Posting all the pics that didn’t make the blog while I was in Japan…
We visited a “space” exhibit in Ginza. This paper cut-out display challenged you to discover three contrary cut-outs in the crowd: a child, a woman with an umbrella, and a cat. I found the woman with the umbrella and think I spotted the kid, but no luck with that cat.
Part of the same exhibit.
Tokyo’s interesting architecture.
Subway warnings. Watch those kids! And drunks!
Some of the goodies at Dandelion chocolate in Tokyo.
Me, ready for chocolate-making action.
The true 4D experience rumbling, wind, and scent. I’ll leave it to you to provide the requisite tie-in joke.
Umeda station isn’t named after the plum.
Osaka at night
Osaka during the day.
Akemi just can’t resist.
We spotted quite a few of these circular dead vegetations outside several izakayas. No idea what they were.
My friend at the farmer’s market – TamaNegiAtama!
Another farmer’s market friend – he of the spicy pepper powder.
Some Osaka shopping.
Avocado tofu – surprisingly good. As is most of the tofu in Japan compared to what we get in North America.
Osaka fish market where you can just stop, point, and have it raw or cooked.
My take-out meal on the shinkansen. Heavy on the fried stuff!
Waiting under the giant spider.
Green velour pants in Ginza.
Some…interesting accessories – Ginza.
Chef Masa (Sushisho Masa) is a huge fan of the anime One Piece. Some of the restaurant’s bathroom decorations.
One of the colorful dishes at Esquisse.
Dessert at Esquisse.
Kumamon, the mascot of Kumamoto prefecture. And Akemi.
Fresh fruit convenience machine. Looks pretty popular.
One of Hiroo’s popular eateries.
More of Tokyo’s interesting architecture.
Interesting window display – Omotesando.
Akemi, thrilled to be at Pizza Seirinkan.
Pina Colada-inspired dessert at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
Akemi watched Angry Birds on the plane and insisted I watch it because the main character reminds her of me.
Scallops at Benoit.
Akemi and I got matching Gudetama t-shirts. They reflect my current mood.
Tokyo bakeries are insane.
One of the weirdest desserts of the trip. Ingredients included black truffles, parsley, and dill. Very interesting – in a horrible horrible way.
September 11th back west but the 12th here. This blog entry comes to you from the future!
So, the fallout from Friday night’s Dark Matter double-header continues to resonate. I’ll hold off talking about it until our international fans have had a chance to catch up but, suffice it to say, if you found the ending of episode 212 shocking, you’ll be downright devastated by our season finale.
Meanwhile, I’m in Japan. After a typical sleepless pre-flight night and a relatively sleepless eight hour flight, I arrived in Tokyo at 4:00 p.m. local time, about midnight my time. Once Akemi and I had caught caught the shuttle bus from Narita, checked into our hotel, enjoyed a late night of yakitori –
I forced myself to stay up until 9:30 p.m. (5:30 a.m. Vancouver time). By 10 p.m. I was OUT. Then, following a deep sleep, I roused awake in a panic, assuming I had slept in and wasted much of the afternoon. I scrambled to check the time on my iPhone. What was it? 8 a.m.? 9?! 10?!!! Try 1:30 a.m. I’d been asleep for all of three and a half hours.
I slept fitfully until 6 am when I woke up – much to Akemi’s relief as she had been up since 4 a.m. – then we got dressed and headed over to the Tsukiji Fish Market for our traditional Japanese breakfast –
We walked around Ginza. We walked around Omotesando. I humored Akemi by agreeing to a vegetarian lunch where I enjoyed was served about a dozen dish small dishes. The overarching theme of the lunch was bitter-goopy.
Then, it was off to La Maison de Chocolat for second-lunch.
Well, my Snow Monkeys are off to a horrendous start in fantasy football league play, putting up an abysmal 64.14 points. It’s going to be a looong season!
Sushi tonight, then we’re off to a chocolate-making class tomorrow before catching the bullet train to Osaka. Akemi had me call the shop last month to find out if the class was offered in English. Sadly, the answer was no – but, undeterred, Akemi signed us up anyway. “It’s only one class,”she said. Right. Only one FOUR HOUR class!
The old adage is true. You never truly appreciate something until it’s gone. Like, say, your appetite. Or even the ability to eat something without having it transform your stomach in a raging maelstrom. At the beginning of this trip, I was on the top of the world, assuming I’d get to try anything and everything. The bechamel-laced gratin croquette from Tokyo McDonalds. The ice cream waffle sandwich from Ginza’s Manneken. A casual lunch-time visit to Pizza Seirinkan in Naka-Meguro. I figured there’d be time. But there wasn’t. Instead, there was a banana and sliced bread and a manuka honey throat lozenge Akemi picked up at Mitsukoshi department store the other day.
Not even a final drink at Star Bar or a return visit to Butagumi for their delicious braised pork appetizer.
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I don’t fly out until 6:05 p.m. tomorrow evening. Maybe there’s still hope?
We started our Tokyo trip with lunch at Sawada sushi and ended it with a dinner there. As always, excellent. On last night’s visit, we ended up befriending some of our fellow diners and retiring to Star Bar for a nightcap – cocktails for them and a medicinal stomach-settling amaro for me.
