In my pre-Tokyo days there’s one dish I like that has always been disappointing: Tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep fried pork cutlet. I didn’t know yet how heavenly an authentic one was going to be, but I always knew it shouldn’t be a thin or dry cut that tires you jaw, and a batter so hard it hurts the roof of your mouth. It just can’t be. Back home in Seattle WA, the best tonkatsu I’ve had is sandwiched between coleslaw, sauces and a bun at Katsu Burger. It was pretty thick and juicy but it’s not the true tonkatsu experience where the pork is eaten on its own, served with a side of rice and a salad of finely shredded cabbage.
We almost ran out of meals in Tokyo and I’m forever grateful to husband for insisting on trying a true tonkatsu. On our last night, we were very tired, but we realized there’s small restaurant called Tontake that serves tonkatsu just across the street from the hotel. Small square wooden tables, coat hangers along one of the walls for guests. There’s one chef, a lady who greets us, who saw us struggle with the Japanese menu and brings out an English one, and an older lady in the kitchen. We wonder if they are a mother-and-son-and-wife trio. Just behind where I sat there’s a tiny sink (for guests I assume), and a corner that’s like a shrine dedicated to a pig.
The tonkatsu was everything I always believed a tonkatsu should be: tender meat, crispy coat. It is also beyond anything I expected it to be. The coating is so light it requires little crunching, then the fatty juice of the cutlet swirls in your mouth, and the meat falls apart with little chewing. This tonkatsu literally melts in your mouth. I was as eager to eat it all by myself as I was to share it with my husband. It was so unbelievably tasty I kept shaking my head. Husband glared at me, “If it’s so good, stop shaking your head!” So I quickly switched back to nodding the whole time I ate.
As appetizers we ordered a skewer of fried chicken skin and pork liver. To me, cooking pork liver is challenging. My mom always cooks it until it’s hard and chewy. Then I learned that it meant she overcooked it. The way we have pork liver in Hong Kong is most often sliced and boiled in a broth, or blanched and then finished in a stir fry. Cubed, breaded and fried is completely new to us. Just like the cutlet, it was the most moist and tender pork liver we’ve ever had.
Husband asked if I wanted to go back for lunch before our flight the next day. I took a deep breath, still basking in the joy of this meal that is one of the best I’ve had in my life, and I said no. I wanted to leave the experience as it is for a while. I don’t want it anything less enchanting, which a repetition might be, to write over it. I will have a tonkatsu again some day, where I’ll be disappointed and I’ll long for this one at Tontake. I might come back one day and be disappointed because they’ve set the bar very high. For now, I just don’t want the magic to wear off just yet.
If any of you are from Seattle or know of a good tonkatsu there, please let me know! 🙂
My second moment of calm in Tokyo was a heavenly experience at the onsen at Odaiba. The place is advertised as a hot springs theme park that has many pools and an indoor simulation of a summer night market. You change into a Japanese robe called a yukata and stroll beneath the stars and paper lanterns hanging on strings. There are games such as throwing hoops or scooping up (plastic) goldfish, and places for food surrounding wooden tables and benches (which is a food court, essentially, but it’s dressed up so cute you won’t believe it’s a food court). This is stuff I’ve only seen in manga and anime, and I was totally falling for it.
Husband suggested spending an hour and a half at the pools. “Are you sure you can stand being around naked men for that long?” That was the reason we almost didn’t come to this place. “And you’re not going to get bored just sitting in a bath?”
I was a little inhibited too at first, being in the public baths, but the shyness quickly went away. “Everybody’s got arms and legs, boobs and hips, body hair, etc. What’s so special about you?”, my mind rolled her eyes.
The baths are steaming hot. You’d have to put a foot in first, then slowly lower yourself into the water. Once you’re all the way in, the heat and weightlessness takes over all your senses. All your thoughts go away. Nothing matters any more. You feel safe, comforted, whole. Unlike the bath you run at home, these baths do not get cold. That hot spring water is a life force so generous and strong that it instantly fills you all the way up and you get to stay there in that state of fullness.
An hour and a half went by and I put on my yukata again to meet my husband. He also reported an amazing time in the pools. We then ordered a cold beer, hot tea, cold udon noodles and skewers of my favorite parts of chicken, only available in Japan: fried chicken skin and fried chicken cartilage.
There were two moments I went deep into calm and quiet in the bustling city of Tokyo. They were not easy to come by. I purposely left all my problems at home so that I could be a fresh person soaking up the awesomeness of the foreign land. Yet every morning, despite the change in circumstances, or even a lack of the usual circumstances, my problems were there. The feelings associated with those problems were also there, without the actual problems. They all somehow made their way to Japan, as if scared that I’d forget about them.
