A Year of Reunions

“It’s been the year of reunions,” I said to Adam, over omurice. It was his last day in Tokyo and we’d spent it wandering around Shinjuku and Harajuku and indulging in my favorite pastime of eating too much food. I was referring to a few friends I’d reconnected with (a friend from high school and a roommate from college, both of which I hadn’t spoken to in at least a decade) as well as to seeing Adam in Tokyo again (we’d lost touch for about a year). Though the origins of each of those friendships were vastly different, it seemed that cycling – like an embarrassing moment that you play over and over in your head, reliving it to react differently – always lingered in the background. My old college roommate had gotten addicted to cycling some years back, and my friend from high school was now a hardcore endurance athlete. New friends brought memories of training rides and red-lining my way up mountain passes, too. “Do you do sports?,” a gym buddy asked as I got under the barbell for some squats.

While I currently spend more time in the gym than on my bike, the past weekend spent at Cycle Mode with Adam Hansen and the exceptionally welcoming people at Ridley was really bringing back that lovin’ feeling for bikes.

Incredibly, this was my first ever visit to Cycle Mode. Held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba prefecture, it took up two separate convention hall spaces, which were connected by a small passageway. Unlike Interbike, Cycle Mode is focused on presenting new products directly to consumers. To that end, most bike brands offered free test rides of almost all of their bikes, and this didn’t mean a simple loop around the building. Cycle Mode organizers had set up a winding 1.2km course exclusively for testing the bikes, which came in an impressively wide range of sizes.

As Adam did sign and meet sessions at the Ridley booth, then talks at the main stage of Cycle Mode, I wandered around taking pictures of people touching stuff. Ridley was kind enough to invite me along to Adam’s signing event at Y’s Road in Ochanomizu, as well as a talk and private party hosted by Cycle Terrace in the Aeon Mall where I became the unofficial interpreter

Between events and after the whirlwind of a day was done, Adam and I did what old friends do: drink lots of coffee and catch up on recent life events. There was a whisky bar in Ginza, Scramble Crossing and eel in Shibuya, Din Tai Fung in Shinjuku and wandering around Harajuku. There was lots of laughing and a lot more teasing and sarcasm and giving each other shit. There were promises made to do it again next year.

I opened iTunes this morning for the first time in four days and noticed that I’d had Eminem’s “Die Alone” on repeat. Not because I’m mourning an ex, but because it seemed to reflect my feelings after I’d lost cycling. Cycling had been an answer to everything until a few years ago, when it began to bring with it a heaviness and a sense of permanent ostracization. “Why aren’t I good enough?” I used to cry to my best friend, “why does the bike industry hate me?”

It had felt like a betrayal. I’d poured my soul into cycling. I knew the races, I knew most of the riders, I knew I could write and copyedit better than whatever Cycling News was publishing. And it still wasn’t good enough. It broke my heart, and in retaliation, I had resolved to move away and past cycling, onto bigger and better things.

Predictably, I struggled. Bikes seemed to be all I knew. No other spectator sport is nearly as fulfilling, emotional, or rewarding. I still watched roadies pass enviously and continually reminded myself to do something about my currently nonexistent aerobic capacity. I looked at my hopelessly scarred knees and tried to convince myself that I was in it for the long haul, there was no going back. And yet, there was still the hurt and the fear. Could I ride solo again for years without unraveling? Will the risk of bringing back all the baggage and negativity be worth it? Was it healthy for me mentally to get back into cycling?

Releasing my iPhone from looping “Die Alone” this morning, the beats eventually slid into “Guts Over Fear” and I realized how I’d come full circle. When I had said to Adam that this year was one of reunions, I’d been more right than I’d known. It wasn’t just a year of reconnecting with old friends who’d known me before I started to ride, of hanging out with a professional cyclist who doesn’t judge me for not riding for over a year, but also one of getting back into cycling and the bike.

It’s taken a while, but I think I’m back.

