It’s hard to believe that it’s been only three months or so since Night Owl and I returned from the glorious country of Japan. It’s the little moments like stepping into a tiny Japanese sushi house in Neutral Bay, hearing the “arigato gozaimasu” when I buy my Uncle Tetsu Cheesecake, the shock at seeing how expensive Japanese whiskey is sold here for, or seeing the meagre “eat now” selection at the local 7/11 that really gives me pangs. With Japan it’s so much more than the beauty of the temples, scenery or sushi; it goes deeper than that: the respect people have for one another – like wearing face masks when you’re sick so others won’t catch your cold, the reverence they have towards food and how readily good, well-priced food is available everywhere, and the absolute devotion everyone seems to have towards their jobs. As soon as we touched down at Narita Airport, I made my way over to the airport post office where I was told I would be able to pick up my pre-ordered portable wi-fi device. Once the gentleman found my envelope, he held it out to me over the counter with both hands extended while executing a perfect 90-degree bow; I wasn’t even purchasing anything from him and he seemed so delighted to serve me! We were even more dismayed when we went to catch our coach bus into the main Tokyo city and watched as the coach attendants bowed each bus out of the terminal; we soon learned that this would be a daily regular occurrence everywhere we went for the next week and a half around Japan.
Day 1: Tokyo – touchdown
Our coach deposits us at Tokyo Station at peak rush hour, 5-6pm and it’s absolutely chaos on the street as we attempt to find how far our hotel is located via Google Maps. A quick duck down into the subway underground confuses us even more so we decide that it may be better to stay on street level where at least you can see where you’re going. It’s a brisk walk with our luggage to our hotel for the next three nights – Tokyu Stay near Kanda JR Station, and we relax and change before picking up a subway map from the front desk and make our way over to Shinjuku for our first ramen dinner in Japan!
Ichiran is the first one on my list. It’s quite a large ramen franchise in Japan and the policy is to minimise the interaction with shop staff and customers as much as possible. While quite a few ramen joints do booth seating, this is one of the most well-known. It’s a good sign when there is a line – not filled completely with tourists but with lots of locals and lone businessmen as well. Once you manage to move down the stairs into the corridor of the restaurant, you make your selection with the vending machine (I got the original with extra pork), collect your ticket and move along. You then collect a clipboard where you can customise the intensity of your broth or toppings, as well as texture of your noodles.
There’s notes in the booth on how the whole system works. Leave your selection sheet and tickets near the bamboo blind and press the buzzer, and the blind almost instantly comes up. You see the person’s hands and hear a quick jabber of Japanese before the blind is pulled back down. There are taps for self-serve water and the booth dividers are removable if you’re dining with friends. It’s barely a ten minute wait before the blind is drawn up again and a steaming bowl of ramen is delivered by a phantom pair of hands.
Now that the Japan trip is well and truly over, I can say that this was one of my favourite bowls of ramen, ever. The broth was rich and flavoursome but not thick – making it lighter and easier to eat. The texture of the noodles was perfectly springy and I loved the little dollop of Ichiran red sauce; just enough to provide some heat. The pork has more lean meat than fat but it’s still flavoursome and tender.
Once you’re done, as you’ve already paid there is no kerfuffle at the front to pay the bill – you simply walk back out and upstairs. We go for a leisurely stroll to admire the bright lights of Shinjuku and duck into a convenience store to marvel at the easily-available cans of beer and liquor in the drinks section. Like true naive Australians, we eagerly purchase two cans of Asahi and crack them open to sip while sitting outside – giggling guiltily while doing so as we all know our liquor laws prevent us from drinking on the street. Alcohol is ridiculously cheap in Japan and a can of Asahi cost us between $2-$3 Australian Dollars; the average price for a can of soft drink!
The one thing about Shinjuku is while wandering around be careful of not accidentally walking into the red light district – it literally connects directly to the main shopping area, so one moment you’re looking at upscale clothes boutiques and technology shops, the next minute it’s maid costume shops and sex toys.
