A Miracle Berry Adventure: Tokyo, Japan / by Amy Thibodeau

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Cat cafes, karaoke rooms, wild game arcades ... As a city Tokyo feel endless: you can find and do almost anything here, including the strange, the kawaii and the absolutely ridiculous. Wander the streets of Harajuku on any night of the week and you'll see hoards of beautiful people, dressed as though they were participating in a wild, beautiful parade orchestrated by Tim Burton's imagination. Only a few blocks away at the Meiji Shrine, you'll see something completely different: women and young girls dressed in traditional kimonos, shuffling down the tree lined corridors in their wooden sandals and white socks.

I've fallen in love with the otherworldliness of this place. Never before have I felt so immersed in something that feels like an exercise in creativity as much as one in living. We're in the city for six weeks and are determined to seek out its strange corners. Although we've lost ourselves in the crowds of the Shibuya crossing and have soaked in the iridescent glow of Shinjuku, it's those other places - the slightly outlandish ones off the main thoroughfares - that call to us the most. Apart from wandering in and out of strange little bars and restaurants down narrow alleyways, we've got a list. There are so many things to see and do here and we don't want to miss anything.

Recently we came across some information on Miracle Berries. These little red morsels look a bit like oversize pomegranate seeds. They only grow in West Africa, but the ingenious Japanese have found a way to import the notoriously delicate fruit. No other country has been able to work out how to import them without losing the thing that makes the fruit so special: it temporarily paralyses your sour taste buds to make even the most potent lemon taste like sweet loveliness.

The Miracle Fruit Plant (Synsepalum dulcificum) is a plant first documented in 1725 during an excursion to its native West Africa. Local tribes picked the berry from shrubs and chewed it before meals. Miracle Fruit Berries contain a harmless active glycoprotein which temporarily gently binds to the tongue's taste buds, causing bitter and sour foods, such as lemons and rhubarb, consumed after eating miracle fruit, to taste sweet ... The berry has a very short shelf life of only one or two days after being harvested and the active ingredient, miraculin, starts to diminish quickly.  This means many "fresh" Miracle Fruit Berries are lacking in miraculin because of the time taken to transport them. (source)

After quite a bit of research, we were able to track down the Miracle Berry Cafe in a place called Namjatown, a combination video game arcade/fun house in the Ikebukuro area. It costs 300 Yen to enter the arcade, which felt worth it because the place is a strange series of dark corridors filled with strange characters and rides, contrasted with glowing game rooms with their noises and colors that are almost hallucination-inducing. The berries themselves cost 250 Yen each, and you really only need one per person. Then add to that the cost of buying something sour. I believe a cup of lemons slices was about 300 Yen. You can also buy sour deserts or smoothies if you want something a little bit more fancy.

The Miracle Berry Cafe really seems to market itself to people on a diet who want to indulge in something sweet but don't want the calories associated with sugar. Incorporated throughout the cute decor were signs reminding visitors how few calories a lemon contains. These messages felt out of place in an arcade that seemed directed at young people, especially as the cafe was located within spitting distance from Ice Cream World. Contradictions abound.

Although the woman working at the cafe didn't speak English, she did provide us with a one-sheet of information to help guide us through the proper way to take in the 'magic' of the berry. This lost in translation moment was one of my favorite parts of the experience, as the paper was obvious translated by Google or something to hilarious results:

How can try a Miracle Taste? Fiemly lick with your saliva and 3 minutes in that makes a contusion! From the sour to the sweet became of a pungcny to a call of sweetness on a tougue when the Miraclin gets Hydrogen from an Acid.

Enjoy Magical Fruit!!!

1. Pitch Miraclefruit into your mouth! 2. Daubing Miraclefruit on your 3 minutes 3. Try sour items after it.

We decided that this meant we were to suck on the berry (which has a fairly large pit inside of it) for three minutes, spit out the pit and then we'd be ready to eat sour things. It seemed to work because when the time was up, the lemons actually tasted quite nice - there was still a tiny hint of sour, but mainly they were sweet and juicy. One of the people I was with ended up eating an entire lemon!

Although I probably wouldn't do it again as it was a one-time experience thing for me rather than a long term diet choice, it was quite fun and very strange to find myself eating a lemon as though it were candy. The only negative part of the experience was that although the taste buds registered the taste as sweet, the throat still registered the acidic nature of lemon juice. It wasn't really unpleasant but there's no way it would ever take the place of a traditional desert. I'll take a piece of chocolate cake over a miracle berry snack any day!

Miracle berries are definitely a gimmick, but one that is so odd that it seemed appropriate to take advantage of the experience in Tokyo.

What's the strangest food experience you've had while traveling? I haven't yet recovered from the Yakitori stand that served a range of stomach flipping things on sticks including penis, 'choice' uterus and rectum. Nope, let's not go there!

Homepage Slideshow Image Credit: Miracle Berries by Furey and the Feast