Blacked Out in Tokyo
Richie Nakano’s Japan Chronicles, Part 1
As he gets ready to open his own restaurant in San Francisco, a pop-up ramen chef spent two weeks in Japan. Turns out everything Richie Nakano thought he knew about the land of katsu and Hello Kitty was wrong—mostly. Here’s part one of his three-part journey.
Where do I start?
I wake up to my bedsheets glowing—the whole room is glowing, I realize as I roll over, trying to defog my brain. Also, it has a Jurassic Park theme. I’m disoriented. Hungover. But I’m pretty sure I just spent a night in the strangest love hotel in Osaka.
No, no … can’t start there.
It’s Saturday night and I’m in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, having an unexpected conversation with the man behind the counter.
“This is Japanese legal drugs. You want weed? Coke? ‘Shrooms? Ecstasy? I like weeeeeeddddd.”
“The fuck are legal drugs?”
That won’t work either.
I’m sitting in a fourth-floor café in Shinjuku, surrounded by cats.
I’m standing in a tiny restaurant on a mountain in Kobe, where the elderly owner is giving me a tour. It’s a small, two-room building adjacent to her house and the charming jazz café she runs with her husband, once a well-known trumpet player. I’m marveling at the bamboo forest outside, the gleam on the tables, the smooth feel of tatami beneath my feet. Amee, my travel companion and translator, grabs me by the elbow and leans in with a whisper:
“Her son died. He was supposed to take all of this over for them. She wants you to come here and open your ramen restaurant. She wants you to take it over.”
In a multitude of ways, I was not prepared for Japan. The weeks leading up to my departure from San Francisco were made up of some of the most stress-filled days and sleepless nights I have ever had. The building permit on the restaurant I’m opening was probably going to clear while I was traveling, and I was faced with making crucial business decisions from half a world away.
Just before my flight, I questioned whether it was even a good idea to go to Japan. My career started in Asian food, then I drifted away from it like a rebellious teenager. Only recently have I come back. When I started Hapa Ramen, my pop-up, I was reluctant to use Japanese terms. But I couldn’t deny the food I was making and my own connection to it. If I was really going to make this food, I told myself—make it in my own restaurant—I needed to have a full understanding of it.
I combed over endless lists and tried to build an itinerary. I dropped pins in Google Maps and studied blurry Street View pictures to try to get a sense of where I would be wandering. I sat in bewilderment trying to figure out the Tokyo subway. Seriously, have you ever looked at that map?
FUCK THE TEMPLES
Stepping out of Shinjuku station with bags in tow, my muscles slightly atrophied from hours in the sitting position, I realized that no amount of planning would have prepared me for Tokyo. It was bright and hot and raining, salarymen racing past me, school kids chatting and giggling. The biggest crows I had ever seen sat perched above me, and I fumbled with my phone to figure out which way to the hotel.
A lot of people warned me to avoid Tokyo. They would shake their heads and mutter about how Tokyo was too much: too busy, too crowded. “Spend your time in Kyoto instead. Don’t you want to see temples and stuff?”
They were wrong. Tokyo feels like New York City—if you multiplied New York times five, then stacked those five cities on top of each other. The bright lights and bustle that everyone said were overstimulating actually felt comforting; in a weird way it fed my kitchen-lifer ADD.
And the food. It’s everywhere.
That first night I stumble into Mai-Sen, a highly recommended katsu shop. I’m vaguely aware that I never went to sleep the night before I left SF, then started drinking at 10 a.m. in LA, then took four Valium on the flight to Narita International Airport. This chain of events has me feeling a little … funky. Amee orders us tonkatsu while I gulp down a Suntory.
“You drank it already?”
“It tastes like whipped cream.”
As our food arrives—crispy, golden fried pork and a pile of shredded cabbage—I take off my sweater. The waiter takes notice of my tattoos and says something sharply to me before walking away.
“He said you are impressively tattooed.”
Actually, I don’t think he was impressed.
Three beers, two cutlets, a pile of cabbage, and a bowl of rice later, I’m feeling restored, ready to raise hell in Shinjuku. Bring on the hostess bars. Bring on sake shots and puking in the street. I picture myself stumbling down brightly lit back alleys into ramen shops while finishing up bites of takoyaki, a can of vending-machine whisky in my back pocket. I want to contribute to the electric feeling of Tokyo at night. I’m prepared to sing karaoke if need be.
On the subway I plot out my evening.
“OK, what’s next. What do you wanna do? Check out Shinjuku? I saw some places on the walk from the station …”
Next thing I know there’s some pleasant music playing and Amee is dragging me up a brightly lit staircase.
“Wha-? What’re we doin’?”
“You fell asleep on the subway. You were making weird noises.”
“Sorry … dinner was so good …”
“Was it? Mine was greasy. We can do better.”
My first night in Tokyo, and I’ll be in bed by 11. The hostesses will have to wait until tomorrow.
Photographs by Richie Nakano; photo collage by Chris Rochelle