So, we fly back to Vancouver today. By the time you read this blog entry, Akemi and I will already be thinking about eventually heading to the airport to catch our flight back to Canada. Unless, of course, you read it much later in which case we’ll already be in the air.
Thanks for coming along!
P.S. I am NOT looking forward to that 90 minute shuttle bus ride to the airport.
I think I actually put on some weight on this trip. No. Really. Upon my arrival in Tokyo, I had a choice between two notches on my belt – the first, a little tight; the second, a little loose. I opted for the latter and, fourteen days later, that loose notch is actually kind of snug. Wha- happened?! I thought all the walking I was doing would burn off the extra calories. Okay, granted, I have been eating a lot – but no more than on previous visits. I even took a bit of a break today, not so much out of a desire to curtail my culinary spree as it was the fact that I just wasn’t hungry after “the ramen debacle”. I was up most of the night and into this morning nursing a sore stomach and I simply couldn’t do it today.
But that didn’t stop me from trying.
For lunch, we went out for oden, a traditional Japanese “comfort food” consisting of daikon radish, fish cake, boiled eggs, and konyakku, a flavorless potato noodle with a consistency like jelly. It’s all served in a dashi broth and is beloved by many here, including Akemi. Me, not so much, but I didn’t mind. If Akemi was willing to eat deep-fried pork tonkatsu with me, I was certainly willing to eat a giant steamed radish for her. True love, huh?
Otakou: 2-2-3 Nihombashi, Tokyo
After lunch, I was feeling surprisingly “not terrible”, so rather than head back to the hotel, I accompanied Akemi on a stroll through Nihombashi.
Although I still wasn’t hungry by the time we returned to Ginza, I figured I had to get back on the horse, just like a real athlete plays through pain. With only days to go before my departure, I have a lot of ground to cover after all! So we started off easy, sharing a meager two dessert snacks that we picked up at the Peninsula Hotel and brought back to our room:
One of the desserts Akemi was dying to tru was the famed Peninsula Hotel mango pudding, purportedly THE BEST mango pudding ever. So, I had to try it as well. And the verdict? It was pretty damn good mango pudding! I never thought I’d ever say those words.
Akemi also surprised me with a box of assorted chocolates from Madame Setsuko, an Osaka legend. She gifted me a similar box after our first date way back in 2009, dropping them off at my hotel on her way to work the next morning. Sweet, no?
Well, with time winding down on our trip, we’re making the most of our last few days by paying second visits to some of our favorite haunts. Last night, it was L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon for another excellent dinner:
Followed by a romantic night-time stroll through Roppongi:
P.S. In retrospect, that Hattendo fresh cream bun before bedtime was huge mistake. I was up all night!
Nobody appreciates the fine arts like I do and it should come as no surprise that there’s nothing I enjoy more than hitting the local museums whenever I visit a foreign city. Such was the case yesterday when Akemi and I woke up early so that we could catch the bullet train to Yokohama and check out one of its most famous museums: The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. There, we checked out the masters who dabble in oils, broth, and noodles…
Truth be told, it’s not really much of a museum. The educational portion is scant, but the hands-on experience is plentiful with a wide variety of ramen to choose from. The lower level of the museum has been transformed into a latter-day Japan complete with winding back alleys, shuttered old time bars, and numerous ramen-yas.
A chart at the entrance gives you a rundown of the dozen or so chefs and their respective ramen. Then, it’s up to you. Choose a place and enter your order at the little machine outside the restaurant. Then, all you have to do is grab a spot in line and wait to be seated.
The choices were overwhelming, so I simply went with what I thought looked good. We started at a place called Ganja where we ordered…
It was, hands down, the best ramen I’ve ever had. Both broths were incredibly complex, rich with levels of flavor. The thick slice of pork was incredibly tender, the egg I got with my broth perfectly cooked, and the noodles terrific. I honestly could have ordered another bowl – not because I was still hungry, but because I didn’t want the meal to end.
We ordered two small bowls so that we could sample some of the other ramens being offered. The busiest ramen-ya by far was Sumire that had a line-up that snaked around the corner. We dutifully lined up, placed our order, and gradually inched our way toward the entrance…
Wow. And not in a good way. After Ganja, what a letdown. My miso ramen was fine but I found Akemi’s shoyu ramen was possessed of an unpleasant, oily flavor. In fact, both broths were surprisingly oily.
There was a couple standing behind us in line. She didn’t want ramen but he did. Unfortunately, the house rules state that everyone taking up table room must order ramen. So, they compromised. He sat down and ate his ramen while she stood outside and watched him. Weird.
We finished up by taking a tour of the “museum” section and shop that offered everything from ramen keychains and chopsticks to your own personalized box of ramen.
We took a little stroll through Shin-Yokohama, then caught the bullet train back to Tokyo where we took an even longer stroll through Tokyo Station. An unintended one as we got turned around at some point and spent close to an hour trying to find the subway back to our hotel. The place is huge!
Finally, we made it back!
I arrived back at the hotel to discover a package awaiting me. It was from Akemi’s mother and it was filled with what I estimate to be about a year’s word of matcha (ceremonial green tea)! Between this and everything I’m planning to pick up, it looks like I may have to invest in a second suitcase.
We tried to work off dinner with a walk along Ginza-dori…
For dinner we went to Chikuyotei, one of the country’s oldest unagi restaurants. It holds special meaning for Akemi because it was a favorite of her grandfather’s who used to take her there when she was young.
