The Tokyo New Year’s French Fry Rally

When I came to Tokyo as a full-time student on exchange in 1983, no one gave me an instruction book on living in the city and the customs of Japan. I wish they had; it was all trial and error. Most of us were exchange students from universities in the US, Canada and Australia and looked at our year in Japan as an adventure.

Take New Year’s Eve for instance. On Boxing Day, people would begin the arduous process of cooking and cleaning to welcome in the next year. Supermarkets were generally stripped of their goods by December 29 and would not to be restocked until they reopened on January 4. Mom-and-pop stores stayed shut longer.

But us foreign students just expected everything to stay open until New Year’s Eve. Nothing did.

So what did you do if you were in Tokyo with limited funds? The Roppongi and Shibuya discos were twice the price at holidays so that was out. Most restaurants had exclusively expensive menus.

Us foreign exchange students would hang out with our local friends, spending two hours to get into the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku or the Hie Shrine in Akasaka, known for its dramatic orange red gate series down a hill. But there was still little else for us to do on NYE.

Inevitably someone complained of hunger. The choices were limited. A girl from New Jersey looked around and said, “Who makes the best french fries in this city?” and immediately that became our quest. The rules were simple; we bought a small bag at each franchise to be shared and ranked from 1 to 5. Was the best one going to be Wendy’s in Omotesando or First Kitchen along the way? Did we need to stop at McDonald’s? Dumb question: yes. We headed into Shibuya and managed to snag a small bag of fries at Lotteria and Dom Dom’s as we fought the incline down to Hachiko Crossing. Local Japanese franchises like Morinaga Love Burger and MOS Burger’s got sampled as well. The new year began and we were still deep in our french fry quest.

The clock crept to 4 a.m. The all-night holiday train service, as sparse as it was, allowed us to all toddle home now that it was cold. But we were sated and the group had no desire to hang around shivering for two more hours waiting to see the first sunrise of the year. We tallied our french fry results on the train platform and headed to warm beds and a quiet day inside, vowing never to do that again. In truth, it became our expat custom for the duration of college.

The winner? Oh yeah, we agreed to disagree.