Hollywood Hills — February 9, 2016
Grammy Award winner Gary Clark Jr. will be performing at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards tonight for a special B.B. King tribute with Bonnie Raitt and Chris Stapleton.
Day 14 – Tokyo, Japan
The haze of Amsterdam was still lingering—I couldn’t shake it even after a six hour flight. I took the train into the city from NRT and met up with Diane (who got to Tokyo a day before I did) at our place near Asakusa Temple. First stop: ramen!
This Tokyo post will be very food-centric. A lot of great stuff to do and see in Tokyo, but my days (by design) revolved around the food I wanted to eat. Beware of rushed iPhone photos—I was hungry.
The ramen was damn good. But I don’t think the difference in quality between ramen in Tokyo vs. ramen in California is that big. It’s there, but not significant. (Shout out to Santouka in San Diego and Los Angeles.) Whereas the difference for katsu, chirashi, soba, and sushi were night and day.
One of the first things I did after I booked this trip and realized that I would be in Tokyo for Thanksgiving is try to get a reservation to a really nice sushi restaurant. With the help of my friend Clarissa (who was teaching in Japan at the time) and her local friends, we started from Sukiyabashi Jiro (from Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and went down the list of Michelin starred sushi restaurants. We were able to book Sushi Taichi for Thanksgiving night and Sushi Aoki for the night after.
Writing about my time at Sushi Taichi on Thanksgiving night is a bit daunting. Not only is it the best food I’ve ever tasted, but also by far the best dining experience I’ve ever had.
Getting off the station in Ginza and trying to find the place was an experience unto itself—the only sign, written in Japanese, was the size of an A4 paper. Needless to say, I needed help finding it. After weaving through multiple alleyways and thinking I would miss my 8pm reservation, a local man offered to take me there.
When I finally arrived at 7:49pm, eight guests were already there. I was the last guest (only nine seats are available), but chef Taichi and his two assistants greeted me warmly and showed me to my seat. I started with a Suntory premium pilsner, but quickly finished and changed to a cold sake after I saw that they had a whole tray of uniquely designed sake glasses that you could choose from—like that Holy Grail scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I chose the earth-toned, traditional ceramic looking one.
Chef Taichi made the sushi itself more engaging by telling me interesting facts about the fish I was eating. Like how the sekogani (item #3, above) is in season for only two months of the year. And how the earthquake in Aomori a few weeks ago caused the the uni (item #18) he served me to be some of the best he’s seen—though there would be none leftover for next month. How tuna (#8 & #10) is not interesting to him as a sushi chef because all you need to do is buy expensive, high-quality fish and cut it. Whereas the experience needed to cut and prepare something like kohada (item #9, his favorite fish) or saba (item #6 & #11, my favorite of the night) is more difficult and personal.
In addition to the perfectly selected 22-course omakase meal, the thing that took the experience to another level was the attention to detail and service. My wooden plate got wiped between each piece of sushi. The assistant would go clean the bathroom immediately after a guest came out, before the next guest would use it. (The bathroom had the softest, best quality toilet paper—I stashed a couple squares in my pocket as a souvenir.) The chef even threw out a handful of sushi rice once, because it wasn’t the ideal texture (“you know, al dente”).
The conversation with chef Taichi, despite his limited English and my even more limited Japanese, was just as enjoyable. One of the great pleasures in life for me is watching extraordinarily talented people do what they love and listening to them talk about it. He said he wasn’t as much a perfectionist as someone like Jiro because he likes giving his assistant chefs the opportunity to work. When I asked why he became a sushi chef, he told me a story about going to his teacher and saying “I don’t like sushi.” His teacher, recognizing his talent, responded, “you must.” So he went on to study for ten years at various schools and restaurants. His mother told him to not come back until he opened his own restaurant. He thanked his brother—who is also a sushi chef (“he cooks very well, but I do ‘experience’ better”)—for pushing him.
After the two and a half hour dining experience and a few cups of tea to bring the meal to an end, it was time to go. The handwritten number on the bill was high, but I would’ve gladly paid double or triple that amount for the meal and time I just had. The assistant chef personally walked us out and bowed at the door. After walking twenty or so yards down the alley I came from, I looked back and saw that he was still there. He remained there until I was out of sight. (I peeked around the corner to see him finally go back inside.) It was a completely wonderful experience—start to finish.
Day 15 – Tokyo, Japan
We woke up early to go to Tsukiji Market (the largest fish and seafood market in the world) and ate a bowl of chirashi with uni, crab, and ikura that was so fresh the only way you can get something fresher is by catching it in the ocean and taking a bite on the spot.
We were so full but less than an hour later (the time it took us to walk there), we had some soba at Narutomi—which chef Taichi told me was one of his local favorites.
