Friday, October 17, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Food and Drink

Sushi and Sashimi Some sashini, aka, raw fish, tastes like raw fish. But some of it tastes like seafood butter, like some kind of fleshy salt candy that melts in the mouth. I wouldn't describe myself as an expert, but I do know that some of the world's best is to be found in Tokyo. So it is only to be expected that within a few hours of checking in at my hotel, and making my way to the Ginza, I had been advised to find the nearest Zanmai Sushi restaurant, one of the city's most popular chains, and had done so.

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After wandering in and out of a few of the district's watering holes, I made my way back to Oak Hotel, stopping off a block away at the last place that was still open in this quiet neighborhood. The only thing on the menu seemed to be sushi, so I double-dipped:

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I can't say this hole-in-the-wall joint was better than the famed Zanmai, but I won't say it was worse, either.
The sthird night, I was up for more sashimi, and had been hearing about the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Tokyo version of Noryangjin, I imagined. However, it was raining outside the comfy little "standing bar" I was in, so I decided to put it off. From my journal: "Later ... Change of plans. The rain turned into a sprinkle so I went to Tsukiji after all. Despite the fact it was not yet eight o'clock, I only found two sashimi restaurants open--one of them simply because it's a 24 hour place. Still, the price was right and the fish was excellent, so I'm not complaining." Except about the fact this supposed high-point was as lively as a Methodist Ladies' Wednesday night prayer meeting at the North Pole.

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My last full day on the trip, the weather was finally quite nice, so i tooled around the Ueno Market area, looking for cheap eats--well, Tokyo being Tokyo, cheaper eats. Common in Tokyo--and Seoul and indeed throughout Asia--are plastic models of the food, to show you exactly what you're getting. Sometimes they are so realistic, I wonder how they'd taste ... nah.

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I found just the place I was looking for up a side alley. Again, from my journal: "After quite a bit of wandering, I'm sitting sidewalk-style at one of the hundred little sushi restaurants, having eaten some maguro and some toro (red and fatty tuna, respectively) along with a tomato salad that consisted of a well-chilled tomato and a dollop of mayo on the side. A really pleasant combination. ... The weather has been a bit of an issue, but unlike in Kathmandu, Tokyo has drains, so you're not treading in septic water, dodging vehicles made even more dangerous by poor traction. I am getting a passer-by to take my picture as I am typing this. Done! And not too bad, all things considered. The couple next to me commented, as so many Asians do, "Handsome!" But that's just for looking Western."

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I decided to stick with Ueno for the afternoon and have quite a few drinks, which I hadn't really done up to this point. I crawled various places, imbibing a beer or two, and having the requisite snack--the cheapest thing on the menu is always edamame, or soy beans. Here's my second stop, kind of a sports bar, or at least a place where they were all intently watching a tennis match. Nest is a shot from my third stop, with a beer and Ikkoman shochu (aka soju) from Kagoshima prefecture, 'made from high quality potato malt', "which frankly doesn't taste all that much like the soju I'm used to. It does pack a punch, though, so it's supporting my objective."

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Takashimaya is one of the huge department stores in Nihombashi with three or four floors of groceries and restaurants where you can have a nice meal for a less outrageous price--just choose one of the "set meals". I had a beef stew set which came with really lovely dumplings, which themselves came with an instruction card--mix the soy and vinegar in the bowl, and let the dumpling cool a bit before shoving it in your pie-hole.

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Ginza Lion is a German-style beer hall built in 1923 by Sapporo. The ambiance is Tokyo unique, the service is great, and not only do they care about their beer, they care about its presentation. That means firstly, giving it an adequate head, and secondly, serving it well-chilled. But I also like how each of the beers comes in the correct glass--no Cass in a Max mug here! And they serve nine different formulas, ten if you count the non-alcoholic, which I don't. Here I am drinking the 1.3 liter German-style (1,728Y):

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They also serve outstanding food here, but you won't find sushi on the menu--well, maybe a bit. Pretzels, sausages, rosti (hash browns) are the lighter fare. For a full meal, I had the 8 oz. wagyu sirloin, perfectly prepared, for 3,758Y. Later, I had some awesome ribs with a potato and mushroom gratin.

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But not all my time was in Ginza. I also visited Shibuya, famous for its busy crossing and its neon lights. It's just fine, but for a Seoulite, it's nothing special. I did, however, have a wonderful revelation, that of the "bronze" beer vessel. I failed to note the name of the bar this was in, but it was a tiny, subterranean place, and they charged a 50% premium for it--still, when I open Smokin' Steve's Bar & Grill, it's bronze beer vessels all the way!

