November 20, 2013: Tokyo Day #15!

This is what I've bee reduced to: whiling away the afternoons in my hotel room eating $3 bananas.
This is what I’ve bee reduced to: whiling away the afternoons in my hotel room eating $3 bananas.

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.

New friends!
New friends!

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.

Random shots:

Me in happier, hungrier, more hopeful times at the beginning of my journey.
Me in happier, hungrier, more hopeful times at the beginning of my journey.
The zen garden outside the hotel.  I'm tempted to crawl in and attain some inner peace.  Especially so far as my stomach is concerned.
The zen garden outside the hotel. I’m tempted to crawl in and attain some inner peace by quelling the inner turmoil. In my stomach.
A beautiful day in Ginza
A beautiful day in Ginza
My awesome new t-shirt from that NHK show I don't watch but should.  It look awesome.
My awesome new t-shirt from that NHK show I don’t watch but should. It look awesome.
A pre-wedding snap
A pre-wedding snap
Akemi all dressed up
Akemi all dressed up
The green "health juice" Akemi made me drink.
The green “health juice” Akemi made me drink.
Avoid swimming in this without a certified lifeguard present.
Avoid swimming in this without a certified lifeguard present.
Fresh orange jelly.
Fresh orange jelly.
Tokyo is the worldwide home of individually-wrapped items.  Like, for instance, bananas!
Tokyo is the worldwide home of individually-wrapped items. Like, for instance, bananas!
Warrior woman at the Robot Restaurant
Warrior woman at the Robot Restaurant

Thanks for coming along!

P.S.  I am NOT looking forward to that 90 minute shuttle bus ride to the airport.

November 19, 2013: Tokyo Day #14! Back on the horse! Oden! A return to an old favorite! And, of course, desserts!

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?

Following the line of customers into the restaurant.  The joint is jumping.
Following the line of customers into the restaurant. The joint is jumping.
Akemi's oden lunch setto, minus the daikon that has yet to arrive.
Akemi’s oden lunch setto, minus the daikon that has yet to arrive.
Karashi, a Japanese mustard that is about a thousand times hotter than what we have back home.  I'm going to have to pick up a jar to bring back with me.
Karashi, a Japanese mustard that is about a thousand times hotter than what we have back home. I’m going to have to pick up a jar to bring back with me.

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.

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I wonder how hot it gets in there in the summer.
I wonder how hot it gets in there in the summer.

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:

Chocolate hazelnut cream cake and a mango pudding.
Chocolate hazelnut cream cake and a mango pudding.

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.

1Akemi 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:

111Followed by a romantic night-time stroll through Roppongi:

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P.S. In retrospect, that Hattendo fresh cream bun before bedtime was huge mistake.  I was up all night!

November 18, 2013: Tokyo Day #13! The Fine Art of Ramen! H.H. Giger prepares my meal at Chikuyotei! I finally pay the price!

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…

On the shinkasen, headed to Shin-Yokohama
On the shinkansen, headed to Shin-Yokohama

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.

Night falls on old ramen town...even though it's broad daylight outside.
Night falls on old ramen town…even though it’s broad daylight outside.
The back alleys remind me of some of the old Stargate sets.
The back alleys remind me of some of the old Stargate sets.

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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…

Thick noodles and a slice of pork...
I had the thick noodles and a slice of pork…
...with spicy broth.
…with spicy broth
While Akemi went with the thin noodles
While Akemi went with the thin noodles
...and the regular broth.
…and the regular broth.

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…

Order your ramen here.
Order your ramen here.
I had the miso ramen.
I had the miso ramen.
Akemi's shoyu ramen.
Akemi’s shoyu ramen.

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.

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Uncle Charumera, former mascot of an instant noodle company.  And Jim Beam whisky.

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.

Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum: 2-14-21 Shinyokohama, Kohoku Ward, Yokohama

111We 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!

1Finally, we made it back!

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LIGHT at the end of the tunnel!

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.

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We tried to work off dinner with a walk along Ginza-dori…

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These guys were very popular.
Akemi getting into the Christmas spirit
Akemi getting into the Christmas spirit

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…

Grilled eel "kabayaki".
Grilled eel “kabayaki”.
The eel guts soup.  From the kitchen of Chef H.R. Giger
The eel guts soup looks like a prop from the last Alien movie.

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…

November 17, 2013: Tokyo Day #12! Doggy Daikanyama! Sushi Kanesaka! Dominique Bouchet!

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…

The crowd funnels its way up the sole UP escalator on a subway platform in Shibuya station.
The crowd funnels its way up the sole UP escalator on a subway platform in Shibuya station.
Saturday night shopping in Shibuya..
Saturday night shopping in Shibuya..

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.

