I declared myself a Japanophile after discovering Sailor Moon at the age of six. It was through countless manga novels and anime episodes that I was introduced to the Tokyo cityscape, and ultimately, I sold myself on the idea of one day visiting the hometown of my fictional idols (after all, who wouldn’t after watching them battle the forces of evil with the power of friendship and love?). However, no amount of the Sailor Moon episodes, Studio Ghibli films or Rumiko Takahashi graphic novels could have prepared me for the splendor, beauty and sometimes, utter perplexity of Tokyo.
Traveling to the city from Saigon on a terrifyingly bumpy six-hour plane ride, my cousin Chloe and I gleefully left the plane with a newfound appreciation for solid ground. We hopped on to the airport shuttle-bus and after a two-and-a-half-hour trek from Narita into the heart of Ebisu, we finally settled in the room and began our search for nearby goodies — sushi and sashimi, of course.
Now, my taste buds have become fairly familiar (an understatement, trust me) with the delicate taste of fresh raw seafood. If it’s of an oceanic variety then serve it to me raw ’cause that’s the way I like it, baby.
Hamachi (yellowtail)? Yes, please!
Ikura and tobiko (salmon and flying fish roe)? Sorry Nemo, you’re too good.
Uni (sea urchin)? Don’t mind if I do!
However, while my palate had acclimated itself quite nicely to Japanese cuisine, the rest of my tongue had not. I had been previously told by family that the city and its citizens barely spoke a lick of English, although I considered their warnings as nothing more than mere words of caution. After all, my animes and mangas were all dubbed in English, so Japan had to be English-friendly, right? Wrong.
Only a handful of the Tokyo-ites we encountered during our vacation understood and spoke English, including the hotel staff, and most of the English-speakers had moved to Japan from other countries. Of course, this meant we had a much harder time navigating that first night than we had anticipated — and on an empty stomach the difficult task of finding authentic sushi felt amplified.
Running around under a steady sheet of rain in 渋谷区 (Shibuya-ku), Chloe, Phil (who had decided to visit me during my Eurasia trip by meeting me for my week in Tokyo) and I ducked into a tiny restaurant. We poked our heads past the restaurant’s sliding door and were greeted by an elderly man who acted as the restaurants, host, wait staff and resident sushi chef.
Unsurprisingly, English was as foreign to him as the Japanese language to us, so our dinner began with a rather confusing game of charades. After a lot of head nodding, arm waving, finger wagging and “ooooh’s” we settled on a set menu featuring a variety of fish and rolls that I guessed we would recognize. I was only half correct.
Initially, we were served what could be considered the standard fare of sushi — ahi, sake and hamachi — but as the meal continued even my so-called experienced palate began to taste the unfamiliar. Of course, I never really found out what we actually ate that night (my gut tells me something along the lines of sea cucumber and seahorse…) but I’m never one to complain about a delicious and unique meal.
And that’s exactly what the rest of my trip in Tokyo was. Hints of the familiar, but most of the time, totally and pleasantly mind boggling — and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.