Food and Lodging | Japan | Living in Mexico

Food and Lodging

I neglected to mention the name of our hotel in Tokyo: It's the Royal Park Shiodome Hotel. That's pronounced "she-oh-dough-may." It's a very nice modern hotel in a high-rise building, in the newly redeveloping... uh... Shiodome district. It's steps away from the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, and the Ginza with its elegant shops and department stores. The rate currently starts at about $240 double occupancy, and this includes breakfast. You can choose from a traditional Japanese breakfast or an international buffet. I thought the latter was by far the better of the two. The walk-in price for the buffet is $20 per person, and it's worth it, so actually, the net cost of your room is closer to $200.

The bathrooms, in addition to heated toilet seats, have the best bathing facilities in the world. Stepping through a glass shower door, you find yourself in a small room that contains a small, very deep tub. The tub is too short to lie down in, but when you sit in it after it's full, the water comes up over your shoulders. The tub fills with hot water in about one minute! The shower, on a flexible hose, is outside the tub. A low plastic stool is on the floor under the shower head, along with a plastic bucket and a large, soft brush with a long wooden handle. What you do is fill the tub with water as hot as you can stand it and then some. Next, you throw a bar of soap in the bucket and fill it with hot water from the shower. You sit on the stool and scrub yourself all over with the soapy water using the brush. Then you rinse the soapy water off in the shower, and when you are sparkling clean, then you get into the tub. You soak until the heat makes you dizzy, and then dry off with a nice, big towel. At that moment, you realize you've never felt so relaxed (and clean) in your life. Plus the bath water is clean enough for the next person to use it.

Of course, meals are notoriously expensive in most hotels. Some friends ordered drinks in the bar downstairs. The waiter asked them if they wanted some rice crackers. They said, "Sure," figuring it was all part of the service, like a bowl of peanuts at a sports bar. The waiter brought them a small plate with maybe eight or ten crackers on it. When they got their bill, they were charged for the crackers: $18.

Jean and I, when we weren't eating lunch or dinner as guests of Smithsonian Journeys, beat the high costs of meals by going out into the city and finding restaurants where ordinary people ate. We found we could get utility-grade sushi for less than in California: about $20 per person compared with $30 in the States. Udon (noodles) were very inexpensive, filling and tasty and less than $10. Tempura was another matter. My special menu cost $70. For that, a waiter brought a basket filled with wiggling, live seafood for my approval before it was battered and deep fried. They served it piecemeal, so it wouldn't get cold on my plate. The centerpiece was Conger Eel, a rare and expensive delicacy, which I have to admit was very tasty. In making his presentation, the chef had removed the spine and tied it into a loose, looping knot after which he deep-fried it. I knew that it was not just a garnish. I was expected to eat it. You are expected to eat everything they put in front of you in Japan. So I did. Very flavorful. Crunchy.

Coffee was always expensive. Minimum $5. We managed to find a place that sold me a regular cup of coffee for $8 and a cappuccino for Jean for $9. Is this higher than Starbucks? Well, at least they don't serve it to you in a goddamn paper cup.

In never have eaten so much seafood in my life. And I've never eaten better. Well, except for Maine lobster and Dungeness crab and Pacific abalone. OK. And fresh grilled swordfish steak. Poached line-caught wild salmon. But aside from those, I've never eaten better seafood. Or more exotic seafood. Raw shrimp with the heads still on. Little tiny silver fish, bones and heads and all. Amorphous gelatinous globs (sea cucumber?) Baby squid-like things.

Of course, you get rice with every meal except udon. The Japanese truly have the best rice in the world. Delicately perfumed flavor, slightly sticky texture for eating with chopsticks. It's often served at the end of the meal. The idea is you eat the fussy, expensive goodies first: sashimi, gyoza, deep-fried fiddlehead ferns. Then they give you a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup to fill up on, so no matter how hungry you are, you leave the table satisfied.

Virtually every restaurant we visited either had plastic food models in a display window outside, or a menu with pictures. Otherwise, we would have been sunk. Most of the time we ordered by pointing at a picture.

Menu01

Here we have a flyer for a fairly expensive menu: about $55. It looks good, but I defy any of my friends, except maybe Michele C., to name everything pictured. There's the black tray with sushi, and there's the lacquer bowl at the upper right with a clear soup, probably miso. But the rest of it is a mystery. Looks good, though, so if I was in the mood for a $55 dinner, I'd go ahead and order it. It's gotta be better than the English-language menu that featured "Seared cow's cheek in coffee with vegetable."

One last note: Pictured above are several cube-shaped food items. For certain, at least one of them is wheat gluten. It's served at every meal. It's often, but not always, sweet. And it's nasty. It's gooey and sticky and coats your teeth. Unfortunately, you don't know which one is the little cube of jellied fish or the block of flavored tofu or the cube of lemon custard or, like the unseen dog turd lurking in the back yard grass, the wheat gluten. The only way to find out is to bite into it, and that one bite commits you to a coating of the inside of your mouth that lasts until vigorously scrubbed away with a toothbrush. Personally, I'd rather try the Cow's cheek.
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