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’! 😉

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. 😉 (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, 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.

Japan July 1st-2nd Getting in…

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Where does one start when writing about Tokyo?! Everybody to a certain degree knows of or has heard of Tokyo be it from popular culture to current affairs, its reputation spreads far and wide.

Here’s some quick information about Tokyo, its the largest city and the capital of Japan. With a population of over 13million there is enough there to get quite immersed in for days to weeks to months. However it is also just one part of a country…

I left London on July 1st choosing to fly on a non-stop flight sure there are cheaper options with a stop somewhere in Europe but I’ve never chosen to fly that way for fear of lost luggage and just the desire to get on the plane and get it over and done with. In the past I had flown with Virgin Atlantic and enjoyed the flights and their customer service alas as of this year they no longer fly into Narita as Virgin Atlantic, it may still be possible to fly with a code share airline however the price is a lot higher. So it was that I flew with another carrier, all trouble free although the service could have been better from an indifferent flight crew.

Not much to say in regard to the flight other than despite buying magazines to read on board which I didn’t do, I somehow watched 4 films and a couple of TV shows.

If you need to know the films were:

“Midnight Diner”, a Japanese film about a diner in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, where all kinds of characters drop by to share and solve their troubles under the watchful gaze of “Master” who runs the diner.

“While We’re Young”, an American film about a middle aged couple who initially find their lives reinvigorated by a friendship with a couple in their twenties.

“JupiterAscending”, an overblown Sci-Fi opera from the Wachowskis (They of “The Matrix”) has some grand ideas and visuals but ultimately is not that memorable. (I appear for the briefest of seconds since I occassionally work as an extra, kind of weird seeing yourself on screen while sitting on a plane.)

“Get Hard”, Will Ferrell is set up to take the fall and assumes that the man who washes his car has prison experience and pays him to make him “hard” for life on the inside.

The reason the title of the post covers both dates is because the days pretty much rolled into the next. I left on the 1st but with Japan being 8 hours ahead of the UK it became the 2nd July when I arrived.

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I use the limousine bus from the airport more for convenience since it stops at many of the major hotels or at least close to the ones you might be staying at, a lot of people prefer to use use the train something I’ve not tried yet.

My telephone told me that it was 23º with humidity at 94% although the first thing I noticed was the rain…

I stayed in Azabu Juban, a neighbourhood, a somewhat expensive neighbourhood given its proximity to Roppongi and Hiroo. It would necessarily be my first choice but due to initially travelling with my mother, I was able to stay in an accommodation normally reserved for visiting academics.

For me it was both familiar and unfamiliar to be back, I had stayed there once before and a strange déjà vu struck me. As somebody who looks Japanese but is not fluent in the language, I have a strange experience of being and not quite being.

The rest of the day to me was unremarkable with a decent lunch of soba later followed by an evening sushi meal in Roppongi.

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It strikes me that in both trying to recall and to write in a way that is entertaining may prove to be difficult and so I shall ask for some immediate feedback and try to give the readership such as it is, some of what they want by asking, what do you want? Or are you happy for me to continue in this somewhat episodic chronological fashion?

What makes a city great?

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What makes a city great?

There are books, newspaper reviews, television programs, blogs, tumblrs and more all extolling the virtues of certain cities.

Some of you may found yourselves here because of your interest or love of Tokyo for example.

What I’m wondering is what sort of criteria people set for a city to become a great city.

What’s your favourite city?

Why is it so great?

I look forward to hearing some feedback…