Alas, no tables available so we had to settle for floor seating. And by “floor seating”, I mean we sat on the floor at a low table. Apparently, this isn’t terribly uncommon in Japan and many Japanese have mastered the art. I, unfortunately, have not and spent much to the meal shifting uncomfortably between kneeling, sitting cross-legged, and stretching my legs out underneath the table.
We ordered from an English menu that helpfully warned us to “be careful for the eel bones”. So we were. As for the meal…
Another great meal and, I’m sure, very natsukashii for Akemi.
Chikuyotei: 8-14-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Well, I think the law of averages has finally caught up with me. I fear I’ve done in – not by the little aliens in my soup or the countless cream-filled desserts or even the chicken sashimi. It was the ramen! I woke up this morning feeling like my stomach has undergone a mochi massage…
Tokyo is a vibrant metropolis of neon lights and raucous party districts, 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. work days and all night manga cafes were salarymen who have missed the last subway home can catch a few hours sleep before sunrise. It’s can be chaotic and crowded…
And yet, there are parts of Tokyo that are strangely idyllic, isles of solitude amid the mayhem. One such area is the neighborhood of Daikanyama, a district I would want to call home…if a move to Japan was ever in the cards. What really distinguishes it for me, besides the tree-lined roads, quiet side streets, and generally laid-back attitudes is the prevalence of dog owners. If you want to meet some dogs, Daikanyama is the place to go. And, today, I did. And did.
And another half-dozen dogs who moved so quickly, the photos I snapped were unusable.
Earlier in the day, we enjoyed an excellent lunch at Sushi Kanesaka. Some of the highlights:
We were served by the affable Chef Sanpei who spoke pretty solid English. According to him, one of their former regulars was an English teacher who used to come in twice a weak and give the staff lessons while he ate. They’re obviously fast-learners!
A great place for sushi enthusiasts who are a little apprehensive about the language barrier.
I have at least one revelatory dining experience every time I visit Tokyo and, on this trip, it was the dinner I had at Esquisse, Tokyo’s hottest French restaurant. Located on the 9th floor of the Royal Crystal Ginza, Esquisse has only been open a year and a half but, in that short time, under the stewardship of the Head Chef Lionel Beccat, it has made a name for itself amongst a host of culinary luminaries.
How great was our meal? Well, it was so good that Akemi, who had hitherto proclaimed herself “not a fan of French cuisine”, did an about face and has now declared herself very much a fan. At least so far as Esquisse is concerned. “The best meal I’ve eaten on this trip,”was what she said. And we’ve had A LOT of terrific meals on this trip.
Every dish was a visual marvel, and the intricacies of its textural and flavor combinations nothing short of incredible. Descriptions would not do any of them justice so, instead, feast your eyes…
If you’re making plans to visit Tokyo, put this one at the top of your To-Do list.
Esquisse: Royal Crystal Ginza 9F, 5-4-6 Ginza, Tokyo
Overall, it was another of good eating. We were out the door fairly early this morning so that Akemi could check out one of her favorite chocolate shops, Chocolat de H, which had relocated to Shibuya’s Shin Q department store. We walked the basement food section and I snapped some surreptitious pics. For some reason photography is not permitted in the building so, if you report me, I’ll deny any knowledge of the photos or this blog…
We picked up a few desserts (for later) and had just enough time to cram them into our hotel fridge before heading downstairs to meet up with Akemi’s old friend and co-worker, Nihei, who took us to lunch.
We walked the five blocks over to Kushino Bou, a terrific kushiage restaurant. For those not in the know, kushiage cuisine offers an assortment of panko-crusted deep-fried favorites. We were seated at counter and were instructed to simply tell them “Stop” when we’d had enough. And then it began, skewer after skewer after skewer after skewer…
Akemi maxed out at around twelve. Nihei and I managed about twenty. Apparently, the restaurant’s average repertoire includes anywhere from 40-50 different skewers a seating, so if you’re planning to “sample a bit of everything”, make sure to skip breakfast.
After lunch, we strolled over to Akemi’s former workplace, Pierre Marcolini, where we picked up some thank-you chocolates for Nihei.
We bid our host a fond farewell and burned off lunch with a little walk so that we could return to the hotel room and sample the desserts we had purchased that morning…
Not a bad one in the bunch. The cheesecake was particularly intriguing – not overly sweet and a touch salty.
In the afternoon, we did a little advance Christmas shopping. Among the notable sights:
And we capped off our night at….where else?…Star Bar. Check out Master Kishi-san doing his thing. He’s a machine!
If there’s one thing the Japanese love, it’s a line-up. And this fact was reinforced as we strolled through Ometasando yesterday where we noted not one, not two, but THREE line-ups. The first for a newly opened popcorn shop (?), the second for some other presumably new shop of indeterminate nature, and the third…for a Shakey’s Pizza! I mean, come on! Shakey’s Pizza?
We had lunch at a yasai-ya (vegetable restaurant) where we enjoyed a very healthy-tasting meal after which Akemi headed off to a head spa while I caught the subway to Akihabara, Geek central:
And, this time, I didn’t return empty-handed. My new purchases:
For dinner, we met up with my friend Koji, man about town and Tokyo expert, who took us to one of the most happening yakitori restaurants in town: Morimoto in Shibuya.