Then I met the pine tree at the Hama Rikyu Gardens. It isn’t just any old tree. It is a three hundred years old tree. It isn’t the type that reaches towards the sky. This one wants to embrace the earth. Its branches reach out far and low in front, and the Japanese built structures to support them, quite literally, every step of the way.
I walked towards it, like all the tourists. I took pictures, like all the tourists. But one thing that I didn’t see many tourists do, was to just stand and look. Stand and look with your naked eyes, not through the screen of a camera. Spend a moment with what’s in front of you. If nothing happens, stand for another moment. Stay until you feel something, until your soul awakens. I was still very much in my head with my troubles that day, but the moment I stopped in front of the tree, I was somewhere else. Like time has stopped and it was just me and the tree. It felt like a godly presence, so I said to it,
“You’ve been here three hundred years. I’ve been here thirty. You’ve seen people come and go. What were they like? Did any of them have the same problems as I do? Could you offer me some advice, how should I go on?”
The tree answered with silence and a shrug. Because my troubles don’t matter to him or to the world. My life is short and ephemeral. Compared to his three hundred years, I’ll be gone before I ever get as wise and mature as he is. I’m a passing moment to him, as I am a blink to the universe, as he is to the universe. My life is only long and troubling for me, and it’s entirely up to me what I do about it.
In the distance, my husband waved at me to keep going. I lingered, but there was no more from the tree. As I turned away though, I had a feeling that it will celebrate with me when I finally get out of this rut and take back authorship of my life.
Hello! It’s been a few crazy busy weeks in the real life and I’m glad to be back here. Today is about Tokyo: Thoughtfulness in Toilets and Trash. It won’t be gross. Read on.
Back in October I finally made a trip to the Japanese capital. It’s a thrill to check it off my travel bucket list of a few years and the trip did not disappoint. How could it really, when they have bathrooms with heated mirrors that don’t steam up? (Actually, they only heat up the one half of the mirror that you’d look, which is over the sink. It’s done Just Right.) And there are electronic bidets of various levels of sophistication attached to toilets. Husband and I chuckled like little kids, but they make an adventure out of every visit to a public restroom. At the fanciest one I went to, the toilet lid automatically lifted as I walked in, the control panel lit up and it started to play a water sound. There are ones that come with a dryer and a deodorizer. It’s like you walked into a different world, where no one ever needs to feel awkward and aware of other people being two feet away ever again.
When we first left a public restroom we found a lack of paper towels, or even hand dryers. Then we noticed that trash cans were also hard to find. Sometimes we carried our trash back to the hotel. Our room had two recycling bins for bottles, but only one tiny trash can in the bathroom barely bigger than the size of your fist. One time in the food court/supermarket of a department store, a store lady was handing out cookie samples. Each cookie was still half-wrapped, the lady holding the wrapped part. I reached to take it from the wrapped part too but she held on. A little startled, I then went for just the cookie and she let go, dropping the wrapper into a little basket she carried.
That’s when I realized this is a trash-and-litter-control system.
I failed to notice it, but this article says the locals carry hand towels. Over the few days in Tokyo I became more and more aware of the amount of trash I accumulate and carry, and how I started to avoid it. The tiny trash can in the bathroom also proved to be sufficient.
Talking about bathrooms and trash is not glamorous and I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which the Japanese handle and address them. And why not? The former is for our necessary bodily functions, and the second is related to the health of our planet.
In addition to a haircut, I scheduled for a half day of PTO to see the Seattle Art Fair. Initially, an 8-5 day at a hotel where I stay in bed the whole time, just sleep, read and do nothing would be great, but I haven’t found out how to do that! Husband, G, decided to join me after the Art Fair and took me out for a one-night trip to Bonneville, WA. We listened to the podcast Dear Sugar radio, we sang along to songs, and to feel like I was completely free from any responsibilities, that I didn’t even need to be on standby, made sitting in the car for hours like a treat. This was the first time I left my baby for a whole day and night! I expected myself to miss her in the evening, but guess what, I didn’t! I must have really really needed this break.
This was a simple lesson: It’s not required to wait for an ideal “long enough” stretch of time to take a trip. It doesn’t need to be perfect. What matters is what you do, how you feel, what you make of it while you’re there.
Trip highlights: Bridge of the Gods, where Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) in the the movie Wild ended her months-long, alone-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. We listened to Cheryl’s podcast Dear Sugar Radio on the way, it completes my introduction to G about her.
Fried cheese and jalapenos at a Mexican restaurant, YUMM.