Wonderful… Just wonderful.
Just when I thought my vacation couldn’t be more perfect, it was windy, a lot colder than yesterday and wet. Yes yes, the whole “raindrops keep falling on my head” phenomenon thingy was now a reality, and the worst thing was, I couldn’t wait it out. So armed with the inn’s transparent brolly (that’s what everybody carries), I continued to see the rest of Tokyo. Armed with more precise information in the form of a screenshot superzoomed Google Map of the location, I decided to look for Moyan again, this time, with much more determination.
On the periphery of Ikebukuro 5-chome is Moyan, recognizable only by an inconspicuous doorway heading downwards into the abyss. It’s suspicious, but just go with it – the soothing warmth compels you down the narrow flight of stairs. What greets you is a themed interior that is decidedly Hawaiian but not really…it’s a little like entering the world of Japanimation – you’ve people of different “races” and “cultures” but everybody is actually just inherently Japanese? Yeah, Moyan’s like that. Lunch service is a “limited buffet”, so says the Kanji/Chinese characters (thank God for Singapore’s billingual policy), but it takes a while for the staff to realize I understand the concept, so I oblige them by reading the English instructions for the “limited buffet” before being shown what’s on offer and escorted to my seat. The meal’s concept is simple, really. Costing just 1,050 Yen or SGD 16.15, you’re only allowed to visit the buffet spread twice where you may fill up your huge plate to any amount you fancy. As usual, water’s available at your table, and other beverages, including very high-end coffee (complete with a sleek-looking coffee machine) and tea are available. However, if there’s anything left on your plate, you’ll be charged an additional 500 Yen (SGD 7.70) for food wastage.
This was nothing like ordinary Japanese curry, and was in fact, closer to Singapore Chinese or Peranakan-style curry. The gravy’s noticeably less sweet as opposed to regular Japanese curry, and is a tad more flavorful and rich. Also, the only choice of meat is chicken, and it’s not fried. Despite the difference, I had to agree with the reviews – definitely one of the best Japanese curries.
Still pitter-pattering, I continued on to Asakusa on the TOEI subway lines, Oedo Line and Asakusa Line, services directly operated by the city government. As a rail enthusiast, riding on the former is fascinating. The Oedo Line is the most expensive per kilometre to construction because it’s the deepest line, and crosses rivers three-time in its route. To “save” costs, the decision was undertaken to build smaller tunnels and operate smaller trains, forgetting that these savings would be lost from the fact that tunnel construction has a fixed overhead cost, be it a larger or smaller structure. However, the damage has been done – consequentially, it is the fourth most crowded line in Tokyo. When I reached Asakusa, the rain, although relatively light, was relentless, and in this early Spring cold air, it was completely uncomfortable, but I had to tread on.
TOEI Oedo Line
Taking the Keisei service on the through service from the TOEI Asakusa Line to Asakusa.
Maybe times have changed. Maybe it’s because the light, unrelenting rain had eventually soaked up my footwear, but Sensoji Temple looks a lot different than I remember it. On a fine day, Asakusa would’ve been a really nice place to sightsee but with low-hanging clouds (absorbing much of Tokyo Sky Tree) and the rain, I couldn’t be bothered. Instead, I had traditional Japanese dessert, which according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, is hardly available outside of Asakusa. If I wasn’t still full from brunch, I’d have ordered another one, seriously, or an Unagi Don, which is apparently, another Asakusa specialty.
Each step felt gross and disgusting, it was like stepping on soft mud so I went back to Ikebukuro resolved to find a pair of reasonably priced footwear as a stop-gap solution and it seemed like a good idea. Traversing the malls in the Ikebukuro complex, I struggle to find something “cheap”. I mean, I know things are expensive, I’ve always known Tokyo’s an expensive city, but it hadn’t occurred to me how much a “regular shoe” costs. Of course, it is expensive by exchange rate, but when you compare on value, it changes the ballgame – a 15,000 Yen (SGD 230) Red Wings shoe for example, becomes every bit worth the purchase. Unwilling to part with so much money, and the fact that I’ve gone through three days without managing to find an ATM which could accept foreign bank cards, I was wary. Even more worrying was the duration I spent in the malls of Ikebukuro station. When I went in, it was still daytime. When I went out, it was nightfall.