It was an excellent meal, highlighted by some noteworthy menu selections, among them the house tsukune (minced chicken), the crispy bonjiri chicken butt), chicken heart and even some chicken sashimi…
The verdict? I preferred the chicken butts. Overall, a terrific meal.
Morimoto: Hamanokami building 1F, 2-7-4, Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
From there, our host, Koji, took us to Nombei Yokocho. Located down a side alley, it’s a block made up of a host of tiny stand-up bars and eateries evocative of old Edo. As we walked down the street, Koji gave me the rundown of the various establishments. “This place is owned by an old high school friend who serves up excellent meguro. That one is owned by a very nice Russian woman who tends the bar. This one is run by a former French chef and serves some amazing cheeses and wines.”
We ended up at Saya, a tiny bar belonging to an old friend of Koji’s. And I do mean tiny. About the size of my bathroom, it has counter seating for four and standing room for another three. Still, the cramped confines are conducive to a real get-to-know-you atmosphere.
Four sakes in and I was ready for bed. At approximately 8:00 p.m. I felt like THIS guy –
AND I had the munchies. So I stopped off at McDonalds and grabbed an ebi (shrimp) burger. Then, a mini tonkatsu (fried pork) burger at some other place. Oh, and a chocolate eclair. To help soak up the alcohol and prevent hangovers. Works like a charm. You should try it some time!
An early night as as I have big day ahead of me. Details to come!
Being a huge fan of science fiction, I have always been fascinated by the world of future tech: nanotechnology, faster than light travel and, of course, robotics. Last night, I was afforded the chance to explore the latter at one of Tokyo’s hottest night spots, the Robot Restaurant, a place where science and spectacle converge in a flashy, sonorous, dizzying – and informative – display.
Located in the hear of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, the restaurant was opened a couple of years ago at a cost of an astounding $10+ million and has been packing them in ever since. The price of admission (about $50 per person) gets you an unremarkable dinner (we ate before we came) and a seat at THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!
As we walked along in search of our destination, this caught my eye –
We already had plans for the night but, being a military buff, I thought this would be an equally educational opportunity for some other time. But I was surprised to discover that said Tank Girls make up part of one of the acts I’d be watching that night. Robotics AND military history! I actually felt myself getting smarter!
We purchased our reserved tickets (There are a couple of shows each night so make sure to book in advance), selected our meals (you have a choice between meat or fish), then walked across the street and into…well…let me show you…
Once downstairs, we were ushered into the showroom and over to our assigned seats. With ten minutes to go before the commencement of the festivities, we were free to walk around, check out some of massive props on display, and grab a drink. The crowd was, perhaps not so surprisingly, mainly made up of foreigners, ranging in age from tiny kids to grandmothers.
The audience settled into the seats flanking the stage area and we were instructed to remain seated during the show as there was a danger of being clipped by moving set pieces. Also, I imagine that every so often one of these robots gains sentience and runs amok, necessitating prompt action by trained professionals who don’t need innocent bystanders getting in the way. Photography is permitted, but big cameras (?) are frowned upon. Also frowned upon = touching the robots or dancers.
The show kicked off with an impressive choreographed taiko performance involving two groups of women on two moving stages, massive wadaiko drums, a moving omikoshi and its dancing bearers, a slew of oni (Japanese demons), colorful costumes, flashing lights, blaring music, smoke. Here’s a taste:
Following a five minute intermission, it was time to start the next act – which ended up being my favorite. And, speaking of favorites, as much as I loved the headlining robots – especially the goofy dancing samurai-bot – I ranked this performer as my #1 draw:
Another five minute intermission and then we moved onto the third act which was weird and my least favorite, but no less entertaining. This one actually told a story and involved a fearsome black samurai and his two underlings who looked like rock ’em sock ’em robots dancing around and talking trash. They are confronted by a panda and his two tiger buddies. The robots kick the crap out of the panda but are in turn beaten up by the tigers who end up getting their asses kicked by black samurai. Enter a warrior woman armed with Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield. She takes on the robots. And loses. She retreats, but another champion steps into the fray: a woman riding a dinosaur wielding a giant iron ball on a chain. She battles black samurai and is forced to retreat. At which point this giant spider woman makes a grand entrance, battles the black samurai, and captures him with her webbing before dragging him back to her lair. Hurray! The day is saved!
Another five minute intermission. We are all handed glow wands and instructed on what to do. Alas, all the instructions were in Japanese – but I got the gist.
And the show goes on with another wild performance, this one involving roller-skating robots and warrior women. Also, towering robots programmed to serve humanity. And dance!
A break in the action affords us the opportunity for a photo op:
A goodbye to the robots…
And then it was time for the capper, a performance highlighted by more costume clad women, loud music, laser lights, and a technicolor tank…
Wow. What a production! I was impressed – not just by the scope and scale of the production, but the talented performers as well.
On my way out, I bought a souvenir Robot Danger Dance & Mechanic Crew t-shirt. The fellow at the counter informed me that they had received some mighty impressive guests from overseas in recent months (Anthony Bourdain, JJ Abrams, The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus) and suggested I check out the website as the performances were always changing. A return visit is a must!
Highly recommended. If you’re in Tokyo, not to be missed!
