Archive for the Japan Category

Tokyo – Tsukiji Fish Market

Posted in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Tsukiji with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2019 by gannet39

Coming to Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, was something of a pilgrimage for me as it was something I’d wanted to do for more than twenty years. When I lived in Japan in the 90s I was always working or partying too much to go.

This trip then was my chance to put this right so I rented a small apartment via AirBnB right next to the market. From my back door I could see the rooves of the market sheds and Tokyo Bay Bridge beyond.

In the six days I was there I ate sushi, one of my favourite foods, on nine occasions, and I’ve dedicated the next post to cover what I learned from those experiences.

I was especially thankful to be there in late November/early December 2016 partly because this is the best time of year to eat seafood and partly because the market had been due to close in October and move elsewhere. Thankfully for me, the move had been delayed indefinitely due to problems with the new site, so I was very lucky to see the old market in full flow.

The market is organised into two parts, inner and outer, and confusingly, there is also a street market outside the fish market itself. The inner market is the fish wholesale market where chefs and restaurateurs go to buy their fish every morning from 5am.

Tourists are not allowed in here until 10am when most of the action is over. This is for safety reasons as market porters are zipping around at high speed on small trucks called turrets and it can get very congested and busy.

You wouldn’t want to get run over by one of these.

I still saw some amazing things on sale; huge octopus tentacles, the biggest bivalves I’ve ever seen, boxes of poisonous fugu fish, and everywhere men wielding huge fish knives. Please click on the photos to enlarge.

The outer market includes the sushi restaurants and the shops selling products related to eating seafood such as ceramics, knives, bill hooks, seaweed, some pickles and fresh wasabi roots. It’s open to all from 5am. Again, click on the photos to expand them.

In addition there is a street market outside the fish market itself.

This is where to come for your ready-to-eat seafood and pickles amongst other things. Click to enlarge.

One of the main attractions for tourists is to visit the tuna auction but it’s not easy to get in to it. Only 120 tourists are allowed to view it per day and during peak periods you have to get there at around 3.30am to be at the front of the queue. Once you’ve been admitted into the waiting room you then have to hang about until 5 or 5.45am which are the starting times for two groups of 60 to see the auction for 45 minutes each.

On the occasion I went we were fortunate to be entertained for some of the waiting time by Kosei, one of the tuna buyers who edified us in excellent English with some interesting facts about tuna. The buyers work very long days so god knows how he had the time to learn a language. Here is some of what I remember from his speech.

The Japanese consume 25% of the world’s tuna. There are four types of tuna, the best of which is considered to be Bluefin, and the best Bluefin comes from the Tsugaru Strait off Omamachi in Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu. Bluefin tuna unloaded at Omamachi are known as Oma Maguro and they tend to sell for double the price of tuna caught elsewhere. The second best comes from around Boston on the north eastern coast of the US and the American fish are called Jumbos because they are flown in by jumbo jet.

Fishermen are not allowed to take tuna less than 20kg so as to allow stocks to replenish. Some fishing boats that have been out in distant seas for more than a year. The tuna they catch have spent as much as twelve months in a deep freeze.

Adult tuna are between two to three metres in length, the biggest ever caught was 679kg. The meat fetches between Y18,000 and Y5,000 depending on the quality. There are three grades of tuna; the cheapest is Akami (lean), the medium grade is Chutoro (medium fatty), and the best cut is Otoro (fatty tuna).

The most paid for a fish at the time of writing was just over a million pounds for a 222kg Bluefin back in 2013. It was sold at the first auction of the year which is traditionally the most competitive.

The buyers decide which tuna they are going to bid on by careful examination of the tail end of the fish. The tail has been removed so that they can hack out small pieces of flesh with a special bill hook.

They examine the meat for fat content by rubbing it between their fingers. Kosei will choose about ten fish to bid on but he says he gets his analysis wrong about one in seven times, despite having done the job for nineteen years, so it’s not an exact science and if they get it wrong they have to give the customer a discount. Quality then can vary by the individual fish as I found out when eating toro, the most fatty and most expensive part, with the most flavour.

Next to the fish market is Namiyoke Inari Jinja www.namiyoke.or.jp , a shinto shrine which guards the market and its traders.

Prayers are offered to the deities at the Honden building.

The other buildings house the Mikoshi, portable shrines, in the form of dragon heads.

The gold head is a male dragon and the red one is female.

Every mid year the shrine celebrates a festival called the Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri where two or three of the shrines are paraded around the streets. The shrines are extremely heavy (up to a metric ton) and require tens of men to carry them. Sometimes the bearers shake or toss the shrine to amuse the deity. As they’re dressed only in loin cloths and headbands it’s quite a sight!

Eating sushi in Tsukiji next…

Tokyo – Eating and Drinking in Ginza

Posted in Ginza, Japan, Kanto, Tokyo with tags , , , , on January 13, 2019 by gannet39

Ginza has lots of good places to eat and drink. Below are reviews of a select few of them. These and many more are on my map.

