Monday, June 09, 2014

GUS GUIDE: FIRST-TIMER'S GUIDE TO TOKYO


 (This is the last post of my HAJIMEMASHITE, NIHON series; and i thought it would be nice to write down assorted thoughts/musings/insights which would hopefully be helpful for first-timers to Tokyo. Personally, i'm raring to go back! ;-D)

1. Getting Around

Whilst planning the trip, this was actually my greatest apprehension - the fear of getting lost amidst the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and having difficulty in getting directions due to the language barrier. 


The Tokyo public transport system is certainly one of the most extensive in the world; and is even more certainly confusing at first glance. For example, check out this official subway map from WhereinTokyo site:



Looks pretty daunting, eh? In fact, i'm willing to bet only locals and the cartographer who did it can actually understand it! :D

But fret nor fear not, dear tourist. The Grumpy Urban Slacker is here! #kapalmuks

The key is to forget (yes, forget) about this map, and instead remember this one - the Japan Railways (JR) Yamanote line (i.e. the "green" line), an above-ground train system which loops around the major tourist sites in Tokyo.

 

Infinitely simpler, huh? A good starting point would be to stay in a hotel near a major Yamanote line station (such as Shibuya, Shinagawa, Ikebukuro and Tokyo), and figure out which station(s) is/are nearest the particular tourist site(s) you want to visit. In most cases, you will just ride along the green loop (a major exception being a trip to Tsukiji Market, which would involve changing to a subway line).

Here's a link to a summary of tourist sites near each Yamanote station: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2370.html

2. English, English

We found English comprehension to be surprisingly good in the major train stations, convenience stores, retail shopping areas and restaurants, etc., but it can be patchy in suburban Tokyo.

Learning a few key sentences of Nihongo would definitely help endear you to the locals. I particularly recommend the 'Teach Yourself' audio series of Elizabeth Smith.

3. Local customs

One thing i noticed was that the locals do not carry around food & drink (such as soda, Starbucks coffee, donuts, etc.) while walking around, so i would not recommend doing so. Besides, it can be difficult to find a public trash can to throw your leftovers and/or packaging to.  Believe me, even the busiest subway stations such as Shibuya hardly have garbage bins, not even inside their restrooms.

Likewise, observe decorum while riding the subway and/or trains. There is almost total silence in transit, as locals either look half-asleep with glazed expressions (especially office workers in suits and ties); or busy playing games on their phones/tablets; or reading books. No boisterous chatter here.

4. Food

When in Japan, eat Japanese food, period. We had this eat-all-you-can Yakiniku (grilled meat) in Shinjuku during our last night. Expensive, but you get your money's worth. Drank this sake (rice wine), which was pretty smooth. 


Some other good meals: Small no-English tempura (fried shrimp) joint below the train tracks of Yurakucho station, check. 




Fastfood-y rice bowl and gyoza (dumpling) outlets, check. A no-English ramen (noodle) place off Omotesando Hills in Harajuku, check!


I remember this bowl of ramen, plus one order of pork gyoza, came to less than 800 Yen. Perfect lunch for a cold, overcast, slightly rainy day.

This sushi (raw fish on rice) restaurant named KIZUNA we stumbled on in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo's red light district. Check!!


Dig this sashimi platter, bursting with freshness! My HDL cholesterol levels are zooming already!


Tsukiji Market sushi breakfast, a giant check!

My conclusion: A bad meal is hard to find in Tokyo. In fact, forget about researching the Michelin star restaurants, or the lists of "best" sushi/ramen/katsu/etc. joints, or celebrity chef places. 

Plus, prices aren't as high as one would be led to believe (somehow, people have this preconception that Tokyo is hugely expensive). It is not cheap, definitely; but you can definitely find something good for 1000 Yen or below.

Most department stores have basements which serve as some sort of food court, with different stalls offering freshly cooked viands for takeout. In particular, the Seibu branch in Ikebukuro was full of tempting food and desserts! Definitely great value for money.

5.  Accommodations

Hotels, hostels and inns of all shapes and for all budgets can be found; but location is key. We stayed at the Shibuya area, which i heartily recommend. I was glad we didn't stay in Shinjuku, as i found the area to be confusing and too loud for my taste. 

If you want to try something uniquely Japanese (and cheap), stay in a capsule hotel. Check out fellow blogger Hello Newman's vivid account of his overnight stay in one:

http://www.hello1newman.blogspot.com/2010/06/capsules-arent-just-for-swallowing.html

So book your ticket, plan your itinerary, and go! All together now, Ohayo Gozaimasu Tokyo! 


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

HAJIMEMASHITE, NIHON: SAKURA here, there & everywhere

A great time to be in Japan is during spring, as this is the time of the cherry blossom season. For a bit of background, the cherry blossom ("sakura") is Japan's unofficial national flower.  There are many varieties; and as a general rule, they bloom for only a short period each year - typically around one week. For Japan's major tourist cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, it is usually during end March to early April. 

For the locals, this time of the year is a totally big deal, and they celebrate by holding picnics and parties ("hanami") right underneath the blooming trees. Personally, i find it a bit strange to party underneath a tree; but for the Japanese, the short blooming season symbolizes the ephemeral nature of life.

