Monday July 6th, Ameyoko, Ueno, Tokyo, Yoshoku Lunch, Omurice Hamburg Set

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I awoke to the sound of rain outside but reasoning that rather than stay in due to bad weather that I would go out to see another part of Tokyo that I hadn’t been to. Following breakfast I did stay in hoping that the rain would clear to watch the Women’s World Cup Final in which Japan were playing the USA.

It turned out to be a very one sided final with the Japanese team falling apart after conceding early goals in the first half, following the disappointment of the final I decided to go to Ameyoko which is located bewteen Okachimachi and Ueno Stations on the Yamanote Line.

Normally a crowded market area full of people buzzing around looking for a bargain or so the media and travel books would have you believe, I experienced a very different atmosphere that day. The pictures online and in guidebooks are nearly always of bright crowded streets with colourful stalls selling all manner of items from dried fish to denim. The name Ameyoko comes from a short form of Ameya Yokocho which is Sweet Alley because sweets were traditionally sold there then after World War II, “Ame” became short for “America” because it became a black market selling American goods. There still remain a few shops selling army surplus in the area.

With the rain making the street slick, it wasn’t much fun walking around in the rain opening and closing my umbrella between shops. I wanted to get a cap and possibly another pair of jeans but the weather wore me down and brought my mood down somewhat and I found neither. I had in mind that each time I visit Tokyo, I would try to visit and have a different experience each time as well as going to familiar spots.

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Rain, rain…rain.

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I walked around looking for something to eat for lunch several times before electing to have a meal in a restaurant called Jyuraku under the railway bridge. It turned out that it had two ways in and out, I’m not sure if the interior had remained unchanged for that long or was made to look that way. Here I had a very Japanese meal or rather a Western meal called yoshoku, I say it’s very Japanese but Western, it is a style of cooking that the Japanese call Western but is uniquely Japanese. Yoshoku dishes are the Japanese versions of European and American dishes that have been adapted and cater to Japanese tastes. While looking around the net for yoshoku definitions I did find this article from the New York Times, if you want to read into further detail about it.

One such dish is called Omurice, which is rice stir fried with ketchup on top of which is placed an omlette. One of the things I like in Japan is that for those of you like me who can’t make up your mind or want to have a bit of several dishes at the same time is that there are numerous combination set lunches available. Another peculiar take on a staple food item that falls into yoshoku is the hamburger, there is the version you eat with a bun and then there is the hamburg or hanbńĀgu. While the same shape as the hamburger, it has a very different texture and is served with a dark rich sauce and with plain rice. This time the Japan Times has run a story detailing the hamburg.

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My Omurice Hamburg Set lunch which was a great comforting choice for a wet day.

I have drawn a blank for what I got up to that afternoon and given the weather am assuming that it may well have been using the coin laundry back at my accommodation as well as a little more research into where I would be going.

That evening I returned to Shibuya to meet a friend from my years at film school in London, for a quick catch-up and a bite to eat in a restaurant called Kemuri which was a yakitori restaurant alas I have no pictures. As mentioned earlier sometimes I plain forgot to take pictures or was so hungry that I’d forget to. It’s still not a reflex to take a picture of my food like it has become for many people ūüėČ We also had a quick drink in one of the branches of Hub, which is a chain of bars in Japan that have re-imagined the idea of the British Pub both in interior and menu, it was as if somebody had tried to explain what a pub was and then tried to build but had lost things in translation. Speaking of which I did see this sign out and about in the morning:

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Saturday July 4th, Lunch, Yamahan Udon

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More noodles for lunch again in Azabu-Juban, there are different types of noodles in Japan and quite often restaurants will specialize in one type. Lunch was in a restaurant called Yamahan and their  speciality  is Udon which is a thick noodle made of white flour. It can be served hot or cold and with a variety of toppings.

Here you can see two dishes, the top is a hot version served in a broth made from Dashi (fish broth) which is then mixed with Shoyu and possibly Mirin. I ate the dish below so I am speculating to as to what was in the broth but have listed those typically used. On the side is that particular restaurant’s take on Kakiage which is a fritter of sorts made from Tempura batter.

