Love For Tokyo
Because I once wrote a book called Smell people always ask me what Tokyo smells like. I have to think hard because Tokyo is so squeaky clean that few smells survive. Then it comes to me – a scent of onions and ginger being stir-fried with soya sauce, and underneath, something nutty with the richness of freshly turned earth, sesame.
With the memory of the smell comes an image. An empty street made up of anodyne office buildings suddenly filling up with people in black suits. It is twelve o’clock, lunchtime. Hidden somewhere in between the tall buildings is a traditional Japanese wooden house with sliding doors. From behind the sliding doors the delicious smell emerges.
The dish, I later learnt, is called shogayaki, which means quite literally ‘ginger fry’. Throw rough cut onions and ginger into a wok along with sake (rice wine), mirin (sweet vinegar) and sugar, and when the onions begin to caramelise, add the meat. Once the latter is cooked, upend the lot onto a bed of sticky rice and your shogayaki is ready. This is the soul food of the mythic black-suited hardworking Japanese salaryman. It is not glorified in cookbooks or served in fancy restaurants. It is quick, cheap and sometimes even eaten standing up or in a plastic Styrofoam container which the client throws into a bin as he leaves. In a country famed for its elegant presentation of food, shogayaki has nothing aesthetic about it. It is a brown mess, only slightly lighter in colour and with more texture than curry-rice. And like everything in this fast-paced city, it only lasts a moment. By one o’clock the scent of shogayaki has vanished completely. Yet for me, it is this smell, and this alone, that conjures up Tokyo.
No city in the world fills the visitor with such anxiety as Tokyo. It is too huge, too sprawling, too crowded. The streets all look the same, the metro system is terribly complicated – some train lines even have the same name – and to top it off, the city is constantly changing. In Tokyo a building has a life of 24 years whereas in America, buildings live for an average of 55 years and in Europe at least a 100. Shops and restaurants suddenly disappear. Entire neighbourhoods become unrecognisable in a decade, small independent houses with gardens being replaced by buildings so tall that the sun never touches the ground.
Yet I have grown to love this city. Not for its beauty. For it has precious little of that. Not for its history or culture. For, when compared with Kyoto and Nara, Tokyo has little to offer. But when it comes to the everyday rituals of living, few cities in the world can beat Tokyo. It has, for example, the largest number of Michelin starred French restaurants of any city in the world (many of them run by innovative Japanese chefs), the most incredibly luxurious department stores, 5000 performance spaces and so many bars and restaurants that it is said that even if one ate at a different restaurant each night, two lifetimes would not be enough to know all of them. Where else can you in a single evening, watch a classical Noh performance, listen to a concert by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, eat food cooked by world famous chefs like Alain Ducasse, and drink fine single malt whisky while staring at an authentic Kisling oil painting? And if that isn’t enough, you can go to an all night jazz bar for a cognac after dinner and finish the night off in one of Tokyo’s cutting-edge nightclubs. There seems to be an unwritten rule to Tokyo’s night life – if something is pleasurable and money can be made from it, you can find it in Tokyo.
The secret of this plethora of amusements lies in Tokyo’s singular history and geography. Situated not far from two major fault-lines in the earth’s crust, the spectre of total destruction is never far. Already in the last 100 years the city has been wiped out twice – first by a giant earthquake (1923) which killed around 300,000 people and left many more homeless – and then by World War II in which the city was almost entirely razed to the ground. Yet Tokyo rose again, bigger and even more populated than before (if a little uglier). It is this acute awareness of the impermanence of things that makes the people of Tokyo so sensitive to beauty and to pleasure.
In fact, one of the things one quickly acquires (if one is to survive in this city) is the ability to take enormous pleasure in the beauty of details – from the perfectly etched shadow of a tree on a blank wall or an old, copper-plated shop-front from the 1940s, an Ikebana flower arrangement in the local noodle shop or quite simply the bullet train pulling out of Tokyo station at night reflecting in the windows of the high-rise office buildings of Marounouchi. The eye fastens on anything that is beautiful with child-like greed and the joy it brings is like an explosion. This is followed by the knowledge that what has touched us so powerfully may well be gone tomorrow or the day after.
My love for Tokyo is a wordless, untranslatable sort of love. For it does not come out of any deep understanding of Japanese language or culture. I have not penetrated the secrets of Ikebana or mastered Chinese ink painting (sumie). I have not managed to tie a kimono or make sushi or roll my own rice ball. I can only speak Japanese like an ignorant foreigner and have not succeeded in learning even the simplest of origami folds. But I have walked Tokyo’s many unnamed streets and eaten its many strange foods, and somewhere, sometime, either through the mouth or through the feet, a love for the utter ‘otherness’of the place entered me.
One day, about two years ago, in the heart of the Shitamachi, Tokyo’s traditional downtown area, and right across from the Nezu metro station, I came upon a strange building. Its façade was ultra modern, made up entirely of glass and vertical wooden beams painted black. The rest of the building was over 100 years old and perfectly preserved in the old style. I read the name written in Japanese letters over the doorway. ‘Hantei’ it said simply. There was no photo or plastic display of food to help me and intrigued, I entered.
The interior of the shop was all wood, bamboo and old batik textiles, as warm and welcoming as the scent of shogayaki. There were eight tables in all, four tables for two and a counter with four single seats. I was given a window seat. To my right were four ladies in kimonos talking animatedly. On the far side was a pair of young lovers, their knees locked under the table, shaggy heads bent close together. On the singles’ seats were two men and a woman, all three of them with their noses in their books. The atmosphere was calm, serene. There was no music and the light that filtered in through the window was rendered more golden by the omnipresence of wood. There was no horrible J-pop music, just the soft murmur of voices in an off-on, fast-slow rhythm of conversation. When the indigo-clad waitress arrived at my table with a cup of houji cha (smoked green tea) I did my usual thing of pointing blindly at something indecipherable on the menu. What arrived has become my favourite Japanese dessert. When I eat it, I feel I am eating not just Tokyo but all of its history and geography.
Since I could not read its name and still can’t (though I have memorised its position on the menu card), I have given the sweet a name. I call it the Downtown Ice-cream Sundae. It consists of Matcha (green tea) ice-cream with balls of sweet red beans (rajmaa) paste, mochi (sticky balls of rice flour) and almond jelly cubes. This comes with a small pot of caramelised brown sugar which you pour on top. Though I am used to the sweetness of Indian sweets, this one is sweeter than my most sinful imaginings. In Japan sweets are not made to be tasty, but to look beautiful. The ice-cream sundae arrives, elegantly presented on its own tray. Burgundy, green, and milky white globes do a dance around razor sharp translucent squares and perched on the top are three pieces of fruit – a banana, a kiwi and a strawberry, their colours echoing those of the ice-cream and other ingredients.
Traditional Japanese food is also very obsessed with texture, and so in this dessert you have everything from the melt-in-the-mouth coldness of the ice-cream to the chewiness of the rajmaa and rice flour balls and the soft rubberiness of the almond jelly squares. And though I am not Japanese enough to enjoy the dessert for its textures alone, I enjoy instead the exotic play of tastes in my mouth – the bitter-sweetness of the matcha ice-cream and the caramelised brown sugar contrasting nicely with the unadulterated sweetness of the rajmaa beans and the absence of any flavour at all in the rice flour balls. And then, like a perfectly choreographed ending, comes the delicate, balanced sweetness of the almond jelly.
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