Wednesday July 8th Tokyo to Kanazawa

So this was to be the first day of my train pass becoming active, I woke at 800 and to my relief it wasn’t actually raining that morning.

I would be heading to Kanazawa, which is 450.5km from Tokyo on the Shinkansen Kagayaki 509 with a journey time of 148 minutes. Departure time 1032 and Arrival at 1300h.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of Japan, the section in the top left corner, Hokkaido, is in reality at the top right of Japan.

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My Car(-riage) number 8 and my seat 16E, if possible it’s always best to reserve your seat at no extra cost prior to traveling, there are unreserved carriages but I never found myself in that position, for me stressing over a possible seat seems like an unnecessary aggravation and not one that would make  a trip more of an adventure. Armed with my carriage number it was a matter of finding the right platform then looking for the corresponding number on the platform and wait for the train.

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Since Tokyo station is the major teminus, the trains are brought in from either direction and so ill prepared I failed miserably to get a shot of the train pulling in since I hadn’t figured out which direction it was coming. I can’t remember if these then uncoupled or not but I took the shot anyway…I think I made up my mind then to not worry about trying to shoot pictures of the trains arriving though in retrospect perhaps I could have made more effort, my only defence was that it was enough just worrying about luggage, myself and getting on the right train ant the right times.

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It had been a few years since I’d been on a Shinkansen and I’d actually forgotten how roomy and comfortable it was, more airliner than train in my mind, in fact the seats were roomier than those on the plane over to be honest.

Out beyond Tokyo, past Omiya towards Nagano, the view changed as forest covered mountains could be seen from the window. It seems I made intermittent notes in my notebook during the journey and some read as follows:

1221 I wish I could tell you about scenic Japan but truth be told, I dozed, I slept…so far at least it hasn’t rained.

1235 F*** me! That hurt, hit my head trying to sit back down.

(This I remember, I had a neighbour who didn’t move his legs as I came back from the toliet, so I probably swore loudly in English.)

1243 Arriving at Toyama, I have found the rain, the view of the streets from the train reveal wet streets…

The rain was back with a vengeance on arrival at Kanazawa, first things first after trying to get my bearings was to head straight into the tourist office for a map or two and advice on getting around.

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Also in the other window was a large version of Hyakuman-San, the mascot for Ishikawa Prefecture. There is a character for everything in Japan and cities and prefectures are no different. Here it seems the designers have put Ishikawa traditional crafts on the body, there is “Kagayuzen ( Kimono pattern )”, the gold colour from the gold leafing in the area  and “Wajimanuri (Lacquer ware ).

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A relative newcomer to the scene as a mascot, it seems he debuted in 2013, more here.

I booked my hotel through Booking.com and I am not affiliated or employed by them in any way, shape or form but will say that it proved to be an easy way to look up potential accommodation and reserve it without committing financially straight away.

I stayed at the Kanazawa Manten Hotel Ekimae, which is in fact very close to the station except if you get confused by the heavy rain and take a strange turn that ends up with you somehow getting wet and annoyed as you negotiate wet streets in a strange land. I remember the lobby as being dark marble however I have absolutely no recollection of my room or which floor I was on. Although having said that, I did discover a picture of my room…not much to remember there!

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Free of my luggage and despite the rain, I headed back to the station, taking the correct turn and yes, the station was incredibly near to the hotel. The clue is in the word Ekimae, which literally translates as “In front of the station” so that’s a little travel tip for making your stays convenient but that doesn’t always mean the city centre is that close so bear in mind what you’ll want to be doing.

The best way around is by bus which I somehow negotiated although in a tourist heavy city like Kanazawa, it’s actually not too difficult though I don’t like to get complacent and stay as alert as possible for my stops.

My first port of call was to be the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art.

The walk from the bus stop to the museum was wet…

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I want to say I was impressed by the concept of the museum and the building and on a sunny dry day, I might have been but to be honest, I was close to slipping and just wanted to go inside despite there being some outdoor work.

