Getting High at TeamLab Borderless

Back in college, I walked into a friend’s room – a place we all seemed to gather when the requisite amount of desire and boredom hit – to get high. Through the sticky-smelling smoke snaking from the end of a lit joint, I saw an acquaintance curled up on the end of the couch in the small room, his tall frame folded awkwardly together, stuck in a bad trip.

“He took some ‘schrooms earlier,” someone said, as he twitched and grimaced.

I’d never been tempted to try magic mushrooms, largely because I have enough self-awareness to stay away from anything that will suddenly heighten everything that I’ve been suppressing and bring it to hallucinatory life. “You just have to concentrate on positive things,” someone once said, in response to how best to avoid being reduced to a trembling pile on a friend’s couch, as if that was not only possible but that it could be done with ease, while under the influence of a semi-controlled substance.

“Have you met me?” I wanted to ask. 

The purchase of narcotics that could lead to terrifying experiences is further compounded by the fact that, with the exception of my monthly weightlifting membership, I’d like some guarantee of a pleasant experience in exchange for my hard-earned money. A 50/50 shot at a good time seems like a coin toss with my hidden demons that I’m bound to lose.

diverting water.jpg

Luckily, for Tokyo residents and visitors adverse to psychedelics, there’s TeamLab Borderless. An interactive, digital art museum, it’s a giant space where thousands of lights, sensors, projectors, mirrors and algorithms come together to warp your perception of both time and space. Elephants made of flowers lumber past in the hallways, water lilies lazily swirl past from the ceiling, images of water can be diverted. I laid on a giant hammock-like net with about 20 other people and watched the room spin, rise, and fall. Dark hallways partially hide curtained doorways that lead to rooms filled with lanterns, lights, and mirrors. It feels like an Alice in Wonderland-esque scavenger hunt on a wildly mind-altering substance that gave me the kind of vibrant imagination I could only wish I had.

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balloons.jpg
lantern room.jpg
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Buzzed from the sensory overload, we wandered around, exploring the space for what ended up being five hours. We bounced giant balloons, jumped on a trampoline painted with projections of planets, and got caught in a downpour of LED lights.

We emerged to a sterile, stable Tokyo sky, starving, but still humming from TeamLab.

TeamLab Borderless

Mori Building Digital Art Museum

Odaiba Palette Town 2F

1-3-8 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo

 *Note: tickets have to be purchased in advance.

Ramenism: Kagari

Back when I was frantically training for nothing, I learned to hate baths. This made me even more unpopular with my family as my avoidance of soaking in pools of hot water somehow meant that we couldn’t go on vacations to any destination that involved an onsen. This essentially precluded all of Japan and anchored us to Tokyo, where I suspect we would all have preferred to stay, anyway.

I would have gladly gotten naked with strangers to sit in sulfurized water had baths not turned my legs into swollen, water logged sacks of plaster. Even a short dip would leave me feeling like those hot dogs offered by NYC street vendors, miserably bloated with suspiciously cloudy water. Rather than relaxed, I felt like a cheap ham that’s been injected with salt water euphemistically called brine.

food is happiness

Fortunately, in the years since my last bath, I’ve traded training for eating. When I finally caved to the abnormally cold weather this year and dipped a leg into a full bathtub, the only discomfort I experienced involved the rediscovery of the meaty excess of flesh on my body. Even then, the experience was generally enjoyable.

“Ahhh,” I thought, “this is nice.”

People often say things like “I could bathe in that,” with various edible liquids, or pretend to like pictures on Instagram of people consuming food while naked in a bath. Those statements are nearly always suspect, however, when you think of the logistics of actually following through. Kagari’s chicken paitan ramen, though, made me think twice about my own rules on mixing dead skin cells with things that are normally reserved for consumption through your mouth.

kagari
kagari kitchen

Located in Ginza station, the small, brightly lit counter at Kagari seats only eight, and its popularity means that there is always a substantial wait. Anticipating a line, I had brought a book, but as if to guarantee prolonged suffering, the faint scent of ramen would occasionally drift from the back of the shop. As if to heighten the anticipation, once a group of eight left the restaurant, the counter would be cleared, thoroughly wiped down, and chopsticks placed at each seat. The process takes approximately three minutes, and though it is one that displays obvious care, the routine can be torturous to watch for the starving.