I tried the Tororo Udon set which came with rice as well, mine was served cold. Tororo is a sticky white food made from grating a yam and is then flavoured to taste with dashi which was served in the pot at the bottom right of the picture. It’s then mixed and eaten with the noodles. It’s not something that you find it England so easily so that was part of my reasoning for trying it. I actually quite enjoyed it but did make a mistake of pouring all the dashi on in one go, I now have the impression that to add it incrementally or when needed be better.

I would have liked to return to try other dishes or even the same without the ‘all in one go’ mistake but somehow never did get round to it.

Saturday July 4th, Tokyo, Mori Art Museum

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I suppose in some respects I am an art tourist as it is one of the things that I do research before traveling or look up when i arrive in a place and it does occasionally dictate why I would travel to certain cities. A good example is Bilbao where I went because I wanted to see the Richard Serra pieces.

A valuable resource for finding out what is on in terms of art in Tokyo is the website for Tokyo Art Beat.

Azabu-Juban and Roppongi’s skyline is dominated by the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills which stands at 238m and is one of the tallest buildings in the city. The first few floors are home to numerous shops and restaurants which in all honesty I have not really looked at or eaten in as the majority from window glances seem to be high end European fashion labels or European style food.

The reason that I do go to the building however is for the Mori Art Museum as well as the City View, there is also an open-air rooftop deck which I haven’t been to so can’t vouch for that experience. The photograph at the top is from the city view which is indoors. The museum’s design shop is also pretty good.

In Japan, they like to produce A4 size information sheets for exhibitions which are found all over the place as well as the more conventional advertising of posters. So combined with the afore mentioned website and spying a poster somewhere I had seen that an exhibition called “Simple Forms – Contemplating Beauty” was coming to an end at the museum and so wanted to see it.

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It was an exhibition that spanned a wide variety of time and cultures and brought together work that was not just classed as fine art but also items that might be considered to be craft items. So brought together were Japanese teacups to Brancusi sculptures as well as paintings and photographs.

Interestingly as I was to notice more frequently over the next month or so in various museums, is the adherence to “No Photography” in most museums by visitors, which is perhaps a good thing as sometimes we spend too long trying to get a good photograph of an object rather than actually looking at the object while we are there. That said Japanese museums do select one or two pieces where photography is allowed.

One of which was “Liminal Air Space-Time” by Shinji Ohmaki.

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This was a very effective piece and brilliant in its apparent simplicity, no doubt helped as well by having the vista of Tokyo behind it. The cloth is supported if I remember correctly by fishing line and suspended, the square areas below house fans which direct air from below to create the undulating forms.

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Yes, there was the briefest respite from the rain while I was there which allowed for the pictures on this entry.

Then it was onto visit my uncle in the evening via a neighbourhood that has been transforming itself into a place for young couples to bring to their families. While on the train there, I spotted that the light was doing strange things to the surface of the water turning it into a mirror like effect. I still don’t know what the people down there were actually doing.

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Ramen, Friday July 3rd, Tokyo, Japan

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That evening I had my first bowl of Ramen in Japan in a restaurant called Manrikiya in Azabu-Juban, the interior along with its owner seemed slightly overdone almost theatrical in how hard it was trying to be macho. I can almost imagine the owner going to work and stepping into character then changing into street clothes at going home time and being a very quiet person. That’s by the by though, the food, let’s talk about ramen.

What is ramen? it is essentially a soup based dish served with Chinese style wheat noodles, there are regional variations of what the soup base is made from as well as toppings and noodle type from thin to thick to straight to crinkly. It is then topped with various toppings as per the restaurant menu. Generally most restaurants will offer a Chashu (Sliced Pork) with spring onions, nori, menma (bamboo shoot) and sometimes a hard boiled egg as the entry level dish, you can then ask for extra beansprouts, spring onion and so on. It is also one the dishes that you can slurp as you eat.

The white and pink slice you can see in my photo of my dinner is a thin slice of fishcake, there was also some fried garli and black pepper in there already, all there to give me some ‘power’! ūüėČ

The soup base I had was a shoyu (soy sauce) one but it isn’t always and you can find shops specializing in one type of soup like shio (salt) or miso (fermenting soy beans) as well as¬† tonkotsu (pork bone).