[A big thank you to Kawataki-san, Haruki-san, and Edward V. at Ridley, and Glenn L. at Vittoria!]

eating like a pro: sushi ko honten

As gluttonous as I am, fine dining often sends me into a panic. Mention Michelin stars and I start to sweat a little. “A restaurant like…like the kind that involves forks?” I’m always tempted to ask while I mentally try to assemble an outfit in which I can drop a knife and wait for a waiter to pick it up without looking like an enormous asshole. Dim lighting and multiple knives might get some girls off, but if I have to eat with a fork, give me diner food with free coffee refills over The French Laundry, any day. Take me somewhere that provides chopsticks, and odds are you’ll make me very, very happy.

This can be somewhat awkward and difficult to explain to most friends, unless it’s a boyfriend on a budget. People think my discomfort can be chalked up to nervousness or politeness, and to an extent, they are right. Suppressing my characteristically crude personality while simultaneously trying to politely finagle a piece of blue fin tuna tartar topped with foie gras foam into my mouth tends to set off my anxiety. It’s not that I’m incapable of appreciating haute cuisine, I just don’t like how fine dining involves an obstacle course of inquiring waiters, cutlery of various sizes, and a tablecloth that seems to accentuate any crumb that falls on its surface. Navigating this while requiring me to be interesting, engaging, and possessing razor sharp table manners is like asking me to wheelie up a mountain side while chugging a handle of vodka. The idea is, you know, kind of stressful.

Sometimes, however, the stars will happily align. There will be no forks, no knives, and no annoying waiters. Great company, chopsticks, and a Michelin star will be provided. In late January I went to dinner with Adam at Sushi Ko, and had the best meal of my life.  

A one hundred and thirty year old establishment nestled in Ginza, Sushi Ko – which literally, and appropriately, means “happiness” – is meticulously managed but surprisingly comfortable. Seating only a handful of customers, the setting is intimate yet respectful; there is as much opportunity to converse with the sushi chef as to have your own private conversations. There is no menu and ordering is almost done for you. “The omakase course?” I was asked, and I nodded, before turning to Adam. “I just…I kind of just ordered for us…”

Despite that initial facepalm moment  [okay, there was another one where I asked “do you have sake?” and then had my “I’m not an idiot” card full revoked], our serendipitous luck continued as we were seated in front of possibly the only sushi chef in Tokyo who had been a serious amateur road cyclist back in the 1980s. On learning that Adam is pro cyclist, we talked about LeMond, racing in Japan, and mountainside crashes. All between bites of perfectly crafted sushi.

Transient

It is customary for most sushi chefs to ask if you have certain fish you can’t eat. Usually, I would definitively refuse to eat uni, or sea urchin. The orange, textured flesh, with its creamy texture and distinctive aroma, is an expensive treat that I habitually decline. “Ugh, uni,” I am known to say. “You don’t like it because you’ve never had good uni,” my father likes to tell me. I give him the response that all daughters are required to give their fathers: I roll my eyes.

Unfortunately, Sushi Ko proved him really, really right.

When presented with uni, which Adam wasn’t a fan of either, we hesitated. But determined to prove my father wrong, and figuring I could just hold my breath and swallow most of it if it was as unappetizing as I expected, I popped it in my mouth.

It couldn’t have been choreographed better. Adam and I both turned to look at each other in mutual shock and awe. It was completely, unbelievably delicious.

It wasn’t even the best part. We almost passed out in bliss later, when we were presented with sushi made from the broiled skin of Striped Jack. It sounds questionable, I know, and looked suspicious, but was possibly the most amazing thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. “I’m so happy,” I told Adam, “I’m just going to go lie down and die now.”

I still feel that I wouldn’t have missed out on too much if I had [okay those post-dinner waffles were good, but still]. Then again, I wouldn’t be alive to tell you all about it. And to insist that if you want sushi to change your life – and I mean that, because, as a Japanese person who loves sushi, it certainly changed mine – that you make reservations at Sushi Ko.