An excruciating hour after I arrived, I was seated with a party of six tourists. Unlike most ramen spots, where you buy a ticket at a vending machine, a real person took my order off of a menu consisting of tori paitan soba (鶏白湯SOBA) and tori paitan gyokai tsukesoba (鶏白湯魚介SOBA) (this is the tsukemen version with a chicken and fish broth), with an option to add hot chili oil to either. Each person was also provided with a small dish of minced ginger and fried garlic, condiments that can be added to the ramen to taste. Minutes later, I was served my first bowl of chicken paitan ramen.

kagari chicken paitan ramen

Kagari’s regular chicken paitan ramen comes with two thin slices of chicken breast and some bright Japanese vegetables. Everything you are served both balances and complements the creamy let light broth: the noodles are on the thinner side, with just enough starchy chew, and the leanness of the chicken breast – which still manages to be impressively soft – provides a welcome contrast.

kagari ramen close up
kagari condiments

After eating half of the bowl unadulterated, I followed the instructions posted on the bar to add ginger, pepper, and vinegar. The condiments, added one at a time to taste, give the same ramen a twist. The ginger gives it a predictable kick, and the rice vinegar – my favorite – rounds out the broth with a refreshing, acidic tang.

I slurped through the rest of my ramen, feeling no shame that in a room full of tourists, I was the only one making any noise. I resisted the urge to recreate the water scene from Flashdance with the remaining broth, and paid at the back of the counter, leaving warm, happy, and sated.

Though I honestly wouldn’t bathe in it, I’d gladly give up baths for endless bowls of that chicken paitan ramen.

 

Kagari

4-1-2 Ginza Echika Fit

[Get out at Ginza station and walk towards Exit C1; you’ll see a line of people where Kagari is]

Open 11:00-23:00

Website

Ramenism: Fuunji

“The thing with ramen is,” a friend, a devoted yet reluctant ramen voyeur by virtue of being located in Germany, said, “it can look great in a photo, but taste like shit.”

He’s right, of course, but that truism applies to more than ramen. Since the introduction of the phrase “food porn,” hyper-saturated photos of indulgent casual food have – alarmingly, disappointingly – become the norm. The process of food photography has devolved into the following: select a close up of a juicy burger oozing cheese, add a runny egg, and then, to make it more blatantly sexually enticing, squeeze the crap out of it to induce maximum yolk flow for the ‘gram. Should a runny egg be unavailable, shoot a picture of a few burgers and varieties of loaded fries – enough to cause concern for the arterial and mental health of the eater – turn up the warmth on the photo, click “sharpen” a few times, and post. It’s the thottery of food photography, where food is no longer appetizing, but only notable for its off-putting excess.

Then there is the hype. That circle jerk of praise perpetuated by ignorance and expectations already swinging towards the positive, prior to the first bite. That’s not to say that customer reviews are worthless; just that often, they need to be taken with a teaspoon of salt.

I knew this, but when a friend told me he always takes friends to Fuunji for their tsukemen, I followed his advice. He was a real person, someone I trusted because he had lived in Tokyo for several years and had eaten his share of decent ramen. Google told me there was a perpetual line outside of Fuunji; could that many people be wrong in believing Fuunji was exceptional?

Apparently, yes.

fuunji tsukemen

Inching my way towards the door, I waited approximately an hour to be seated and served. The line usually continues from the door of Fuunji to the small park-like area across the street. Once inside the small restaurant, you buy a ticket at the machine, then line up behind the patrons behind served. You hand your ticket over to the girl behind the counter, tell her how many grams of noodles you’d like (200g or 300g), then wait some more.

fuunji the line
inside fuunji

The one thing you notice about Fuunji is that no one is eating ramen. Every single person is here for the tsukemen: cold ramen noodles served with a thick, rich, chicken-based dipping sauce that includes a small mound of dried smoked fish powder.

Anticipating gastronomic bliss with a punch of umami, I ordered the special tsukemen (特製つけ麺) with 200g of noodles. What I ended up choking down were noodles – appropriately thick and chewy – coated in room temperature grease and tasting mainly of salt. Though there are hints of fishy umami here – the special tsukemen also comes with a soy sauce marinated egg and thick slices of pork – the experience was incredibly underwhelming and practically nauseating. By the third bite, there isn’t much to the sauce other than an overwhelming and exhausting saltiness. I found myself trying to slurp up the least amount of the dipping sauce as I powered my way through the last of the noodles.

fuunji tsukemen
fuunji tsukemen dipping sauce

I didn’t bother thinning out the sauce to drink it down as any more salt would have probably killed me. I went home with a headache and a fear that I might throw up on the way home, in slight disbelief that people would call this “the best tsukemen I’ve ever had in Tokyo.” But, I get it; there is little subtlety in Fuunji’s tsukemen. Everything seems somehow heightened – the saltiness, the greasiness – which lends itself to be favored by those with more aggressive palates. Like Instagram thots, Fuunji presents an enticing-looking dish that turns out to be way too much.

