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The Hungry Man's Tokyo

By Adam Sachs
February 2, 2006
0603_tokyo
There's so much more to Japanese food than sushi, but you have to be willing to stick crazy-looking things in your mouth. Fortunately for us, that describes Adam Sachs to a T.

What you'll find in this story: affordable Tokyo restaurants, Tokyo cafés, descriptions of Tokyo cuisine, Tokyo neighborhoods

The cake had a strange but familiar taste to it. Ah, yes: plastic. Somewhere in an upscale subterranean food hall, I'd mistaken an all-too-realistic display for a sample and eagerly popped it into my mouth. Hastily unpopping the ersatz green-tea treat, I returned the plastic lump to the counter and smiled like a fool at the nice lady behind it. She smiled back forgivingly. She understood. This, after all, was Tokyo, where dining is always an adventure. You might not know what you're putting in your mouth, but you can't be blamed for trying it.

Eating habits tell you a lot about a place. In Japan, the clear message is: Plastics aside, no culinary obsession shall go unindulged. Most restaurants serve essentially one kind of food. Looking for a place that specializes in a particular regional variety of ramen? Name your noodle. Want a restaurant where everything on the menu is octopus? In Tokyo, you are not alone.

From the vending machines on every corner to the reverent care shown in traditional formal meals to the perfect $200 melon, it's obvious that this is a country that takes eating very, very seriously. No wonder I never learned the Japanese word for museum.

London has Harrods and Milan has Peck, but in Tokyo there are literally dozens of bright and bustling depachikas, high-end food halls packed into the basements of the city's many department stores. I've been to Tokyo a few times, and I invariably begin and end my visit at the depachikas--first to fall back into the rhythm of just wandering wide-eyed and agog (a good approach to this most overwhelming of mega-cities), and then, at the end of my trip, in a frenzy to buy all the stuff I can't get at home. The culinary bazaars sell an astounding array of things to eat, drink, and gawk at, both of local provenance and airlifted from around the world. (Harrods and Peck, in fact, are each represented by stalls within Tokyo depachikas.)

At the Matsuya depachika in ritzy Ginza, I graduated from plastic lumps to real raw tuna, crisp seaweed crackers flavored with eel or sour plum, and rosé champagne in miniature plastic cups. I had a tasting tour through the endlessly adaptable world of dango, deliciously gooey rice balls skewered and then dressed up in sweet edamame paste, dusted with soybean powder, or smothered in soy sauce and mint and other unlikely things. I ate kanten, a seaweed Jell-O with a split personality. In one role, cut into cubes drizzled with black-sugar syrup and adzuki bean paste, it played dessert. In another, it was a salty snack, sliced thinly to resemble noodles and served with soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, and tangy karashi mustard. These were just the free samples being handed out, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet.

The depachikas are as dizzying and fun to explore as the city itself. I passed museum cases of traditional Japanese confections next to precise replicas of Parisian patisseries, Viennese bakeries, and Italian gelaterias. There were fishmongers; dumpling makers; acres of orderly bento-box lunches, with sushi and tempura; and stalls serving indoor versions of street food like tako-yaki, the addictive, eggy little balls with pieces of octopus inside. Contentedly lost in this well-curated playground of global food obsessions, I thought, not for the first time, that Tokyo is the most exciting place to eat on the planet.

I have always liked fried pork cutlets, but it was only after coming to Tokyo that I realized you could make a full-time fetish of them. Restaurants devoted to tonkatsu--a crispy piece of pork encrusted in bread crumbs--tend to offer two cuts, the leaner hire and the fattier rossu. To say that the rossu is juicier than your average pork cutlet is like saying an orange is juicier than your average baseball.

You could probably spend your entire life trying to determine the best tonkatsu restaurant in Tokyo without ever exhausting your options--though it would be a shorter-than-usual life. The black pork at Hirata Bokujyou comes from the restaurant's own pig farm and is worth however many years it shaves off.

Charcoal-broiled eel is another one-note specialty with its own legions of followers and dedicated restaurants. There are cheap, satisfying unagi places all over town (many are identified easily by plastic eel displays in the window). For a more refined treatment, I poked around the maze of streets near Tokyo Tower until I found Nodaiwa, a 200-year-old restaurant in an old wooden house. The eel is caught wild and has a truly delicate, sweet, and smoky flavor. Everyone in the dining room was eating the exact same boxed lunch. The communal feeling reminded me of being in a jazz club, with a group of people quietly and reverentially enjoying the same music.

