Tokyo: Shinjuku – our base for exploring the city

Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s 23 special administrative wards. It is a major commercial and administrative centre, and it gives the name to the busiest train station in the world (Shinjuku Station). Lots of tall buildings here, but still does not possess the skyscrapery feeling that Manhattan has.The area around the station wasn’t too crowded… maybe because we went out long after the work day must have started for most people. Or maybe because the weather was less than ideal, with grouchy skies and intermittent rain. I hear this is normal for September, and the fall season here in general. It was Umbrella Kingdom, everyone carried one in plain sight.The area also boasts a number of large multiple-level department stores, all of which were perched atop the underground part of Shinjuku Station. One level below street, most had what looked like a food court, but with a different set up than what we’re accustomed to in the US or Europe. I just realized it reminded me more of a supermarket than a food court…When we arrived in Tokyo, we were so stuffed with airplane food that we skipped dinner and went straight to bed. We woke up early the following morning (4am or so) and by the time we were ready to go out (10ish), my stomach was strongly vocalizing its dire need for food. I guess, I was not hungry enough to appreciate the unusual taste of the sweet(!) cheese bread that we bought from the bakery around the corner, but I did salivate increasingly at the looks of these bento boxes at the food court without realizing they were plastic.Now… my experience with Japanese food has been mostly defined by what’s usually offered in the US market  – sushi, sashimi, miso soup and some yakitori skewers. Teriyaki chicken, too. I was not prepared for the variety of pickled, noodled, weeded and riced over kinds of food on display here, so we spent a considerable amount of time just choosing what to get. When we did finally held our lunch in our hands, we realized we had nowhere to sit and consume it. We literally toured the entire food court, the floor above and the floor below, a portion of Shinjuku station, and the outside area, but there was nothing that would serve our purpose (a bench, a chair, a stone or a piece of wood even). So we ended up eating rice and noodles with chopsticks while standing up outside in the drizzle. If you look at the picture below, you’d see a man with a beige umbrella across from the orange wall. That’s where we had our first meal in Japan.If you think that’s bad, wait till you hear how we had dinner in the handkerchief sized bathroom of our hotel room the following night. We had come back to Shinjuku and after a full day of touring around Tokyo we had worked up an appetite just big enough to eat a a whole cow. Ms Z. was getting increasingly cranky so we decided to put her down to sleep in the hotel and then get something to eat ‘to go’.

Hubs went out only to come back in an hour with a bag of fries and a Burger King hamburger. I raised my eyebrows while he was telling me how he ventured into a dozen of the little eateries around and left empty handed each time. Turns out, noone spoke a word of English and there was no English version of the menu available. Unfortunately, neither of us understands Japanese so the combined effect of these circumstances presented a slight problem when ordering food. Hubs even tried selecting something from the picture menu, but instead of serving him, the people behind the counter were trying to tell him something he couldn’t possibly understand. Even at Burger King he didn’t get what he asked for, but at least he got something to alleviate his frustration.

Then it was my turn. I soon found myself in the back alleys of Shinjuku with bars and shanty ‘restaurants’ by the dozens. It was after 10pm, but quite a few were still open and very much in business with people going in and out all the time. So I started seeding the restaurants out; I skipped the ones that were not on the first floor and the ones that did not have picture menus. Once I eliminated on a basis ‘availability of an English menu’, I was pretty much down to 2-3 places that I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen in a different situation.

So I walked into the first and I was pleasantly surprised that the waitress didn’t run in the opposite direction when she heard me speak English. She even understood a little bit and tried to explain the process of ordering food at their establishment. They had a machine with buttons and 12 pictures of ramen noodle bowls which to the untrained eye looked quite similar. I had to select the meal I desired, pay in a fashion similar to using a bill operated vending machine and then give the receipt to the waitress. It took a while for us to understand each other regarding the fact that I had to pay extra for boxes ‘to go’. I left with the impression that getting food ‘to go’ was an unusual occurrence if not in Japan, then at least in this particular eatery.

The actual meal selection process was entirely random – the English subtitles were merely a transcription in Latin letters of the Japanese name of the dish and meant as much to me as the word ‘Tarator’ to a non-Bulgarian. But I felt proud my food hunting experience was a success!

So there we were, Ms Z soundly sleeping in the hotel closet room, and us – slurping ramen noodles in the bathroom funnily entertained by the very first ‘lost in translation’ moment of our trip.

Back to the useful stuff – here is a map of Shinjuku that I borrowed from japan-guide.com. It’s the best I have come across during my trip research.

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