Who: VN Senior Editor Jennifer Pickens
What: A long weekend in Tokyo
Where: Tokyo, Japan
When: July 17–22, 2008
Why: To check out a new vegan restaurant + the Tokyo Star Wars Celebration
The Scoop: I'll be honest: Tokyo was never on my list of "Places to See Someday," but when my friend Betty mentioned that the Star Wars Celebration was going to be held in Tokyo for the first time, I couldn't resist. Having never been to any kind of Star Wars convention, I thought Japan would be the best place to experience it for the first time. Also, Mark Hamill was going to be there! I mentioned the trip to my VN co-workers, and like Charlie's Angels, they were on the job. While Aurelia was at Summerfest, she met Mamiko Matsuda, an author from Japan who drew up a couple of maps pinpointing two great new restaurants in Tokyo. Sold.
Our first night in Japan's capital, we found ourselves wandering through a mall near the Tokyo Disney Resort looking for food. Bad idea. I spent $20 on fries and an iceberg lettuce salad with an unexpected, unwanted creamy ranch-type dressing that had to be scraped off. The experience was not unlike an expensive trip to Applebee's … ugh. Surely this can't be a typical Tokyo dining experience?
We spent the next day at the Star Wars Celebration. My veteran Star Wars-convention-going friends assured me that this was a much smaller, mellower version than usual, but since it was the first time for me and my friend Susan, we had a great time nonetheless! The veg options at the convention center were sparse, but we soon discovered something we called "food triangles." They are basically just that—a triangle of rice wrapped in seaweed with various fillings that you buy prefab. Tip: The one in the green package is vegan. Luckily, they're cheap and sold almost everywhere, so we lived on those for the day.
Then it was dinnertime. [Cue ominous "Darth Vader's Theme" here]. We walked over to a restaurant near the convention center and I ordered some noodles with vegetables. What ensued was the third worst meal of my adult life. Instead of mixing the veggies with the noodles, they brought me yet another iceberg lettuce salad with two massive dollops of mayonnaise "dressing." At least I could scoop those off the plate. Then came the plain soba noodles, floating in the most vile-smelling meat broth ever. So, there went $13 for about six bites of plain lettuce and two under-ripe tomato wedges, all the while trying not to gag from the inundating sights and smells.
The next morning, Susan and I set out to find Kappabashi, aka Tokyo's restaurant supply district. Navigating the subway system can be a bit daunting since there are two competing train companies, hence two subway maps are needed to figure out which line to take, which company to use, and if you'll need to transfer between the two. But we found it with just a little local assistance, also discovering the beer and sake vending machines along the way. We skipped the kitchen supply and dishware stores and headed straight for the shops with the fake plastic food models, in all of their kitschy glory.
Then we set out for the Ginza district to find the first of our highly recommended restaurants—Dorobushi—a classy place on the 9th floor above a cosmetics shop. Even though it isn't strictly veg, it's organic, and there are many veg options on the menu. I was thrilled with my meal, which involved miso soup, an array of vegetables, and sautéed green peppers. Now this is more like it! From there we walked through Shinjuku district and had a drink at the Aurora lounge with a view of Tokyo from the 45th floor. An unexpected firework display provided the perfect ending to the day.
The ultimate meal came the following day. Veggie Paradise, which just opened last September, sits on a small street in a residential area that we would have spent a very long time searching for if not for the help of a taxi. But it was so worth the journey. The all-vegan menu includes a choice of raw and macrobiotic meals. This is my new favorite restaurant! Since it was such a warm day, we started the meal with a cool tomato-watermelon soup and a cabbage salad. Susan had the faux-chicken meal, and I opted for the macrobiotic meal. Their wine and beer selections are all organic, so we indulged. After our meal we were lucky enough to meet the owner and chef, Yuki Itoh, and I discovered that she attended the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg, Calif., and she now teaches living-food and macrobiotic cooking classes in Japan.
Yuki was kind enough to draw us a new map to find our way back, sending us past Levain vegan bakery along the way, where we picked up some snacks for dessert. As we were walking through the Yoyogi-koen Park we found the best flea market (where I scored an adorable vintage dress), before stumbling across some great veg-themed t-shirts at a shop near the Harajuku station. From there, we ran over to Tokyo Disneyland for the night where I had—you guessed it—fries for dinner. Oh well, I still found two really great restaurants in Tokyo, as well as having a great weekend, so it was worth all of the iceberg lettuce and French-fry meals.