A reader from London could be forgiven for believing that ramen is only served with tonkotsu given the propensity of restaurants springing up serving it only that way in the capital. While I understand rents are costly in London and they are cooking a food that requires to an extent certain specialty ingredients, I am still somewhat put off by the cost of ramen  in London with it being almost double that of Japan but I digress.

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Accompanying my ramen, I ordered some gyoza, which is a fried dumpling of a very thin pastry filled more often than not with minced meat, chives, spring onions, garlic and sometimes cabbage or other chopped vegetables. It is eaten with soy sauce mixed with vinegar and chilli oil. I haven’t as yet seen these long gyoza in London yet but it’s probably only a matter of time.

The salad in the background was a mizuna leaf salad which actually now in retrospect adds to my feeling that the restaurant and it’s interior is all put on to be how a macho restaurant should be, in reality salad probably wouldn’t be available in a macho restaurant. ūüėČ (I wish they’d sell salad bags of mizuna leaves in the UK, you occasionally find the odd leaf in a mixed bag of leaves, remember you read it here first when it becomes trendy!)

As to the ramen, I did enjoy it and wondered as to why there isn’t more variation of ramen in London.

A quick note on food, I didn’t always take pictures of my food sometimes because I honestly forgot to because I was hungry. There are no breakfast pictures which was either a buffet style breakfast of Japanese items (Rice, miso soup, fish) or Western style and in some places where there was no breakfast option just a bread roll from a bakery or convenience store.

Japan, Tokyo, Shibuya, Friday July 3rd, Part 2

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Then it was onto Shibuya, which is one of the most popular parts of the city for both locals and tourists like myself. It is an area that I know somewhat but by no means have explored to the point of being able to say that I know it like the back of my hand. Shibuya¬†is an area chock full of department stores, clothes shops, restaurants and a few good bookshops that is brimming with energy and seemingly never empty. It’s pretty hard not to find what you’re looking for in terms of shopping and it’s a great place to people watch. The area is dominated by the crossing outside the Hachiko Exit which is known as the Scramble Crossing.

Please click on the link https://instagram.com/p/4sPelUJyPC/?taken-by=hidekia which shows the crossing in action when I first got there, while a little drizzly after the wet morning everybody was still prepared with umbrellas close but not up.

I must have accumulated numerous pictures of Shibuya and in particular the crossing over the years and for the most part it has remained largely unchanged with many of the shops still there, while writing this and checking some facts and spellings online, it seems parts of the station will undergo refurbishment.

Speaking of the station, it is also worth finding the Tourist Information Desk for a complimentary copy of Time Out Tokyo which is always full of interesting articles in English. Free WiFi access continues to grow in Japan and while mainly in the major stations and even Subway stations underground as well as Starbucks, you can with your passport get a code to access the free WiFi in Shibuya.

I had traveled with my mother initially for the first five days in order to attend my Grandfather’s First Year memorial Service at the weekend in Yokohama. She needed to go to the hairdressers there and so we split up and agreed to meet back at Azabu Juban.

I struggle a little to recall where and what I saw in Shibuya that afternoon but like many tourists, I spent time watching the crossing and trying for interesting photographs. I must have popped into a couple of the stores that I knew from previous visits as well as saving some for another day. There are the Japanese shops that have branches of varying scale all over the city as well as in other cities like Loft, Tokyu Hands, Uniqlo and Don Quiote.

Loft, I would describe as a lifestyle shop with floors dedicated to stationary and Japanese goods as well as kitchen and bathroom accessories, character goods and novelty items as well as luggage and camping items.

Tokyu Hands is more for those actually making or interested in making things as well as having many of the same types of floors as Loft, in fact it may be easier to give the Wikipedia link.

Uniqlo has branched out to countries other than Japan and with its clothes priced at reasonable prices and sales popping up from time it’s a good place to stock up on items however do try things on first because a Japanese labeled XL is not always the same as a Western labeled XL.