Little Okinawa (Intermediate B+), 8 Chome-7-10 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0061, tabelog.com , open noon-1.30pm, 5pm-3am Monday-Friday, noon-1.30pm, 4pm-midnight Saturday and Sunday

This cosy little restaurant was my first experience of Okinawan food and it was really interesting. The sub-tropical archipelago has always held a fascination for me and I’m determined to go and visit one day. Okinawans have a very distinct culture with their own language and cuisine which I’d love to learn more about. Coming here was a chance to do that.

Things started well with some delicious Umibudo (A), a kind of Okinawan seaweed whose name is translated as ‘sea grapes’.

Then some Tempura (B/B+) which included sweet potato, shallot, wormwood (!) and erm… luncheon meat! It wasn’t too bad actually (B).

Also Jimami-dofu, a tofu-like custard made from peanuts (B) and Onigiri where the rice had been cooked in mushroom broth and diced kale, pork, carrots and mushrooms mixed in (B). Sorry the pics didn’t come out.

Unfortunately I wasn’t too impressed by the local draught Orion beer (C+). It’s better out of a can.

On the other hand I quite enjoyed the local shochu called Awamori, described on the menu as Okinawan ‘whisky’. I tried four types; Mizuho (B), Danyu (B) and Zuisen (B+), or at least that’s how I think they’re spelled.

However the best of all was the Snake flavour! (A)

I really enjoyed eating here and would love to go back. The manager was lovely too.

Bulgari Bar (Advanced A), 〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 2 Chome−7−12 ブルガリ銀座タワー 10F www.bulgarihotels.com

I expected lunch at Bulgari to be quite formal and staid but actually they were really hospitable and friendly. I had a great experience thanks mainly to the two homesick Italians I met, but more of that later.

I’d come for the famed Bulgari lunch box; miniature snacks immaculately presented in three bento-like boxes stacked on top of each other, a concept that made a big impression on me.

The first ‘Savory’ box displayed a Porchetta and Lettuce Sandwich (B+), an Arancini with White Truffle (A), Polenta Chips with Mantecato (B) and a Japanese Wagyu Beef Mini-Burger (A).

The second level, ‘Pastry’, revealed a Cotechino Potato Quiche (B), an Olive Oil Brioche (A), a Chocolate Tart (B+) and a piece of Salty Cacao (B+).

For the Brioche a waiter wheeled up a trolley with three different fillings to choose from. There were a couple of nice-sounding jams but naturally I went for the chocolate sauce.

The final ‘Sweets’ box (although most of the previous box were also sweets) contained a Coffee and Pistachio Roll Cake, a Citrus Baba and a Pear Jelly (B).

The star however was an Almond Mousse with Caramel Sauce (A+). I really loved this, must learn how to make it.

To finish a cocktail was in order and, as it was an Italian bar, I went with my all-time favourite, a Negroni.

The bar tender, Alessandro, put five bottles on the bar, rather than the usual three, so I trotted over to see what he was up to.

Besides the usual 30mls of Campari, London Gin and Red Vermouth (Carpano Antica Formula at my request) his trick is to add 10mls of Amaro Averna (a bitter from Sicily) and 10mls of Barolo Chinato, an aromatised wine similar to vermouth that I’d not come across before. The result was excellent (A+) and again something I’ll have to try at home.

After I’d finished eating I went to sit at the bar to continue chatting with Alessandro about his and my favourite cocktails and their ingredients. He followed up the Negroni (invented in Florence, his home town) with a Zombie; a tiki cocktail I’d previously avoided due to my dislike of fruit juices. However it tasted very nice (B+) and was lovely to look at.

We were soon joined by his boss Pietro from Puglia and the conversation developed into a more general discussion about Italian food, covering Burrata Mozzarella which costs a fortune in Japan but is cheap as chips in Puglia, and Florentine beef versus Wagyu which they slated for being too fatty despite it just having been served to me! I think I’d made them thoroughly homesick by the end of it.

I just happened to mention that I’d come to Japan as a birthday present to myself and the next thing I knew there was a tray of treats and a candle next to me, along with three tastings of various drinks we had discussed.

I didn’t tell them that my birthday had actually been two months earlier as I think a 50th anniversary is definitely one that’s worth milking.

I would happily have spent the rest of the day with these guys but had to pull myself away. However it was a real pleasure to experience this unexpected Italian hospitality in the heart of Ginza.

Here’s another place for a cocktail…

Bar Lupin (Intermediate B+, 〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 5 Chome−5, 中央区銀座五丁目5番11号 www.lupin.co.jp

This basement bar is another classic drinking establishment. Lupin is the second oldest bar in Ginza, opened in 1928, (Bordeaux was the first in 1927) and has been patronised by many famous writers, photographers, artists and actors over the years.

It’s a little hard to find, down a back alley, see my Google map. It’s open 5pm till 11.30pm Tuesday to Saturday notwithstanding the opening hours displayed outside.

I went one evening for a couple of drinks and was welcomed by several friendly staff, most of whom seemed to be approaching the age of the bar itself. I had a well-made Martini in a nice glass.

The following Negroni and Mojito were fairly standard (B). Drinks were about Y1,400 each as I recall, and there was a cover charge of about Y800 which makes it quite expensive. It was a pleasant experience though.

Ginza Kagari (Elementary A), 1F Ginza A Building, 4-4-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, 中央区銀座4丁目1−2, NOW CLOSED!

