Once we booked our flight to Japan in January, my husband went about searching for tours and events where he could geek out to his anime-and-manga-loving heart’s content. As luck would have it, we were going to be in Tokyo during the annual International Anime Fair. To be held in Tokyo Big Sight, it was also a chance to see Odaiba, a waterfront island city in Tokyo Bay made on reclaimed land. Packed with malls, amusement centers, theme parks, and architectural wonders that make it look like one big futuristic, though odd playground for the Japanese. We got a glimpse of it (along with the view of the harbor) riding the Yurikamome line, an un-manned train that goes from Shimbashi Station (where we got on) to the island.
While we would read later on that this year’s fair was scaled down compared to previous years, for Tokyo-International-Anime-Fair-virgins such as ourselves, we were still more than impressed with the sheer size of the exhibition hall and the many booths that had their anime titles—both old and new—on display. Large inflatables of Pikachu, Doremon, Detective Conan, Totoro and a few other popular anime characters hung over the jam-packed space of kids and grown-ups (including my husband), all thrilled to check out their favorite anime.
It was the shiny life-sized armor suits from the adult-geared tonkusatsu or live action series GARO, which has “Knights” fighting to save humanity from “Horrors” or demonic manifestations, that got P all giddy. C, who went with us, introduced us to a large, seated inflatable of Anpanman, a superhero popular among children whose head is made of bread filled with bean jam that can be replaced with a newly baked head. How awesome is that?
After all the crazy, cool explosion of anime, we headed to the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills for a look at contemporary Japanese art scene and the view I had wanted to see on our first night in Tokyo. C actually wanted to take us to the more manicured Shinjuku Gyoen for more cherry blossom viewing after the Anime Fair, but the temperature had dipped, so he suggested we were better off staying indoors. To a museum, perhaps? “We could go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum or Tokyo Tower?” I offered, peeking at the items in my itinerary, which were becoming more like suggestions rather than set-in-stone activities. But C said he had a better idea, where we could get art and a killer view in one place.
In a heartbeat, P and I agreed. Me, the girl who liked to make lists and follow them according to plan. Sure, C was the Tokyo resident and it was only natural we relied on him on where to go, but I was also starting to realize that it was surprisingly exhilarating to not follow the plan and not always know where you’re going next.
The exhibit at the Mori Art Museum was entitled “Roppongi Crossing 2010: Can There Be Art?” A question posed to a diverse set of artists and answered (obviously in the affirmative) with arresting photos and videos, innovative installations, sculptures and other forms of visual arts. But the most breathtaking vision you can see from the Mori Tower is the vastness of Tokyo dotted with city lights in the bluish cast of dusk.
Before I raised my camera to take a picture, I stopped and just looked: this city, one of the biggest in the world, stretching out to the horizon in a seemingly endless flicker of lights. So this is what happens when you don’t always follow the plan and see where the day (or in this case, a friend) takes you. You get pleasantly surprised and a knockout view. Years back, while a friend and I sat in front of an open field and the conversation turned personal, she asked, “Why is it when faced with something vast before us, we can’t help but look inward?” I didn’t have an answer then. Faced with the sheer size of a bustling city, or a mountain range, a canyon, an ocean, we get to see just how small we are and have to wonder where we fit in all this. It was time for a drink.
We had dinner and drinks nearby at what seemed like a quiet residential neighborhood just a few blocks past the posh, lit up streets surrounding Mori Tower. The izakaya-like Bamboo restaurant furnished with a wooden bar, tables and benches had what I suspected a modern Japanese menu. We had raw tuna with avocado salad, raw octopus in wasabi, salted squid guts (also raw), bitter gourd tossed with tofu and Spam (Spam!), a few bowls of edamame, and the star of the Saturday supper, sautéed Eringi mushroom in butter. It wasn’t the most traditional Japanese dinner we’ve had, but it was still good followed by more drinks at the bar next door: Banana Fish.
