Sunday, August 27, 2017

Japan: Land of the long white squid

26 July - Tokyo

Our neighbourhood - Nakameguro
And so to the big city! A relaxed train ride, changing at Osuki. There we realise that this is where the famous Maglev train can be seen! And we don’t have time to see it! Oh well … We arrive in Ebisu, our closest JR stop, and resolve to walk to the flat in pouring rain. Finally, Chris has to buy an umbrella. (Pretty much everywhere Japanese people carry umbrellas. After a short time in Japan you realise why …).

Google mapping while towing luggage, holding an umbrella, and negotiating busy footpaths and roads, is challenging, but we find the flat easily and Nakameguro, our neighbourhood, looks cool. The inexpensive Airbnb apartment is enormous, and set in a garden! But on closer inspection we see that it is somewhat neglected and grubby, and the facilities are poor (filthy washing machine! NO cooking utensils in the kitchen!). Oh well, we will make like campers.

First to the ¥100 shop for bowls, then to the supermarket for a fabulous sashimi platter with several kinds of fish and, of course, squid ($8!) and sake. After a delicious entree at home of sashimi and pickles, we head out for dinner. The road along the subway line is festooned with pink lanterns and lined with all manner of restaurants and bars - looking good! Across the main road, the very hip canal area is a groovy mix of even funkier cafes and restaurants, and alt-boutiques. Finding a tiny, tucked-away place along the canal we go in - it’s a cute 12 seat restaurant with kushikatsu (crumbed stuff on skewers) and okonomiyaki (pancakes). We have crumbed quail eggs, asparagus with bacon, pork with ginger, squid pancake, and a weird pickled eggplant/mustard dish (karashinasu, I think). And sake. It’s very nice, a little on the pricy side (this is Tokyo), but not rave-worthy - so we are surprised later to find out that Mahakala is firmly on the super-foodie radar, having been recommended by Anthony Bourdain!

Mahakala - hip kushikatsu place

27-30 July

A rundown of what we did in Tokyo:

Shibuya, Harajuku, Meiji
Walk via Nakameguro to Shibuya (famously the busiest crossing in the world, somewhat <meh> on a grey day), where we fail to find a seat at Starbucks, but get to browse a dusty old bookstore and eat ramen, as well as shop at the quirky department store ‘Tokyu Hands’ (hardware, craft supplies, luggage …). From there walk up to Harajuku to see the Goth-Lolita girls, but the famous Takeshita St is a mess of sightseers, somewhat ruining the ambience, and swamping the alt-fashion icons. Then to Yoyogi Park for the Meiji Shrine and garden. We are fading fast, so don’t get to Shinjuku tonight, but head home for more supermarket sashimi with soba noodles.

Street art, Ebisu
Ramen with beni shoga (red ginger pickle) at Shibuya
Takeshita St - can't see the Harajuku girls for the sightseers
Tourists and sake barrels - Meiji Shrine

To Ueno Park (huge lotus ponds, zoo, shrines, galleries …), and the National Museum. The museum is huge and takes all day, so we don’t get to the other galleries. A grand old edifice in the style of the great European museums, we see only half the rooms, but have lovely soup for lunch in the elegant cafe. After the museum, and quite a long train ride home, there’s only time for dinner - this time at a yakitori place close by, Kushiwakamaru. It’s popular, and we have to write our names on a list, but it’s worth the short wait.
Buddhist monk - Ueno Park
Jar with ash glaze (Heian period, 10th C) - National Museum
Yummy veg and seafood soup at the museum
To Tsukiji fishmarket this morning, for breakfast and shopping. We haven’t gone into the ballot to try to get into the wholesale market (they have limited numbers), so are cruising the outer market, little alleyways of shops and restaurants catering to visitors. It’s very busy! We wander around looking for a place to eat that looks just right, and find it in a tiny arcade - a sit up counter for sushi with only about 10 seats (Itadori Bekkan). It’s very good, and not too pricey - about $30 each. Then try to again locate some of the shops we saw on our way in ... it’s now twice as busy, and a real labyrinth! The knife shop is of course very expensive, and I don’t know enough to spend that kind of money, but buy a breadknife and some scissors. Then a pottery shop - all mass produced stuff and inexpensive compared to the ‘craft’ pottery, so I stock up on a few bowls. Had planned to go on to Kappabashi St, the restaurant supply area for kitchenware and plastic food, but we’ve had all we can stand - get us out of here!

