The Best Yakitori in Tokyo...and Halloween
Tokyo. What’s not to love? It’s been more than a decade since either of us have been back. There are only so many countries [cities?] outside of the States that I could see myself living in: Amsterdam and Tokyo. I think Amsterdam reminds me a lot of San Francisco and Tokyo reminds me a lot of New York: the style, the hustle, the diversity, the crowds, the buzz, the loneliness - the ingredients of a cosmopolitan city.
Since this was our second time to Tokyo, it was nice to scratch off all the tourist spots from the list. I wanted a more organic visit this time around. I love walking around aimlessly with headphones on, stuffing one hand in my pocket, the other gripping my paper cup of coffee, and preferably wearing a hoodie. There were a number of times when Avery was still asleep in the mornings and I got the opportunity to do this. I always need to have my alone time. This is me in my element. This and non-profit work.
My major points for Tokyo were the following: coffee shops, Halloween, walking around, and food, specifically ramen, yakitori, gyoza, and yakiniku. Avery didn’t have any preferences on what he wanted to do so I was going to take the lead on this one. I decided I would take ownership of everything but Halloween. I have to admit, it’s not my favorite holiday (GASP). Hmm, an introvert who doesn’t like Halloween - I guess it shouldn’t be that shocking. But first, coffee.
I did a significant amount of research on coffee shops. I have a very particular aesthetic and taste when it comes to coffee and coffee shops. I grew up in NYC - what can I say? Coffee runs in our blood. Plus, I worked in the fashion industry. When I was 24, I think I only consumed coffee and doritos that whole year. No wonder I was so thin and got diagnosed with shingles at such a young age. Anyway, now I only drink coffee as a treat - cappuccinos to be specific. No more chain coffee brands for me - if I drink coffee, it’s gotta be good because it’s my once a week gift to myself. Out of the hundreds of cafés in Tokyo, I landed on Café Kitsune. Very popular and also a chain but I had to go to the Tokyo branch as my first experience.
That morning was one of my solo mornings with me and my hoodie and I ventured over first thing at 9AM when they opened. So unlike NYC, nothing is open early in Tokyo. I’m not asking your mall to be open at 9AM - I’m asking that your caffeinated establishment be open at a reasonable hour. That’s also why I picked Café Kitsune because everything else wasn’t open until 11AM. Down a small alleyway in chic Shibuya, you come across a tiny coffee shop where its square footage is 50/50 indoor and outdoor. I ordered my cappuccino served on beautiful white Café Kitsune brand cup and saucer with a gold spoon. Heaven. It was incredibly delicious and strong but didn’t give me an acidic burn that strong coffee often gives me (ahem Blue Bottle). A blonde Australian mother with her beautiful daughter and adorable tiny dog in tow walked in and sat next to me. I don’t like to talk to people in general but dating Avery has encouraged me to engage in more conversation than usual. My future mother-in-law’s voice came into my head, “You must talk to strangers!” Okay, here it goes. So we talked about my travels, her favorite spots in Tokyo and Melbourne (her hometown). She had been living in Tokyo for 15 years and spoke fluent Japanese. She lived around the corner from here. After coffee, I walked around the neighborhood and became green with envy thinking about living “around the corner”. It’s like if Bleecker/West Village artist had a baby with a Japanese Hermès sales associate, this would be their town. Where do I sign up?
So apparently, Avery had never been to Harajuku. I was absolutely shocked. Luckily, we needed a Halloween costume for him and I thought Harajuku would be the perfect place to go shopping. I thought this would be a great place to kill two birds with one stone. Before heading to Takeshita Street, we grabbed some gyoza at Harajuku Gyozaaro. We ordered some pork gyoza and veggie gyoza plus some veggie sides of cabbage and soybean sprouts. For $15, I’ll take it! We walked it off as we headed towards Takeshita Street. I’ve learned that Avery likes to do everything last minute and I have been trying my best to improve this. But of course, another Halloween has struck and he is left scrambling for a costume - this time, hours before we’re supposed to go out (a first). Excellent. Luckily, H&M was selling Halloween costumes in their store - a merchandising strategy that the US H&M’s should adopt. Funny enough, they only had female Halloween costumes but they had animal onesies big enough for my fiancé. Hey, this is what you get for planning so last minute. We bought the XL and the cashier asked ME if I was buying the right size. I just nodded - she didn’t need to know the details.