For every subcategory of cuisine, a subculture of obsession accompanies the food. Consider something as seemingly simple as a bowl of ramen. Countless noodle shops around the city serve more than 40 regional varieties of ramen. And for the armchair ramen aficionado, there are competing ramen-rating guidebooks, ramen awards, ramen TV shows, and a heated ramen debate that seems to boil like a broth just under the surface of polite society. (Worldramen.net is a good place to follow the debate in English.)

I never understood all the fuss until I went to Kyushu Jangara Ramen. After one slurp of the rich tonkotsu (pork bone-based) soup, I realized I had largely squandered my noodle-eating life. A little quality time at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum helped me atone for years of ramen ignorance. The ground floor is home to a gift shop, displays on the history of ramen, and, this being Japan, photo booths where you can get stickers printed up with an image of your face poised to eat a bowl of your favorite style of ramen. I now have stickers of myself with the Kyushu style, which has a rich broth and braised pork belly, and also often includes chopped scallions. Whenever the weather is below 100 degrees, some small part of my brain is always thinking about this soup.

Downstairs at the Ramen Museum is where the real action takes place. Two basement floors have been transformed into a virtual 1958 streetscape (a significant year, if only because that's when "instant noodles" hit the shelves). The neon-lit scene--with bars, street vendors, and lots of steamy ramen stalls--feels like a movie set. No matter how surreal the spectacle, however, nothing can top the truth: It's a museum dedicated to noodles.

In between working my way through the Japanese culinary classics, I enjoyed paying my respects to some of the less heralded oddball variants. Monja-yaki is a kind of food found in Tokyo that probably won't be the next hot trend anywhere else. For one thing, it's difficult to define. Imagine a liquid that becomes a solid that will probably end up in a gaseous state sometime later in the evening. (A Japanese friend described it as "like a sauce that's the meal.") Monja-yaki is as much an activity as it is a dish: The tables in a monja-yaki restaurant all have a hot griddle onto which a mishmash of batter, cabbage, and other implausible toppings are spread out and cooked until the concoction reaches a consistency somewhere between a pancake and fried cheese. There are hundreds of toppings to mix and match--squid, spicy cod roe, various meats, a blob of food called "pizza" that was hard to place. Diners at the table cook their own bits and serve themselves using tiny metal spatulas.

You'd think maybe one or two monja-yaki joints would be enough for any city, even one as big as Tokyo. But a few blocks from the Tsukishima subway stop is a long, narrow avenue called Tsukishima-Nishinakadori, surrounded by the impossible-to-forget sight of 70 nearly identical little restaurants that all serve this strange, fun, collective treat.

And then there's chanko, the food of sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers feed themselves heartily, and after their championship days are over, some of them open restaurants with enormous, anything-goes hot pots engineered to bulk us all up to fighting weight. At Chanko Dining Waka, run by the retired sumo wrestling star Wakanohana, a diminutive non-wrestler tended to a pot of boiling vegetable broth in the center of our table. He used wooden tongs to shape chicken meatballs that he plopped into the bowl, and he returned every few minutes to add more protein and vegetables to the broth. It's unpretentious late-night food, perfect for those moments when the exquisite subtlety of sashimi is not at all what's called for.

I have eaten some strange things in this town. Chicken sashimi. Raw horse. Whale steak. Even cod sperm-sac sushi. (1. Puddinglike. 2. Never again.) Come to think of it, I've also ordered in some strange ways. Te (pronounced tea) is a cool little lunch counter in Roppongi Hills where you order and pay via a retro-futuristic vending machine in the front of the store. Then you go inside and wait for your meal. A filling plate of spaghetti with mentiako (spicy cod roe) is about $7.

But for all the wild fun they have with their food, the Japanese are exceptionally serious about quality and freshness. The obvious place to see this devotion on display is Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world. Hauling giant, blood-red tuna carcasses, carts whiz down aisles lined with what appear to be every last one of the world's exotic sea creatures, laid out on ice. Beyond a small section of plastic cutlery stalls near the Kaikou-bashi entrance (in the general direction of Ginza), two long lines snake outside two sushi restaurants located three doors apart.