Don Quiote or Donki is worth a visit for just how chaotic it all seems inside, the larger stores are often chock full of pharmacy and beauty products. Then there is the food with bulk bags of food which is good for stocking up on confectionery and snacks. Then there are floors with men and women’s clothes, some electrical goods, fancy dress outfits, brand (designer) items like watches. All of it arranged somewhat haphazardly and at discount prices, if anything it’s worth just taking a look around to see how bizarre it is. The Roppongi branch is probably one of the biggest and best stocked.

Just as in Europe where to an extent Japanese style is sought after, the same can be said in Japan and so the European stores like Zara, H&M have also made inroads and have stores in Japan, I don’t shop at either but have seen them in passing.

Also the global juggernaut that is Starbucks seems to have successfully entrenched itself into Japan with numerous branches dotted around.

Inevitably the rain started to fall yet again and out came all the umbrellas. The Japanese seem well prepared for the rain at all times and even if you have failed to carry an umbrella with you, it’s pretty easy to get hold of one from convenience stores for as little as 300 Yen. Umbrellas in motion transformed the crossing in all their variants and from my new favoured vantage point I filmed it again. https://instagram.com/p/4q6ERUpyBW/?taken-by=hidekia

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Japan, Friday July 3rd, Getting around Tokyo

It occurred to me after the fact that while I list some of the areas in Tokyo that I might not go into great detail in part to my vague familiarity with the places.

For some of you who have not been to Tokyo or Japan that might be an oversight on my part and so I shall try to say a little bit more about the places that I went to.

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Tokyo is home to one of the most efficient rail systems both overground and underground. The map above is the Tokyo Metro Subway map and although resembling a bowl of multi coloured spaghetti that has been tossed in the air, it begins to make sense although I have always felt better having a copy in my back pocket or somewhere on my person most of the time. In such a major city the signage and announcements on trains are in both English and Japanese. Increasingly Chinese, Korean and French have also found themselves being written on doors, in toilets and restaurant menus. Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

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The morning was dominated by heavy rain and a trip to the bank which suffice to say was not interesting at all since a bank is a bank wherever you are with their own peculiarities that are not worth going into detail.

Next was Tokyo Station, of which you can see a picture of the interior above, it’s not a picture of a cake. The exterior of the building which is rumoured to be modeled after Amsterdam Station is a red brick building which opened in 1914, it is the busiest station in Tokyo in terms of numbers of trains per day and the main port of call for Shinkansen (Bullet trains) as well as regional commuter lines and the Metro Subway.

It was also here that I took my Exchange Order to be validated and exchanged for an actual Rail Pass specifying the dates from which the pass would be activated. As I say I had a fairly loose itinerary lined up with destinations and date roughly decided. I sat with the staff member in the JR EAST Travel Service Center (Marunouchi North) at Tokyo Station for more than an hour in the end and she was very, very patient in helping sort out and check timetables and schedules especially for certain points in my journey where multiple changes would occur. Only one sequence caused alarm bells to ring where I noticed that I would have a 4 minute changeover between trains, to which another member of the staff there chimed in with: “Many Foreigners do it, you can do it.”¬† I never forgot those words over the next 27 days riding around…

Exhausted from trying to find trains and make sense of my itinerary but somewhat more confident now that I actually had dates for my 21 day Rail Pass and a clearer understanding of my travel window, it was time for lunch. Now aside from actually running trains, many of the larger stations in Tokyo and in Japan now have become attached or home to mall like shopping and dining, this means better shops and restaurants. So lunch was had in the station, the choice was made to have Tonkatsu which is breaded pork loin or fillet coated in panko breadcrumbs which is then deep fried and served with shredded cabbage, rice and miso soup. You can also have Ebi Fry which I had with my Tonkatsu as one of the menu options. Growing up in England, I did have homemade tonkatsu and still do from time to time. In the UK due in main to the Wagamama chain, Chicken Katsu which is not so common in Japan has gained popularity and introduced panko breadcrumbs to the British.

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Now this is where I hope that my limited readership will take time to comment and give me some feedback as I am aware that I am in danger of writing or recounting this trip in the style of a child who tells a story by saying, “And then….and then.”

Do you really want to see what I ate and read about the dishes? Or should I skip the food?

Thanks.