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I paid a visit, too, to Roppongi, the "gaijin district", which I rather enjoyed on my 2012 trip. Within five minutes out of the station, five African men approached me sequentially with a come-on to their bar: pretty girls getting naked, two beers for 4,000 Y (that's forty bucks, btw!), or just a beer if you want. Five minutes after that, I am ensconced in a place called Pizzeria and Bar Certo, with a Moretti and some cheese served with honey (I never had that before, but I'll definitely have it again). Finished the evening at The Hub, a British style pub with its own brew. Cool, quiet place, about one minute from the subway. Both my choices, I'm sure, to put to shame the loud, crass, smokey joints the touts were offering.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Tourist Doings

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The Tokyo SkyTree is the city's tallest structure, and also its highest observation deck, with one deck at 350 m and another at 450 m.

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I visited on my last full day in Tokyo, the first day also on which the sky was clear--it rained off and on the rest of the trip, but never enough to really get soaked. The cost to go all the way up was about USD32, plus $10 more for the professional photo, which was as disappointing as the one seen below--it looks like i am standing on the edge of the glass floor, while I am in fact smack dab in the middle of it. Anyway, the views were awesome.

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The photo at top of the SkyTree in the distance was taken from the middle of the river during my riverboat tour. If I remember, this cost about 1,500 Y ($15) and lasted around 50 minutes. The boat leaves from Nihombashi, the bridge at Japan's zero mile marker, and for about 15 minutes or so, all you see is the underside of bridges. For the rest of the tour, you see bridges and buildings, and the occasional waterbird.

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After the boat tour, I finally made my way to the kite museum, which occupies the fifth floor of this popular restaurant in Nihombashi, and which was founded by the restaurant's owner:

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I wanted to visit ever since I first read about it (rather like my feeling for Seoul's kimchi museum). It cost 200 Y and can occupy as much as fifteen minutes of your time--it's quite tiny and has almost no explanatory material, all of it in Japanese. What it does have is kites. lots of 'em:

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To bwe fair, it has some artwork featuring kites, and a life size model of the owner, making a kite:

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I don't know what draws me to places like this, because I'm not really a kite enthusiast. We did fly kites quite a lot when i was a kid growing up in Florida: I remember one breezy day bicycling up to Mel's One Stop twice to get a new ball of kite string to add on to a string already played out--I think we got five whole balls onto it. You couldn't actually see the kite anymore, it was so high up. The end.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Ueno

I visited Tokyo for four days during Chuseok, a last minute decision that I ended up very happy with. I booked a hotel on-line, based on TripAdvisor.com recommendations, and was happy with it, too: the Oak Hotel, Ueno, a few minutes from the Inaricho station on the Ginza line. Inaricho itself is one stop away from Ueno, a major hub on the transport system. It is also the location of Ueno Park, a massive cultural resource, with some excellent museums, temples and such.

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On my first visit, there was some kind of expo surrounding spublic safety services, including a cute photo op for little ones:

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Other features include monuments to Wani the Scholar, the Great Ueno Buddha and Pagoda, and so on.

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The Tokyo National Museum actually consists of four different museums, each of them requiring at least two hours, so I only managed the main one, which focused on the traditional arts of Japan. First is a prehistoric icon, the classical painting is by Kitagawa Utamaro from the Edo period, flowed by a couple of nice pieces of Japanned inlay work. The last is a sampling of funerary statues.

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There are also several halls devoted to military costume.

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The National Museum of Nature and Science is the other major one I visited. It had a bit of science, mostly some antique scientific tools and instruments, but focused on natural history, and mostly the natural history of the Japanese islands. I'll begin with the obligatory giant hanging fossil skeleton, this one of a plesiosaur. There was a timeline in full-size diorama of human development (two shots included out of six), the distribution of meteorites, which was part of a nice collection of rocks and minerals, and a life-size blue whale model at the entrance.

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To access the Ueno park, you use a broad overpass that carries you over the JR (Japan Rail) portion of the station. If you go out the other end, you can make your way to Ueno Market. Here you can find clothes, groceries, street food, restaurants, and such entertainments as pachinko.

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Upcoming posts will be two: one about the touristy things I did during my brief time, and a second, deliciously, about food and drink.