Leading up to the Japan trip, my friends have repeatedly gauged my state – Are you nervous? Are you excited? And with all of the planning, I haven’t had a lot of time to feel any butterflies. But the anxiety of it all hit me as I arrive to Sea-tac airport. I grab my man’s arm, turn to him, and say, “Wow, I am actually doing this.”
But somehow all of my worries miraculously washes off me as I step off the plane into Tokyo Narita airport. In the customs line, I am instantly distracted by the Japanese fashion scene and amazed at how people can perfectly execute on fashion and function at the same. These locals crocs and cargo pants are even more stylin’ than the ones I see back home.
We arrive into the city during rush hour and the streets are lined with men in white dress shirts and dark pants cascading down to the train stations. It looks like guys here either take their cues from The Blues Brothers or they are on a Mormon mission, albeit a stylish Mormon mission. As for the professional women working scene, short brownish hair with skirts to match seem to be the trend thus far.
My priority is dinner and the goal is to find an authentic local’s joint. It just so happens the last picture I saw in my guide book was a picture of soba noodles so it is a no brainer when the concierge tells us about Kaoriya, a cozy soba tempura noodle joint in an old converted house where the restaurant name is only written in Japanese characters.
After passing many pizzerias and European-inspired restaurants in the Ebisu neighborhood where we are staying, my man and I arrive to Kaoriya. We sit across from two Japanese businessmen in one of two communal tables. The duo don’t know it yet, but they are serving as our informal guides for how to navigate the stages of eating soba.
As for ordering, my man’s strategy is to master the phrase we see in the Eating Out section of our phrase book: o-ma-ka se shi-mas, meaning “please decide for me.” It is a toss-up between that phrase or the “I want a meal fit for a king,” although we may bust out the latter phrase soon. Our server is amused and slightly confused, but shrugs and says, “Duck?” Hai (yes), we nod.
We nonchalantly watch the steps and cadence of our informally appointed guides and follow like kids watching their parents for social cues: Place the small condiments of thinly shaved green onions and wasabi into the bowl of mahogany dashi broth, pick up your broth bowl in one hand while dipping the noodles in the other, and slurp with conviction. When you are done eating the noodles, pour tea into the remaining liquid, and then drink it up. Oh, and the small bowl of small puffed rice, eat that with your hands either before, during or after your meal.
The thick earthy soba noodles are meaty and wider than the ones I have experienced in the past. They are wonderful and I hate that I am getting full because I want to order more. The ebi (prawn) tempura and shiso peppers are a familiar sight from home, but the chewy nori tempura is a novelty to me and in the moment, I feel like explorer Ponce de Leon for discovering it.
We walk back to our hotel in the Ebisu neighborhood and pass by the restaurant of one of the most acclaimed chefs in the world. I glance at the menu outside of famed Frenchman Joel Robuchon’s La Table, but for once, his exquisite $120 USD + set menus and intricate presentation seem to take backseat to the simple and authentic soba noodle experience I just enjoyed.
The production crew and my buddy Taichi (owner of Sushi Kappo Tamura) arrive this evening and we start shooting tomorrow so I am enjoying my first and only day of free exploration. First course of action today: Find a Japanese breakfast.
More to come.