Because all the world is a stage...
Reviewed by Jennifer Herlein
After two nights in Kyoto, it was time for us to make the trip back to Tokyo. We enjoyed another peaceful, tasty breakfast at our ryokan, Kikokuso, and the proprietor was so kind as to give us a ride to the train station. The hospitality there was amazing and although I don't like sharing a bathroom or shower, I enjoyed the atmosphere so much that I would do the same if I ever return.
The train ride back was as quick and easy as the trip to Kyoto and I kind of got the same sense of relief I feel whenever I return to Chicago from a trip to a smaller place - comfort and excitement. I like lively spaces filled with people and activity. Tokyo will probably make any urban space we ever visit feel small and I'm in love with it.
We had some time to kill before our hotel room was ready so we decided to venture a bit out of the city center to check out Ivan Ramen Plus. By venture out of the city, I mean we had to take two commuter trains out into a sleepy area where there were no others tourists in sight. The restaurant was on Scott's radar because it's known for serving excellent ramen and the chef, Ivan Orkin, was on Anthony Bourdain's show the week before we left for Tokyo. In addition to having a phenomenal lunch, this jaunt to Ivan Ramen Plus gave us two notable things to celebrate - navigating the suburban train system and figuring out the restaurant vending machine.
By the time we got back from lunch, our hotel room was ready so we recuperated the bags that the hotel had stored for us during our trip to Kyoto, scattered our things all over our new and improved room on the 32nd floor and ventured out into Shibuya. I mentioned how crazy the Shibuya Crossing intersection was during rush hour but on a Friday night, it was insane. Tokyo transforms on the weekend and there was a palpable difference on the streets that night. We wandered through the various side streets in search of Love Hotel Hill, which is a strip of hotels with themed rooms that are available to rent by the hour (or for the night as of 9pm). Like everything else in Tokyo, they were lit up with extravagant neon signage that gave an idea about the types of rooms one could rent there. Couples stroll in, look at the vending machine to see which rooms are lit up (which indicates that they're available), pick one, pay and go.
Two hours later, we were back on the streets looking for another oddity that is specific to Japan, the cat café. We found Hapi Neko Cat Café on the third floor of a building just around the corner from Love Hotel Hill. I'd read about this concept and it was just as awesome and bizarre as I was expecting. We paid 1000¥ ($12), which included a non-alcoholic beverage and 30 minutes in the café with the cats. We were asked to remove our shoes and put on slippers, wash our hands, use hand sanitizer and put all of our belongings in a bag that we could retrieve when it was time to leave. In addition to Scott and I, there were three Japanese women and a young Japanese couple. Most of the cats were doing what cats do a majority of the time, sleeping. There were a couple of particularly fiesty cats that zipped around making a ruckus and disturbing the resting cats. One of these cats got a talking to by the cat-tender, which he didn't seem to care for one bit. These cats appeared to be rather fancy and not shelter cats, as I originally assumed. From what I could gather, animal-friendly buildings are very rare in Tokyo so these cafés give the locals an opportunity to spend some time relaxing with felines.
After getting our cat fix, we cleaned ourselves up a bit and headed out in Shibuya for the night. Still craving cocktails after having trouble finding them in Kyoto, we decided to stop at Bar Ishinohana. This bar is well-known and has won awards for its original cocktails. It's small and we belly up to the bar next to a handful of Japanese patrons. There are probably 100 cocktails on the menu but I select one from the specialty list - the Claudia. It has a combination of rum, vermouth, pineapple juice and caramel syrup. I think it took the bartender as long to craft the intricate garnish - a star-shaped radish, cherry and a lime peel that has been wrapped around the glass like a snake - as it took for him to mix the drink. The Claudia was elaborate, beautiful and delicious. My observation is that Japanese bartenders are classy and take their craft very seriously. They artfully mix the drink in front of you and leave the bottles along the bar with the labels facing the customer.
Following Bar Ishinohana, we were off on another culinary adventure, which involved navigating side streets to find the 15-seat Sushi Ouchi. Sushi Ouchi and its chef are known for serving organic sushi, which means it's all fish from the ocean (and not farmed fish). We sat at the counter and I ordered raku (a chef's selection set) and it included a six pieces of nigiri and a maki roll for ¥2100 ($26), all of which were excellent. There was one other couple at the restaurant and when we arrived, we admired the large platter of sushi they were sharing that had around 16-20 pieces per person. By the time we had finished our meals, they were up at the counter selecting another 10 pieces per person from the displayed fish at the counter, which amazed us. The man in the couple chatted with us in broken English and it turned out that they were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary one day late. As we left, the staff person who handled the service walked us out and waited on the street until we were out of sight. I love Japan.