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Perhaps in retrospect I should have gone and had a closer look but I can’t turn the clock back, inside the museum was at least dry and the building is circular in shape and the majority of the work was a mixture of Japanese contemporary artists none of whom I was familiar with and a few permanent pieces by western artists like James Turrell and Anish Kapoor. Although the weather was not one for viewing a James Turrell piece, basically a hole cut into the ceiling of a space which changes the perception of the space as the light changes alas when it rains like the pictures attest, you get a very wet floor. Still I’m glad that I did go and there were some interesting works and approaches to art there.

Of course there was tea and cake since I’d somehow only managed to eat a sandwich on the train in…

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Of course it would have been nice to have had some company to have my tea and cake with maybe another time…

Despite the weather I decided that I would try and explore a little bit since it was my first time in a new city after a half English, half bad Japanese conversation with the cashier I headed out, nearly slipping again on the slick pavement!

I remember wandering around looking for somewhere to eat and trying to ask people where there was an area with lots of restaurants but seemed to struggle that day to get anybody to really help me. I’m not sure if the streets were less crowded because of the weather or if it was just a typical quiet Tuesday night. At one point I found myself in an “English Pub” where the bartender spoke no English and couldn’t help me locate a street with restaurants.

Actually, I was starting to get a bit fed up by this point…I stumbled across a half dead shopping street with a couple of shops that I recognized from Tokyo and browsed if only to try to dry off a little. I figured in one of the shops the young cashier might be able to clue me in on somewhere good to eat, however this proved to be a bust since my simple question then became a conference between her and her colleague and the suggestion was a gourmet burger restaurant.

Trudging on I got to a crossroad and ultimately tired, wet and hungry I pretty much chose the first thing that looked easy enough. I chose a yakitori restaurant somewhere high up, I had to take a lift to get there. Ordering was meant to be on a touchscreen but after explaining that my reading wasn’t great to the waiter I somehow got round to ordering by pointing to the menu.

When in doubt, find a restaurant with a giant menu full of pictures! 😉

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First things first…

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Then I had all sorts…chicken on skewers, rice ball, noodles…more beer.

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It wasn’t until I was up there and looking out the window that I could see what looked like the more lively street with bars and restaurants on, oh well, I’d eaten too much and didn’t want to stay out late.

I took the bus back to the station, now I’m not sure which is the front of the station since my hotel technically called itself Ekimae when the more spectacular side is considered really to be the front where you find this:

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While it now seems a little fuzzy, I think I may have used the onsen since I found this in my papers…which I’m pretty sure I got when I checked in. More to come on onsen in later posts…instructions are written in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. If you have any tattoos you will need to cover them up otherwise you won’t be experiencing onsen or even swimming. Why? You can read more here in this Japan Times article.

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Tuesday July 7th, Tokyo, Watari-um, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art and Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

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Watari-um, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art.

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It came as something of a relief that it wasn’t raining that morning when I left around ten, it wasn’t searingly hot and the cloud cover turned the sky a bright yet murky gray. (Is that possible?!) I kept very basic handwritten notes in my pocket notebooks, I am one of those people who has to carry a notebook (paper one) with them at all times for note taking, sketching but not necessarily of what I see before me. The book also serve as diary and the thoughts I share in them don’t always make themselves known to others.

In theory I should love the Watari-um, however I’ve been twice now and while it’s been moderately interesting it has never blown my socks off so to speak. It wouldn’t be my first choice of Art Museum in Tokyo to be honest but the one I would have liked to have gone to was currently rehanging for their next show. Getting there is relatively easy walk from Gaienmae Station which is on the Subway Ginza Line, which is the orange line on the map. I was surprised to see an older style train or at least in looks.

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Ginza Line Trrain.

Oh yes, back to the museum! The exhibition on show was “I Love Art 13 – 100 Artists from the Watari-um Collection”, there were a few pieces that stood out but photography was not permitted so I can’t really share with you. The bookshop there is very good for Japan in terms of Art books but whereas in the West we might prize Japanese books, its naturally the opposite in Tokyo and the books were many of the European and Western books that I could see and find in London.