"Pugu!"I shouted so loudly I startled the owner.
“Pugu!”I shouted so loudly I startled the owner.
We ended up stopping to chat with the owner of this bouncy pooch for a good twenty minutes.
We ended up stopping to chat with the owner of this bouncy pooch for a good twenty minutes.
An atypically calm french bulldog.  According to the owner, he was just shy.
An atypically calm french bulldog. According to the owner, he was just shy.

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:

Chef Sanpei at work.
Chef Sanpei at work.

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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.

Sushi Kanesaka: Misuzu Bldg, 8-10-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku.

And, of course, as always, the day was not without its memorable sights:

Mannequin display at Uniqlo, Ginza.
Mannequin display at Uniqlo, Ginza.
I tracked down the shirts and shorts but couldn't find the hear gear anywhere.
I tracked down the shirts and shorts but couldn’t find the hear gear anywhere.
Another mannequin display, this one inside a cosmetic shop.
Another mannequin display, this one inside a cosmetic shop.
Rental pet strollers parked outside the Green Dog vet, grooming, and treat shop.
Rental pet strollers parked outside the Green Dog vet, grooming, and treat shop.
I'm always searching for the nearest WiFi hotspot.  Maybe not this one.
I’m always searching for the nearest WiFi hotspot. Maybe not this one.
"Pick him up,"suggested the elderly owner.  Akemi did and I feared the instantly cranky dog would chew her ear off.
“Pick him up,”suggested the elderly owner. Akemi did and I feared the instantly cranky dog would chew her ear off.
Inside Roppongi Hills
Inside Roppongi Hills
It's already Christmas in Roppongi.
It’s already Christmas in Roppongi.
I run into (actually, she practically tackled me) my friend Yuki on my way to the subway.
I run into (actually, she practically tackled me) my friend Yuki-san on my way to the subway.

Finally, for dinner I met up with my friend Moro-san at Dominique Bouchet…

The ox-tail
The ox-tail
A side of mash.  The not-so-secret ingredient is butter.
A side of mash. The not-so-secret ingredient is butter.
Moro-san's raspberry soufflee.
Moro-san’s raspberry soufflee.
And the after dessert desserts.
And the after dessert desserts.

Dominique Bouchet:  5-9-15 Ginza Seigetsu Hall building B1F/B2F – Ginza, Tokyo

Today – The Yokohama Ramen Museum!

November 16, 2013: Tokyo Day #11! Esquisse! Kushiage! Star Bar!

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…

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1Flawless.

Chef Lionel Beccat
Chef Lionel Beccat

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…

Joel Robuchon baked goods
Joel Robuchon baked goods
Sebastien Bouillet popsicle-shaped cheesecakes.
Sebastien Bouillet popsicle-shaped cheesecakes.
Sebastien Bouillet owl and ladybug cakes (contain no actual owl or ladybugs).
Sebastien Bouillet owl and ladybug cakes (contain no actual owl or ladybugs).
The bread spread
The bread spread

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.

Don't see many of these in Canada.
Don’t see many of these in Canada.

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…

Saddle up to the counter at Kouji Bou
Saddle up to the counter at Kushino Bou
Two types of kushiage: beef, shrimp and shiso
Two types of kushiage: beef, shrimp and shiso
Prawn
Prawn
Shitake mushroom?  I think.
Shitake mushroom? I think.
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Skewer receptacle

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.

Akemi and Nihei, our affable host
Akemi and Nihei, our affable host

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…

Clockwise from left to right: chocolates from Chocolat de H, cheesecake from Paul Basset, chocolate mousse cake from Sebastien Bouillet, and chocolate and pistachio mousse from Toshi Yoroizuka.
Clockwise from left to right: chocolates from Chocolat de H, cheesecake from Paul Bassett, chocolate mousse cake from Sebastien Bouillet, and chocolate and pistachio mousse from Toshi Yoroizuka.

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:

What kid wouldn't want this?
What kid wouldn’t want this?
Former employee of the Robot Restaurant, now reduced to working retail.
Former employee of the Robot Restaurant, now reduced to working retail.

And we capped off our night at….where else?…Star Bar.  Check out Master Kishi-san doing his thing.  He’s a machine!

Star Bar: 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo

November 15, 2013: Tokyo Day #10! Line-ups, Geek Central, and Chicken Sashimi!

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?

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Line-up for the popcorn shop.  Really?  Popcorn?
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Line-up for…something else.  I suspect that half these people didn’t even know what they were lining up for.
Okay, come on now.  When there's even a line outside Shakey's Pizza, then you know someone is screwing with you.
Okay, come on now. When there’s even a line outside Shakey’s Pizza, then you know someone is screwing with you.

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:

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My future apartment building?
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Customers line up to input their orders outside a ramen restaurant.
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Akihabara – an anime enthusiast’s dream.
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Pillows of your favorite anime characters!  Never sleep alone again!
A little artwork for Carl's new office perhaps?
A little artwork for Carl’s new office perhaps?
My guess is...Box Man?
My guess is…Box Man?
An ad for Akihabara's many maid cafes.
An ad for Akihabara’s many maid cafes.