Day 2: Tokyo – Breakfast Sushi and Expensive Drinks
Waking Night Owl up for the first week of the holiday was extremely difficult as her daily Coffee Alchemy habit meant that she turned her nose up at all the BOSS Black coffee available in vending machines everywhere. Morning peak hour is rather confusing in Tokyo as people seem to go to work at all hours of the morning – we slept in with the aim of avoiding the 9am rush hour, only to be swamped at Kanda JR Station at 10am when we thought everyone would already be at work! We didn’t see any station managers pushing people scrum-style onto the trains, people do it themselves; they dispense with the personal-space rule and are seemingly comfortable with being squashed like sardines on the carriages. Night Owl and I were careful to refrain from any displays of affection out in public; however with her claustrophobia – when we were suffocating between the people on the carriage I felt her hand wrapped very firmly around mine under the bags and shoulders of everyone. I don’t mind crowds so much but even I found it bordering on unbearable.
Tsukiji Fish Markets is a bit of a walk from Ginza Station and it was a sweltering morning. By the time we got there the main fish markets had closed but the outdoor produce markets and food stalls were open and full of tourists. The vendors shouted out a mixture of English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese to entice you inside, waving at their menus of uni- chirashis (sushi rice bowls topped with sea urchin roe) and fresh sushi made to order. We had already had breakfast at our hotel and so had a wander around the markets before we sat down to eat a sushi brunch.
My seafood chirashi was a mixture of minced tuna belly, salmon sashimi, omelette and fish roe, while Night Owl‘s platter of sushi was a mixture of the freshest seafood available that day (note: you won’t know what most of the fish are and nor will you really care!). She has a habit where she will eat certain things first and push others to the side – the ones to the side are usually either so good she wants to save it to the end or not ones she likes AT ALL. She pushed the conger eel to the side as she normally finds grilled eel oily, but with an experimental bite she exclaimed over how tender and flavoursome it was. I had a bite as well and agreed it tasted much nicer than any eel I’ve ever had.
On our way out of the markets I saw a stall selling fresh strawberries and insisted on getting a punnet as I’ve heard that while Japanese strawberries are the most expensive you will every buy; they are also the most delicious and perfect. This beautiful punnet cost me about $10 Australian. While meandering around the high-end department stores of Ginza we managed to find a seat downstairs in the food court and devoured the berries before they could get squashed in my bag – they were ridiculously juicy, sweet and heavenly. They were so perfectly ripe and juicy they emanated that strawberry-confectionery taste and smell; usually an artificial flavour but definitely not here!
I was in Ginza searching specifically for Mariage Freres – the deluxe French tea brand. Before I left for Japan I had asked my brother-in-law if he had any ideas for what I could get my sister for her upcoming birthday while I was overseas, and he suggested I buy her some of her favourite tea. Google Maps sent me to a completely obscure location, but after using the original Maps app we finally found the right shop. It’s located in the most high-end area of Ginza, where the food and drink shops don’t sell food and drink for you to consume, but for the food and drink to be gift-wrapped in the most beautiful packaging imaginable. All the sales staff wear suits, and when I declined the salesman’s offer to wrap the teas as I had a fair while on my trip to go, he looked considerably deflated ( which I found quite amusing).
It was a hot, hot day so we retreat back to the air-conditioned seated comfort of our hotel for a quick afternoon power nap and refresher. One thing we noticed during our Japan trip was that there are very few public seats; we wondered if maybe there isn’t an obesity problem in Japan because people are forced to keep walking! There are also very few bins, so you usually have to compress your rubbish and store it discreetly in your bag until you get home or back to your hotel. We were going out that evening to Ginza again, this time to visit the infamous Bar High Five, and so had the opportunity to shower and get changed into something a little more lively.
Probably one of the only things that I didn’t like about Japan was that while people were not allowed to smoke on the street (to be considerate of not ashing someone by accident apparently, and to keep the streets clean of butts), people were allowed to smoke inside restaurants and bars even where there is little to no ventilation. I’m a person who relies predominantly on my sense of smell when eating and drinking, and while I enjoyed my first drink – an Old Fashioned, most of all I could taste was cigarette smoke. I was relieved when the smokers sitting beside me at the bar left soon after I finished my first drink, and I was able to relax and chat with the bar staff more openly.
The bar staff do all the classics, however there is no menu. Their specialty is custom drinks – they will come and ask you what kind of flavours or spirits that you like, and incorporate it into a unique drink. Warning: we got a shock when we saw the bill as these custom drinks are frighteningly expensive – about $25-26 Australian! Some would say reasonable considering the level of service and that the cocktails are custom-made, and they were delicious; I had two custom cocktails – one cognac with house-made roasted tea bitters, and a scotch with violet bitters.
