Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Waseda-no-Bentoya (Wase-Ben)
Old Nicky’s a classy guy. Classy like the swinging casino for Chinese tourists in Pyongyang, when the best in rhinestone-studded Bolex watches and shiny, double-breasted rayon suits mix with a bit of the real thing so’s not even Sam Spade himself could tell the difference.
Classy like the green MOS Burger, instead of the regular red one.
Most of the time, there’s even time and money enough for stools and napkins, if not chairs with backs and printed menus for each table.
Sometimes, though, even old Nicky’s on the run. And sometimes even old Nicky, classy guy that I am, just wants as much dough of the eatin’ kind for as little dough of the spendin’ kind as I can get.
And that means the best ambience in town: Take-Out.
Now, being a man of arts and letters, or least a man of proximity to them, I spend a fair bit of time near the hallowed halls of hijinks and debauchery higher learning known as Waseda University – one of Japan’s finest, oldest, most prestigious institutions. (And I oughtta know, I been in enough of ’em, although most of ’em were run for my correction, rather than my edification or education.)
Waseda’s quite a spot – no shortage of my kind of grub – and among the nests of traditions, there is one above all others: Waseda-no-Bentoya, better known as Wase-Ben. (Ain’t college kids cute?)
I came across this gem while strolling through Waseda Tsurumakicho one fine noon, on my way from Waseda Station to the grand Okuma Auditorium. Before I could even reach the main campus, my way was blocked by a swarm of jostling goons intently fussing with their ‘dos while their molls hollered across the inches separating them, squealing and hopping like espresso-drinking kangaroos everytime one of ’em said a word.
In front of this gaggle was a small window surrounded by handwritten menus with more options than the Shinjuku phone book and not many going for more than the 500 yen dubloon doing its best to jingle against the dust bunnies in my pocket.
From simple fried chicken (kara-age) to ecclectic mixes of tough steak and croquettes (the “Power Bento”) to the surely ironically-named “Sports Bento,” this shop has you covered is you have both a hunger and anywhere between 200 and 700 yen.
The front of Wase-Ben at lunchtime is intimidating, if your idea of a mild thrill is running a ball up the middle against the ’85 Chicago Bears’ defense with no linemen. Otherwise, it can make even a macho man move on to the less colorful joints on the block.
Lucky for yours truly, I spotted a punk I knew. Kid by the name of Stretch, who clued me in: damn the crowd, worm your way to the front and just let the counterman have it. So that’s what I did, taking Stretch’s recommendation and going for the kara-age, which is always ready in spades at that hour. In under a minute, I walked off 400 yen lighter and with styrofoam-boxed brick in my hand.
Now, where to go?
Get your bento, turn 90 degrees to the left, so you’re looking North. Walk half a block to the intersection of Tsurumacki and Sodai-dori. Look acorss the street and a bit to the left, where you’ll see Waseda’s symbolic behemoth – Okuma Auditorium. It’s the big brick tower that screams “college.” On the other side of it is a garden – real grass and everything. Sit there.
I sank into the grass like a hardboiled detective into a carpet after getting black-jacked and opened my box. Enough rice to choke a Japanese horse and, somewhere in the head-sized mass of deep-fried batter, chunks of juicy chicken that brough delight to old Nicky’s soon-to-be-stopped heart.
Sometimes kids know a thing or two. The Michelin Guy might not like it, but this is the kind of place I’ll stop by even on my way to lunch.
Wase-Ben is next to Waseda University’s Building 120, a 2 min. walk North of Tokyo Metro Waseda Station, on the right side.
It has no seating or cover – it’s a window onto the street.
Food: Wide variety of bento.
Drink: There’s a soft drink vending machine in front of the order window.