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A maid rustles up a customer for the cafe.
A maid rustles up a customer for the cafe.

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The doorman at the Gundam Cafe - Akihabara (Tokyo, Japan)
The doorman at the Gundam Cafe – Akihabara (Tokyo, Japan)

And, this time, I didn’t return empty-handed.  My new purchases:

New cell phone covers.
New cell phone covers.
New t-shirt.  Bonus points if you can guess the anime.  Randomness, you got this!
New t-shirt. Bonus points if you can guess the anime. Randomness, you got this!

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.

The master of ceremonies: Koji.  He paces himself at one skewer per glass of sake.
The master of ceremonies: Koji. He paces himself at one skewer per glass of sake.

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 chicken breast, served medium-alive.
The chicken breast, served medium-alive.
And the sashi trio: breast, liver, and gizzard.  Koji assured me they had been blanched in boiling water before serving...in case you were worried for me.
And the sashimi trio: breast, liver, and gizzard. Koji assured me they had been blanched in boiling water before serving…in case you were worried for me.

The verdict?  I preferred the chicken butts.  Overall, a terrific meal.

1Morimoto: 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.”

1We 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.

Our friendly bartender.
Our friendly bartender.

Four sakes in and I was ready for bed.  At approximately 8:00 p.m.  I felt like THIS guy –

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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!

November 14, 2013: Tokyo Day #9! Wherein we check out Akemi’s old neighborhood and I eat way too much. Again!

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…

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Working on our tans at Yoyogi Uehara station.

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…

Canned pork belly
Canned pork bellies!  They beat sardines any day!

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.”

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I stopped to contribute a little to help the poor cats and dogs displaced by the tsunami.
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It’s actually a quaint little walking neighborhood.
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Very homey
Sun-dried bottarga
We walked by this restaurant courtyard where two tables of bottarga were being sun-dried.
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The food is great but apparently the service is an issue.
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“Colonel Sanders Fried Chicken”as Akemi calls it.  CSFC
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A beautiful view of the area I took well away from the edge of the balcony with my zoom.

Akemi had a hankering for soba (buckwheat noodles), so we had lunch at a soba restaurant called Akatsukian.

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I ordered a lightly battered vegetable tempura.  The maitake mushrooms were outstanding.  In fact, this trip has given me a newfound respect for the humble fungus.  Who knew they could pack so much flavor.
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My soba broth was incredibly rich, imbued with a deep, sweet smokiness from the duck and charred green onions.

For dessert, we headed over to another one of Akemi’s old haunts: Seijo Alpes…

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“This is perfect!”I said – only to be informed it was a sample tray of that’s day’s selection.

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?

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Two big thumbs up.

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…

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Potential buddies for my crew.

We continued our exploration of Seijogakuen-mae with a little tour of the local bakeries.  We picked up a few samples for…well…sampling.

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Clockwise from upper left: almond and walnut bread, custard cream bun, cream cheese danish, curry bun, chocolate bun, sweet potato bun.  Loser = chocolate bun due to its solid chocolate center.  Winner – custard bun due to its deliciousness.

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…

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The streets of Shinjuku
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I’m not usually one for salad but…
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Inspired curry.

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…

Damn.  Ivon is going to be SO jealous.

November 13, 2013: Tokyo Day #8! A day packed full of jam! And whisky!

Kanpai!
Kanpai!

Akemi: When I was a kid, I had big eyes.  Like everyone in my family.

Me: Why?

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.

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The open kitchen concept at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

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.

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Creamy pumpkin soup with ricotta cheese gnocci
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Pan-fried duck liver and parmesan cheese risotto
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Dark chocolate ganache served with cocoa sherbert and bitter biscuit powder.  Super rich and decadent!  You’ve been warned!

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.

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Hey, check it out!  The Whisky Festival has kicked off at Roppongi Hills.
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The menu
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It’s Whisky and Photobombing Chihuahua Day at Roppongi Hills!
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We made two new friends – three if you count the dog – while sampling whisky.  Alas, we didn’t get their names.  Except for the dog.  His name was Coco.

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!).

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Akemi: “Charlie has a humungous face.  How does he support his body?”

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1Ah, 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:

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Didn’t love the manga, but the movie looks suitably creepy.  If I have time, I may check it out.

We returned to the hotel to gather our strength for the night ahead.  A little downtime, a little snack:

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The choux creme from Creme de la Creme at Roppongi Hills.

And we were ready to head out once again:

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One outfit change later and Akemi was ready to go.

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…

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Akemi and I killed time by taking a ride on the Disney balloon.
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Tokyo in Christmas mode.
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Interesting art work
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With the release of the new Thor movie, it’s all about the Marvel heroes in Marunouchi.

We dined with Akemi’s family  – mom, dad, brother, sister, and new brother-in-law – and had another great meal.