Yesterday, we took a day trip to Akemi’s old stomping grounds, catching the Chiyoda line from Hibiya station to Yoyogi Uehara where we transferred to the Odakyu line and finally arrived in Seijogakuen-mae. In short, just a little easier to get there than it is to pronounce…
Once we arrived the first thing we did was go on a tour of the places Akemi used to frequent – like, say, the local grocery store…
Then, we took a stroll through the area. Akemi offered insight throughout the tour. “This is where you can come and get your shirts dry-cleaned,”she would helpfully point out as we’d pass a dry-cleaners. And “This is where you can get your hair cut” – as we’d walk by a barber shop. “And this is where you can buy your insurance.”
Akemi had a hankering for soba (buckwheat noodles), so we had lunch at a soba restaurant called Akatsukian.
For dessert, we headed over to another one of Akemi’s old haunts: Seijo Alpes…
Akemi had a chestnut dessert that I found not sweet enough and texturally kind of strange – but she loved. “Very Japanese taste,”she said. I, on the other hand, had a decadent hazelnut taste. Very Joe taste.
And the overall verdict?
As we walked through the area, Akemi kept mentioning what a great neighborhood it was and how wonderful it would be to live there. I was unconvinced until I came across these guys…
We continued our exploration of Seijogakuen-mae with a little tour of the local bakeries. We picked up a few samples for…well…sampling.
We eventually wrapped up our tour and caught the subway to Shinjiku where two girls complimented me on my awesome Attack on Titan cell phone cover, and we walked some more…
It was a great day – but little did I know that the best was yet to come. Our evening was so awesome, I can’t properly do it justice in the tail end of this blog so what I’m going to do is give our outing its own special blog entry later in the day. Consider it a bonus blog entry.
Now, I don’t want to say too much and spoil the surprise, but here’s a sneak preview…
Akemi: When I was a kid, I had big eyes. Like everyone in my family.
Akemi: I’m not sure. Maybe because we eat a lot of meat.
Well, just a little meat for me yesterday – but a lot of whisky.
We joined Akemi’s family for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a place that offers terrific high-end value for your money. If you’re looking to sample Michelin-starred cuisine without breaking the bank, this is where you should come.
This was my third visit to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and I can honestly say that not only have I never had a bad meal here; I’ve never had a bad dish here. That’s damn impressive. So much so that we made dinner reservations for next week.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon: 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato
We exited the restaurant and just happened to stumble upon (okay, I had this scoped out days in advance) the Roppongi Hills Whisky Festival showcasing a bunch of Japanese blended and single malts.
I sampled the 18 year old Yamazaki (at one third the price of what it cost me for a shot in L.A.) and the 21 year Hibiki. I’ll be coming back for the Hakushu and Kaku.
After the whisky-tasting, I was feeling nostalgic and melancholy – so I figured a trip to the Mori Art Museum to check out the Charles Schulz retrospective was just the thing. We filed through the packed rooms and checked out Peanuts arts ranging from early sketch work through the various decades (Akemi: Snoopy went to war? Me: Yeah. He killed thirty nazis!).
Akemi: “Charlie has a humungous face. How does he support his body?”
Ah, good times. My sister was a huge Snoopy fan – and still has a soft spot for the lovable beagle. Maybe I’ll bring her back something nice from the gift shop for minding my dogs while we’re away in Tokyo.
Mori Art Museum: 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato
While in town, I’m thinking of checking out a Japanese movie:
We returned to the hotel to gather our strength for the night ahead. A little downtime, a little snack:
And we were ready to head out once again:
We had dinner reservations at Fook Lam Moon, a Chinese restaurant with branches in Hong Kong, Ginza, and Marunouchi. Akemi and I arrived early so we killed some time…
We dined with Akemi’s family – mom, dad, brother, sister, and new brother-in-law – and had another great meal.
Despite all we had accomplished on the day, it was still early so we had one more stop to make before turning in for the night. We headed to Ginza and my home away from home: Star Bar. It was great to see the old gang!
Yamazaki-san does his thing:
Star Bar: Sankosha Building B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Tokyo
It would seem that my mother’s opinion of Japan has taken a drastic u-turn after she watched the Tokyo episode of Anthony Bourdain’s PartsUnknown. I assured her that not all – in fact, I’d venture to say very few – Japanese women choose careers as skimpily-clad performance artists in robot theater. Also, I had no imminent plans to join any sadomasochistic rope-binding clubs. I’m not sure I convinced her though. Yesterday, instead of ending our phone conversation with her customary “Have fun!”, she opted for the infinitely more foreboding: “Be careful!”.
Somewhat along the same lines…Did you know that it’s impossible to take a discreet picture with your cell phone in Japan. The other night, my dining companion, Tomomi, expressed nothing short of awe at my ability to snap photos of the food without making a sound. I explained that all she had to do was switch her phone to silent mode but, apparently, there is no such thing as silent mode in Japan. When it comes to taking pictures on your cell phone anyway. This fact was confirmed the next day at lunch when one of our fellow customers tried taking a photo of her sushi – and ended up drawing the attention of the entire room when her phone emitted a sound akin to a sound effect for fairy dust being sprinkled. What gives? Well, according to Akemi, perverts ruined it for everyone. Isn’t it always the way? Apparently, upskirt photos became pandemic that the authorities stepped in and passed a law to stem the flow. Now, if you’re going to snap a photo of someone’s panties riding the escalator one floor up, someone is gonna know! Unless, of course, you have one of those stealth phones. Like I do.