One is Sushi Dai (with a green shade in the window), the other is Sushi Daiwa. Both of the restaurants are very small and very good. I prefer Sushi Dai--for the extraordinary taste of the fish and the rice, the tight quarters of the twelve-seat bar, the steaming bowl of fishy miso soup, the little balls of pink salt lining the counter, and the fact that, a full year later, the chef remembered that I'd been in once before. I'm not really sure how to describe the fish except to say that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the best sushi I've ever eaten. And at about $30 for a substantial omakase (chef's choice) meal, it's a terrific deal in a town where high rollers can drop as much as $800 per person at one of the more famous sushi bars.

One evening I went with friends to the Kappa-bashi district, where restaurants (and amused gaijin, as foreigners are called) come to buy those perfect plastic food specimens. As tempting as it is to pick up a suitcase worth of the stuff, any decorator will warn you that it's not easy to find a fitting place to display a plate of fake pork ribs.

We had dinner plans at a place across town and intended only to take a short walk. But before we knew it we found ourselves around the corner, ordering a snack inside a boisterous robata-yaki called Tanuki. Robata-yaki are simple bar-restaurants where all the raw ingredients are on display. You point at whatever you want to eat--such as stingray fin, octopus, soft green tofu, even ginkgo nuts--and then take a seat at a big, long bar that faces a grill. Once the food is cooked, waiters pass it over the grill to the customers by using wooden oars. The oars also deliver mugs of beer, and before we knew what happened, we'd forgotten about our other plans for the night.

Only a few blocks from the fake-food district, we'd stumbled yet again onto something delicious. For me, the night captured the very essence of Tokyo: It's at once masterfully artificial and beautifully real.

Food

 

  • Matsuya Ginza 3-6-1, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3567-1211
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  • Kyushu Jangara Ramen Jingu-mae 1-13-21, Shibuya-ku, 011-81/3-3404-5572, tonkotsu ramen $5.50
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  • Hirata Bokujyou Coredo Building 4F, Nihonbashi 1-4-1, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-6214-3129, pork cutlet $15
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  • Nodaiwa Higashi-Azabu 1-5-4, Minato-ku, 011-81/3-3583-7852, boxed eel lunch $22
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  • Chanko Dining Waka Roppongi 4-1-9, Minato-ku, 011-81/3-3568-4507, bowl of chanko $22
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  • Tanuki Nishi-Asakusa 1-8-9, Taito-ku, 011-81/3-3845-1785, dinner $26
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  • Sushi Dai Tsukiji 5-2-1, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3547-6797, omakase lunch $31
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  • Oshio Tsukishima 3-17-10, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3531-7423, monja-yaki dinner $16
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  • Te Metro Hat B2F in Roppongi Hills, Roppongi 6-4-1, Minato-ku, 011-81/3-5413-9591, spaghetti with cod roe $7
  • Activities

     

  • Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum Shin-Yokohama 2-14-21, Kohoku-ku, 011-81/45-471-0503, $2.50
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    Inspiration