Tsukiji Fish market (outer market)
Itadori Bekkan sushi restaurant, Tsukiji
Itadori Bekkan sushi - yum!
Roppongi and TOP
After the fishmarket - Roppongi - a serious art area. First the Mori Museum, then the (huge!) National Art Centre, for an extended exhibition of SE Asian Art. The galleries are impressive, and the exhibition is good too, with a big political focus as so much contemporary art from developing countries, but not devoid of beauty. It’s raining VERY hard when we finish there - time to go home. Another supermarket dinner,  it's late and the pickings are slim, but still it’s good food - torikatsu (crumbed chicken), pickled octopus, salmon and salad.

The newly renovated Tokyo Photography Museum (TOP) is in Ebisu, close by. The exhibitions are worth seeing (of special note - Araki Nobuyoshi: Sentimental Journey), and the gallery space itself very impressive. This afternoon, Chris is watching his beloved AFL, so I get to go shopping alone!

Shimokita and Shinjuku
Shimo-kitazawa, west of Shibuya, is reputedly hip, cool and laid back, with lots of vintage clothes shops. I’m hunting for old kimono and yukata (for the fabric) so hoping this will be the place. But wow, when I get there, there are streams of visitors heading from the train, and once again, it is inundated by sightseers. It’s like Newtown on steroids. There are loads of vintage clothes shops (among boutiques, cafes, hairdressers), but they are clones - all selling Hawaiian shirts, Levi jeans, Converse shoes, old US rock t-shirts and granny dresses at inflated prices ($40 and up). Chicago Thrift Store, which does stock old kimono and yukata, has only nasty synthetic kimono, or new cheap cotton yukata, and even these are overpriced. Oh well. I feel very happy that I scored a nice vintage frock back in Nakame, at a little street stall for only $20 :)

Finally, we will check out Shinjku, the nightlife area, tonight. We’re feeling a little over the crowds, but Sunday night shouldn’t be too crazy. But it is still a little mad. The Golden Gai district - tiny alleyways lined with tiny bars - is subdued, with many bars closed, but the main streets are thronged with tourists and touts. Where should we eat? Not the Robot Restaurant! It’s $80 just to get in! After photo-ing a bit of the characteristic neon, we slink back to our quiet neighbourhood yakitori restaurant in Nakame, mmm nice. We must be getting old :)

Chris at Mori Art Museum, Roppongi
Entrance to Tokyo Photography Museum
Shimokitazawa - not so laid back
Shinjuku girls
Shinjuku neon
Going home
Our last day! I’ve been missing the Japanese breakfasts, so we get one at a little chain restaurant (Yoshinoya) near Nakame station, and it’s plain but very good. We had planned a brief excursion before heading to the airport this afternoon but … we are exhausted. So we head to the airport, have a surprisingly good ramen for lunch, then delicious green tea ice-cream and sake in a glass from a vending machine. The flight home is overnight, never a nice prospect in economy class. But JAL economy is quite spacious (only two seats abreast by the window, and heaps of legroom). And we are home in under 10 hours, no stopovers - highly recommended!

Tokyo is HUGE, vibrant, crowded and tiring. Thank goodness we had the haven of quaint, laid back Nakame, although it seemed so busy and buzzy when we first arrived. There's so much that we didn’t get to do: eat steak, do karaoke, go to a public onsen, see enough woodblock prints or contemporary Japanese art, do a cooking or printing workshop … we have just scratched the surface - until next time ...
Final ramen ...

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