Written by Julian Austin and originally published November 22, 2013 via Waegook Tom. This recounts part of my travels in Tokyo during the World Baseball Classic.
I arrived in the Suidobashi neighborhood of Tokyo on a crisp and cool spring afternoon last March. This was my first time visiting Japan and the trip only materialized after I convinced myself that I may never be this close in the too near future. Many people would jump at the opportunity to spend any period of time in this city and I certainly was part of that group. I had recently finished my one-year contract teaching ESL in Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo for all intents and purposes was a new animal all together.
The motivating factor for my visit, before I returned to the United States, was to watch a game of the World Baseball Classic at the Tokyo Dome. Growing up an Atlanta Braves fan I dreamed (and still do) of taking a MLB stadium tour road trip to visit the historic ballparks in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. On a global scale, Tokyo fits that mold perfectly and I found myself flying across the Sea of Japan to make this epic journey.
Of course, the Japanese, known as fervent baseball fanatics, are also known for having some of the tastiest cuisine in the world. After exploring foods in the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand, Japan most definitely was on my list. I regrettably had only two full days in Tokyo and I found myself craving Japanese cutlets and noodles at every turn. Massive bowls of hot, sweet broth mixed in with tempura battered vegetables and thick Udon noodles constantly were the meals of choice – often times ending up with me sitting in a small, subway station eatery, bellying up to the counter with the working locals quickly slurping down a bowl of the good stuff.
The meal that is forever engrained in my mind was my last in the monstrous Japanese capital. As I was heading to the train station to make my final trek to the airport I found myself walking the immaculate and trash free streets in the Bunkyo district, searching for one last bowl of noodles. My Japanese language skills were useless when ordering and I often found myself pointing and smiling at these small restaurants to make my noodle dreams come true.
Close to the entrance to the JR Suidobashi train station was a small corner shop with a bright white sign and a yellow vending machine with about 50 different options to order at the press of a button. Of all my meals in Tokyo this was the easiest to order. I inserted my yen into the machine and pressed two buttons – Udon noodles with pork and an Asahi beer – out came a receipt with a number and inside I went. A bell rang as I entered and the shop was toasty warm, steam rising from the kitchen, hungry customers occupying the few stools and booths for seating. I reluctantly walked up to the counter and calmly handed over my order to the chef. He smiled and motioned for me to have a seat. I set my bright red backpack next to me on a bench and rolled up my sleeves. I half expected the diners to peer over their bowls as English and practical Japanese phrases echoed out of my mouth. However, no one seemed to even care that I was joining them in this Zen like moment in a disappearing act of hunger.
The enormous bowl of noodles was delivered on a shiny, black tray. I reached for chopsticks and a large spoon, catching the harmonious smells of the broth in front of me. I had yet to amass the skills of the Japanese when devouring noodles and took my time eating this incredible bowl of food. I found myself sweating after slurping down the rest of the broth and bits of vegetable and noodles. My stomach protruding over my belt, I was in a food coma. Was this heaven? The sweat stayed on my brow until a final swipe with a napkin, and a collective sigh — signaling that the final journey back to my homeland was about to ensue.
Tokyo stole my heart that weekend. She burned a beautiful image of acceptance and a never-ending array of food options into my young impressionable mind. I will have her again.