Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 11 1997 3:30 AM

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan

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       We had dinner last night at a restaurant near our office, in the Omotesando section of Tokyo. Some people call this tree-lined boulevard the Paris of Tokyo, but that's a bit of a stretch, much like calling Central Park the Montana of New York. It would take more than a few open-air cafes to make this city French. Still, Omotesando is a lovely area, where young couples wander happily along the wide sidewalks past art galleries, the sleek showroom of Japanese clothes designer Hanae Mori, and a slew of interesting boutiques. Omotesando and its younger, trendier neighbor, Harajuku, are Tokyo's prime sites for watching new fashion fads. Platform shoes have been big here lately: Last night, we saw a woman with 4-inch-high red velvet ones. Lime green is the hot color nowadays, and we saw one guy dressed head to toe in it: He looked like a popsicle. One of our friends at dinner even showed up in a lime green polo shirt. The cool kids cruise Omotesando nonstop, hitting landmarks like Condomania, which--you guessed it--sells nothing but condoms, every kind from strawberry-flavored ones to those specially designed for men based on their blood type (honest). Interesting tidbit: Japan has the world's highest rate of condom use, largely because birth-control pills are illegal here.
       Our friends Jesper Koll and Kathy Matsui had found a new restaurant they wanted to try out, so seven of us headed that way. Tucked away on a side street, the place is very hip, and an indication of what's going on in the Japanese economy these days. Ten years ago, this piece of property was probably worth more than the assessed value of Capitol Hill. But Japan's "bubble economy" has burst like an overpumped water balloon, and land prices have plummeted. Some prime real estate in Tokyo is now worth just 20 percent of its value a few years ago. That's good news for young entrepreneurial chefs, who can now afford to start up their own places. Many of them have begun new ventures like this one, which is to standard Japanese restaurants what lime green bell-bottoms are to navy blue business suits.
       First we took off our shoes, because some things never change. (By the way, is it just us, or does anyone else think that if American restaurants made customers leave their shoes by the door, an awful lot of people would have their shoes stolen?) We were led to a private room in the back, which was a little worrisome. Often, private rooms are the least interesting spaces in Japanese restaurants. They are considered formal and elegant, but we usually find that they distance you from whatever buzz and atmosphere has been created in the restaurant's main room. But this turned out to be different. We walked past the diners sitting on mats at the sushi counter and others sitting on the floor around low square tables. Way in the back, we turned into a tiny passageway, where we stepped on slates set in a bed of gravel. At the end, we ducked through a small entryway, like a cave entrance, into a dimly lit room. In traditional Japanese style, there was a long, narrow table for about eight people. The space beneath the table was sunken, so we had plenty of room for our legs, even while sitting on the floor. One of the two small lamps that gave the room its warm glow was a simple bulb inside a straw basket. Already waiting for us were a dozen small dishes: eggplant stuffed with raw tuna, a salad of avocado and caviar, raw beef sashimi, short ribs, a casserole of potatoes and squid, and various raw fish and seaweed dishes. The food kept coming, delivered by a chef who came and went through a tiny sliding door in the wall. The bill was a shocker: With beer, the total tab came to $40 per person. In a city where one cup of coffee can cost $10, that's practically a free meal.
       Economists and pundits are making lots of gloomy noises these days about the state of the Japanese economy. We're sure they have their reasons, but this cozy restaurant in Omotesando is certainly one little economic indicator to cheer about.
       Japanese taxis are also a reason to love this place. Some of them have tiny electronic screens that display the latest news, ticker-tape style. Others have tiny vending machines that sell soft drinks. Some have a little recorded voice reminding you not to forget your valuables. Taxi drivers here are almost always polite, and they wear white gloves. One of them once drove all the way to our house to return a briefcase left in his taxi. (Solo note from Mary: I did this. I also once left a bag containing our tax returns for the last five years in another restaurant in Tokyo. The waiter handed it to me when we returned two weeks later. He asked if we were sure we could afford to eat out so often.) All cabs here have a lever on the dashboard that the driver uses to open and close the rear door for passengers. It is very bad form for a customer to touch the door. Friends of ours who have lived in Tokyo for years tell hysterical stories of visiting New York and walking away from taxis without closing the door, or tipping, which is also a no-no here. New York cabbies do not appreciate the humor in this. They just scream. At times like that, you remember: It's more than just the Pacific Ocean that separates Japan and America.

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan are co-bureau chiefs for the Washington Post in Tokyo.