In fact my visit to the museum was very short lived and I think I even went back on myself to justify paying the entrance fee. A spotty rain started as I left and I crossed the street to have a quick look in a contemporary gallery and spoke to the owner. It seems for the contemporary artist in Tokyo that the gallery system in he West is not so prevalent, in that a gallery takes you onto their books and then shows your work. There is more of a rental gallery culture that is to say that the artist’s will pay to exhibit their work. She did also recommend a few other galleries across the city but this was to be my final day in Tokyo for now anyway and I didn’t make it.

Lunchtime had come around again and there is so much choice in Tokyo that I probably spent longer wandering around looking at pictures of lunch specials at all kinds of restaurants than the time eating my final choice.

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Standing Soba restaurant, no seats here, probably pretty good but I wasn’t feeling it. Instead I went for another version of comfort food.

Falling into the category of yoshoku is Japanese curry, the Japanese version of Indian curry which is very different. I know it from childhood and even now have it home on occasion, familiarity with Japanese curry in the UK has come via the restaurant chain Wagamama that serves a Chicken Katsu Curry. Typically though a katsu curry in Japan will be made from pork unless you specify a chicken one if they even have a chicken variety. Waitrose (in England) even sells a Japanese curry block made by S&B as well as a ready meal version. I’ve also seen a katsu curry kit in another supermarket but somehow the picture looks like no katsu curry I’ve ever seen. It is possible to have the curry without a katsu, you can just mix vegetables in with the sauce or meat or prawns for example.

You can order the strength of the curry from mild to hot to very hot and also ask for extra big which is a large, large portion of rice.

As you can see it was a no frills kind of a place that I ate in, you order at the counter, pay then move down and wait for your food on a plastic tray. Again I consider this to be a very typically Japanese meal and perhaps to some tourists they might not consider it as an authentic Japanese meal but sushi is not necessarily a staple of everyday life in Japan.

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Katsu curry.

After my no frills red plastic tray curry which I thoroughly enjoyed might I add, the rain decided to make it’s customary appearance not enough to soak you but enough to deploy umbrellas something else was happening though, the temperature was also rising. I have a feeling I may returned momentarily to Azabu-Juban to either drop my bag off or to do laundry again, essentially it must be something trivial.

At six, I needed to get to Ikebukuro to see my friend in Tokyo, R had told me which exit to meet him at and after an intial mix up, we managed to meet. First it was to an old style coffee shop near the station, the funny thing or it was to me was that the smoking section was larger than the non-smoking section. This is slowly getting flipped round the other way and it still bothers me and I’m sure that it must be a surprise to tourists from countries with non-smoking restaurants that Japan still has many places where diners can smoke. Not so “Cool Japan” when you’ve become accustomed to smoke free dining.

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R is a documentary filmmaker and we spoke briefly of his most recent film and the difficulty in completing it due to one of the participants.

Ikebukuro aside from being where R lives, is a part of the city that I am not so familiar with but and here I started to notice a pattern, many of the department stores and shops were branches of the same in other parts of the city. If anything the unfamiliarity of the area made the streets seem wider and less crowded than the other areas although this may have just been early Tuesday evening. I really didn’t explore Ikebukuro and while I may fail to educate and entertain in that respect to you my dear reader(s) that is not to say that it cannot be without merit given the shopping and the wide diversity of restaurants and bars there. I was also acutely aware that I didn’t want to stay out too late since I would be making the first of my train trips. I did a little bit of shopping with R’s help in finding the right store quickly and efficiently and we ate a dinner of ramen or rather tsukemen which is still ramen but instead of being served in the soup, the noodles are served separately and dipped in the soup. I think I remembered that I was taking pictures of my food after I’d eaten it! we wished each other well and went our separate ways after that.

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Ikebukuro Koban (Police box/station) shaped like an owl.

I headed back to Azabu-Juban and was greeted with this sight of the Mori Building on a misty night…tomorrow riding the train…

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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 hanbāgu. 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 😉 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’! 😉

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.