The Aota clan
The Aota clan

A couple of the highlights:

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Crab meat and bright orange guts

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Pictured above: the siu long bao.

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The waiters prepare the Peking Duck: carving the meat and trimming the fat.

Fook Lam Moon: 36/F Marunouchi Building, 2-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku,

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!

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Master Kishi-san
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It’s been a year since my last visit but I didn’t even need to order.  I sat down and, a couple of minutes later, this was presented to me.  Perfect.

Yamazaki-san does his thing:

Rounding out the crew is Yoshida-san who recommended a terrific bourbon: Rowan's Creek.
Rounding out the crew is Yoshida-san who recommended a terrific bourbon: Rowan’s Creek.

Star Bar: Sankosha Building B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Tokyo

Whew.  What a day!

November 10, 2013: Tokyo Day #5! Shaky shaky! Pork and promenades! Dinner at L’Effervesence!

Roppongi toilet art
Roppongi toilet art

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.

Eggplant so purple they're black.  Or maybe just black eggplant.
Eggplant so purple they’re black. Or maybe just black eggplant.

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.

Not a lot of trunk space in this baby.
Not a lot of trunk space in this baby.
Eggplant and turnip = BFF
Eggplant and turnip = BFF

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.

Butagumi, where pork is king!
Butagumi, where pork is king!
I would come to Tokyo for this dish alone: the braised pork appetizer at Butagmi.
I would come to Tokyo for this dish alone: the braised pork appetizer at Butagmi.
Crispy pork tonkatsu
Crispy pork tonkatsu

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?

The personalized wedding envelopes Akemi's family prepared for the wedding. is this a subtle hint?
The personalized wedding envelopes Akemi’s family prepared for the wedding. is this a subtle hint?

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…

Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate art
Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate art

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.

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But not before taking a stroll up Ginza dori that is shut down to car traffic on weekends.  Here I snap a picture of a crowd snapping pictures.  What’s so interesting?
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This family of cats hanging around.

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!

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Yep, keep going, right past the cemetery.

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:

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This McDonald’s apple pie-inspired appetizer comprised of oxtail, taro and rosemary – that, nevertheless, possessed flavors surprisingly similar to the original.
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Pan-fried scales-on tilefish “Amadai” and mussel from Mont SaintMichel, kohlrabi, Manganji pepper, chanterelle, and kabosu. The fish was crisp and tender, the broth subtly sublime, but those mushrooms stole the show.  

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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:

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Fragments of chestnut creme brulee, rum raising ice cream, wild grape jelly, and olive oil steamed buns.  

And, to end things:

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Pop rock chocolate pops, macarons, and a lemon meringue dessert you assemble yourself by squeezing the lemon custard out of a tiny tube and into a tiny pie shell.

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.

http://leffervescence.jp/en/

Alright, time to get ready.  I have a Japanese wedding to attend. Apparently, I’m going to be asked to sign my name name in hiragana today.  With a calligraphy brush no less!  So, let’s practice…

Picture 1Fish hook with eyes, small L wearing a sun visor, bent t.v. antenna, big-nosed 3, and fish hook with eyes.

November 9, 2013: Tokyo Day #4! Japanese convenience store breakfast! Kaiseki at Kurogi! Rustic and Raucous at Kabuto! Eel-gutting 101!

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…

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The Men’s Slope and the Women’s Slope

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.”

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The cool-looking Hotel Pine Hill.  Maybe next stay.
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The streets of Yushima.
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All the rage here: elaborate French toast.  I don’t get it.

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…

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Sprinkled with actual stardust

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.

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Yeah!  Party ’til you yak at the Yak Bar!
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KISS spicy fried chicken.  While quantities last!

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…

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Tickets?  Tickets?  Anybody need tickets?

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.

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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:

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He uses a special instrument to prick it full of holes.  This bleeds it, releasing any unpleasant flavors, and facilitates the salting and curing process.

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:

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Attack on Titan

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 –

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A milk chocolate tart.
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Department store forest denizen.  I think.
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Akemi hits it off with the ramen-ya mascot.

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.

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This is the customary sake pour – filled to the brim and literally overflowing.
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Grilled eel head – crunchier than…
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My favorite – the eel tail.
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I sample a unique sake that, I was told, was actually very good for me.  It was likened to yogurt and did possess a disquieting sourness.  Not my good-to drink.

Eel-gutting 101:

Akemi has a heart:

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Shirayaki-style: simply grilled.
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Kabayaki-style: grilled with sauce.

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

November 8, 2013: Tokyo Day #2! Quest for the elusive Lawsons fried chicken! The Tokyo underground! Sushi Sawada! And more!

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I could have saved me money and enjoyed this weather in Vancouver.

