Searching for Anthony Bourdain’s Tokyo

I’ve always been envious of those who are certain about their direction in life. I’ve tinkered with various professional trades and outside of a general love of writing I’ve always hedged my bets, wary of pursuing any one thing too seriously, for risk of spreading myself too thin and giving up on the others. Sometimes it’s novel writing and others it’s journalism or script writing and there’s almost always a lot of marketing to pay the bills. A colleague once described it to me as having a bunch of balloons; popping one meant you had to let go of the rest. I know lots of people can succeed and take enjoyment from multiple pursuits at once. I wish I was one of them, a Donald Glover or a Nick Cave, able to try on different hats depending on my mood and pull them all off. I think my attention span and focus is just too fleeting to zone in on more than one passion at any time.

So it was entirely fitting that on my thirtieth birthday – a milestone I’d approached with more than a little trepidation and anxiety, questioning my paths forward and backward – my fiancée surprised me by gifting me two tickets to Tokyo, with the news we were headed there the next day.

As long as I can remember I’d wanted to go to Japan. It seemed to capture everything that I want in life, which is everything that is different and rare and unique.

And in the same way I’d been dying to see Cuba because of Hemingway, and still yearn for the sounds of New Orleans because of the thrillers of James Lee Burke, Japan was at the very top of my bucket list due to the way that Anthony Bourdain had always spoken about it. The guy who’d seen everything and been everywhere always talked about Tokyo with a particularly naughty sparkle in his eye, like it was a secret only he and a few other Westerners were in on, or a missing key that would open new horizons and forever shift your perspective on the world as you know it.

an alley in shinjuku

An alley in Shinjiku.

It did all of that, and a hell of a lot more. And multiple times throughout our trip, as we eyed off an exotic restaurant or a comically tiny bar, the kind where locals were content to lock shoulders and waste away their nights with song and drink and banter, we would look at each other and decide that it was the right choice for us. Because it was what Bourdain was on about. It was strange and uncomfortable and unsettling and something that was completely different to anything we’d experienced before.

Which made it even weirder when – at the precise moment we were headed home, as the stewards locked the doors of our plane and told us to shut off our electronics – I snuck one last look at Facebook and saw CNN post that Bourdain had just taken his own life.

And then we took off and I had 9 hours to deal with a sensory hangover from the delight and difficulties of nine days in Japan and to think about what Anthony Bourdain’s death meant to me.

The little seafood ramen place we’ve been promised is the best in Tokyo is nowhere to be found. We’re standing right at the point Google Maps says it should be and yet all we can see is a skinny six-floor electronics shop, an arcade and slot machine centre lit up like Christmas morning, a sushi joint we can smell from the street, and two other ramen restaurants, neither of which come recommended.

(And before you get on your high horse about how ramen can’t be seafood you can fuck right off. It’s hard enough traveling through the kobe-licious realms of Japan with a pescatarian, and our mission to find and savour this seafood dish of mythical status – whispered to us across the front desk of our hotel by the shy young girl at reception, like it was a secret only bestowed to worthy travellers – was something we were taking very seriously.)

outside the robot restaurant shinjuku

Outside the Robot Restaurant, Shinjiku.

Eventually we start circling the streets, further and further from the point it’s supposed to be. Through the naughty neon circus that is the red-light Golden Gai district, through alleyways packed with bars and restaurants so small you could eat the yakitori right off your neighbour’s plate, past crowds of businessmen and tourists shouldering their way to and from the busy Shinjiku train station, until we realise we’re back at the spot our ramen joint is supposed to be. And then, when we’re just about to throw in the towel and gamble on the odorous sushi cafe, we spot two fish hand-painted on a door, the size of a beer coaster, and we head up eight flights of stairs, past toilets and storage cupboards and what look to be accountancy offices (there are calculators, anyway), and line up with twenty others on the fire escape, curling up the remaining few floors slowly, a shuffle at a time.