And dear lord, that tonkatsu. It was from a low-key joint in the basement floor of the Mori Tower. It had the perfect textural balance between the thick, juicy slab of tender pork and the fluffy, crispy layer of fried breading. The head cook brought the same attention to detail as the sushi chef the night before. When one of his assistant cooks was about to send out a plate that wasn’t to his liking, he sternly called it back and fixed the plating ever so slightly and then sent it out again.
Day 16 – Tokyo, Japan
The only thing I absolutely had to do in Tokyo besides getting good sushi is visit the Ghibli Museum.
When I tell my friends and colleagues that I generally prefer Studio Ghibli films over Pixar films, I get a mixture of incredulous gasps and “what’s Studio Ghibli?” I think Pixar’s best films go head-to-head with Ghibli’s best films, but Ghibli’s mid-tier and bottom of the list movies are significantly better than Pixar’s. (The Tale of The Princess Kaguya was my #7 favorite film of 2014.) Anyway, that’s a subject for another post.
The Ghibli Museum had concept art, sketches, storyboards, props, models, etc. on display. They recreated Hayao Miyazaki’s office, desk, and animation station—granting visitors a look into Ghibli’s creative process (no photography was allowed inside). They even had a theater for screening original short films that can only be seen at the museum. Out of the ten or so shorts they have on rotation, Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess was screening on the day I went. And though I was surprised at how quickly you can walk through all the exhibits, the gift shop was glorious. I bought way too many souvenirs and gifts.
Day 17 – Travel
The last day of my trip. I woke up, took a shower, and threw up all over the shower. Maybe I ate something unwelcoming the day before. Or maybe my body was shutting down after 17 days of traveling. Whatever it was, I’m glad there was a wash bucket nearby. I went to the toilet about nine times at NRT and another four times during my layover at MNL (the worst airport I’ve been to). A bottle of blue Powerade and some guava snack kept me alive.
Odds and Ends
The Polaroid above was taken of the yellow shuttle bus at the Ghibli Museum. It is supposed to be reminiscent of Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro and even has an illustration of Catbus on it. It is the last shot of the trip for my ongoing series.
Day 13 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
I had a five hour, 55 minute layover in Amsterdam between my flight from Prague to Tokyo.
The tl;dr version:
The non-tl;dr version… well, I’m not going to write about it for several reasons. Feel free to ask about it in-person though hahah.
It includes Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” coming on at the perfect moment in the coffee shop; eating too much space cake; talking with prostitutes in the Red Light District about the economics of prostitution (no, that isn’t a euphemism for something); eating a delicious Dutch pancake with powdered sugar and lemon; almost missing my flight and basically asking a stranger to drag me to my gate.
Odds and Ends
The Polaroid above was taken of a really bright pink dumpster outside the coffee shop. As I learned after taking the shot in Prague, it seems that these kind of overly saturated colors translate better than more muted tones on the expired Polaroid film I’m shooting on—all part of my ongoing series.
Day 10 – Prague, Czech Republic
Hit the ground running as soon as I arrived. Checked into the hostel (my first time), met some cool people, went to a riverside party, ate a burrito (yes, in Prague, because why not), and did graffiti at the John Lennon wall.
Day 11 – Prague, Czech Republic
Prague, in all its cobblestone glory, is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to.
As I have been doing all trip long, I asked the locals about the things I should do and see. After all the perfunctory recommendations, one man let me in on a local secret: Vyšehrad.
It was far enough south to not be on the city map (the free paper ones you get from information desks), but not so far that I couldn’t walk. Despite the hour it took to get there, it was the perfectly secluded place I needed to go.
My time at Vyšehrad ended up being the most reflective and special hour of my trip. I’m not good enough of a writer to describe why it was such a special place. It was, among other things, an amalgam of serene beauty and a confrontation with impermanence.
I wanted to walk through a new part of the city on the way back, so I took a different route than the one I followed to get to Vyšehrad.
But remember how I said that this place was “far enough south to not be on the city map” that I had? Well, I got lost. Which would’ve been all romantic and shit in the whole “getting lost and exploring” sense of the traveler’s credo, but I was lost for about two hours—so, not very fun. I eventually found my way back thanks to the only human I came across in what felt like forever.
Day 12 – Prague, Czech Republic
Despite my swollen feet from the day before, I walked westward across the Charles Bridge (pictured above, earlier) to see the Prague Castle and other great sites.
I also took a detour to the Strahov Monastery, where the local monks run their own brewery. I was told that sometimes the monks would come drink with you—which I had high hopes for after another hour-long uphill trek. But much to my disappointment, the monks were not there.
