Episode 25: Daigo de gozaimasu
I should've known I was in trouble when the granny at the other end
of the line answered the phone with that.  Just the same, after
a 5-minute conversation laced with impossible honorifics (and which
I managed better than I would've thought possible) a table for two
at Tokyo's premier shojin ryori restaurant had been arranged for
7 PM on September 1st, my 21st birthday.

Ever since I came to Japan, I had been thinking about going to a
kaiseki restaurant.  Kaiseki is the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine,
food carefully prepared from the very best ingredients and presented
with exquisite care.  Unfortunately, Tokyo being Tokyo, a dinner at
a real kaiseki place like Tsujitome would have cost upwards of
30000 yen per person, and this in a cellar in the Ginza -- a bit
on the high side even by my standards.  Could I get a meal of
equivalent quality in a better setting at a more tolerable price?
After two weeks of research, I was forced to conclude that no,
I could achieve only any two of the three.  Unless I made a small
concession: instead of kaiseki, how about shojin ryoriShojin
ryori is purely vegetarian Buddhist cooking, almost as strict in its
rules as kaiseki, but less popular since even fish and eggs,
usually regarded as the cornerstones of Japanese cuisine, are
studiously avoided.  And there was one place that could do all 3:
Daigo.  Not mentioned in any guidebook that I could find, Daigo
is a small restaurant located right next to and in fact operated by
Seisho-ji Temple in Atago (near Onarimon).  The setting is textbook
kaiseki -- private tatami rooms overlooking a private garden --
and the set courses follow the kaiseki route.

While it may have been cheaper, the price was, by any reasonable
measure, still ludicrous and I pondered for a long time whether
going would make any sense.  Financially, no, but on the other hand
you can only become 21 in Tokyo once in your life, it would be
a nice experience for E. as well, and -- above all -- I knew that
I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't splurge just
this once.  So I took a deep breath and made the call.

The big day came.  For the 2nd time during my stay, I dressed up to
the max in the spiffy black suit I had previously worn only to the
Immigration Office (which, coincidentally, is in Onarimon as well).
E., just back from Okinawa, picked a devastating blue summer dress
that offset her new tan and sun-bleached hair to perfection and left
trails of hyperventilating salarymen in cardiac arrest in her wake.
(Sorry folks, I'm still kicking myself for not taking a picture.)
Upon arrival we were heartily greeted and ushered into a room that
certainly lived up to what had been promised.  After a tiny glass
of the best plum wine I had ever tasted the dishes started rolling in.

Chilled homemade tofu with soy and ginger in bamboo.  Sake-marinated
sweet black beans.  Cold tororo soup with bizarre planty things.
Absolutely amazing vegetarian sushi.  A pickled mountain plum still in
its hood.  Okra, sweet potato, and mysterious vegetables cooked in
equally mysterious ways.  Salt-encrusted fresh roasted gingko nuts.
Chicken soup that wasn't.  And on and on...  All portions were small,
but for the first time I understood why: you were forced to slow down
and savor the amazing flavors of each bite.  The sole item that
struck a dischordant note to my barbarian palate was the final
dish, a large bowl of rice gruel, which certainly was tasty but not
very different from Mr. Donut's 150-yen okayu.  Two hours after we
sat down a final slice of succulent honeymelon and the last cup of tea
arrived.  It being a cool evening, I slid open the shoji and admired
the garden for a small eternity while sipping my bancha, the cheapest
kind as dictated by kaiseki guidelines, to signal a gentle return to

A less gentle return to reality came in the form of a bill that
was a shade more ludicrous than I had expected.  Usually services
associated with temples are tax-exempt, but Daigo isn't.  More
significantly, while I had noticed that the house sake I ordered
certainly wasn't Ozeki One Cup, I had not quite expected to pay
a cool 10,000 yen for a tokkuri.  Just the same, after the greatest
dinner experience of my life I was not about to complain, so I forked
out the sum and for once used "go-chisoo-sama deshita" both sincerely
and with its literal meaning in mind.

