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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