Our first impression of Tokyo was “wow, there are so many foreigners here!” And “wow, English! They speak English!” Granted, it was the foreigners that spoke English, but still, the effect it had on us was impossible to describe. And our joy impossible to contain. After going for weeks on end without seeing another white face (apart from my American co-worker), Tokyo felt just like New York. So multi-ethnic, so full of variety in all shapes and sizes, so melting pot. Yeah, you know you’ve been living in the countryside, if you think that Tokyo is a melting pot, but there you have it.
And in order to get our gaijin fix for the coming months and enjoy hearing not only English, but also French, Spanish and Urdu, we headed to Asakusa.
I am ashamed to admit, but we had never been to Asakusa before. Number one touristy place in Tokyo and yet somehow it had not been graced with our presence. Until last Saturday. Of course, the fact that we HAD to go there to take the train back home (Tobu line to Tochigi) was merely an irrelevant coincidence.
Once in Asakusa, however, our disappointment was hard to hide. If Tokyo was New York, then Asakusa was its Chinatown. A lot cleaner and better organized, that’s for sure, but still – Chinatown. Even many of the vendors were Chinese pretending to be Japanese. Pretending to speak English. Selling “made in China” genuine Japanese souvenirs. In other words – business as usual.
But at least in New York we had a reason to go to Chinatown every so often – after all, dumplings don't make themselves, and fresh shrimp don’t grow on trees. Everybody knows they come from all sorts of goofy little shops off Canal Street.
Asakusa was different. There was really no reason for us to be there (apart from the Tobu line, but for that we didn’t need to wander the streets).
So what do you do in Asakusa when you don’t want a rikshaw ride (at least two of the pullers turned out to be Chinese who spoke Japanese), or have no tacky souvenirs to buy (except for that "made in China" Asakusa Hello Kity cellphone strap), when the big temple is covered in ugly scaffolding and there are so many people inside that you don’t even feel like getting close to the building?
You go and have yourself some whale. Fried whale. Whale sashimi. Whale steak. Whale curry. Whale soup. Whale whatever. It’s all yummy and the prices were shockingly (for Asakusa and for whale) affordable.
The restaurant had no English signs on the doors, there was only Japanese writing and a discreet picture of something resembling, yes, a whale. Located at the back of something that looked like a seafood shop (probably to camouflage the fact that it was whale they were selling – better not to upset those foreign “save the whales” zealots) but with a separate entrance, the place was tiny. Just four (or maybe five) tables, a cheesy curtain over the door, and the ever present smell of cigarettes (the place is not smoke-free).
I don’t remember if the menu was bilingual, I vaguely recall that some items might have been labeled both in Japanese and in English. But maybe not. By that time, I was tired, sweaty, smelly and hungry. Very hungry. Lack of English on the menu was the least of my concerns. I was so starved I would have gladly eaten a stack of zebra burgers with a side order of fried snake skins. And besides, I’d had whale before, I just wanted to check if it tasted the same over here.
And the verdict? It was better than I’d remembered it. Juicy, succulent, done just right, perfectly yummy Minke whale. (Yes, it’s “Minke”, not “mink” as many people seem to think).
It was also cheap. A dinner for two set us back around 3000 yen. And considering that a hanafuda card-size piece of whale meat at our local supermarket costs around 600 yen, this was an incredible deal.
Hmmm… suddenly I regret I didn’t buy that package of whale curry. But hey, at least that gives me a good excuse to go there again. And eat more whale. And maybe even take a rickshaw ride and buy a tacky souvenir.