COVID Diary: Sampling Shimo

As society grapples with COVID, I am reminiscing about past travel experiences, starting with a once-in-a-lifetime April 2019 trip to Japan.

For the Japan trip, my partner did the big-picture planning of the trip while I scoured the net for tips on manners, foods to try, and sights to see. We were avid AirBnB users and, given the countless neighborhoods in a megalopolis of 20-plus million, he was dead set on finding an area to stay that was just right and scoured the net for tips. We could have hardly done better than Shimo-Kitazawa. Online, it’s billed as a sort of hipster haven that those “in the know” call Shimo. While I’m not sure what counts as a hipster in Japan the location was ideal, with its two intersecting train lines and twisting streets packed with boutiques, cafes, and restaurants.

Urban density, the term for how people, services, or commerce cluster in the built environment, can not capture the dizzying concentration of everything across most of Tokyo. In America, density is often associated with skyscrapers but not so here. What’s startling to Americans is how, in Shimo and all residential areas, the vibrancy is achieved with such low-rise buildings. This, of course, forces the need for small living quarters that, in turn, encourages people to be outside to eat and socialize that encourages the palpable vibrancy. The apartment we found was a studio the size of a medium U.S. bedroom, with just a full mattress for our two not-small, not-short bodies.

The first night we slept well but were wide awake by five a.m. From the start, it was a race to see, learn, and sample as much as possible, given the finite time to explore such an infinite place. We marched from the studio, across the train tracks, right to the red, white, and blue awning for a taste of something we heard of on Anthony Bourdain’s show – the Lawson egg sandwich. Lawson is one of Japan’s many convenience store chains – conbinis – with FamilyMart, Circle K, and 7/11 of all things, which is uncanny because its biggest of them all and ever-present. The conbibis are what you’d expect in the US, selling food, cigarettes, and lotto – except much better. The food is freshly-made daily and seasonal, most are open 24/7, and even though some are barely 200 feet apart, often their selection is a tad different, requiring you go into each one to see what surprises it holds, be it a limited-edition something, Russian ice cream, or just more of those damn egg sandwiches that are the first to sell out. All the chains carry them, but many agree that Lawson’s are the best.

So there we were, giddy and very jet lagged, with a bag full of the magical sandwiches and a myriad of unknown snacks and drinks. Even though I read eating in public is verboten, for a lack of benches we sat on a curb in front of Shimo’s beautiful train station that opens to a sizable plaza. And yes, the sandwiches were just as promised – crustless and with spongy milk bread filled with egg salad, a dish that in America is questionable at best transformed into a fluffy, decadent treat. We watched buskers and partiers going home and, after a bit, a wiry and still-drunk man came up to us to chat. It was the first of many such exchanges and over the next two weeks, we had many conversations short and long with strangers everywhere we went that are some of my fondest memories of the trip. But in that moment, we scarfed down the rest of the sandwiches and rushed off from our tipsy friend, so quick I didn’t even have time to say his fly was down.

And, if ever in Tokyo, Shimo is worth visiting even if it is one of dozens areas worth seeing, but nowhere else could one go to a bakery run by a relative of Hayao Miyazaki, the retired-too-soon animator most famous in the U.S. for Spirited Away, but whose work is a genre onto itself. Early in college, I drove an hour to Boulder, CO just to see one of his films, Howl’s Moving Castle, in a movie theater because in 2005 liking anime was still a questionable thing. But the Japanese seem to have a particular love for his 1989 film, My Neighbor Totoro, which is why this man has made a killing selling officially-licensed not-cheap cream puffs shaped like that movie’s characters and nothing else. I almost forgot about it, so we went on our last day in Shimo. And even though this bakery is just blocks away from the Shimo station, it is hidden at the top of a hill at the corner of two residential side streets facing the Shimo train tracks. Once there, a tiny staircase leads to the tiny bakery with a single case of the four cream puff flavors plus signed art from the movie. We got a box of four and tea and went back to the also-tiny patio. Of course they were delicious, but also massive, and each bite seemed to be the daily caloric intake. We split one and took the rest back. That morning, I remembered them right before leaving to catch our final train from Shimo. Quickly, I shoved them in the suitcase and ran out the door. A week later, I found them again the night before us leaving Japan, slightly mushed and unrefrigerated. Despite my partner’s concern, my thriftiness and determination to sample everything got the better of me and I downed them with some green tea.