What would one of my posts be without a noodle shop! Sadly this Michelin bib gourmand rated establishment closed in 2017 which is really hard to understand as there was always a very long queue outside.

The signature dish was Tori Paitan Soba; thick, a creamy white soup made from chicken broth, which was a first for me. In the mouth it was very creamy and flavourful and the presentation was immaculate (A).

Kimuraya (Initial B+), 〒104-8212 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 4 Chome−6−16 銀座三越 地下2階 www.kimuraya-sohonten.co.jp , floor B2 of Mitsukoshi www.mitsukoshi.co.jp

The basement food floor of the Mitsukoshi department store is an experience in itself. This bakery is particularly famous for Anpan, a Japanese bun filled with red bean paste which is sweet but not too sweet (B+).

The history is quite interesting. The bun was invented during the Meiji period by an unemployed Samurai called Kimura who opened the bakery, hence the name.

Tsukiji fish market next!

Tokyo – A Personal Shopping & Sightseeing Tour of Ginza

Posted in Ginza, Japan, Kanto, Tokyo with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2019 by gannet39

Ginza is one of the world’s elite shopping districts with whole buildings dedicated to famous international fashion brands such as Gucci, Prada, Dior etc.

There are plenty of other blogs about Ginza fashion so here I wanted instead to describe a little tour of the more interesting buildings that many of these famous brands inhabit. I’ve also included a few of my favourite shops for kitchen goods and home wares. The following post is about where and what to eat in Ginza. As ever, you will find all the places included on my map.

An optional start to the tour is the statue of Godzilla out of the west exit of Yurakucho station at 1丁目-2-2 Yūrakuchō, Chiyoda-ku. Yurakucho is the best station on the Yamanote line to go to Ginza.

Alternatively you could start on the other side of the tracks at the METoA Ginza shopping centre at 5 Chome-2-1 Ginza, Chūō-ku, metoa.jp I quite like the glass front of the otherwise unremarkable building…

… and the roof garden has a nice view over this part of Ginza.

Two blocks east is the Hermes building at 〒104-0061 東京都中央区Ginza, 5 Chome−4, 銀座5丁目4−1 8階 www.maisonhermes.jp with its dangling sculpture. It looks particularly nice at night.

Four blocks north is Akomeya (Intermediate A), コメヤ トウキョウ, 2 Chome-2-6 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-6601, www.akomeya.jp

This is a great shop specialising in rice and rice related products where I had to hold myself back from spending a small fortune.

The first floor is a deli where I picked up some Furikake (sprinkle toppings for steamed rice) and tiny tins of Ichimi (chilli powder). The friendly shop assistant also recommended a brand of soya sauce from their extensive range and it was fantastic (and that’s coming from a certified soya sauce addict).

Also on the second floor there are lots of nice ceramics and things for the kitchen and bathroom. I want to try their restaurant next time. Rice, unsurprisingly, features heavily on the menu.

You could pop in to Tokyu Hands Ginza at〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 2丁目2−14 マロニエゲート銀座1 5~9F ginza.tokyu-hands.co.jp if you’re looking at homewares, they have seven floors of them here. I got a nifty tool for making Nigiris from the kitchen department.

Even better for homewares and knickknacks of every kind is Ginza Loft at 〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 2 Chome−4−6 ベルピア館3F- 6F www.loft.co.jp

Two blocks east the Mikimoto building at〒104-8145 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 2 Chome−4−12, www.mikimoto.com has some nice windows.

One block east, De Beers the diamond jewellers at 〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 2 Chome−5−11 デビアス銀座ビルディング www.debeers.co.jp has a very unusual façade.

It deserves a couple more shots.

On the same block to the north is the Dear Ginza building at 〒104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 1 Chome−6, 銀座1丁目6-8It looks completely different at night to what it does in the daytime.

A couple of more blocks east (via lunch at Bulgari? – see next post) is Itoya (Advanced A), 2 Chome-7-15 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0061, www.ito-ya.co.jp

Itoya is primarily a stationary shop with whole floors dedicated to pens and paper; however it does also have a couple of floors for travel and home wares which I really like. I can happily browse here for hours. The building exterior is unremarkable but there is a hydroponic farm on the top floor.

Three blocks south is Ginza Place at 5 Chome-8-1 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0061, ginzaplace.jp (You could go via the Mitsukoshi food basement – see next post).

Diagonally opposite is the Art Deco (Neoclassical influenced) Wako department store at 4 Chome-5-11 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-8105, www.wako.co.jp Built in 1932, it’s one of the only buildings in the area that has survived World War II.

Four blocks east from here you will find the famous Kabuki-za theatre at 4 Chome-12-15 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0061, www.kabuki-za.co.jp It’s possible to buy tickets for half a show (standing only) if you only want to get a flavour of this ancient performing art.

An optional side excursion on the same street five blocks east,quite near Tsukiji fish market, is Hongwanji, an Indian inspired Bhuddist temple at 3 Chome-15-1 Tsukiji, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0045, www.tsukijihongwanji.jp

You could stop back at the Kabuki-za but true architecture buffs should walk another five blocks south from the theatre to see my favourite building in Ginza, the Nakagin Capsule Tower at 8 Chome-16-10 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104-0061, www.nakagincapsuletower.com

Built in 1972 it is one of the only remaining examples of an architectural movement called Metabolism which sought to fuse concepts related to building large structures with those of organic biological growth.

