On a recent trip to Tokyo, I informed my wife’s Japanese cousins of my impending arrival and was met with the following email which I shall simply offer with no interpretation.
Hello, It becomes seem energetic and dependence.
I’m energetic as usual.
It continues, and the recession worries also by
the company because of the business slump here,too.
It wishes that it want you to recover business early.
Of course your country too.
So this Sunday, I’m looking forward to seeing you.
The business trip must go well.
And, become happy trip, Naoko.
I promptly replied with a much less poetic message espousing my energy. Apparently my last trip to Tokyo in late 2009 had been taken as a clear sign that the global economy is in recovery. I was delighted to receive an equally positive series of messages from another cousin, including this one:
It decided it.
Harajuku Station (Omotesando entrance) at 1:00PM of Sunday, the 27th
Shinichiro, Naoko, and I go.
It looks forward to meeting soon.
Please do happy travel, TAKIKO ＼(^o^)／
I upheld my duty to bring positive energy into Tokyo and set out to spread the word on my favorite feel-good food: chocolate. Seeing an opportunity in their enthusiasm, I quickly recruited Naoko-san, Takiko-san and Shinichiro-san to help with a little experiment – Street Tasting in Tokyo. But how would I get people, Japanese people no less, to eat chocolate on the street in a culture that considers eating in public places to be rude and that is generally in a state of near-panic about the spread of H1N1? I decided to stage my little experiment in one of the few places where Japanese are allowed to behave like someone else: Harajuku.
Tasting Chocolate in Harajuku
Harajuku is a Tokyo neighborhood famous for its “Harajuku kids” – kids and young adults dressed in wacky fashions of their own invention. It’s been going on for years as a safe form of youthful rebellion. Often groups of kids will dress in a coordinated theme or you might see individuals doing their own thing. It’s well-known that Japanese culture doesn’t exactly encourage individualism, but the Harajuku scene provides an opportunity for creative expression at least for a few.
I’ve visited Harajuku some 10 to 15 times, but only recently observed what appears to be a new trend: the kids are no longer just kids. People of all ages have gotten into the act. Why not? If anything, adults are more, not less in need of an expressive outlet – to slip out of character, to be someone else for an afternoon or just act a little goofy. This time, I found “Charisma-man,” a dancing dude, and a guy wearing something that looked like furry pink Mickey-mouse ears. All grown adults.
So with plenty of potential victims to choose from, we approached the crowd with a video camera and some Taza chocolate. After explaining that this was special stone ground, organic chocolate from the USA, we asked people to compare two flavors: Taza Chocolate Mexicano Vanilla and Taza Chocolate Mexicano Yerba Mate . We filmed it all, but I have to apologize for the video quality because my camera apparently didn’t survive the trip as well as I did and something was wrong with the exposure. Anyway, the video is too entertaining to skip, so please try to get beyond the distorted skin tone.
This first guy enjoyed bouncing around to the beat of his own boom box. He had a little routine where he would take his shirt off in a dramatic way only to put it back on again and repeat the whole process for a new audience. His favorite was Yerba Mate which he said “felt good on my tongue.” He also described the chocolate as “crispy” and having a “very swift, light taste.” Although these wouldn’t be my choice of words, he did capture part of the unique charm of Taza’s stone-ground approach – a rustic more granular texture.
This guy was a riot with his faux marshal arts moves and some kind of monologue in Japanese that flew over my head. I got a little concerned when 30 seconds after we started our interview the police showed up and started questioning him. Even though I feared we had broken the “no filming people eating chocolate on the street law,” I kept filming through it. It turns out that some tourists simply wanted to know when Charisma Man would start jumping around again. And with a little help from some dark chocolate, he did.
Charisma Man liked the Taza Stone Ground Vanilla the best for which he thanked us…repeatedly. Apparently, our friend in the yellow jumpsuit is an aspiring comedian and uses Harajuku as a sort of viral marketing environment for self promotion. Good luck Charisma Man!
For our last interview we found some youth even if they weren’t dressed in typical Harajuku kids attire, if there is such a thing. These two girls were best friends, one around 15 and the other a bit older. While the adults struggled to find something specific to describe this interesting and unconventional chocolate, using general words like “crunchy” and “sweet,” it took a 15 year old to really understand the characteristic fruitiness of minimally-processed chocolate. Maybe it was because her taste buds had not yet been dulled by years of cigarettes and shochu or maybe it was because she was too young to have any preconceptions about what flavors belong in chocolate and what don’t – a mind and a pallet open to any possibility. Either way, she nailed it in one word: “raspberries.” Amazing.
These girls both liked the Stone Ground Vanilla Dark Chocolate the best, bringing the final score to 3-1 in favor of vanilla.
How to Get There and What to See
Major airlines service Tokyo’s Narita Aiport daily. Once you exit baggage claim, go straight across the hall to the counters where you can buy tickets to the limousine bus service to your hotel for about 3000¥. A taxi to downtown would be easily more than $150). Some people prefer the speed of the Narita Express train. You can buy train tickets near the limousine bus counter or follow the signs downstairs to the train ticket counter. This train takes you to Tokyo Central Station and from there you can take a taxi to your hotel. This option is slightly more expensive, but may be faster during rush hour. There is space at the end of each train car for large bags.
Once in Tokyo, hop on what has been called “the most important train line in the world” – the Yamanote line (yah-mah-no-tay). The Yamanote circles Tokyo and hits most of the important and interesting neighborhoods. Best of all, the stations and trains have signs and maps in English and are relatively easy to use.
To see the Harajuku scene, get off at the Harajuku stop. Follow the crowd through the turnstiles to exit the station at the Omotesando exit and continue straight on. After you are outside of the station, follow the sidewalk around to the right and you are there. Bring your camera and ask first before taking photos.
Continue past the “Harajuku kids” and you will see a gigantic gate entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, one of Tokyo’s largest. Expect to walk about a half mile along wide gravel paths to reach the shrine (yes, you can push a baby stroller on this path with some difficulty if you are determined). The walk is enjoyable in itself as you pass through a forested oasis in the middle of Tokyo.
Pass the Meiji Jingu Shrine entrance and follow the sidewalk around the bend to the left and then just to the right are usually street vendors and the entrance to Yoyogi koen (park). This is a nice spot if you are still in the mood for a walk and want to watch people relaxing or teenagers playing pseudo-martial arts games.
Shopping and Eats
To find a plethora of restaurants and shops, exit the station and go left to cross the street using the overhead walkway. The first few blocks are mostly restaurants, and the shops begin after that. There’s a ramen shop on the corner when you come down from the overhead walkway that has a line out the door on the weekends, so it must be good. The Omotesando mall is up on the left about ¾ mile.
If you want to see some funky shops where the “Harajuku Kids” get some of their garb, go left inside the station as soon as you exit the turnstiles, cross the road and follow sidewalk to the left. Take a right down the street on this map that has a McDonalds and 7- Eleven. You’ll find some fun tee-shirt shops as well as crêperies for a snack.
Please feel free to write if you want other recommendations.
Disclosures: I paid for all of the chocolate tasted in this story.