Big Box & Okonomiyaki

On Tuesday, our first full day in Japan, Don headed into Shibuya for an orientation with the students while Aardvark and I explored “downtown” Takadanobaba, the bustling area by the train station. Well, mostly we explored the 8-story “Big Box” building, both because the torrential rain made it easier to just stay in one, covered place and because there was actually a lot of fun stuff hidden inside the rather dull-from-the-outside building.

We enjoyed a sweet potato roll (a roll that looked just like a roasted sweet potato). Roasted sweet potatoes are incredibly popular street vendor snacks throughout Japan in the autumn – you can smell them everywhere and it is such a delicious fall scent. But it’s been WAY too hot and muggy to even think about purchasing one fresh from an oven. But this bakery version was a potato-shaped roll, filled with a (very sweetened) sweet potato filling and was pretty good!

Then we went to the top floor of Big Box and worked our way down: the top floor is a bowling alley (Aardvark has never been bowling and was fascinated and insisted we sit and watch for like, 20 minutes. And I seriously had to drag her out after that.) We arrived during league time, where all the players were probably at least 70, and totally serious about their bowling balls and gear – they all had wrist protectors on (I’ve never seen protective bowling gear before but it totally makes sense) and they were good: strikes and spares pretty much all around. They bowed polite thanks as we interlopers applauded their efforts and they all seemed to be having a delightful time.

(Aardvark insisted we show Don the bowling alley when we met up with him hours later. He translated the sign hanging above the lanes for us: “Sugar is a nutritious food that gives you energy.” Hmmm, not sure that’s sanctioned by many doctors but it was in keeping with the fleet of about 20 vending machines lining one of thethe bowling alley walls.)

Below that was one of the manga/video game cafes – you pay by the hour, or by what kind of space you want (booth, private room, etc.) and you can read tons of manga books, or play video games, or use internet (back in 2011, in the days before readily available pocket-wifi rentals, when you used to have to be a Japanese resident to get a router or a cell phone, we were frequent customers at the local manga/game cafe nearest us in Kichijoji until we got a modem – ordered by family friends for us.) But even with readily available wifi for all, these cafes still serve their most useful function: a place for space and privacy in crowded Tokyo. Most children/young adults live at home until marriage, which is happening later and later in Japan, and the small apartments necessary to cram so many millions of people into Tokyo means there is little privacy for teens and twenty-somethings. But one can rent a booth in a game/manga/internet cafe and sleep there – booths are usually kitted out not just with computers and game consoles but comfy chairs/cushions/low sofas that can also double as beds; showers are available; food and drink for purchase, etc.

This particular cafe in Big Box advertises ““Yogibo” couches – which is exactly the brand of giant blue bean bag we have in our living room at home. So we can vouch for the comfort level!

The floor below that is a massive arcade-style arena. It boasts it is the largest in Tokyo, but given the size of Pachinko complexes – and that slot machines (rather than more traditional Pachinko) seem to be all the rage in many Pachinko places these days, I find that hard to believe.

Nonetheless, they DO have Taiko drumming video games. And as I love me some Taiko, I was thrilled.

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Below that was 3 stories of a gym, which includes a pool (we watched the aqua aerobics for a bit; again, Aardvark was fascinated.)

And then a few levels of shopping, including a 100 Yen store, which is like a Dollar Tree but with better stuff – and so many different things – and is always a blast. Aardvark’s favorite purchase there so far: a container for carrying a banana with you, without mushing it or having it turn brown in your bag. Don loves bringing one to work; Aardvark likes to pretend it is a phone. Perfect for both of them. (Uncle Daniel, you have been getting LOTS of long distance banana-phone calls!)

That night (or maybe the next night? I can’t believe I’m already so far behind I’ve lost track entirely!) was the Welcome Dinner for the students, at a monjayaki/okonomiyaki place in a neighborhood that is well known for monjayaki (it’s in the neighborhood of Tsukishima, on Monja Dori – basically, Monja Street). It is fairly far from Shibuya, so it forced the students to get out and about a bit, if they hadn’t already been figuring out the subway system, and these are fun, traditional foods that are a great introduction to Japanese cuisine.

Okonomiyaki is the better known of the two: it’s a savory pancake made of cabbage, but it means, basically, grilled how you like it: it’s very flexible. It is best known in the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe area) though it is an easy dish to find all over Japan. Monjayaki is similar, but is kind of a Tokyo-area specialty – especially in this neighborhood, which has some of the oldest and best known restaurants. Most of the students had a several course set meal, which included monjayaki and okonomiyaki, and then yakisoba (a grilled noodle dish) at the end.

For the vegetarians, we got to pick from a menu of vegetarian okonomiyaki (or monjayaki, but we all chose okonomiyaki it turns out). Don makes okonokiyaki at home frequently, but I have to say, we’ve never come up with some of the filling options presented here. Aardvark ordered “pizza okonomiyaki,” from the “Italian” section of the menu (tomato, mozzarella and basil mixed in with the cabbage and other classic ingredients); I ordered a build-your-own with Japanese onions, kimchi, ginger and garlic (it was amazing. That is how I’m making it from now on); the others at our table ordered corn and mochi, and cheese, mochi and shiso. We shared all of them, and they were all delicious. Which is saying something, because my previous experiences with mochi have been in the form of sweets, and I don’t like them. But melted into a cabbage pancake, it was good – and Aardvark loved it too.

You make these right at your table, which in dedicated okonoiyaki restaurants has a grill right in the middle of it. The okonomiyaki restaurant around the corner from us in Kichijoji would usually make it for us at our table, and they had some serious flipping and slicing & dicing skills. (Maybe this is where Benihana-style restaurant inspiration comes from? Because those kinds of restaurants don’t seem to exist in actual Japan; this is the closest I’ve seen.)

At this restaurant, which I think is more typical, we did it ourselves, so I was fortunate that the residence director for the program is a vegetarian, because she is an expert okonomiyaki griller (at home, Don does it – but he also just does it in our biggest frying pan. So it’s a little different) and excellent coach. But being me, I of course burned my arm on the griddle.

The students also seemed to have a blast, and I realized one other reason why this is a great Welcome Dinner place to go: cooking food tougher – and flipping it and dropping it and being out of one’s comfort zone and making a fool of yourself, which seemed to be happening at most of the tables, is an excellent ice breaker.

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Don’s table works on their monjayaki.

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Gets a little smoky, but it’s an excellent photo op for the kids 🙂

Aardvark brought her beloved bow headband from Sukhoon – and insisted we take pictures of each other wearing it. Aards is getting better at getting the heads of the people she is photographing into the shot…

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