The idea was that capsules could be added to the tower so that it would evolve and grow like an organism.

Of the 140 apartments, only half are still in use, and then often only for storage or office space. Many lie derelict and decaying and sadly there are plans to demolish the building. You can rent an apartment in the tower on AirBnB but they aren’t cheap.

So that’s my brief architecture tour of Ginza. You’ll be hard pushed to find another Tokyo neighbourhood with so many interesting buildings.

Ginza also has some great places to eat and drink. Please see my next post for more info!

Tokyo – Shinjuku – Noodles and Jazz in Golden Gai

Posted in Golden Gai, Japan, Kanto, Shinjuku, Tokyo with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2019 by gannet39

Shinjuku is a great neighbourhood for eating and drinking and I had one of the best experiences of my trip there in Golden Gai, an old entertainment district in a tiny grid of streets just a few blocks away from the east exit of Shinjuku station.

My Google map here.

When you walk the streets of Golden Gai you’re effectively stepping back in time to how Tokyo used to be before the Japanese economic miracle happened in the 1950s. Many of the buildings that line the narrow alleys are wooden, two-storey constructions that date from that time.

To get there you might walk through the brash neighbourhood of Kabukicho, once the theatre district but now a red light area (without the red lights) and a Yakuza stronghold.

Ignore the bright lights of the so-called Robot Restaurant and the automatons outside it.

I’m sure their nightly shows are quite a spectacle (from 1.15) but my advice is keep your head down and keep walking till you get to Golden Gai.

In the 1980s there were several attempts by the Yakuza to burn Golden Gai down so that it could be developed in the same way as the modern blocks that surround it. The locals prevented it from happening by organising themselves to keep watch on their buildings at night.

Mine and Shinsaku’s reasons for being here were the same as usual; ramen and music.

Nagi (Elementary A), 1 Chome-1-10 Kabukichō, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160-0021, www.n-nagi.com

Ramen shops are by nature small, seedy affairs, in fact their lack of refinement seems almost a prerequisite for good noodles and Nagi is no exception. As with all good noodle shops there is a queue which in this case was down a very narrow side alley. There was a small trickle of ‘water’ of some undefined origin running down the middle of it which you have to straddle.

The front of the queue is by the door where you can make your selection using a vending machine. Just above your head the staff have improvised a loudspeaker made from a funnel and some plastic tubing.

When it’s your turn to come up a staff member will shout down the funnel for the next person to come up the narrow treacherous staircase to the tiny eight-seat noodle shop on the second floor.

The house speciality is Niboshi Rāmen. Niboshi are small dried sardines that are used to flavour the broth, a ramen style typical of Aomori prefecture in the north of Honshu (the big, central Japanese island). I’m guessing that here this broth is mixed with other broths like chicken (torigara) or pork (tonkotsu) to give more depth of flavour.

If the fish taste isn’t strong enough you could always add some niboshi flavoured vinegar.

Another unusual aspect of this bowl is that besides the chunky noodles you also get some large, broad, pasta-like flaps in there as well. Very unusual indeed but all very tasty (B+).

So if you want atmosphere with your ramen then look no further. It’s open 24 hours apparently. Learning the letters for ‘ramen’ ラメん will help you find the shop.

After eating we went on a hunt for music and liquor. As I mentioned there are about two hundred bars to choose from in Golden Gai, each specialising in a certain musical niche like punk, country, electronic or in our case jazz. Many of the bars can only seat about six people and only cater for their regulars. The owners will most likely let you know when you come in if they can accommodate you or not and will charge non-regulars a cover charge.

I can’t remember the name or address but we found a place playing classic jazz up another narrow staircase. Unlike JBS in Shibuya there was no vinyl on the shelves, just CDs, but hundreds of them.

Our host was gruff but hospitable. Still I was thankful of having Shinsaku with me to smooth the way.

We sat huddled at one end of the bar drinking rum and coke for a couple of hours listening to some great music most of which we’d never heard before.

The CD cases were passed from customer to customer to be read and appreciated.

Albums we heard included ‘Indeed’ by the trumpet player Lee Morgan, ‘Spirit of Django’ by guitarist Martin Taylor and ‘We Get Requests’ by the Oscar Peterson Trio.

And that was pretty much a perfect night out for me (I’m an easy date). I loved it so much that next time I go to Tokyo I’m going to get the nearest AirBnB to Golden Gai.

Here are some suggestions from Rough Guide for other bars to try in in the area.

Despite its ramshackle appearance, Golden Gai isn’t particularly cheap which is kind of understandable as it must be hard for the business owners to make ends meet when their shops are so small. If you don’t fancy ramen and want to save money on food, you could go to the infamous Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho aka ‘Piss Alley’ instead. Doesn’t sound great does it but this is another patch of narrow alleys around Shinjuku station that’s stuffed with yakitori and noodle bars. Again, very atmospheric at night and very cheap. I went a couple of decades ago but can’t personally vouch for anywhere in particular. Eat Like A Girl has a suggestion for Soba and Udon Tempura though.