Well, yesterday I spent the day with my friend Moro-san visiting Kamakura, a small and quaint city in Kanagawa Prefecture notable for its temples, shrines, giant statue, and the exact same chocolate cake with a side of whipped cream that is served at every restaurant and cafe in the area.
We stopped off for a pre-dinner snack where I enjoyed a very beery beer ice cream and a bite of Moro-san’s lavender ice cream that tasted like that time I was accidentally sprayed in the mouth while cutting through my local department store’s women’s perfume section. Then, about an hour later, we had dinner.
We capped off our day with drinks at a bar called En in Yokohama. Owned and operated by master mixologist Endo, it’s a small place and homey watering hole with an astounding selection of booze. We were the first ones in and, over the hour and a half we were there, a half dozen other clients made their way in – all regulars. Moro-san introduced me and I ended up chatting with all of them, alternating between English and Japanese as I knocked back 12 year old Yamazaki and Four Roses Single Barrel.
Bar En: 4 Chome-180 Motomachi, Naka Ward, Yokohama.
By the time I got back to my hotel in Tokyo – a little over an hour later – I was exhausted. But Akemi was on hand to greet me in her very special way. With a welcome back hug? A kiss? Even better! Check it out –
Poor white dress shirt planning. That’s what it came down to. The occasion called for a black suit, white dress shirt, and white(ish) tie and I was ready. I traveled with not one but TWO white dress shirts (I’m not an idiot after all). Of course, it didn’t dawn on me until this morning that I happened to wear my back-up dress shirt on the flight over (Scratch that previous comment), so I had only the one. The one that fit comfortably enough until you fastened the top button. As a result, I wasn’t so much wearing a tie as I was sporting a tourniquet, intermittently loosening my collar throughout the day to relieve the pressure and restore blood flow to my brain. But far be it for me to complain. This was going to be my first Japanese wedding and I wasn’t about to make it about me. Until, of course, the reception.
For her part, Akemi picked up a smashing outfit for her sister’s wedding. Unfortunately, she learned too late that tradition forbade her from exposing her shoulders so she got to wear the new dress for all of the twenty minutes it took us to go from our hotel to the Hotel New Otani -where she changed into a much more modest kimono.
At the New Otani, I killed about an hour – and a chocolate parfait – cooling my heels while Akemi got her hair done and got packed into her kimono which is, apparently, a to-do.
By the time she was done, Akemi could barely breathe. And using the bathroom would be out of the question for the next seven hours so drinking was a no-no. But she did look great!
We met up and were shuttled into a room where “some” of the photographs were being taken. In fact, this room turned out to be the first of many, many photography rooms.
We were ushered out of the room and into the hallway to meet a dignitary and the wedding guest of honor: Genshitsu (Soshitsu XV), Grand Master XV, President of the Urasenke Tankokai Federation, President of the Junior College of the Urasenke Way of Tea at the Tianjin University of Commerce, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and President of the United Nations Association of Japan. At 90! Other attendees gathered giddily around him as if he was a rock star. When we were introduced, I felt like I was meeting the Stan Lee of Chado, the Way of Tea. Like Stan the Man who I met way back at the upfronts in Pasadena when SG-1 was celebrating its 200th episode, the Grand Master exuded warmth and charisma, giving me a surprisingly firm handshake and happily congratulating me – in Stan’s case, for the show’s 200th anniversary; in this case, for presumably dating the bride-to-be’s sister.
We were ushered back into our room and, following a short wait, a woman entered and delivered detailed instructions on the upcoming ceremony – which, according to Akemi, broke down as follows: “Bow twice, poom poom (clap) twice, bow again.”
“When?”I asked her. “Where? Who?”
She offered a shrug by way of response and then motioned me toward the other family members heading out the door single file. I joined the procession, following them down the hall to an antechamber where water was poured over our hands after which we were offered a paper towel with which to dry them. Then, it was into the adjoining room.
The bride and groom’s closest family members (and yours truly) were seated on opposite sides of a stage. Musicians played a flute and another instrument that wasn’t. The Shinto equivalent of the minister/priest/justice of the peace presided. He intoned. The music played. The bride and groom stepped up and bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed once again. We all did the same although I was, admittedly, taken off guard and missed the first bow. I hope no one noticed. I sat with my hands in my lap until Akemi motioned to everyone else seated with their hands on their knees, so I did the same – except not exactly, as Akemi was forced to demonstrate the proper technique. I followed suit, forming my hands into fists and laying them palm down on my knees. But that wasn’t right either. Again, Akemi had to show me and, finally, I got it, tucking my thumbs under my closed fingers. It took me so long to get this part down that I kept my thumbs tucked securely in my fists resting palm down on my knees long after everyone else on stage had relaxed.
The ceremony ended. The bride and groom left. And then everyone introduced themselves. One by one, they went through the groom’s family, every family member rising to let the room know a little about themselves and their relation to Hiroshi-san. My mind scrambled to come up with something I could say by way of an introduction. In Japanese. I was thinking something along the lines of: “Konnichi wa. Joe desu. Canada kara kimashita. Anime dai suki!” = “Hello. I’m Joe. I came from Canada. I love anime!”. In the end, Akemi’s father wound up making the introductions for the bride’s side of the family and all that was required of me was a stand and bow that I accomplished without incident – but, on the other hand, without demonstrating any real aptitude either.