Later, with a sufficiently settled stomach, I remembered that conversation with the ramen voyeur.

“Yeah,” I had said in response, “it’s like a relationship. You never know until you’re face deep in something and slurping things up.”

How true that is.

 

Fuunji

2-14-3 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku

(10min walk from Shinjuku Station South Exit)

Open: 11:00-15:00, 17:00-21:00, closed Sundays

Website

Ramenism: Aoba Nakano Honten

A few weeks ago, I found myself unwrapping a piece of chocolate at 9.38am, exactly 43 minutes after I had arrived at work.

It was the kind the thing that would normally make a person question the life choices that had led up to consuming a square of concentrated sugar, milk, and cocoa so soon after the start of a workday. It momentarily occurred to me that this was probably not a wise thing to do, that I should maybe opt for black coffee instead. Less than a second later, I popped the chocolate into my mouth and gulped it down, making a mental note of a new record low.

family mart coffee

I could tell you that it was a casual, adopted routine that had escalated from an afternoon treat to tempting diabetes. That it was fueled by stress and a lack of sleep, caffeine, fresh air, and exercise. Unfortunately, I seem to have retained an annoying self-awareness that I hold some agency in this matter. That I am consciously unwrapping various forms of sugar and voluntarily ingesting them in embarrassing quantities.

Though I wish I could absolve myself by saying that my weekends have been full of salads and things without sugar, salt, fat, and anything else that tastes good, gluttony apparently pairs well with sweatpants and slovenliness. When I haven’t been sick and living off orange juice (i.e., most of last month), I’ve been internalizing panic at my apathetic lack of motivation to do anything productive by devouring potato chips and donuts.

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This weekend, though, I promised, would be different. I’d be better. Less sugar, less salt, less fat, less being a fatass all weekend.

So I went out for ramen.

I’d even done some research. Aoba (青葉) located in Nakano, was one train stop away and had both Michelin bib gourmande status and an instant ramen cup produced with Sanyo Foods. Should the line be overwhelmingly long, there were several other reputable ramen spots in the area. I packed my Kindle and hopped on the Chuo line.

aoba instant ramen

Ten minutes later, down a narrow alleyway off the main street, I purchased a ticket at the vending machine for a standard bowl of chuuka-soba (中華そば). Service is fast and the line, about 10 people deep by the time I got there (at around 1pm on a holiday afternoon), only resulted in a 10-minute wait. The line started outside the restaurant, but eventually I edged myself inside, to wait behind patrons already seated and dining around an L-shaped counter. Once inside, a woman asked how many were in my party and what I’d ordered. Five minutes later, I was seated, served and an active participant in the chorus of slurping that dominates Aoba.

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aoba vending machine
line inside aoba
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Visually, the chuuka soba doesn’t look like much (the tokusei chuuka soba (特製中華そば) comes with a marinated, soft-boiled egg, and more cuts of chaa-su, making it look much more impressive). But the deceptively underwhelming visuals soon cease to matter. Aoba’s noodles are on the straighter side with a charactertistic texture that’s difficult to forget. Slippery on the outside, yet firm and chewy, the opposing textures make for an intriguing, and addictive, tactile experience. Similarly, while the broth is strongly fish-based – I could taste the dried sardines and bonito lingering in my mouth on the train ride home – there’s enough pork added to mellow it out. The result is soup that, when sipped, starts out almost thin and salty, then blossoms into a full-bodied, balanced broth. It was delicious.

aoba ramen

Though Aoba marries opposites beautifully, that happily doesn’t hold true for the chaa-shu (チャーシュー). The slice of pork that came with my ramen nearly fell apart when picked up with chopsticks. The fat instantly dissolved once it hit my tongue, but it was thick enough to require some chewing. It was chaa-shu – and ramen – done right.

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by Aoba. The shop is small and simple, there is no hour-plus wait, and the ramen doesn’t look particularly impressive. But perhaps its deceptiveness is part of its allure; Aoba looks like a standard, cheap ramen place, but serves an incredibly well-crafted bowl of ramen. It may not blow you away, but it easily sets a high standard for the ramen-curious novice.

The fish and pork broth also make for ramen that’s on the lighter side. A standard-sized bowl will hit the spot, but won’t leave you bloated with grease and salt, regretting the last 24 hours for the next 48. Which means you have room to indulge in more ramen. Or, as in my case, in an attempt to stay true to my promise to eat somewhat better this past weekend, more cookies.