If you are passing through the east exit of Shinjuku station, keep an eye out for this place…

Bake Cheese Tart (Initial A), 〒160-0022 Tōkyō-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku, 3 Chome−38, 新宿3-38-1ルミネエスト1F cheesetart.com

Originally from Sapporo in Hokkaido but now international, these awesome little tarts are filled with a mousse made from three kinds of cheese; a full-bodied one from Betsukai, in eastern Hokkaido; a mild-flavoured one from Hakodate, in the south of the island and a salty French fromage to round it out.

The mousse fills a pastry cup made from cookie dough which is twice-baked and the tart is served hot from the oven. They’re extremely moreish so I advise you to buy two per person. Unfortunately, they also taste good eaten cold or reheated under a grill. Expect a bit of a queue (see the floor diagram in the pic above) as the tarts are a very popular Omiyage item.

The next stop on my tour of the Yamanote line is Ginza!

Tokyo – Vinyl Days in Shibuya

Posted in Japan, Kanto, Shibuya, Tokyo with tags , , , on January 10, 2019 by gannet39

Shibuya is one of the most famous districts in central Tokyo. This is where the famous street crossing is where thousands of people cross over every time the lights change. Video here.

A famous landmark is the statue of Hatchiko the faithful dog of legend. The statue’s location just outside Shibuya station, next to the crossing, makes it a popular spot for meeting people, or to just get your photo taken.

My Google map is here.

Shibuya was mine and Shinsaku’s old stomping ground back in the 90s. We used to come here to blow our wages on vinyl records, both vintage and new releases, because Shibuya had, and still has, some of the best record shops in the world. Although not as numerous as they once were, there are some old favourites like Manhattan Records who are still going strong.

We also used to promote and DJ at a party called Maximum Joy, along with several other Japanese and British DJ friends. Imagine our dismay when we discovered that the basement space in Shibuya where we held the parties is now a Hyakkin! (a 100 yen shop which is the equivalent of a pound shop in the UK). They say you should never go back but it was funny to recall the goings on of twenty years ago and try to work out which shopping isle was once the dancefloor.

Both of us love Jazz so we went to this vinyl bar for a few drinks…

JBS (Intermediate A), 〒150-0043 Tōkyō-to, Shibuya-ku, Dōgenzaka, 1 Chome−17−10 第2宝ビル 2F

JBS (Jazz, Blues, Soul) is what is known as a Jazz Kissa, a café or bar which plays classic jazz on a top notch home hifi. Jazz Kissas began after WW2 as places where people who couldn’t afford to buy their own vinyl could go and listen to their favourite music. Nowadays they’re usually run by older guys who’ve been collecting music all their lives and probably just need a place where they can house and listen to their massive collections. Once there were jazz kissas all over Japan but sadly they are now a dying breed.

The owner of JBS has a huge collection of vinyl that lines all the walls. The drinks list is very limited (just beer, whisky, rum and coke in this case) because it’s the music that’s takes precedence. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people when we went and most of them were sat in silence reverentially listening to the quality sounds washing out from the old speakers. This is definitely a very cool place to seek out.

Uoshin (Intermediate A), 魚真 渋谷店 Uoshin, Shimada Bldg, 1F, 2-25-5 Dogenzaka

This is a popular Izakaya, which is the Japanese equivalent of a pub but with food. Like the Spanish, Japanese people always eat when they’re drinking.

Back in the day, our gang used to spend whole Sundays in an Izakaya after a weekend of hard partying. We would always get a private dining room where it was quite permissible to roll over on the soft tatami mat floors and have a nap when you needed to, and then rejoin the party later.

This place was a bit too busy for that kind of thing though and as there were just two of us, we shared a room with other customers.

I got to indulge my nostalgic cravings for much missed culinary favourites. Dishes we had included Tsukemono (pickles), Sashimi (raw seafood without rice), Kaki (panko-breaded deep-fried oysters), Crab Claws, all good (B/B+).

There are of course heaps of other great places to eat and drink in Shibuya. This place is a sound bet but look at my Google map for other suggestions. There are lots of other good shops as well of course. This is another favourite of mine…

Loft (Advanced A), 21-1 Udagawachō, Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 150-0042, www.loft.co.jp

This is the flagship store (seven floors, count em) of a famous chain of stationary shops. You might think that sounds a bit boring but this place is a wonderland of homewares, gadgets and gimmicks which makes it great for buying souvenirs and presents to take home. I can happily spend hours here.

Shinjuku coming up!

Tokyo – Ramen in Harajuku and a stroll in Yoyogi Park

Posted in Harajuku, Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Yoyogi with tags , , on January 9, 2019 by gannet39

Harajuku is famous for a number of reasons. West of the station is the Meiji Shrine, a large Shinto shrine dedicated to the memory of the deified Emperor Meiji who died in 1912. It’s a major tourist site and definitely worth seeing, but one that I ticked off on my first visit twenty years ago.

North east from the station is Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian street that is ground central for teenybopper fashion in Tokyo. To the south east is Ometesando, another major shopping street lined with boutiques.

And south west is Yoyogi Koen, Tokyo’s equivalent to Hyde Park or Central Park.

My Google map is here.