    In the Hills of Rio de Janeiro, Santa Teresa's Sweet B&Bs

    With a creak and a groan, the faded yellow tram lurches to life. As it has several times each day for the last 110 years, the Bonde leaves downtown Rio de Janeiro's Estação de Bondes Carioca station and begins the long, slow climb up the city's famed hills. It passes tall palm trees; groups of kids waving from the nearby favelas, the shantytowns built on the hills; walls speckled with graffiti; and the occasional shirtless man holding a cat as he gazes blankly out a window. About 10 minutes later, the tram grinds to a halt in Santa Teresa, Rio's bohemian quarter. Everyone knows about the city's gorgeous beaches, its hedonistic Carnaval, the majestic Christ statue known as the Corcovado. But Santa Teresa offers a different experience of Rio: an authentic neighborhood where peasant skirts trump thongs. At once charming and edgy, packed with art studios and gracious colonial houses, Santa Teresa stands in stark contrast to the glitzy scenes of Copacabana and Ipanema. "This is a village, a small city in a big one," says Lucia Miranda, a 20-year Santa Teresa resident and a salesperson at La Vereda, a handicrafts store. "I love it here." About a century ago, Santa Teresa was one of the most prestigious addresses a Carioca--the informal name for a Rio local--could have. Close to downtown but blessed with a cooler, less humid climate due to its hilly location, the district became home to many of the city's elite residents who built colonial and neoclassical mansions there. Over time, however, Santa Teresa's charm faded. A devastating flood in 1966 led many inhabitants to leave. In the 1980s, huge influxes of relocated northern Brazilians created favelas in the adjoining hills, and some of their violence spilled over. (It's still wise to be extra cautious in Santa Teresa, particularly at night and while on public transportation.) But in the 1990s, the beautiful buildings--and cheap prices--sparked the current gentrification. Today, many of those newly renovated mansions are taking guests, thanks to a B&B network called Cama e Café ("Bed and Coffee"). The three-year-old organization--the only one of its kind in Brazil--works with locals to make 50 to 80 houses available for overnight stays. "We really wanted to show the day-to-day lifestyle of a Brazilian family," says Carlos Magno Cerqueira, one of Cama e Café's three founders, who are all natives of Santa Teresa. Each guesthouse owner must complete a special training course with the program to learn the fine points of becoming a host. And using an online questionnaire, organizers narrow down the options, selecting three homes best suited to each potential visitor. "There's a nice relationship between the hosts and the guests," Cerqueira says. "If they're going to a party, they often take the guests along as a friend." One of the most spectacular B&Bs is a 1932 white art deco house owned by Guido Sant'Anna. Sant'Anna moved to Santa Teresa from a ritzier part of Rio three years ago, drawn by the memory of visiting his grandfather, who used to live in the area. He now rents out three rooms, each for $72 a night, the best of which has romantic blue walls and a terrace overlooking the city. Sant'Anna is also an accomplished baker; his signature creation is the Torta Crocante, a rich chocolate confection with a gooey interior and a crunchy top. Each morning, fresh breads and sponge cake are laid out for breakfast. Several other grand houses are open to visitors, though not overnight. The former home of a socialite at the Parque das Ruínas is used for open-air shows and other cultural events. Next door, another mansion has been transformed into the Museu da Chácara do Céu, a modern and contemporary art gallery with works by Picasso and Dalí. Many original objects and furnishings are on display, including a table setting in the opulent dining room. Cama e Café guests receive a card that entitles them to a free drink or appetizer at many area restaurants and discounts at local shops. La Vereda features crafts from Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state north of Rio. Trilhos Urbanos, a music and handicrafts store, specializes in works by Santa Teresa artists. Out back, there's a postage-stamp-size terrace where you can taste a variety of cachaças, the sugarcane liquor used in caipirinhas. "I came here for a love affair and never left," exhales Patricia Ford, a silver-haired Canadian, through a cloud of cigarette smoke at the Bar do Gomes, where the crowd spills out into the street. But while the affair ended, Ford's connection to her adopted village didn't. And one of her favorite things about Santa Teresa is the strong community she's found: "Everyone still knows everyone." "The people that live here think differently," says Ana Maria Clark, a psychologist and 17-year Santa Teresa resident, who rents out one room (for $72) in her bright peach 1908 colonial house. "They are more calm, more sensitive, more artistic." And that is perhaps most apparent at Santa Teresa's annual three-day Open Door Arts Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary at the end of July. About 75 artists open their studios to visitors, cafés sponsor poetry readings, and musicians jam on various street corners. Last year, some 30,000 people turned out, and this year, chances are the crowd will be even larger. Transportation Bonde Estação de Bondes, 011-55/21-2240-5709, 27¢ Lodging Cama e Café Rua Progresso 67, 011-55/21-2224-5689, camaecafe.com.br, from $32 Activities Parque das Ruínas Rua Murtinho Nobre 169, 011-55/21-2252-1039, free Museu da Chácara do Céu Rua Murtinho Nobre 93, 011-55/21-2224-8981, $2 Open Door Arts Festival chavemestra.com.br Shopping La Vereda Rua Almirante Alexandrino 428, 011-55/21-2507-0317 Trilhos Urbanos Rua Almirante Alexandrino 402a, 011-55/21-2242-3632 Nightlife Bar do Gomes Rua Áurea 26, 011-55/21-2232-0822, caipirinha $3

    Inspiration

    Chilling Out in Quebec

    In the past year, three Nordic-style spas have opened around Quebec City. The area's lakes and rivers make it well suited for the Scandinavian water cure, which consists of a thermostatic rotation: Sweat in a hot tub, sauna, or steam bath; dunk in cold water; rest; repeat. "What we offer here is nature. No traffic. No power lines. No distractions," says Hugues Lavoie, owner of Le Nordique, 25 minutes north in Stoneham. In winter, the spa cuts a hole in the ice of the Jacques Cartier River for the cooldown portion (747 Jacques-Cartier Nord, 418/848-7727, lenordique.com, day pass $25). Michel Carrier, owner of Sibéria Station Spa, a 10-minute drive from the city, says Quebec's European heritage makes it a fitting place for the Nordic cure. Sibéria Station's stone pools are flanked by man-made waterfalls, and the Mongolian yurt is a nice spot to relax, with a fireplace, chair hammocks, and a skylight (339 bd du Lac Beauport, 418/841-1325, siberiastationspa.com, day pass $25). Zonespa, unlike the other two spas, also offers fancier treatments, like wraps and facials. Next to the Mont St. Anne ski resort, about 45 minutes northeast of Quebec City, Zonespa caters to the après-ski crowd. Director Normand Lachance says the cure "relaxes your muscles like nothing else." (186 rang St-Julien, St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, 418/826-1772, zonespa.com, three-hour pass $30.)