It’s a good sign. If our time in Japan has taught us anything, it’s that locals will wait for the best, and anything without a line is either shit, a tourist spot or insanely expensive.

When we finally sit down the seafood ramen is served promptly, with a firm rice cake, and it’s salty and rich and delicious and everything we could have hoped for. We try to stretch it out but the broth doesn’t last long and the crowds waiting at the door are eyeing our emptying bowls with rabid intensity, so we slurp down the last drops of ramen with a cold beer and slip them the bill, less than twenty bucks.

our ramen joint

Our ramen joint.

I’ve always thought that there are two types of trips to take.

The first is the kind where you dip your toes in scorched sand and read cheap spy thrillers and lather yourself in sunscreen, letting the hot sun burn away the trappings of your life back home, if only for a short spell. I’ve done a lot of those holidays.

The other kind of vacation is the type where you never quite relax. Whether it’s a language barrier you can’t overcome or a cultural difference that’s difficult to wrap your head around, you’re never quite comfortable. It’s a search for different, for something that jars your sense of self and makes you question your operating system. I’ve done a few of them, too.

But nothing like Japan.

More than any place on earth, Japan is uncompromisingly unique. It’s schizophrenic and full of bright lights and caught between the modern world and ancient traditions, brimming with subcultures and weird meats you’d never even thought of nibbling on.

And while any train or city street is packed with tourists wheeling their suitcases around, it’s oddly anti-tourist, or at least apathetic to tourists. Do not expect to find English menus everywhere, or officials to point you in the right direction, or really anything to make your trip easier. It’s refreshing and exhausting and inspiring simultaneously.

tokyo restaurants and streets and parks

We spend four days in Tokyo and immediately recognise that it’s a city you could live in your whole life without uncovering half of its secrets. In cities like Paris or Rome that might mean the discovery of museums and landmarks and galleries, but in Tokyo it’s restaurants and streets and parks. There are intellectual destinations that TripAdvisor will tell you to see, sure; but I wasn’t prepared to waste my time on them.

shinjuku gyoen park

Shinjuku Gyo-en Park.

In Shinjiku, where we spend most of our time, we wander the shining, pulsating streets, past adult stores (supposedly run by the Yakuza) and dime bars and electronics shops that also sell vintage Rolexes and the famous Robot Café and premium beef restaurants and sushi trains. We find an afternoon of remarkable delight in a sprawling green park tucked in behind high concrete walls, and we sip at tall boys of Asahi in the hot Japanese sun as we look out over a stunning temple, manicured lawns and a foggy-green pond.

In Harajuku we wander up Takeshita Street, the cornerstone of youth culture, a place where young girls dress up in schoolgirl outfits and bubblegum pop makeup, where you can pay to sip a latte while thirty cats run around your feet, where vintage and colour and heavy metal and luxury weave together in a tapestry of iconic Japanese weirdness.

prayers left by visitors meiji jingu shrine shibuya

Prayers left by visitors at Meiji Jingu Shrine, Shibuya.

In bustling Shibuya we spend a few hours hustling our way through a maze of escalators and food courts and busy streets. It’s a towering, air-conditioned mecca of retail bliss like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We stop for a moment for the obligatory photo at Shibuya crossing – rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world – before finding ourselves out the front of a sushi restaurant we’d been recommended, more by chance than designation. We’re showed to our seats at a bench without a word and finger our orders on a touch-screen; it’s delivered to our spot within a few moments via a three-level train track that runs through the whole venue. It’s cheap and quick and impersonal and fucking delicious.

tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji Fish Market.

At Tsukiji Fish Market we savour an early morning feast of fresh sashimi and scallops scorched with a blowtorch in their shell a hundred feet from the busiest seafood auction in the world, a marketplace where over 2,000 tonnes of seafood are moved each and every day.

tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji Fish Market.