However, we’d just come to eat Ramen at one of my buddy Shinsaku’s favourite noodle shops…

Kyushu Jangara Ramen Harajuku (High Elementary B), 1 Chome-13-21 Jingūmae, Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 150-0001, kyushujangara.co.jp

Kyushu Jangara Ramen is a small chain with seven locations around Tokyo. Their ramen style is from the island of Kyushu where people favour a pork broth base known as Tonkotsu, which also just happens to be my favourite. Veggie and vegan broths are also available here.

This branch is very popular and we had to wait for fifteen minutes or so on the staircase leading up to the restaurant. It was worth the wait though for the spicy deliciousness served up. You can choose to add on toppings such as boiled egg, char siu pork, scallions etc and we had pretty much everything. I had a rack of pork Gyoza dumplings on the side as well.

After eating we went for a stroll across Yoyogi Park. Back in the 90s the paths through the park were lined with musicians playing live to passers-by every weekend. You would see hi-energy pop groups in front of big troops of boisterous kids all doing the hand jive in unison. Or a saxophone player playing to no one in particular. Even the neo-fascists would turn up to regale anyone who would listen (no one did). As I recall, the city government decided to ban or place restrictions on all this as it was perhaps getting out of hand, but Google tells me you can still occasionally hear solo musicians playing.

On the day we went, only the rockers were still there, doing their thing in front of portable speakers. It was fun to see they’d got their kids jiving as well. Rock & Roll, as they say, will never die.

On the other side of the park you’re getting into the outskirts of the northern end of Shibuya. There’s a good little bakery here if you fancy a bit of dessert…

Nata de Christiano’s (Elementary B), 〒151-0063 Tōkyō-to, Shibuya-ku, 渋谷区Tomigaya, 1 Chome−14−16 スタンフォードコート103, takeaway from 10am, www.cristianos.jp

As regular readers will know, I adore Portuguese custard tarts. Egg custard in crisp puff pastry, dusted with icing sugar and sprinkled with Ceylon cinnamon is one of my favourite things in life. Cristiano’s do a pretty good version. Ever so slightly overdone on the day I went but still very tasty (B).

Into deepest, darkest Shibuya next…

Tokyo – Eating well in Nakameguro

Posted in Japan, Kanto, Meguro, Nakameguro, Tokyo with tags , , , , on January 8, 2019 by gannet39

Nakameguro is another Meguro train station on the private Tōyoko Line which can take you directly to Tsukiji going north or Yokohama going south (see later posts). The station can get quite busy at rush hour as you can see from this video.

The cluster of eateries and shops around Nakameguro station seem a bit cooler and more upmarket than the businesses around Meguro JR. My AirBnB was halfway between both stations so I got the best of both worlds. Here’s my Google map.

I went to four restaurants in Nakameguro, two low end and two high end, all of them good in different ways. Two of them were Izakayas which are the nearest equivalent to a British pub in the sense that they are communal places where Japanese people go to socialise. The main difference is that they serve a wide range of food. Whereas other eateries tend to specialise in one culinary genre, izakayas tend to be generalists and serve a little bit of everything. My reviews are in no particular order:

Tatemichiya (Intermediate B), 〒150-0033 Tokyo, 渋谷区Sarugakucho, 30−8

Tatemichiya is a punk izakaya. The walls are covered with music posters and the pierced and bleached staff look like they’ve been dragged backwards through a hedge. The food is fine if not the greatest (B) but what’s important is the attitude and the atmosphere. It’s somewhere you can relax and make as much noise as you like. All of which made it the perfect spot to meet up with my old crew (from my left; Ken, Yuko, Peko, Shinsaku, Yuji and Uga).

We stayed for hours and ate and drank to the max. As a result most of my photos are quite blurry but here’s a selection that came out okay.

The highlight for me was the izakaya classic Eihire Yaki, grilled skate fins served with Kewpie mayonnaise. So crispy, so good!

Other pics show Sashimi (raw seafood; octopus, tuna and seabass), grilled Eringi mushrooms and steamed rice with Furikake (a dried mixed seasoning). Click the pics to expand.

Kan (High Intermediate A), 2 Chome-1-1 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku, Tōkyō-to 153-0043

Kan is an upmarket Izakaya at the opposite end of the spectrum. The décor is sleek and modern and the food is excellent but not particularly cheap. I came on my very first night in Tokyo and didn’t have a reservation so I couldn’t sit at the bar and watch the chefs as I would have liked to. I didn’t mind too much though as I was just happy to get in.

I had the tasting menu, about ten dishes, with a couple of beers and four glasses of Shochu (Japanese ‘vodka’ typically distilled from rice), for Y11,200 (about £80). Everything was top notch and the experience of eating such good Japanese food filled me with happiness after going without for so many years.

I can’t remember what all the dishes were but they include Figs with Fish Tempura and Squid Negiri (raw seafood on a rice ball), Sashimi (raw fish, seabass and tuna I think), Shochu, Mushroom soup (including Shitake, Enokitake and I think Maitake), Wagyu beef, Hiyayakko (cold tofu served here with Bonito tuna flakes and Negi spring onions), Saba (grilled mackerel with grated giant radish), Tempura (prawn and squid) and Uni Temaki (sea urchin hand roll).

There was a lot more but due to the low lighting, a lot of my pictures came out blurred so I haven’t included them. Everything was great though!