As Chef Homaro Cantu wrote in the Huffington Post last year:

"The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. In their country, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It's a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short. When the cherry blossom trees bloom for a short time each year in brilliant force, they serve as a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is."

Deep, huh? 

We were rather fortunate to catch the tail end of the season. Some selective sightings, such as this one below - at the grounds of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.




Of course, sakura-flavored food items are never far behind. This cherry blossom cream puff (found along the shopping road going to Kiyomizu Temple) was a winner! :D



Upon first bite, i tasted its light, strawberry-like flavor. The cool, refreshing filling contrasted well with the crunchy crust, and i gobbled it up in no time at all.


Here's a scoop of sakura ice cream i tasted in Tokyo. Not quite as flavourful as the cream puff, but it provided a welcome respite from the burning noontime sun.



The well-known chocolatier Lindt has a cafe in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, just a few steps away from the famed Shibuya scramble crossing.  We went there twice for their signature hot chocolate drinks, and i ordered this sakura macaroon once.
 

 Pretty expensive at 258 Yen, but it was good. 

 Ah, going back to the cherry blossoms. Here's a tip: In Osaka, the Mint Bureau opens its garden (with more than 300 cherry trees, mostly of the later-blooming varieties) for free public viewing for one week each year.

After our sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market (check my previous blog post), i decided to go to the Imperial Palace Gardens and see if there were still any sakura to be found. 

Fortunately, yes! This photo below shows locals, most of whom seemed to be working folks, enjoying their noon time break underneath the cherry trees.



Here's a closer view of one of the few remaining sakura in bloom:


Lovely, isn't it? Just sitting and taking in the view and chatting with friends and watching the world go by. Why not?

And here's a close-up view of this Japanese salary man, who has truly taken to heart the ephemeral nature of life and has chosen to appreciate the sakura in the best way possible. Watashi wa suki des! :D





(Check www.japan-guide.com for their published Cherry Blossom Reports)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

HAJIMEMASHITE, NIHON: TSUKIJI MARKET (Tokyo)


The dryly-named "Tokyo Central Wholesale Market", better known as Tsukiji, is said to be the world's largest and busiest fish market. Located in Central Tokyo, it is readily accessible by the metro. 

The first thing that any visitor should be aware of is that Tsukiji market is NOT intended for sight-seeing. It is an actual working market; so watch out where you are going, get out of the way of moving vehicles, and (most important of all) DO NOT TOUCH THE FISH!!!

Check out this sign below, which is actually the first of a series of murals stating (more like sermonizing :D) on the proper decorum for visitors when inside the market.




The main attraction for tourists is the tuna auction, where one can see buyers bidding for the best tuna. To view this, one has to line up early in the morning, as there are only a limited number of tickets available. Obviously, we were not the sort of folks who wake up at 2 AM to do such tomfoolery (that would be the area of interest of my cousin, Grumpy Urban Fish Fanatic or "GUFF", but he's out right now fishing for trout in Alaska), so i'll leave you this first-hand account of Sanju of the much-admired food blog Table for Three, Please. 

Instead, we decided to go later in the morning and have a sushi breakfast in one of the restaurants along the periphery of the market.




Many of the restos were clustered in one alley. Our chosen resto was SUSHI BUN, which serves the traditional style of sushi (i suppose they all do, right? )



There are other more well-known restaurants, such as SUSHI DAI (which my friend Megsky swears to high heavens is totally fantastic) and DAIWA SUSHI. However, the lines outside these establishments are also much longer.



After all, we reasoned that all the restos get their supply of fresh fish and seafood from the inner market, so one can hardly go wrong eating at any of the establishments, right? 




As you can see from the photo above, SUSHI BUN offers three standard sets: 

B set costing 2,800 Yen ("regular quality" 8 different pieces of sushi + 3 pieces of roll with today's soup); 
C set costing 3,850 Yen ("extra special quality" 10 different pieces of sushi + 3 pieces of roll and house-made omelet with today's soup); 
Sashimi set costing 3,450 Yen (platter of assorted raw fish).

We were led in by the lady at the door, and from this point onwards, no photos were allowed. Suffice to say, the restaurant was quite small (seating probably 15 persons max). The sushi chefs worked deftly, without much fanfare; and before you could say 'Konnichiwa', your order was being presented already to you.

The miso soup, with lots of tiny clams, proved to be quite flavorful. We had ordered one each of the three sets, and all came beautifully and artfully presented -- almost a bit too pretty to eat, in fact! 

Upon first bite, freshness was indeed the order of the day. Firm texture, sweetish taste. Yum! [smacking lips]

Tsukiji market is also a good place for cooks and food lovers to shop for assorted stuff, from ceramic tableware to spices to utensils, and the like. I bought some stuff from a shop specializing in green tea, while my friends R.T. and W.T. were taken by bamboo whisks.

Here's some spicy curry powder in huge tin cans that made me think of paint thinner (he he :D):


And i suppose this is the mother of all hot sauces. "After Death" Sauce, anyone? ;-D



Verdict: Whilst pricey, the sushi breakfast is well worth the experience. And i'd gladly go back during our next future trip to Tokyo.