From there, it was off the banquet hall where we handed over our gift envelope and signed our names. In hiragana. With a calligraphy pen. I’d practiced last night. But, evidently, not enough…
Then, it was into the banquet hall for the reception.
But first, some speeches. By a famed news anchor. By a business partner. By the Grand Master who extolled the virtues of green tea. And there was even a speech by the chef! An hour later, it was time to eat.
And, I have to admit, it was the best wedding food I’ve ever had. A couple of the highlights:
Throughout the reception, the bride underwent a series of transformations, changing outfits every half hour or so, going from the traditional Japanese wedding dress to a kimono to a contemporary wedding dress to a colorful wedding dress to, of course, mecha-robo, and finally to a wild ensemble that could have come from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set dec sale.
Unlike every other wedding I’ve been to, there was no dance music – much less any dancing. Instead, the tunes, a variety ranging from classical to J-Pop, accompanied the meal and various entrances. At one point, believe or not, they actually played the theme to Stargate SG-1. I like to think it was for my benefit – although I seemed to be the only one to recognize it.
Meanwhile, Akemi and I worked the room, meeting friends and relatives, all of whom were exceedingly kind and very interested in taking our picture. Whenever we approached a table, everyone would stand and bow. I would bow in response. They would introduce themselves and say “Dozo yoroshiku” which roughly translates to “Pleased to meet you.” And I would introduce myself (“Joe desu”) and say “Dozo yoroshiku” – at which point everyone would chuckle goodheartedly. “Why is everyone laughing at my dozo yoroshiku?”I asked Akemi who could barely contain herself. “Because,”she said. “You’re so cute.” I sincerely doubt that was the reason.
The festivities wrapped up a little before 8:00 p.m. (tomorrow’s a work day after all!) although, by the time the last guest made their way through the “what’s the opposite of a receiving line?”, it was closer to 9:15.
From there, we scurried back upstairs so Akemi could change and we could finally make our way back to our hotel.
I must admit, it was quite a wedding. Not sure how you top that!
We sure are experiencing a lot of turbulence, I thought to myself in my sleep-addled state. Suddenly, I stopped brushing. Wait a minute. I’m in my hotel room.
“Did you feel the earthquake?”asked Akemi as I stepped out of the bathroom. The national news was already reporting on the 4.0 quake, a relatively minor that, to me, felt a little more significant. But business as usual here I suppose.
Yesterday, Akemi and I headed over to Roppongi for a little pre-lunch stroll through Roppongi (it of the giant spider art, Das). The plan was to check out Le Chocolat H but, alas, our favorite Japanese chocolatier had packed up and moved to Shibuya. So, instead, we walked back to Mori Hills and checked out a two-day farmer’s market. It was just like back home complete with food trucks and guys dressed up like giant vegetables. I am a sucker for samples and try to avoid them as much as possible, especially here in Japan where everything is delicious. On this occasion, I didn’t – and ended up buying a bag of oranges to take back to the hotel with me.
Oranges in tow, we made the fifteen walk over to Nishi-Azabu where we were meeting Akemi’s family for lunch at Butagumi, my favorite tonkatsu restaurant. Situated in a quaint old building in a back alley, Butagumi specializes in crispy, almost ethereal, fried pork cutlets from all over Japan – and beyond. On this day, we enjoyed three different varieties along with the traditional slaw, pickles, rice – and one of my very favorite dishes: the braised pork appetizer.
The talk of the table was, of course, Akemi sister’s, Hiromi’s, upcoming wedding. The ceremony will be steeped in tradition. Everything will be exact, from the exchanging of the vows to the specific envelope in which the money gift is presented. Unfortunately, Akemi hadn’t a clue which of the dozens of money envelopes on display at the local Ito-ya would work, so she had her sister and mother pick one up for us. Elaborate, no?
After lunch, we sent Akemi’s family off with some oranges, then Akemi and I headed back the way we came, making our way over to Tokyo Midtown…
I was in the mood for a little dessert but, it being the weekend, the place was so crowded I gave up in favor of some chocolate-covered waffles at the little stand-up shop in Ginza. Which also had a line-up, so we returned to the hotel where I ate a couple of oranges.
For dinner last night, I paid a return visit to one of Tokyo’s most dynamic restaurants, headed by one of its most creative chefs: L’Effervesence. It’s a bit of a walk from Omotesando, tucked away in a little alleyway – but if you can find it, it’s well worth the trip!
I met up with my good friend, Tomomi. who introduced me to the place last year. And, like last year, the meal was nothing short of spectacular. Some of the highlights included:
Other standouts included an appetizer mousse made up of Hog’s head cheese and Japanese sweet potato, the restaurant’s signature whole cooked turnip (slow-cooked for four hours before being simmered in butter and served, incredibly flavorful and, amazingly, still firm), roast Hokkaido venison served with a fig and red wine reduction, chanterelle mushrooms, and yarrow leaves and –
Pictured above, the house signature salad that includes 50 different salad, fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
For dessert, a ginger milk mousse with Darjeeling tea ice cream, apple jelly, lemon preserve, and this favorite:
And, to end things:
After dinner, the ever-humble Chef Shinobu Namae stopped by the table for a quick chat before heading back to the kitchen to complete the evening service. It turns out Chef Shinobu will be heading to our North American neighborhood to take part in the Culinary Institute of America’s World’s of Flavor conference alongside the world’s culinary elite: http://www.worldsofflavor.com/schedule/presenters. Now THAT sounds like fun.
