Sure, I love the surety offered by a map and agreed it helps you see places faster. But sometimes, I just keep it aside and just take whichever path takes my fancy. And almost all the times, I have got to see an aspect of that place which planned travel would never allow me to.
When I was in Tokyo, Japan, after a while the glitzy buildings, the prim and propah everything got to me. I had some fellow journos who too were keen to explore some Japanese street food. We really had no clue as to where we would find it. One night while we were walking around the brightly lit streets around Shinjuku station, we noticed a huge building with the sign Bic Cameras – a camera enthusiast’s wet dream I should say.
After coming out of the electronics shop, dejected that we could not find any camera body or lens which we could afford, we were just roaming around the Shinjuku station. Clearly we were lost and could not seem to locate the exit we had taken. That Shinjuku has tonnes of those is an altogether different matter.
We kept following whichever road we felt would lead us to the station and we came across a small alley which had a lot of very small food joints which were joined end-to-end on either side of the street. Dense flavoured smoke was emanating out of each joint and we went ahead and parked our asses in one such joint.
It dawned on us quite soon that we were the only non-Japanese people in this hole-in-the-wall food joints. It comprised a rectangular seating arrangement, where the cook was occupying one half of the joint and there were seats on the other half. Think teppanyaki style cooking in a very tiny joint. Another realization was that not one person around us spoke English and the menu was in Japanese. We looked at each other and knew instantly that this would be an experience of a lifetime. The locals were smiling at us and we smiled back.
The elderly cook showed us a picture menu to help us out of our dilemma. This is a common thing in any restaurant in Tokyo. Considering this was a very small joint, there was no space to put up faux food items which is the norm outside any regular restaurant. Anyway we pointed to the items that looked good. We ordered a beer each but later realised it was not a great idea as the ramen preparation was brothy. Now it was time for us to surprise the locals, by eating the ramen with chopsticks.
The place we went to had ramen as its speciality. But majority of the other joints had yakitori as its speciality. After coming back to the hotel and researching online did I realise that we had just toured the famous Yakitori Alley. It was a lovely discovery and was great to be at a place where we were complete outsiders, there was no medium of communication other than hand signs and apart from the photo-menu, no other way for us to know what was in our food.
The thing I personally loved about the place was the convivial atmosphere all around. People all around were not just conversing with their friends, but most of them were also talking to the cook/manager. Maybe they are regulars, maybe they are not. I actually felt like a kid there who was in need of some sort of directions, some sort of guidance as to what is on the menu and what will I like eating. Sometimes, it is good to be in that state. Everyone around us, despite not being able to speak a word of any common language was jovial – smiling, asking us to try some other food item after we were done with the first. Also for a change, we got to experience what a street food is like in Tokyo, which is otherwise flooded with great eating out options but which are highly sophisticated. I liked this down-to-earth place for a change. On researching more on the Yakitori culture I realised that there were a lot more places in different areas which had similar atmosphere. Wish one day when I revisit this beautiful country, I will have more compelling and complete experiences and photographs.
PS: 52 weeks ago I started this project of putting up photographs from my archives of the places I have been to outside India. I managed to cover Thailand and Japan. There are still more photographs of Japan that I would like to share apart from the three other countries. But I have decided to let International Saturdays take a break for some time. I have become lazy with my street photography and I realise that I have been putting up less street work in between the Intl Saturday posts. That needs to stop, as this blog is about India and its cities first. Intl Saturdays has been a surprisingly regular initiative from someone like me for whom irregularity is a given. Hopefully someday soon the Intl day shall return, but it’s Sayonara for now:)