The beer was still there though—and so was a great view to enjoy with it.
Odds and Ends
The Polaroid above was taken in the bathroom of Cafe Ebel, which Diane heard good things about. I noticed the nice shade pistachio green on the bathroom wall and had to contort my body (the bathroom was tiny) while standing on the toilet to get this shot for my ongoing series.
Day 7 – Travel
Finally had to leave Budapest—took the early afternoon train to Vienna which took 4+ hours, arrived at hotel, checked out the Naschmarkt, and had a pint of Vienna dark ale with a proper Wiener Schnitzel for dinner. (A Wiener Schnitzel being breaded veal cutlets—shout out to Jeanne Dielman—and not the American hot dog chain, of course.)
Day 8 – Vienna, Austria
I spent my first full day in Vienna doing three things: walking (a lot), going to museums (also, a lot), and drinking mulled wine (yes, a lot). I’m pretty sure I tried over 13 varieties/flavors of mulled wine—they’re great for keeping you warm and slightly drunk. Of the many museums, the standouts were mumok (Vienna’s MoMA) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History).
I might have to rethink spending hours and hours at museums when traveling though. Because while it’s great seeing art that I would never see anywhere else, opportunity costs feel higher when you’re in a new place for a finite time.
Day 9 – Vienna, Austria
This is the day that made my 2.5 day stop in Vienna worth it.
The Belvedere Palace itself is an astounding physical place. It consists of the Upper and Lower palaces with a massive garden you walk through to get from one to the other. But the collection of art within the palace museum walls… I don’t know what to say. Just seeing the names Claude Monet and Gustav Klimt next to each other made me lightheaded. More than any other single piece of art, however, the reason I came here was to see Klimt’s The Kiss (Lovers). Before seeing it in person (I’ve previously seen it in art history textbooks and on every freaking type of souvenir in every store in Vienna), I had to prepare myself.
I got the floor plans for the Upper and Lower Belvedere museums, and planned my route so I would end up in the room that housed The Kiss last. The anticipation was killing me. I probably rushed the other pieces but I didn’t care.
When I was done with the penultimate room, I took a deep breath and walked into the main Gustav Klimt gallery. It was like seeing the face of god.
I stood there, stunned, for over 20 minutes.
I wasn’t ready for the bigness of the canvas and how it enveloped my field of view. I wasn’t ready for the beauty of the textures and how the light reflected off the gilded layers of gold. You don’t see any of this in textbooks, online, or in other representations of it. You can’t.
René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images never felt more true than in this moment. This is the pipe. The rest, n’est pas.
(Cue: Gustav Klimt laughing at how cheesy I’m being about all of this and also thinking that this painting, too, is a representation of whatever beautiful idea or memory was in his head when he created The Kiss.)
After I came back down to Earth, I tried to sneak a photo of the painting. “Sneak” because no photography was allowed. I almost got caught, but managed to capture a moment this silhouetted girl was having with the two Lovers. (She’s totally third wheeling.)
Odds and Ends
The Polaroid above was taken of the slate gray exterior of mumok in MuseumQuartier, as a part of my ongoing series.
Day 3 – Travel
Left Paris on no sleep, layover in Milan, then another in Rome (where I bought gelato—only to be hounded by the paparazzi because the guy ahead of me in line was an Italian celebrity), and finally got to Budapest in time for a warm goulash dinner and tea.
Day 4 – Budapest, Hungary
Diane and I were deciding whether to get mulled wine and then lunch, or the other way around, when we ran into Nathan, a friend from high school. It was a bizarre and pleasant surprise.
We walked around and went to the Fisherman’s Bastion (watchtowers along the Danube River, from the Middle Ages) for a stunning view of the Hungarian Parliament Building.
After checking out the northern part of the Castle hill and crossing the river, we heard loud noises coming from the Parliament and saw protestors walking away from it. Naturally, we walked toward it.
The Hungarian Socialist Party was protesting the predominantly conservative government over a myriad of issues. It was impressive how specific the chants and verbal barbs sounded. I didn’t understand what they were saying but whenever an official walked out of the Parliament, you could hear people trying to identify who it was and then start protesting (what I assumed were) specific issues relevant to whichever official was visible.
They had picket signs with “ELEG” or “enough,” a satirical banner of Putin’s face, and, most humorously, a prop that read “BITCH PLEASE” draped around the lion statue on the Parliament steps. Drums were banging, vuvuzelas were vuvuzeling. And when it started to look like this protest was going to turn into a riot, we left.