 

Aoba Nakano Honten

5-58-1 Nakano

Open: 10:30 to 21:00 (every day)

Website

Finding Banh Mi at the Vietnam Festival

After my sister-in-law’s mother came to Japan for a visit, she left us a giant jar of homemade Vietnamese pickles. The mass of shredded daikon radish and carrots rested in their sweetly sour brine in the refrigerator, waiting to be piled on top of everything. I dreamt of banh mi.

I fell in love with banh mi around the same time my sister fell in love with her Vietnamese-American wife. While it would be nice to say otherwise, it was more coincidence than fate; I met my future sister-in-law for the first time at a Tower Records store in Tokyo, and she was not dressed in an ao dai offering me my first life-changing banh mi. By then I’d already fallen hard for the combination of cilantro, cucumbers sliced thin, and perfectly seasoned pickles mounded on top of a protein of choice, all nestled into a crunchy baguette that wasn’t quite a baguette. Sandwiches no longer had to be pieces of bread bookending mounds of meat covered in cheese, the types of faux meals only to be ordered once in a while when you had the time to feel ill later. I believed, and still do, that you could reasonably, and financially, eat banh mi every day. And as if to validate my theory, I commuted to the Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli whenever I was in New York.

The Quad Show. Photo by Kanako Shimura.

The Quad Show. Photo by Kanako Shimura.

If I’m honest, though, those pickles are one reason I so love banh mi. I always order the chicken – no jalepenos – because the “special banh mi” with its smear of fatty pate tends to dull the vinegary crunch of those delicious, julienned root vegetables. When I learned late last week that the Vietnam festival would be held that weekend, I immediately thought of those pickles, that crunchy yet fluffy bread, and cilantro.

Every summer, Yoyogi Park hosts a few cultural festivals centered on a particular country – in this case, Vietnam. There are allegedly some shows featuring traditional attire and dances, but “cultural festival” is essentially code in Japanese for a food festival with some bank remittance stalls thrown in. My sister-in-law had just left to visit family in the U.S. and do all of our American shopping a few days prior, so my sister and I were left to judge the food stalls together. I wasn’t too worried. With taste buds honed by New York banh mi, we were confident in our ability to find the best at the Vietnam festival.

food stalls
Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

falling sign
durian
picnic tables

We started with a reasonable strategy: check out all of the food vendors before settling on one. Most of the food stalls were hosted by restaurants around Tokyo and featured large plastic signs that boasted giant pictures of pho, banh xeo, and che. With hunger and the heat taking their toll, we settled on a vendor specializing in banh mi, with one of the longer lines extending before it. We inched towards the front, waiting around 20 minutes before being handed our packets of banh mi, disappointingly plucked off a pile of pre-assembled, pre-bagged sandwiches.

The robust sandwich I’d imagined and expected, fat with pickles and garnished with a sprig or two of cilantro, was crush flat as I pulled out something that resembled a quesadilla. There was a generous smear of pate and two slices of the usual mystery meat that usually lurks within the sandwich when you order the special banh mi. A cucumber slice had a brief cameo, along with a few carrots that had escaped the pull of gravity while the sandwich had been propped up on its end. Worst of all, the pickles were cut like fat crinkle cut fries, and most of them lay at the bottom of the bag, within sight but out of reach.

disappointing banh mi

“Oh, oh no,” I said. My sister let out a disappointed wail that quickly turned into laughter as she pulled her banh mi out of its bag and viewed it in its full glory.

I could hear my sister-in-law laughing from across the ocean, then, and blaming our seemingly genetic naïveté, our sheltered upbringing that was certainly the cause of such a blind purchase – a whopping 500 yen! – of a pathetic attempt at authentic Vietnamese food. I don’t blame her – I take it as a personal affront when friends go to sushi places that feature dragon-shaped rolls with tempura sticking out of the ends and/or anything that involves cream cheese – but that didn’t prevent me from praying that she knew, somehow, that finishing that “banh mi” was sufficient punishment.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

I got this awesome pig hat.

I got this awesome pig hat.

We cleansed our palettes and respective memories with coconut and lime gelato for my sister and a slushy, icy coconut drink with tapioca pearls on the bottom for me. Sugar did its work and we went home sweaty and covered in sand kicked up by the wind, but laughing at our banh mi disaster.

As Biggie once said, “if you don’t know, now you know,” and with some knowledge gained and money lost, now I do. Until next year, Vietnam festival. I’ll be back for my banh mi revenge.