Higashi-Yama (Advanced A), 1 Chome-21-25 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku, Tōkyō-to 153-0043, 11.30am-2pm Tue-Sat 6pm-1am Monday-Saturday, higashiyama-tokyo.jp

This modern Japanese restaurant is a bit hard to find as it’s hidden up a side street but there’s a map on the website. I recommend booking ahead.

The décor is very modern and minimalist. I was seated at the bar around the open kitchen so I could observe all the goings on and talk to the chefs, one of whom could speak pretty good English. He gave me some good tips for buying Japanese knives (see Kappabashi post).

All the food was presented on beautiful ceramics as is the Japanese way. I’ve put a dozen or so ceramic shops on my Google map if that’s something you’re interested in.

I had the tasting menu for around ¥8200 (£60) as I recall. From what I can remember here we have Kaki (deep fried oysters), fish in soy based sauce, Wagyu beef and Udon noodles but there were many more dishes and some photos that didn’t come out. Please click on them to enlarge.

After dinner I stayed on in their basement lounge for a few more Umeshus.

Kushiwakamaru (Intermediate B+), 1 Chome-19-2 Kamimeguro, 目黒区 Meguro-ku, Tōkyō-to 153-0051, Open Mon-Fri 5.30pm-midnight, Sat-Sun 5pm-midnight

‘The Stick Factory’ is a Yakitori bar, a small restaurant serving bite-sized chunks of chicken and vegetables that have been skewered on wooden sticks, grilled and seasoned with salt or soy sauce. The food is classic ‘salaryman’ (office worker) fare; cheap, cheerful, affordable and good for washing down with copious amounts of lager, sake or shochu.

Typically these casual establishments specialise in chicken offal (put ‘yakitori’ into the search box of my Google map and click on the place marks and you’ll see). However Kushiwakamaru also sells more elegant yakitori like smoked duck breast and quail eggs.

The skewers are grilled over charcoal and tended by a chef who constantly fans the embers. This job can be a bit dangerous as the traditional fans can easily catch alight! I bought myself a modern fireproof one for fanning my BBQ at home (see Kappabashi post).

On average the Yakitori are between £1.10 to £1.80 a stick which is fair given the quality. I had Neginiku (chicken leg and leek), Tsukune (balls of minced chicken) Shitake (mushroom) and Gyu-kushiyaki (beef).

Other commonly available chicken yakitori include Shishito-niku (breast meat with small green peppers), Seseriyaki (neck), Tebasaki (wings), Sunagimo (gizzard), Tori-reba (liver), Tori-motsu (giblets), Hingagawa (skin), Bonbochi (tail), Hatsu (heart), Torinankotsu (soft cartilage) and Kashiwa (plain chicken meat). You might come across seafood and other meat options as well.

So that concludes my experiences of Meguro. Off into town next!

Tokyo – Eating Ramen and Tonkatsu in Meguro

Posted in Japan, Kanto, Meguro, Tokyo with tags , , , , on January 7, 2019 by gannet39

It’s all about the ramen noodles and pork cutlets in this post.
For more food in Meguro see the next post on restaurants and yakitori in Nakameguro.
All these places are on this map.

Another reason I chose my AirBnB was that it was right next door to this branch of a famous ramen chain…

Ramen Jiro (Elementary B+), 3 Chome-7-2 Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tōkyō-to 153-0063

As Jiro opens at midday I thought that I’d be straight in if I arrived at 12.30. No such luck as all the seats were full and a dozen or more people (all blokes; students and workers) were waiting patiently in a line outside.

This seemed to be the case whenever I walked past, whatever time of day or night it was.

It’s definitely a good sign because it means the ramen is worth waiting for. Unlike European diners, Japanese ramen-ya customers will quickly eat and go, so you won’t be hanging around for too long, which is a good job as there are only seven seats in Jiro.

I was surprised by how much spoken Japanese I had remembered after so many years without using it but I’d virtually forgotten how to read. This meant I couldn’t understand the buttons on the vending machine or work out what the six varieties on offer actually were. Most times, if you press the first button it will most likely be the most popular one. However if there’s no machine, just say ‘osusume?’ to the chef which politely means ‘recommend’).

I watched a few other customers making their choices and went with the most popular button. After putting my 500 yen coin in the slot I got a blue plastic token in return. When it was finally my turn to squeeze onto a stool at the cramped counter, I handed the token over to the chef without a word being exchanged.

The ramen was fantastic; big chunky bread flour noodles swimming in a powerful pork and soya sauce stock, topped with two hefty slabs of cha siu pork, pork fat, cabbage, bean sprouts and two big dollops of raw garlic.

The preparation and presentation was very rustic with zero finesse, but it packed a powerful punch and was heaven in a bowl as far as I was concerned.

Extra toppings are free but it was a hefty enough portion for me.

Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto Meguro (Elementary B+), 〒141-0021 Tōkyō-to, Shinagawa-ku, Kamiōsaki, 2 Chome−13−45 トラストリンク第3ビル1F moukotanmen-nakamoto.com

Another famous ramen shop, in a side street near the Meguro JR station. The fiery red shopfront serves as a warning as Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto is famous for its hot spicy ramen.