And in Nakarno we go in search of the famous vintage watch scene I’d followed for years, only to find the retailers purveying millions of dollars of antique timepieces from the likes of Patek Philippe and Omega and Audemars Piguet are not camped in marble-floored luxury malls, but are hidden away on the top floors of a decaying shoppig centre. Our luxury-lust satisfied, we find ourselves nursing frosty mugs of Sapporo and dipping freshly fried tempura degustations in sweet sauce.

I don’t pretend to know the best parts of Tokyo, or to have seen all of the best things to see, but I can say we saw a lot, and what we saw was beautiful. It’s a place I immediately and instinctively knew I’d be visiting for the rest of my life.

arashiyama bamboo forest in kyoto

Arashiyama, or the Bamboo Forest, in Kyoto.

Satisfied with our first stint in Tokyo we book our spot on a bullet train to Kyoto, a couple of hours away. After the initial thrill of being on a train that moves so fast and looks like a phallic eel we begin to doze off in comfort and watch the miles and miles of rice farms pass us by. Kyoto is stunning, make no mistake about it. But after a few day trips to temples and bamboo forests and monkey parks and towns full of deer (actually pretty cool; thousands of wild-ish deer stroll the streets of this town, believed to be messengers of the gods) I find myself longing for the chaos of Tokyo. I want saké, and Kyoto is beer.

iwatayama monkey park kyoto

Iwatayama Monkey Park, Kyoto.

There’s a moment in every day of a holiday that I take great pleasure in. I’ve been with my partner for seven or so years now and pretty much all of my holidays in that time have been with her. As you do, we’ve come to understand each other’s travel habits and likes and we’ve worked ourselves into a bit of a groove that keeps us both happy. We head out in the morning and explore a particular area or areas, usually on foot, and then we return in the mid-afternoon, tired and sore and in need of a shower. And then she has a nap and I go in search of a local drinking experience before dinner. I take a book for company but more often than not it stays closed and I find friendship in the strangers around me and in the energy of the city. Occasionally I’ll strike up a conversation but just as often nobody speaks English or they’re not interested in making new friends. Sometimes it’s awkward or lonely but there’s always something authentic about it. And the fact that I do it alone means it’s incorruptible and genuine and without any pretense of show.

In Kyoto it was a little craft beer and saké bar hidden behind a curtain, where locals would ease themselves into or out of dinner, and in Shinjiku it was an underground pub, where the bartenders seemed to enjoy pretending not to understand me and cigarette smoke hung like a curtain below the ceiling and crackling Nirvana filled the room.

a tokyo sunset

A Tokyo sunset.

On our last night in Tokyo, though, I’m content to spend it on our hotel rooftop bar. It’s not a fancy place, but the view is pretty exceptional. From the fifteenth floor I’m able to sip at a heavy-headed beer and look out at an egg-yolk sun dropping below the craziest goddamn city I’ve ever stepped into.

And as I savour it all, I am, as always in Japan, served by the staff expertly and politely and generously, even though there is no tipping culture. They look after me because they take pride in what they do and in their city and country.

Japan is the surest haven of the specialist I’ve ever encountered. The pursuit of excellence in one thing, whatever it is that gets you excited and instils passion and purpose, seems to be a way of life rooted in the Samurai culture. Whether that speciality is serving me drinks on a rooftop or sushi or ramen or blademaking or tailoring or kobe beef, or even a corporate discipline, it’s a relentless and unobstructed commitment to one thing.

sake barrels on display

Sake barrels on display.

I don’t know what my one thing is.

I looked to people like Anthony Bourdain as a representation of someone who’d found their purpose. If anything, I thought he’d found the precise success and direction I long for. But if he, with all of his memories and talent and his lust for life and adventure, wasn’t content with the life he’d chosen, what hope do the rest of us have?

I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s as horrific and simple as the lottery of mental illness. Or maybe the answers lie in the ambiguities and complexities of a place like Japan. Maybe we just have to look harder, and travel more, and learn more. Not obsessing over our one thing, but rather searching for the many things and people and ideas that ask questions, instead of answering them.