Tateishi Treat Day

Tateishi Treat Day

When I was young, my father introduced a holiday of his own invention into our ecosystem:  the “Treat Day.”  My sister got one per year as I did.  The basic idea was that my father, a hard-working guy who often was not at home, would indulge us kids in whatever “treats” we desired for a full day.  Within reason, we were the captains of our own ship and he had to go along.  When my age was in single digits a day would include going to Rumplemeyer’s for a chocolate sundae (This establishment, long-gone, still haunts my thoughts.  It was very “European,” slightly art deco and filled with stuffed animals.  It had a long, marble bar from which I ate my lush sundae covered in hot fudge — a substance a long way from hot chocolate syrup — it was thick, sweet, slightly grainy and finished with an enticing bitterness.  I have never tasted a better desert.), eating pizza at the “Original” Ray’s, perhaps going to the American Museum of Natural History and stopping off at FAO Schwartz for one (not two) toys.  When I got older things expanded alongside my growing obsessions.  I remember dragging my father to a nondescript office building in Midtown where, on the 17th floor, there was a stamp collecting shop.  It was a VERY SERIOUS stamp collecting shop and the proprietor — with a dusty tweed suit and a fragrant meerschaum pipe — was unamused to have to deal with a rote (and cheap) amateur Philatelist like me. In my early teenage years, we would travel Greenwich Village, picking up some “punk” pants and vintage clothes; some import records at Golden Disc or Venus Records and end up seeing “Mister Mike’s Mondo Video” at the 8th Street Playhouse with weed smoke so thick we both got a contact high.  It was a great holiday.  The type of thing that you looked forward to even as it was happening.

As I have stated before, being 11 is weird and being the father of an 11-year-old is also weird.  Well, my son is now 12 and it is still weird for both of us.  Parenting is a pretty brutal job — you are motivated by extremes of both fear and love and oftentimes (when you are me, that is) that balance gets totally out of wack.  You find yourself mad about stupid, stupid things and arguing about things that don’t really matter. And all the while time is racing forward, and you never get that back. I am positive that when I am taking my last breathes, I won’t look at my son and think: HE SPENT TOO MUCH TIME ON HIS IPAD. I know this.  I know this clearly. Yet, we still argue about just that issue or some other petty shit.  A Treat Day comes in handy at these times as a way to redress that sense of disharmony.  Our original plan was to go skiing but that went sideways because I was ignorant about the complicated facts of renting a car in Japan.  So, I asked my son what he wanted to do for the day and he asked, to my joy, if we could go to Tateishi for a day of gluttony.  As any reader of this blog knows, I love Tateishi — that crumbling maze of old, downtown Tokyo that is slated for destruction. It has a slightly bitter, hard-won soul that tells a far different story of Tokyo life than, say, the glittering futurism of Shibuya. My son, thankfully, also has a deep affection for the place, and has been very concerned about its demise.

I have a friend, who has been living in NY for the last decade or so, who grew up in Tateishi. She mentioned a particular gyoza spot that she and her family frequented, so that was the first place we headed to on a chilly Sunday afternoon.  Sadly, a handwritten sign said that the owner was having back troubles and he just could not make any more gyoza for the day.  So, we headed back towards the station to join the line for Sakaezushi.  This was our second time there and it remains perfect — Fatty Tuna that simply melted in our mouths; impeccable unagi, sea urchin, mackerel, yellowtail, salmon roe; a weird silver fish that we had never tried before that was firm and sweet; rice perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned and at just the right temperature.  By true force of will, we called for the check.  Around the corner, we spotted a gyoza shop, and as we were previously denied, we ducked in for some pretty serious, garlicky goodness.  From there we decided we needed a minor food break.  We spotted an old-school kissaten (coffee shop) and fortified ourselves with caffeine and manga.  Around us, construction workers and a few old folks downed plates of the dreaded Spaghetti Neapolitan.

My friend Nobu also grew up in Tateishi, so he came to meet us and take us to a Yakoton (grilled pork) restaurant. It was packed, dense with both cigarette and grill smoke, bare bones and a bit dingy.  3 pm is almost late-in-the-day for the neighborhood’s drinkers and beer, lemon sours, and the Tateishi perversity of sweet plum and shochu were in abundance.  We had perfect fried oysters and a variety of cheap skewers.  “This pig head one is great,” said my son, chewing on the intensely flavorful, slightly chewy meat.  As a father, I can’t tell you how weirdly proud it made me to have a 12-year-old son that would say those words.  When I was his age, like most American kids, the idea of eating a pig’s head (not to mention the pile of raw fish we had earlier consumed) would have been anathema. I actually remember looking, with horror, upon “Head Cheese” in the grocery store in 6th grade and listing it as one of the possibly most disgusting things a person could consume.  Not my son!