Our Tokyo trip got off to a rainy start.  But that didn’t temper our enthusiasm.  We were up and out at 8:30 a.m., on a quest to track down some convenience store heat lamp spicy chicken nuggets for my breakfast.  We were in search of the ubiquitous Lawsons, the one stop shop for everything from whisky to fruit sandwiches.  Sadly, a Lawsons proved much harder to find than we expected.  Instead, we came across a couple of Natural Lawsons (a weird, bizarro version of the original that didn’t carry any fried foods) and a host of less-impressive Family Mart.

In the end, we decided to table our quest and head underground to kill some time before the stores opened.

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This is awesome.  The entire Tokyo subway system offers free wireless.
Subway poster outlining the perils of cell phone use.
Subway poster outlining the perils of cell phone use.
Beware the rude caucasian girl annoying the Japanese salaryman.
Beware the rude caucasian girl annoying the Japanese salaryman.

We resurfaced to check out another area.  Alas, no fried chicken nuggets – but plenty of everything else:

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I’m constantly amazed by not just the quality of the food in Tokyo but the variety as well.
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Seriously.  How many varieties of canned coffee can the market support?
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Uh, what the hell is he putting on that rice?
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A convenience machine selling apples. Not whole, but sliced, skinless, with a side of caramel dipping sauce.  Only in Japan!
Always innovating.
Always innovating.  Refrigerated lockers in the food section of the Matsuya department store.  Buy your produce, stow it away, and continue your shopping without worry. 
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The team up you’ve been waiting for!  Lupin 3 and Conan Boy Detective together on the big screen!  But not until after I leave Japan!

We had lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo: Sawada.  The sushi was, as always, spectacular.  Alas, the restaurant doesn’t allow photography so you’ll have to take my word for it.  Akemi spent much of the meal chatting with the surprisingly humorous Sawada-san who talked about his days as a student athlete, training, and philosophy and passion for sushi.  We also discussed the new restaurant trend taking Tokyo by storm: standing eateries that see greater profits because of the quick turnover in client.  Great if you’re in a rush I suppose – which most everyone seems to be.

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For dessert we headed over to Dalloyau.  Akemi was stuffed, so I had to eat for both of us.  But I drew the line at the apricot ice cream.  The hazelnut cake, on the other hand, was great.
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An okay chocolate tart.
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And, to wash it down, a nice tall glass of chocolate.

While Akemi headed off to Naka-Meguro to get her eyelashes fine-tuned, I went to Akihabara in search of a cover for my new cell phone. I came up empty on that front, but did make these fantastic purchases:

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A new Gintama shirt.
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Neon Genesis Evangelion cufflinks!  
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And assorted whisky and rum chocolates from Pierre Marcolini.  

Akemi was still full from lunch when dinner rolled around and, while I wasn’t all that hungry, I couldn’t miss out on a meal opportunity.  So, we compromised and headed over to one of the mini malls for some casual Korean…

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Fried garlic chicken
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And this amazing yuzu soda.

I figured we’d head over to Star Bar for a night cap but, on the way, we were contacted by Akemi’s mother who had arrived in Tokyo (from Osaka) for her daughters wedding.  Whoa, there.  Her OTHER daughter, Hiromi.  And so, we tabled our Star Bar visit and headed over to Nihombashi…

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Hey!  It’s already Christmas here!
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Akemi says: “Yeah!”
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I thought this was cool.  Complimentary umbrellas at the Nihombashi Mitsukoshi department store.  The idea is you take one, use it, then presumably drop it off at the Mitsukoshi nearest your destination – or return it.  Eventually.

We met up with Akemi’s mother and sister who were staying at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel…

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Some would consider this view breath taking.  I call it terrifying. 
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Hiromi, mom, and Akemi.

By the time we got back to our hotel, I was exhausted.  I was in bed by 11:00 and slept, more or less, through until 7:30 a.m.

Woke up this morning to some emails, including a couple from my “point person” on that super-secret project.  Very exciting stuff.  I just hate the fact that we have to wait until January for the big reveal…

November 7, 2013: Tokyo Day #1! Arrival! Sans Applause! Robot Girlfriend!

Shouldn't that be "Litewature Stowage Only"?  If we're going for the full Elmer Fudd.
Uh, shouldn’t that read: “Litewature Stowage Only”?

Hello, from the future!  November 7th here in Tokyo; November 6th back home for most of you.  Having advance knowledge of the day ahead, I wish I could tell you all what is in store for you but, alas, like most travelers to Asia, I had to sign a non-disclosure form while going through customs here.  Suffice it to say, some interesting things await. Without, hopefully, being overly-cryptic, let me just offer the following hints: blue, 17, and clydesdale.