Owned and tended by a guy who plays in a band and whom C knew, the place was still empty when we got there around eight. We ordered a few drinks and the owner/bartender set out three bowls of tiny peanut butter cookies, chocolate covered rice crispies, and banana chips. On our La Jetée outing, we got served a cold block of tofu with our Sapporos. In Banana Fish, the bar chow with our shōchū was sweet.
It took a bit of getting used to, but they all worked—that or the alcohol was always working. Particularly, the shōchū. We kept raising a glass of it and shouting kampai (the third Japanese word we knew). Eventually I think I started shouting out everything I was thinking. “Kampai! To C!” “Kampai! I love shōchū!” “Kampai! We’re in freaking Japan!” “Kampai! This shōchū is really good!”
Before we (and by “we” I mean me) became overly obnoxious and feeling like we’ve had more than one too many, we left Banana Fish and C flagged down a cab. Taking taxis in Japan can be pricey, but it’s particularly useful when you can’t reach the train before midnight and join the inebriated, exhausted or snoozing crowd standing and hanging by the handles in the train car. An amusing sight to see, C assured us, but since we were not at our most sober ourselves, we would probably be part of the joke.
A few blocks away from his apartment, C asked the driver to stop by the sign-less ramen-ya we went to on our first night in Tokyo. Ramen after drinking was something I could get used to. The restaurant was already closed, but C disappeared into the place next door, which turned out to be another ramen-ya. Only they served abura soba, which means “oil noodles” or ramen without the soup. “It’s also really good here,” C assured us after paying for three bowls of abura soba and three beers in the vending machine. He then gave the stubs to the guy behind the counter, who then proceeded to make our order while we nursed our cold bottles of biiru; apparently, we hadn’t had too much to drink.
When those large bowls of abura soba came—the plump noodles topped with the salty char siu, negi onion, menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and shredded nori—it was glorious. You mix it with an oil-based sauce and some vinegar, depending on how you like it—like squeezing calamansi over pancit canton for us Filipinos—and you suddenly have a perfect bowl of comfort. The little part of me that remained sober took out the Japanese dictionary I had in my bag and began searching for the translation for “delicious.” I had only been grinning at the young cook behind the counter like an idiot after every bite I took that I at least wanted to articulate how good his noodles were (which sounds dirty in English so thank God I was going to say it in Japanese).
Minutes of flipping through the dictionary, my husband finally asked what I needed. “I want to tell him his noodles are good,” I whispered, scared of offending the young and cute cook. “Oishii,” he replied, and I could detect that silent ‘Duh’ at the end. It was after all the fourth Japanese word we supposedly knew, but my brain was just thinking about the ramen. Trying to keep in mind every slurp and salty goodness. “Oishii,” I finally told the cook with too big a grin. I wanted to add, “I’m sorry I can’t finish this bowl of noodles ‘cause I’m really full and I might hurl at your lovely establishment. What’s your name?” but I couldn’t find it in my dictionary. And my husband had the good sense to scoop me out of the stool before I could ask to have my picture taken with cute Japanese ramen guy.
Tokyo Big Sight is accessible via the Yurikamome line (a 3-minute walk from Kokusai-Tenjijo-Seimon Station), the Rinkai line (a 7-minute walk from Kokusai-Tenjijo Station, or the Tokyo Water Cruise (a 2-minute walk from Ariake Terminal) 3-10-1 Ariake, Koto-ku, Tokyo 135-0063
The Tokyo International Anime Fair 2011 will be open to the public on March 26 and 27.
Mori Art Museum and Tokyo City View 53/F Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Admission is ¥1500 for both
Bamboo 4-11-10 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku
Banana Fish 2/F Nishiazabu Green Bld., 4-11-11Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku; tel: 03-5467-9177
Abura Soba Setagaya-ku, Tokyo (take Den-en-toshi line to Sangen-jaya Station, North Exit B)