So was it worth it?  For the food alone, good as it was, probably not;
a Japanese person who has been eating Japanese food for 21 years
might think differently.  But as an experience, yes, although next
time (if there ever is a next time...) I'll let somebody else pay
the bill.  Just in case you've recently hocked a kidney:

   Daigo, Seishoji, Atago 2-4-2 (tel. 03 3431 0811)
   Open 5-8 pm, closed Saturdays

I took the next day off, so in the morning, it was time to check off
another item on the things-to-do-in-Japan list, namely seeing Kabuki.
Kabuki is the more popular/populist of Japan's two main traditional
forms of theater, the other being the formal and minimalistic [read:
mind-numbingly boring] Noh.  I had seen kabuki on TV, but in real
life I was astonished by the ornateness, artistry and complexity of
the stage sets and the actor's costumes.  The actors, especially
the onnagata (men playing female roles), were at times amazing as
well.  Unfortunately, while much more fast-paced than Noh (which,
mind you, isn't saying much), it wasn't quite up Jackie Chan
standards.  Since the dialogue was all in bizarrely intoned ancient
Japanese that even the locals have difficulty with, and our 4th-floor
cheapo seats didn't permit use of the English translation,
following the plot was largely impossible.  But merely trying to
get to grips with the language was enough to keep me entertained,
by the end of our 2-hour single-act ticket I was catching up to
25% of the dialogue and proceeded to annoy E. with imitations for
the rest of the day.  ("Uoooooooooooo!!!  Arrrrri-gatou gozari-
ma-shi-taaa.  O-yasumi nasarrrrremashite.")

Up next, it was time for an experience that may not have been
quite Japanese, but that didn't make it any less intriguing.
For close to three months I had been trying to track down an
elusive club/bar named "Tantra" in Shibuya, and last week I finally
succeeded.  Named after the most esoteric of the three approaches
to Buddhism (Theraveda, Mahayana, Tantrayana), the place is
the ultimate in chill-out spaces, a mud-brown subterranean complex
straight out of an Indian temple.  Sparsely decorated with draped
fabric, Tantric sculptures and video projectors playing endless
sequences of blended images, separated into little alcoves lit by
solitary candles with ambient playing softly in the background.
Simultaneously eerie, comfortable and intimate.  Check it out,
but to get there you'll have to solve the same riddle as I did:

  Less than 5 minutes from Shibuya station, on the right side of
  Roppongi-doori heading for Aoyama, in the basement with the
  entrance marked solely by a discreet "T".

You'll know it when you spot it, but I still managed to walk past
no less than 3 times...

Last but not least, it was time for Dad to drop by in town.  As tribute
he (H.E.?) was presented with the following, tastefully packed in a
nuclear yellow Donguri Kyowakoku bag featuring happy dancing eggs:

  Look chocolate bar ("A La Mode Chocolate")
  Pick Up chips (Beef Consomme flavor)
  Ghana chocolate ("Ghana is the symbol of LOTTE chocolate products")
  Asparagus pretzels ('nuff said)
  foo herbal water
  East German refugee' chopsticks
  Cacao Guy anatomically correct snacks
  Crunky chocolate (unfortunately Crunky Kids is no more)
  Balance Power granola (by "Healthy Club")
  Collon candy, green tea flavor (just what I always wanted)
  Flavono chewing gum
  Sting chewing gum (if Flavono's too no-flavo)
  Look Balloon! postcard
  Sunfiber V.C. acerola-flavored fiber drink
  Milkish drink ("Cream Liquour, Coffee Type")
  Digestive Pretz pretzels (goes well with Prughurt!)
  Prughurt in the new handy 120 mL size

I think people worry too much about Japan's economy -- just the fact
that Daigo was full on an ordinary Tuesday means that there's no
recession.  I, for one, find the fact that Prughurt has become
popular enough to come in one-portion packages far more worrisome.
What is this world coming to!?

I have evidence!

On their way to the world

Sweet dreams, Tokyo...
An impending apocalypse, evidently, as this is the last episode of
J2J to be broadcast from Tokyo.  By the time I get around to sending
the next one I'll be back in Helsinki.  But the story of my trip
down south is still coming up, so hang on for a while longer.


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