Well, once the 11 hour flight touched down and we finally caught the airport shuttle from Narita to the hotel that dropped us off at the Imperial 90 minutes later, and we finally checked in and dropped off our luggage, we were sitting down to dinner at a very respectable 7:00 p.m. local time – and most disrespectful 2:00 a.m. local time.  Akemi was exhausted so, rather than venture out, we just followed tradition and grabbed a bite at one of the hotel restaurants, Sans Applause…

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Another Tokyo first night tradition: bonjiri (grilled chicken butts!), here served alongside grilled shitake mushrooms.  Delicious, both!
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The sea urchin gelee is served with a creamy sea urchin custard and topped with fresh uni.
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It’s called fried white bait (shirasu) on the menu but our waiter called it shirauo.  They’re, apparently, two completely different fish.  Ethereal and crispy.  Check out the little eyes.
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This one was a pleasant surprise: crab risotto with crispy cheese.

We forced ourselves to stay up into the wee hours last night, not going to bed until 10:00 p.m. (9:54 p.m. for Akemi who couldn’t hold out) and slept in until 7:30 a.m.  So lazy!  I wanted to head down to the Tsukiji Market for some breakfast sushi but Akemi wants to wait until lunch as we’re headed to Sawada for the world’s best sushi meal.  So, instead, we’re updating our respective blogs now after which we’ll head off for some early shopping – and maybe a snack for me at the local Lawsons convenience store.  Their heat lamp fried chicken looks might inviting!

Other than the lunch reservation, our day is wide open.  Akemi wants to check out the Mitsukoshi department store while I, of course, want to hit Akihabara in search of a cool anime-themed cover for my new cellphone.  At some point in the next couple of days, I also want to head over to Tokyo Big Sight which is hosting the International Robot Exhibition (http://www.nikkan.co.jp/eve/irex/english/general.html). Remember the time I attended the 2009 Exhibition?  Of course you do: November 28, 2009: Tokyo Travel Day #4 – Dai San Harumi, Tokyo Big Sight, Les Creations de Narisawa! Now With 60% More Robots!  While we’re on the subject –  Akemi’s neck is so incredibly sore from the flight that she actually moves like a robot, stiffly, unable to turn her head without moving her entire upper torso.  I fear that the locals will see us walking around and assume I’ve purchased one of those state-of-the-art robot girlfriends.

Sad rabbit
Sad rabbit

Finally, thanks to archersangel and the rest of you for all the recommendations.  The Weird Food Purchase of the Day video will definitely be making a return appearance on this blog very soon.

November 10, 2012: Sayanora Tokyo! Dai San Harumi!

There are a grand total of three possible sleeping positions on an airplane seat and I exhausted all three today.

I quite like the timing of the flights both to and from Tokyo.  On the way there, the flight departs in the mid-afternoon, giving you plenty of time to sleep in and do your last minute checks and cross-checks before jetting off. By the time you get in, you’re thoroughly exhausted so that, once you’ve touched down, completed the 90 minute ride from Narita airport, checked in, and had a late meal, you’ll be read for bed – at about 9:30 – 10:00 p.m. local time – which is about 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.  If you keep to this schedule, you’ll be waking up at 6:00 in the morning every day, ready for a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market, followed by a nice full day and early night.

The return flight is not quite as great.  It leaves at about 7:00 p.m. local time and, after about nine hours of flying, gets in to Vancouver at approximately 11:00 a.m. The game plan is to sleep through the flight as much as possible and then stay up as late as possible on the longest day back to force your body back into a sleep rhythm. Taking a couple of melatonin pills before bedtime helps but, all the same, you’re going to come up against certain nights (actually early mornings) where you’ll find yourself, wide awake, at 4:00 a.m., wrestling with a powerful craving for sushi.

Speaking of which – for our last meal in Japan, I thought it would only be appropriate to go out for sushi.  We ended up at Dai San Harumi, a tiny, friendly little place in Shinbashi.  Some of the highlights –

Welcome to Dai San Harumi
The bonito (tuna) is seared over an open flame so that its exterior attains a certain smokiness while its interior maintains that mouth-melting high-grade tuna texture.
According to our chef, the restaurant only sources the best of these very best fresh, organic Japanese tiger prawn – about 1% of each catch.
Saba (chub mackerel), lightly cured with salt and vinegar.
Plump anago (conger eel).
And, for dessert, the tamago.
Thanks for coming!

An excellent final meal that made me kind of sad as a reminder of exactly what I’d be missing.

After lunch, we stopped by Akemi’s old workplace, the Pierre Marcolini Cafe, so that she could say goodbye to her old friends and co-workers – oh, and grab a dessert while we were there.

A role reversal for Akemi who finds herself being waited on instead of the other way around.

I had a marron (chestnut) parfait while Akemi had this terrific new addition to the menu –

It’s described as a dark chocolate drink.  It’s cold, bittersweet, and so thick and rich you have to eat it with a spoon.

Afterwards, we made one final trip to the Mitsukoshi department store and picked up some Christmas gifts, then walked back along one of Ginza’s main streets that is always closed to traffic on weekends.  On the way, we were stopped by a camera crew and asked to identify a couple of mysterious dollar store items.  We failed miserably as both of my guesses, cucumber zester and dog hammock proved incorrect.

