The tick and fizzle of battered prawns gently frying set my stomach rumbling. Squat shop fronts lined narrow Sunamachi in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Scarlet lanterns and golden streamers hung from every lamp post. The mushroom parade of umbrellas ruffled in hurried apology as lone cyclists slowly picked their way through the crowd. Bicycle bells are too rude for Tokyo so every front wheel that gently noses into the back of your leg is a surprise.
“This is the Tempura King,” our guide, Miyu, said.
A stocky man in a white chef uniform stood proudly behind a stand bursting with golden battered morsels in all shapes and sizes. Neat black Kanji script displaying names and prices looked more like poetry than price tags. I guessed at what might be hiding in each deep fried coating – that green thing could be green beans, the orange one was probably carrot, and that non-descript white thing was probably radish. It was usually radish in Tokyo.
“Please, have anything you like,” Miyu said, her head dipping in an almost unperceivable bow.
Sunamachi is a shopping street, teeming with 100 yen shops selling toilet plungers, coat-hangers and greetings cards. Kitchenware spills out of shop fronts and fresh fruit and vegetables sit in cellophane as if frozen in time, because Japan has not yet cut free from the obsession with packaging.
“Japanese think it is more hygienic this way,” Miyu explained.
This street is not on anyone’s bucket list. There’s no historical lure like the Imperial Palace, no picturesque wooden roofs like Asakusa shrine. There is, however, food. Street food. And people. Normal people doing normal things, like shopping for toilet plungers and greetings cards.
I bit into the crisp tempura.
“Good?” Miyu asked.
“Then you should say Oishi, it means yummy.”
We drank tea the colour of algae, mixed with a bamboo whisk until it was frothy. An old iron bell tinkled in the shop as men and women popped in to pick up bags of tea and greeted the owner like an old friend.
At a small stand where faded J-pop posted peeled from the walls, sleek fish flopped in plastic tubs. A teenage girl cut fresh sashimi at lightning speed, looking down when she handed it to us. It tasted like fresh water. Orange fish roe popped salted explosions on my tongue.
“Oishi!” I said and the girl behind the counter beamed and dipped her head.
Further along the street, past a little shrine where stone fox faces smiled down at you, two large women in chef whites ladled out Japanese hotch potch. They gave us a plastic sandwich bag full of hot stew. It was miso-thick with a soy tang and huge lumps of radish and lotus that burned the roof of my mouth.
“Oishi!” I said and the two women laughed as if I’d said the funniest thing in the world.
Though it was well before the yard arm, Miyu guided us into an open-faced warehouse of sake bottles. The chill of early April crept in through gaps in the temporary-looking walls. Salarymen in crumpled business suits that looked like they might have slept in the train station skulked around the flourescent sale signs. Prices ranged from 100 yen to 20,000 per bottle. Miyu filled a couple of plastic shot glasses with the clear liquid. It smelled like something you would use to cleanse a wound. The sake burned my throat and sloshed around in the pit of my stomach.
“Oishi,” I winced.
A crispy minced tuna cutlet dipped in a sweet teriyaki sauce soon soaked up the early morning sake. We waddled to a stall selling yakitori – meat on a stick grilled fresh in front of us. I forced each piece of sticky, glazed chicken into the last remaining corners of my stomach.
“Oishi,” I wheezed, convinced that I was filled up to my throat with food.
“We have one more stop,” Miyu said.
I hoped it was just to buy a toilet plunger or greetings card.
The stall sold Japanese sweets. Little globs of green clung to cocktail sticks. It looked like the kind of thing you’d eat in space, or in a dystopian future where food is not to be enjoyed but purely for nutrients. There was no room left in my body. If I ate anything else I would have to sacrifice an organ to fit it in.
“Honestly, I can’t,” I said to Miyu as she held up a green tea mochi sweet.
Her face fell as if I had just insulted her own cooking.
It tasted a bit like grass, and felt like a slug sliding down my throat. It wouldn’t go down, but stuck somewhere in my chest. My face had probably turned the colour of green tea because Miyu’s eyes were wide. But I held on and eventually the final piece of Sunamachi Street sat in my stomach with everything else.
“Oishi,” I said. But I’m not sure Miyu believed me.