We unfortunately didn’t get to meet the owner of the bar as he was off organising a bar awards competition, however his daughter and a large number of staff were there on the evening and chatted to us about the Japanese bar scene, their personal history, and gave us recommendations for bars to visit during the rest of our travels. Being a bartender is a little different to being a bartender in Australia; Australians have a history of treating bartending as something you do as a side-job to pay the rent while studying, however in Japan there are illustrious schools for bartenders and you will meet bartenders who have 10, 20, 30 years of experience (see my post on Bar Executive in Hong Kong – A Fly By). We talked to one gentleman who had his own bar in KL and was here merely to do some work experience. We asked him where we could go for a late dinner and he recommended a yakitori joint a few blocks away that he was taken to with the team on his first evening at Bar High Five, and was helpful enough to even print out a street map and draw a route for us.
When we arrived, to say it was chaos was an understatement! (The name of the yakitori bar was in Japanese and I can’t for the life of me remember what it was). It was a standing-only bar, and filled to the brim with rowdy men and women who had obviously finished work a few hours ago and were very much enjoying a mid-week drink. Night Owl is immediately eyed up by some very drunk Japanese businessmen who insist that she has Japanese heritage (she’s South American/Australian), and when we take off our jackets due to the stifling heat we are greeted with howls and catcalls… so much for the reserved nature of the Japanese! The yakitori bar was in the middle of the room and we found a table space along the bar with a little difficulty and were bemused when we were passed a Japanese menu. At this stage, we were slightly tipsy, and Night Owl – working on Dutch courage – declared that she would try and order in Japanese…. and all the Japanese we knew was “momo”, which means “chicken.” It was rather a fail, because as soon as she spoke the waitstaff said: “um, English menu?” and we conceded a quick defeat.
We order a few skewers and two standard beers, which arrive in two enormous frosted pints. The beer serving size here is American, it seems. The house beer at any venue is usually Suntory; it’s one of the oldest distillers and brewers in Japan, and for a standard house beer it is amazingly refreshing and smooth. You would be hard-pressed to find beer that does not taste good in Japan; it’s simply something to do with the water. Most people were drinking whiskey highballs – where the pint glasses would be filled with a shot of whiskey before being topped with soda – grape or lychee from what I could see. My impression of the Japanese as being solely reserved and hardworking was somewhat dispelled that evening, as I saw a gentleman leaning over to be ill on the floor, to a young woman passed out on the table while her friend tapped away on her phone, utterly unconcerned with a bored expression on her face. As drunk as they all got however, not a single person got aggressive – which is completely different from the drunken belligerence and violence you often see around Sydney. The Japanese like to work hard, and play hard too!
Day 3 – Shinkansen Sushi, Harajuku, and more sushi
Both of us are feeling a little delicate the next morning and after stuffing ourselves generously with the hotel buffet breakfast (if you ever do go to Tokyu Stay, the corn chowder is amazing) we head out to explore the bustling area of Shibuya – including the legendary crossing. I pick up some anti-bacterial insect bite ointment from a local pharmacy on my sister’s request (I presented an empty tube to the pharmacist for assistance), and we wander around the maze of shops and eateries. Restaurants can be difficult to find if you’re looking for a specific place as not many are on ground level but within a building and upstairs; so keep an eye out for the signs. There’s Korean barbecue galore, katsu curry in abundance, as well as a surprising amount of pizza and pasta restaurants. Late into the morning Night Owl gets peckish and I remember hearing about a cheap sushi train around the area; and I’m delighted when I discover it’s very close to us on Google Maps.
Welcome to Uobei Sushi, where the sushi arrives to you via shinkansen! Night Owl was instantly enamoured by the fresh and fast (and amazingly cheap) efficiency of the place and called it “Shinakansen Sushi” rather than “Sushi Train” as the food isn’t chugging around the conveyor belt for an undetermined length of time. Once you’re seated, you order via the little touch screen in front of you and wait for the food to come out from the kitchen – the tablet will tell you that your food is on the way, and if it’s arriving on the top, middle, or bottom tier. It shoots over to stop in front of you, you touch your screen to collect, and back the sushi tray goes! You can order sushi, dessert, and even potato fries.