For Halloween, Avery planned for us to do a pub crawl. Apparently, what I thought defined a pub crawl was completely incorrect. I had done some casual crawls in NYC where we would stop into one bar after another. I didn’t realize that real pub crawls were organized events meant for meeting new people along the way. Ah, more talking to people. I instantly panicked in the subway to the pub crawl after reading the phrase “ice breaker games” (shudder). But once we arrived to the first bar, called Milwaukee Bar (way to attract the Americans), there were no signs of ice breaker games. Phew - plus it was packed already. It was 7PM. We talked to few people, met a group from Malaysia - super nice (and super drunk). Like Avery, a lot of people found this pub crawl via TripAdvisor as the #1 nightlife choice for Halloween. It was the most affordable option with free drinks included, plus we didn’t have to wait in lines and this was a way to meet other travelers. And yes, I had so much fun. Avery asked me the next day, “So, you had fun meeting new people?” And I said, “No, I don’t enjoy meeting new people but I do enjoy getting to know people and connecting.” Such an introverted Aquarius, I know.
At the pub crawl, everyone was given a different wristband color and each wristband color was assigned to a different bar for the next stop. I guess it was a matter of space. Luckily, our color’s next bar was right next door (go Blue team!). By the way, in Japan, they offer lockers for those to put their jackets and purses inside. You pay $3 to occupy but I’d rather have this than some questionable 21 year-old with an attitude “watching” my stuff. The catch? You have to not lose the key or forget your locker number.
The second bar was the best bar of the night. It had the best music and the energy was just peaking. It was 9PM. We ended up meeting a Swiss couple. The man was also wearing a onesie but he was Pink Panther. We met them via Avery giving him a high-five saying, “Whoo!! ANIMAL ONESIES!” I love him. They were just visiting Japan for about 3 weeks and they were actually heading back to Switzerland the next day. They were adorable - she liked the fact that I could speak French, and he liked the fact I could speak some Italian. This is where all my A’s from foreign languages comes in handy. Alcohol also helps with the confidence in foreign languages.
We went to another bar on the 4th floor of what looked like an office building. We met an older gentleman here on business, who was literally carrying around his sports coat. He was living in Hong Kong but was English. Avery really connected with him and they exchanged information. I ended up connecting with this girl that was dressed as a boxer but she was absolutely stunning - definitely the most beautiful girl at the bar and she had an approachable energy to her. Of course, with enough alcohol in me, I felt inclined to tell her how beautiful she was. Turns out, she was going to be in living in Sydney when Avery and I will be there in January and we both connected on living in California (and Soul Cycle). So funny how certain people connect immediately. We also exchanged information and hopefully, we’ll reconnect in January.
Overall, Halloween was a major success - especially since this was my first Halloween in a different country. If you’re going to do Halloween outside the US, do Japan.
Now, the food. My favorite part. The owner at our favorite shabu shabu spot in Taipei told us in order to save money, we must eat big for lunch and low-key for dinner (i.e. ramen and yakitori). Apparently, in Japan, dinner can be 2-3x more expensive than lunch for the same exact meal. So on our first day in Tokyo, I decided that yakiniku (aka Japanese BBQ) would be the best choice for lunch. We were staying in Ginza, which is like the 5th avenue of Tokyo so if we were going to eat in Ginza, it was going to be lunch. For $60 for the two of us, this ended up being an incredible deal considering we had 3 orders of meat, plus sides, vegetables, soup, rice, and dessert in the fanciest district in Tokyo. I just love how much the concept of art and presentation comes into play with Japanese food. It brings me such joy. Now don’t get me wrong, I find a massive plate of ribs chaotically stacked to be just as mouthwateringly beautiful but there’s something about the small plates, the different ceramics, and the colors.
I also found the best yakitori spot in Japan for your $20-$30 dinner, including beers. Kushiwakamaru in Meguro. For me, a perfect yakitori restaurant includes the following: your basic dark meat chicken with scallions, chicken wings, vegetables, and of course, my favorite, chicken hearts. Most places I went to in Japan did not have all of these components, but I finally found one. If you love chicken hearts, order them plus the chicken meatballs. Actually, what am I saying? Everything is delicious. You won’t lose if you just close your eyes and pick something. They don’t call the chef, The Stick Man, for nothing.
We also had the pleasure of a Bay Area friend visiting town that evening, Terrence. I call people like Terrence and Avery “extroverted unicorns” - people who have such a dynamic, likable personality. They have the type of magnetic flair and sincerity about them that make it so easy to be their friend and to keep in touch with them anywhere in the world. I wish I could be more like an extroverted unicorn. But luckily, you guys get to experience all my awkwardness a little more. Nobody puts baby in the corner so someone has to be there.
Hey, I did start up a conversation with a stranger in the coffee shop all on my own. Baby steps.