    Inspiration

    Maui's Chic Boutiques

    The small town of Paia has long been the self-crowned windsurfing capital of the world, as well as a great place to grab a fish taco. But over the past few years, savvy boutique owners have taken notice of a steady stream of international passersby headed to Hana, and set up shop. The latest, and most famous, is Tamara Catz, who is about as close as you can get to a chichi Hawaiian fashion designer (83 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9184). You might have seen her clothes on the cover of the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Originally from Buenos Aires, Catz lives in the nearby town of Haiku with her husband, Francisco Goya, a competitive windsurfer. She chose Paia for her first store, which opened last April, because "everyone goes through Paia at one point. Plus, it's more authentic than other towns on the island." Known for bright colors and breezy cuts, Catz's clothes are too sophisticated to be categorized as beachwear. Her popular hand-embroidered pants ($155) transition seamlessly back to the mainland. The greatest concentration of cool shops is around the corner, along Baldwin Avenue. Bahama Mama is stocked with trendy jeans and sparkly tops by Custo-Barcelona, Von Dutch, and Rock & Republic that look as though they were shipped in from Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles (62 Baldwin Ave., 808/579-8188). A recent visit found Pucci-esque handbags by Donatella d'Aquino, made from vintage Hawaiian fabric ($86). Across the street, Alice in Hulaland stocks a cute mix of T-shirts with thick bands of color at the arm and neck holes (19 Baldwin Ave., 808/579-9922). The tees with Alice's signature kitschy logo--a Hawaiian girl sitting cross-legged with a ukulele--cost $25. In the sand-floored back room, there's an eclectic collection of island goods, like banana-patterned water-resistant fabric, which is great for tablecloths ($11 per yard); reproductions of 1950s tiki mugs ($8-$13); and yummy-smelling bars of fruity soap in six different flavors, including Ginger Papaya and Lemon Drop ($6). Even men who normally cringe at the thought of aloha shirts will have a hard time walking out of Moonbow Tropics empty-handed (36 Baldwin Ave., 808/579-8592). Silk bowling shirts and funky button-downs with retro prints by Kamehameha, Paradise Found, Kahala, and Tommy Bahama start at $58. Across the street from the post office is the two-year-old Na Kani O Hula, a shop with ukuleles ($48) and handmade uli'ulis (starting at $50), the feathered gourd rattles that hula dancers shake at luaus (105 Baldwin Ave., 808/573-6332). There's also the occasional entertainment: Owner Gayle Miyaguchi has been dancing the hula for 25 years, and when asked, she's happy to give a demo. The Paia Trading Company, along the Hana Highway, is one of the few places on the island where you can find genuine Hawaiiana at reasonable prices (106 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9472). Vintage postcards, Treasure Craft pottery, prints of Ted Mundorff flower paintings, monkeypod bowls, classic vinyl Elvis albums--you never know what you'll discover at the shop, which has been run by the same family for 30 years. The stock changes daily, but you can always be sure you'll get far better prices on originals here than on reproductions in other stores on the island. A few doors down, put your new fashion inspiration to work at Aloha Bead Company (43 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9709). Sarah Klopping has gathered hundreds of thousands of beads from around the globe in every shape, size, color, and material imaginable. With about $15 worth of raw materials and 30 minutes, you can string up a bracelet or necklace to bring home as your own little slice of Paia.

