Friday, October 17, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Food and Drink

Sushi and Sashimi Some sashimi, 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.

 photo DSC_0629_zps704d4f37.jpg
 photo DSC_0627_zps380789d5.jpg

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 sashimi, so I double-dipped:

 photo DSC_0646_zps29a4a3f9.jpg

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 third 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.

 photo DSC_0869_zps23a99feb.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0905_zps440b4d60.jpg
 photo DSC_0913_zps6d757d0d.jpg

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, say, 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."

 photo DSC_0924_zps52c0b883.jpg
 photo DSC_0926_zps819be808.jpg

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. Next 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."

 photo DSC_0928_zps031ae636.jpg
 photo DSC_0931_zps0184eaf6.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0763_zpsc9c05c59.jpg
 photo DSC_0759_zpsbd5628aa.jpg
 photo DSC_0762_zps988a8dde.jpg

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):

 photo DSC_0644_zps5c25bf5c.jpg
 photo DSC_0640_zpsa7d43ece.jpg
 photo DSC_0703_zpsda064a52.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0706_zpsc334efc4.jpg
 photo DSC_0946_zpsfbfb43cd.jpg

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!

 photo DSC_0710_zpse61cb479.jpg
 photo DSC_0720_zpsb7a7a490.jpg
 photo DSC_0729_zpsef59eb64.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0874_zps071aa0dd.jpg

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Tourist Doings

 photo DSC_0789_zps34315daf.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0875_zps080678b4.jpg
 photo DSC_0882_zpsfe099ccc.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0895_zps3db55b30.jpg
 photo DSC_0894_zpscab4155a.jpg
 photo DSC_0878_zps1d1aaf12.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0764_zps28378596.jpg
 photo DSC_0768_zps93fe179f.jpg
 photo DSC_0784_zps6dbe6446.jpg
 photo DSC_0810_zps4336eb0b.jpg
 photo DSC_0792_zpsc5689f68.jpg
 photo DSC_0839_zps8cf3edd7.jpg
 photo DSC_0815_zps3a49be87.jpg
 photo DSC_0824_zps712fc63e.jpg
 photo DSC_0844_zps55bd70b3.jpg

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:

 photo DSC_0868_zps5d8486a3.jpg

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:

 photo DSC_0855_zpsc6549165.jpg
 photo DSC_0856_zps65cb2177.jpg
 photo DSC_0857_zps7329609a.jpg
 photo DSC_0860_zps0211ba87.jpg

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

 photo DSC_0864_zps1298876d.jpg
 photo DSC_0863_zpsed4be89d.jpg

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 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.

 photo DSC_0741_zps9b1e1b7b.jpg

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

 photo DSC_0690_zpsa96b8508.jpg

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

 photo DSC_0735_zpsb5fa98f7.jpg
 photo DSC_0746_zpsb113360a.jpg
 photo DSC_0747_zpsf3ac4486.jpg
 photo DSC_0734_zps26a97ce7.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0674_zpsf8dad979.jpg
 photo DSC_0676_zpse451c787.jpg
 photo DSC_0681_zps2c2263ee.jpg
 photo DSC_0682_zps681038e7.jpg
 photo DSC_0683_zps7ac6b6b4.jpg

There are also several halls devoted to military costume.

 photo DSC_0668_zpscd2d2e5a.jpg
 photo DSC_0672_zps3704f13b.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0661_zps40cd4ea9.jpg
 photo DSC_0651_zps9156858d.jpg
 photo DSC_0652_zps2154d6ea.jpg
 photo DSC_0660_zpsa117907c.jpg
 photo DSC_0665_zpsdd7a8cbe.jpg

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.

 photo DSC_0903_zps05b82e3c.jpg
 photo DSC_0918_zps018a5a7a.jpg
 photo DSC_0912_zps24c5e04b.jpg
 photo DSC_0919_zpse2ce30a2.jpg
 photo DSC_0917_zps38ada858.jpg
 photo DSC_0911_zpsf4853b6c.jpg
 photo DSC_0922_zpse016e9ee.jpg

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