It seems like there’s a camera crew parked every ten feet down Ginza dori.  Last time I was in town with Ivon, we were stopped and interviewed about the grand Japanese tradition of the Christmas sock.

The return trip was uneventful.  And this is what greeted us upon our return:

It’s funny but, by the end of our time in Tokyo, Akemi told me that she was actually happy to be leaving and returning to Vancouver.  Surprisingly, there was little wistfulness at our departure, just happy memories of our trip, the hope to return for an equally short visit some time next year, and an overwhelming desire to see Bubba again.

Soooo tired.

November 9, 2012: Last full day in Tokyo! Restaurant Esquisse! Chez Tomo!

The familiar face of Chef Lionel Beccat

My friend Moro-san suggested we go to lunch at Restaurant Esquisse, a relatively new addition to the Ginza dining scene.  It has only been open for about four months now and yet, in that short time, garnered some great word of mouth. Always up to trying something new, I booked us a table.

I arrived early and had just taken a seat at the table when I was greeted by a familiar smile.  It was none other than Chef Lionel Beccat, the culinary magician who had crafted one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit down to in Tokyo – which also happened to be my very first date with Akemi (all the details in pictures here: November 30, 2009: Tokyo Travel Day $6 – Ginza La Tour, Michel Troisgros).  Back then he was at Cuisine Michel Troisgros.  Today, he heads the kitchen at Restaurant Esquisse and, judging by the meal we enjoyed, he is still firing on all creative cylinders.

Our set lunch course included…

Apple soufflé.  Incredibly delicate, airy, but with a lovely pronounced apple bite.
Lobster with caviar, mushrooms, lobster brain and mustard cream.  Like all Chef Beccat’s dishes, it balances delicacy with complexity of flavors.  
Mussels with trumpet mushrooms, apricot, and lemongrass foam.
Foie gras with grilled anago, mandarin orange, and maitake mushrooms.  Loved the creme brûlée preparation of the foie. 
The wild duck
Scallops with truffles and almond-hazelnut foam.I know some aren’t fans of foams but when done right (like in this dish) they had a whole other level of scent and flavor.
Monkfish prepped in konbu, then yogurt, wrapped in black olive and sepia accompanied by its spinach-wrapped liver with raisins.  A stronger, meatier fish that marries well to the black olive and squid ink.
Japanese oysters with apple and daikon horseradish emulsion topped with lemon caviar.  A refreshing palate cleanser to break up the robust flavors of the bracketing dishes.
The lemon caviar in its natural state.  They go for about $10 a pop.
Wild duck with a (not) celeriac puree, beet, white carrot, red radish, and Cyprus salt – accompanied by its date-covered leg.  Duck is tricky.  Undercooked, it’s chewy.  Overcooked, it’s inedible.  Here, the preparation is perfect, crispy-skinned and tender.
I say the duck was served with (not) celeriac puree above because, although that’s what I assumed it was, our helpful waiter explained it was actually cerfeuil.  And, when I expressed confusion, he popped back into the kitchen and returned with a sample.  Chervil!  Really?
Sorry.  By the time I finished it, I realized I’d forgotten to snap a pic.  I toyed with the idea of hanging around and getting a photo of our neighbor’s plate but ultimately decided to go with this.  What you missed: Grape sorbet from Kyojo with whipped grape champagne creme brulee and a confit Porto, topped with an anise treat.
Tarte tain with vanilla ice cream, creme anglaise, roast pear, rusk, and sugar caramel.  Another triumph of taste, temperature and textural contrasts – sweet, salty, sour, warm, cold, crispy, crunchy, soft, and chewy. 
Our guide on this culinary odyssey: Chiba Tadashi who painstakingly explained every dish and, whenever I expressed confusion, ducked back into the kitchen to retrieve the ingredients to hopefully help clarify.
Les mignardaises
Chef Beccat

A wonderful lunch.  Much thanks to Chiba-san for going above and beyond the call to make our lunch as informative as possible (even though, I’m sure, I’ve missed plenty of the details in attempting to jot them down, shorthand, on my iphone notepad).  And, of course, many thanks to Chef Beccat for yet another memorable meal.  I’ll definitely be back on my return visit to Tokyo.