    Inspiration

    Europe on the Quick: A Long Weekend in Stockholm

    The cardinal rule of a long-weekend getaway: Don't do anything to make it less long--like miss your flight. My partner, Adam, and I took the subway to JFK airport, feeling pretty good about ourselves for getting to the AirTrain transfer earlier than we'd expected on a Wednesday afternoon. I scanned the list of airlines and their terminals. Saudi Arabian Airlines, Singapore Airlines . . . . Where was Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS? In Newark, it turns out. I called SAS. "The flight to Stockholm is never delayed," said the agent, drolly. "Except tonight." It took us a total of six trains to get there, but we made it. Having lived in a sublet while renovating a new apartment, Adam and I didn't travel much last summer, because there were always apartment-related things that needed to be done. And we didn't plan any big trips for after we moved in, because (a) renovating is expensive, and (b) we figured that all we'd want to do is savor finally being in our new place. But we found ourselves living inside a to-do list: Everywhere we looked, there was another task staring back. We needed to get away. In honor of a certain special someone's birthday--mine--I proposed a quick trip to Stockholm. While we may not have wanted to spend 10 days in the Scandinavian winter, three sounded like a hoot. I've always believed that part of the reason people travel is so they have something fresh to talk about, and right away, it was a relief to focus on something besides, say, the fact that our new oven makes a strange booming noise when it hits 200 degrees. I saw some appealing hotel/airfare packages, but bagged the package idea when I went to SAS's website. The airline was promoting a "Campaign Fare" on its home page: Newark (ahem) to Stockholm for $399, including all taxes. Our preferred dates were available, but every time I tried to book the flight, I kept getting error 140004. "Please try again later," the message said, so I did, every 15 minutes, convinced that someone was about to snap up the last two Campaign Fares. Eventually, I spoke with someone at the SAS offices in Sweden who knew how to fix the problem: I was entering myself as "passenger #1" and Adam as "passenger #2," but because Adam's last name comes before mine alphabetically, the system couldn't process it. That was a new one. I bought the Time Out guidebook to Stockholm and checked out a bunch of hotels online. Adam likes a hip hotel, and the Nordic Light fit the bill. It had a weekend deal for $140 a night, but it was only valid Friday and Saturday nights. I e-mailed asking if they'd kindly extend the rate to Thursday. One of the many benefits of traveling off-season is that hotels get much more flexible. Was it cold? Yes, generally about zero degrees Celsius--the sole Celsius temperature anyone can convert easily. Was it dark? The sun never got high in the sky, and it set around 4 p.m. The city's beauty was often accentuated by the long dusk: Restaurants place a pair of candles outside their doors, the very definition of a warm welcome. Was it fulfilling? Was it ever. Stockholm, situated on 14 islands, is geographically blessed: Walk 15 minutes and you'll probably end up with a water view. We didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about the city, and consciously didn't do a lot of advance planning. What was the point of trading one to-do list (our apartment) for another (guidebook essentials)? We mostly wandered, getting a real thrill when we'd happen upon something monumental. On the way to Gamla Stan--the old town, crisscrossed with narrow lanes--we passed a hulking brick building. I insisted we check it out, only to discover it was Stadshuset, the city hall. We entered a majestic courtyard, then passed through another set of arches, to a terrace area that runs right down to the water. It was like Venice for people who can handle the cold. Considering we'd never actually follow through on it, Adam and I spent a lot of time talking about moving to Stockholm, coming to the optimistic conclusion that we'd be happiest in the upscale neighborhood of Östermalm. Two parts, in particular, struck our fancy: Strandvägen, a waterfront street, and Karlavägen, a broad avenue with a park down the middle, like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. On Karlavägen, we stopped for lunch at the fussy little Café Foam. Seated next to us were three overly groomed young men and a woman with a Chihuahua dozing in her lap, forcing us to reconsider exactly how well we'd fit in. Stockholmers, generally, were just lovely. The day we arrived, we went for panini and double espressos at Tintarella di Luna, a café in the city center. A woman overhearing our conversation recommended several places we should see during our stay. At the time, we were surprised, but then it happened again and again: Locals would offer suggestions, or help us if we looked lost. As easy to manage as the city was, we still got that delicious sensation that we were somewhere foreign. For one thing, we saw no other Americans, and people thought we were Swedish. For another, while everyone spoke impeccable English, signs were written in Swedish, and maybe it's because I traffic in words for a living, but I love the Swedish language. They call an elevator a hiss, which had us ridiculously hissing the word--"Hisssssss! Hisssssss!"