 

Sushi Ko Honten

6-3-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061

Tel: +81 (03) 3571-1968

Map

eating like a pro: ramen at nagi golden gai

“Ramen for lunch?” I texted. I know I didn’t even have to put a question mark at the end of that statement, but I like to keep up the façade that maybe I can be accommodating to other people’s preferences. In this case, as I was talking to a gastronomical twin, it was wholly unnecessary. An enthusiastic response was sent back and plans to meet in Shinjuku promptly made.

Though Japan is often equated with both sushi and ramen, the problem with the latter is that, unlike sushi, you can’t just follow the [Michelin] stars. Whole books and blogs are devoted to the subject of ramen in Tokyo, which makes choosing just one place a bit overwhelming. On top of that, when you’re on limited time in Tokyo, you want something that consistently delivers but isn’t so famous you can get it in New York. I’d heard enough about Ramen Nagi to assume that this would fit the bill.

Despite its location in Golden Gai, a small area in Shinjuku crammed with tiny bars [including a favorite of Tarantino], I wasn’t quite ready for how cramped the space really was. Behind a simple door, a wall of a tiny staircase leads up to a ticket vending machine, where you make a selection and hand the tickets to the guys behind the counter. The restaurant [if it can really be called that] is narrow enough to demand the creative use of space: customers’ backs are almost against a wall of cardboard boxes and tissue boxes are suspended from the top of the bar. When Adam and I were called up from the alley where we were instructed to wait, I was directed to a seat next to a giant bag of rice, some empty bottles, and a keg. Adam tried to squeeze his legs under the ledge that served as the table. It didn’t work very well but at the very least, he wasn’t seated next to anyone else.

In minutes, though, we had two giant bowls of noodles to distract us from our seating situation. We’d ordered the standard ramen, plus an order of tsukemen. Tsukemen – the new noodle dish darling of Tokyo – consists of cold ramen noodles that are served with a concentrated version of regular ramen broth. The noodles are dipped into the broth before being eaten. It’s different from ramen, but equally good.

Probably because the ramen at Nagi Golden Gai is very good. Chewy, curly-edged noodles are served in a dense broth with a thick cut of pork, a few sheets of seaweed, and a marinated, soft-boiled egg. It’s the kind of food you can’t hate and hits that gastronomical trifecta of comforting, filling, and “holy shit, that’s good.” It’s the ideal bowl of sustenance to take the edge off a night of binge drinking in Golden Gai, or simply a good, cheap lunch with a favorite friend.

I can’t quite remember what we talked about after our bowls of deliciousness arrived, probably because I was too busy enthusiastically slurping noodles [while Adam ate like a normal, well-mannered human being]. When I finally came up for air because there was nothing left to eat, I mentioned that I was surprised that no one had recognized Adam. He shrugged in response as we edged our way towards the stairway, squeezed between a wall of boxes and the customers lined along the bar.

A guy sitting at the counter looked up briefly at me as we passed, before turning towards Adam: “Are you Adam Hansen?” he asked.

We looked at each other in mutual surprise and disbelief at the serendipitous timing of the question.

Adam shook hands with the guy before we stumbled down the steep staircase, laughing at what had just happened. Soon we were back on the street, headed back into Tokyo to continue eating like a pro.

sushi, food babies, and apple pie

I’m bloated. There is eyeliner residue still stuck all over my eyelids [yes, I did shower]. My legs don’t want to support my weight today [not only because I’m a few kgs heavier].
I’ve ridden a grand total of two hours in the past four days and am currently fully committed to flaking out on today’s power intervals [sorry, coach!].
But since the day before started with eating apple pie, in an alley, with Adam Hansen, and ended with the best meal I’ve had in my life so far, I am also committed to not caring about the consequences.

Let’s do it again, soon, Adam.
[Picture above taken by Adam. See his tweet for some extra food porn.]