or flecked with sesame seeds and wasabi. We paired them with cold bottles of green tea and hot cans of black coffee.

There was food eaten daily and food eaten once. Outside of a market, we ate doughy squares of mochi from an old woman’s stand, rolled in sesame seeds and stuffed with red bean paste. There was rice flour on my fingertips, rubbed hastily on dark jeans so that my thighs announced “Mochi!” in soft white handprints. On a curb in Mitaka, we split a roasted sweet potato from the grocery store, purple-skinned and warm from resting in a brown paper bag on a bed of hot stones. The flesh was dry and bulky under the splintering skin. We passed it back and forth, swapping it for a cold can of Ebisu The Hop.

We were quiet in the bustle of downtown Mitaka, the lights bouncing off of a tall pachinko parlor. Later, we would slip back into the grocery store to take pictures of chubby, cartoonish carrots sold in twine-wrapped bouquets and Kobe beef so thin and marbled that it resembled sheets of stationary wrapped in butcher’s plastic. And later than that, there would be zombies to slay at tremendous arcades and cocktails to sip at the top of the Park Hyatt, surrounded by quiet businessmen drinking sake stirred into hot tea. But now there was just us, an empty can of beer, and a sweet potato husk. There was only one thing to say.

“Dinner?”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Eleanor Levie July 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Ah so awesome!! Arrigato, Claire!

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Susan Kamins July 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Sounds so good!!

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