--every time we rode one. Instead of pull, doors are labeled drag, though not often enough. (Sweden, in my limited experience, has yet to realize that doors that push open shouldn't have handles. It leads folks like me to tug awkwardly, especially after we've had a glass of wine.) And the word chickybits, which we spotted on a street-food stall, makes me giggle just thinking about it. The shorter your trip, the less you should feel like you have to see everything--because you can't. Whether that's true or not, it gave us a nice excuse to laze about the hotel room. The front desk clerk, bless her, had upgraded us. (She didn't know that I work at Budget Travel, or that I was writing an article.) Our new room was remarkably small, but if the floor plan posted in the room was any indication, we got very lucky. We still found it relaxing, if only because there weren't unpacked moving boxes in the corner. We also decompressed at Sturebadet, a grand day spa, where we each had 20-minute massages--all they had available--and pondered using the gym. This will make me sound like a prude, and for obvious reasons I probably care less than most men, but I was shocked to see that women work inside the men's locker room. There's nothing like a trip to Sweden to make you realize you're not as progressive as you think you are. Three days just might be the ideal amount of time to get jolted out of one's routine. Any longer and we'd be in rehab: We don't really drink before dinner anymore, but we did on this trip--at Berns Hotel, a neat old building, and Fräcka Halvpannan, a restaurant in Söder (as locals call Södermalm, the hipster neighborhood) where our waiter was friendly to the point of perky. We don't drink after dinner, either, but that didn't stop us from going for a Carlsberg at Pelikan, an old beer hall in Söder. We drank, in part, because we couldn't get into a restaurant we wanted to eat at. We had read that you need to call ahead, especially on weekends, but we didn't pull it together to actually make reservations (see the part about decompressing, above). Sometimes we waited until a table was available, like when we went to Tranan, just north of the city center. I had the pork sausage, with potatoes drowning in cream; they were the richest thing I have ever eaten, and I'm no stranger to the dairy aisle. Another night, we planned on trying a restaurant called Matkultur, but the wait was an hour and 20 minutes, so we backtracked to a little Italian joint we'd passed, Zucchero. It reminded me of the kind of place where I'd eat when I was fresh out of college: The pasta was no more than fine, but it was fairly priced, the crowd was fun, and the room was done up in Italian kitsch. In another way, our trip to Stockholm was serendipitous. Every other shop there seems to be selling exactly the kind of housewares you buy when you've moved into a new place only to realize you hate everything you own. For some reason, we were on a quest for place mats. We bought plastic ones, based on Josef Frank fabrics, for $5.50 apiece at upmarket Svenskt Tenn in Östermalm, and woven ones for $3 at Granit, which is like Crate and Barrel with a cooler, more organic, almost Asian sensibility. The other two stores that made an impression on us were DesignTorget, a showcase for cutting-edge design where we bought pillowcases with electric guitars silk-screened on them, and Asplund, where I couldn't pass up a coffee mug illustrated with hippos. For the first time in awhile, thinking about our apartment became fun. Before we'd come to town, I had asked the photographer who'd be shooting this story, Martin Adolfsson, for advice on his city. I had never met Martin, but it turned out that he and his girlfriend were having a housewarming party the weekend we were there, so he e-mailed an invitation. I can count on one hand the times I've been invited to see how people in other countries truly live. I can also remember exactly the look on the face of the front-desk clerk at the Nordic Light when I asked her to translate the directions on the invitation. Martin had made it himself, using a photograph of Dave Chappelle as Rick James; IT'S A CELEBRATION BITCHES!!! was blazoned across the top in multicolored type. The party brought out our insecurities. Martin is 24, and we were sure he'd have hip, creative friends who would make us feel like yuppies at best, fogies at worst. The other guests were indeed hip and creative, and I didn't help matters when I said that we'd found Östermalm to be particularly charming. "It's not the real Stockholm!" protested Martin. He's right, of course. Then again, Beverly Hills