Green tea is self-serve, which completely removes having to constantly flag down your waitress for a top up! Each couple of seats has a little pot of green tea powder. Collect a cup from the top of the bench, add a little powder and turn the tap at your table for hot water! There’s also plastic boxes at the top with the cups if you want to do takeaway.
Five plates of fresh sushi and it added up to $7 Australian!! It’s still fresher than any sushi train sushi I’ve ever had in Australia, and with no time-limit to how long you can eat for it’s unsurprising that the line goes out the door during peak meal times.
With happy bellies, we catch the subway over to Harajuku.
I think out of all that we visited in Tokyo, Harajuku was probably the most disappointing. I was expecting a whole suburb of crazy costumes, anime, and bright lights, but the main attraction of Harajuku was actually just the one street! There were gaming arcades, goth punk clothes shops and lots of food, but other than that there wasn’t a whole lot. I did make sure we went to Marion Crepes as everyone raves on about them, and got a Strawberry Cheesecake crepe which had a big scoop of strawberry ice cream, a chunk of cheesecake, a biscuit, fresh strawberries, strawberry sauce and whipped cream all wrapped up in a crisp crepe. And sprinkles!
There isn’t much to hold our interest and we decide to try out a ramen place recommended by Ramen Raff: Gogyo Ramen in Roppongi. It’s a very, very long walk from Roppongi Station through a residential area, and it was a very hot day – maybe we should have gone to their Ginza or their Kyoto branch! At many times while Night Owl was silent I could hear her wondering if I knew where I was going! I was solely reliant on Google Maps – which had already proved its unpredictability. We finally found it, and interestingly enough it’s located opposite a US army base.
It’s nicely air-conditioned and the decor is beautiful, the restaurant outfitted with huge slabs of polished tables with wood grains, textured walls and booth seating. We quench our thirst with a Suntory beer and iced water while we wait for our ramen. Night Owl chooses the Shoyu Tonkotsumen (800 yen), while I go with the Kogashi Shoyumen (880 yen). The place specialises in “burnt ramen”, where ladles of lard are tossed into a fiery wok and the leftovers poured over the top of the ramen broth. There was not as much depth in flavour as I had been expecting and funnily enough I actually preferred the sweetness of the broth in the original tonkotsumen; I felt like mine had too much “burnt”.
After our food-coma inducing meal, back we stagger up to Roppongi Station and to our hotel for an afternoon nap. It was hilarious how Night Owl struggled with the lack of coffee, but considering the lack of public seating I was also quietly exhausted and enjoyed our afternoon refreshers.
It was sort of our last evening in Tokyo as while we had to return to Tokyo at the end of our trip to fly back to Sydney, we would only be in Tokyo for the evening and half a day. We head back out to Shibuya to search for dinner, this time in the mood for some good-quality sushi. I decide to try a recommendation by my sister, Sushi Zan-Mai.
It’s one of a franchise as well as a 24 hour restaurant (!) and the line is very lengthy as it’s a Friday evening. We persevere though, as the line moves at an unsteady pace and with everywhere packed we weren’t sure if we would get in anywhere else any faster. Again, the line was filled with locals so a good sign. Our determination pays off. We order sake, iced green tea, sushi platters and tempura and have a fine dinner indeed. It’s well-priced about $30 Australian each for a very good quality meal, and the conger eel was the best eel both of us have ever tasted. We were both enamoured with one of the waitstaff in particular, who had the friendliest, sweetest smile and dark eyes so big and sparkly she looked almost like an anime character!
An after-dinner digestive stroll and it was back to our hotel. Osaka next!
Ichiran Ramen/Shinkuju Central East
Japan, 〒160-0022 Tokyo, 新宿区Shinjuku, ３−３４−１１
Tsukiji Fish Markets
5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan
Bar High Five
Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo, 銀座５丁目４−１５ Efflore Ginza5 Bldg. BF
Japan, 〒150-0043 Tokyo, 渋谷区Dogenzaka, 2丁目二十九11
Japan, 〒150-0001 Tokyo, 渋谷区Jingumae, １−６−１５
Gogyo Ramen (Nishiazabu Gogyo)
Japan, 〒106-0031 Tokyo, Minato, Nishiazabu, 1−4−36
Sushi Zan-Mai/Shibuya East-Exit
2-22-11 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku