Embracing spontaneity: A magical night in Tokyo

I wasn’t surprised that I loved my trip to Japan.

You hear it all the time: Japanese people are so polite, the food is incredible, the internet is lightning fast, etc.

So I won’t tell you everything I loved about visiting Japan — you’ll have heard all the reasons before (efficiency, cleanliness, vending machines: all +1). Instead, I’ll share my favorite memories, to illustrate just how wonderful it all was.

The absolute top experience, however, deserves its own post. This is the story of a little hole-in-the-wall called Shinobu, and what happened when we stumbled upon it.

“HOW DID YOU FIND THIS PLACE? ONLY LOCALS COME HERE.”

(or: how an 80-year old chef serenaded me on my birthday)

Ie Tsugu and his guitar by Expat Edna

We flew to Japan on my birthday, which meant I only had one real birthday meal to enjoy in Tokyo — and I wanted just one thing: sushi.

I found a fancy restaurant near our place using Foursquare, but we arrived only to find it was reservation-only. Duh. Confused, tired, and unsure of how to procure dinner before I got too hangry, we started wandering down the street.

Just one block over, we noticed a small fish lantern next to a sliding door.

Fried tofu, Shinobu by Expat Edna

We paused and stood outside, debating for a solid five minutes: “Do you think it’s open? Will there be sushi? Should we go in?”

I peeked inside. There was a lone man sitting inside, solving a crossword puzzle. Did we dare bother him? Did he want to be bothered?

We tentatively slid the door open.

Immediately the man jumped off his stool, welcomed us inside, and went around the counter, awaiting our order.

There were six seats in total, in what appeared to be this man’s living room (I would later discover he did indeed live here, as his bedroom was on the opposite side of the wall). Between the counter and a fish tank was the menu, handwritten in Japanese on colorful strips of paper.

Ie Tsugu's restaurant by Expat Edna

We couldn’t read any of it. We spoke no Japanese. He spoke no English. We stared at him, trying to mime some food-related words; he stared back, responding to all our questions in rapid Japanese. Google Translate proved to be no help at all.

We were at a stalemate. I had no idea what to do, and started wondering if we should just end the awkwardness and try another place down the street.

Finally, I urged Joe, “Just pick something off the wall. Anything.”

We knew the character for ‘bean’, so we pointed at a dish with that in it. The chef, relieved there was finally something he could do for us, took a plastic-wrapped tuber and began to furiously grate it into a bowl.

He added miso, some spices, some herbs — and what resulted was the best taro dish I’ve ever had in my life. It was fresh, sticky, perfect.

Taro over rice, Shinobu by Expat Edna

Seeing how much we enjoyed the taro, he suggested a second dish. I barely understood the words “butter” and “sauté”, but I was in.

The second dish was a butter-sauteed squid that made me see angels and haunts my taste buds to this day.

The floodgates had been opened.

Butter sauteed seafood, Shinobu by Expat Edna

From there he just kept cooking — sometimes he would pull out two ingredients from his fridge, look at us, we’d nod enthusiastically, and he’d throw them into a pan. A couple times we ordered blindly off the wall menu.

Chives and bean sprouts, baked mackerel, Japanese salad, homemade fried tofu.

Every dish he placed in front of us was magnificent. (This may be the first and only place I’ll ever enjoy natto.)

Carton sake and baked fish by Expat Edna

All night the place had been empty except for us, and it was getting late, so we thought we’d order one last dish and then head home.

That’s when the sliding door opened and in walked a Japanese pair of friends, arriving for dinner after work. They exchanged very warm greetings with the owner and sat down next to us. We saw the chef immediately start telling them about Joe and me, these two mute tourists — clearly relieved to be able to speak Japanese again and tell someone about the night he’d been having.

The woman turned to me and asked on behalf of inquiring minds, “How did you find this place?”

“We just walked past it and decided to come in…?” we shyly responded.

“Oh, you’re so brave!” she said, and I wondered if we’d stumbled into some mafioso’s den. She continued: “Only locals come here.”

Birthday meal with strangers at Ie Tsugu's restaurant by Expat Edna

Our new Japanese friends, with Ie in the middle. Photo courtesy Ie’s friend, whose name I do not know because none of us exchanged names

As she and her dining companion began to share their food and bottle of shochu with us, she remained in awe that we had found the place at all: “This place is truly local. You won’t find this anywhere else in Tokyo.”

She then told us more about the chef: “He’s 80 years old, you know.”

Ie Tsugu was his name, and he’d been running this little place for 40 years — much of that with his late wife, whose photo hung on the wall behind him. He kept his restaurant open seven days a week (whereas many places close on Sundays), because “he wouldn’t know what to do with himself” and would be bored. “He’d rather just spend time with his customers.”

Carton sake and Ie Tsugu by Expat Edna

The woman explained to Ie that we had just arrived hours ago, it was our first time in Japan, and it was my birthday. To celebrate the latter, he poured us glasses of coffee-infused shochu, and prepared a bowl of cold soba noodles (it’s an Asian tradition to eat noodles on your birthday).

Then, we were in for another treat: suddenly Ie disappeared around a corner — and came back with a guitar.

“We may have used your birthday as an excuse to convince him to play,” the woman whispered to me, grinning. She explained that back in the day, Ie played the bar circuit as a well-known musician. He even had a CD of his own songs!

Ie Tsugu and his guitar days by Expat Edna

As I sat there at the six-seat countertop, enjoying some of the best food in Tokyo, sharing shochu with strangers, and listening to the man behind the food serenade us on guitar with traditional Japanese songs — I couldn’t help but keep grinning from ear to ear with pure happiness.

This was so much better than sushi at a restaurant. This was the best meal and most memorable birthday evening I could have asked for.

Ie Tsugu's restaurant by Expat Edna-2

That was our first day in Tokyo. We returned five days later on our second-to-last night in Japan, with an old friend from Shanghai in tow.

Stepping into the place, we felt like regulars already — Ie recognized us with a back-so-soon? chuckle, and shortly after we sat down, the woman from the week before came in for dinner as well. (She really wasn’t kidding about being a regular.) She gave us the same excited greeting as Ie: if we had been on Cheers and they had known my name, I’m sure they would have exclaimed, Ednaaaaa!

And then, towards the end of another fabulous dinner, we discovered that the woman works for the same tech company that my friend does in Tokyo — they sit two floors apart — which is also the same company where Joe worked in Paris before quitting to travel. What a small world.

Even then, we never exchanged names. I’m sure I’ll run into her again someday, in the kitchen and home of Ie Tsugu.

The rest of my favorite Japanese experiences will be featured in the next post.

What are the best surprises you’ve encountered while traveling? 

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Comments

  1. Well I, for one, will not be effusing about the internet in Japan! We expected it to be amazing—the country is a technological wonderland—and yet found it pretty abysmal, all things consider. We actually stayed at a hotel in Osaka where they only had plain old wired internet… it was the one place on our trip where we had to whip out our ethernet adapter!

    But that’s neither here nor there, because you don’t go to Japan for the internet. You go for THIS. I often find that as good as four square is, often the best places are the ones you stumble upon in pursuit of different places. We did a similar thing in Kyoto where we tiptoed into a little izakaya and got the chef to feed us his favorites. Our CouchSurfing hosts taught us the phrase “osusume kudasai” which means “your recommendation, please” and that really saves our butts (and resulted in a lot of delicious meals) while in Japan, as we were always winding up in places where EVERYTHING was in kanji and nary a plastic food model was in sight. We had plenty of mystery meals in Japan, but not a one of them was bad.

  2. Edna, this was a captivating story! It makes me feel good on so many levels – the unexpected interconnectedness of people’s lives, close community bonds between businesses and their customers, people who are driven by their work..

    I’m glad you’re writing more! It makes my feedly less news-y :)

  3. Something similar to this happened to me in Osaka, we were hungry and didn’t know where to eat, so we just sneaked into the first Japanese restaurant we found. It turned out to be a tiny, traditional, Japanese-only kind of place. We loved it! The food was awesome and the atmosphere as well.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Edna. What an interesting story!

  5. I love this story! These types of unexpected, authentic and intimate experiences are the ones I cherish most from my travels. And the food looks unreal!

  6. Love it! I’ve had some friendly restaurant experiences in Italy, but never quite on that level… certainly I’ve never been serenaded!

  7. What a great story. These are the memories that are unique to you and that you’ll always remember. Japan’s such a wonderful place but, just like wherever you go to travel, it’s always the people you meet who really make it what it is.

  8. I love this story! The rare but great stuff memorable travels are made of. I’d love to have a surprise birthday night like this!

  9. I love this so much. It’s like the most perfect of all travel experiences when things like this happen – you feel so local and happy, especially when good food is involved! While visiting a friend who lives in central Mexico, we were dragged to a local taqueria where a mariachi appeared out of nowhere and we were made to try cow brain tacos with her whole family (and bringing in the tequila drinks that her father made us in to-go cups).

    Also, Edna, small world. I was at a wedding recently when one of my boyfriend’s friends (Alex ter Wee) came up and asked me if I followed you on Instagram. This was around the time I’d been reading your posts about quitting your job to travel, so I said, “Duh, yes, she is awesome!” He’d met you in Singapore and sometime later split an Airbnb with you. Crazy.

  10. Wow!!! What an incredible birthday. I love the magical spontaneity of travel. I’ve never been traveling during my birthday, but for me and my boyfriend’s 7th anniversary we were in the tiny town of Veliko Tărnovo in Bulgaria. I will never forget that anniversary! Nothing quite as magical happened as your birthday meal, but it was special just to be exploring something completely different together.

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