Because we knew we wanted to experience Shibuya at night, we decided to also grab dinner in the area. According to our guide books, the area is teeming with department stores and restaurants, so we figured that finding somewhere that was relatively accessible to eat wouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
Well, we were half right.
There were certainly a lot of restaurants, but most of them seemed to skew towards the fast-food end of the eating scene. I was feeling a bit greasy and desperately wanted some veggies of some kind, so going into a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl or a CoCoCurrry, just didn’t appeal. As we wandered about looking at places, I started to feel really overwhelmed by the distinct lack of English on most menus we were seeing. And of course, the places that had pictures or plastic food models didn’t make the food look all that appetizing, so we were in a bit of a pickle. I was still feeling really uncomfortable about walking into a place and being faced with blank stares if we started to speak English… that element of the unknown—would they be able to understand us or not?—really unnerved me. At one point we almost decided to eat at a place where you use a machine out front to select your meal (no talking involved!), but the only problem was that we couldn’t figure out which buttons corresponded to the pictures of food we saw on a separate menu as the buttons all had kaji on them! After two dinners that were incredibly adventurous, I was really not feeling like eating a meal that would potentially be a complete mystery to me. Call me crazy, but sometimes I like to actually know what I am ordering!
It wasn’t my finest moment, but I admit that I began to panic and get quite upset. Shibuya is incredibly busy and bright, and really, I was feeling overstimulated. I know many travelers find Japan to be really easy, but it is REALLY discombobulating to be in a place where you can’t even guess what items on a menu are if there aren’t pictures; I don’t speak Italian, but it’s similar enough to French, which I do speak, that I can at least pronounce items on menus and hazzard a pretty good guess at what they might be… there is no possible way to do this with Japanese. To make matters worse, half the time the prices on menus aren’t written in Arabic numbers either, so on top of ordering a mystery meal, the final bill can often be a complete surprise too (and in pricey Japan, that definitely makes me nervous). All told, dining out by yourself is almost always an adventure, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also stressful at times. Then again, this was only our third dinner in Japan, so as much as I think we were doing our best to embrace the unknown, all of this was still incredibly new and well outside our comfort zones, so perhaps I was expecting too much of myself to believe that I could throw myself into a place where nothing is familiar save for my travel partner, and not find the bedrock of my being just a little shaken.
Thankfully, Tony is incredibly patient and calm, and after taking some time to listen to me vent my fears and anguish about not knowing what was going on, we finally decided to take a chance on a downstairs restaurant that looked like a little scuzzy yakitori bar. Although there wasn’t any English on the menu outside, there were pictures, and we figured that if when we walked in and said “Eigo?” (English?) they turned us away, the world would not end and we would try somewhere else.
Well, after expecting a little hole in the wall, you can imagine our confusion (as if we weren’t already confused!) at wandering into a place that was not a bar, but actually a fairly fancy restaurant. When we were shown to our table, the waitress gave us a menu that took up about half the table’s length it was so big and, thankfully, was filled with pictures! And as we looked even closer, there was even miniscule English inscribed below the pictures! We were saved! No mystery dinner tonight!
Of course, a closer look at the menu, revealed it to be the oddest assortment of dishes possibly ever assembled in one place. We went in thinking it was a yakitori place, and indeed, skewers of various grilled meats were presented on the first page of the menu. The second page had various sashimi options… So far, nothing so unusual. But then as we turned the pages, the choices became increasingly odd, and were not grouped together in any way that made sense to us. Watch the video below, as I take you through some of the highlights of this menu:
From french fries, to tofu & pig ears stir fry, this menu was all over the map. Given the stupefying array of choices (seemingly something for everyone), I had the realization that we must be eating at the Japanese version of The Cheesecake Factory! How else to explain why the menu had baguette pizzas alongside deep-fried chicken knees?
Although the pickled pork uteri looked tempting (just kidding! I mean, it was available, but we never considered ordering it…), we decided to stick to our original plan and ordered a variety of yakitori skewers. Once again, some of our choices were a bit unconventional (so much for a safe, non-threatening meal), but really, how often do you get to eat grilled chicken gizzards? (Click on images to see what we ate!)
Despite some of our oddball choices, the food was actually fine, if a tad salty (and misrepresented in the photos as none of the things were as big as the menus made out!), though nothing was so good that I can figure out why so many Japanese people came tumbling into this place and were eating with such enthusiasm. With the exception of the bacon (which tasted fishy and weird…I never thought I’d encounter bacon I didn’t like!), everything was solid, and pretty much the quality you would expect at a Cheesecake Factory in the U.S.
Now given that I rarely eat at the Cheesecake Factory when it’s in my own backyard, I wasn’t exactly happy to be eating in a similar style chain in Japan. But you know what? It wasn’t all bad, not at all! Sure the food didn’t knock our socks off, but they had an English menu (for the most part… none of the drinks were in English, and some of the dishes were only described in something that would be best described as resembling English), everything was exceedingly cheap, it was the first place in 3 days that would accept a credit card, AND at the very end of our meal, we were given watermelon for dessert! Our first fruit in days (because yes, everything you have heard about pricey fruit in Japan is true! 500Y for ONE apple is not uncommon, and in fact, is kind of a steal).
There are probably several lessons to take away from this story, but probably the biggest one we would offer is not to eat near Shibuya Crossing. Our dining experience certainly wasn’t bad, but after thinking we were going to eat at a tiny mom & pop kind of place and clearly still getting a chain dining experience, we’d say that you’re best popping by the area to check out Shibuya Crossing, then jump the subway to elsewhere. The area really is pretty touristy and emphasizes fast-food & chain dining establishments, and with all the great food there is to eat in Japan, I wouldn’t waste a meal eating in this area again.
And of course, if anyone out there reads Japanese, please let us know if you know the name of this restaurant and/or if you recognize it! Were we in fact eating at the Japanese Cheesecake Factory?!?