Still hungry, my son wanted to go to a kind of gangster Kushie Katsu place right at the end of Drunkard’s Alley.  To get there we approached by the back and saw the first elements of Tateshi’s future:  A temporary parking lot for bicycles with a huge poster of the tall, luxury condo building which will soon go up. Gone was a whole section of fetid, narrow warrens that teemed with tiny Izakaya and very possibly tiny homes. It had pulsed with life.  It was where Tokyo gathered itself up after the devastating fire bombings of WW2 and decided to survive by whatever means possible — whether that be buying a bottle of shochu for $1 and selling drinks to your friends to make $5 or selling your body in those zinc pan and cast-off lumber shacks. It represented the heart and the painful sacrifices of a city reinventing itself after total disaster.  Wiped away. The story of Tateishi is a story that modern Tokyo is not ready to tell

Fortunately, it is not all gone.  What remains of Drunkard’s Alley has had a reprise.  We wandered into a four-seat Tempura spot, ate a few delicious morsels.  The owner told us that they have somewhere between 5 and 10 years before the second slate of destruction will arrive.  We moved onto the kushi katsu, where, as in all my visits, the staff was somewhat rude and dismissive to us. It is not really a spot for outsiders. Some dead-eyed, hard-looking types line the counters; cigarettes are disposed of on the floor.  However the food is delicious — skewers of ham, chicken, fish, cheese breaded and fried. There are tins full of dipping sauce on the counter and a strongly worded sign to the effect that “double-dippers” will be ejected from the premises and fined.  As we walked about we studied the chicken master at Torifusa at work, rotating quarter-chickens in his kettles of bubbling oil. One of the old ladies who works there confirmed that they too will be around for a few more years. My son pointed at a risque sign, “I guess ‘Sweet Boobs Cafe’ will still be here for a while as well. What goes on in Sweet Boobs Cafe anyway?” I can forget that he is still just a little guy at heart and such questions aren’t yet self-apparent.  There is a walk-up butcher store that always has a line.  Their meat looks fantastic — big, heavily marbled cuts of beef, offal and pork.  But, like many butchers they also sell fried items and these seemed to be the selling point.  Still hungry, my son got a Menchi-katsu which is a patty of ground pork mixed with onion, breaded with panko and fried.  I have had many of these in my time, but this was the ultimate.  It is fried in beef fat, the surface craggy and crisp, the center juicy and hot.  Unbelievable and dangerously difficult to avoid eating two or three of these.

“All the sweets shops are gone,” Nobu announced, looking around at shuttered spaces in the arcade. “Tateishi people love sweets, so there were lots of stores. When I was a kid, we would go and buy a dried squid for 1 yen and use it to catch crawfish in the river. ”

It isn’t just the sweet shops, Tateishi’s shotengai and the yokocho that surround it are filled with boarded-up stores and shuttered spaces.  If I am honest, I can see why it was targeted for re-development.  You have to work a bit to love Tateishi.  My son was not finished.  “What about some yakiniku?” Nobu squirreled us around to a few side-streets I have never noticed before but his favorite spots were all closed.  However, my son was eagle-eyed and noticed a spot that looked pretty good.  Along the way, we detoured to a Patisserie to make sure that both Nobu and my son had something sweet. As Valentine’s Day was approaching, the store was dominated by impressive displays of chocolate in all forms including a 2-foot chocolate model of the Tokyo Tower.

We ended the day in a smoky yakiniku.  Skirt steak, tongue, thinly sliced short rib grilled over coals until slightly caramelized and juicy with fat.  9 different types of dining in one day. My son’s raging appetite was finally satisfied.  As we stood outside in the now darkened streets my son proclaimed the day one of the greatest.  He said how he wished he could repeat it on a weekly basis.  He made plans to take his friend on reprise visit when he visits in November.  He expressed great thanks that Tateishi will still, even in a diminished version, be standing as he gets older.  He hugged me and thanked me and even with people walking around us, gave me an unashamed kiss through my hairy beard.  Lenny Bruce once said that a Jew could never be President because on Inauguration Day his mother would jump out of the crowd and say “MY SON, THE PRESIDENT! Look at that tushie!  Look at that Presidential tushie!” and right there in front of the American public would bite that delicious tush! Well, I understand the feeling.  I cannot comprehend, for the life of me, the You Tube videos he watches, or his love of Queen, or so many other things that go through his mind; but here he is, a 12-year-old who looks much older than his years with the faint sprouts of a mustache, and he has the wisdom and the weird taste to love this battered part of Tokyo just as much as I do. We share certain aesthetics and share this love of food.  I don’t know how to love anyone as much as I love him and part of me just want to pick him up, this beautiful boy, and just gobble him up, bite that gorgeous tush.  Because, how can you express love that is so fraught and so deep? And though, I hold back and don’t bite that tush, I hope he knows just how proud of him I am; and just how lucky I am to be his father who has the great fortune to walk alongside in this life we share.

4 Replies to “Tateishi Treat Day”

  1. Jeremy, that was beautiful. So descriptively written, that I felt I could smell the smells and taste the delicacies you and your son were sampling. I kept on saying to myself, “he’s STILL hungry?!?” 🤣 miss you lots, love this blog 😘

  2. What evocative writing and so clever in your Nippon, human and parental observations. I look forward to your book coming out? Don’t keep us waiting too long…..

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