March 20, 2011
Dinner and a Movie in Tokyo after the Earthquake
For the past week, R. and I have been at home. I have been working from home (it is great that I work at a company where this is possible) while R. has been off of work because Tokyo Disneyland is currently closed. I have not been getting out and about the city much, I really have only been visiting the local supermarket and a few stores around where we live. We have generally been eating stuff that we have on hand - I've made a bunch of omelets since we were able to find eggs. We cooked up a batch of Curry on Monday, and have had that for dinner and lunch quite a few days. Curry is great because you can make a lot of it at once, it keeps for a long time, and you just need rice to go with it.
On Saturday, I wanted to take R. out to do something, and coincidentally the movie Tangled just opened in Japan on Saturday. She wants to see Tangled, I'm interested in getting out, and so we had a plan. A normal sort of thing that people do everywhere: a movie and then dinner.
Note that actually this isn't something we do a lot here in Tokyo. I used to see two to four movies a month (hi Carl!) but since moving to Japan I have not seen many movies at all. Tickets here cost about $30 (given the current crazy exchange rate) and just are not as common of an activity as they are in the US. Still, it is still a pretty normal thing to do. So R. reserved us some tickets for a 3:30pm showing over in Roppongi Hills.
That got me to thinking about dinner. One thing I want to do is to support the Japanese economy and get things back to normal. Sitting around at home eating curry for a week (while it is economical on our end) is just not going to do that. I've been hearing good things about Union Square Tokyo for the past few years since it opened in 2007, so I wondered if they would have an opening for us. This place is a nice restaurant, not say Michelin three star or anything, but it is a nice place where a main dish will run from $40-$60 or so. Normally I would try to get a reservation a week or so in advance just to be sure, but I called them up Saturday afternoon and they took our reservation for that evening.
So, here are my main reasons for trying to get out and go do dinner:
- A week after the earthquake, I think it is time to get back to normal life (not that we are always going out to high class restaurants) and stop sitting around at home.
- I wanted to see how well mass transit could serve us. Roppongi Hills is usually about 30-45 minute trip from our place on a train and a bus.
- I thought after a week of sitting around, Risa and I deserved a bit of a treat after surviving the largest Earthquake in Japanese history. If anything deserves a bit of a celebration, that is it.
- I love curry. But I love me a good steak a bit more, if I can get an excuse to put out the money they cost in Tokyo.
Click the "read more" link to see how well we fared.
A pachinko shop without all the garish lights
Mizuho Bank. They had closed their banks and ATMs across much of the country, but are opening up again this weekend.
The Vortex Arcade was closed to conserve power.
Fuji film shop closed too
We got started a bit late, leaving our place at about 2:15pm for a 3:30pm movie. We probably would have gotten out a bit faster, but R. didn't like what I was wearing so I had to cycle through a few shirts and jackets before she was grudgingly satisfied (she still didn't think I was presentable I think.) When we got to the local station (about a three minute walk) and descended down into the station itself, the trains were not running on their normal schedule. Usually we have to wait about three minutes for a train. At worst maybe seven. But this time, the next train wasn't until 2:42pm. The trip to Shibuya takes 12 minutes, and from Shibuya we need to transfer to a bus that takes about 20 minutes to get to Roppongi hills with a 5-15 minute wait time. There was no way we were going to make it in time for a 3:00pm movie (unknown to me the movie was at 3:30pm, but I thought 3:00pm for some reason.)
So I suggested we get out an take a taxi. When I lived in New York, I would take Taxis rarely, but it was never a big deal when we did hop into a taxi. In Tokyo I never take taxis. They are ridiculously expensive. I was up for it this time because I view this as an adventure: even with poor last minute planning and a not particularly well-dressed foreigner, can we watch a movie and have a nice dinner in (according to foreign news media) the devastated, irradiated, panicked city of Tokyo that all foreigners are currently trying to flee?
We caught a taxi at our station's taxi stand. They are running as normal. On the drive we passed a few gas stations that had no gas, so I was kind of curious about where the taxis were getting gas. The trip took about fifteen minutes. The price is almost an order of magnitude more expensive than the public transport option. By mass transit it would cost us about $9. By taxi it cost us $40. I think the same ride in New York would cost only $15, but then you would have to open the taxi door yourself, and the driver certainly wouldn't be wearing pristine white gloves.
We made it to the theater at 3:05pm, so would have made my hypothetical 3:00pm showing, but it turns out the movie was at 3:30pm. We got some popcorn and drinks (orange juice since I've given up caffeine as of six months ago or so - I probably should have gotten a beer actually) and sat down. This was a 3-d showing, so even though Tokyo might be a falling apart (it isn't) we are still forced to watch movies in 3-d. The 3-d glasses hurt my nose, and the 3-d itself hurts my eyes. Other people seemed to like it though.