Nakamoto is the name of the original owner who retired and sold the business to a regular who had been a faithful customer for twenty years. With the shop came the secret recipe for Nakamoto’s spicy ramen.

The vending machine has heaps of options but fortunately they have English menus here as well.

I had the Gomoku Mouko Tanmen ramen; a miso (bean paste) tanmen (chicken) broth served with cabbage, carrot, scallions, beansprouts, Chinese mushrooms, tofu, boiled eggs, negi (Japanese leek) and plenty of Chinese chilli. It was by no means the hottest (the Hokkyoku ramen is the shop’s most fiery bowl) but it was still pretty feisty.

I went for the ‘kaedama’ option; an extra portion of noodles to add to the remaining broth when you’ve finished the first lot. I love spicy ramen (if it’s avaialbe, my usual order is ramen with extra kimchi; fermented Korean chilli cabbage) so this went down very well with me (B+).

Tonki (Intermediate A), 1 Chome-1-2 Shimomeguro, Meguro, open 4pm-10.45pm, closed Tuesday and third Monday of the month

This shop is one of the best places in Tokyo to eat Tonkatsu, a breaded cutlet similar to Wiener Schnitzel or Cotoleta Milanese except that it uses pork rather than veal which is a rare meat In Japan (and not to be confused with Tonkotsu, a type of ramen broth).

Customers eat at the long bar which surrounds the pristine open plan kitchen. Chefs in white wellies expertly perform their stage of the production process in full view of the diners.

I had the tonkatsu served as part of Teishoku, that is as a set meal with the holy trinity of sides; boiled rice, miso soup and pickles (cucumber and giant radish). Teishoku began at Zen Buddhist temples and slowly spread to the restaurant industry.

There are two options on the menu; ‘rosu’ (fatty belly meat) or ‘hire’ (lean loin). Trying to be health conscious I went for the loin which I regretted as it didn’t have quite as much flavour as I was hoping for. It was still very good though (B+).

The best accompaniment for me is a cold bottle of Sapporo beer.

More food in Nakameguro next!

Tokyo – Meguro – Walking Around

Posted in Japan, Kanto, Meguro, Tokyo with tags , , , on January 6, 2019 by gannet39

Back in the early 90s I lived in Japan for three years working as an English teacher in the Tokyo area. I had a fantastic time and made lots of friends and had many formative experiences. So imagine how excited I was about coming back twenty years later! And this time I was going to do all the things that I didn’t have the time or the money to do when I was younger.

Tokyo is a huge city and travel times can be long despite the highly efficient public transport system. If you’re visiting the best thing you could do is to stay somewhere near a Yamanote line station (the green metro line pictured above). Similar to London’s Circle line, except much busier, the Yamanote follows a circular route through all the central Tokyo districts, so you can access many of the main sights in the most travel efficient way.

For the first week I rented an AirBnB in Meguro, a fashionable residential neighbourhood in the southern part of the Yamanote loop. The flat was about fifteen/twenty minutes’ walk from Meguro Yamanote Line station which is fairly standard.

I chose to stay in Meguro because I could easily take the Yamanote line to nearby entertainment districts like Ginza to the east and Shibuya to the west (see later posts), and because there was a concentration of places I wanted to see (this post) and things I wanted to eat (next post) in the local area. You can see all these places on my rather intense Google map here and read a guide about the central neighbourhoods here.

The Meguro river is a famous place for Hanami, the famous Japanese tradition of cherry blossom viewing. Click here to see what it can look like.

The best time to experience this is mid March to early April but you need to keep an eye on the blossom forecasts as it varies each year.

I did harbour illusions of jogging down the riverside each morning but I was there in December when it didn’t look so inviting.

In terms of architecture, Meguro has this gem…

Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, 5 Chome-21-9 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tōkyō-to 108-0071, www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp

This art museum is housed in one of Tokyo’s only Art Deco buildings, the former residence of Prince and Princess Asaka. The art gallery only takes up a couple of rooms and the rest of the house is still pretty much as it was when the royal couple lived here. The rooms still retain all their original furniture and fittings which were designed in a collaboration between Japanese aritsans and European artists. If like me you love Art Deco, it’s definitely worth a visit. The garden in its autumnal finery was lovely too. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Can’t remember where it was but I stumbled across this small temple somewhere near the station. Click to enlarge.

Other interesting buildings I noticed when I was walking around Meguro was this incredibly thin apartment block.

Generally residential architecture in Tokyo is really bland but this unusual block near the river stood out.

This was another intriguing place in Meguro, although the weak of stomach might want to stop reading here…

Meguro Parasite Museum, Chome-1-1 Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, Tōkyō-to 153-0064, www.kiseichu.org

Yup, you read right, a parasite museum. Granted this is not to everyone’s taste but it was better than walking home in the rain one day, and it is quite fascinating in a gruesome way. The 300 hundred specimens are part of a collection of around 45,000 which was put together by Kamegai Satoru, a Japanese doctor in the second world war. Damien Hirst has nothing on him.

The star exhibit is this tape worm which is nearly nine metres long! It came from the stomach of a forty year old man.

There is plenty of other spooky stuff. Again, click to enlarge.

Hopefully that hasn’t put you off looking at my next post about food!

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