Leaving Obachan's house was bittersweet. We said our goodbyes, squeezed hands, and murmured words in broken Japanese. She saw us out to the gate of her home, and watched as we rolled our suitcases down the street until she could see us no more. I hope by some chance of fate, I make my way back to Osaka this year to slurp up sukiyaki in the warmth of her home. Thoughts of obachan's home conjures cravings of Yamachan's takoyaki. There is a location right outside of the Tennoji station that we pass through to get to the Osaka station.
Takoyaki at Yamachan's is insanely delicious. Their variety is lightly crisped with a molten lava hot doughy interior. They sell their house sauce inside, and I always contemplate buying it. Alas, there is no takoyaki I could ever recreate that would be worthy of Yamachan's sauce. So I never buy sauce, and leave the place with a revered memory. Sarah and I continued on our trek back to Tokyo-- the very last part of our trip.
The snow fell with a quiet ease, masterfully over the landscape. Our shinkansen glided along without any hesitation or notice for the weather outside. Sarah and I were stuck in the smoking car section and once again I found myself double wrapping my scarf over my mouth and nose. It's always during this part of the trip, when you finally have some time for contemplation that the reality of going home sets in. I begin to wonder how everyone is doing back home, mentally add items to my to-do list, and a mild panic usually sets in. There were still far too many meals left uneaten. So little time, what to do?
We settled into a lovely AirBnB apartment in Shibuya, off of the Meguro station. With no time to waste, Sarah and I went to Ginza to check out a ramen bowl exhibition and see if we could find a few displays of festive holiday lighting. The exhibition was intriguing; various Japanese artists were tapped to design a bowl and soup spoon that resonated with their emotions towards ramen. It was interesting to find how deep rooted these feelings were-- warmth, comfort, community, and more. Some bowls were whimsical, while others were precisely designed as beautiful vessels for this beloved meal.
Predictably, we found ourselves perched on stools in a narrow Ramen-ya just a few hours later in Shibuya. It was a lean operation- just one waiter/host/bus boy jovially calling out to customers, whisking bowls to and fro, and doing it all with a huge smile on his face. The ramen cook moved endlessly as he poured broth, drained noodles, and chopped toppings. The back of his shirt said, "No Noodles, No Life". I couldn't agree more.
The next morning we arose eagerly to live out our last full day in Japan. Sarah and I went to the Ebisu station to see if any of the delicious shops (specifically the La Robuchon Boutique) for some pastries, but our effort were to no avail. It was simply too early and nothing was open until 9:30am. Luckily we were in the best part of the world for food scavenging, and it wasn't long before we were contently rubbing our stomachs after slurping hearty bowls of udon. I opted for a curious bowl with white and pink noodles with a serious heaping of garlic/chili/mystery/pork sauce scoop on top. It was so early at this point, we even managed to squeeze in a trip to the Meiji-Jingu, which was crowded beyond belief. I bought myself a ram keepsake from the temple that now lives on my bedside table. We were now ready for the Ghibli Museum.
If you're interested in going to the museum, you must know that tickets are typically bought well in advance by several weeks or months. We didn't go this route, but had found last minute tickets through an amazing site called Voyagin. There are some additional surcharges and fees associated with delivery, but it was well worth it for Sarah and I to squeeze in this much-desired excursion. I'm a fan of Ghibli movies, my fascination started in elementary school after seeing Totoro for the first time, then grew as I subsequently watched it every other day after school with my best friend. From there, my Japanese language class in middle school filled in the blanks with a few more movies, and my adoration officially took off. If you are even the slightest Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli fan, you must come to this museum. It's beyond incredible.
The museum was designed by Hayao Miyazaki himself, and it transports you into a creative dimension with tiny unique details. There are stained glass character images, ceiling paintings, curious wood etchings, with every detail painstakingly arranged in its place. Every room tells a story, whether it's the creation of a certain character, the inspiration for a storyboard, or just whimsical fun with a massive cat bus play pen for toddlers. Seeing familiar characters in the museum lit up my heart. Traces of Hayao's sketches were found throughout the rooms. His talent left me speechless. We explored every nook and cranny, even taking delight in having a snack at the cafe to see what it would look like inside. I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend my last full day in Japan.
It was still a 15-10 minutes walk from the museum to the train station so we decided to have dinner in Mitaka. Our time in the country was growing scarce so we were trying to be selective about what we ate. A casual yakitori stop called out to me with it's hoard of guests standing at the small bar in front of the grisly cooks flipping, saucing, and grilling skewers of meat and vegetables. It was lively, warm, and chaotic... I managed to sandwich myself between a few people and order some liver. A friendly local struck up conversation with us and even had us try his drink and heckled the cook when my order didn't come fast enough. This was street food at it's finest. My liver yakitori was perfectly cooked with crisp edges, lightly seasoned, and searing hot.
Sarah and I pinpointed an izakaya that had a steady flow of guests and plenty of seating for dinner. We ordered our drinks and got a spread of items that sounded enticing; from saba sashimi to stir fried octopus, and a few cucumber sticks with miso. I people watched for some time...it felt nice to just sit in the warmth with no particular agenda over a mug of beer and good food. Sarah and I travelled back to our apartment in Meguro, stopping often along the way to buy souvenirs. I couldn't stop rambling about squeezing in “just one more meal” that day, and so several hours later we stopped into another izakaya for a late night fix. That bowl of ramen and negi skewer sent me into a blissful sleep... rambling resolved.
There was only one thing I wanted to do for our last several hours in Japan, and it was to eat tsukemen at Rokurinsha in the Tokyo Station. Sarah got to choose the rest of the day and led us to the lovely Shinjuku National Garden. The scenery was just breathtaking- frozen blades of grass, still water reflecting the beauty around it, tiny bridges with intricate detail, and tiny flowers defying the cold winter air. We stopped into a small building for traditional green tea and cake served by an adorable woman in a yukata. Groups of photography students and individual painters quietly went about their arts, soaking in the calmness around them. We found the old emperor’s lake-side villa and wandered in to gaze at the very same scene he must have taken in so long ago.
After the park, we went to the Tokyo Station in search of Ramen Street, buried underground but certainly not shy of visitors. I had my eyes set on Rokurinsha because Jun's mom had recommended it and Chef David Chang had also visited the site with Peter Meehan in the show Mind of a Chef. I HAD to slurp my last bowl of ramen there. The queue took about 50 minutes, and then I was in ramen heaven. This was my first time having tsukemen (dipping ramen) and it was even better than I could have ever imagined. The noodles were thick and springy, the dipping tare was intensely flavorful with only a hint of vinegar. I couldn't stop uttering words of amazement between bites, even choking for a while when food went down the wrong tube from eating too fast.
After this meal, we passed a bit of time with more souvenir shopping and then went back to Ebisu to get our hands on some Robuchon pastries, which we achieved with success this time around. Good lord, that cream puff. The visit to the Ebisu station was followed by some light shopping, packing, and then a final sushi snack at a restaurant off of our beloved Meguro station in Tokyo. With a long sigh, we were off to the airport. Every step of the familiar feeling of rolling my suitcase across the smooth airport tile prepared me for my destination home. I looked around and said my silent goodbyes to the country that I hold so dear. This little adventure was over for now.