How was the movie? I liked it. It was not as good as a Pixar film in my opinion. I didn't like how the movie opened: I didn't like any of the main characters aside from Rapunzel. I couldn't sympathize (and out-right disliked) Rapunzel's mother, which I guess is the point. Sadly, I also didn't really like my introduction to Flynn, who was meet as he is stealing a crown. I don't want to like a thief. Perhaps a friendly thief who is nobly stealing from the wealthy people who are cruel and injust, but I kind of liked the King and Queen. Why are you taking their stuff? And perhaps if his band of merry thieves were nice guys, that would be ok, but his conspirators (the excellently-named Stabbington Brothers) were mean too! And then Flynn betrayed them! I see that the fabula (hi Dave Elson!) of the story wants to show us how Flynn is redeemed (by the way are 11 year old kids thinking about story presentation and structure, or just laughing when Flynn gets hit on the head?) by the end of the story, but this movie got off on the wrong foot.
I did love Maximus from the start though, and he definitely stole the show. As movies go, it was pretty good. Of the songs in the film the only piece I really liked from the soundtrack was "I've Got A Dream" - the other songs just did not really stick with me.
Looking back after a day, I do think it is good movie, but would be much harder pressed to say so if Maximus the horse wasn't in it. Other things of note: the movie theater did have a lot of people in it, even though our show was not sold out. Our show should have been sold out; there are just too many people in Tokyo who like movies and Disney for this movie not to be sold out on all screens opening day on a three day weekend (we have Monday off, a normally scheduled holiday.)
After the movie we walked over to Midtown Tower. On the way we passed a few places that I took quick snapshots of. We passed a Pachinko parlor that didn't have all their garish lights and noises on. They were still open (lots of people have some spare time on their hands since some businesses are closed, or maybe they are in Tokyo staying with friends and family) but didn't have on the full-bright signs and neon. It was nice actually. There was also a Mizuho Bank branch with people outside it preparing to open the place. Mizuho Bank closed down their ATM system and bank branches all over the country (my bank, Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ was ok) and are re-opening this weekend. An arcade in Roppongi was shut down. They were probably trying to conserve energy, and also there just were not as many people out on the streets as there normally would be. I don't spend too much time in Roppongi - a kind of downtown area with lots of bars and clubs - but even I could tell that foot traffic was down significantly from what it should have been for a Saturday night.
The Fuji Film shop was closed as well. I took the picture because the new Fuji FinePix X100 camera has been getting a lot of attention in the photography world lately. I would have liked to have stopped in to check it out.
Tora Japanese Sweet Shop
Tora Japanese Sweet Shop
Whew, prices are shooting up: these strawberries cost $192!
Checkerboard Strawberries. Better, only $130.
Tokyo Midtown is home to some fancy shopping. One of the places we stopped at before dinner was Tora, a well-known Japanese Sweet shop. I bought some sweets that we will bring to R.'s family dinner tonight, and I also bought an Azuki bean canned tea that I'll try later (maybe when I need more blog content fodder.) The shop was immaculate with very attentive staff, and not as many customers as I would expect. We weren't the only people in there though, so that is one good sign.
We also stopped by a fruit shop. It wasn't intentional; the delicious smell that wafted out of the shop enticed me in against my will. Fruit in Japan is often given, immaculately wrapped and presented, as a gift. This shop had a lot of nice smelling and looking fruit, but the white strawberries were something I hadn't seen locally. I had heard of them - ridiculously expensive cross-bred strawberries going for $15 each individually wrapped - but hadn't seen them at my local supermarket. This upscale store had them. We passed. I was tempted to buy one of the single serving strawberries, but not that tempted. The store sure did smell nice though.
We then headed to the Union Square Tokyo and our dinner. It is a nice looking place; check out that chandelier. The staff were very friendly and seated us. The place was pretty empty though. Last order is at 9pm (very early, I don't know if that is normal or not) but at 6pm we were the first party seated, excluding the people at the bar. The bar did have a pretty good crowd, most of the seats filled, about 10 people or so I would guess.
We had an nice table with a view of the park outside the complex, and saw some interesting cars go by over dinner. I saw at least one super expensive Mercedes, and the neon-lit advertising bus was amusing also.
We chatted with our server as I looked over the wine list. I chose a 2008 Red Label Claret from Newton Vineyards, a Napa Valley joint. It was a nice wine, better than what we drink at home (Carlo Rossi box wines - hey don't laugh!) I was asking our server a bit about the effects of the earthquake. He told me that all week the area had fewer people around than normal. Usually they have about 60% of their tables reserved in advance, but since the earthquake 90% of those reservations had been canceled. No wonder we were able to get a table so easily. It sounds like business is really down in general, and my guess is that is a reasonable reflection of what all of Tokyo looks like. I'm hoping for more of a recovery as mass transit and supply chains recover, but as you will see there are no problems with our dinner. One other interesting thing is that when they had the earthquake, the building was of course safe. It was built only two years ago, and has the latest in Earthquake Safety. What was amazing is that normally the building has 20,000 people working in it. That is the size of some small cities. You are safer inside a modern Japanese tower in an earthquake than outside of one. One of the things you need to worry about if you leave a tower is falling glass or other debris, but you don't need to worry about that inside the tower.