Yesterday, Akemi and I did breakfast Tokyo Convenience Style, sitting down to a lovely spread: spicy orange-hued chicken nuggets devoid of any real chicken taste or texture, a soggy pork bun, another much better barbecued pork bun we received instead of the actual pizza bun we had ordered, an alarmingly runny aloe yogurt (with the fruit plant at the bottom) and, to wash it all down, a bottle of milk soda. The verdict? I was pleasantly surprised by the milk soda that tasted like Japan’s famed Calpis soda. As for the rest….Well…
With our breakfast sitting in our stomachs like quick-drying cement, we headed to the Yushima neighborhood for lunch at Kurogi, a popular kaiseki restaurant. Having never visited Kurogi, or the area, before, we decided to get there a little early and walk around…
A map of the area showed what appear to be two stairways, one named The Men’s Slope, the other The Women’s Slope. Not sure whether there are any hard and fast rules about men walking up the women’s slope (and vice-versa) but, according to Akemi, word has it that anyone who fall while climbing up either will die in three years – or lose three years off their lifespan. “Where’d you hear this rumor?”I asked her. “Not rumor,”she informed me. “It common sense.”
As we continued our walkabout, I noticed Akemi slowing down. It turned out her feet were killing her. Her boots were NOT made for walking. And so, we ended up stopping off at a discount shoe store where Akemi bought this – er – stylish pair…
Ultimately, she wasn’t that worried about how they looked so long as they were comfortable.
Well, they were comfortable for about a half an hour – after which she had to purchase some band-aids to keep the inside of the shoes from chafing her heel. That helped. For maybe fifteen minutes and, soon, Akemi was back to strolling in her original boots.
We wound our way around the small side streets and alleys, brimming with character and tiny restaurants. I stopped to help a middle-aged woman who had slipped and fallen and couldn’t get up. She thanked my while her friends remarked what a gentleman I was. Oh, tondemonai!
We finally arrived at our lunch reservation and discovered other diners awaiting the 12:30 seating…
We filed in at a little after 12:30 and were seated at the main counter where we were presented with our lunch. No ordering. It’s an omakase (chef’s choice) set lunch comprised of snapper in a sesame-based sauce, pickles, salmon roe, miso soup, and rice. And we were informed we could have as much rice and sashimi as we liked. Akemi had a second bowl of rice. I did both rice and sashimi. The two older women seated to my right had three bowls of the sashimi.
While we ate, we watched the chef’s prep for the more elaborate dinner service. Here a chef prepares the delicacy Bottarga, the salted and cured roe of the mullet fish:
A quick and casual kaiseki meal but no less delicious. And one of the most economical I’ve ever had at roughly $10 per person. Dinner is roughly double the price – but an equal bargain considering the expanded menu. If you’re in town and want to try kaiseki (traditional Japanese meal) without breaking the bank, be sure to make a reservation: http://www.kurogi.co.jp/pg14.html
Well, I haven’t tracked down that Neon Genesis Evangelion cover for my new iPhone, but I did find THIS equally cool substitute:
We unwound back at the hotel, then walked over to the Matsuya department store for a snack at La Maison de Chocolat. A couple of hot chocolates, a chocolate-pistachio macaron, and –
I was especially looking forward to dinner because the place we were headed – in the city’s rougher, working man’s section of Ikkebukuro – was a far cry from most of the high-end eateries I’ve visited over my many trips to Tokyo. We were going to Kabuto, a tiny, family-run restaurant specializing in grilled eel.
The place was even tinier than I expected, comprised of two tiny tables and a long counter. The customers sat on one side, offering about two feet of clearance behind them for people to negotiate the room, single file. On the other side, the unagi master ran the show while (I assumed) his wife and son, did the honors: taking our orders [you have a choice between the small (one eels), medium (one and a half eels), and large (two eels) meals], pouring the sake, plating the food and, in son’s case, gutting and cleaning the eel that were kept in a bucket below the counter. He would pull one up, kill it by severing its spinal cord with a quick slash, then nail its head to a designated area. Thus secured, he would use his knife to slice it neatly in half, remove its spine in another expert stroke, trim off any inedible parts, and then skewer the meat, ready for eating. Oh, he also demonstrated his knife skills by divesting the eel of its heart which is served raw and still beating. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the videos below.
Meanwhile, the unagi master, the star of the chef, grilled the eel, fanning the morsels. Our fellow diners were positively raucous – and super friendly. It was like one giant friends and family dinner.
Akemi has a heart:
Rustic, raucous, and utterly delicious. By night’s end, I was thoroughly stuffed – and a little tipsy. I bought a round for the two boisterous salarymen we had befriended (“From Canada,”the woman who took my order informed them), then paid the bill (cash only) and headed back to the hotel for my first blissfully deep and interrupted sleep in days. Restaurant Report – Unagi Kabuto in Tokyo – NYTimes.com