On our second day in Tokyo, having vanquished jetlag, we set off in search of shopping. First we headed to Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku, a multi-floor electronics store where I had been advised I would be able to find a telephoto lens for my camera. I generally don’t like to buy big-ticket electronics items overseas as warranty issues are always a pain to deal with, but on this specific case I was quite keen, not only to take advantage of tax-free shopping but because Samsung has discontinued all of it’s photography products in Europe! But I quickly realised that Samsung camera equipment is not stocked in Japan either, though this time it’s down to the Japanese not the Koreans. I wasn’t quite chased out of the shop, but I shalln’t be saying the S-word in Tokyo again, either!
￼After more shopping, lunch time imposed and we headed to Ichiran Ramen, which has many branches throughout Tokyo, including one nearby in Shinjuku, and was on our list of “Places To Try”.
One thing we’re quickly coming to understand is that queueing for your food here is inevitable and highly organised. At Ichiran, we chose and paid for our food from a ticket vending machine before joining the queue behind a group of schoolboys looking to grab some quick noodles before afternoon sessions began. Whilst waiting, a waitress gave us a form to complete that enabled us to choose various options and variations, including recommendations for spiciness levels (accurate) and noodle density! An electronic seating board, straight from a 70s gameshow, indicated free seating and soon enough the waitress directed us to our seats – an arrangement almost like study carrels with the divider between Gail and I folded back as we had arrived together.
Dining at Ichiran Ramen is, from that point on, an entirely anonymous experience – the waiters and chefs take your forms through a window at the front of your booth open only from waist to chest height of the servers behind, and pull down a bamboo blind when not directly interacting with you. You can press a button to order extra items like more drinks or extra noodles but once the food has been delivered and the blind closed again, you can retreat into your own world if you choose and just enjoy the food!
In the evening we decided to try the other end of the spectrum and headed to Maisen in Otomesando Hills for what was promised as “the best deep-fried pork cutlet in the city”. Both Gail and I love tonkatsu so we thought we’d splurge.
The row of parked Lexuses minded vigilantly by uninvited drivers left out in the cold told us we had found the right place and somewhat apprehensively, we entered the converted wartime bathhouse. But our apprehension was unfounded – Maisen is open to all-comers and after a little musical chairs scooting down the line as our turn approached, we were lead through to our table.
Maisen are pork specialists and it shows. The first four pages of the menu describe in loving detail (and small type!) the different types of pig they raise themselves and how their various diets affect the flavour of the meat, including one so exclusive that they only sell two dishes of it each day – we imagine you have to book many, many months in advance to be those lucky diners!
Whether because we were walk-ins, gaijin or just late, there were only two types of pork available for us to choose from so we used the tried-and-tested method of picking the more expensive one (for want of any actual knowledge on the subject) and waited.
And what arrived was, without a doubt, the best breaded pork cutlet I have ever tasted – I can honestly say I’ve never tasted pork like that in my my life before! It was soft, almost melt-in-the-mouth soft and with no greasiness whatsoever, and it tasted sublime, with a smattering of Maisen’s “Special Plum Sauce” drizzled over the top. Served with a bowl of white rice and a portion of shredded cabbage (both freely refillable as required) it was an amazing culinary experience for sure! And yes, it was a fifty quid piece of piggy, but it was generously sized, perfectly prepared and 100% worth doing at least once!
Tokyo is full of great dining experiences, if you’re patient enough! Don’t be dissuaded by a having to queue for food – instead, see the length of the queue (and the number of locals therein) as an indicator of quality and join the longest one you can find!