Day 5 – Budapest, Hungary
My time is Budapest, unlike my brief stay in Paris, had the ideal “Things I Want to Do” to “Time I Have to Do It” ratio. No rush or stress—just planned one or two things per day and winged the rest. A lot of wandering. I even got invited by a nice Hungarian lady to join her for lunch at a swanky looking cafe/restaurant. She had an agriculture business in New Jersey, of all places. I had a good time.
Diane and I went to a cool ruin pub called Szimpla Kert after our informative Jewish walking tour. Then, after dinner with some new friends, we all went back to Szimpla because it is that freaking cool, okay? (#1 Nightlife in Budapest on TripAdvisor, y’all.)
Day 6 – Budapest, Hungary
I loved Budapest so much that I decided to stay an extra day. Nathan cooked dinner for us at his British expat friend’s place. A mix of locals/expats/travelers from all over the globe gathered—Israel, U.K., Estonia, U.S., Germany. The night was filled with great company (among them, Yael, another friend from high school), delicious food, and 72% Taratea liquer.
During my extra day I also got to visit the famous thermal baths, which sit on hills with natural hot springs. There are many of these kinds of baths with beautiful Ottoman architecture scattered throughout the city, but I went to the Gellért Baths—recommended by the nice lady I had lunch with the day before. She said it’s her favorite one because it’s not as crowded with tourists as the other ones, so it’s a much better place to relax.
I think I’ll miss you most of all, Budapest.
Odds and Ends
The Polaroids above were taken of buildings whose colors reminded be of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Because of the unpredictable nature of expired Polaroid film, the soft pink and off white I was trying to capture looks more like a faded 70s orange and beige. One was taken in Buda and the other taken in Pest, for my ongoing series.
Day 2 – Paris, France
After I took this photo in the Tuileries Garden, I thought to myself: This might be the best picture I take the entire trip.
I was probably right. But that realization was incredibly sobering.
This was my first and only day in Paris, so I decided to take the sampler plate approach to seeing this city. I figured I’ll return soon anyway.
Friends asked me to live tweet my adventures and my mom told me to send her a picture of myself from each city. I tried, but taking a break to tweet about what I’m doing (as opposed to, you know, just doing it) and taking pictures of myself doesn’t come naturally to me. But rather than approaching it with begrudging cynicism, I had fun with it.
First stop, Notre Dame.
I walked the entire route along the Seine and leisurely enjoyed 30-60 minutes at each stop.
I dusted off three semesters of French and tried to get by with as little English as possible—but mostly a lot of je ne sais pas. The conversations were limited but surprisingly effective. I think everyone just went along with it because they appreciated that I was trying.
Curiously, I got mistaken for a local a couple of times. The best was when a thirty-something woman asked for directions, then saw my crinkled face trying to form a sentence, looked down at my camera, immediately put the pieces together, and looked back up at me with resignation in her eyes. We both started laughing.
I started taking pictures of this accordion playing man near the Arc de Triomphe, but he didn’t seem like he was in a good mood. I threw a coin into his tip jar and hoped it would make a loud enough noise that he could hear. He perked up a little and gave me a nod when I got closer to take this shot.
Little did he know, I only gave him five cents. Hahaha. I feel a little bad.
I took the long way to the Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe because a pedicab driver recommended the view from the Musée du quai Branly. I was getting pretty tired from walking the whole day, so I stopped by a restaurant/bar for a drink. When I asked this gentleman for a beer, he asked what kind. I asked what he had and he suggested 1664 because “it’s French.” The beer was alright, but the conversation was fantastic.
I spent a good 20 minutes talking with Ali. He told me about immigrating to France when he was young, then we talked about how the world perceives the U.S., which then led to him ranting about George Bush. He was pleasant company the whole time, but it was time to go.
Like the title sequence in The 400 Blows, I saw the Eiffel Tower peeking over buildings and between alleyways during the long walk there. It was grand and worthy of every souvenir of it that exists in the world. The view from under it, however, was something else. It felt like looking through a peephole. Like I was seeing a secret of the Eiffel Tower that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing. It’s not a unique view—nor is the photo particularly original—but that feeling was completely exhilarating.
On the metro ride back from Montparnasse near midnight, these two boys across from me were having the time of their lives opening the train doors at every single stop because it would make a loud noise like the airlock releasing when they eject emergency pods in sci-fi movies. The older sister thought they were bothering me and told them to stop. But I thought it was so funny and said it was okay to keep doing it.
The kid put his hand on the handle for about 30 seconds as we were slowing down, to indicate that he would open the door for me at my destination. The train came to a stop, he let me out, and all five of us shared the last big laugh of the night.
Odds and Ends
The Polaroid above was taken at an art and souvenir shop two blocks or so away from the Louvre. It sold replica prints of the Mona Lisa and was painted a really cool, almost sewer-y green, which I photographed for my ongoing series.