“This way. No clothes. Naked.” I sheepishly followed the receptionist to the changing rooms. Earlier that day, when the clock struck midnight, I had welcomed in 2014 with close friends at a drum and bass festival in rural New Zealand. Fast forward sixteen hours and there I was on the 5th floor of a shopping mall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku night district checking in to what I thought was a hostel. Only it wasn’t a hostel. In a last-minute rush to find accommodation, I had accidentally booked a spa for the night with ‘capsule facilities’ (read: coffins for the living). There I stood, a sleep deprived, bearded Westerner who after days washing in lakes couldn’t have been a further contrast to the immaculately well-groomed businessmen of Tokyo, enjoying the delights of this fantastically tacky spa straight out of the 1970s.
Arriving in Japan I expected to experience a huge culture shock, for this was, after-all, my first time in Asia. Any such feelings were, however, overridden. Having spent ten days with several close mates I was now on my own again and I felt alone and vulnerable (a feeling not helped by being in the nude). I had a quick scrub in the shower, jumped in the giant bath with two elderly chaps watching the golf and then retreated to my tiny cabin, where I curled up in a tiny ball and wished the 1st of January away. At least the chap in the pod opposite was clearly ‘enjoying’ his stay in the spa.
13 hours later, now well rested, I crawled out my pod to embrace the next Foodish adventure. Clearly, the consecutive days of pure hedonism in New Zealand had contributed to my New Year blues. I needed to recuperate. No more all night benders. Eat. Sleep. Relax. Besides, New Zealand had left me bankrupt. There would be no drinks à la Lost in Translation at the Tokyo Hyatt’s New York Bar on this occasion.
Despite holding the highest number of Michelin stars, you need not spend a fortune to eat well in Tokyo. In my travels to date many chefs have lauded Japanese food like no other. They weren’t wrong. Takoyaki? Beautiful octopus dumplings with pickled ginger and spring onions topped with a rich sauce and sprinkled with shavings of bonito fish. Tonkatsu? Deep fried breaded pork served with a sweet sauce, the crunch contrasting the pork that melts in your mouth. Dozeu nabe? Slowly cooked tiny loaches, first stewed in sake, then in miso and lastly in a secret soy sauce. Yakitori? Soba? Goyza dumplings? How do they manage to make everything taste so magical? Even a cup of matcha green tea was served with a delicate soybean cake, eaten in two bites beforehand to enhance the flavour of the tea.
None of this, however, compared to my first plate of sashimi. Six beautiful pieces of raw fish arrived to start dinner one evening. I had tasted raw fish throughout my travels and wasn’t expecting much. But with a dab of wasabi and a splash of soy my life changed forever. I have never had something so perfect in all my life. I wanted to cry. I’m not joking. The first thing the following morning I sprinted from my capsule to the Tsukiji fish market to get another fix of my newly developed addition.
Of course while enjoying so many meals across Tokyo, my new year ‘eat, sleep, relax’ mantra became increasingly hard to follow. Walking past, and trying to turn a blind eye to the cities many other temptations wasn’t easy. But I resisted… or at least until my last evening, when social media-spawned acronyms hash-tagged their ideologies all over my conscience. I had developed #TOKY-FOMO.* Out flew any self-restraint and in flew a bottle of saké. The next thing I know it’s 3am and I’m in the Golden Gai, singing Celine Dion with a middle-aged Japanese gynaecologist (his profession and the lyrics to My Heart Will Go On apparently being the only English he spoke). After a late night bowl of ramen and a couple of rounds of vintage Sega games I arrive back at the hostel at 7am – just in time to collect my bags to head for my train out of there. A deep sense of guilt started to grow. All those days of good behaviour gone to waste…Oh well. I picked up my mobile to upload some pictures from the night…#TOKYOLO!
* Mum/Dad if you’re reading this, FOMO = fear of missing out.