isn't the real L.A., but I sure like to visit. As is often the case when people from two countries hang out, we talked a lot about cultural differences--the irony being that we have much in common. From what Martin's guests had to say, Scandinavia is obsessed with poker, sudoku, and Harry Potter. The Ikea lamp Martin has in his bedroom is the one I have in my office. And like at every party everywhere, most of the guests loitered in the kitchen. Adam and I had such a good time that we stayed a half hour longer than we intended, and we were late for a reservation at Bistro Süd, which Martin had recommended. He insisted we come back afterward, as they were going to play Ping-Pong at Lysy Pingwin, a bar around the corner. (He even did a sprightly Ping-Pong jig.) Alas, we're older and more bourgeois than we like to admit. I learned later that the party went on until 5:30 a.m. It was snowing, the first of the winter, and as we walked across Söder to Bistro Süd, where we had a wonderful birthday dinner of steak frites and Arctic char, I felt more alive than I had in months. If that's not why we travel--and the best reason for going anywhere, at any time of year--I don't know what is. Transportation   Arlanda Express 011-46/8-588-890-00, arlandaexpress.com, one-way $24 Lodging   Nordic Light Hotel Vasaplan 7, 011-46/8-50-56-30-00, nordiclighthotel.se Food   Tintarella di Luna Drottninggatan 102, 011-46/8-10-79-55, panini $6   Café Foam Karlavägen 75, 011-46/8-660-09-96, panini $8.50   Berns Hotel Näckströmsgatan 8, 011-46/8-566-322-00, berns.se, beer $6.50   Fräcka Halvpannan Bondegatan 57, 011-46/8-642-20-70, cocktail $6   Tranan Karlbergsvägen 14, 011-46/8-527-281-00, pork sausage $12   Bistro Süd Swedenborgsgatan 8, 011-46/8-640-41-11, steak frites $26   Zucchero Borgmästargatan 7, 011-46/8-644-22-87, pasta $12   Kaffebar Skåningen Skånegatan 92, 011-46/8-642-29-00, espresso $1.25 Activities   Stadshuset Hantverkargatan 1, 011-46/8-508-290-58   Moderna Museet Skeppsholmen, 011-46/8-5195-5200, modernamuseet.se, free   Vasamuseet Djurgården 011-46/8-519-548-00, vasamuseet.se, $10   Sturebadet Sturegallerian 36, 011-46/8-545-015-00, sturebadet.se, 20-minute massage $52 Shopping   Svenskt Tenn Strandvägen 5, 011-46/8-670-16-00   Granit Kungsgatan 42, 011-46/8-21-92-85   Asplund Sibyllegatan 31, 011-46/8-662-52-84   DesignTorget Kulturhuset, 011-46/8-21-91-50   Grandpa Södermannag 21, 011-46/8-643-60-80 Nightlife   Pelikan Blekingegatan 40, 011-46/8-55-60-90-90, beer $5   Lysy Pingwin Närkesgatan 6, 011-46/8-641-26-26, beer $6 General advice for long weekends in Europe Fly direct whenever possible. I came across an appealing air/hotel package on Go-today.com--$449 per person for three nights--but the company wouldn't promise direct flights. We'd be in Europe for all of 72 hours; I didn't want to spend any of them sitting around Heathrow. Stay at a hotel that's centrally located. Stockholm has an amazing airport train, the Arlanda Express: It goes from the Arlanda airport to the city with no stops in between, and costs $24 one-way. Even better, we walked from the train platform at Central Station to the hotel lobby in less than 60 seconds. Also, because all of Stockholm's subway lines stop at Central Station, we didn't have to connect to get back to the hotel. Accept the fact that you won't be able to see everything. Stockholm is home to 75 museums (see stockholmtown.com for info); we only went to two: the Moderna Museet, which has a great selection of 20th-century art, and the Vasamuseet, which houses a wooden ship that capsized in 1628--15 minutes after it launched--and was dredged up only 45 years ago. What about the other 73? Think of it this way: If you love a city you're visiting, you can go back and see whatever you missed. Don't make too many set plans. The massages we reserved at Sturebadet were nice, but it was a distraction to have an appointment of any kind looming in the afternoon. Moreover, the whole experience--finding the spa, checking in, changing, showering, paying--took a much larger chunk of time than we'd expected. I wish we'd skipped it and walked around Söder more, spontaneity being more fulfilling. Don't be afraid to relax. I don't sleep on planes, and find flying to Europe hard. But, boy, the sleep you get when you're jet-lagged is the best, and that alone is almost worth the trip. Where the Scandinavian deals are   Continental Journeys 800/601-4343, continentaljourneys.com   Finnair 800/950-5000, finnair.com   Gate 1 Travel 800/682-3333, gate1travel.com   Go-today.com 800/227-3235, go-today.com   Icelandair 800/223-5500, icelandair.com   Nordic Saga Tours 800/848-6449, nordicsaga.com   Nordique Tours 800/995-7997, nordiquetours.com   Passage Tours 800/548-5960, passagetours.com   ScanAm World Tours 800/545-2204, scandinaviantravel.com   Scandia World Travel 800/722-4322, scandiaworldtravel.com   Scandinavian Airlines 800/221-2350, scandinavian.net   Scantours 800/223-7226, scantours.com

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