Anyway, we looked over the menu and in the end went with the tasting menu, a reasonable (for tasting menus) $100. Shoot, that's less than a box of strawberries! I was tempted to go for the Iberico Pork as the main course since R. was going to get the steak, but she said she would not share any of her steak with me so I had to get the steak also. She's right though, I probably would have tried to eat half her steak along with the pork, so this was probably the best solution.
Fresh ham, mozzarella, tomato and strawberry salad
Gnocchi with wild mushrooms
What? This is *my* steak!
A minor interruption to the meal
Frozen pudding and kumquats
Not very busy
Roppongi Road at night
The dinner started off with a really interesting salad. Fresh ham, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and strawberries. The salad was lightly drizzled with a strawberry and vinegar sauce that was delicious. I was surprised, but the ham cheese tomato and strawberry flavors worked very well together. This dish really struck me, a nice way to start the dinner, a bit sweet, and surprising. I'm not really much of a foodie so maybe this is a common combination, but it was the first time I had come across it. Shame they didn't use white strawberries.
The second dish was a very good Gnocchi. I've almost given up on Gnocchi at normal restaurants. I get excited, but then when they come they are always heavy and hard. These Gnocchi were soft and light, and the mushroom and sauce was an excellent compliment. I used the remainder of my bread to soak up the sauce. Very nice.
The main course came up next, an excellent steak with a side of mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes (which I love in general and make at home frequently) were sweet and delicate. I think they must be using much better potatoes than I have access to at home, and I don't how they got that slightly sweet flavor out of them. The steak was great. I should have asked where the steak was sourced from, but it skipped my mind. I really like the side of salt they put on the side of dish used to flavor. I should have asked what kind of salt that was too, but I was too busy trying to eat the food to ask much about it. I guess that is why I am not much of a foodie.
Shortly into the main course, a small earthquake struck. It shook the room up a bit. Near the tail end of it I pulled out my camera and took a short movie (just a few seconds) of the chandelier. Talking to our server (who came to top off our wine) that Chandelier was apparently going bananas during the main Earthquake on Friday. We all know how it is, your massive Crystal Chandelier at home is swinging wildly during one of the earthquakes, and you need to advice your guests to be careful. We've all been there. (Note: we do not have a chandelier of any kind at home.) You'll notice that the bartender is dancing around a bit. He was interesting all night, entertaining the diners. The whole staff was very friendly and talkative.
After we were mildly interrupted by a small earthquake we finished off the main course, and dessert came out along with (decaffeinated in my case) coffee and tea for R. The dessert was a pudding with kumquats. The pudding was almost like ice cream, and was delicious. I'm not a huge kumquat fan (I haven't really had too many) but they were tart and sweet. I would have preferred more of the pudding actually, or maybe even some real ice cream.
After finishing off our meal, we took a walk around in the park surrounding the complex. It was dark, so none of my pictures turned out. We were both stuffed though, and appreciated a bit of time to walk off what we had just eaten. We took the train from Roppongi to Ebisu on the Hibiya line, and then transferred to the Shonan Shinjuku line to Osaki, and did a final transfer to the Rinkai line to get back home. We had to wait around more than usual - normally there is a train direct from Ebisu to home, but due to the reduced train schedules (due mostly to power conservation policies) the train schedule is running at a reduced rate. We made it home a bit after 9:30pm, but I could not tell you how long our meal or walk too, so I don't know how long it took to get home. Not too long anyway, we were both full and satiated, with a nice dinner behind us and good long sleep ahead of us.
So I was very encouraged by this outing. Other people are out and about, and if you want to spend some money on a nice meal you can certainly get one. We still don't have rice at our local supermarket, but that is more from hoarding and disturbed supply chains than a lack of rice in the country. We've actually got some rice at home now since we borrowed some from R.'s parents, who have plenty.
The trains are running at reduced schedules, but we are able to get around the city just fine. I usually ride my bike anyway, so the trains are a moot point for me (unless it is raining.) I didn't notice any radioactive mutants out in the city streets, but I wasn't looking too hard. I also don't think either of us picked up any radioactivity. At least I still needed my glasses this morning and I can't shoot webs from my wrist, so I think there isn't enough radiation in Tokyo yet to start turning us into super heroes and villains.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization the actions taken by the Japanese Government are fine. They are not recommending that people leave Tokyo. They do recommend that people not go to the area immediately impacted and devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, rightly so.
Right now, I think the best thing I can do as a human in Tokyo is try to return to a normal lifestyle, let the rescue workers do their job, and try to remember that the true danger and tragedy is not radiation from nuclear power plants (I believe at worst the radiation measured in Tokyo was half the normal level in Denver, Colorado) but is the 250,000 people currently homeless due to the tsunami, the 10,000 missing, and the tragic loss of 1,000 lives. (These numbers are all just off the top of my head, based on what the TV has been reporting last night. I am not an expert.) I plan to give blood, but when I talked to R. about that, currently the recommendation is to wait for a month or two and given then. It will still be needed then, and blood has a shelf life, so while many people have generously donated blood following the earthquake, this will be an ongoing need and donating a bit later might be better.
Also, I think if I can help save the Japanese economy by eating more delicious steak, I should do that.
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