It's Friday night. The past week has consisted of daily 8 1/2 hour training sessions with my English conversation company, Berlitz. The sessions take place in a business district called Aoyama ("Blue Mountain", if you're curious). Things can get grueling by hour seven, but they are liberal with breaks and I can't really complain. It's not bad once you get used to it.
The first few days I was waking up at four or five in the morning due to jet lag. Though that's almost subsided by now I've continued to rise early; six a.m. seems to work well. I arrive at the Aoyama subway station a little after seven and check into one of the many coffee shops in the underground corridors around the subway station.
Though the Japanese do have malls, there aren't many. The Japanese don't really need malls because they spend a huge amount of time in various mass transit stations and these stations have become prime commercial real estate. Each subway station is a mall unto itself. This is especially true in the big central stations. Who needs a mall when you walk past thirteen shoe stores on your way to work?
The Aoyama subway station is no exception. Though it's not as commercially-oriented as some of the big Loop stations, I still find convenience stores and newsstands before I've even left the station proper. Once out of the station I'm on the first floor basement level (there's also a second floor basement level below) and surrounded by stores and restaurants. At seven a.m. most of these are shuttered but there are a few cafes and coffee shops catering to the early commuters and I set up camp in one of these to enjoy a "morning set" and some Japanese study before training begins. Sometimes I choose Cafe Croissant for their crab-and-avocado croissant sandwiches, but the music there is too distracting. Think peppy, square jazz covers of Marvin Gaye. Yeah.
So usually I choose Cafe Loire (don't even ask how the Japanese pronounce this). It's clearly an old place and I dig the vibe. It has that diner-gone-to-seed feel that most Denny's used to have before they reupholstered everything in fuchsia and cyan plastic. The wood tables are scratched and scarred. The walls and ceilings are smoked mirrors, which give the place a sepia tinge. Whether this is due to an actual glass treatment or to the fact that they allow smoking in Cafe Loire--and everywhere else--is uncertain. Regardless, the mirrored ceilings allow the servers to look up at the ceiling to see how your meal is coming along, rather than hovering and staring at your table. The leather booths are shabby and worn, and badly need to be reupholstered in bold, "funky" plastic as envisioned by an American restaurant consulting firm, but thankfully that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.
Like many Japanese restaurants, Cafe Loire serves water in three-ounce glasses and servers seem surprised when you're able to finish it. Their early menu is limited to four or five different "sets", which in this case means a small meal and a coffee. The choice of meals is limited to the following: buttered toast with jam; "hamtoast": a piece of bologna and mayonnaise in between two pieces of toast; a "mini-sando": a tiny egg and bologna sandwich cut into three pieces with a side of corn; and one or two hot dogs with ketchup and mustard, cut into two halves. Those feeling adventurous can order a boiled egg for fifty yen. The Japanese are mad about sets, but usually they're a little more varied than this.
Loire's food is far worse than their coffee, which is a forgivable offense at seven in the morning. It seems like a lot of places don't offer refills as freely as American restaurants. Some places, if you order a coffee you get just that: one coffee. But Loire offers free refills so I sit and slug down coffee as I study tiny, cramped characters in a workbook. I've overdone it a few times and rattled around the building like a windup toy.
By noon the place is bustling. All the restaurants are open and doing a brisk business with the people who work in the twin 25-floor Shin-Aoyama towers directly above. There are French cafes and bistros. Chinese restaurants. Stores with stacked lunch boxes containing rice, pickles, and pork cutlet/fried chicken/tofu and sesame with seaweed/what the hell is this? There are salons and a shoe store apparently specializing in gold lame. There's a store selling dozens of different clothes hangers that look as though they should be in a museum. Next to that is a Riedel wine glass store and across from that a Spiegelau wine glass store. The basement levels and the first two levels of the towers are full of these places.
To my surprise traditional Japanese restaurants are the most common of all. The Japanese are so preoccupied with other cultures it sometimes seems as though they are uninterested in their own (*wild generalization alert*). But in the Shin Aoyama building there are dozens of places selling tempura, soba, donburi, tonkatsu etc, as well as more modern creations like the "omurice"--an omelet of sorts with ketchup and rice in the center. Today I sat in one of these semi-traditional Japanese restaurants. I say semi-traditional because even though they look the part, the fare is very standardized Japanese Food and not really distinguishable from competitors. While I ate a katsu-don and soba set (they love their sets, man) in a room filled with tatami and sliding doors, the Beatles played on the speakers overhead.
The other day I discovered a restaurant with a big window through which you can see a man making soba (buckwheat noodles) by hand. He takes a big sheet of floured dough and folds it three or four times, making a big heap. Then he lays a big board across the top and uses that to guide a flat-bladed chopper about a foot and a half long through the dough, cutting long, even strips of noodles. It's very cool to watch him work.
Enough emailing. I've been sitting in a stuffy, flourescent-lit office for five days now and finally I can go out. I have earned this weekend, that is for sure. I am off to meet a Japanese friend, Yuji, for drinks in Ginza. I look forward to the prospect of both drinks (I haven't had so much as a beer for eight days) and Japanese conversation. Yuji's a great guy so it should be a fun night.