Last night, we dined at Chez Tomo in Ginza with Akemi’s friend, Megumi.  Akemi was particularly looking forward to the restaurant’s signature vegetable plate.  I was dubious – but ended up pleasantly surprised.  You’ll see why in a moment…

If there are two things I’ve eaten A LOT of on this trip, it’s foie gras and sea urchin.  And that’s been perfectly fine by me.  In this dish, the sea urchin is served with lobster in a bisque-like preparation served in the uni’s shell.
Interesting.  Flounder-wrapped around Japanese pear accompanied by a Japanese pear ravioli, beets, seawater gelatin cubes, and black olive tapenade.  Quite a few acidic notes.
A mosaic of between 28-30 organic vegetables from Yamanashi.  This dish was a blast to eat, offering up an incredible variety of tastes and textures.
A soup duo: chilled chestnut on the left and a warm beet-laced vegetable medley on the right.
Roasted Hokkaido wild Yezo deer roast, patty and heart sauté, served with black pepper sauce.  The presentation left a little something to be desired but the dish was delicious nevertheless.  Surprisingly sweet and lacking in black pepper kick given the black pepper in the description.
Instead of trotting out finished desserts for us to select from, we were presented with the main ingredients that went into each of the four desserts of the day (ie. the fresh egg and vanilla beans that go into the creme brûlée).  We all decided to go with –
The chocolate trio.  A so-so cold chocolate drink accompanied by a delightfully dense chocolate ganache and bittersweet chocolate ice cream.

Homeward-bound today and Akemi and I are really looking forward to seeing the dogs.

See you in Van and thanks for tagging along!

November 8, 2012: The return of The Weird Food Purchase of the Day! Gyoza Stadium! Ice Cream City! Nodaiwa!

Today, Akemi and I headed over to Ikebukuro’s Sunshine City Mall, home to Namco Namja Town’s Gyoza Stadium and Ice Cream City.  It’s been some five years since my last visit to Ice Cream City (I still flashback to the aftertaste of that squid ice cream) and I was looking forward to the return trip.  This would be Akemi’s first time and she was incredibly excited.

So, did it live up to the hype?  In two words: You bet!

We started off by hitting Gyoza Stadium, home to about a dozen stands specializing in about a dozen preparations of the Japanese-style dumplings.  It’s less a stadium and really more of a theme area, lantern light-lined narrow alleyways and faux watering holes harkening back to a 1920’s Shanghai.

Walking the alleyways of Gyoza Stadium.
Akemi discovers, of all things: Bar Akemi.  ova

We wound our way through the various gyoza stands, taking in the dizzying array of preparations.  In addition to the menu itemizing the various choices, a general rundown of each stand’s gyoza philosophy – thin vs. thicker wrapper, use of garlic, etc. – offered some help in the decision-making process.  All the same, it wasn’t easy.

I liked the look of these snowmen-looking gyoza.

Eventually, we settled on three stands and placed our orders.

Who’s hungry?
Round #1

From left to right: Garlic gyoza – tiny, but they packed a significant garlic kick.  Our favorite.    Beside them, a gyoza medley.  From bottom to top: regular pork, kimchee, and charcoal.  I liked them although Akemi found the wrapper too thick. And, finally, on the far right, mentaiko (cod roe)-mayo gyoza topped with lotus root. Great.

I contemplate my charcoal gyoza.

We were done – but not DONE.

Round #2

From left to right: Mapo tofu gyoza – I figured they would be stuffed with tofu but they were actually stuffed with pork.  And a lot of it.  It was topped with mapo tofu which is comprised of bean curd and a spicy chili sauce.  I liked it but thought it was a bit too meat heavy.  Next to it, the spicy gyoza that, after the mouth-blasting ramen I had at Ippudo the other day, tasted downright tame.

According to Akemi, both gyoza were “for men”:

We were pretty done.

Round #3

I couldn’t resist sampling Gyoza Stadium’s version of the Siu Long Bao.  More of a dumpling than a gyoza, I found the skin a little too thick.

We were stuffed.  We couldn’t eat another bite.

Of gyoza.  So we headed over to Ice Cream City to peruse the some 300 flavors available.

Just some of the selection at Ice Cream City.
Hmmmm. Decisions, decisions…

Because I know you guys would have been disappointed if I didn’t, I selected about a half-dozen weird flavors and sampled them with Akemi, recording the results for your amusement:

I sample eel ice cream:

Sea urchin ice cream:

Wasabi ice cream:

Akemi tries the wasabi ice cream:

Sake ice cream:

Squid ink ice cream:

Akemi hazards a taste:

You like chicken wings?  You like ice cream?

Kasu ice cream:

Finally, I wish I could have tried all of them but, with easily over 300+ ice creams to choose from, there’s no way I could have even come close.  Sadly, here are some of the more interesting flavors I’ll have to come back for…

Cow tongue
Shrimp
Chinese herbal medicine flavor! A Carl Binder favorite!
And viper. Yes, the snake and not the car.

We worked off gyoza and ice cream by taking a walk through Namco Namja Town’s meandering corridors, bizarre open courtyards, recessed alcoves, and dead-ends…

Akemi tests her skin age.  There were also machines that tested your “body age”, stress level, and blood pressure.  What fun!

Finally, on the way back to the subway station, we came across THIS tiny park frequented by a bunch of laid-back cats.

I assume they’re wild but they didn’t seem to mind human company in the least, either ignoring passersby or sauntering over for attention.

Tons o’ fun!  If any of you get to Ice Cream City before my return visit next year, please sample the snake ice cream and post the results.