With a Ootoya seemingly located at every major intersection, I decided to have it for dinner. The interior of the Japanese restaurant’s similar to its Singapore outlet except that it feels like you’re dining at someone’s swanky dining room overlooking the city below you. If that wasn’t enough, like all Tokyo eateries, there is piped-in Japanese-style house jazz music – it makes everything so poetic and cool. Feeling a little dull, I went for the same thing I always have whenever I visit Ootoya, and for the first time, it tasted very homely. It’s like coming home to a nice and simple meal after a bad day. Unsatisfied that my day was defined by a groggy and disgusting rain-soaked footwear, I stormed back into Ikebukuro station, tapped my SUICA through the faregates, ascended up Platform 6 and boarded the JR Yamanote Line to Shinjuku. I could take the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line to Shinjuku-sanchome station, but that’s like taking the Circle Line to Raffles City by alighting at Esplanade station instead of taking the East West Line directly (but magnify the distance by a kilometre and a half).
Peak hour at Ikebukuro station.
Shinjuku station, a massive transport hub served by commuter lines, inter-city rail and subways, is the world’s busiest station, and has over 200 exits. A sprawling underground arcade connects the station to a whopping 11 subway stations in a 500 metre radius. Even before I exit the faregates, I’m faced with a myriad of routes heading in every direction, and when I choose one, I’m faced with even more options and guess what, it doesn’t end there – the prospect of navigating this labyrinth of mazes alone is intimidating, scary and disorienting. As someone who’s very used to relying on the sky and street level landmarks to navigate, Shinjuku’s underground world felt alien, especially when every exit dumped you into yet another maze of a building’s underground labyrinth. With the outside out of sight, I began to feel claustrophobic so I circumnavigated back to the JR East faregates and asked for help at the passenger service centre…. to get to Kinokuniya (I didn’t intend to go there, but it was a good starting point). The courteous staff gestured at one of the three northeasterly exits, and told me to take the escalator down, then take the following escalator up, turn left, and take the escalators up two floors, then turn right…
And I reach Kinokuniya! I didn’t get stuck, didn’t have a problem or anything… Really, I didn’t, honest.
You recall reading guides and blogs describing this flagship store as a place where you can spend the entire day here reading books without having to pay for it? That’s all bollocks, because there are virtually no books in English of much interest. Yes, all eight or nine floors spanning across two buildings are predominantly Japanese, and understandable, really. If you visit, forget the “Foreign Language” section at the top floor as it possesses nothing beyond the mostly “Learning Japanese” section. Instead, just skim through the huuugeeeee magazine section on the ground level. When you travel across the entire complex, with people still clamoring to purchase at the cashier, it really makes you rethink the preconceptions and assumptions that you’ve been fed the past few months. “Print is dead”, they say, but the truth is that all the digital revolution is doing is weeding out the weakest links. If you possess a strong concept, there’s no reason to get all defeatist about the fate of magazines. From that moment on, I resolved that whatever happens to ALEXIS is not my fault – I realized I was subconsciously and rather unnecessarily carrying the burden of it all, and I needed to let it go.
Shinjuku just didn’t tickle my fancies. Just imagine a station in between, with the dead, soulless Raffles Place-Marina Bay area office district to the west, and the Club Street-China Square-Clarke Quay area to the east, but amplified a hundred times bigger. Izakayas and all are often written into romanticism, but the truth is, even if you read and speak Japanese, you’re not going to be or feel welcomed either because it’s full of lonely ageing salarymen or the place reeks of alcohol, cigarette and cigar smoke that a single inhale could cause cancer. Plus, one gets the undertones of the underground world lurking beneath the neon lights and closed doors. Attempts to locate the Shinjuku-nichome area, the legendary gay and lesbian district of Tokyo, proved to be shockingly futile. I thought I’d use the underground pedestrian labryinth to navigate there, but once out, I struggled to find my way back in… Lost. Roaming. Wandering… Whatever you call it, I had spent a long time doing it, and I was starting to feel a little hungry again, so when I passed by a ramen establishment with half of its menu dedicated to gyozas, I had to have it.
That evening, I really missed Andy.